No matter how much you adore Peter Gabriel, even “In Your Eyes” gets old. But what if you could remix any hit song from your favorite artist 10 ways from Sunday--then share your remixed masterpieces with friends?
That’s the idea behind MusicTiles , an app that lets you shift around various elements in a song to create your very own mix of it then broadcast that creation to the world. Want to make “Red Rain” more soulful or moody or “Sledgehammer” a tad edgier? Theoretically, you can create countless unique versions to listen to for all sorts of moods with the app. It’s a step beyond merely curating as-is songs and sharing your lists, the way you define your musical self on, say, Spotify or even the new Myspace.
“Think about how you can build a car, a house, or a tower with Lego blocks,” says MusicTiles co-creator Henrik Hautop Lund, robotics professor, Technical University of Denmark. “We give you musical building blocks but instead of a car or tower you are creating a hit song version one, version two and so on.”
Developers are hoping the app will unleash a storm of creativity by putting song elements in the hand of a global audience then letting them run wild. The interface is designed for fun, too. Remixing a song, vocals and all, is as simple as moving around associated colored tiles; the app’s structure ensures that different song elements always blend with each other well, however weird or unusual the tile combination. To start with you can play around with the songs of Peter Gabriel’s iconic “So” Album, which comes out today in the MusicTiles app format in celebration of the album’s 25th anniversary--giving fans a new reason to buy Gabriel music they’ve likely purchased before, something more than just they typical digital remaster or live recording in a slick box set.
The idea for the app was born when Peter Gabriel met Lund in 2012 at MIT's Media Lab. Both were exploring novel ways of developing tools to activate musical creativity--Gabriel by teaching sign-language-trained Bonobo apes to play the piano and additionally use music as a musical sign language; Lund, by having people interact with physical intelligent objects such as cylinders, rolling pins, and tiles, to make music during concerts. “We wondered,” says Lund, "if we couldn’t allow people who normally don’t think of themselves as musically talented to start to become creative and express themselves with music while also giving them easy access to the tools.”
MusicTiles took a year to make and runs on both the iPad and iPhone. Visually it’s just a bunch of colored tiles within a grid. Each tile represents a different instrument, vocals, or musical stem which can connect to another tile in seven different ways. For instance, a yellow tile stands for the guitar track, while a light blue tile represents vocals. Put them together and you have the artist crooning with the guitar in the background. Connect them at different edges and you’ll hear variations, throw in more tiles and the song becomes more complex. Add timing (i.e., when you connect the tiles to each other) to the mix and the number of song variations you can create become virtually incalculable.
Additionally you can record the remix, replay it later, or even mail your remixed hit song to friends along with an animation of how the tiles were moved around. The idea is to put music in the hands of fans globally and let them go wild. “Hit music can have a 2.0 format where users are creating their own versions of the songs in a very easy, creative, and playful manner,” says Lund.
Gabriel is no stranger to the field of musical experimentation. In the 1990s he created XPLORA1: Peter Gabriel's Secret World , an interactive and at times bizarre, musical computer game that both fans and critics liked. With NoodleHeaven  (1999) he helped develop a system for game designers and musicians to collaborate on interactive music tracks with full blown 3-D graphic and numerous audio channels. OD2 , cofounded by Gabriel the same year, was a music download service that was eventually acquired by Nokia. The MusicTiles app is his latest innovative collaboration and brings home the idea that musical creativity should be the province of one and all. “I have always loved the idea that music and art should be fully open media from which no-one is excluded,” Gabriel said in a press release. “They are languages that anyone can learn to speak and definitely not the exclusive province of the high priests armed with ‘Talent.’”
The MusicTiles app builds on tried and true methods of music distribution. Artists need only send in the master stems of their hit songs, which producers on the app end convert into the MusicTiles format. This takes a week or two; producers also add more sounds to create three different styles of the hit song for added variety.
So, for instance, a single song bundle for “Sledgehammer” contains the original remix, plus electronic and industrial versions for fans to manipulate. Every song bundle costs $1.99; an album containing three variations of every song can be bought for $13.99 through the app’s download section. With no extra effort or added costs to either the musician or the record label, they get an extra sales channel and another bonus to pack into, say, a physical premium reissue of albums (the premium package is one of the last highly profitable types of physical releases for artists and labels).
“We will still need professional musicians who are creating the songs,” Lund says, “but if we can use their creations as building blocks to allow anyone to be creating, we have Music 2.0.”