The app Tony Wacheski made is one he could have used as a teenager, decades back, when he taught himself to drum by playing along with vinyl records. For one thing, he'd have to listen to the entire side. Lose the beat, and the record would charge on without you. And LP's were fickle in ways all their own.
"I had to put a book or a weight op top of it, to keep the sound from disrupting the record and causing it to skip," he says.
Skip ahead to 2013, however, and you'll see Mr. Wacheski at the helm of a small Ottawa startup that's drummed up hundreds of thousands of App Store downloads by helping 21st century musicians play along with recorded music at their own speed.
Their app, Anytune, performs a simple trick, but does it well: It takes a piece of recorded music, and slows it down so listeners can play along, all without changing the pitch. So, unlike the speed switch on an LP player that would turn Anne Murray singing "Snowbird" into a disconcertingly mellow baritone, Anytune keeps the pitch steady even as the beats draw farther apart. Alternately, Anytune can keep the tempo steady, while moving a song's pitch up and down.
It provides tools to help isolate individual parts in the music: A pan function to isolate the left and right channels (without actually shunting the sound to the left or the right speaker, as a normal pan would), and an equalizer to bring out different frequencies. With an adapter, users can plug their guitars into their devices, and use Anytune to mix in their own tracks.
The source music can be imported from a user's iTunes library or ripped from a YouTube video, or brought in from a cloud service like Dropbox. Mr. Wacheski says he's heard from music schools that will post a music file to Dropbox at the beginning of class, and then have students pull it down onto their iPhones and iPads to practice along with.
Anytune is a piece of software that's delightfully labeled a "slow downer," which does just that. The technology to make this happen isn't new – the "fast Fourier transform" algorithm dates back to the mid-60s, and can be found in many desktop sound-editing packages, which are powerful but typically hostile to new users. Bringing it to the mobile market in user-friendly form was an opportunity that Mr. Wacheski, a former Nortel engineer, and his business partner, Sean Kormilo, were able to take advantage of.
"Anybody who's a guitarist and a part-time hacker can create a music slow-downer," says Mr. Wacheski, and there were already established players in that music-geek-friendly market. Instead, in a canny move, Anytune's creators positioned it as a music learning tool, targeting the education market. Mr. Wacheski says transcribers are also big users.
Selling through the crowded App Store isn't for the faint of heart, and after considerable tinkering, Anytune's creators settled on a modular revenue model: The full app costs $15, but a basic version can be downloaded for free, and additional modules unlocked through in-app purchases.
Mr. Wacheski says that visibility is the biggest challenge in the App Store, but taking advantage of services like AppGratis that advertise discounted apps can boost sales, and thus boost the prominence the App Store's algorithms give it – so long as they were willing to swallow the cost of that temporary discount. But with 280,000 downloads (free and paid) behind them and a Mac version in the offing, the app's creators see no reason to slow down their beat.