To most people, the iPhone is a cellphone with interesting extras. But to musicians like Tom Freeman, a Bay Area producer who records as Freematik, the device is a portable replacement for a roomful of music gear. Freeman made an entire album with his iPhone. His beat-and-synth-heavy iMatik, which he self-released in March, deals in hip-hop's curt synth lines and turntable scratchings. It doesn't sound like something a cellphone could create. Freeman and other tech-savvy producers and composers say the sonic possibilities allowed by the iPhone and its larger cousin, the iPad, could revolutionize music-making.
Freeman obviously isn't alone in making music with his iPhone — other Apple devotees have used them to rock Wembley Stadium and cover MGMT with eerie accuracy. There are iPhone apps that mimic vintage synthesizers, a 12,000-year-old flute, and a Gibson electric guitar. But iMatik is currently the only known album composed and performed entirely on the iPhone.
The idea struck Freeman after he downloaded a few apps — BeatMaker, iDrum, and Jasuto — out of curiosity, and toyed with them when he couldn't use pro equipment. "There are certain times where I'll have 15, 20 minutes to work on music," he says. "At first, it was just a hobby, [but] once I listened to the sounds with headphones, I knew I could actually do professional sounds with this thing."
As cool as some music apps are on the iPhone, Freeman says they're nothing next to the creative revelations available with the iPad. The release of Apple's tablet computer has triggered a flood of new music software from designers eager to explore the possibilities in the iPad's 9.7-inch touchscreen and zippy processor. Freeman and others say the device could ignite a revolution in electronic, portable music-making.
"It just feels totally different [than the iPhone] — it feels liberating, actually," says Ge Wang, a professor of music at Stanford University and cofounder of the Palo Alto "sonic media" start-up Smule. The company created the popular Ocarina music app, which uses the iPhone's touchscreen and microphone to imitate an ancient Chinese flute. Magic Piano, Smule's first app exclusively for the iPad, turns the tablet into a virtuosic keyboard anyone can play, with configurable keys, sci-fi graphics, and the ability to jam with users around the world.
Wang has long been experimenting with music and mobile computers. He currently directs the Stanford Mobile Phone Orchestra, an ensemble of varying size that uses the iPhone's GPS, accelerometer, touchscreen, microphone, and networking — along with glove-mounted speakers — to perform a repertoire that includes Bach, Led Zeppelin, and the orchestra's own experimental compositions.
Wang says that the iPad's large touchscreen is perfect for making music. "I don't think I would have ever wanted to build a piano for the iPhone," he says. "But as soon as the iPad came out, it suddenly made sense to build a crazy, wacky, whimsical piano. There's suddenly a whole new class of things which we wanted to do before, but that didn't make sense."
The mobile phone orchestra recently acquired a few iPads, and its members may show off what they can do during a performance at the reopening of the Oakland Museum of California on May 1. But Wang's mobility-focused group is waiting for the release of the 3G-enabled iPad before buying more. That increased functionality will enable collaborative performances from anywhere in the country with cellphone service.
Of course, there are numerous limitations with the iPhone and the iPad that laptops — and those old-fashioned things known as musical instruments — don't have. But with a screen that responds to every touch, and a starting price of $499, the iPad makes a startling range of musical possibilities available to the mass market. The iPad "definitely has the potential to transform how music is currently made," Wang says. "But I'm also excited to see how it pushes people to do things that we don't even know we want to do."