Skeuomorphic Pop

Just what is it that makes GarageBand so different, so appealing?

2014


Skeuomorphism is a simple software design concept, with a grand name that is often used to describe when a digital thing is made to look like a real world counter-part. There is some a debate as to whether term is correctly applied, but for the context of this writing I’m going to be using in the sense that it is commonly understood – to describe the use of visual metaphors in software design, which in the case of Apple and it’s software mimic a physical or real world process by borrowing it’s appearance and sounds or using textures such as paper, metal or wood to invoke the feel of a ‘real’ thing like a calculator or a notepad.

Whether this is the right approach in design software, especially in relation to Apple, has been of matter of heated debate. When Scott Forstall, former ‘Senior Vice-President of iOS Software’ was fired, his on-going support for a skeumorphic interfaces was seen as one of the reasons. It his hard to clarify exactly what happened since Apple is such a secretive organisation but there is said to be an large internal divide between those in favour of skeumorphic design and those opposed, for which he was the most senior casualty. Judging by the reports during the build up to the release iOS 7, those against it have won out and the operating system has undergone “De-Forstall-ization“.

It might not seem like a particularly important fixation, but it represents a fundamental philosophical difference. Do we want the digital things in our lives to be copies of real things or should they have an entirely new design language?

One possible argument in favour of designing applications with familiar metaphors is that it can avoid unnecessary complexity. If you want to use your phone to write some notes perhaps it isn’t useful to be reminded just how fundamentally different a pad of paper is from an LCD screen. Making it feel like a notepad gives us a clue of how to use it and might make the apparently essential leap between quite different technologies feel more comfortable.

The software most dependent on skeuomorphic design is music production software. A change that can be traced back to Apple’s purchase of eMagic, the company responsible for the creation of the music production software  ‘Logic’. After Apple took ownership a product formerly known as ‘Logic xPress’, a simplified version of the powerful production suite was rebranded as GarageBand and shipped with every single new Mac computer. Apple used their know-how for building simple and clear software to create a remarkably powerful music DAW (‘Digital Audio Workstation’), with an inviting and easy to understand interface and then gave it away free.

The fact that it was so easy to use was a revolution at the time because music software, especially the sort that most people could get hold of was clunky and difficult to learn. Apple used extensive skeumorphic touches to make it as accessible as possible, hundreds of beautiful icons, textures and effects that made connected it to a real world of making music in your garage. Alongside that they included an exspanisve set of sampled instruments and loops for the creation of songs, as well simple but high-quality intrusction videos for learning piano and guitar.

The fact the interface hasn’t changed that much since it was introduced is a testament to how successful they were. As a result of the way Garageband looked, wood grain and chipped metal became the de facto standard for other developers trying to make beautiful looking music software.

In 2011 after the development of their mobile operating system iOS and the release of the iPhone and iPad, Apple released new version of specifically for those devices, called Garageband iOS which represented an even more incredible feat of programming. Apple managed to create a completely accessible and rich music creation software on a touchscreen device, that in the case of the iPhone fitted right in your pocket. To squeeze a music DAW onto a phone and make it easy to use, stable and elegant was a remarkable achievement. Less than 10 years after the purchase of eMagic, music production software changed dramatically.

It appears Apple has reached the point where isn’t that much more sound content they can generate for Garageband, they have already released vast collections of sounds. They also can’t improve the power of it too far in case it steps of the toes of it’s much more serious and expensive older brother ‘Logic Pro’. It is for this reason that Garageband seems to be developing the other way and being aimed at the very beginner. Not only does Garageband iOS come with similar but portable library of sounds and loops it comes with a set of what Apple calls Smart Instruments, which allows the user to, according to the description on their website:

“…sound like an expert musician. Even if you’ve never played a note before.”

Simply put they are a series of software instruments each with a simple interface that generate accompanying musical parts and play along in real time. For instance, the Smart Drums will generate a drum pattern using the sounds of a ‘Vintage Rock Kit’ or a ‘Classic Hip Hop’ drum machine based on tempo and a selection of user controls governing the type and complexity of the sounds. The dice button allows the user to generate a new pattern on the fly. The Smart Guitar gives a range of ‘classic’ guitar tones and allows the user to select the different chords and playing parts by, all played in time and in key by the software.

There’s also Smart Bass, Smart Keys and finally Smart Strings which allow the user to: “Conduct an entire string orchestra with just one finger. Slide up and down to create huge, dramatic swells. Or tap for short pizzicato hits.”

In essence the Smart Instruments are just a combination of some clever and rich sounding synthesis and some very basic generative algorithms that churn out quite simple but realistic sounding parts. Regardless of the how it’s implemented though, it’s putting forward the very basic idea that a computer can be used to generate music to fill in the gaps in it’s someones musical understanding and the skeumorphic design repackages this as some sort of computer magic.

The most intriguing part is Apple’s assertion that Garageband will make you ‘…sound like a expert musician’. It demonstrates how Apple treats the creation of music in the same way it treats the design of it’s software. Traditionally we might think of the ‘expert musician’ as someone gifted who can impart emotion into every detail of their performance, transforming music into a magic language that is shared on an innate level from one human to another. Describing their software in these terms suggests that they either believe they have used a computer to somehow master this process of human expression or they have a very different definition of music.

Of course developers are wont to make this sorts of claims to sell software, but Apple is a very special case because it’s computers and devices are so universal. With Garageband we see Apple’s preference for simplicity and clean, accessible design spilling over into an idea of how we should create music. Whether this is an intentional agenda or not becomes irrelevant – anyone that’s seen a toddler use an iPad may share my suspicion that the common entry point into musical education for a whole generation will be on devices running iOS. That first musical exploration is then filtered through the vision of music from the mind of our favourite Californian software developers – glossy, crisp and perfectly vintaged. A simulation that is built right into the interface and coded right into the mechanics of software instruments that play themselves.

The musical outcomes of using the Smart Instruments and Apple Loops in Garageband could be described as ‘skeumorphic music’ – a software replica of music that borrows the processes but not the subtleties of a physical approach to music, and providing no new or invented nuances of it’s own.

Garageband hides the vast complexities of what may be musically possible in software to provide a tool that is approachable and easy to understand, and in turn seemingly encourages the production of a type fully realised of digital muzak.

For me there are two conclusions to draw from this. Firstly as musical processes become ever more digitised, we should be careful to examine the assumptions of software developers like Apple about what music is, especially how that relates the very beginning stages of someones music education. After all, giving a child a violin is providing them with a entirely different set of expressive depths and limits, in comparison to the software world of Garageband. The implications of only using Garageband may be quite perverse.

Secondly and more personally, I think Garageband represents a useful window into the contemporary frame of reference in which technology is developed, which can be useful for the process of making music. Consider the aim of Garageband, which we can imagine might eventually provide a digital version of every sound, generating human feeling parts in real time, within reach of every person and accessible all the time. This sort of universal approach is endemic in the software and technology community, after all programmers are often set out to build tools that can used as widely as possible. But to treat musical expression with the same broad brush strokes is to alter the very things that gives it meaning.

As a result every sound, preset and ‘professionally recorded’ loop available in Garageband appears to be an attempt to crystallise some perfect form of music, sanding off any hint of roughness, personality or emotional expression in the search for some sort of universally understood generality, devoid of the sonic charm of more individually meaningful recordings. For the desktop version of Garageband Apple have produced several DVD’s worth this type of content which they call ‘Jam Packs’. They are not vinyl-cracked samples of real records but contextless simulations of these sounds that imply something vaguely historical without the specific meaning implied by taking such samples from an actual song or artist.

Many musicians instinctively swerve away from these plastic sounds in the search of the perceived sonic ‘authenticity’ of 70’s and 80’s studio techniques, but for me, this mistreatment of traditional musical values in software is actually why I feel compelled towards Garageband. It’s never straight forward to discuss exactly why anyone makes music without oversimplifying but Nick Cave makes a pretty good attempt to describe some  of the possible motivations for song writing far better than I could. He talks about the thread that runs through pop music driven by the love song, and it’s unquenchable sense of melancholy and absence as a : “a howl in the void..” and more fully:

 

 

“The love song is a sad song, it is the sound of sorrow itself. We all experience within us what the Portugese call ‘saudade’, which translates as an inexplicable sense of longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration…”

 

If music is in some senses the search for new ways of describing these universal feelings of longing, of approaching that void, then we should consider our radically new position as ‘users’ within contemporary music production software. We find ourselves encouraged into a simulation of previous organic forms, a shopping mall of musical histories shaped around the brand identity of big tech.

So just what is it that makes Apple’s skeumorphic approach to music production, so different, so appealing?. They have (accidentally) created an archive of sounds and tools which ache with the loneliness of music creation in the digital vacuum. Each one a lament to the age of simulation and the desperate sadness of assembling music like a collage of stock photographs. For me Garageband represents a new musical vocabulary of sonic waste products imprinted with the insane aspirations of the software age and perpetual connectivity – layers of sound seemingly designed for the purpose of expressing the darkness of living in the shadow of the cloud.