The feeling of déjà vu that accompanies the recognition of a musical sample is uniquely compelling: You’re hearing something that’s at once familiar and completely new. If you’re anything like me, you’ll immediately start reaching into the filing cabinet of your memory, trying to piece together where you first heard that fragment of sound.
Perhaps you’re a reggae fan who just heard Kanye West’s ubiquitous “Mercy” blasting out of the speakers of a passing car and wondering where you first heard the chanting voice that opens that track, or a bossa-nova junkie trying to unearth the gem buried in Gotye’s equally-ubiquitous “Somebody That I Used To Know.”
The new iPhone app from WhoSampled ($3 “introductory price”), whose beloved web-only service has been online since 2009, might be the best tool available for satisfying that impulse. Not only does it allow you to search its extensive database of sampled, covered, and remixed songs, it also scans your phone’s library, turning up any samples in the music you already have — something the web version could never do. (Besides, you can’t use the web version on an iPhone anyway.)
Playing around with the app on my boss’s phone, I uncovered samples ranging from the fascinating (The Fall’s Mark E. Smith doing his best Damo Suzuki impression on the Can-powered “I Am Damo Suzuki“) to the banal (Kid Cudi rapping uninspiredly over an unadorned loop of LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great”).
Even the less-revelatory discoveries are interesting, as the app’s super slick interface makes it easy to get lost by venturing down the rabbit hole of who sampled whom. Particularly cool: a function that allows you to listen to a song and the song that sampled it side-by-side by swiping back and forth.
As with the web version, the songs play from YouTube, which turns out to be a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s great in that you get to listen to the full track when WhoSampled turns up something that isn’t in your phone’s library, but frustrating when a song in your collection isn’t available on the streaming video site. Most times this is a nonissue — nearly everything is on YouTube, after all. But when something isn’t, it can be a little frustrating, because it means you can’t listen to songs you own, within the context of the app. For example, the WhoSampled app lets me listen to R.E.M.’s mean 13-minute cover of the Neil Young classic “Ambulance Blues,” but I have to exit the app to play the original, even though it’s right there on my phone.
Nitpicks like that aside, the WhoSampled iPhone app presents a big step forward from the longer-running web service, which could make it worth $3 (if you want it, buy now before they raise this “introductory” price). I’ve used the WhoSampled website a few times in the past, and while it was always useful in a utilitarian sort of way — you recognize a sample, check the site to find out where it came from, and leave, as with the IMDB movie information site — it didn’t ever compel me to spend much time with it. The web interface is cluttered to the point of distraction, giving the feeling of being covered in ads even when there aren’t many on the page.
This new iPhone version, on the other hand, is a joy to use. It’s ad-free, it only does one thing, and it does that thing better than anything else — the perfect recipe for a great app. It’s designed in such a way as to encourage continued exploration, so if you’re intrigued by sampling (and want to come off like a music Jedi to your friends), it could be worth the cash.
The difference between the web and app versions of WhoSampled is a case study in how design impacts our experience of a product; both do essentially the same thing with the same data, and yet the former feels like a spartan tool, while the latter works like a perfectly-constructed toy.