It’s been asked over and over again: can a simpler software tool attract more people to music making? But the next question is, invariably – what’s the right stuff to leave out?

Auxy, released today, is an extreme exercise in app minimalism. It radically reduces what’s in the UI by focusing on making and cueing patterns — and leaving out the rest.

It’s also free.

Built exclusively for iPad, Auxy centers on a grid as its main screen. You’ve got four tracks in which you can create, edit, then trigger different patterns. Tap on one rectangle, and you draw in patterns in a familiar “piano roll” sequencer view. Drag notes to draw, then drag to move or elongate them. It’s even easy for clumsy or large fingers.

Each pattern is one, two, or four bars. There’s a drum kit with three sets of sounds, a bass track with four sounds, and two synth tracks with a choice of five sounds. Tapping a circular icon on the left brings up clever draggable knobs for controlling a filter, volume, and (in all but the drum kit) one sound parameter.

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Musically speaking, Mouse on Mars are like that kid who can’t keep still. In a good way.

But perhaps now is a perfect moment for that nervous energy, that quirky, disruptive approach to sounds. It can be refreshing colliding with the duo’s endless, too-much-coffee-when-saying-yes-to-projects collaborations, and anarchic playful love of noise. Because the anxieties of music can leave people creatively constipated. It can drive people to either a chin-stroking disdain for audiences at one extreme, a sort of retreat into abstract sounds with fear that anyone might feel a physical urge when listening, or buttoned-up commercial conformity at another.

This would all be noise if it didn’t have direction and reflection. But Mouse on Mars manage to be disinhibited with their creativity, while still being thoughtful and focused on what they’re doing. And that’s why it’s been great to get to know them.

In any event, Mouse on Mars are turning their 21st birthday as a duo into a crescendo of activity. It’s an acted-out manifesto of their approach to music and collaboration, culminating in events and releases. In short:

1. The WretchUp app (with myself and others) is out.
2. There’s a compilation, entitled 21 Again (listen below) – marking lots of their collaborations.
3. For fans of their past work, there’s a new box set charting their history, via Monkeytown Records.
4. And, oh yeah, there’s a packed 2-day festival, in collaboration with Berlin’s HAU and CTM Festival. (That’s fitting, because if there’s a city right now that doesn’t believe in the concept of “too much” as far as music, it’s Berlin.)

But if you can spare a short block of time, you can understand what this is all about. In 21 minutes, they make 21 tracks, courtesy a project with FACT Magazine. It’s hyper-kinetic stuff, but it’s also still considered (and at one point Jan chides Andi about something he didn’t like). There’s loads of use of the WretchUp app here, too, for a sense of what that feedback thing was about, plus some unreleased iOS stuff – like the forthcoming Elastic Drums drum machine. See also a lot of action in Apple’s Logic and with AKAI controllers and Nord keyboards and loads of loads of toys.

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It’s a nostalgia trip. It’s a net art piece. It’s a parallel dimension.

It’s also working music apps running (sort of) in your browser. It feels a little bit like playing with an elaborate doll house where you can open the fridge and add tiny food and the oven pretends to work. But in case you haven’t already been infected with the quantum distraction power of the Windows 93 browser yet, it might interest you to know that there are music apps inside. Continue reading »

Watch the power of science meet the power of improvisation.

You know how TED talks – or even DJing – normally goes. Some omnipotent person stands on stage and everyone watches. Well, this one went a bit differently.

At at a TEDx event mounted by CERN (TEDx are independent of TED, though borrowing the format), Tim Exile took the stage with a live remix.

But keep watching: the beats make the crowd go wild and start dancing, first raving around the floor, then storming the stage. It’s like the nerdiest Boiler Room ever.

Tim Exile has been using this Reaktor rig for years; he dubs it Flow Machine. Here, it samples data center sounds and other CERN-related clips, but it’s really Tim’s power to improvise that makes things work. And here’s where spontaneous improvisation can do something that DJing (and most live sets) can’t. The crowd immediately gets what he’s doing, and as Tim told me recently by chat, the improvisatory element is an invitation to join in. There’s literally an element of audience participation, and that’s why people feel freed to let go and dance, even behind him onstage.

I don’t think this idiom has to fit everything. I love being an audience member and getting lost in sound and sight, left alone to my own experience. I even have vivid memories of being terrified of audience participation as a kid. But in a setting like this, there’s a different sort of connection being made that needs to be fun and participatory, and it works. And now I want all TED performances to involve a crowd of people wearing ID badges running up and dancing. Continue reading »

Let’s admit it: what we all want out of sync is some magic box that just makes everything work. We just want to plug things in, turn a knob, and have everything sync up.

Caveats: we want everything. (USB? DIN? MIDI? Modulars?) And, come to think of it, we probably then start to want to do other fun stuff like shift things around.

That is, not all of us want to write technical papers on the topic. But fortunately, Maximilian Rest did write a paper on it. He then built a jitter-free MIDI clock.

Well, it gets better. First, the midiclock – CDM review coming very soon – added DIN and modular for those of you with extra gear. Second, the MULTI-FORMAT-MASTER-CLOCK is a high-end box, revealed just a few hours ago, that will do even more, for those of you who want sync with all the fixins’.

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The original inspiration came from analog delay equipment. But guided by German duo Mouse on Mars, WretchUp transformed into something that fits in your hand on mobile, and gets played by an instrument, producing wild digital sounds.

The WretchUp app is at last available now on the iTunes App Store, working on iPhones and iPods touch (iPhone 4, iPod touch 5th-gen or better). Crowd-funding backers are already receiving their codes and invitations to test new builds, but the general public can try the app right away. I contributed to the development of the app (hence my cameo in the video), so it’s a pleasure to share it now.

It’s hard to describe WretchUp. It’s an effect, yes – but you “play” it like a musical instrument. And the best way to understand that is to watch the film with Mouse on Mars at top – if you watch it closely, we use these demos as a way of showing how the app works.

On the occasion of the 21st birthday of Mouse on Mars, the app embodies the duo’s anarchic approach to sound. With vocals or instruments, it can become its own timbre, an additional part as much as an effect. It can also transform – and wretch up – everything from spoken word to drums. The feedback network is intentionally unruly; switch the mic input to “locked” and you can make it scream with only mic feedback, or adjust feedback from subtle glitches to raucous digital textures.

It’s not that WretchUp makes you sound like Mouse on Mars – it’s that it’s an app that lets you play as freely as they do, however you like. And it’s the first of a series of apps the duo is involved in releasing.

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If you want a tiny, well-built box with loads of encoders or knobs, Faderfox has you covered with its latest round of hardware. (Previously, too: faders!) But with the SC4, the Hamburg, Germany-based builder adds something else: a brilliant step sequencer you can use with software or standalone hardware.

Faderfox has two new controllers this month – the knob-laden PC4, which is basically a bunch of pots, and the encoders-with-display SC4. Both work as general-purpose controllers. But the SC4 adds a step-sequencing firmware.

The SC4 then becomes more than just a flexible, do-anything controller. It’s about the most step sequencing power you can get in a small box, at 209€ (249€ in Europe with VAT). It works with software (via USB), but it also is happy to run on its own (via MIDI).

Crucially, it also has a screen, which means you can reliably step sequence pitch and not just rhythm. (Sure, you could blindly twist knobs and come up with something, as many sequencers require you to do, but that can be a bit tricky and leads to loads of wrong notes when playing live.)

That combination of features sets the SC4 ahead of a lot of the competition. Arturia’s BeatStep is cheaper and adds velocity-sensitive pads, but it lacks the more advanced step sequencing and has no screen. DJ TechTools’ MIDI Fighter Twister has a sleek design and 16 encoders instead of 8, but those come at the cost of standalone operation, MIDI, and a display – basically, any of them a deal-killer for use in step sequencing, at least if you work with hardware or (rather than drum patterns) melodies. Continue reading »