September 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Iotic’s Offers Dizzying Number of Ways to Make Music with Bouncing Balls

balls iotic fun music creator ipod iphone appRemember JezzBall?

Part of a then-ubiquitous Microsoft Entertainment Pack of the early ’90s, that simple game featured balls ricocheting around a 2D environment. If you’re in your twenties and of a certain general persuasion, it just might have been an integral part of your childhood (play it online).

Why are we mentioning this? Balls ($1), an iOS app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch also features balls that wildly careen around in 2D, bouncing off walls and each other.

(Check out more ways to make music without really trying.)

This time around, thanks to Iotic’s addition of a touchscreen interface and a more musical approach, you can snag those balls and fling them around yourself — and when the balls collide, they make beautiful music.

You can simulate gravity by tilting your iOS device too, adding another twist that was impossible for ’90s personal computers. Activating the “trails” setting, so that the balls leave multicolored paths in their wake, feels like another way to fingerpaint with sound.

The six-year-old version of me might have abandoned JezzBall (not to mention SkiFree and Pipe Dream), for just a single shot at this thing. Present-day me thinks it’s pretty neat, but not all of it. First, the settings are difficult to access — the official description explains that double-tapping brings up a small icon, which can then be tapped to bring up the menu. While this is true, it’s not intuitive. Really? We need to read instructions to find the Settings in an iOS app? In addition, the menu icon is small enough that it could be active all the time without seeming obtrusive — no double-tap required.

balls ipod iphone app iotic menu screen

One of Balls' many, many menu screens.

The menu itself is also problematic, specifically in its gluttony of choices available for everything from volume to amount of gravity to what kind of system is used to tune the music you create. For an app like this, simpler tends to be better, so we’re left wondering why we’d ever want to hear what its music sounded like played on Tibetan bells tuned according to the theories of composer LaMonte Young.

It’s just too much. This much choice can induce analysis paralysis.

With some fat trimmed, this app could be as interesting enough for today’s version of the JezzBall crowd as for people who are interested in digital music geekery for its own sake. For now, though, simply opening up the menu is almost intimidating enough to make us want to put it down and dig up our old PC games.