February 18, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Crayong App, from MTA.me Creator, Lets Users Draw Pluckable Strings

alex chen, creator of crayong conductor/mte.me

Crayong creator Alex Chen of Google Creative Labs is creating quite a name for himself as a maker of virtual stringed instruments.

Having already scored internet hits with Conductor/MTA.me and Stringer, Alex Chen of Google Creative Labs has more neat stuff up his sleeve: Crayong, an HTML5 app for smartphones and tablets that will let users create a virtual stringed instrument on the fly.

By today’s standards, stringed-instrument apps are gray-bearded veterans of the touchpad scene. Take PocketGuitar, for instance, which has consistently ranked among the iTunes store’s top 40 highest grossing music apps since September of 2009 (impressive, considering the crowded market). The popularity of these virtual instruments does not come as a huge surprise, because they make music creation approachable to the novice while providing the expert musician a new, weightless outlet for creativity.

But, really, apps like that are just digital replicas of real world objects, and that approach represents the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to instrument apps.

Crayong, an interactive string instrument that’s still under development, challenges conventional app design with a blank, white canvas onto which users draw strings with the stroke of a finger. The strings respond to a plucking motion, as with current guitar and bass apps, while pitch is based on string length. As with Chen’s other creations mentioned above, longer strings mean lower notes. The rest is up to you. It’s Etch-A-Sketch meets acoustic guitar apps meets Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Chen, a musician when not busy working for Google or coding his own projects, sees Crayong as a way for users to construct unique musical experiences for themselves.

“There are a lot of really smart apps out right now,” says Chen. “The guitar, ukulele, and piano apps are really popular, because they are simulations of real instruments. But what I have been trying to think of are instruments that can only exist in the virtual world.”

Crayong’s other predecessors, Gliss and Soundrop, allow users to draw lines at will to make quirky sounds and rhythmic loops. But Chen’s creation, built in HTML5/Javascript, is among the first to apply that freeform approach to the string-plucking concept.

Developers, digital artists, and public transport enthusiasts are still fawning over Chen’s Conductor/MTA.me, an interactive New York City subway map that turns train lines into cello strings. That art piece, which was actually inspired by Crayong, pulls data from the New York’s public subway API to recreate Massimo Vignelli’s iconic 1972 system map in realtime. As trains snake their way from stop to stop, they pluck the strings drawn by other trains as they intersect. As with Crayong, the pitch of each pluck varies according to the distance between any two subway stops (i.e. the length of the string), resulting in a zen-like, subterranean audio/visual song played by an orchestra of subway conductors.

“String-drawing,” as Chen calls it, is indeed a limitless concept, as this subway mash-up shows, but the developer is hesitant to complicate Crayong with additional features.

“I don’t want to go feature crazy,” says Chen. “I’m approaching it like, ‘this is an instrument.’ The guitar has a sound. The cello has a sound. I want to keep my app focused, in that vein.”

According to Chen, work remains to be done on Crayong before it is ready for the public. For starters, he wants to make it multi-touch capable — a necessity if the app is to work as expected on most smartphones and tablet PCs.

Before that happens, Crayong could resurface as another Conductor-esque interactive art piece. Chen says he’s having fun testing the limitations of his design and listening to feedback, and that he expects the newest version up online by sometime next month.

Evolver.fm’s vote: “Pilot.”