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ReBirth iPhone App Falls Short of Legacy

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The release of Propellerheads pioneering Rebirth RB-338 software in 1996 heralded a new era in desktop music production, fulfilling dance music aficionados' long-held desire to have virtual versions of Roland's most sought after gear from the 1980s.  With a PC and a little over $200, musicians were able to compose on convincing emulations of the TB-303 bassline synthesizer, as well as the TR-808 and TR-909 Rhythm Composer drum machines, pioneering instruments that played crucial roles in many landmark dance music tracks in the 1980s and 1990s.  Having capitalized on this pent up demand, Propellerheads continued their foray into music production, creating the well known and equally influential Reason software, a complete virtual studio that sells for a fraction of the price of its hardware equivalent. Meanwhile the Rebirth RB-338 software was discontinued in 2005, having lost its relevance in the overcrowded music software market, and made available as a free download from the ReBirth Museum.

Having a solid track record for quality and innovation, Propellerheads release of the ReBirth iPhone app is cause for excitement in an industry that loves its toys, particularly considering the number of increasingly professional music making apps that have been released since the introduction of the iPad, a device likely to revolutionize music production in the coming years.  Sadly, it seems that the attention to detail and user experience that characterized their desktop software was uncharacteristically overlooked in their first iPhone app, almost as if they had contracted out a third party to do the job for them.  The sound itself is as good as the original software and no cause for complaint, but the interface borders on unusable. 

The first thing one notices upon launching the app is how similar it is to the original software, as if the developers had literally cut the application out of a PC and pasted it into an iPhone.  The proportions of the iPhone being different from a computer monitor results in a cropped view of the interface, with an awkward looking wooden frame pushing the TR-909 right off the screen. Aesthetics aside, the lack of adaption to the iPhone makes for a laborious user experience, as the control knobs are extremely small, requiring one to zoom in on a given device to make an adjustment, and sometimes requiring two to three attempts to select the right parameter, creating an experience that is choppy, difficult and seemingly unresponsive.  This might have been the end of the world had the navigation been smoother, but, surprisingly, there is no touch scrolling, so moving around the interface is cumbersome.  Instead, one is forced to double click to zoom in on each device, with no easy means of zooming out, prohibiting a quick workflow for laying out ideas.  So it was a little mystifying to read an interview with Propellerheads CEO Ernst Nathorst-Böös in Create Digital Music, stating how much effort they had expended to create a fluid user experience:

We worked hard on the navigation, the zooming and panning, to make it feel natural. It was hard since there are so many controls on the screen (look at the 808!) and you need to move around quickly and fluently while never risking changes to the document. I really like how it turned out.

Admittedly, there are lots of controls, but it’s hard to imagine a more obtuse user experience than they currently have.  The whole thing seems rushed, as if Propellerheads had submitted the app to Apple as soon as they had the first working prototype.  Adding to these drawbacks, the image quality deteriorates upon zooming in, revealing lo-fidelity graphics, which makes it difficult to read the labels.  This might not have been such a big deal had the app not cost $6.99, but for that price, cutting corners like this will simply lead to a bad reputation, particularly considering the gorgeous apps being released by Korg and Akai.

Many of the app’s shortfalls could have been avoided had the developers harnessed the unique touch capacities of the iPhone OS rather than sticking with the older, computer monitor and mouse, Windows based paradigm.  Having a multi-screen interface that dedicates a single window to each device, as well as enlarging the buttons to increase ease of use would have gone a long way towards creating a more user friendly interface. Re-imagining the placement of the pattern sequencer and effects sections would have also helped to reduce clutter, perhaps giving each their own separate windows.   Admittedly, this would have disrupted the visual emulation that the software has succeeded in reproducing and required a slight re-proportioning of the devices, but the benefits would have far outweighed the cost, turning an unpractical, but visually accurate app into what could have been one of the hippest, must have apps in the App Store.  Propellerheads needs to fix this ongoing PR disaster and do it fast, as their credibility in what’s going to be a huge market is taking a massive hit.

The demand for a device like ReBirth on the iPhone is evident by the amount of music making applications available in the App Store, and it seems Propellerheads are squandering a royal opportunity to make a good first impression.  At its current price (Korg’s i-Electribe is $7.99), this seems more like a cash grab than about building a credible foothold in the booming music production app market.  Bringing ReBirth to the iPhone was a great idea, but because its user interface was not at all adapted to the iPhone, its execution failed miserably.  Hopefully in future versions, Propellerheads will update the product in a manner that does justice to the original software.