The Idea Dude


Thursday, November 20, 2008

The latest in Digital Expression

The ocarina is an ancient wind instrument. Typically looking like a large hollow oval shaped pebble, it has 4 to 12 holes and a blow hole through which you blow like a flute. It's generally small enough to carry it with you like a small potato.

Here are some that I found on Flickr.

So the folks over at Smule took this concept and created a digital ocarina using the Apple iPhone. The application consists of 4 circles representing holes on the iPhone display. You touch each hole, if you want to close the hole. To create a sound, you blow into the microphone which translates the sound of your breath into a musical pitch.

Pretty amazing stuff because it has really kept the essence of the ocarina instrument.

  • It is a portable device, something you would carry with you wherever you go.
  • It keeps the concept simple. Only 4 holes (actually there is a physical limit to the iPhone which will only allow 5 different touchpoints simultaneously.)
  • It combines the analog nature of a wind instrument with a digital host. (Almost like an electric guitar or an electronic violin). Combined with moving the iPhone to introduce vibrato effects, you have an instrument that will sound different when played by different people. In fact it would sound different each time you play it because we are not automatons.

Here's the downside. Like most musical instruments, to create new music on the Smule Ocarina, you must be able to read music notation and translate a music score to the ocarina fingering or find someone who has done so. So firstly you need to find the musical score for a tune you like, then transpose it so that fits the 18 note range of the ocarina (there are 16 possible combinations but the musical range is 18 notes). This would be where most people would have trouble, i.e. they would need to understand the 8 music modes, ionian, dorian etc. and which of the 12 root keys to play the tune in. If I've lost you by now, I think I've proved my point. It is not trivial to come up with new tunes for the ocarina.

Enter the dudes at TheGoodBlogs, ahem... us. We sat down and wrote what is essentially a midi to ocarina converter. There are literally thousands of midi files available on the Internet, what if we wrote a converter that lets someone upload their favorite tune as a midi file and we would try and construct the ocarina score for them. It's not perfect because midi files can range from very simple to pretty complex with multiple tracks and instruments. And sometimes the range is wider than what is possible on the ocarina. But at least an ocarina fan would have a better shot at finding a tune they loved and playing it on their favorite instrument, the Smule ocarina. The best case would be a perfect score, the second best scenario is to be able to play a segment of the tune and worst case, it wouldn't translate at all.

One week later, I'm pleased to announce our midi to Smule Ocarina converter. If you have an iPhone, go ahead and pay us a visit at this url.. Even if you don't have an iPhone, you can play with it to see how a midi file can create an ocarina score.

So this is our small contribution to support the amazing work by the folks at Smule.

TheGoodBlogs Midi to Smule Ocarina Converter


Blogger Jeanne Dininni said...


I think this is incredible, and I applaud you for taking on this project!


12:56 AM  
Blogger The Idea Dude said...

Hi Jeanne,

Thank you. We have a lot of fun doing this. Ended up with a lot of requests from folks with non-digital version. Now to find the time to do that too!


9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I know just what you mean! Finding the time for all the projects we'd like to take on can be really difficult. Yet, while our time and energy are indeed limited and we definitely need to earn a living, doing things we enjoy and giving of ourselves by helping others are equally important. (It's especially nice when we can do both at the same time.)

Doing the things we love keeps our passion for life strong, and reaching out to help others makes us truly human. Finding that balance between earning a living and living/giving can be a continual challenge, but we can be sure it will be well worth the effort!

Keep up the great work!

12:58 PM  

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