Most of our instruments today are based upon analog limitations. A guitar’s controls are fixed due to the nature of the form–the precise notes of its strings and its natural resonance within the body–and you could say the same for everything from an oboe to a tuba. And while these instruments have remained mostly unchanged for centuries, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to limit a new wave of digital instruments on such antiquated restraints.
Beatsurfing is a new idea in an old space: It’s a remarkable new iPad app that allows anyone to design their own MIDI instrument from the ground up, a collaboration by Vlek Records and Herrmutt Lobby.
“While the iPad has been used for emulating lots of analog hardware or existing softwares during its short history, we thought it was important to take a step back and see it as a white sheet,” the Beatsurfing team tells Co.Design. “Basically, we think the main goal remains unchanged since the first time people began to use technology to create sound: it’s just about making music. We said, now how could we use the available technology, embed parts of everything we used to know (hardware controls, modded faders, software patches, etc…) and confront them to the new possibilities of the iPad in order to create something fresh and void of the constraints of the ‘physical world’?”
If Beatsurfing is anything, it’s void of constraints. Users can choose between four vastly different basic buttons (that do everything from drop beats to augment pitches), then arrange, resize, map, and cluster them to create a totally unique MIDI instrument–the kind of whimsical device that would cost tens of thousands of dollars in prototyping to have developed just a decade ago.
While you might think this “put the design into the hands of the user” approach is lazy, it’s actually a highly thought-out, incredibly empowering platform. “Pre-programming scenes would have reduced the freedom of the user and probably crippled the ‘ease of creation’ we wanted to put forward,” the team writes. “We believe the users will explore and find a thousand ways to use the app which we wouldn’t even have thought about.”
Those “thousand ways to use the app” extend beyond music. Beatsurfing can also be used to control lighting rigs and VJ projectors. Playing with the beta myself, I found the construction kit remarkably intuitive. You simply drag and drop buttons, pinch them to resize and tweak accompanying tool tips to adjust their precise function–the lag time between building and testing the board is all of a one-button excursion. Beatsurfing is a whole new rapid development platform, applied to music. And while it feels like you can create almost any sort of design you can imagine, it’s just about impossible to create something that won’t work at all. Even as you pile buttons high on the screen, the app is smart enough to know what you’re casually clicking.
“The iPad is not accurate as a percussion instrument. If you want to play by hitting any type of interface, you should really be hitting pads or drums,” the team writes. “But developing a piece of music by surfing your fingers on the screen and putting your sounds and controllers anywhere on the screen at the same time as you build your track is something really fresh. When objects can interact with each other, it becomes an organic environment.”
As of now, Beatsurfing is in a private beta. Casual users should beware: The app itself doesn’t contain any MIDI sources itself, meaning that on its own, Beatsurfing is silent. (To play music, it’s effortless to sync the iPad via Wi-Fi to MIDI on your computer, but you will still need a pricier MIDI program like Ableton Live to hear tracks.)
That said, the team already plans on adding an audio source to the next iteration of the app, and it can’t come soon enough. Beatsurfing may have infinite use for trained digital musicians, but it’s absolutely approachable for casual users. Their market isn’t just DJs; it’s anyone who loves music.
[Hat tip: The Creators Project]