Moog Music’s synth Animoog is out today. Synthtopia gets full credit for being first; James concludes with the question “time to buy an iPad?”:
I’m looking forward to playing it and having some time to work with it, and fully expect to make some actual music with it, which is the whole point. I can already see that it has some interesting ideas, and it seems an eminently sensible approach to iPad synthesis. It builds on Moog’s software models of their filters, delays, and whatnot, but exploits the iPad’s touch design by assigning morph-able timbres and polyphonic pitch shift to the X/Y pad of the iPad. The results should be terrific fun to play with, and I don’t think I have to test it to assume it’ll be worth a dollar. In fact, given the pricing of computer soft synths, I expect it’ll be worth $30, too.
Significant points: unique synthesis, MIDI in/out support (even so-called “virtual MIDI” with other iOS apps reportedly works), and polyphonic operation, all at an absurdly low price.
This is already looking like absolutely the sort of synth you’d hope Moog would release. It has some characteristics in common with their hardware, it uses code that we’ve already heard producing great sounds in the Filtatron app, and it also remains different from their hardware, tailored to the iPad. Centering it around an X/Y plot for control is also fitting, as that was the central innovation around with the Minimoog Voyager was built as the modern-day successor to the original Minimoog.
Wired has a review (see video); Moog has posted sound samples, below.
Wired’s Michael Calore concludes:
WIRED A varied instrument capable of both subtle and wild sounds. Excellent sound quality. Plenty of presets to explore. Hours of fun, even if you’re not very musical. This is what the iPad was made for. On sale for $1 — which is a steal, people — for a limited time.
TIRED Advanced features are quite complex, and you’ll need to RTFM. Keys are tiny — you can make them bigger, but that reduces the range of notes. And you thought it was tough to wrestle the iPad away from the kids before.
Here’s where I start to lose the plot. It’s only my opinion, but I imagine I may be giving voice to some other folks who feel similar frustrations. My concerns are partly about Moog, but largely about the growing hype cloud around synths for the iPad.
I think it begins here: something about the video above sets my teeth on edge. It’s not entirely Moog’s fault, but it means it’s time for some reckoning with this whole, uh, iPad thing.
In short: the app is sonically terrific, but it’s past time to properly evaluate the usability of the iPad. And saying this is the first “professional” synth, or that you need a synth from Moog just to make music on an iPad, simply isn’t fair.
The iPad Shares Some PC Strengths – and Failings
The iPad clearly deserves credit for what it does beautifully. I spoke to a major music software pioneer last month in San Francisco who shall remain nameless, and I talked to him about why he was so excited about the iPad. He cut straight to the crux of the matter: by allowing you to touch the interface, you more directly interact with a software instrument. (I’m paraphrasing. I think he said it better.)
Here’s the thing: the iPad is then a better version of a software synth, but not a better version of a hardware instrument. It’s a different beast, but it is on some level an evolution of software. (I would argue this is why my ongoing criticism and praise for the iPad, whether or not you agree with it, has been consistent. I was initially concerned about software lock-down or consumption-focused applications because I was judging the thing as a computer – and likewise found things like MIDI input and output equally useful. That is, I’m certainly biased, but I try to be at least consistently biased.)
And as a result, something about the teaser video above looks horribly, terribly wrong. The modern Moog Music is the brand that, more than any other, more than any boutique modular vendor or blog or synth builder or eBay find, has stood for the beauty of hardware design. This is wrapped up with lots of mysticism among their fans about the sound of analog – some legitimate, some not, some misunderstanding the role of digital circuitry in making analog gear work, and some very real. But more than anything else, it’s about the value of designing hardware that integrates sound-making with physical control.
Having spent the better part of the summer having design discussions about what individual knobs should do, I can tell you first-hand that designing hardware is radically different from designing software. I enjoy each uniquely for this reason: software lets you do anything; hardware forces you to make choices.
If we had simply fetishized beautiful Moog gear with its wooden endcaps and such, then this criticism would be unfair. But I’m assuming it isn’t just nostalgia that makes us appreciate those designs.
Framed by that beautiful gear, artist Marc Doty looks frankly ridiculous tapping away at a screen you can’t see. It looks wrong for two reasons: one, because you know that the experience of the Moog hardware is so very different, and two, because the effect of playing the iPad is somehow incongruous, too.
Now, obviously, our friends at Moog I’m sure aren’t suggesting that we switch from their hardware to iPads. But it’s worth saying why I think the two things are so different, because in the celebration of the cheapness of software, and Moog’s own marketing blitz for their new app, it might otherwise get missed.
Tap, Tap, is This Thing On?
Of course, computers look ridiculous. We all know this. Seeing someone behind a computer is a problem precisely for the reason that watching someone play a video game is ridiculous: the human is involved in an essentially abstract activity in which physical motion only makes sense with visible feedback from a screen. People repeat this criticism to me when I see them the way that people repeat greetings like “Good Morning.”
“Hey, you doing?”
“Pretty good, you?”
“Weather’s nice today.”
“Yeah, winter’s coming.”
“How’s your work going?”
“You know the problem with computers? They lack the kinetic experience of connecting a physical gesture to a sound, because of the natural abstraction of software. The keyboard/mouse interface paradigm introduced in primarily with the 80s Macintosh and copied from the XEROX PARC GUI research was never intended for musical use. The convenience of the computer is unassailable, but we have this fundamental interaction model problem. Audiences are therefore un-engaged in laptop performances, because all they see is a person behind a glowing laptop screen with the Apple logo. They could be checking they’re email.”
“Yup. Laptop music sure is f***ing boring. Guess you’d better by a f***ing fader box for fifty bucks. So, see you tomorrow?”
The problem is, tablets (okay, iPads, since that’s all anyone at the moment is buying), while they look different than computers, can also look just as absurd. Somehow, they’ve escaped this criticism, perhaps because of their newness. Well, dear iPad, it ends now. The laptop has stood up to these complaints, and we know why we use them anyway. We make fun of them, and they’re tougher for it, and we still love them. Now it’s your turn. We may still use you, but you’re going to have to play with the grown-ups now and start to answer how wildly un-musical and un-usable your plain glass screen can be.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m fully aware of my own checkered past. I spend large amounts of my time looking silly. (This extends to a great many things in my life, but let’s focus for now on how stupid I look a lot of the time making computer music; lest this post become the size of Wikipedia.) I’ve spent years looking silly and strange using a laptop, since I first played with a computer in 1993. I did it enough that I knew, each time I heard someone reflexively complain about musicians “checking their email,” I was exactly the sort of person they meant. I have seen the enemy, and it is me.
But I have enough expertise in looking stupid to have a sinking suspicion that we must be very, very fast approaching the day where we start to (rightfully) make fun of the iPad, too.
This is not to say you should sell all your computers and trade them in for modular synths – though I do know some people reach that conclusion. I think software is a wonderful thing, in case that wasn’t blatantly and painfully obvious. It allows us greater flexibility of use, and the ability to create sounds you haven’t heard before.
The iPad is a terrific, new marketplace for such synths, because of a voracious consumer base and easy distribution. I doubt the Moog synth would single-handedly motivate an iPad purchase: you either want one or you don’t, and if you don’t, there are so many other ways of making sound I seriously doubt you’ll be genuinely missing out. If you do, you’ve probably already loaded up with other synths, and this one could provide extensive good times. And that is a good thing.
The danger is, in the understandable enthusiasm for embracing this market, we might lose sight of the fact that the iPad shares a lot of the same problems as the computer. To be fair, you can connect MIDI input and output to the Moog app, thus adding more tangible control. And X/Y touch works very well for continuous control, on the iPad as it did, once upon a time, on touch sensors on early Buchla synths.
But Moog, uniquely and more than any other iPad developer anywhere, had better start to think about how they will distinguish between the message about their iPad app and the rest of their hardware, especially since their hardware costs a lot more than 99 cents – and rightfully so.
I really wasn’t joking earlier today when I said I’d trade in my iPad to have a Moogerfooger ClusterFlux instead.
To be clear: the Animoog app benefits greatly from X/Y touch navigation, and you can replace the keyboard with MIDI input to make it far more playable. The issue is simply that what you wind up with is a different – if also powerful – experience from what you get from Moog hardware. And the actual programming outside of the X/Y pad can still be tricky on the iPad’s screen, which has been the ongoing issue with mice on computers.
Good Times Ahead
The big picture is brighter than the iPad alone. Musicians are finding ways of keeping their laptops onstage, but focusing on their performance – of instruments, of controllers, of vocals. Computers themselves can disappear, without losing their flexibility, as we saw with DJ sniff’s display-free Mac mini rig. And the same embedded technology that powers the iPad is finding its way into other tools that are more musician-friendly, even if they lack Apple’s magical, consumer-inspiring tech. Chris Randall’s Beepcat project proposes using the BeagleBoard embedded platform as open hardware for distributing all the power of software synths, without the clunky computer. (More on that soon.)
The iPad, too, can be a useful tool, so long as we appreciate and work around its limitations, as we’ve learned to do with the computer.
This is, of course, the beautiful thing. It’s not about whether you choose analog or digital, iPad app or Ableton Live on Mac or Pd patch running on Linux, hardware or software, knob or switch or touch ribbon or Theremin. We have a wide spectrum of possible choices. There’s great experimentation on the iPad, and the best way to appreciate that experimentation is to realize how many people are tackling it, in many different ways. The iPad synth developer is given a radically imperfect device with all sorts of problems; that’s what makes their solutions so interesting. Because the iPad looks so silly, it’s important to make it sound really, really good, just as the mouse and keyboard and office machine rig that is the modern computer has been transformed by software that can make you love the thing.
First ‘Professional’ Synth?
So, on that note, one final criticism. I’m disappointed that Moog marketing chose the phrase “First Professional Synth Designed for the iPad.”
Yes, this is the sort of thing marketing people do all the time. But it’s no less unfortunate. And I thought it was a bit funny to see in comments on Synthtopia’s excellent preview people saying that they were excited about it because it came from Moog.
Don’t assume that for a second. Assume the opposite: the Moog name means it better be damned good, or you should get your pitchforks. (That’s even truer given that the Moog brand was in the hands of some less-than-stellar owners once upon a time.) We love Moog the way we love the New York Yankees – we love their achievements, and we’ll spend the extra money, in order to celebrate those victories – and be equally savage if they don’t live up to their name. My sense from the people I’ve talked to at Moog is that they’re aware of these expectations, and the expectations, not the assumptions can be what’s motivating.
Independent developers have done some fantastic work in iPad synths, work that obviously influenced the creation of the Animoog. Implying their work was somehow not “professional,” when this synth is built on that work, is insulting.
I’m not holding a grudge here, because the people I know at Moog are uncommonly supportive of the work of other creators. It’s the Moog marketing department’s job to say their thing is the “only” or “first” pro tool. It’s my job to say it’s not, and to pay just as much attention to developers you’ve never heard of as the ones that have. And I know when people feel I’m not doing that job well – whether I think that criticism is fair or not – I hear about it. (Oh, do I.)
We love the Moog name, we put it on t-shirts and drink beer with it on the label and get tattoos and go to festivals named after it because we love the designers who built them, and the feeling of using their designs, and the sounds they make when we plug them in, and the music we produce together with and made for people we love.
And in the end, if we’re willing to pick up the thing and look really silly tapping away at a piece of glass, we’ll know that the software is very, very good, indeed.
Now, let me update my iTunes credit card information.
Since CDM doesn’t have an editorial board, and this is just me talking, we really do welcome your feedback. Am I pulling too many punches, and you want to go further? Do you disagree, and want to write up an op-ed? Fire away in comments, and if someone would like to write a response / rebuttal, we’ll publish that here or link to your own site. Also, if you think I look silly, you may feel free to call me names; I’ve only ever deleted really rude comments. -PK