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Ashley Elsdon: The future of mobile music-making

By Ashley Elsdon

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There are few industries that haven’t been radically disrupted by mobile technology. The rise of the mobile app has changed how we interact with each other, how we find communities, and how we buy goods and services. Mobile is changing how we listen too: it is making listening a much easier and more social experience, which means that the consumption of music is exploding.

Music joins art, design, and notably photography as the creative pursuits that are undergoing a complete transformation at the hands — literally, in a sense — of mobile technology. Phones are estimated to account for 85% of the 1.2 trillion photos that will be taken in 2017. People are currently sharing 95 million photos per day on Instagram — which is less than a decade old.

But there’s a piece of this story that’s missing: music creation. Mobile has the potential to transform the way people create music, but so far it has not happened on the scale of the transformation in music consumption. There has not been a story to match Instagram in the world of mobile music-making.

That’s not to say that mobile — or to be more specific, iOS — has not had a huge impact on music creation. It has. From the very earliest days of the Apple App Store there has been a wide range of music-making apps. But by and large they serve "prosumers" — skilled enthusiasts who have more in common with professional musicians than with beginners — and not a mass consumer audience. This reflects a general bias in the music world toward people who have invested a great deal of time and money in learning instruments.

You could argue that music creation is too complex for a mass market. But that’s just a way of avoiding the nature of the problem. You might argue that most people aren’t interested in creating music, but the same could have been said of Instagram and photography. The more interesting question for the music creation industry is what would need to change at a fundamental level for more people to start feeling comfortable and empowered to make music.

The first area that would need to be addressed is description and proposition. Instagram isn’t a photography app. It doesn’t position itself as one. It’s a way for people to explore their creativity, to share memories, to communicate, and even to create new communities through images. It’s evolved into something way more than a photography app. If the music creation industry wants to attract new users, it first needs to understand what those users want from sound and music — and then create something new that meets those needs. Everything needs to start from the perspective of underlying creative needs and motivations — for music app developers as well as musical instrument makers.

We also need to examine the whole structure of music education. We’ve retained so many of the methods that have been at the heart of music making for decades. Instead of challenging them we force users into historical paradigms of thought. This doesn’t really work. We expect people to understand tempo, beats in a bar and a piano keyboard interface when these are alien concepts to a great many people. They merely create barriers to creativity. By contrast, someone taking a picture with a smartphone does not need to worry about aperture, exposure, light metering or anything else technical. They can if they want to; indeed getting into the technicalities can make them feel even more creative. But they don’t have to. We can learn a great deal from that.

Point and click can’t create music — at least not yet. Perhaps it can never be that simple. Whether using traditional instruments or apps, music creation has a high barrier to entry, and the barrier is time. It takes time to make a piece of music that is as deeply atmospheric as a photograph of woods in winter. It takes time to create each part of a track, time to mix it, and time to render a finished piece. Eliminating the time barrier is a consuming problem for app developers, and how they tackle it is central to how music creation apps address a mass market. One of the first user-friendly apps, Figure took the approach of limiting compositions to a maximum of eight bars. Even with these limitations, composition still took time.

Music-making apps do not need to try to make the music creation experience as immediate as a snapshot. Instead they should try make engagement immediate. What matters most is an experience that captures the user’s imagination, showing them what they can do in only a few minutes and encouraging them to spend more time doing more. If they're welcoming right from the start, encouraging the completion of small and fun goals, apps can then streamline some of the more time-consuming aspects of learning to make music.

Since the mobile music app ecosystem emerged in the past five years, several apps have strived to create a more joined-up, end-to-end experience, but they have focused on prosumers. As of this year, in fact, the market for prosumer music apps is very well served. In many ways we’re seeing a replication in the mobile world of what happened in the desktop world since 2000, when companies created a brilliant array of music production software aimed at everyone from the bedroom DJ to the professional. What we haven’t seen yet is a part of the ecosystem that gets the average mobile phone user over the barriers that these apps put in front of them.

We may not be far away, however, from a time when music creation becomes a mass market phenomenon via mobile. When it happens, it will definitely happen through mobile. Mobile phones are already a nearly universal instrument, and there is no reason why they cannot become universal musical instruments especially with the rapid advances in touch-surface technology. The companies and developers who see this opportunity, however, will be those who reframe some of the ideas that the musical instrument world hangs on to. They will reevaluate the motivations that drive people to create and share anything — music included. Their apps will immerse users in the basic joy of music rather than intimidating them with musical theory. When this happens, we will see yet another area of creative expression opened up by mobile technology.

Ashley Elsdon is the creator of PalmSounds, the first and still leading blog dedicated to mobile music creation technology. In 2017 PalmSounds merged with CreateDigitalMusic, where Ashley’s work also now appears.

Music Making apps for iOS banner

The ecosystem of iOS mobile music apps has expanded notably in the past five years. Many of the apps have been created by makers of desktop music production software, and most have been aimed at prosumers. But that may be changing. Here are some of the notable music creation apps in the decade since the iPhone was released.

Cubasis

December 2012 — Steinberg’s release of Cubasis in 2012 was an important endorsement of mobile music creation by the established company behind the Cubase digital audio workstation (DAW). Undoubtedly a prosumer app, Cubasis brings full scale DAW functionality of production and recording to an iPad.

Figure

April 2012 — One of Figure’s most notable features is its lack of a recognizable musical interface. For people unfamiliar with the keyboard, this effectively removes a barrier and helps them start experimenting. Figure is good beginner’s app and great for making quick sketches, but as a full music creation app it is limited.

Korg Gadget

January 2014 — Korg’s versatile Gadget app is like the Swiss Army Knife of mobile music-making. The latest version, which adds audio recording, turns Gadget into the nearest thing to a DAW that can fit on an iPhone. It isn't for beginners in any way. The learning curve is steep, and the barriers to entry are quite high.

iMaschine

November 2015 — Native Instruments’ iOS version of its Maschine hardware/software is somewhat limited, but it does let you produce a whole track and gives you reasonable control over the loops and samples in your library too. The ability to export directly to Maschine is useful.

NOISE

December 2015 — ROLI’s NOISE app reimagines the mobile musical interface in a way which aims to bring first time music makers on board. NOISE is also the first music creation app to take full advantage of the 3D Touch capabilities of the latest iOS devices, which let you add expressive flourishes by touching the glass screen.

Auxy Studio

December 2015 — When it arrived, Auxy was notable for being directed primarily at first-time users. From a beginner’s tool, it has now grown into something altogether more complex that supports multiple instruments and intricate automation.

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