Music Apps Killed the MP3 Star

[Video Link]

The Hollywood life cycle has become familiar: it starts as a movie, continues as a comic, and then proceeds to app stage.

This is where Inception, the summer's popcorn brain-twirler from director Christopher Nolan, currently is at, having arrived in the iTunes Store today as an app.

But what's great is that the app isn't everyday brand-emblazoned cookie-cutter smartphone fodder.

What it is is a beautifully crafted remix of the great reactive audio app, RjDj. And it's free.

Nolan and Inception score composer Hans Zimmer worked with software producer Michael Breidenbrüker, of RjDj parent company Reality Jockey (Breidenbrüker was also one of the founders of, to develop a version of the company's flagship software that channels the dream-like aesthetic and logic of the film.

RjDj is a reactive app, which means it takes signals from the real/physical world and processes them in real time. In the case of RjDj (along with its iPad sibling, Rj Voyager), this is a combination of familiar iOS tactile maneuvers, like touching the screen or shaking the device, and the senses-warping experience of hearing sounds around you transformed. Audio enters through your microphone, and then emerges ever so slightly augmented via your headphones.

True to the originating film, the Inception app takes your surrounding sonic world -- background noise, your voice, etc. -- and alters it, lending an echoing depth, mixing in familiar music from the film (including the "Dream Is Collapsing" theme that features former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr), and so forth. There are various distinct stages that fit together like pieces of a puzzle that need to be solved by the player. Each stage is a dream with its own rules and its own sonic properties.

All of this is presented less as a sound app than as a dream app, an app intended to not just simulate the dream experience but to stimulate it (while RjDj is listed in the iTunes store's Music app category, the Inception app is filed under Games).

Zimmer, who is one of the most prominent and prolific Hollywood film composers (Gladiator, The Dark Knight), provides in a brief promotional video a passionate and pithy manifesto for the reactive-music movement: "The thing I've been searching for, that I've been working on forever now, is a way to get beyond recorded music, to get beyond you just download a piece of music and it just ... it's just always the same."

When Zimmer says he's been searching for this for forever, he isn't kidding. In many ways, the RjDj/Inception remodeling of music consumption can trace its roots back to a 1979 hit by his one-time band, the Buggles: "Video Killed the Radio Star."

If Tuesday was a big day for sound art, Wednesday was a big one for reactive sound.

Get the Inception app (for free) at this iTunes Store Link. It runs on the iPad, the iPhone, and the iPod Touch (the latter second generation and up).

The RjDj app is supported by a thriving community of programmers who produce original "scenes" that you can use to filter and process your world. Some scenes are free, others are for sale within RjDj. (Hey, it's a store, within an app, from within the iTunes store -- it's like Inception! OK, enough of that.) Learn how to develop original RjDj scenes here.


  1. “What I wanted was to develop an app that went ‘chuggachugchug chuggachugchug’ whenever somebody moved. I call it the Hans Zimmer Effect. We are now working on a newer version that repositions the listener so that the sun is always in their eyes.”

  2. I’ve been into ambient music and experimental sound for more than 20 years now, but increasingly I find myself listening to less and less recorded music or even sound art.

    I think this is because just going through life, I feel like I am inundated with sound from every direction, most of which is not of my choosing. One of the reasons I can no longer bear to go to the mall is because every single shop has something different blasting at deafening levels inside and the sound walking through the mall is, to me, physically sickening. By the time I get home and can listen to whatever I choose, my ears feel burned out.

    I can honestly say that the last thing I want is any kind of “augmented reality,” especially when it comes to sound. Instead, I’d rather be able to walk into a shop, any kind of shop, and hear no music, no sound other than workers and shoppers going about their business. How marvelous would that be?

    1. You know, there are millions of deaf people out there who would give anything to hear the world of “noise” around us….

      One of the most amazing things that apps like RJDJ and Inception do, is they allow us to experience the beauty of “noise,” the “art” of noise — the sounds of the Subway clacking and swooshing along, the conversation happening in a different language next to you, all of these sounds sampled and morphed into beautiful soundscapes that blend perfectly with the music you are listening to.

      If all else fails, there’s always ear plugs. But if you go outside, shut your eyes and really open your ears, you might just find you’ve had ear plugs in the whole time!

  3. I had a similar idea about a piece of music that’s different with each go around. I made two ambient pieces that are meant to be played together, both on loop. Because they’re different lengths, they overlap differently on each play through. Also, even though they’re each just around 7 minutes long, you get around 42 hours before the “piece” actually starts repeating.
    You can find and download the two separate tracks here:

    1. Don’t be too sad. I just tried it. The text reading things like “the world around you is now a dream” is rather patronizing. The sound, while impressive, is like having a digital effects processor on a random setting (mostly delay with heavy modulation) in your head along with some orchestral samples. Very annoying and I’m not sure under what circumstances you would use this.

    2. I on the other hand would be sad. This app is one of the few that uses real world input to alter sound and intermix the soundtrack with the world around you. It’s really a pretty amazing piece of work.

      “I’m not sure under what circumstances you would use this.” seems an empty “meh” comment, because this is just an immersive ambient sound app. It’s purpose is just to play with sounds and unlock other dreamscapes – one demands you be outside on a sunny day and still – another require you to be still at 11pm – it’s just an interesting little app, and it’s free.

      I can see someone who feels a simple tone setting message in a free app as “patronizing”, just not “getting it” anyway.

      Another interesting and fun one is “The Orb” featuring music from the Orb with David Gilmour. No real purpose other than playing with soundscapes and colors/effects – but neat.

      1. I think you might have meant to reply to me. I get ambient sound apps and I’m a huge fan. Just not of this one. I stand by my comment that “the world around you is now a dream” is just embarrassing. It reads like it’s pitched at a 10 year old.

        I would highly recommend Bloom by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, Air by Peter Chilvers and Sandra O’Neil or Trope by Brian Eno and Chilvers if you’re into ambient music apps. They’re not free but they’re cheap and wonderful. I listen to them quite a bit.

  4. The idea of a device that provides appropriate music for the situation is not new. The book “Gun, with Occasional Music” predicted such a thing in 1994.

    And I’d appreciate having the app ported to Palm’s WebOS.

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