The new generation of smartphone apps mimicking samplers, MIDI keyboards, sequencers, and synths are increasingly sophisticated—and winning over some of the staunchest analogue obsessives in the process.

If advancements in camera technology have democratized the nature of image-making, essentially equipping any smartphone user with the tools of a photographer or filmmaker, it was only a matter of time before the same became true for another creative discipline that marries raw talent with tech: music. Specifically, electronic music.

Before we carried sound recording and mixing tools around in our pockets, creating a beat would have required a complex and costly combination of hardware, including sequencers, synthesizers, drum machines, and mixers — not to mention the ability to use them well. And while music-making software for computers, like Reason (first released in 2000), Garageband (2004), and Ableton (1999) have been lofi stalwarts for decades now, a new wave of digital audio workstations have been released that require nothing but a phone and a bit of enthusiasm.

But this is far from the case in 2020. Whether or not users have experience using physical instruments, such as drum machines or loop stations, these new apps open up entire worlds in sound. And yes, they require a level of either skill or more intuitive understanding of music in order to be harnessed to their full potential. Users of such apps usually come from two camps: those who’ve never used hardware and want to try making their own electronic music, and those with hands-on experience who want the ease of a portable device. But many users have one foot in both camps: they’ve dabbled with studio equipment, but don’t necessarily own it themselves (these things aren’t cheap); or they have a little experience making music on other instruments; or what they lack in formal musical background they make up for with a willingness to learn. This is where new apps and their accessible, increasingly jargon-free design considerations are coming into their own.

Samples app banner, designed by Giorgio Calderolla
Samples app banner. Image credit Giorgio Calderolla.

Less costly, less complex, more accessible

“Apps, in general, are democratizing. Music [tools] in particular can be so expensive,” says Giorgio Calderolla, the developer behind Sampler, which acts as a drum machine, soundboard, or effects pad for users to loop sounds that are created in-app, are imported from their computer, or are purchased as professional loop packs from online loop bank Loopmasters.

Sampler is free to download, a decision Calderolla made when it first launched in 2011 as a simple soundboard before developing into a more sophisticated sampler that can be used in a similar way to a traditional drum machine. Accessibility for the less musically experienced is at the heart of Sampler. Calderolla purposefully avoided many of the more complicated terminology associated with most analog or even digital drum machine-like tools. Though the design is still fundamentally based on traditional samplers in features such as its large buttons. This means that those without any previous experience should be able to use it.

A commitment to opening up music production is at the core of one of the very best music apps out there: Launchpad. Based largely on the grid-based MIDI hardware of the same name, Launchpad uses a distinctive 8 x 8 grid of bright square buttons for users to play sound clips, drum sounds, mix tracks, loop, create songs, and control the mixer while playing live sets or recording in studio or home setups. As a regular (read: obsessive) user of the app, I can confirm that it’s incredibly intuitive, even for someone with no previous experience of such tools IRL.

According to James Baxter, a UI and UX developer who works at Launchpad’s parent company, Focusrite (and was fomerly the brilliant hardcore DJ known as DJ Piss), the initial idea behind the app was to launch on iOS in order to encourage people to pay full price for the Launchpad. It’s since become a standalone product that prides itself on accessibility.

“Our philosophy is that making music is for everyone. Our angle is to make [the app] easy to use and get more people to make music,” he says. As such, the tool is carefully considered for those who aren’t able-bodied and struggle with impaired motor control; using large buttons, clear bright colors, and a simple interface design.

A key factor in Launchpad’s accessibility is that, unlike many tools that mimic the interfaces of existing hardware, users can hear everything they’re playing with just a couple of taps. “The main barrier in decision-making for people making sound is that they have to make it before they’ve heard everything. We didn’t want a complex system—just straight into the app.” This means it can be used anywhere, by anyone with a smartphone or iPad.

The LaunchPad MIDI shown as an iPad app, hardware, and iPhone app
Launchpad, shown as iPad app, hardware, and iPhone app.

Embracing bedroom musicians

Louise Baldwin makes music under the moniker Petals in Sound, creating and producing all her sounds and tracks herself, often with She Said So, a global network of women in the music industry. While her musical background is in playing guitar, today her productions are created using a mixture of hardware, computer software, and phone apps, mostly Ableton Live 10 along with various plugins, sample pack library Splice, and an Arturia midi keyboard; and feels like the majority of bedroom producers need not invest in expensive hardware at all, from a practical perspective.

“You really don’t need much more than the software and the DAW to create something,” she says. “Now, you can totally get by without a musical knowledge of chords, scales and so on. I think it’s great that there’s so much more scope for bedroom musicians to have that validation that you’re making something.”

The design considerations for music-making apps are naturally somewhat different than those for more traditional hardware, such as iconic analog Korg or Roland synthesizers. These  usually boast the kind of typography that would make most graphic design geeks salivate; but can also be seen to bear a series of acronyms, buttons, knobs and sliders — things that can easily put off newer users unfamiliar with the workings and technical terms of such instruments.

Creating a design system for a piece of hardware is a delicate balancing act between aesthetics and user-friendliness. It’s also about balancing tradition and modernity – something Stockholm-based studio KurrpaHosk knows only too well, thanks to its beautiful recent work for new portable rechargeable synthesizer Superlative, which mimics the sort of analog synths so many people fawn over but with very modern capabilities.

A grid-based system

KurrpaHosk’s creative director and co-founder, Thomas Kurppa, sees techno music and the tools used to make it as analogous to Swiss Modernism in graphic design in its use of grid systems and an industrial aesthetic. His work on the project also harnessed his love of iconic equipment like the Roland 303 synthesizer, which defined the acid house sound of the late 1980s. Kurppa says that most people in the studio were just as obsessed as him with such tools, with many owning newer versions of the older synths; and as such, the design system was inspired by their simplicity – and crucially, this meant the branding could work just as seamlessly displayed as controls on hardware as it could in its online applications.

“We were looking for a visual toolbox with few elements — we wanted a strong, very simple symbol,” says Kurppa. The symbol is inspired by the keys on the product, which use a wordmark set in bespoke typeface  Superlative Grotesk. The team then developed a series of hieroglyphs: “They become stronger than the corporate brand in a way, and can be integrated into headlines as well as products since they’re tailor made for the system,” Kurrpa adds. “We needed to make sure the type was suitable for the product, so very clean and legible at small sizes such as when it’s placed under different knobs.”

Superlative synth, visual identity and typography by KurrpaHosk
Superlative synth, visual identity and typography by KurrpaHosk.
Superlative Grotesk typeface by KurrpaHosk
Superlative Grotesk typeface by KurrpaHosk.

Superlative and its branding aren’t all that different from the current proliferation of app-based sound software: at the heart of the design system is a level of familiarity, legibility, and functionality. However, it does underscore the lingering disconnect between what many view to be “credible” ways of making music, and the likes of free apps which are viewed as more frivolous, daft, or unskilled. For Kurrpa, however, the difference is as simple as the age-old print/online debate: “It’s the same with books — people like physical things they can keep and touch. From a functional perspective, you can keep and touch something physical in ways you can’t with something more abstract. It’s just easier to actually tweak and squeeze these objects than just using a mouse, for instance.” 

Superlative branding, bespoke hieroglyphs by KurrpaHosk
Superlative branding, bespoke hieroglyphs by KurrpaHosk. 

The future of digital synths: Less elitism, more collaboration?

Despite the sophistication of many new apps, they are often shunned by the camp that prefers analogue tools and physical hardware. This was perhaps understandable with some of the earlier apps, which didn’t  integrate with other pieces of software, or were seen as simply a fun toy — not for “serious” artists.

While most people don’t bat an eyelid at seeing a DJ or producer using a laptop to create music or perform it live, there remains a certain snobbishness in some corners about doing pretty much exactly the same on a phone or tablet. However, a new wave of digital tools are emerging that frequently shun mimicry of music tech as we’ve known it in favor of more experimental, visually led designs that are about experience as much as sound-creation.

One such recent project is SampleScape, a tool created by design studio Marcd that can be used in-browser or downloaded and is designed to “provide an accessible platform for creating percussion-based loops” using a computer’s arrow keys. It’s a hugely different beast from other looping or percussion apps; instead of designing around sound-making, or mimicking hardware or software, it was created with purely visual and scale considerations in mind, taking the form of a landscape in which users move around and collide with various objects represent a different percussive sound (kick, snare, clap, tom, hi-hat, etc.). While most apps are designed for those who wish to make music themselves, SampleScape was created to aid interaction between live performers and their audience.

Samplescape game view, designed by Marcd
Samplescape game view. Image credit Marcd.

“As a design studio, we were asking questions about the human condition,” says Jake Pfahl, a multidisciplinary designer at Marcd, who, we weren’t surprised to learn after seeing the platform, has a background in architecture. “We wanted to use the digital landscape — how you interact with that and how you use visuals — to trigger audio.” As such, SampleScape deliberately avoids the look and feel of other online platforms like the (pretty excellent, and very addictive) DrumBit.

“We wanted to ask, ‘What if it didn’t look like that?’ It might not be as user friendly, but we wanted to augment the experiential setting of seeing electronic music live — the idea is that people in an audience would be able to just walk up to and adjust the percussive elements, and in a live setting the visuals of the artist playing would act like gameplay. Then, the audience could also manipulate the visuals and have their own input into the sound — we wanted to make something collaborative between audience and artist to rethink the way live shows are played and look at the future of music. As technology becomes more a part of those experiences than ever, how can we make it more tactile and engaging?”

Samplescape live view, designed by Marcd
Samplescape live view. Image credit Marcd.

As such, the app is for artists who want to enhance the interactive elements of a performance. It’s a novel and experimental idea; and something that perhaps will seem commonplace in the near future, but it’s still a little hard for many of us to grasp. 

“In these types of projects we’re trying to augment the experience of life in general,” says Pfahl. “When certain experiences risk becoming lackluster, we want to look at how design can intervene in that and base them on broader considerations about the human condition: Why do we do certain things? How can design make things more collaborative?”

Samplescape unity view, designed by Marcd
Samplescape Unity view, designed by Marcd

That notion of electronic music-making as collaborative is normal for many, but more often than not, it’s a solitary pursuit, so it’s interesting to see it explored in this way. However, for now, it feels as though the most successful browser or app-based tools are those that are familiar and intuitive, whether or not you’re a seasoned synth whiz or just a kid looking to make music without spending hundreds of dollars on pricey hardware. The key to their success is often consistency, as Baxter points out. “If an app follows a design system that users are familiar with, and which has consistency across its entire platform, it works. I don’t think these apps will ever replace hardware or computer software, but we’re already seeing a huge growth in their use for home music-making. That’s only going to increase when you consider how far we’ve come in just the last decade.”

This article was produced in partnership with AIGA Eye on Design.