Hold on, have we just replicated the desktop on mobile devices?

I promised some thinking about mobile music, so here’s the first installment. I started thinking about the how mobile music applications are designed and work together when I was putting together a set of slides for the Music 4.5 conference on mobile music (in March this year). I was trying to decided what to talk about, what I wanted to say about mobile music.

I realised that this thought had been going through my head for quite a while and needed more exploring. It isn’t a complex idea at all, in fact it is really just a simple question. Has mobile music creation simply replicated the tools and workflows available for the desktop, and if it has, have we missed something significant? It isn’t that I think that having mobile apps like synths and drum machines etc is a bad thing. Not at all. In fact if I look back over the brief history of mobile music these are common themes and they often work very well indeed. It’s more that I couldn’t see a straightforward line or direction that mobile music was taking that was in anyway different from desktop music creation and recording tools. But you could argue that there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a fair argument. I’d agree.

However, mobile is not desktop. It never will be and it is fundamentally different. You might argue that we are seeing signs of a slow convergence between mobile and desktop. I agree to a degree, but that in no way negates the fact that there are some very significant differences between desktop and mobile and even if we had an equal amount of processing power in both camps, how we use applications and functionality on mobile devices is very different to how we use desktop functionality.

So, going back to my question. Why is mobile music application development going in such a similar direction to desktop? Because it’s easy? Because it makes sense? Because it’s what users want? Maybe all of them. My issue with this is that I don’t think we’re seeing apps take real advantage of the fact that the device is mobile and I think that there are a lot of missed opportunities as a result. I’m not saying that there aren’t apps that make good use of the full facilities of a mobile device but they’re aren’t many.

It almost feels as if no one has quite worked out what it is to be a real mobile music application and so we stay in the relative safety of replicating the desktop rather than moving out of the comfort zone into what mobile music could be.

So is it wrong to follow the desktop? No it isn’t. But it does miss something rather fundamental I believe. The actual fact of being mobile itself. But what does that mean? Essentially I think that by being mobile there are a lot more possibilities available to a musician in the creation of their music. More dimensions to it than when you are just sat in front of a desk.

I think that to help to define this we need to define some principles for mobile music. I’ve tried to do this before, so here’s what I’ve come up with.

  1. Immediacy and access Inspiration doesn’t appear on a schedule, and doesn’t recognise when you have time to set up your gear or access the right equipment. We’ve all had times when you we have a great idea for a track but by the time you get to a computer, or whatever else you use to make music, the idea has gone, possibly never to return. It might have been an incredible idea for a track or song, or it might not, but you’ll never know, so what can you do? Being able to capture your inspiration and ideas wherever you are and with just the tiny device that sits in your pocket can go a long way to solving that problem. Sure, it’s not going to replace an entire professional studio, at least not yet anyway, but there are now so many different applications that you can use. From synths to multitrack recorders to drum machines to sequencers to guitars and esoteric instruments and every combination in between. If you have a killer guitar riff in your head while you’re on the bus you can try it out with one of many superb guitar apps. If you’re thinking of a great beat but have nowhere to lay it down then there’s an app for that (as the saying goes). In fact, there are apps that let you take whole projects on the go with you and move them back and forth between the device and the desktop. Now you can have the option of turning your dull bus journey into something more productive. If that’s what you want of course.
  2. Democratization and inclusion A lot of desktop music making applications require some level of musical or technical knowledge which can discourage someone who’s new to making music, and many are priced too high for the casual user to dip their toe in and try out . Whilst there’s clearly a place for Pro applications, there exists a whole untapped market of people for whom making music may be just an unrealised aspiration. Users in this market are using their smartphones to play games, receive email and for doing other smartphone stuff, but often haven’t considered that the device could be used to make music, or to explore other creative pursuits, such as art and photography. There are quite a number of applications that have started to tap into this market to a greater or lesser degree and with varying success. One of the key developments that is being utilised in capturing the imagination of previously non-musical users is music based games, or the gamification of musical applications. Game mechanics are being employed to bridge the gap between a users expectations of a gamebased application whilst simultaneously moving them along the creative line. Applications like Smule’s Magic Piano are democratizing musical creation for a potentially huge number of users. By making the act of making music into a game. By making creativity fun, portable devices give access to the start point of a potential journey for a user into a world of creative applications that they had not perhaps envisaged.
  3. Interface and instrument innovation A mobile device introduces both interesting limitations and possibilities to developers. Mobile application are limited in some ways due to the capability of the device and also by the screen size available for the interface But, on the flip side are the possibilities of using multi-touch and gestural interfaces which leverage accelerometer and gyroscopic control. These possibilities have lead to an explosion of innovation in terms of both new instruments and also innovation in user interfaces that work with limited screen real estate. Instead of controlling an instrument by interacting solely with the screen, you can play it by using gestures. Instead of adjusting mixing levels one at a time on a computer screen you can touch the virtual sliders on an iPad and manipulate several simultaneously. Developers have created new instruments and interfaces that push the boundaries of musical experience using these devices.

Now, you may argue that on the 3rd and final point there are apps that have significantly innovated in the mobile music space, and I would agree entirely, but to stop there and accept the current state is still missing something.

Increasingly I see mobile applications that are incredibly complex but also very geared to the workflow of the desktop and the concepts that go alongside it.

Mobile music creation is still in it’s relative infancy, and now I think is a great time to start thinking about what mobile music really is, and how different it can be from the desktop.


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