Contrary to form, let’s talk about something old-fashioned: music boxes — specifically, the kind that are attached to snow globes.
You may still have one of these holiday-themed tchotchkes on display at your house, although it might take on a forlorn air now that Festivus is over. You know the drill: flip them over, wind them up, and enjoy a few minutes of sedate bliss, reliving a magical week in which you weren’t at work, people were spontaneously giving each other gifts, and your biggest concerns included whether the pattern was too loud on that cashmere scarf you bought for your brother.
Now, try to imagine a 21st century update on the music box snow globe — a way to bring this quaint old piece of machinery into the world of Spotify and Siri. Maybe the snowflakes, rather than a separate music box, would provide the sound, generating new, unique music each time you shook the thing up. And instead of old-timey Christmas carols, you’d get forward-thinking, abstract sounds matching the quiet beauty of any music box.
Interested? Enter Microcosm (free), a new app from Apposite Labs for Apple iOS devices. It does all of the above, marrying beautiful, interactive 3D animation to a sound-generating technique known as granular synthesis (more on that below). Tilt your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, and a cloud of little particles will drift around accordingly, sort of like flakes in a snow globe. Each of those tiny snowflakes corresponds to a small part of the sound you hear. As they float around and rearrange themselves, you’ll notice the sound growing and changing. It’s really something.
Granular synthesis, in simple terms, is a process in which a sound is chopped up into infinitesimally small pieces and manipulated in a number of ways. Moving these small chunks of sound apart in time and then filling in the gaps produces a time-stretching effect, while scrambling them into a random order and playing them back creates the cloud-like textures for which granular synthesis is best known.
Nevermind if that sounds too wonky; the way it’s employed in Microcosm couldn’t be simpler. There are no knobs to twiddle, no meters to check. Just that cloud of sonic snowflakes, hanging in space, waiting for you to shake them up.
Microcosm creator Gregory Wieber (also the mind behind Polychord and a collaborator in the OMAC music apps initiative) told Evolver.fm about his app’s zen-like simplicity, how its visuals relate to its sound, and the snowglobe’s connection to particle systems.
“When people talk about granular synthesis, you often hear them refer to the psychoacoustic effect being like a ‘sonic cloud.’ Rather than playing back a sound recording as a linear thing, you’re ‘entering into’ a sonic space. A particle system is a good way to approximate a cloud visually, but there’s still the question of how you interact with it. You could fiddle with parameters or have it be automated, but that sort of requires you to think about what all of those parameters are for—so there’s a bit of a disconnect. We looked at a snow globe and thought, well that’s basically a particle system that even kids can approach and get it right away.”
We agree. By replacing the technical controls of a traditional granular synthesis tool with this natural, visual way of interacting, Wieber has created an environment where the simplest gestures bear extraordinary fruit.
If you give it a try, note the neat effect that happens when you zoom in and out of the cloud. Not only does the sound get louder as you zoom in, but it feels more present. Zoom your way into the middle of a swarm of particles and it sounds like you’re literally in the middle of it; zoom back out to hear it fade into the distance. Wieber told us these effects were achieved “using the same 3D sound positioning techniques as a lot of iOS games.”
This is a brand new app, and kinks remain. An early test run yielded no sound at all. And if you play with the app for too long without touching the screen, your phone goes into screen lock, killing the audio. When I brought these issues up with Wieber, he was already well aware of them and working towards fixes. For now, he recommends force-quitting and reopening the app if you encounter the no-sound bug, and assures that the audio stopping problem is “high on our to do list.”
Wieber sees Microcosm as not only appealing to gearheads and electronic musicians, but also to non-geeks (or maybe just other kinds of geeks) who would enjoy something as simple as a snow globe or music box.
“There’s a lot of ‘gear’ out there — a lot of really precise tools that are really valuable for musicians. But I think there’s room for whimsical things, or things that don’t fit a mold… We tried to make it mysterious yet approachable. App store reviews can be kind of a joke, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few ‘what’s the point?’ comments. But I hope people see it for what it is: a futuristic toy, maybe something you can meditate on.”