November 9, 2010 at 11:23 am

Curtis for iPad 2.0 Lets You Fingerpaint With Sound

When new iPad buyers first unbox their devices, granular synthesis — the chopping up of sound into very small chunks and their subsequent manipulation – is probably not the first iPad feature to cross their minds. But thanks to the device’s large touch screen and an app called Curtis, anyone can now manipulate microsamples by essentially touching sound.

Apple approved version 2.0 of Curtis for iPad on Tuesday afternoon.  This simple yet powerful granular synthesis interface makes it possible to create explosive, soothing, repetitive, melodic, and/or otherwise impressive musical sounds on headphones or your main stereo system, in seconds, with or without musical training. Pretty much all you have to do is fingerpaint the sound on the iPad screen and play with the effects levels.

Even if you have never heard of granular synthesis before this, the app can help you tweak samples using four preset sound files, your own recorded sounds (I used my voice), or imported WAV files. Tap anywhere on a sample’s wave form (which is a visual representation of its audio qualities over time) to play it back at that specific point, adding effects (Gain, Pitch, Echo Gain, Echo Time, Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release — see screenshot).

This is how some of the leading laptop musicians make some of their music. Now, a $5 app lets anyone play with sound in the same way.

We cover all sorts of music apps here, but granular synthesis might seem a little too, well, granular for the average person to grok. Advice to the newbies: first, try sliding your finger around in the waveform, noting how the sound changes at each point in the waveform. Then, create an envelope by widening your fingers in the waveform (a fancy name for the area of selected sound). The left and right lines show you where the envelope begins and ends.

Try sliding the effects controls at the top of the screen up and down, and listen to the sound change. (The Echo settings provide considerable bang for the buck.) Finally, try playing around with the envelope by dragging it to the left or right and altering its size, either in the green timeline in the middle of the page or the main audio signal window.

In addition to its new, slicker interface, Curtis for iPad 2.0 adds three major features: a scratch mode (the ability to scratch sound back and forth); amplitude envelope (the Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release effects mentioned above); and Chromatic Pitch Quantization, which can lock the squeaks and squawks produced by the app to specific tones.

While true to its granular synthesis roots, this significant upgrade is more useful from a music (as opposed to sound) perspective than the previous version, according to Curtis maker Lucas Kuzma of The Strange Agency.

“The [chromatic pitch and amplitude envelope] make Curtis far more musical for both performance and recording contexts,” Kuzma told “The pitch quantization idea I have to attribute to Sleazy of Throbbing Gristle and Coil fame. I think it’s wonderful that a pioneer of the electronic genre continues to innovate and influence even these most recent electronic sound explorations.”

In addition, he says, the fact that anyone can sell powerful software like this and have it work flawlessly on a touch-screen tablet means that a wider slice of the populace will be able to play with granular synthesis now.

“I have little insight into what constitutes our users,” said Kuzma, “[but] I know experimental musicians definitely play with the apps. I like to imagine that the apps are fun for newbies alike, but I can’t say for sure. Certainly, some of what we’re seeing in music apps was just recently only available to those with deep pockets for hardware or software and is now so much more readily accessible. That hopefully is indeed introducing regular people into sounds of a more experimental nature.”

Well said.