Friday, April 04, 2014

Quincy - an Introduction

We spent the last 4 months with one of the most fascinating projects we’ve had in a long time. Quincy. Now that the app is so close to being released, we’d like to take a minute and give it a little introduction.

Originally Quincy was focussed on pentatonics, hence the name (combining the Latin for five with the word cycle). It was all about colors, synesthesia, painting music and pattern generation. We decided on iOS as our first release platform and started experimenting with Conway’s Life as pattern generator. Now that had been done before, if not on iOS, then on most other platforms, but never really with musically satisfying results. The best implementation we had seen was simply triggering drums to a beat and was graphically mostly unimpressive. So we came up with a bunch of ground rules.

First of all Quincy needed to be document based so it could deliver easily repeated results and provide a compositional framework. One should be able to basically write music with this tool. Therefore toolsets for drawing and editing were needed. Every composition would also have a color palette consisting out of five user defined colors. Five again because of the initial emphasis on pentatonics, but we found later that even with nonatonic scales, a set of five colors seemed to work best. Creating Life worlds with differently colored cells is highly uncommon, but it really sets compositions apart from each other and also provides a lot of insight into the interactions of cells.

As far as the base algorithm was concerned, we came to the conclusion that only a complete implementation of Life would do. Ninty percent of all Life implementations deal exclusively with the B3S23 variant which is the best-known and really the one called Life. It famously generates gliders, spaceships and such and is graphically very diverse. Other variants like HighLife or Seeds on the other hand tend to create more self-similar structures. These, however, could be highly interesting from a musical perspective we thought. We were right in that assumption as it turns out.

So what about the music? Well - while working with our base concepts, we realized that in general there was a similarity in our approach to that of 3D drawing tools where all sorts of parameters and forms are set before one hits the Render button. We had the graphical side, the settings in the algorithm. What was left was to define the way that light reflected of a surface or in our case soundwaves were produced. So we came up with the concept of tone material. Like a shade of yellow that can be expressed in 3 or four numbers using the RGB or HSL palettes we were going to produce tonalities with base scales. This tone material would then be embedded in a module that allowed additional properties in such as how that material was to be rendered.

Quincy’s sound generating modules address another aspect of music. In general music can be described as a confluence of melody and harmony. In that we wanted much more than just create linear note events or statically trigger some triads. We wanted Quincy’s modules to create three or four independant parts simultaneously and have any resulting harmony become a function of the selected tone material. That was realized in the Gregorian module that renders traditional Bass, Tenor, Alto and Soprano voices as well as in the Chroma and Pentrix modules that produce half note, quarter note and eighth note events simultaneously. If wanted. Any of these voices can be turned on or off as per composition.

During these months working on Quincy we were quite obviously so involved with the nitty-gritty details of writing code, testing and such that all these nicely thought out concepts faded out more and more. It became all about implementing this or that and unit tests and the practicality of doing this much computation on handheld devices. But then during the very hectic last days something quite marvellous happened. We had decided that we should include a couple of sample documents with the app - stuff the user would delete at some point when they were more familiar with the app. Now everybody knows sample docs. They are mostly boring, wrote and nobody’s taste. With Quincy, however, we found that each of the 12 sample docs we put together in very short time turned out like an individual composition with its own character and a partially very hypnotic effect. We really couldn’t help but playing them again and again for a while. We put a small sampling of these tunes together for you in the video clip below.

So that’s it - a couple of words about Quincy - soon to be released and currently in review. Documentation and app site should be up soon - we'll keep you posted. In a way this is avery special release and just the beginning of a journey for us because there is so much more that can be done. As they the say - the first step …

Official website:
Full documentation: