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Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess Talks Music Apps

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The results of the app explosion aren't exclusively devices you can use to find local bars, snap photos, or play games with your friends. In fact, it's probably easier to count aspects of daily life that aren't effected by this technological revolution than areas that are. It's no coincidence that "there's an app for that" has entered the zeitgeist.

One particularly interesting realm of the app universe is within the realm of musical interests. (Yes, you can actually make music on smartphones and tablets.) It's hard to think of a greater trailblazer in this arena than Jordan Rudess. A classically trained pianist, the über-talented Rudess is best known as a member of the progressive metal band Dream Theater, but there's so much more to "The Wizard." In 2009, Rudess founded Wizdom Music, an innovative app development company.

While touring in South America recently, Rudess sat down with me to talk about his company's new apps and the state of the music industry, among other topics. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.

To listen to the entire interview, click here.

Congratulations on your two new apps: 'Tachyon' and 'SpaceWiz.' What was the inspiration for each?

Image courtesy of Wizdom Music

Tachyon stems from concepts developed for some of our previous projects at Wizdom Music. It incorporates some of the ideas we've assembled over the last few years and employs them in a very new and unique way. We tried to create something that utilizes pretty advanced musical concepts, but at the same time is simple enough for anyone to play. With Tachyon, people use the whole vertical grid touch surface of their iPhone or iPad to express the notes. The concept is to morph in between two sounds. For instance, let's say that you're playing a piano sound, and you slowly move your finger up on a note, Tachyon allows you to seamlessly change that piano into the sound of a violin. Because it's only $2, and is available for the iOS, iPhone, iPad, and iPod, we like to think of it as a product for the masses, that is interesting and unique compared to other apps currently on the market, but is still affordable and simple to use.

One of our primary goals with Tachyon was to link together the worlds of graphics and audio so that they correlate in a really awesome way. A while ago I had this vision of using three-dimensional images made of particles in an app, and we were able to bring this to reality with Tachyon, where a series of particle-based images allows the user not only to change the audio with his finger, but to change the visuals at the same time.

SpaceWiz is a unique application in and of itself. Currently, it's only available on the iPad. The concept stems from a dream I had about planets, where each one had its own timbre. I thought, what if an app user was able to interact with all of the planets? We could have the whole rotation of the planetary system and each object in the sky." My partner Kevin Chartier and I teamed up with an amazing developer named Tobias Miller. He and I started putting this vision of mine into reality, Spacewiz features beautiful images of the planets and a spacy, interactive soundscape.

In some ways, it's a generative music app, because it's possible for users to just call up a patch that they like, and hear and see the evolving music and visuals, but it's also possible to play it more like a traditional instrument.

You've been playing music for almost all of your life and learned on physical instruments. Are tablets and apps enabling children and newbies to learn your craft? How?

It's been an amazing time in the creative world, partly thanks to these multi-touch playing surfaces that are really inexpensive and available to everyone. Before the iPhone and iPad came out, somebody who wanted to play music on a multi-touch surface would have to spend thousands of dollars to but an instrument, most of which involved software. The release of the iPhone completely revolutionized the music technology world. When I first started using an iPhone, I was overwhelmed with the amount of musical opportunities it presented. This device has resulted in an explosion of creativity throughout the musical community. Because these apps cost as little as $1 or $2, we're seeing all these guys in their basement creating really cool apps. It's an amazingly creative time with people all over the world contributing to the effort.

What role do you see apps playing in music in the next five years? Are apps a fad or a game-changer?

We don't know where things are going down the road. Maybe things will evolve more towards the computer or the web. I'm not really sure. The real game changer is taking the modern power of computer technology and creating a device that's small enough that you can walk around and perform with it, and through innovations like the touch surface, you can have a very unique interaction, that was never available with older instruments. I can't say if apps are a game-changer, I don't even know if we'll keep calling them "apps" but I think that there's a definite future for multi-touch devices. One of the most recent concepts is that rather than a smooth playing field, users should be able to further express themselves through a textured surface. A lot of people are already working on that. In my opinion, thing that's missing from iPhones is that there's no after-touch. There's no tactile sense. That's an area that still needs some development.

In The Age of the Platform, you talked about your love of Apple products. What's your opinion of Android as a development platform?

There are so many people out there with Android, and I know that it's a really good system. Personally, I've had some problems with it -- and that's why I took so long to get into it and am not anxious to keep working on that platform. First, there's been an inherent issue with the audio on Android, which has been frustrating to a lot of developers. When you touch the screen to play a sound, there's a delay, which destroys the reality of the musical experience. It's a latency issue. Obviously the people in charge of Android's release overlooked this. It's a problem that's definitely preventing some of the music developers I know from wanting to create apps for the platform.

The other problem with Android is, as far as I'm concerned, that the systems aren't set up to allow for a solid business. Android piracy is rampant. For example, we put out a really cool Android version of MorphWiz Play (even better and easier to use than the one on iOS). But, according to the numbers coming back to our company, it's being ripped off right and left. Android employees need to create a system that's fairer to developers.

Aside from Dream Theater, you do solo gigs and play in many side projects, as do your bandmates. Given the state of the music industry, do you think that more and more musicians will play in multiple bands to make a living?

It is definitely harder to survive as a musician than it used to be. Unfortunately, I see many of my very, very talented musical friends feeling a need to quit, and trying to find other career opportunities. The successful musicians I know can either play a range of instruments, genres, and/or have strengths in areas of music technology or production. At this point, in order to be successful within this genre, it's essential to be somewhat versatile. My advice is: If music is the only thing that you love to do, then do it... 24/7... practice, listen, work. Expand your musical interests and abilities. How music is played and listened to and purchased is changing all the time. I'm passionate about staying on top of the flying carpet ride that music technology presents and that has definitely been one of the keys to my success (and happiness).

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