With Depeche Mode iPhone App, Cambridge’s iZotope Boosts the Mobile Drumbeat

5/18/09Follow @wroush

Last week I learned about a local music software company, iZotope, whose existence somehow escaped me back in 2007 when I was writing my story “Boston: The Hidden Hub of Music and Technology.” But the Cambridge, MA-based company has been making professional audio production software and digital signal processing hardware since 2001, and has gained special notice in the last year for a series of nifty music apps for the Apple iPhone.

The latest version of iZotope’s iDrum app, built around Depeche Mode’s new album Sounds of the Universe, came out May 11; the $4.99 program lets iPhone owners use touchscreen controls to assemble drum hits, synthesizer sounds, and vocal snippets from the album into original musical patterns or “instant remixes,” to use the company’s phrase. The remixes can’t be recorded or shared, but they’re fun the play with. (The whole thing is a little hard to explain—I recommend that you just watch the video below to see what I’m talking about.)

For Depeche Mode, the Sounds of the Universe edition of iDrum is an innovative way to market the electronica-heavy album to a tech-savvy audience of mobile device owners. For iZotope, it represents a new kind of foothold in the music industry, where labels are always looking for new ways to reach listeners and offset the seemingly irreversible decline in album revenues. Last week I interviewed iZotope’s content manager, Nick Dika, about how the project came about, and what it’s been like for an audio technology company to get into the mobile app business. A transcript appears below the video.

Xconomy: Tell me a little bit first about when iZotope was founded, and how your business works.

Nick Dika: We were founded in 2001. The founders, Mark Ethier and Jeremy Todd, came out of MIT. There are a few different elements to our business. The central part of it is professional audio—software and hardware for recording and broadcast studios and people making music at home. Meaning, music creation and audio production tools. However, we also do a lot of audio DSP [digital signal processing] licensing to companies like Adobe and Sony and Avid, for doing things like audio effects, time stretching, pitch scaling, and all of these under-the-hood things that people making multimedia software need these days.

X: How long have you been making mobile applications, and how did the Depeche Mode app come about?

ND: We launched our first iPhone app, the first edition of iDrum, in August 2008. We’ve had a number of editions and different releases. A few were our own branded editions—a hip-hop edition and a club edition, using sounds we created in-house. Our first licensed edition was with the Ministry of Sound, the world’s largest independent dance music label, in concert with a compilation album they did. Daniel Miller, the founder of Mute Records [Depeche Mode's label], got in touch with us because he had iDrum on his iPhone.

X: How does the app work?

ND: You can basically turn elements on and off. You can replace sounds with other sounds. You can change the speed of how things are playing back, and build a little arrangement or remix by making different patterns and chaining them together.

X: How do you create a special edition of iDrum—do you draw sounds directly from a published album?

ND: For the Depeche Mode edition, we ended up working directly with Ben Hillier, who produced the album. The sounds in the app are sounds from the songs on the album that Ben adapted in a certain way to make them friendly for the way the iPhone works.

X: So how does that work—does he draw sounds from the same machines and software that were used to produce the album, or does he grab snippets of sound from the finished album?

ND: More the former. Basically we have elements that are more broken down than what you hear on the album, like individual drum sounds, or a snippet of a vocal, or a synthesizer sound. Once those are on the CD you can’t pull out the individual sounds. Ben went through all the sessions, in a state before they were mixed and put on the CD. So it’s kind of cool for the end user and people who may be interested in learning music production, because they get to use some of the same elements that the studio producer works with. With Depeche Mode—which is obviously a pioneering act as far as electronic-based pop music using drum and music synthesizer—their style of music is very easily adaptable for the iPhone.

X: Interesting you should mention music production. What are the licensing, copyright, or digital rights management issues around an application like this? The app doesn’t have a recording mode, but if somebody wanted to create a literal remix using sounds in the iDrum Depeche Mode edition, would they be free to do that?

ND: The content was licensed to us by Mute, so Mute has all the rights. We don’t give people permission to make their own music and re-release it based on those samples. It’s designed to be used on the phone. I suppose you could hold a CD player up to a microphone, record something off the CD, and use that on a new album too—but the same copyright issues would apply there. We aren’t giving people permission to release music based on these samples.

X: But from one perspective, the experimentation that the iPhone app enables is very much in the spirit of the free culture movement, which is all about remixing creative resources. What would be wrong with letting people create new music using the elements in iDrum?

ND: That’s a little bit outside the scope of what iDrum does. If you look at what Depeche Mode is doing at Beatportal, a popular digital music download site targeted toward DJs and electronic music and remix competitions, that’s specifically about remixing. iDrum is more about having a certain kind of experience on your iPhone or iPod Touch that’s more fun and experimental, rather than trying to make a finished product that you’re going to release. In a way, it’s meant to bridge the gap between serious music making in a studio and, on the other side, games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which have really blown up in recent years. This takes you a step beyond just mimicking something and lets you pull apart the sounds and put them together in different ways. It’s a little more compelling and creative.

X: With CD and album sales down so much lately, do you think that making interactive applications like this one is becoming an obligatory part of the overall marketing effort for music groups?

ND: There is huge buzz around the iPhone app store right now, and just having iDrum and the other apps like it out there is important for the music industry. Obviously, Nine Inch Nails has gotten a lot of press around their iPhone app recently. I think it’s just one more way that labels and artists can get exposure for what they’re doing. For Depeche Mode, which hasn’t had an album out in a couple of years, for them to do this is just one more way they can be visible, and do something a little bit different from what everybody else is doing.

Mute is an amazing label. They were, I believe, the first record label to have an online presence, back in the BBS days even before the Web. It’s to Daniel’s credit for seeking us out. The app gives fans a next-generation way of interacting with music, and that’s what’s important to us. We have a couple more [special editions] lined up. I can’t talk about the specifics, but there are some big labels now that have digital product divisions where they are looking for ways to infiltrate places like the iPhone app store and get their message out.

X: How hard a transition has it been for iZotope to go from making desktop audio engineering software to writing iPhone apps?

ND: We come from a PC and Mac development background. When the App Store came along and we were able to play with the SDK [software development kit] for the iPhone, we knew we wanted to try something out. It was pretty much all new, so we had to start from scratch, as far as the development process. But there are also versions of iDrum for the PC and the Mac, so we spun this idea off from that. We have these drum machine and sequencer tools, and to make something more consumer-focused and interactive for the iPhone was a perfect fit. You have the touch screen, and it’s actually a very capable little computer. You can use gestures like shaking to reset all of the sound patterns. You can use the flick gesture to move to the next sound in a sequence, as well as just tapping the screen to start a drum pattern. It opened up a lot of possibilities that we couldn’t even do on the PC or the Mac.

X: Have you considered porting iDrum to other mobile platforms such as Android or Blackberry?

ND: We’ve talked about it, and it’s definitely a possibility. The nice thing about the Apple platform is that there is basically one device that you’re developing for, whereas with Android or Symbian OS or Blackerry you have to think about a number of different devices, some of which might have touch screens, others of which might not. That’s one reason the iPhone App Store has really taken off—it’s like developing for Windows or Mac, it’s set in stone. But we wouldn’t rule out doing something for Android or Symbian.

X: Last question—how many folks work at iZotope, how are you funded, and are you proftable?

ND: We’re currently about 20 people. We’re owned by our founders, Mark and Jeremy, and we are profitable. We have just built up our business around our pro audio products and licensing components. We’ve been growing slowly and steadily and we continue to grow. We’re in a very good place, considering where the economy is.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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