I recently discovered that my wife has been minding the family finances much better than she admitted, so perhaps I’m not so tightly constrained as I thought I was in my personal spending. But independently of that I’ve been quite an admirer of SuperCollider for many years. If you can afford a laptop launched anytime this century you can use this software to compose (and modify in real time) music of great complexity without ever learning which end of a soldering iron is safe to touch.
SuperCollider (Sc for short) is a very well designed realtime synthesis engine driven by a scripting language of your choice. It also comes with a really excellent Smalltalk-inspired scripting language of its own (sclang). I know a number of people who have posted here are admitted software geeks, and I think any of you who hasn’t yet heard of Supercollider will love it.
I wish I could point everybody at the Android app that first introduced me to Sc, but alas the app (Kosmische on Google Play) seems to have suffered from the dreaded bitrot and the official binary no longer seems to run on modern Android systems. But you can download the brief sclang script that creates the Kosmische synthdef and I’ve done that and am looking forward to playing with it. The app source is on github:
The app is mostly a Java wrapper that creates some screen elements that can be used to control the synth, which includes a sequencer. The sclang code that defines the synthesiser (the synthdef) is in the file SuperColliderSource/kosmische.sc .
More recently I’ve played around with Pure Data (often referred to as Pd.) Unlike Sc this is a visual language, and very great fun to mess around with no matter your background. You muck around with objects on the screen and then you play the resulting instrument. No programming experience required.
Curiously, Kosmische does seem to work perfectly okay on an old Moto G1 I’ve taken to using. Maybe I wrote it off too soon. One of the best features of the app is the ability to generate a random patch. Patch data can be saved at any time. The app is open source so it’s easy to write software to decode the patch files, so you can transfer your results to any other system capable of running SuperCollider.
First, there has been a substantial investment in tutorial material, and you have a sporting chance of understanding a little about the components and how they’re supposed to work before you go in. Second, this is a very well designed groovebox underneath the user interface. It’s capable of producing, recording, editing, and saving audio of ambient compositions, as well as creating and saving configurations as snapshots and sets, so you can set up your preferred working environment.
Nevertheless there is a considerable learning curve. It feels like being given a Rubik’s cube along with hints as to how you can make music by manipulating it. It’s easy for a beginner to get lost. A traditional reference manual is needed, and there isn’t one.
I had played with Soniface Lite so I knew what to expect before I paid my £4.99 for Mutant. As I’m fascinated by innovative user interfaces this is well worth the cost anyway, but it would be difficult to reconcile this app with existing groovebox and DAW workflows. I estimate that hours of trial and error lie ahead of me before I can produce something I’d consider to be my own work.
I guess I should write a little about Mutant’s philosophy. The Unique Selling Point of Mutant is the use of a tesseract (4-dimensional hypercube) morphology as a metaphor for variations of the theme. Unfortunately for the analytically-minded, the relation between the current theme and the variations presented is opaque. I think they are trying to encourage the musician to let go of the normal workflow and just drift around the idea-space the app produces, responding intuitively as the situation develops. Actually navigating the tesseract is easy but I find it difficult to submit my feeling of control to the seemingly arbitrary mutation process.
It reminds me a little of a BBC documentary (Synth Britannia, perhaps, or maybe Krautrock: the Rebirth of Germany) , which devotes a lot of time to the influence of Kosmische and other German synth-based styles (under the unpleasant British-coined umbrella name of “Krautrock”) on British tastes in music. While many German pioneers of the synth were inspired in much the same way as more famous performers in the anglosphere such as Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren, and Keith Emerson, all of them accomplished musicians, there was a strong strain of art rock in Germany that emphasized the medium as a form of expression, quite distinct from the traditions and forms of music. In an interview for this documentary one of the early members of Hamburg-based group Faust said of their synthesizer that they just fiddled with the knobs, and had no idea what would happen, nor how to reproduce a sound. I suspect that this art-based, amateur way of thinking about music is still active in Germany, where it lives alongside some of the greatest musical traditions of western music.
It certainly appealed to me in my teens in the early seventies, though I find it less interesting now.
I installed these apps on my Samsung tablet the other day. The experience is greatly enhanced, even though my Nokia X10 phone screen isn’t exactly tiny and my myopia makes me better able to work at 10-15cm distances than the vast majority of the population (viz: with one or two exceptions, literally all of my often quite complex posts on this forum have been made on an Android phone.) Even with that advantage I’m in danger of straining my neck muscles when working at small scale.
But the principal improvement is, I suspect, the superior audio architecture of the Samsung tablet.
In reviewing my installed Android apps today I rediscovered MobMuPlat. It comes with some rather impressive demos. It’s basically a cross-platform synth interface toolkit that sends signals to a Pure Data (aka Pd) sound engine. You can use the MobMuPlat editor to create a set of visual controllers, then write Pd code to react to the signals it produces. Then on Android or iOS (in some manner I haven’t yet explored) you end up with a fully integrated sound package.
This all sounds very versatile (especially if you appreciate how powerful Pd is) and I think exploring it further may be worthwhile. It sounds like a great way of modelling a synth on a mobile platform.
In addition there are other Pd toolkits for Android (also iOS, I believe.) The other day I installed an app called PdDroid Party (yeah, me neither) that can run many PureData patches quite well. Unfortunately I have not yet found a simple editor that will let me create and edit patches on Android. I don’t yet understand why this gap exists.