One of the great resources for mobile music — from iPad apps to small new gadgets — is the website palmsounds.net. For almost a decade, Ashley Elsdon has tracked, and participated in, the development of mobile audio, from full-blown digital workstations to casual entertainment, what here on Disquiet.com is often referred to as “audio-games.”
Elsdon graciously submitted to an interview, which we did over a few weeks as a collaborative Google Drive document. The discussion ranges from the early sonic hacking of the now ancient PalmPilot to the museum-approved devices from Teenage Engineering. In between we touch on old-school manufacturers such as Korg and Roland adapting their hardware for use as software, Elsdon’s own efforts to use mobile tech to aid those with learning disabilities, as well as his and my mutual disappointment that — so far, at least — mobile music has not yet become a general-public form of entertainment, even as it has become a massive force in professional and home-based music production.
Ashley Elsdon: You’re right there. It did start as a result of making music on Palm OS devices. This came about because I started using a Palm III a long time ago, mostly for getting myself organised. But as I started to get used to the device I realised just how much these little computers could do and what a vast community there was for them (which is sadly all but gone). Eventually I stumbled into looking into the musical capabilities of the Palm OS. Back in the late 1990s it was, to say the least, minimal, but it was there. A site called “minimusic.com” had started developing some notation and sequencing apps for the Palm OS (although back then we didn’t call them apps) and I started playing with these. But even then this was quite a while before Palm Sounds started. As Palm OS evolved, a new app arrived called Bhajis Loops, which was, and in fact still is, one of the best mobile music making apps ever, in my opinion. I spent a lot of time with that app.
It wasn’t long after that I started to write Palm Sounds. I was experimenting with blogging about a bunch of different subjects, and making music on mobile devices was the one that really stuck for me. I was actually quite surprised that people were interested in such a niche subject. But they were, and people started to contact me about mobile music, and things have just continued from there. The rest is history as they say.
Weidenbaum: What year was that around? Could you provide a general timeline for major milestones for the site’s development?
Elsdon: Hmm, actually, that’s quite difficult. The site started off in 2006, but as for milestones I can’t remember much I’m afraid.
Weidenbaum: I feel like the word “palm” right now works as a good synonym for “mobile,” because we have some distance from Palm OS’s onetime ubiquity. Was there a time when you considered changing the name?
Elsdon: In fact I did, and a lot of people talked to me about changing the name. Some people were quite vocal as well. In the end I decided against it as I just didn’t think it was worth it. Palm Sounds grew out of the Palm OS and the musical apps that were around back then. However, it did occur to me that Palm was also a good way to describe handheld music making, so I stuck with it, and in hindsight I’m glad that I did. So much of mobile music has become about iOS that it’s sort of become the only thing that people talk about and I’ve always wanted Palm Sounds to be about more than just one operating system, or one technology. So I think that Palm Sounds is still a good name and is more about mobile music in its most general sense, rather than just iOS.
Weidenbaum: Do you make music?
Elsdon: Oh yes, I’ve been making electronic music since I was 10 or 11 years old. I started out with what you’d now refer to a circuit bent toys, but at the time it was just breaking up toys and making them do things they were never supposed to do in the first place. I quite enjoyed doing that, but back then electronic toys that made noises were expensive and not available in charity shops like today, so it wasn’t a cheap hobby. So from there I went to small devices like Casio’s VL-1. I had two of those. Back then they were about the cheapest synthesizer you could get your hands on, and even then they were about £100 each. But with a 100-note sequencer and a little synth on board it was a nice device.
Over time I amassed a range of synths, but they were never too useful for doing anything mobile. And then mobile started to happen. With Palm at first, as I said before, but also with Windows Mobile too, which had some really exciting possibilities in the late ’90s with apps like Griff, which had a complete plugin architecture on a mobile device, something that’s only just happening with iOS.
So, I make a lot of music with mobile devices. Mainly iOS, but also I still do some stuff with Palm and Windows Mobile, too. I like using hardware, too. I love my OP-1 from Teenage Engineering and their PO series too. There’s some quite interesting stuff going on with hardware at the moment.
But I also like desktop music software. I’m fond of Ableton, Reaktor, and Kontakt. One area I’ve avoided is the modular world, at least in terms of stuff like Eurorack. I’m not sure it’s for me, although I do see the attraction.
Anyway, you can find my music, sounds, field recordings, etc. at: soundcloud.com/palmsounds.
Weidenbaum: Part of what interested me recently in speaking with you was a post you wrote about the modular synthesizer “So, Modular Is Huge Right Now, but Is It Right for Mobile Music?”, and its growing popularity. You talked about how “modular” does and doesn’t correlate with your sense of mobile music, of “palm music.” You noted two characteristics that you consider — if I can paraphrase — essential to mobile apps. They are “immediacy” and “accessibility.” And you went on to describe what you mean by those two ideas. I’ll quote them here:
>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. > >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.
Were these two concepts clear to you from the start of Palm Sounds, or did they come to mind as time passed?
Elsdon: That’s a good question — and this article of mine might be of interest too: “Modal Pro, a First Look and Some Other Thoughts on Modular Synth Apps”. No they weren’t clear from the start, rather they’ve evolved over a number of years, but as they have evolved they’ve become much more prominent in how I think not only of mobile music but also about music technology in general. This is in no small part because of the work I’ve been doing with Heart n Soul and specifically in the SoundLab project (makeyoursoundlab.org). On the one hand, immediacy is about being able to create music straight away without a steep learning curve, as is often present with desktop software, and also about an interface design that draws you into the act of creating music without dictating a specific workflow. This is a very difficult balance to strike but one that I believe is necessary to engage new users and especially those with little or no musical experience. Accessibility is inextricably intertwined with this. Often I’ve found that traditional musical interfaces are immensely off-putting to users with no experience. However, a more novel or less intimidating interface can result in users finding the sudden and unexpected joy of making their own music.
It boils down to this for me:
Immediacy + accessibility = joy
It’s simple, but not easy to achieve. When you see it in operation it is very obvious.
Weidenbaum: I followed mobile music from pretty early on, and I think I was, myself, very mistaken in my assumptions about where it would lead. I was fascinated with what I began to refer to as “audio-games,” things like Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers’s Bloom, and a wide variety of browser-based entertainments. It was very late in the game that I realized it was largely going to be the province of musicians, casual and professional, and everywhere in between, using new tools — such as the Caustic, Borderlands Granular, and Samplr, just to name a few — and of course virtual versions of old tools. When mobile music first started happening, I thought it would all be about a new line of general-public interest in interactive sound. Does my early misconception make sense to you, and did you foresee how and where mobile music was headed?
Elsdon: I, like you, had hoped for something that would expand the role of musical creativity into a wider audience. I think that some of the early experiments that emerged in the first days of iOS (before it was called iOS) showed so much promise and some were very well received. Start ups like RJDJ did amazing work in gestural and reactive music, but sadly failed to catch mass-market appeal. Even so, there is still a relatively small community working in this field and beginning, once again, to get some attention.
I was at an event at Abbey Road Studios early this year which focused on the world of generative and reactive music, and whilst a lot of the people there are still pushing forward with ideas and concepts in this area there are new entrants trying out ideas that might bridge the gap in popular culture. I am, as ever, hopeful.
However, mobile music itself hasn’t gone in quite the direction I would have liked. In many ways mobile has followed a path that largely replicates the desktop world, albeit at a much reduced price tag. That in itself is an improvement in terms of accessibility in its widest sense, so that has to be a good thing.
However, as the hardware improves and the OS develops I think that we’ll only see mobile become more and more desktop-esque. On the one hand I believe that cross-platform and inter-device working has got to be a good thing. Some of that I already happening now, but what isn’t happening, at least in a mainstream way, is mobile devices making real use of the actual capabilities of the device in terms of gestural interfaces and how the device can react to its own environment and sensor data. This is my most recent piece: “Are There Too Many Synths?”
Weidenbaum: I’m a huge admirer of RJDJ, and I’ve pleased that over the years Robert M. Thomas, who was Chief Creative Officer at Reality Jockey, has participated in the Disquiet Junto projects and other music scenarios I’ve helped make happen. I still have RJDJ on my iPod Touch. Your critique of the desktop-like nature of mobile music doesn’t seem to deter the energy you put into the site. I trust you haven’t ever given serious thought to stopping the site, right?
Elsdon: Well, I did stop for a while. But I came back, and I’m glad that I did. Keeping up to date takes more and more effort as time goes on, but I’ve no intention of quitting. I still think that the mobile world has a lot to offer and that there are people expanding possibilities to engage new users. Propellerheads Figure is a great example of this. They’re doing excellent work. It’s apps and interfaces like Figure that keep me interested in mobile and what is possible with mobile devices. So I’ll keep at it.
I’d like to see more people involved in mobile music realise that there’s more available to them than just iOS. There’s a whole range of interesting portable hardware arriving, like the Teenage Engineering PO series. It’s this kind of thing that keeps my interest in the mobile world, and I hope it’ll keep going for a long time to come.
Weidenbaum: As someone who is at best semi-informed on such topics, and who looks to you in particular, along with Peter Kirn and others, for technological guidance, it seems like Audiobus was something of a game changer for iOS. Everyone talks about “ecosystem,” but where people says “ecosystem” I usually just see “shopping mall.” Audiobus, however, made connecting iOS apps possible in a way, if I’m not mistaken, that didn’t exist previously. I guess this leads to two questions. The first is: What’s your estimation of the role of Audiobus? The second is: What are the strengths of other non-iOS mobile operating systems, primarily Android. I want to get on to Teenage Engineering, but let’s stick to software for a little while longer.
Elsdon: Well the short answer is yes. Audiobus was a game changer for iOS-based mobile music. It made possible what was already possible on the desktop but that Apple had restricted by their sandbox approach to iOS apps. It brought a whole new dimension to iOS mobile music making — but, let’s be clear, one that had been closed off by Apple. That’s not to say that Apple haven’t been vocal in their support for iOS music making. They have. To a great degree in fact. If you look back at the history of iOS you’ll find a range of innovations that Apple have brought to mobile, not least of which was Core MIDI.
But back to the first question, Audiobus have played a much wider and a more central role than just producing the Audiobus app. They’ve successfully created a developer community behind the app. That in itself is an achievement. But they’ve also become a valuable focus for the community as well.
That’s not to say that they’ve had an easy ride. I don’t think for a minute that they have. Apple’s own inter-app audio standard could have caused them significant issues but didn’t. Time will tell how they react to the introduction of audio units in iOS9. But Audiobus is a strong team and seem to have a clear vision of where they want to go next. So I think they’ll remain a key player in the iOS music world for some time to come.
On the second point, this is quite difficult actually. You mention Android, which is the most obvious operating system to compare against iOS but by no means the only one. So I’ll run through a few to give a wider perspective.
It’s only fair to say that at one point Android had the potential to be a real contender against iOS for mobile music. Sadly, at least from my perspective, this hasn’t come to pass. That’s not to say that there aren’t some really good mobile music apps for Android. There are. However, there aren’t the numbers for critical mass. What I’ve observed in the world of Android is some very good apps starting out there and then going cross-platform and reaching into world of iOS to gain a larger audience. Caustic is an excellent example of this. It’s an amazing app that started out on Android then moved over to iOS.
Of course the biggest problem for Android is, and has always been, latency. Whilst there have been solutions to this they’ve been contingent on specific hardware, like the Samsung solution, or very app-specific.
I still have hopes that Android will become a more popular mobile music platform, and it is possible, but it never seems to be really on Google’s agenda or at least not very high up.
About Windows Phone / Surface etc:
I still have an old Windows Mobile device which I use every now and then. I never moved to Microsoft’s newer mobile operating system, called Windows Phone, and I never owned a Surface, although I’ve played with them a bit here and there.
I’ll cover Windows Mobile (Microsoft’s original mobile OS) in a moment, but here I’ll concentrate more on what they’re doing now.
When Microsoft made the initial move from Windows mobile, a lot of developers were annoyed. The move meant not just a change to their code for a new version of the OS, but a complete re-write of apps from the ground up. No one was happy and as a result no developers (that I’m aware of) moved their apps to the new OS.
Since then I’ve periodically taken a look in Microsoft’s App Store for their mobile OS to see if there was anything of interest and always found it wanting. As for the Surface, that seemed to hold some promise and I was contacted by Pete Brown from Microsoft who was very excited about the possibilities for music. Again, this hasn’t seemed to meet expectations. I’m not sure why though as in theory it is a very capable device.
Perhaps as Windows 10 rolls out there will be more interest. Perhaps Microsoft will get a real mobile strategy in the future. Time will tell, but for now it holds little interest for me, which, in my opinion, is a missed opportunity.
About Palm OS:
Whilst it’s only fair to say that Palm OS is a legacy operating system, I still think it’s worth a mention. Not least because it is where the journey started for me, but also because it is still a very capable operating system for music, albeit there are really only a handful of useful apps available for it. However, one of those, Bhajis Loops, is still one of the most fully featured mobile music making apps ever, in my opinion. It’s well worth taking a look at even though the OS is long dead and not supported in any way. I’ve written a number of pieces about Bhajis Loops (examples: “My 24 apps for Christmas: 24 – Bhajis Loops and Microbe” and “Turn £50 into an Amazing Mobile Music Studio”).
About Windows Mobile:
Not to be confused with its successor, Windows Phone, Windows Mobile was actually very useful for mobile music, and, in its day had some truly amazing apps for creating music. The best of these was almost certainly Griff. Griff had a full plugin architecture together with synthesis, sampling, and mix automation. It was way ahead of its time, but when Windows Mobile got dumped by Microsoft, it came to an end. It was a great shame. There were a number of other music-making apps for Windows Mobile, but Griff was the by far the best.
About the mobile OS that didn’t see the light of day, Capers:
Capers was intended to be a replacement for Palm OS. A real mobile operating system for music. It was pretty much MIDI-based and had a huge amount of promise to do some truly innovative things on a Palm OS device. The developer did release some demo apps to show what it might be able to do, but apart from these nothing else ever came about. Which was a real shame. There was some talk of making Capers open source some time ago, but that too never came about.
If you want to know more about Capers here’s a link: palmsounds.net.
Weidenbaum: I said I wanted to move from software to hardware, and right on time, as this interview has progressed, you posted on PalmSounds.net a picture highlighting the beautiful engineering of a portable, handheld Nagra. Can you make a connection between pre-software mobile sound and the world of iOS and other digital tools?
Elsdon: Now that’s a good question. In many ways the iOS world often echoes a pre-app world. The Nagra is a good example, actually, as the recorder in Waldorf’s Nave iPad synth looks a lot like the Nagra. Even more than that there are apps that are in fact a direct port from their hardware forebears. Yamaha did this with their Mobile Music Sequencer app, which borrows heavily from the QY series of sequencers such as the QY10, 70 and 100. All amazing devices in their day (and still today, too, in my opinion) and worth replicating into the world of iOS, not just for nostalgia, but also because these were competent music making devices and translating them into the world of software makes sense. Another example is that of the Electribe and iElectribe from Korg, also Roland’s more recent Sound Canvas app.
So I think that there is a definite line to draw between the world of hardware and how it has translated into software, be that in the iOS or desktop world. Of course the opposite is also true. I mentioned Bhajis Loops earlier. The creator of that seminal app for the Palm OS is now the man behind Mutable Instruments, maker of some very highly regarded Eurorack modules.
Weidenbaum: Over time, what have you learned about the audience for Palm Sounds, and how has that knowledge influenced your coverage?
Elsdon: That’s an interesting question. In the early days there was little or no interaction with the audience, and I think that was largely due to there not really being anyone reading, but I persevered, and it changed and more people started to read and then get in touch. Over time readership has altered as the medium has shifted: Blog, Twitter, Facebook etc, but one more or less constant has been the contact with people working in music technology. That could be developers, people in hardware, from established manufacturers, or those doing interesting things involving mobile music. One example being the SoundLab project which I became involved with as a direct result of Palm Sounds.
In terms of how it has influenced my coverage I can’t say that I think it has consciously. If anything I find myself shying away from the mainstream issues the more mainstream they get. As iOS music creation becomes mainstream I find myself less drawn to it.
Weidenbaum: Please talk a bit about SoundLab. Explain what it is and your role in it.
Elsdon: SoundLab aims to find simple and effective ways to help people with learning disabilities to express themselves musically and collaborate with other people using readily available musical technologies. We wanted to show how technologies can be brought together and combined to allow users new ways to make music.
As for my role in SoundLab, well, it covered a number of different things, like planning out some of the phases of the project, being involved in the workshops where we tested a wide range of technologies and apps, and being a part of a number of big public events too.
The other thing I’ve been doing with SoundLab is getting the project known in the music-technology community by talking to a lot of the best known manufacturers. We’ve had really good responses from people like Moog, Ableton, Korg, IK Multimedia, and Native Instruments. We’ve also been really lucky to work with a number of smaller music tech companies like Nu Desine, who make the Alphasphere, Dentaku who Kickstarted the Ototo board, Mogees and their app/hardware combo, and lots of other smaller companies too.
It’s been really interesting to see how people in the music technology world react to the needs of people with learning disabilities. In fact, we’ve had a fantastic response overall.
I got involved in SoundLab because one of the project leaders was a reader of PalmSounds and decided to get in touch to see if I would be happy to get involved in the project, and, one thing lead to another. In fact this is how I’ve got involved in a number of projects over the years.
In many ways I think that the work I’ve been doing at SoundLab is really an extension of how I’ve always thought about mobile music. It’s about accessibility and immediacy, and those ideas apply even more so in projects like SoundLab.
If anyone wants to know more about the project, the site is makeyoursoundlab.org.
Weidenbaum: The second is the “mainstream” comment. I wrestle with that, too, in terms of music. Part of it in apps, I think, is that just because a lot of people buy an app, they aren’t necessarily using it, so sales aren’t a real gauge of what’s happening. But still, how do you track the environment while not covering the major players?
Elsdon: Yes, I do often skip over apps that I find are just iterations of existing ideas. Sometimes I find that a new synth app just doesn’t do anything really new. It might be a lovely synth but unless it really stands out from what is beginning to be a crowded space then it might not grab my attention.
Where an app is doing something really different it’s going to get my interest. One of the things I’m especially interested in at the moment is how developers are starting to implement 3D Touch. I think it has enormous potential for mobile music. There are already a handful of apps that have started down this road which is great. The downside is it’s making me want to buy an iPhone 6s!
But going back to the original question, I find that increasingly I’m drawn to apps that have a really different take on making music or sound. Apps that have a different take on creativity and expression. There are plenty of examples of these, but here are a few examples:
Figure — which was groundbreaking in its interface and ease of use for non-musicians Thumbjam — for very similar reasons Gestrument — also an amazing interface that allows people create amazing music without years of learning
I also really like finding apps that do something quite unusual. Apps by the Strange Agency fall firmly into this category, my favourite of which is The Donut. If you know it then you’ll understand what I mean, if you don’t, go take a look. Another couple of good examples of this would be Hexaglyphics, Sector, and Thicket:Classic. Ok, that’s three, but sometimes when you get started you know.
Anyway, my point here is that there are some truly genius apps around which have a completely different take on sound and interface, and, given the choice, I’d rather spend my time with one of those than something that looks like lots of other synth apps, and probably sounds very similar too.
However, I think that the creativity involved in creating a truly innovative music making app is very similar to the creativity involved in crafting a great piece of music. Really innovative apps bring something new to your workflow and enhance your own creativity. They’re more than just tools, they help and inspire.
It isn’t to say that the mainstream or large-scale app developers don’t produce innovative apps. They do. One example of this would be Gadget from Korg. That was a fantastic surprise and is a wonderful, creative tool. So I’m not sure that I particularly ignore the mainstream in terms of large companies. Instead, I think I actively seek out apps that display innovation and new ways of making music, connecting the app world to the physical world.
Weidenbaum: Have you noticed anything about apps made by coders who happen upon music as a subject, versus apps made by music-minded people who then learn to code or engage with coding resources to achieve their goals?
Elsdon: Well, yes, there have been a few people who have made the jump into coding as a result of either not finding the app they really wanted or just wanting to have a go. Often with apps developed by people who are already musicians you find have more attention to detail and more focus on the purpose of the app. However, I have to say that the majority of serious music apps (and I know that’s a difficult classification to make) are already made by people who like making music. I guess that this is the same of good games: they tend to be made by people who like games.
There are of course apps that hit the app stores that just don’t stack up at all. In the early days of iOS it was radio apps, and there are still hundreds of those around, but there are an increasing number of apps that seem to be cashing in on the mobile music world. I tend to ignore these though. It isn’t a huge phenomenon as in general the community can see when an app isn’t going to work with their workflow.
Weidenbaum: What have you observed about the pricing of apps, about dollar amounts, and occasional sales and promotions? Is there any sort of clear correlation between cost and complexity of an app. We’ve discussed inter-app functionality, like via Audiobus, but do you have any thoughts on in-app purchases
Elsdon: App pricing is a difficult area. To a large degree it has calmed down in the last couple of years, if not more. Whilst on the whole app prices are lower for mobile than for desktop, within the iOS — and to a degree Android — worlds there is no real consistency in pricing. For example, there are apps which are either free or only one step above that ($0.99) which vastly outstrip other more expensive apps in terms of their functionality. There are apps that are charged at $10 or more that I’d expect to see at around half their price.
Often you’ll see apps that launch at a high (respectively) price and then seem to follow a steady series of price drops to find their actual market price. One exception to this is Korg’s apps, which are amongst the most expensive in the iOS app store. They usually do at least one sale a year, but other than that they stay at their normal price.
A more recent pricing technique that seems to have gained popularity is the “launch price.” Often an app will launch at a 50% discount for the first week or two and then go up to its “normal” price after that. This is following the logic that most apps will make most of their money in the first month of launch. Prompting a sense of urgency for the user to get the new app at the launch price seems to work a lot of the time.
On in-app purchases (or IAPs), these were treated with a large amount of skepticism when developers first brought them to their apps. I think a lot of this was to do with what was offered early on. Many of the first IAPs were sample packs and the like. These have evolved since IAPs were introduced and now I think they’re treated more reasonably. Also, there have emerged a few “taboo” IAPs. These are things like MIDI, Audiobus compatibility, and possibly a few more.
More recently we’ve seen more expensive IAPs come from Korg in their Gadget app. No one seemed to complain about these, which is interesting. Steinberg have done the same with their Cubasis app, and seem to have had a positive reaction.
I think that the biggest issue in iOS pricing is upgrade pricing. It’s the thing that Apple has never addressed. Developers can’t keep on delivering free updates to apps. It doesn’t make any commercial sense at all. Desktop software makers are used to charging for upgrades. It makes sense. Users are comfortable with this, but in the iOS world this doesn’t exist. Many developers have decided to issue new versions of their apps. So Intua released BeatMaker 2 as a new app entirely and charged a premium price for it. Apple gives them no way to offer a discount to existing users, which is a massive missed opportunity in my view. It causes developers issues as they need to maintain, at least to a degree, the previous versions, whilst also creating a new app to keep themselves afloat.
I think that users are coming to terms with this now, but there is still some resistance. It isn’t ideal, but without a real platform solution, developers have no real alternative at all.
Weidenbaum: What is your schedule like? I think you tend, for example, to post videos and audio of apps on the weekend. What is your system for tracking information in such a quickly changing and vast field, and what is your personal schedule like for maintaining and updating PalmSounds.net?
Elsdon: Well, as for a system, it sort of evolves over time. In fact, I use a lot of different systems to track information. Lots of feeds, lots of people on Twitter, and Facebook, and a few other things besides. However, it does change and flex over time.
My personal schedule changes a lot at the moment. So some days you’ll find that there’s nothing new on PalmSounds, and other days there’ll be lots and lots. Right now, things are pretty variable though, so there’s plenty of peaks and troughs with the site. My expectation is that it’ll be like that for some time to come.