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A for app in music world

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 8.04.12

Vidya Shah’s small audience was mesmerised by her rendition of the songs of Amir Khusro. What baffled them at the same time was the mellifluous drone of the tanpura in the background. There was no sign of the long-necked lute anywhere, but the sounds were unmistakable.

The mystery was solved when Shah, who was performing at an informal gathering in Delhi recently, held up her iPad which had been placed by her side. Shah had merely clicked the tanpura application (app) on her tablet.

“I was quite thrilled when I came across this app. It’s so convenient,” gushes Shah. Considered an essential accompaniment in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, the tanpura is not only used for its soulful sound but to also help musicians with their musical pitch.

There was a time when the constant worry of travelling musicians was the condition of the fragile instruments that were to accompany them. Now, a series of apps is making life so much easier for musicians on the move.

“Carrying all the accompanying instruments everywhere is a huge problem, especially when we hop from one city to another when travelling abroad. In such situations, these apps are a God-send,” says Pandit Tejendra Narayan Majumdar. The sarod player says that he has used these apps in all types of gatherings, from large concerts to private performances. “I have seen youngsters taking to these apps rather effortlessly, especially during practice,” he adds.

It’s not just the convenience. What’s great, the musicians aver, is the quality of the sound. “This is the closest I have ever come to a real tanpura as far as the tonal aspect is concerned,” Shah says.

These apps are slowly replacing electronic instruments which have been around for at least 20 years now. Musicians and students have been using electronic substitutes for the tanpura, tabla and swarmandal, among others — especially to help in practice. But the problem is that some of these substitutes tend to sound mechanical.

Not any longer, thanks to a crop of enterprising app developers such as Prasad Upasani and Christophe Baratay. In fact, many of the apps currently available on several smartphone platforms wouldn’t have been conceptualised but for Upasani getting laid off from his job as an IT project manager in a financial firm in Southern California during the recession in 2009.

“This turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it pushed me out of my comfort zone into trying out something new,” says Upasani. What helped was that he himself was a classical musician. Some of the apps developed by Upasani include the iTanpura, iTablaPro, iLehra and iManjira. Vocalist Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty was one of the first Indian musicians to try out Upasani’s apps in concerts.

Baratay, a Paris-based musician and developer of iTabla Pandit, thought of moving into the smartphone category while recording for tanpura CDs to replace the tanpura electronic boxes. “It was difficult to get the tuning and pitches right on the CD, and moreover it was taking a lot of time. That is when I thought of developing apps,” he says. He has also developed tanpura and harmonium apps.

Most of these apps allow the musician to choose any note of an octave. The main selling point of these apps is that they are easy to use. “A musician simply selects the note in which he or she wants to play (or sing) and automatically all settings change accordingly. All that one has to do is with the slide of a finger go from E to D, E to G, G to A, and so on,” says Baratay.

There is a reason these apps sound very real. Upasani and Baratay stress that real sampled instrument sounds instead of electronically generated ones were used to make them realistic. “Being a musician, I had an advantage of being able to really put myself in the user’s shoes and design it from the perspective of the performing musician,” says Upasani.

A fair amount of research went into developing each one of these apps to make them user-friendly. “We had to research, running algorithms on small devices such as iPod Touch (iPhone and iPad later). The aim was to come as close as possible to the real instrument,” says Baratay. And going by the number of classical musicians using these apps, the efforts have been worth it.

Besides Chakraborty and Majumdar, mohan veena exponent Salil Bhatt and flautists Shashank Subramanyam and Harsh Wardhan have used the apps and say that they don’t mind taking the help of these even in larger concerts.

Bhatt was introduced to the apps by his 12-year-old son. “I must confess that it was he who told me to try out a few of the apps. The one that I really like is the shruti box app. It has very gentle and faint notes and they are clearly displayed on the iPad which I found to be really smart,” says Bhatt. The shruti box, like the tanpura, is a drone. “I simply have to tune the shruti box and continue with my recital,” says Bhatt.

The swarmandal, or the Indian harp, is another instrument whose sounds have been adapted by app developers. Many classical vocalists play the swarmandal while singing.

Of course, the ringing endorsement of these musical apps doesn’t mean that they can replace the real instruments. “We have been using the electronic tanpura boxes for over two decades now and, moving with time and technology, we have started using software on an iPod or a laptop which is more or less similar to using an electronic tanpura,” says Subramanyam. “But any day, the real instrument is the best option.”

Wardhan agrees. “I find that the sound and tuning are perfect on the apps. But I don’t hesitate to say that these apps are no match for the acoustic instruments. We lose so many harmonics in the apps which we find in the real instrument,” he stresses.

And there are some other areas where the classical musicians simply wouldn’t enter no matter how advanced the apps are. “I would never use the tabla app irrespective of how good it is. I would prefer a percussionist with me as Indian ragas are all about a rapport between the musicians. You can never expect this from the apps,” says Bhatt. “You should draw a line and not cross it. In my opinion, you could use the apps in place of drones in concerts, and others can be used for practice or demonstration,” Majumdar adds.

Shah believes that apps for tablas and other instruments may at best be used in multi-track recordings where there is less scope for improvisation. Both Upasani and Baratay claim that their apps have been lapped up by jazz and fusion musicians in the West.

The developers stand to benefit every time an app is downloaded. For instance iTanpura costs $14.99 while the iTablaPro comes for $ 24.99 and iTabla Pandit for $49. Upasana explains the method. “Apple takes a 30 per cent commission on all sales and sends me the rest. It also works similarly on other app stores such as Android and Microsoft,” he says.

The hundreds of endorsements on the web for these apps are a testimony to their success but as Majumdar puts it, at the end of the day it is the artist who matters and not the app. “Creativity is sacred and only a musician has that power,” he says.