Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Propellerhead's ReBirth for iPhone

As you can guess by the type of products that we develop, most of us are huge computer music fans (in fact, one of our team just finished up a north american tour with Angel Theory and Assemblage 23). So bringing ReBirth to the iPhone was a special project for us.

When ReBirth was released, it signaled the beginning of software-based music synthesis and production. Like the instruments that it virtualizes, it’s a major music milestone. Propellerhead’s ReBirth provides an amazing kit for a musician. I’ll point you to for more details. These instruments defined a genre of music. Any music fan should know about these tools.

Not only do you hear 303s and 808s in many popular songs, they are so loved that musicians actually write songs about them, like Fatboy Slim’s “Everybody Needs a 303.” Bands name themselves after them like 808 State. Outkast knows you want the 808 in their catchy song, “I like the way you move.”

Nothing sounds quite like an 808...

At Retronyms we love working with other companies to bring amazing products to the iPhone. A chance to work with Propellerhead on ReBirth was extremely exciting. When we started this project, there were two immediate concerns:
  1. Does the iPhone have enough power?
  2. Does the iPhone have a big enough screen?
When we first received the source code to ReBirth it was archeology. Digging through comments, source files and documents was fascinating. There are some really beautiful pieces of highly optimized DSP and well planned application architecture. We gained a little confidence and started putting an Xcode project together.

If you are a software engineer and have never ported a project to another system, I recommend you do. It’s a very different experience than building something from scratch. When building software from scratch, progress moves quickly at first and then seems to slow as the project builds in complexity. When porting software, things start slow and then accelerate.

Initially there were thousands of error messages and stubbed functions. After cleaning up all the errors and filling out the functions something amazing happened. We heard the familiar rebirth demo song calling out of the iPhone speaker. No clicks or pops with enough cpu to render a user interface! It was a testament to how well built this software and the iPhone audio system are.

Next came the difficult process of getting mods to load properly. It became clear that mods were going to be important. They are a special part of ReBirth history and represent the urge for musicians personalize their instruments. I’m so glad that five mods made it into the first version of ReBirth for the iPhone. They are one of my favorite things about it.

Pitch Black Edition 2.0 Mod

Next we had to perfect the user interface navigation. Yes, ReBirth packs a lot into a small space. However, the iPhone is an ideal platform for it. ReBirth emulates portable synthesizers, so it makes sense to have them on your mobile device. Hunting for controls with your mouse is much less satisfying than simply pressing them with your fingers. Even with the small screen, ReBirth is a blast.

We experimented with many techniques before finding the perfect navigation interaction. We ended up with a two finger scroll and zoom. Double tap to make a component full screen. Then single finger interaction for knobs and buttons. iPhone programmers can see that this allows us to avoid adding a delay on touches that just wouldn’t be right for electronic music tweaking. We also added a handy pan button that allows you to navigate around ReBirth without any chance that you'll hit a control.

Double-tapping any device or panel zooms in, similar to Safari

We are really happy with how ReBirth for the iPhone turned out. We hope that all of you enjoy this little surprise. If it's been years since you immersed yourself in ReBirth, then ReBirth on the iPhone might provide a nostalgic trip. If you have never played with ReBirth or an 808, 303 or 909, I highly recommend that you do - you might find what all the fuss is about. These days you can even download ReBirth for your desktop computer for free from Propellerhead. Either way, I agree with Mr. Slim, everyone needs a 303.


  1. Well I for one am glad you did it. I know there's a lot of gripes about re-engineering it so it takes better advantage of the iPhone etc. but I love it just the way it is. I couldn't believe it either when it started pumping out the demo tune. I kept thinking it must be fake somehow, but then I started twiddling and realised just what an amazing job you had done!

  2. Thanks - yeah there were many debates about how to treat the UI on the device. One of the many reasons to handle things they way we did was MOD support. The mod community is part of what made Rebirth such a classic, and a legacy we wanted to continue.

  3. Oh good, since you did the ReBirth port maybe in the next version you can throw AudioCopy in there as well.

  4. I agree with Anonymous. AudioCopy would be a killer feature. Great job on the port!

  5. A port for Android would be nice!

  6. Will there be a port for OS X Snow Leopard - I would rather not run ReBirth in a Windows emulator on my Mac, and it appears I am only able to do that or buy a Windows-based computer to run ReBirth, the free version.

    It would be really neat if there could be a port of ReBirth for the OS X community.