Monday, March 3, 2008

With Software and an iBand, There’s No Need for Roadies


By ERIC A. TAUB (New York Times)

Many people who own the Apple iPhone speak with a sort of evangelical fervor about the product and the things it can do. E-mail! Music! Internet! Phone calls! It takes pictures!

Three art students from Austria have pushed the envelope a bit further, hacking into their iPhones — a big no-no, from Apple’s perspective — and loading them with music-playing software, which they have used to record songs. The videos they put on YouTube last month of what they call the first iBand have been drawing heavy traffic from technophiles and curiosity-seekers.

Their debut video, posted Feb. 17 and briefly the top-featured video on the site, is fairly rudimentary, from a musical perspective at least: in what the band describes as a “jam session,” one iPhone plays keyboard software, another plays a virtual guitar program and a Nintendo DS video game player plays percussion. The result is more songlike noise than melody.

But the outpouring of fascination was instant: the three were immediately deluged with requests for interviews, for copies of the song, and for information about the software and equipment they used. They acknowledge being somewhat startled, and said by e-mail that they were trying to figure out how to “deal with the situation.”

“We did our first video as an example of what could be done with the new music applications that are used, and to present our idea of an iBand,” wrote one of the band members, Seb, age 24, in response to e-mailed questions.

He said that the other band members were Marina, 26, and Roger, 25, and that they preferred not to give their surnames for privacy reasons. “We are all students of different fields of art, and share our interest in making music as well as modern media,” Seb wrote.

The original video had been viewed more than two million times as of Sunday, with more than 13,000 viewers leaving comments. Some people reviewed the music itself (“Needs some iDrums” “ALL of them have tempo problems”) but others just effused at the novelty (“OMG AWESOME.”).

Enough viewers found the video mesmerizing that the band was prompted to post a message on its Web site, at www.iband.at: “Some of you requested an MP3 version of the jam session. Unfortunately, the quality is too bad so we really can’t release it. I mean, honestly we still need some practice guys and we’re also still lacking a third iPhone. We’ll release an MP3 when we have a real song.”

That happened last Wednesday, when the students, who are from Vienna, put up their second video, this one more sophisticated. Using two iPhones and an iPod Touch (but no Nintendo), the trio, wearing fingerless gloves, plays an original composition called “Life Is Greater Than the Internet,” with vocals, in accented English, by Marina.

While the jam session took just an hour to record, the second opus required a lot more work, Seb said: the band spent two sleepless days and nights composing, practicing and recording the video, taking considerably more time to light the scene, set up the camera and mix the tracks.

The viewers who left comments were mostly impressed, though there was a smattering of snide quips (“What if you would have got a phone call???”).

Two more videos quickly followed, both showing an iPhone playing virtual drums. In one, the song is indeed interrupted by a phone call, on purpose.

“To use the iPhone as a musical instrument isn’t about getting a technically perfect song together,” Seb wrote. “It has very innovative input methods, but we could also use any sort of synthesizer and full band equipment; with today’s technology there are no limitations. But we think that exactly the limitation is what creates a spirit. Of all possible things you can do with a mobile phone, what could be more meaningful than to create music?”

The group’s goal, he said, was to work with other people who are developing music applications for the iPhone. The band is offering Marina’s first song free on its Web site and accepting donations from those who download it.

The band was first mentioned on Gizmodo.com, a Web site for technology fans, where the mechanics of the iBand’s work were of particular interest. To satisfy the tech crowd, the band named the software programs it loaded onto its hacked iPhones to make the music (they include PocketGuitar, Moo-Cow-Music Pianist and Moo-Cow-Music Drummer). And the Nintendo DS played an interactive music video game called Electroplankton.

“We have been thinking about forming a band that would only use iPhones as musical instruments for a long time now,” Seb wrote. “Time seemed just right to take the first step when a new piano application came out.”

The Moo-Cow-Music applications were developed by Mark Terry, 35, a Java developer in Southampton, England, who wrote the code simply “to be creative,” he said.

For those who cannot wait to try this at home, a word of caution: to install these programs on an iPhone or iPod Touch requires the user to “jailbreak” the devices, modifying the software to allow the phone to accept third-party applications. This voids the product’s warranty.

Although Apple discourages it, jailbreaking is quite simple; instructions are posted on various Web sites. “We don’t support unlocked iPhones,” an Apple spokeswoman said.

On Thursday, Apple will reveal its plans for an iPhone software developers’ kit, a road map outlining how third-party developers can create officially sanctioned applications. Mr. Terry is considering rewriting his programs to fit within those guidelines.

According to the iBand’s Web site, the three Viennese students are busy rehearsing and testing sound applications written for the iPhone.

“If you know of, or develop, any other apps please let us know, we’re very interested in collaborations,” the site says. “The development of instruments for the first hand-held device that lets us create pocket-sized music are important to establish this scene!”