London’s iconic AIR Studios launches its first digital app, AirVinyl, today. TMV’s Laura G Thorne talks to pioneering internet developer Paul Myers, whose company Bappz built the app.
Producer George Martin’s pedigree is uniquely distinguished, beginning with his decades-long association with the Beatles. Martin established his own studio, AIR, in 1969, which quickly proved to be a destination for the industry’s headlining talent (and is one of the few studios that remains sustainable, with artists such as Coldplay and George Michael and virtually every major film production in Britain continuing to record there). George has been retired for some years, but his legacy remains (the company is now owned by MD Richard Boote of Strongroom and his team).
Bappz is headed by entrepreneur Paul Myers, who founded the UK’s first free ISP service, X-Stream in the 1990’s. In 2000, Myers started Wippit, one of the internet’s first legal music subscription services, which grew to become Britain’s biggest music download site before shutting down in 2008. Beginning his professional life as a DJ, songwriter and producer, he worked with Warner, Sony and Polydor among other majors. He now runs dedicated app design house Bappz, as well as podcast production company Playback Media.
AIR approached Bappz to help develop a digital app, brainstorming with the staff for several days. The result is AirVinyl, an iPad app that, in the words of Myers, “recreates and simulates the experience of vinyl”. In a time when the mp3 is the dominant format and music seems more disposable than ever, what better environment to introduce a product that offers the promise of vinyl’s warmth and authenticity, along with the convenience and portability of a digital device?
The AirVinyl interface cleverly captures this aesthetic. Each of the user’s mp3 or AAC digital music files are represented as a vinyl record on a turntable, with a turntable arm and a stylus. To play the file, one places the virtual arm on the record. The groove between each track is clearly visible, and the arm can be lifted up to listen to the next track or the preceding one. The user’s files are depicted as albums in a wooden crate, with bin cards separating each genre. These files can be ordered and searched by preference including Artist and Album.
The app also offers the mixtape option with tape deck interface, which replicates what we here in the 21st century now call a playlist. Users can make custom “mixtapes” to play or share with friends via social networks including Twitter and Facebook. There’s even a tape counter (showing hours and minutes).
Ultimately however, AirVinyl’s appeal is not based upon its visual simulation of the record-playing experience: what gives it its character is the sound. How was this achieved? Did AIR’s world-class engineering team devote its considerable acumen to creating an app that would merely overlay the sounds of scratches and dust onto the listener’s mp3 collection, as some apps currently in existence already offer to do? Without wading waist-deep into thirty years of arguments about the quality of analogue versus digital (keeping in mind that digital formats themselves vary), there are those that seem to think that making a record sound degraded, old or just plain bad is the sum total of the vinyl experience (though they are matched on the other side by those who will pay huge premiums in the thousands for rare vinyl recordings or just prefer the vinyl format; vinyl sales jumped 55% in the UK in 2011, though that still only amounts to 1.2% of all sales.
What AIR’s engineers did was to select 33 tracks across a variety of genres and conduct extensive A/B testing, comparing the digital version taken from a digital master to the vinyl/analogue counterpart, played on the highest-fidelity system available. They then tuned specific frequencies to recreate the dynamic range of vinyl, the fullness and “bounciness” (to quote Paul Myers) that is lost through mp3 compression. That may be simple to say, but to identify those nuances across the spectrum is difficult to accomplish successfully unless one is a Jedi Master of sound.
AirVinyl is not an effect layered like reverb over the existing recording, as frosting on a cake; it actually subtly filters the frequencies to affect the texture and flavour as a result.
Whether you will like the cake is another question, but Myers finds himself listening to all his music through AirVinyl, saying he “doesn’t want to listen to music any other way anymore… digital files cannot completely replicate an analogue sound, but this is the closest”. AirVinyl can be used in that sense as a sound processor, say in conjunction with a speaker system such as the Zeppelin via Wifi to create your own in-home vinyl listening party (shag rug, waterbed and rolling papers not included).
Given Myers’ background, we couldn’t miss this opportunity to query him on his thoughts about Spotify, Apple and other music services. What’s his thinking these days? When Wippit was being developed, Myers said, it was an “ownership culture. That’s changed now because of bandwidth on the move, because of Wifi in the home, because of there’s more freedom. We don’t necessarily have to own the file. So streaming services are coming of age”. Myers anticipates that “consumer behaviour will continue to be a hybrid model. It may be that streaming is a direct replacement for radio, a discovery device” rather than an either/or proposition. As far as revenue models, while it’s true now that “artists can’t get rich from streaming”, Myers looks to a time where, as the number of subscribers continues to grow, streaming revenue may compare to or even exceed that of sales via download.