So, Modular is huge right now, but is it right for mobile music?

I was prompted to think about this because of two app initially, Patterning, Olympia Noise Co’s new drum machine for iPad, and AnalogKit, a new modular app, again for your iPad. In addition, I think that what tipped me over in writing this piece was the latest update to zMors Modular (see last post below).

For ages now I’ve seen mobile music as having a number of really important elements that in many ways differentiate it from other types of music making, especially electronic music making. These are:

  1. Immediacy – The app is obvious, you can see how to use it and understand it. You’re able to get up and running really quickly.
  2. Accessibility – And I’m not just talking about accessibility from a disability perspective. I’m talking about music software that’s easy to get to and once you’re there it’s easy to make use of.

There are other elements, but for now these two will do.

If you look at Olympia Noise Co’s Patterning app, that fits the bill really well. You can work out what’s going on very quickly, it’s pretty obvious how to use it and how to create patterns. Sure, there’s more depth to it, but you can get to that later, and if you don’t want to go there you don’t have to at all. But in terms of immediacy and accessibility I think it does very well.

Then we have a whole different type of app, the modulars. In this I’ll include zMors, Jasuto, Audulus and Modular. I haven’t actually tried out AnalogKit so far, so I’ll mention it, but not go into any depth with it.

Arguably non of these apps fulfills either of the two elements above. In terms of immediacy they all fail. In fact with a lot of the modular apps on iOS (as there are precious few on Android) you’d be hard pressed to know what to do without a fairly advanced idea of how synthesizers work. You’d probably also need to know how modular synths operate, and then also have a clear idea of some of the specifics of how all of that is implemented in the app in question. So, immediate, no, not really, in fact, not at all.

In terms of accessibility all of these types of apps also fail. There’s no real question of that at all.

It isn’t to say for one minute that I’m not a fan of either these types of apps, or indeed some of the specific apps themselves. I am. However, the point I’m trying to make or explore is how these hugely complex apps, within which users can create some totally awesome patches, can be made more immediate and accessible.

That might sound like a huge and overwhelmingly difficult task, but I think that it can be done and at the very least should be attempted. It isn’t impossible either. If you look at what Korg did with the DS-10 interface for the DS-lite you can see that they managed to make that easy to use (or at least easier anyway), and in some ways almost gamelike.

So what am I trying to say and why?

Well, if you’ve got this far it’s only fair to say thanks for reading this somewhat rambling post. I’ll get to the point though. I like the idea of modular and I like the idea of mobile music, but I think if we’re to get more people interested in and using modular apps on mobile we need to make these apps more accessible. That doesn’t mean dumbed down, not at all, it means more accessible and easier to get up and running with, and that won’t be easy at all.

However, that, I think, is exactly the challenge that’s needed.


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