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  • A Look at Ocarina - Interview with Smule CEO Jeff Smith

    Smule last Thursday released Ocarina, "the first true musical instrument created for the iPhone." Ocarina is an iPhone implementation of an ancient instrument (you may know it best from Zelda). The notable thing about Ocarina - its used just like any wind instrument. You use your fingers to choose the notes, and simply blow into the mic to play it.

    Tilting the iPhone down adds depth and vibrato to the pitch of the Ocarina. Simply pressing combinations of the 4 "buttons" allows you to play full scales of notes, which are easily configured via the settings menu. You can even see where other people are playing Ocarina, and listen in to their playing!

    We chatted with Smule CEO and co-founder Jeff Smith about the application.

    MMi: Did you start developing for the iPhone on jailbroken devices, or only once the SDK was released? If you worked with jailbroken devices, which methods did you jailbreak with? ModMyi readers are all about modding their iPhones.

    JS: We started with the SDK release.

    MMi: Is Smule planning on developing for Android, or other mobile platforms?

    JS: Not at this time.

    MMi: Smule has 4 applications in the App Store currently. Which is your personal favorite?

    JS: Ocarina. I'm a musician and I love to share this music with my friends, family, and people all over the world. I've performed as a concert pianist, and so it has been a bit of a challenge to learn about wind instruments and tonguing, etc. But it's a lot of fun. And of course, if you saw the Stairway video, that is me in the center with the great hair (and no, that is not really my hair).

    MMi: What were some of the unique issues that arose when developing Ocarina for the iPhone?

    JS: Audio is fairly challenging on all mobile devices, and the iPhone is no exception. Imagine attempting to do real-time audio input analysis and output synthesis while concurrently generating 60 frames/second in OpenGL graphics, and on top of that, doing real-time network upload of musics so that Ocarina can capture your live performance on a server to share with others around the world. We've had several users notice that we are using a lot of battery on the phone. This is because we are typically at around 98% CPU usage for this application.

    A special challenge was in providing backward compatibility with the first generation iPhones. We've found that full duplex audio is quite challenging on this platform. The new 3G iPhones, by contrast, have an amazing audio pipeline. We even think the 44Khz speaker is pretty good, and recommend using our product without headphones.

    MMi: Ocarina is pretty easy to learn - what was the process like for developing the UI?

    JS: Much credit to our CTO and co-Founder, Dr. Ge Wang. Ge is one of the leaders in the field of computer music and is a full-time professor at Stanford University in their Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Ge, along with another member of our team, Dr. Perry Cook, co-founded the Princeton Laptop Orchestra -- a group that recently performed in Carnegie Hall. And so Ge has an amazing insight into what is possible, but perhaps more importantly, what is desirable for untapping the creative potential of users.

    MMi: Did you find your work with the Stanford Laptop Orchestra helpful in creating Ocarina? How so?

    JS: I defer to Ge here. But yes, the SLOrk development, and before that PLOrk, were opportunities to understand computer music performance in a formal setting. What Ge & Perry found is that the computer can be an expressive instrument. And what we have found at Smule is that the iPhone is truly an optimal platform for the creation of social and expressive music. Myself, I'm a PhD candidate with Dr. Wang at Stanford, and so believe what we are doing is very important for the field of music.

    MMi: How long did Ocarina take to develop?

    JS: We founded Smule in June of 2008. We had a pretty nice head start in Audio given that Ge developed the Chuck audio engine while at Princeton for his PhD thesis. Audio is fundamental to everything we do at Smule. And so we began building our application framework and design our audio engine for the iPhone (CHiP or Chuck on the iPhone) in the summer. We shipped our first application, the Sonic Lighter, in September. By October, our audio engine was robust enough to build the first musical instrument, the Ocarina, which we just launched last Thursday.

    MMi: Can you give us any hints on what Smule has got coming in the future?

    JS: The future will be Smulean. I mean this in the most positive but serious way. But briefly, we want plan to break down barriers with sound: we aim to realize the immense potential of audio on mobile platforms, to inspire users to reach new levels of self-expression, and to provide the medium for the new network based on proximate and physical collaboration (versus purely virtual collaboration) between people around the world.

    MMi: Smule applications are based on sound and the iPhone microphone - what made you interested in that niche? What gave you the idea?

    JS: Dr. Perry Cook, a member of our team and the head of the Princeton Sound Lab, had developed some innovative algorithms to approximate wind on microphones. He should me a demo of an Andean flute on his MacBook over the summer. And so the Ocarina perhaps started with Perry. But it didn't take long for Ge to redefine an entirely different model for music engagement as an expressive social instrument. Ge designed the Ocarina.

    MMi: Have you used any Ocarina in a live performance?

    JS: Yes. As recently as last Saturday night. Stay tuned. I expect several ensembles and orchestras to begin to use this instrument.

    MMi: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

    JS: Only that we think it is time for the world to understand the potential for audio. Of course we all appreciate video. But, it would seem audio has taken a back seat to video, in particular as it relates to games. And yet our ears are as sophisticated as our eyes, right?

    This article was originally published in forum thread: A Look at Ocarina - Interview with Smule CEO Jeff Smith started by Kyle Matthews View original post
    Comments 17 Comments
    1. cricketlang's Avatar
      cricketlang -
      That looks pretty awesome right there. there are tons of like musical emulators and crap out there but like it says it the first TRUE instrument for the iphone. very nice
    1. kennyleeme's Avatar
      kennyleeme -
    1. Bloodspatter's Avatar
      Bloodspatter -
      I purchased it and it is pretty nice. It can be, at times, a little laggy but it still works well. And being able to hear other users around the world is pretty nice too...though most are just goofing off with it .

      One of the more ingenious apps so far.
    1. sziklassy's Avatar
      sziklassy -
      Looks pretty coo; but seems like another one of those fun for a while and then forget about it apps... at least for me.
    1. stan_the_man_123's Avatar
      stan_the_man_123 -
      I bought this app as soon as I saw it and have had great fun with it with my friends. Well worth 0.59!
    1. ryfx's Avatar
      ryfx -
      i loled when I saw that video.
      loled in a goodway, i love stairway to heaven.
      best app ever!
    1. Chefanim's Avatar
      Chefanim -
      It is a lot of fun, I like being able to listen to others play. They truly did a great job on this one.
    1. se23's Avatar
      se23 -
      look like a bunch of hippys, useless me thinks
    1. billchase2's Avatar
      billchase2 -
      this is a really cool app/instrument. my favorite feature is being able to listen to what others are playing all over the world. another great app by smule!

      EDIT: after playing with it more and more... i'm totally hooked on this app. it's so much fun! they have an entire forum dedicated to scores people have made of songs using the online score generator. check it out:

    1. tattoojack's Avatar
      tattoojack -
      i think it is pretty ingenious to use the mic like that and the tilting to change pitch. these guys were really thinkin when they made this.
      i also am shocked how the app came out with (not updated later) a way to hear other stuff people did.
    1. heath_rox's Avatar
      heath_rox -
      did they have to get copyright from the big N?
    1. Devante's Avatar
      Devante -
      Quote Originally Posted by heath_rox View Post
      did they have to get copyright from the big N?
      Nintendo didn't invent the ocarina. :P'

      They just made AWESOME.
    1. aries_green_monkey's Avatar
      aries_green_monkey -
      i had seen this in the tops but wasn't sure i would use it.

      WAS I WRONG. This is one of the coolest apps. Although other apps like the guitar one or the drum set are cool, none allow you to truly make REAL music like this. Its a lot of fun. Especially since they have the live streaming world view thing. Its great.

      I had the SonicVox App and enjoyed it a lot and have to say that smule is a really great company for apps.

      I hope more great ones are to come! =]
    1. pyromuffin's Avatar
      pyromuffin -
      god damn it. I've been coding THIS app for the last two months! Not an ocarina, but still! I became an apple developer to write this... and they beat me to it. I don't know, should I continue? Gah! This sucks.
    1. thetoothfairy's Avatar
      thetoothfairy -
      I bought it and it is cool if you like things like this.... I played instruments when I was younger so I thought I would give it a try.... the high notes are high but the low ones you seem to have to blow harder into the mic...

      Quote Originally Posted by pyromuffin View Post
      god damn it. I've been coding THIS app for the last two months! Not an ocarina, but still! I became an apple developer to write this... and they beat me to it. I don't know, should I continue? Gah! This sucks.
      If you have put a lot of time into your app... continue..... your app I am sure is a bit different than their app is..... in the long run it will do the same thing but your interface might be different etc...... you got this far on it you might as well finish it.... and be proud of yourself for completing what you started.......
    1. imagine engine's Avatar
      imagine engine -
      Very cool. My Dad plays that song on his ovation guitar when the family gets together. It will be fun playing along with him using the flute sound on my iPhone.
    1. khaoticsquirrel's Avatar
      khaoticsquirrel -
      wow this app is just amazing. that's all i can say about it. truly amazing.