Phone Music – The Future of Performance or Fun Novelty?

Making music on your phone is fun, but can it be more than just goofing around?
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heaphones and smart phone

Smartphones have evolved from portable handsets to machines that rival much larger hardware in terms horsepower. And, while subsequent iPhone and Galaxy S generations are now only pushing incremental upgrades, it’s debatable whether users need much more juice. Smartphones do just about everything already.

Music had a rough time on early mobiles. Through a combination of lousy speakers and poor storage, the first phone viable for use as a music player didn’t arrive until 2001 (Siemens SL45, a “candy bar” phone) but the Sony Ericsson W800i, released four years later, was the first device built around music in the pre-iPhone era. Mobiles were well behind the curve musically; the first standalone MP3 player was three years old by the time the SL45 came along.

Atari Teenage Riot

It’s all ancient history now. Listening to music is one of the more basic functions on any given mobile device - but could the smartphone ever become the go-to option for creation, especially for bedroom musicians? For better or worse, Apple’s landmark Garageband app, now on iOS, already has an association with Rihanna, Fred Durst, and Fallout Boy, and there’s an existing trend for miniaturization of instruments in EDM, with Novation’s Launchpad and Marshall’s London appearing in recent years.

Bold experimental musicians and bands do use unusual tools in their art, both as instruments and creation suites. And this is not new at all. Chiptune artist Anamanaguchi, programs music on a modified NES; Atari Teenage Riot, a German digital hardcore band, create songs on an Atari 1040ST, while The Avalanches used just about everything on their debut album, Since I Left You, to the sum of more than 3,000 different samples. However, there’s no hiding the fact that the smartphone isn’t yet a visible contributor to music, at least on the pro scene. But could it become one?

nano studio

Nano Studio 

Pro Tools

Compared to desktops and even tablets, smartphones are slightly awkward – comfortable text entry may be beyond the iPhone and a quality speaker isn’t always a pre-requisite of a top-of-the-line device. However, the mobile ecosystem has its benefits. Despite a trade-off in more advanced functionality, software is more affordable (Garageband is $4.99, while NanoStudio is $6.99 - compare that to the $630 of the desktop-based Pro Tools) and the versatility of the App and Play Stores creates more options for purchasing apps as well as (potentially) samples and add-ons.

Inclusive of PayPal, Alipay, Boku and a range of similar options, mobile payments offer an arguably more consumer-friendly ecosystem than regular cash and plastic – and they’re gaining importance in entertainment. In the iGaming industry, for example, mFortune is a deposit by phone casino, which allows its customers to pay for their gaming through their network provider. It’s just one example of innovation from the brand; mFortune also creates all its slot machine games in-house, ensuring a unique offering compared to its rivals.

We are also starting to see the same innovation in mobile DAWs, Synths, etc. with easy to purchase add ons right from the apps. 

Maschine Mobile

Maschine Mobile 

Roughing Out

Portable music has a quandary. Music is a tactile trade - “feeling” an instrument, both literally and figuratively, is a key part of performance - and there’s very little in the way of physical feedback on a flat iPhone or iPad screen. Even the most advanced guitar app requires the artist to look at the tablet to play - but that’s not necessary with a real instrument. For that reason, tablets and phones are often used for “roughing out” tracks while travelling - a creative means to an end - rather than featuring in live acts.

Finally, developers, with a special emphasis on Apple, offer a closed environment to users – the Cupertino company dictates what can and can’t be installed on all its devices, from the iMac to iPad. Software access is a boon to creatives so it’s hard to justify creating music on a smartphone if the process requires a second device just to make it possible. The iPad, rather than the iPhone, does have a dedicated audience in some quarters, though. For example, New York artist, Daniel Iglesia, uses up to four tablets in his performance work. 

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