A complete live show in your pocket: the PlayGround app

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When the Verviers-based collective Herrmutt Lobby released the PlayGround app five years ago, they didn't know that the application would be such a success. By now, the app has gathered more than one million downloads, collected multiple awards and inspired A$AP Rocky to invite the Belgians for a collaboration on his latest US tour.

Hermutt Lobby is a collective of musicians, developers, techies and creatives that came together around 2003 and released a bunch of albums and remixes on various labels. With PlayGround, the collective invited an application to create your own versions of music by D-Styles, 20syl, Coldcut, ssaliva and STUFF. (and that is just to name a few). You are free to play around with an assortment of sounds that compromise the different tracks. In a way, you become an instant remixer.

"Hermutt Lobby is mostly centred around musicians Pascal Demez and Jean Uenten, but in practice, it's a variable group of nerds that changes across time depending on the project, available resources and talents needed”, says Jerome De Cock. “What brought us together is our deep faith in real-time music systems for production and performance”. We spoke with Jerome to find out more.

Hi Jerome, where did the idea come from to make a music app?

Back to the 2000’s, we toured a lot with ‘boring’ electronic live shows, and we were deeply frustrated with the technical constraints that restricted us to only a few useless effect interactions and limited knob tweaking. So we decided it was time to change, and we started building our own real-time music tools by hacking every object that was available to us with our limited resources; cheap DJ-controllers, busted gamepads, second-hand joysticks, etc. We also coded a bunch of 'Max For Live’ patches (a platform by Ableton to help users customize their own instruments and effect tools, ed.) to help us distribute it to the beat-making community. It was well-received, and all these little victories gave us the confidence to continue on this path. And so we started to develop a realtime systemic music framework around ten years ago – and we're still going strong.

We were deeply frustrated due to the technical constraints of playing live.

When the iPad came, we saw it as a perfect canvas for musical expression on touchscreens, and we started to develop our first app, Beatsurfing, with the help of Yanniv De Ridder. Beatsurfing was a MIDI-controller for the iPad that had some success, but we had negative feedback from users that didn’t understand what it was initially designed for. They wanted to be able to play from the get-go with embedded sound-packs. That’s how we ended up with the PlayGround concept.

PlayGround lets users remix music by STUFF., ssaliva, Coldcut, 20syl and The Gaslamp Killer. How did you get prominent artists like these involved?

It’s a different story for each artist, but most of the time, it’s because of our network and a few strokes of good fortune. Some of them are family and long-time collaborators, like ssaliva, so that was a no brainer and pretty easy to put in place.

We had the chance to meet Coldcut (a duo that has co-founded the famous Ninja Tune record label, ed.) after their show in Brussels a few years ago, as they were introduced to PlayGround earlier by Mixmaster Morris. As we have a lot of common interests in music technology and remix apps (they have their own NinjaJam app) it was a real treat to collaborate. We hope we'll be able to work with them again on other projects. As for 20syl, we met this guy a while ago because he wanted to build a ‘musical skate ramp’ and jokingly said that he only knew “that one Belgian crew” that could deliver the tech for it. We made a prototype for the ramp on our iPads using early beta versions of PlayGround.

Last year, we saw a video of A$AP Rocky using PlayGround. How did that happen?

We met with Rocky’s producer Hector Delgado through a mutual friend Matt Fajardo from openformat.la. He immediately saw the power of our project. Their team always push the envelope when it comes to live performance, so they decided to integrate PlayGround into their US tour. We met a couple of times in Berlin and L.A. to build a unique PlayGround map for Distorted Records and some custom MIDI barrels drums for A$AP’s track ‘Forever’. We had a blast watching Flacko play on our instruments in stadiums from the backstage.

What have been the highlights since you released the application, apart from going on tour with A$AP?

There are a couple; realizing we had over 1 million app downloads, receiving Apple’s ‘Best Of App Store’ award in 2016, as well as an International Award at Shake Digital Wallonia in 2018, or accumulating 25 years of combined playtime in the app. It remains incredible to see thousands of social media videos from our users. Additionally, we did a big activation campaign for Adidas in Los Angeles. So yes, we can't complain (laughs).

What are the biggest challenges, making and releasing an app like PlayGround?

As we all come from a music and tech background, our biggest challenge was finding our way in the start-up world and dealing with the responsibilities that came with it. We are still learning every day (sometimes the hard way). Another big challenge for us is learning to negotiate with investors, record labels, artist managers and majors. It’s not always easy, but we learn from our mistakes daily, which is both humbling and encouraging at the same time.

When the iPad came, we saw it as a perfect canvas for musical expression.

One for the nerds amongst us; can you talk a bit about how the app works?

We mainly used samplers and one very resource-efficient custom synth. There’s a standard set of effects to mix and master. That said, the audio is only a small - if tedious - part of our job. When we work with an artist, we have to ‘reverse’ his creative process to understand the underlying rules in his composition to translate them into a system that will be used by others.

The app works amazingly intuitive. You can play music without having any technical or theoretical music background. There are many videos of children and mentally challenged people who are very expressive with the application. In which ways were you conscious about the therapeutic possibilities?

After three consecutive years of doing sessions with children, we discovered the healing powers of music. We witnessed the actual effects and benefits of such a program under the close supervision of proactive occupational therapists. There were huge improvements in children's technical abilities, even after a single session; and the feedback from therapists has been extremely positive. To give you an example; moving the left arm to the right side of the field of vision was something tough to do for a specific child. After one hour of PlayGround, the kid was using both hands in his opposite fields of vision. They told us they had never seen that happen, which was encouraging! We have to thank our chief collaborator Guillaume Batista Pina, Arimoc and Ampli from France, who allowed us to work on these inclusive music workshops. We hope we'll be able to develop these kind of initiatives internationally in the future as it could be beneficial as a healing process. Plus, it’s a labour of love, which is important for us too.

Our biggest challenge is the entrepreneurship. We are still learning (and sometimes the hard way).

And do you cherish any other goals and dreams for the future?

We want to make music accessible to everyone. We want to develop realtime expression tools and solutions for electronic music producers (i.e. produced with computers, not electronic music as a genre) so they’ll be able to interpret in their compositions as if they were a conventional instrumentalist. We are already working on a dedicated tool that will permit users to build their own PlayGround content. We are actively looking to raise funds, so don’t hesitate to contact us if you’d like to invest and help us. Finally, we are also looking for talented mobile and audio developers to join the adventure.