How Bjork’s App Album Was Made : Mixing for iPad, Visualizing Music as Tunnels (Part Two), 27 juillet 2011

Scott Snibbe, the app designer, filmmaker and media artist responsible for coordinating the creation of Björk’s mind-blowing iOS album app, Biophilia, impressed us mightily with his firsthand account of how the album app came to be in the first segment of our interview.

In this second segment, Snibbe explains why the Biophilia album app doesn’t support Apple’s AirPlay technology, discusses the hidden tones your iPad’s speaker can’t reproduce, and explains how one song app contained within the album mimics how Björk visualizes pop music : as a series of tunnels.

Eliot Van Buskirk, : If, as you mentioned, a music video is promoting a concert ticket or a song purchase, this app unites those things so that the promotional item is the distribution channel. That makes a lot of sense. But having jumped through the technical hoops to be able to put all these song apps within an album app, what will have to happen if I have a hundred or a thousand albums, and they’re all apps that contain apps ? It took ten years for people to get their heads around iTunes and iPods.

Scott Snibbe, Scott Snibbe Studio : For sure, people are still going to be listening to recorded music tracks while they’re doing something else. But in some reviews of [the first two tracks released in] Biophilia, people said, “Wow, I haven’t had this experience in 20 years. Before CDs came out, I’d buy an album and hold the twelve-inch cover in my hand, sitting cross-legged on the floor while I listened to the music, read the liner notes, and looked at the pictures.” People used to have this very tactile, multimedia experience when they bought an album.

But with the digitization of music, we’ve lost that special moment. You can think of the app as, finally, that chance to unwrap the box and have a personal, intimate experience again with music. It might be the case that people spend a lot of time with the app when it first comes out [as they did with album covers] and then perhaps they’ll move on to purely enjoying the music after that. But we’ll really have to wait and see. : One feature I always look for in iOS music apps these days is AirPlay [which lets iOS apps stream to home stereos]. It’s not in this app, and I think I know why : AirPlay just links to a pre-done stream, right ?

The "Crystalline" app includes a musical score with karaoke tones playing in the background, educating the listener about musical notation while it entertains. The app also includes a new form of animated notation (below).
Snibbe : Yeah, we really want to add that. I think that’s more a technical thing for Apple, because when you do audio with AirPlay right now, there’s like a three-second delay to buffer. Because the app is highly interactive and makes immediate changes to the sounds as you’re touching and interacting with things, it would be too disconcerting to delay the audio.

If Apple changes that in the future, of course, we’re going to turn that right on, because you really want to hear this music through speakers or good headphones. : What about adding AirPlay once the listener has recorded a song ? [The Biophilia song apps allow you to record and share the version of the songs that you experienced.]

Snibbe : That’s a good idea. And Björk has also done things with the music [to reflect the difference between good speakers and the iPad or iPhone]. If you listen to “Cosmogony,” she really carefully tuned the music so that you can’t even hear the low end on an iPad speaker. It doesn’t even buzz or make a funny noise. She tuned it so that it goes down to zero. But if you put in your headphones, all of a sudden you hear this really deep low-end come into the song. : That’s awesome. It’s, like, the positive flip-side of what Akon told me one time. He said he mixes for cellphone speaker.

Snibbe : Björk is just such a genius. I hate to embarrass her, but she’s such a genius on so many fronts. She just constantly has ideas like this. It’s a very subtle point, to look at the frequency response of the iPad speaker and tune your song app so that it sounds just the way you want it on one speaker, and just the way you want it on another speaker. It’s a pretty sophisticated idea. : I’ve only played the two song apps that are publicly available, “Cosmogony” and “Crystalline.” In the latter, I was intrigued by how the loops are represented, which sort of reminded me of Tempest and Katamari Damacy. There’s nothing wrong with that — they’re both cool things. And the first time I diverged into a new loop in “Crystalline,” I knew what was happening : I’m entering a new part of the song. Representing a musical loop as a physical loop in a Tempest-like videogame is a really neat concept. Can you tell us anything about the eight apps that have yet to be released ?

Snibbe : There is no arbitrary choice in any of the apps. The “Crystalline” app is the way Björk sees music in her head. I think she has a certain type of synesthesia, so that when she’s listening — especially to pop music, she said — she actually sees a tunnel like that. The number of sides of the tunnel changes depending on the rhythms and the music. So that app is about music structure, crystals, obviously, and this game-like interaction to move through the structures.

And other apps like [the unreleased] ”Virus,” which is an app that we created, is more about generative music, which I know you know a lot about. That one combines musical elements in an algorithmic, generative way that’s different every time.

But Björk has an interesting take on generative music : that a lot of it has no highs or lows, that it’s always like a drone. A lot of [generative music makers] mean to make it that way, like Brian Eno. But she’s a much more emotional artist, so she really wanted generative music to still have peaks and valleys — emotional expression.

So that’s what we’re doing with “Virus.” It’s actually a simulation, as if you could touch a cell at a microscopic level, see it being infected by a virus, and be able to prevent that from happening. But it’s a kind of anti-game, because if you win, you don’t get to hear the whole song. You have to let the cell get killed in order to hear it. : [Laughs] That’s fantastic. It’s certainly a lot more interesting than putting a needle on a record.

Snibbe : Think about some of the cool things people did with records though, with those endless grooves, hidden songs, and tracks that were intertwined on a record so it would have five versions of a song. People used to do these tricks with records in the old days, but you can’t do it so much with CDs. : I experienced it once with a CD, where it had a thousand or so blank one-second-long tracks followed by a really short song. But it’s funny that you mention that, because I was looking at the whole galaxy in the app [where the individual song apps appear as stars within constellations], and using the double-finger swipe, and I just kind of left the galaxy and went over to the side. I thought “I bet there’s going to be something over here.” I didn’t see one, but it sounds like there’s stuff like that going on.

Snibbe : There are a few easter eggs, some things within the apps that people will gradually find, and we’re putting in more.

(There might be one on the Cosmogony 2D menu screen, but we’ll let you find out for yourself.)

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