The tiny, true-to-life drum kits in Apple’s GarageBand iPad app are one approach to touch-screen instruments—miniaturized digital replicas of the things we’ve been banging around on for decades. But for the same reason there’s been blowback against the gaudy textures and faux-real life adornments in much of Apple’s software, that approach isn’t necessarily the best one. Real drum kits are optimized for arms and feet, not fingers, and while GarageBand’s familiarity may be comforting, it’s also limiting. The most compelling touch-screen instruments—if not the most useful, in a strict music-making sense—are typically the ones that don’t resemble instruments at all. Which is exactly the appeal of SphereTones, an Android app that looks more like an interactive electron diagram than anything related to music.
The app takes advantage of the fact that, on our smartphones and tablets, the displays and input devices are one in the same, essentially collapsing music production and visualization into a single interface. In the app, sound is generated by the collision of spheres, all of which bounce back and forth along lines of varying lengths. Different levels of zoom present different ways of interacting with the on-screen geometry, all of which yield dynamic, evolving patterns of sound.
A short bit of descriptive text supplied by the developers gets at the poetic nature of the endeavor: "The body of the instrument is the interface itself … Here every line has a meaning. What you can see you can hear and it is true for the other way around as well. The interface is the fusion of sound and image. The system organically changes as the user plays, it balances between order and chaos."
True, your musical stylings with SphereTones will skew more toward Brian Eno than Brian Wilson, but to some extent that’s the point. Bence Samu, a member of the Budapest-based tech collective Binuara and the developer of the app, says one of the most important goals was to "let players escape from the traditional, canonized way of thinking about music." And if not that, it at least forces us to consider that our touch-screen devices offer experiences that are more compelling, more challenging, and ultimately far more rewarding than tapping away mindlessly on one-tenth-scale tom toms.