iPhone App Directory

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.


Anonymous said...

Well, I think this may be an example of making something "as simple as possible but no simpler". Modular synthesis is inherently complex and to really "get" it simply isn't going to be immediate. But having these kinds of apps available is light years ahead of past generations. How many people have ever played with a real Korg MS-20 much less a Moog modular?

polarpaul said...

For people who are not up to making their own modular app setups, there is the alternative of loading presets created by other users. This is not that different from synth apps with their presets and can be played with either a midi keyboard or via virtual midi if the modular app setup has midi input. The same can be said of midi controller apps (e.g. Lemu, MIDI Designer Pro, TC-Data, and TB MIDI Stuff) where many users may not be up to creating their controller setups but benefit from those created by others. MobMuPlat is another example of a powerful app that can do a lot of things but you need a knowledge of Pure Data programming and a PC to use it. SunVox is both a modular and a tracker with an unusual sliding interface that can be very off putting for people.

There are synth apps like iVC3, Mitosynth, synthQ, Z3T+, Nave, Thor, and ZedSynth which can have very elaborate sound paths which might not be any more accessible than some of the modular apps.

In many ways, Audiobus can be seen as a modular synth and is more likely to have more modular functionality as the iOS devices develop more capacity to run multiple music apps.

Marsona said...


I am a pretty frequent reader of your blog as well as several other IOS music blogs, I rarely comment but I feel strongly enough about this to post my 2 cents. I have been making music now for more than 20 years, I started with actual modulars ( a system 100, korg ms series's and more ) and because of time and $$$ getting in the way had pretty much stopped several years ago. That is until I got an iPad mini. After selling my modulars because of space and maintenance issues I really wanted to get deeper into the future of music ( max msp ) at the time but found it very daunting and in the small amount of time available to me to make music I opted to JAM rather than sit in front of a computer and learn a new program. Now with apps like Audulus ( my favorite ) and Zmors I have been getting into the foundations of the instruments I have been playing all my life. I am not arguing that they are immediately gratifying but I do think there is more than enough of those kind of apps on the app store. What I love is the ability to get into building my own synths wherever I'm at on my iPad rather than in front of a computer. Learning these programs is not easy but it is also immensely gratifying. Also most of these apps have a large amount of presets that are there to satisfy any immediate need for gratification.