Earlier this year, Virginia native and mobile platform expert Rana Sobhany had a six-month break after writing the book, “Mobilize: Strategies for Success from the Frontlines of the App Revolution,” so she decided to revisit her love of music.
“I’ve played music my whole life, but it’s never been my career," she says. "I’ve always worked with early stage tech companies, but I decided that I really wanted to get back involved in music."
Her renewed interest in music just happened to coincide with the April release of Apple’s iPad, which gave her an idea.
" When the iPad came out, I thought, you know, I’ve been working with mobile apps for years now, so I wondered if I could leverage that knowledge into music," Sobhany says.
After some playing around with the new iPad and several music apps, Sobhany became an iPad DJ. In fact, she is widely acknowledged as the first (and perhaps only) iPad DJ. The basic gist of what she does is, she uses two iPads, a mixer, and a variety of apps to turn those iPads into turntables and create mixes on the spot.
“I don’t think what I do possible with iPods,” Sobhany says. “I’m using this large touch screen as a sort of hybrid between a laptop and a traditional musical instrument, I’m really playing the iPad. When you watch a guitarist move their hand from the fretboard to the neck, there is audio and visual engagement, and that’s what I get to experience when I use iPad—it’s a visual thing, too. The iPad is light and portable, so I can throw it around, be crazy. I'm not inhibited by turntables. I’m having amazing time learning about performance aspect.
She has already played 33 shows since April and has been written up in Wired and Mac Life (both articles provide tech-heavy breakdowns of her process). She has released an EP of her iPad musical concoctions, called Destroy the Silence, which is available on iTunes. A YouTube video showing her technique has gotten a half-million hits. “It’s fun for me, it blends everything I know about into one beautiful thing,” she says.
Still, Sobhany says most of the interest in what she does has come from techies rather than music fans.
“The problem is, if the people listening aren’t really music fans, I could do the sickest mix imaginable, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, OK. That’s cool,’” she says. "Surprisingly, but also not surprisingly, 99 percent of the interest has been technology based, which is not a good thing. I feel like it’s so easy for tech people to understand why this is important. Musicians and music fans, when they see it they go crazy, but initially they're not interested. For me, the metric for success is, if you go to a show where there are five DJs, and you can't tell which one is the iPad DJ, I win."
Sobhany's primary interest is in dance music, so she is planning on moving from New York City back to the D.C. area in the coming weeks, mostly because she thinks those immersed in the city’s dance music scene will be into what she does. “I'm excited about being in D.C.; there are a couple of dance clubs, like Glow, that I think might be great launch pad for me," Sobhany says. "And I've spent so much time in D.C., it's a comfortable place, my parents live close by, and it's a good place to be creative, so hopefully I can use the D.C. market to test what I’m doing.”
But, there has already been some resistance to what she does. While many of the comments posted on her YouTube how-to video are positive (or just requests for more explanation of the technology), there are also remarks such as "terrible for so many reasons" and "This is not DJing!!!!"
Sobhany understands why vinyl heads may not be ready to embrace her.
“DJs have always had this sort of love/hate relationship with tech innovation," she says. " Around the time that CDs became prevalent, the first DJs using CDs instead of vinyl, they were absolutely attacked. The vinyl guys hated the CD DJs, then the CD DJs hated the laptop DJs, and then I came along with the iPad, and all previous hate is channeled toward me.
"What I’m finding through anecdotal evidence, is that every time there is a paradigm shift as it relates to the performance of music, there is a compound level of disgust from other DJs," Sobhany continues. "DJs have to work on their craft for so many hours, and, as an artist, anytime new technology comes along, you have to relearn everything and it disrupts the process. So, I can see the pushback."
In order to counteract some of the naysayers, Sobhany, who is playing a show at a local AOL conference tomorrow, says she takes extra care to give visually dynamic sets. "I kind of overcompensate," she says. "My show is crazy–I stage dive, and try to make it as crazy as I can, because people are just expecting me to get up there and hit "play."
And while she knows that vinyl DJs, lugging around their crates of records think she has it easy toting around her lightweight gear, Sobhany says the life of an iPad DJ isn't as simple as one might think. At a show in Holland last week, her mixer caught on fire (due to a problem with a US/European power converter) and, unlike traditional DJs, she couldn't exactly run out and replace her set-up. "
I was like, 'What am I gonna do! But because in Holland everybody and their mom is a DJ, someone randomly had the mixer I needed," she says. "If it had been any other DJ, though, they could've just called up a buddy to get what they needed, but there is no other me!"