Mountain View Voice

- December 17, 2010

The touch and feel of music

Locally-produced iPad app plays to music fans

by Nick Veronin

The Internet is host to a massive musical diaspora. When searching for the songs, articles, artwork, photos and videos produced by and about a single performer or band, one must traverse multiple sites — MySpace, blogs, Facebook and YouTube, to name a few — each page only giving the music fan a fraction of the whole.

"These assets aren't meant to compete with each other," Aweditorium creator James Miao says of all the media musicians produce to augment their tunes. "They are meant to be complimentary."

Aweditorium, an iPad application, which Miao and a few friends built in an office on Castro Street, is aimed at pulling all of these disparate elements into one cohesive, tactile and aesthetically pleasing experience.

Miao, a University of Southern California dropout, moved to the Peninsula from his hometown of Los Angeles three years ago. He settled first in Palo Alto but has lived in Mountain View for the past year. He says he came to this area for the same reason many come: to be a part of the tech culture, which defines Silicon Valley.

"I grew up in awe of guys like Marc Andreesen," co-creator of Netscape, Miao says. He wanted to be among the "young guys changing the world." Aweditorium, along with his last project, thesixtyone.com, were both efforts at merging his love for tech and music in a manner that would breathe new life into an industry that he believes has lost its way.

The 25-year-old Miao criticizes the current state of digital music consumption as cold and artless. He wistfully recalls the good old days — in his case, the mid-'80s on through the '90s — when adventure video games, like The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros., and even fighting games like Mortal Kombat, came with lush booklets replete with, character histories, maps of imaginary worlds and a stage-setting back story.

Now, he says, most games contain a solitary glossy card with controller configurations and legal information. And that's if you buy a physical copy of the game, instead of downloading it from some online marketplace.

Music, in Miao's opinion, has taken a similar trajectory: "A lot of that warmth and feel you got out of the product is now gone with MP3s and CDs."

He feels that the small inserts of CDs don't do justice to most album artwork, and notes that the visual packages that are sometimes attached to MP3s are usually viewed on tiny screens. Aweditorium aims to tackle this issue as well. The iPad screen is almost as large as the surface of an LP sleeve — a sufficient size for viewing album art.

Launching the application drops the user into a sea of thumbnail images of artists and album covers. Swiping a finger in any direction over the display sends the tiny photographs sailing off screen, giving way to ever more pictures. Tap one and it expands to fill the screen, a song begins playing and lyrics appear in the bottom of the frame in sync with the singer. Tap the screen once more and multicolored text bubbles, filled with artist factoids, begin popping up intermittently. In the bottom right hand corner there is a play and pause button, along with icons which link users to share the music with friends, watch artist videos or return to the thumbnail view.

Aweditorium is optimized for music discovery. Sifting through the app's approximately 300 artists is a multi-sensory adventure, where touch, sight and hearing coalesce around musicians and their art. It encourages listener involvement; in this way, in its tendency toward indie rock acts and in its ability to display large renderings of musician art, it harkens back to a medium that today is only found among the collections of true music fanatics: vinyl.

"Vinyl is something you can feel warm about," says Miao, who is convinced that the large black discs produce the highest quality sound of all music media.

But Miao's app is not vinyl's digital cousin. For starters, each artist is only given one track — unless there is an accompanying music video — and only one image. There is no parallel of the lavish gatefold illustrations, a la Jimi Hendrix's "Axis: Bold as Love" LP.

And like MP3 players, Aweditorium can exacerbate a short musical attention span, as it allows users to flip from artist to artist faster than anyone could ever dream of flipping over a record and replacing the needle to the groove of side B.

Then again, Miao never set out to duplicate the feel of vinyl, even if he did take some cues from the older medium. "We're not trying to recreate what has already been done. We are trying to re-imagine it," he says. "Giving people a different music experience through the iPad — that was our goal."

Aweditorium is free and available for download through the Apple App Store.

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