Core Dump: Making Music

Geek Culture


Sometimes it’s easy to forget, when you’re checking Facebook on your iPhone or playing a game on your iPad, that both of these devices trace their origins back to something primarily designed for playing music. Of course, with the increased processing power, you can do much more than just listen. There are lot of fun instrument apps for iOS (quite a while back I reviewed SurfaceDJ and mScribble), apps that allow you to record and mix (as One Like Son did), and some designed to teach you music. One is just a game, but has a fun connection to jazz music.

In this Core Dump column, I’ll share several music-based iOS apps that are worth checking out. Some of these are slightly longer than my regular Core Dump blurbs, so be sure to click through the next page for the rest of the reviews!

Pluto Learns PianoPluto Learns Piano

Pluto Learns Piano teaches notes on the piano and on the staff.

Pluto Learns Piano – $.99 iPhone, free for iPad (with optional in-app purchases)

Pluto is a little macaroni penguin who swims through the sea, collecting fish bubbles to play music. Pluto Learns Piano is a pretty cool way to learn notes on a staff: Pluto swims at a constant speed, and you control his depth in the water by sliding your finger up or down on the screen. Hit the light colored bubbles and the right note will play; hit a dark bubble and you’ll hit a sour note. There are a few obstacles here and there that will take away Pluto’s health — run into too many and you won’t finish the song — but mostly it’s about getting the right tune. It’s a great visual representation of both the position on the musical staff and the rhythm of the piece.

There’s also a section where you can play the songs on the piano. The keys light up in the right order, and you get bonuses for strings of correct notes. Earn stars for your performance (three stars for a perfect performance) and for practicing daily, and then spend stars (or real cash) to unlock additional songs. The catch is that it takes a long time to build up enough stars to unlock songs, so your kids may beg you to shell out the money. Pluto Learns Piano is a cool way to learn some of the basic concepts of reading music, whether you’re a kid or an adult (though the cutesy appearance may appeal more to younger kids). I’m not sure why the iPad version is free but the iPhone version isn’t — if you have an iPad, though, definitely try this one out.

Monkey DrumMonkey Drum

Monkey Drum: play on the drum, or use the step sequencer to create loops.

Monkey Drum – free universal app (with in app currency)

Monkey Drum is an odd combination of two musical toys. The first is something I think of as “monkey see, monkey do.” You get a big timpani drum (with a monkey) and you can play whatever rhythm you want on it. Tapping on different parts of the drum produces different sounds, and you can even tap the monkey’s mouth to make a pop sound, whack it about the head, or spin it around. After you stop, the monkey will repeat the sequence you just played. Every so often bananas will drop down: feed those to the monkey and it fills up a heart meter. Get enough hearts and you get some coins which can be spent on additional instruments. (There’s a panda, a boy monkey, and a girl monkey, but they all do the same thing.)

The second half of the app is the step sequencer. Here, you can create a sequence of tones that the three animals will play. What’s cool about this one is that you can actually string together a bunch of sequences to play out a longer tune, rather than just a short loop. Plus, each of the three animals can be made to play a different instrument. Once you’ve got your sequence set, you can hit the green Play button and it does a little video of them playing out your tune together. Tunes can be saved and edited.

Again, no reason not to try this one out: it’s free! Just be sure to turn off in-app purchases if you don’t want your kids loading up on coins.

Magic PianoMagic Piano

Magic Piano: Smule's take on Guitar Hero, on the keyboard

Magic Piano – free for iPhone (with in-app purchases)

Hitting the right keys not really your style? Then maybe Smule’s Magic Piano will suit you better. In the vein of Guitar Hero or Tap Tap Revolution, you play music by tapping the screen in time to the little glowing dots as they move down the screen. You don’t have to be exact: the app will play the right notes, but you’ll score more points if you’re at least somewhere in the vicinity of the dot. You can level up by achieving certain objectives: accumulating a number of points, getting perfect scores on songs, sharing performances with your friends, and so on.

You get a few songs for free and they seem to offer a a new song for free every so often. To get more, you’ll have to spend “smoola,” which you can earn by leveling up, or signing up for a lot of free offers, or just paying cash. So far I’ve just been doing what I can for free: I earned enough smoola to buy the Super Mario Brothers theme song, but I haven’t earned much more since then.

There’s a free play mode, where you can play on keyboards of different shapes and sizes: a weird spiral keyboard, a standard keyboard with adjustable size keys, and so on. One neat feature, similar to Smule’s other apps like the Ocarina, is the ability to listen to other people performing all over the world. When you share a performance, it shows up on this globe, and if you like somebody’s performance you can “love” it. I think the best part of Magic Piano is this ability to tap into a larger community. Sure, you’re plinking out “Scarborough Fair” with two or three fingers and you’re not really learning to play an instrument. But you’re having fun, and other people can share in that experience with you.


Seline iPad instrument, with various options.

Seline – $6.99 for iPad only, with in-app purchases

In 2010 some folks got together and created the iPad Orchestra, playing with an app called Seline HD. As far as I can tell, they’ve kind of vanished from the spotlight (along with the “what is the iPad good for, anyway?” questions), but Seline HD is still around, even better than before. It’s an electronic instrument, laid out ergonomically and designed to encourage improvisation. And the newly redesigned look is pretty: you can’t feel the faux leather pads and woodgrain, but it looks nicer than the old buttons-on-a-screen approach.

The app lets you pick a scale from a very long list, or you can customize your own. Basically the way it’s set up, the large yellow buttons represent every other note of the scale, and the small white ones are the notes in between. The left and right hands alternate notes of the scale. So you can either play the scale with one hand by sliding across yellow and white buttons, or you can alternate hands, just using the large buttons. Depending on the scale chosen, this basically prevents you from hitting any “wrong” notes.

The controls take some getting used to, but there are a lot of subtleties to it: you can slide between buttons to pitch slide the notes; plus if you’re touching the black pad area with the heel of your hand, you can also bend a note up and down. The circular pad in the middle lets you modify the velocity or filter. And there are a ton of different instruments, background sounds, looping abilities, rhythms, and more — a lot are included with the app (including the original Seline sounds) with even more available for purchase. You can save two instrument settings, A and B, and switch between the two presets easily.

The app can even enable MIDI (hardware, local, or network) or record a MIDI file … although that’s really beyond me at this point. I don’t know if the iPad Orchestra will make a comeback, but if you’re a musician who likes to experiment with funky digital instruments, Seline might be worth checking out. As for me, my kids spent a good chunk of a weekend morning just improvising on my iPad at full blast. They don’t really care yet about analog or digital: as far as they’re concerned, it is a real instrument.

Note: there is an iPhone version for $2.99, but it’s the older style and I have not tried it out to know what the differences are.

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