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Michigan Students Make Music With IPhones

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Students at the University of Michigan are performing a concert using nothing but their iPhones. They call themselves the Mobile Phone Ensemble. The group was the brainchild of engineering and music professor Georg Essl. The ensembles' first concert is Wednesday night in Ann Arbor.

You may already know that you can download music to play as the ringtone on your cell phone, but University of Michigan students are making music without the download. They transform their iPhones into handheld musical instruments. Tonight, the group gives its first performance in Ann Arbor, Mich.

On a stage, nine college students in skinny jeans and hoodies stand in a semicircle rehearsing with their hands on their iPhones and their eyes on the conductor. It's the first University of Michigan Mobile Phone Ensemble, and the brainchild of engineering and music professor Georg Essl. The students took a class with Essl, where they learned to turn their iPhones into pocket-sized musical instruments.

While making music on an iPhone is similar to making music on a laptop, the iPhone allows for more mobility. For example, if you blow into the iPhone's microphone, you can create a loop of whistles and manipulate the sound.

"We use all of these technologies to explore how to make weird, interesting, new and unusual things," Essl says.

One student created something he calls the Fuzz Generator.

"A lot of it ends up just being noise or completely obnoxious sounds, but it's fun to mess around with," says Colin Neville.

Devin Kerr created a composition called "The Infinitesimal Ballad of Roy G. Biv." Every color matches an audio sample: White has a kind of techno sound, red has a haunting echo-y feel, blue is kind of poppy. The performance involves all nine guys walking around the stage flashing their phones toward the audience. When they tilt the iPhone screen down, the sound fades. When they tilt the iPhone up, it gets louder. All the iPhones are attached to small speakers on their wrists.

This kind of ensemble isn't exactly new. Essl created a similar group at Stanford in 2007. There's also a laptop orchestra at Princeton.

"As more students get these into their hands and start to think creatively about not just using them out of the box, but thinking about how they can put their own spin on that, how they can write their own software," says Peter Swendsen, who teaches computer music at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. "That's when the technology really takes on a life of its own."

If you want to create your own iPhone musical instruments, there's an app for that ... almost. Essl is currently developing one, which he says will be ready in January 2010. '