A New Reason to Skip Piano Lessons - Instrument Week on BTR


photo taken from WikiMedia Commons

A phone hasn’t been just a phone in awhile, but now, it appears basic dialing is one of its least exploited functions. Smart phones email, tweet, photograph friends, film concerts, turn the TV on, turn the TV off, pay for groceries, and, in the latest technological explosion, they tune guitars. Some are guitars even. For those who never had time to master their technique, a second chance has arrived with a host of new musical opportunities on iPads, iPhones, and other smart devices, enabling users to play instruments and record music in lieu of obtaining organic skill.

John Liu is part of this era of invention, furthering the movement to consolidate all of life onto mobile devices. His company, Agile Partners, has developed several apps for music consumers, including the GuitarToolKit, TabToolKit and and AmpKit. Collectively, these programs allow users to learn music, tune their instruments, and modify the quality of their sound.

“Guitar and bass players can use the Peavey AmpKit LiNK guitar adapter to plug their guitar into an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch,” explains Liu, Principal at the company. “Then, they can use AmpKit wherever they are to get the tone they want, instead of lugging around heavy amplifiers, all their effects pedals, etc.— it’s all on an iOS device.”

But really, that’s just the beginning. The latest update for the app contains features including the ability to copy AmpKit recordings and paste them into other apps, paste audio into AmpKit as backing tracks or dry guitar audio, 16 built-in effects, and a variety of filters and other rigmarole this writer is not familiar enough with to even translate.

Impressive to say the least, Agile Partners’ team is supported by those who know not only about computer science, but specifically audio technology, gear, and musical performance. Liu insists the tone quality of instruments using their apps is realistic enough to fool the average ear from knowing the difference. He points to the Alex Skolnick Trio’s performance using AmpKit at the Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference in San Francisco last month as evidence of the potential.

Says Liu, “Many musicians (Alex Skolnick, Phil Collen from Def Leppard, Joel Kosche from Collective Soul, Peter Frampton) take AmpKit very seriously. They use it for practicing in their hotel rooms, writing new riffs, and playing live in some cases.”

In fact, embracing apps and new technology will likely be the next great wave of change in the music industry. Next month, Bjork will release her seventh album, Biophilia, which was not only partially recorded on an iPad, but features apps for each track on the record. According to Evolver.fm, the always-avant garde artist “handpicked a team of ten app developers including TouchPress, to device ‘a multimedia exploration of the universe and its physical forces.’” Apps on the record are games, which alter playback of the songs, bizarre artwork and videos.

“In the past, record labels have started embracing mobile with these one-off ad hoc apps tailored around a specific brand or artist,” comments Chris Mann, who oversees business development for the Silicon Valley-based startup Vuclip. Previously, he worked several years as one of the first employees in mobile entertainment at Sony Pictures. “To do that for every band, a label would have to create thousands of apps so the idea is aggregate info into one source in order to best utilize developments…For a major artist with a budget, producers will likely resist anything beyond traditional production, but for small to medium size labels, apps can help reduce overhead costs significantly.”

From Mann’s perspective, the creation of production-related app tools must involve someone with a background in music in order to successfully orchestrate the sound of an instrument. He surmises 75% of an app can be built by a techie, but, unless that engineer understands tone quality, he will be unable to flawlessly recreate the sound of music. Thus, the remaining 25% must be devised by an audio expert.

“Several years ago, I walked into a room where people were in the process of creating a tuning app,” recalls Mann. “There were these four guys sitting in chairs with a pitch monitor and a guitar playing around, and then there were programmers behind the deck matching every sound with a signal…It’s an amusing dichotomy.”

Amusing for music fans as well. Mann describes a recent show he went to at LA’s Hotel Café, where an artist warmed up the audience by playing acoustic guitar on his Android, taking song requests from the crowd. In this way, technology becomes a gimmick, and artists can use it to beguile their fans until the novelty wears off. Mann points to Bjork as an example.

“For the more progressive artists or ones who aren’t signed to labels and in control of their fate, they can definitely take advantage of these ideas for the press,” he adds.

Biophilia has been the buzz of the blogs since last year, though Bjork never had trouble getting attention. On another note, for a consumer base who hates to spend money, the package deal of getting music, art and games all for the price of one provides more buying incentive than a download alone.

And of course it’s cool, which really is the trick of this trade.