SF's Retronyms Taps Into Your Inner FlyLo

Categories: Tech

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When they're not taking board games out into the real world or bringing cocktail-hour amusements to your phone, San Francisco startup upstarts Retronyms are hard at work making the best of music-geek technology available and enjoyable to the masses. See DopplerPad, electronic composition software with a free knob-twiddling EP to recommend it; see FourTrack, with which you can record an entire song on an iPhone. Most recently they've, uh, retrofitted Propellerhead's popular Rebirth software, which collects and re-digitizes the audio tools lodged in the synthesizers developed by Roland in the early 1980s, for the iPad. We spoke with Retronyms co-founder Dan Walton and shot the breeze about the past, present and future of the space where music and technology meet.

What's your background?
I founded a company called Sonoma Wire Works, which specializes in recreational guitar recording for people who aren't professional musicians but have a few hours and want to record a song and share it with friends. It takes care of all the drums and effects and amp models -- normally a guitar player needs a whole room full of amplifiers in order to achieve all the different sounds a guitar can make. We also added some social and collaborative stuff, so you can go online and find a bass player to lay down the bass part, someone else can lay down the rhythm part, and other people can work together on the same collaboration. That company is still going strong -- Retronyms partners with them to build some of the four-track and recording software we make for the iOS stuff.

How did Retronyms get started?
We got together as a group to do product design and development. Eventually we came across the iPhone and built a little voice recorder over a weekend, and that really took off. We have a lot of audio products, and we're always very inspired by audio and sound and music, but we also have these location-based entertainment products, which we started because you've never been able to program for the GPS before. But Retronyms is trying to stay a development studio focused on music and sound and multimedia, and then we've created a little studio for the location-based stuff. We have a new game coming out in the next couple of weeks that we've been working on for a long time.

How do Retronyms' audio products tend to get inspired?
Doug Wright, the CEO of Sonoma Wireworks, plays the guitar and found that there's all this really cool technology out there for geeky electronic musicians, but the guitar player didn't have a lot of tools on the computer: guitar players were kind of technologically averse because nobody was making tools for them. Not because computers couldn't do great things for guitar players, but because the tools weren't really made for them.

There's a trend in software: originally it was "let's get this computer to record and manipulate stuff." The computer was a general-purpose tool, like a screwdriver or a saw, to achieve a task. Now people are looking at computers and software as "let's achieve a purpose for somebody: let's not just make a generic tool for recording but make it for people who like video games, or for guitar players or band directors or studios." I think that's created more friendly and more useful software. So these ideas come a lot from identifying a person and trying to make something that person would absolutely love, rather than thinking about what we can do with computers.

So how did Rebirth come to be?
It was developed in the '90s by Propellerhead Software, who saw these really cool Roland portable electronic instruments that were made five years earlier and were really sought after and ingrained into the music at that time -- you could hear the 303, the 808, and the 909. Roland had stopped making them and they'd become kind of expensive and hard to find, so Propellerhead took all the best of these fun musical toys and put them into one interface. Then they went more toward making these higher-end studio tools, and at one point they retired Rebirth -- they said there wasn't a lot more they wanted to do with it, it emulated those devices really well but they liked it how it was and didn't want to keep developing it, so they kind of called it a day. But when the iPhone and all these touchable devices came out, it became really clear that Rebirth would be awesome on them. I mean, it's all about twiddling knobs and pressing buttons and maybe pressing multiple buttons at once; you weren't able to do these things with a mouse, so it was compelling to bring it back.

I think nobody expected the longevity of those instruments. You still hear rappers talking about 808s, and you still hear 303s in all this pop music. They've remained so popular that it was just like, "yeah, let's do it again. Let's resurrect this thing."

What are some songs that really highlight that these Roland instruments can do?
If you listen to any hip-hop song you're gonna hear those sounds. I would even say that if you listen to any rap album, on at least one of the songs the rapper's gonna mention a 303 or an 808. The Black Eyed Peas have a song, OutKast has a song, there's a band called 808 State... I could list a bunch of them. If you listen for them you hear them everywhere. These instruments are kind of the basis of disco and techno music, so they define a genre; now when people write music, they're trying to achieve those sounds. Music is all about trying to achieve sounds we've heard before, then changing things a little bit. People may use different instruments or tools to achieve the same sounds, but these are the original instruments.

How is the target user of Rebirth for the iPhone or iPad different from Propellerhead's target user?
I think it's the same kind of user. A lot of Propellerhead's software appeals to music geeks, people who want to do everything you can do with sound and try out all these instruments and make all these different noises. But the other part of it is this new group of people who see these devices as performance DJ tools, where you can actually sit there at a club and sync a turntable to it and play a performance. People weren't really doing that back when Rebirth came out, because computers weren't very portable -- you wouldn't want to carry your desktop computer to a club, and notebooks weren't that capable. So it appeals now to music enthusiasts, people who want to create techno, and also music geeks. I think that's a big group of people who originally liked Rebirth, and now there's this new thing happening with professional DJs and live performers who play in front of people and take the iPad very seriously.

What can you do with Rebirth on the iPad that you can't on the iPhone?
We've done a number of things to make it a different product. We totally redid the user interface, so it fits the screen better and takes advantage of the bigger space, and then we've added a multi-touch, so you can use multiple controls at once. When the downbeat happens, for instance, you can trigger three different patterns at once. You can turn two or three or four knobs at once, and automate all that at the same time. We also added some performance features -- the original Rebirth had a menu that let you randomize patterns or transpose them. What we've done is laid over the controls on top of all the devices, so you can just jam on them in real time -- move things around, randomize them, transpose them, add accents, copy and paste things, all in a performance interface rather than an editing interface. The appeal is that you're able to play these instruments and compose things in real time. We also added vastly improved social networking features, so you can post a song you've written to Facebook, or email it as an MP3 really easily.

So how do you think being able to harness these sounds in such a portable, networked way is going to impact the sound that we'll look back on in five or ten years?
In some ways, I see these early Roland instruments defining a genre of music, and then the sampler came along and everyone was sampling James Brown and cutting that up, which had a sound to it. Now people mix those two techniques. I'm hoping what happens is that as people start to use computers and software to perform and create music live, rather than editing music, they'll come into more happy accidents -- they'll accidentally discover things as they're working with them that they'd never deliberately come across, things that come about through performance but wouldn't in that classic editing environment. On a computer it's kind of hard to be creative in some ways, because you're always editing things and making them exactly how you want them. When you have a guitar, though... I mean, it's possible that that whole feedback sound that Jimi Hendrix came up with was an accident. It wasn't something he edited on a computer and decided -- he was out there performing, and then it kind of happened and he went with it. That's the experience I'm hoping the new generation of software instruments will produce.

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