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Sounding Off: Alex Marten

With Musical Instruments, The Interface Counts... By Alex Marten
Published January 2010

Last week I finally succumbed to Steve Jobs' not inconsiderable charms and 'bought' myself an iPhone (I apostrophise 'bought', because I didn't actually pay for it, I merely signed a document that transferred all rights over my soul to a shadowy mobile communications conglomerate for all eternity, but that's another story...). As a lover of cutting‑edge technology, it is a surprise that I've only recently succumbed, and a testament to said aforementioned shadowy conglomerate that I've suffered with a distinctly 20th century phone until now.

Immediately after opening the unbearably ergonomic packaging and plugging my new sliver of joy into the wall to warm up, I went on a search for these 'apps' that everyone is raving about. Being a musical soul (what soul I have left after the ravages of the conglomerates, at least...), the obvious first port of call was the 'music' apps. As a retailer of 'real' musical instruments and technology, I had heard hushed speak of these apps, and how they offered musical functionality that would once have cost an arm, a leg and all remaining limbs, at barely the cost of a fingernail. iPhone‑toting friends had waved their virtual synths and drum machines in my face, taunting me with these central pillars of my trade, bought at the price of — no, less than the price — of a (cheap) cup of coffee. I fobbed them off with vague talk of "dedicated circuitry” and "professional-quality converters”, but I was afraid. I was very afraid.

So what is this brave new world where hot gear costs less than warm beverages?

The bottom line is that manufacturers of music hardware need to up their game. No more can they get away with sticking a circuit board into a plastic box, attaching some knobs, and calling it a musical instrument (not to mention charging the earth for it). If one of the most ubiquitous consumer products of our age has enough processing power to act like a relatively sophisticated drum machine, and a natty, tactile interface to boot, a two‑bit beatbox knocked up in a Far East factory will simply no longer suffice.

We need to ask ourselves what it is that makes the instruments of yesteryear — the pianos, the violins, the flugelwhatsits (well, maybe not the flugelwhatsits) — so enduring? I'll tell you what it is: it's their interface, the particular design of the piano that essentially allows the player to hit strings with hammers, the visceral scrape of horsehair against catgut that characterises the violin, the distended nose‑pipes of the flugelwhatsit (OK, I made that bit up).

My point is that these instruments are characterised not only by their sound, but by how we interact with them. Yes, they are also known for their sound but, since the advent of samplers, pretty much any old plastic box can make pretty much any old sound, so this is no longer something that can really distinguish one instrument from another. Indeed, modern software synthesis advances from the likes of NI offer so many possibilities that it is frankly baffling — the sound is limited only by how much time you can afford to spend twiddling virtual knobs. What makes us really get excited and ultimately fall in love with an instrument, though, be it a guitar or a piano or a Moog synth, is the way we physically interact with it, and how our physical actions affect the sound.

I think this is why the Eigenharp gained such widespread consumer press attention recently, whereas on the other hand Roland's (bloody good) V‑Piano didn't. The Eigenharp innovates on the level of the interface; the V‑Piano innovates on the level of software. The problem is that software's boring! Yes, the V‑Piano sounds incredible, but it makes no claim to innovate on the level of the interface; its major innovation is its software — software that could, theoretically, one day exist inside an iPhone.

On a very basic level, music is about humans interacting with physical objects in such a way as to create pleasant or at least meaningful sounds. If instrument and equipment manufacturers are to continue to sell gear in the iPhone age and hold their own against the rise of the apps, they need to realise this and make some hard and fast rules. No more tacky plastic boxes: it's all about the interface.

About The Author

Alex Marten is the owner of Red Dog Music, Edinburgh's premier retailer of musical equipment that cannot be downloaded and generally costs more than 59p.