- Words: Glenn Jackson
Following its recent release, we take a look at the app and talk about the unique music software with its designers.
If you're anything like us, you were equal parts intrigued and confused when news first broke of the Beatsurfing iPad app. The initial demo videos featured nothing more than the tablet's bright, colorful screen and a congregation of shapes manipulated by the hands of performer; these things—combined with the fact that the app was being released by the forward-thinking Belgium imprint Vlek and was a project headed by the Herrmutt Lobby collecive of electronic musicians and designers (a repututable name in any self-respecting circle of gear nerds)—made us all the more curious. Now that Beatsurfing has officially hit the iTunes store ($11.99), the details of the software are beginning to take shape, so we thought we'd ask the designers themselves to help us navigate their creation.
Essentially, Beatsurfing is an environment in which you can build and perform with a custom controller on your iPad. With four objects (or "operators")—the line, the circle, the polygon, and the fader—at your disposal, users can design their own controllers that send MIDI data to external equipment while also allowing for manipulation of other aspects of the environment. Beatsurfing was created with a focus on ease of use, flexability, and—above all else—the ability to freely perform electronic music, rather than just triggering sequences. The video below serves as a proper introduction to what Beatsurfing can do, and the following interview with Hermutt Lobby sheds more light on the exciting new software.
XLR8R: Where did the idea for Beatsurfing start?
Hermutt Lobby: A few years ago, we started trying to move past using sequencing in our live performances. We wanted to find a solution that allowed us to play electronic music live as an extension of physical movement, like a musical instrument. We started to make a Max For Live device that would allow the user to play drums using faders or anything on a controller that could be connected to body movement. The idea was not just for us: We wanted to help other people be able to play music live without a sequence, but with the Max For Live devices, this was not easy to share—it was geek shit, it was complex. Then we came across the iPad, which seemed suitable to play music in real time because it could send a lot of different data depending on how the user slides their fingers across the pad or what direction their hands are moving in. All these processes we were able to utilize in Beatsurfing with only four simple objects.
Who do you think will take to this app? Do you see it being used more for live performance or composition?
I could see someone using the app to enable them to perform parts of a composition, or to get ideas while composing, so maybe both. But it is especially made for use on stage, that was our focus. If you write music at home, it could be interesting to include it in your set-up because it is so easy to get running. You can just drag toys and build a basic usable instrument in the app in eight or ten seconds, and maybe use it to mess around and record a loop for a few bars and then never use that layout again; it could be just part of your creative process. When you are on stage, it can be at the center of the process as it allows you to not only be able to play the samples or the drums or the bassline, but will allow you to play the whole song in an improvisatory manner.
It sounds like it was important to make Beatsurfing easy to use. Do you think that anyone with a basic understanding of music production could pick it up?
Yes, it is a very small software. To understand how to completely use the software would only take a few hours; it's not a huge modular system, there are not a lot of maneuvers. It is very user friendly—you just drag and drop some objects and it's done. If you have a favorite piece of gear or software that you like to use, it is really easy to make Beatsurfing talk with it via MIDI. You're not changing your workflow, but just adding another tool. It's really easy to integrate into an existing setup.
And that's because Beatsurfing isn't its own instrument, but a MIDI controller of sorts?
Yes, but there is a difference between a MIDI controller and Beatsurfing: A MIDI controller sends MIDI data from itself to other machines (a DAW, a sampler, etc.), which Beatsurfing does, but the app can also interact with itself. Meaning that when you hit an object on Beatsurfing, it can send data to another machine, but it also sends data to the other objects in the scene. The objects can talk together, they can interact with themselves before they send the MIDI output. This makes it so that with only three or four objects, you can play a really complex sequence. To play the same sequence without that interaction, you'd need 20 pads on a controller or maybe more. But there is nothing random to it at all. It is like a sequence, but you are the clock. The player is the one who drives the performance and changes the rules of the music. It's like dancing on the screen with your finger, it can give you a simpler relationship with the music because it is so tied to movement.
Right now there is a huge demand for people to make their own MIDI controller, and with the app its not only fast to prototype your controller, but if you don't like what you've done, you just have to edit or maybe even start over—you don't have to build a whole new machine. If you come up with a nice layout, it can be really fun to play, even for people who have never made music in their life. Once you have a setup, its like beatboxing or singing. There is really not a lot of time between getting the iPad in your hands and being able to play a song.
It sounds like the Beatsurfing experience is based on experimentation from the beginning. You start by dragging objects and seeing what you can come up with.
Yeah, you begin by doing that, and after a period you are able to think of what else to do with these objects. Once you begin building enough or see some existing set-ups, you start to see how it can become more.
And you can export and share your instruments with other Beatsurfing users once you've made them? Are there any plans to set up a sort of user community so that people can share what they've come up with, as the Max/MSP community does now?
Yes, you can send the scene by email. That feature is already included in the application. We'd like to set up a site for users to be able to share their instruments with each other, and include tutorial and demonstration scenes, but for now we haven't set that up. We're still waiting to see how people use the app, because for us, too, Beatsurfing is new. For us to be able to see what someone else with a different background will produce with the app, that will really help us make it better in the future.
It looks like there is a lot of visual feedback when using the app, was that something you focused on?
Yes, that is the point. To have this visual feedback allows you to see the rules computing on the screen, not just executing in the background. You can see in real time the state of all the objects. Even if the objects are moving on their own based on a rule, you can always see where you are on the iPad and affect and control the objects at any point.
And you control these parameters simply by sliding your fingers?
Gliding is the main way to use the app, as it allows you to use the natural movement of the fingers on your hands. This is maybe the biggest difference between a real-time music application and the iPad. The iPad is not accurate at all for tapping, you're better off using something else, but for gliding, it's really fun and opens up a lot of possibilities.
How many points of control can you have on the app?
You can have six, so a few fingers on each hand.
How far off do you think a second revision will be, once you get enough feedback to make changes?
Just a few months. We're planning to release another version by September.
For detailed information on all of Beatsurfing's features and uses, head here.
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