Take one part Sim City, one part Rock Band, and one part music sequencer and you've pretty much got Isle of Tune, which was released today for the iPad. It's not quite a "game", but it's still totally cool enough to merit consideration for our Gaming App of the Day.
Created for PC earlier in the year by flash animator and designer Jim Hall, Isle of Tune's basic concept is simple, ingenious and just the right amount of bizarre. First, you're given a large green map, similar to a blank canvas in Sim City. You then lay out roadways, then place various things — lampposts, plants, houses, bridges — alongside them. Finally, you place some cars on your roads and press "play", which sets the cars in motion.
As the cars pass the items you've placed along the road, they trigger musical notes, beats and sound effects specific to each item. Lampposts can be arranged to provide a beat, flower gardens offer synthy lead notes. The pitch and timbre of each sound can be adjusted from a wide variety of presets, so before too long you'll be creating full drum beats, basslines, piano parts and lead melodies.
The genius of Isle of Tune is the way that it re-conceptualises musical notation. Ordinarily, music notation runs on two axes — it runs left to right (the tempo moving forward) and it moves up and down (the harmony, or how the notes stack on top of one another). Isle of Tune still operates along those two axes, but it makes the process of arranging separate parts a much more visually direct process.
Arranging music for an ensemble, be it a small group or a large one, is a process that requires a good deal of aural imagination. The notes on the page only go so far in illustrating how the instruments will relate to one another when the band picks up the music and plays it. Isle of Tune relegates each part to a separate road — for example, one car drives in a circle keeping a beat, one plays a repeating bassline, and a longer road eventually leads to the melody. The musical score is teased apart and laid out in a way that anyone can understand. And as clever as Isle of Tune is, there's also a beauty to its humbleness — the small houses, the simple cars, kicking up songs as they trundle about their day-to-day business.
But blah blah OK I'm going on about this because I think it's really cool. But what you might think is really cool is all of the music that you can make with this thing. Just perusing YouTube looking for "Isle of Tune" videos should be enough to convince of the creative potential of this program. For example: "Beat It" or the one and only Portal theme song, "Still Alive". The app itself connects to a huge database of user-created tunes, many of which are quite impressive. It's a snap to save your own creations as well and upload them to the Isle of Tune servers from within the app.
When I first played the game on my Mac earlier this year, I got right in touch with Hall and asked him when he was making an iPad version. The interface seemed so perfect for a touch screen, and I really wanted to see it on the device. He assured me that one was in development and I'm happy to say that it was worth the wait — indeed, the new Isle of Tune HD interface works perfectly with my iPad's big screen. It's not a simple program — the entire chromatic piano has been added, as well as a wide variety of other drum and synth sounds (I'm happy to report that the dog barks are still in there). And so, it requires a bit of time to learn. Furthermore, it won't do the work for you — fun musical accidents happen regularly, but it helps to have a good idea of what you want to accomplish musically going in.
Musicians refer to the form of a tune (repeats, codas, etc.) as its "roadmap". Isle of Tune takes that idea and makes it literal, while having a lot of fun in the process. Time to let your inner composer (slash-city-planner) take centre stage—Isle of Tune HD gets my unequivocal endorsement.
Isle of Tune HD [iTunes - $2.99]