Need to calm down? Then I got just the right thing for you: Thunderspace. I try to fit a 30 minute relaxation break in every day and now I have found another very nice addition to my “health” folder which I’m going to talk about right now.
In a nutshell: Thunderspace offers a total of eight high quality atmospheric natural soundscapes to listen to and then simulates a lightning bolt by triggering the iPhone’s flashlight.
The segment of relaxation apps in the App Store is not too crowded but still lacks of quality applications. Thunderspace differs from other apps that aim to bring you the same virtual thunderstorm experiences in three different key aspects.
1. App Design
Thunderspace is a good looking and simple to use. UI √, UX √. In the credits I read that the app was designed by Taptanium. Since they worked with Robocat on the beautiful Haze weather app, I somehow assumed that Robocat’s famous chief designer Michael Flarup had a finger in the pie. After a short email conversation with Franz Bruckhoff, head of design and development of Taptanium, it proofs that my first hunch was not incorrect, but that my second guess on who the prime suspect is was indeed correct: Taptanium’s Franz was the lead designer.1
Let’s start with the app icon. If it’s done right, the likeliness of me buying your app just skyrockets – you will have won me over by 50% percent already and will click to read more about your app. This was the case with Thunderspace. Its icon is spot-on, has a clear meaning and mirrors the look of the app on a small space.
The app itself is conspicuous by its use of color which fits the respective song, c.f. the Moonlit soundscape basks in midnight blue and light purple tones whilst the African desert has a gradient starting with red-violet at the top ending in a sandy yellow at the bottom. When changing the soundtrack the description of the new scenery fades in accompanied with a subtle waterdrop animation in the background. The text is descriptive and the style of an imaginary journey – if you ever listend to an autogenic training program and read the corresponding booklet this will sound familiar. It’s a nice touch that get’s you in a relaxation mood and helps you visualize the great acoustic area which you’re about to enter.
I’m an avowed fan of binaural, meditation and relaxation apps. To say the least, most of them are not really that beautiful. Matter of fact all relaxation apps on my device haven’t been updated yet for the iPhone 5. Keeping in mind that we enjoy the enlarged screen real estate for about 10 months now that’s an indicator for little updates this segment usually receives. So, in the “niche market” of relaxation apps I’m pleased to see a strong contender which brings a visual aesthetic and a simple user interface to the glowing screen in my palm (if I dare to speak of niche market at all when talking about the App Store with it’s gazillion apps for purpose X).
Apart from usual interface elements even the in-app purchases are nice and thought truth. To cite from the Behind the Scenes PDF in the PressKit:
A lot of attention to detail went into the catalog, the place where you choose a thunderstorm in Thunderspace. For example, when you listen to a preview and decide to purchase the full length version, you can keep listening to the preview while Thunderspace downloads the full length version. Once the download completes, Thunderspace seamlessly crossfades from the preview to the full length version, and lets you continue to listen from there.
The purchase buttons are circles which transforms into a progress bar. All in all, there are many details to deliver a fine-tuned and well-balanced UI and UX. It’s the little things that make me smile when using OS X – needless to say that I like them on iOS, too.
Thunderspace developer Franz Buckhoff is no stranger when it comes to thinking outside of the box. He also developed Holographium which lets you light paint texts in the air with your iPhone which reveal their message when taking a long exposure photograph.
The idea behind the Thunderspace, as simplistic as it is, is a fantastic one. It is subtitled with…
Unwind in a thunderstorm
… and that’s exactly what it does. After pressing the blue icon with the lightning, the iPhone brings a virtual thunderstorm to your home in all it’s glory.
I was blown away by the app when using it for the first time. I hooked it up to the stereo system in my bedroom before going to sleep. This initial test run was only to surprise my girlfriend with the lightning. The ideal user would want to wear headphones to get the full stereoscopic 3D audio experience. Despite not sticking to the recommended usage the bolts in our bedroom felt quite real and I was stunned by the fact that they were created just by invoking that stupid flashlight on my iPhone.
In addition to using headphones you will also get a more true-to-life thunderstorm if you put your phone out of sight to trick your brain into forgetting the actual source of the sudden light flashes.
The promotion video is one of the better ones and emphasizes how real your soothing thunderstorm experience can get:
If you want to listen to Thunderspace without the lightning, just tap the bolt and you’re in public transport mode. You won’t get suspicious glances of people thinking you’re trying to make photos of them.
3. Realistic Sounds
Audio was our primary focus though, so we spent a lot of time recording, auditing, analyzing and mastering the sound for Thunderspace.
While reading the app descriptions I can imagine people thinking of the developer boasting a little bit with buzz words. Mentionings of the “stereoscopic 3D audio” and the high profile soundtracker and pro audio engineer Gordon Hempton, an “Emmy-award winning nature sound recordist”, are all over the App Store description, the official website and in the apps tutorial. But let me tell you, it’s true. The audio is top notch. No need to hide it behind the curtain.
As a former audio engineer I am familiar with the name Gordon Hempton and it is likely you have heard his work too if you watch a lot of nature documentaries. He’s a nature sound recordist specialized in capturing the close to extinct truly quiet places on our home planet. Gordon does this for over 30 years and published over 60 albums. Most of them sell for $50 to $100 to pay for his production and travel costs.
Every professional is sensitized. A special awareness towards all things related to the field of study grows the more experience one gets. Designers immediately spot the flaws of the new iOS 7 design, writers might convulse with pain when my grammar hits their iris and sports scientists know when you’re locomotive functions are off whilst you pass by them when you go for a run. Gordon has a keen sense for when something doesn’t sound right. More precisely, when something is added that shouldn’t be there. As an acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has a strong opinion on where we are heading and what is wrong with the status quo. If you’re into interested in environmentalism and in how Gordon sees/hears the world, this video does not fail to bring across his point of view.2
Experience is one thing and the equipment to put one’s vision into practice is the other half. You probably wonder about the (binaural) head mannequin in the pictures above. Instead of explaining it myself, I let this passage from an interview with Gordon do the talking:3
Yes, my business partner “Fritz” raises a few eyebrows. This binaural microphone system (Neumann KU-81i) works over speakers and headphones and does an amazing job of capturing the experience of being there. It is the closest system to human hearing that I have found and I have tested nearly all. It is not widely used because there’s no blind side, if there is something that you don’t want in your recording, well that is a problem.
The master about the rest of his audio equipment:
Customized high-end with low self-noise, extended frequency response, and rugged. But it also helps to have a few cheap mics around for when it time to explore an unknown like a volcanic steam vent. My equipment has to be usable in the dark and under the worst weather conditions. I plan for bad weather and call it lucky if it’s good. It helps to glue bits of sand paper on the control buttons of the deck so your fingertips can navigate inside a closed bag. I replace noisy closures with quiet ones like buttons and ties. I pair up cables and mark channels with black tape so I can feel left from right, not see. A flashlight can really scare off wildlife. When I’m on location my equipment is always ready to go on a moment’s notice, already assembled and packed in bags that are loaded with enough desiccants to keep the humidity inside the electronics close to zero. I buy equipment from DPA, Neumann, Sennheiser, Sound Devices, Gitzo and Domke; then go to work on making them better. With all the time and expense of finding the right place, the last thing I want to do is fool around with gear.
To keep it short, the result of Gordon’s work is high quality stereoscopic 3D audio material. The thunderstorms and effects he captures using a tweaked version of the Neumann KU-81i microphone have the advantage over traditional audio recordings in that you (or better your brain) can define where the sounds originally appeared location-wise; be it before, behind, upon of below your ears. There is a lot going on in a thunderstorm: wind, light drizzle in the beginning which transforms into heavy rain drops, and the additional sounds of animals and nature itself. Since Gordon is talented enough to capture the moment, it is possible to create virtual thunderstorms on a high level.
To provide an insight into other recording techniques like the holophonic approach I’ve appended some examples in the list at the end of this review. This way you can decide for yourself if you like a binaural thunderstorm better than a holophonic ones.
Now that you know they guy who did the recording can be trusted, let’s move on to the actual material.
I opened the app’s package with iExplorer and checked the quality of all tracks. Each has a BitRate of 256 Kbps. When you rip a CD the default setting to still retain the quality is exporting with 192 Kbps. Most people won’t hear a difference between the two BitRates, but it’s nice to see that Taptanium decided on sticking with a slightly higher BitRate, especially when you’re using something better than Apple’s EarPods4 you gained the right to be thankful for each extra Bit.
|Roof Garden*||10.6 MB||5:22 min|
|Waterscope||12.5 MB||6:30 min|
|Desert||10.1 MB||5.08 min|
|Wetlands||13.6 MB||6.16 min|
|Amazon RainForest||58.6 MB||26.15 min|
|Moonlit||13.7 MB||6.23 min|
|Angels||17.5 MB||8.49 min|
|Wood Frogs||20.4 MB||7.49 min|
As you can see in the table the tracks are all long enough so that your brain won’t realize instantly when a audio loop ends – at least it doesn’t get too accustomed to it.
I included the size because I’m always nervous about keeping to many apps that take up over 500 MB of space on my iPhone. Thunderspace is 42.6 MB without the IAP’s and if you buy them you’ll end up with 172 MB.
Note: This is a compliment from a guy who not bothered emailing the Cleartones guys to send him a better versions of the ringtones he just purchased. Cleartones has a solid product and I still can’t understand why they try to save a few bytes by choosing a 160er BitRate. Admitted, the speakers of the iDevices aren’t the best (but in my defense: I walk around with my headphones the whole day and sometimes hook the iPhone up to my speaker-boxes).
The first two tracks in the table are the free ones. “Roof Garden” is recorded by Frank himself and the rest of the recordings are from QuietPlanet, the company of Gordon Hempton were he sells his audio recordings to movie studios, broadcasting networks and the rest of the world.
Franz recorded “Roof Garden” with a Neumann KU-100 which is the successor of the Neumann KU-81i Gordon Hempton uses. Neumann has it’s headquarter in Berlin since the company was founded in 19285 and I had the pleasure to listen to a variety of recordings from this mic during my apprenticeship.6
There are two full tracks and six shorter demo tracks which you can listen to, the will cost you $0.99 each to unlock. Thunderspace with all 8 songs will set you back by $6.93. This will make some customers wrinkle their nose, but taking the high quality audio into account it’s justified. I might be biased having worked as an audio engineer but the tracks are stellar and production is costly - full stop.
According to Franz Bruckhoff he will raise the price for Thunderspace to $2.99 and $1.99 each for the IAP’s in approximately two weeks (or later). This places the complete package at $14.93. So, if you’re toying with the idea to purchase Thunderspace, now would be a good time.
Additional Comment And Resources
The technique used by Gordon Hempton is only one of many approaches to capture authentic or 3D audio. Holophonic Audio another one. It’s a trademarked technology invented by Hugo Zuccarelli and I embedded the following video demonstrating what it sounds and feels like because it’s funny, educational and a great listening experience. Put it on your watch later list and use the force (by which I mean headphones):
If you head over to the Holophonic Audio website there are a few more examples which are mind-blowing. This quote from Ron Oakland (Concert Violinist and Concertmaster of American Ballet Theatre) captures the essence:
What I expected of Holophonics™ was a refined, clean, system; like many other systems (demos in studios). What I got instead was sound that was all around me and even inside me. It was stunning to hear various demo sounds make the hair on my neck stand up. It was as though you had someone with you performing various tests and really “feeling” the sound. I found this technology to be very impressive!
Generally I’d like to see this getting more attention, especially in a market where it makes sense. Audiobooks was the first thing I could think of. Most people use headphones to consume them – the perfect target group. With the technology being available for several years, it still hasn’t been widely adopted apart from a few productions. This is might be due to the fact that constructing the third dimension in audio is a very complex and time-consuming editing task. As much as I’d be interested in hearing the footsteps of Bilbo Baggins on wet moss in the Shire, I don’t see it happen any time soon.
The virtual haircut recording (see YouTube above) is a good example. On YouTube you can find more, even a short sample of what the Lord Of The Rings could sound like in “3D”. I wasn’t blown away by it. The left and right panorama was overused and I missed more atmosphere and effects. So if someone out there is going to make a high quality 3D audiobook opposed to the cheaper traditional one narrator audiobooks, then please go all in.
- Global Soundmap Project by radio aporee is a database of field recordings. You can discover sounds via Google Maps on there. I imagine this is what our planet must sound like to aliens tuning in. If you want to tune in too whilst on the go then you can also find radio aporee in the App Store. Their main site is also an excellent example of data journalism.
- The 3Dio is a portable (and affordable) binaural audio 3D microphone. The link points to the examples section.
- The holophonic vs. binaural thread on Gearslutz is an excellent read if your into the topic and want to record something yourself. Mark A. Jay has severals posts about the topic, but this one strikes me as the most mass-compatible. About Gearslutz: it’s the best resource/forum for audio engineers. If you ever wanted to know anything about recording music, a podcast or whatever, here you can get find the pro’s exchanging their secret recipes.
- Gordon Hempton’s book One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World
- If you’re looking for free sounds of Gordon Hempton, he regularly posts free tracks here.
- If the subplot of this review has already turned you into becoming more aware of what acoustically happens around you, then the Deep Listening Institute is also a fine link to cultivate that interest a bit more.
I want to end this review with a quote from another audio engineer which nicely fits in and aims at making us aware of the noise around us:
I was in the Northern India, very remote, and wandered out of my hut at night (4am) in winter and I heard nothing…I mean nothing. No wind, No insects or wildlife. Then very faintly I heard something. I held my breath. Then I heard it Loud and Clear…my heartbeat.
Fun fact: Franz (aka Taptanium) did 95% of Haze and signed a publishing deal with Robocat which brought their marketing engine and experience to the
gameapp. He also told me that the deeper insight of Robocat - who already worked on three weather apps before (Thermo, Outside and Ultraviolet) and the Thermodo gadget - was more than helpful and that Haze wouldn’t have survived in the jungle of the App Store without their help. For instance who remembers to think about regions where the sun doesn’t rise for several months and that they should be taken into consideration whilst designing a weather app. I imagine there are other things one worries about whilst developing. ↩
For most of us hearing is a subordinate sense. We’re just not used to pay more attention to sound than necessary. When we’re going to the movies it’s a visual experience, yet most times the sound is what makes atmosphere work in the end. Next time you watch your favorite movie try to focus on the audio and explore another layer of storyline. Ideally you have an awesome home stereo system or watch it with headphones. ↩
Personally, I was disappointed that Apple moved away from the traditional circular shaped earbuds. They claimed the design being “defined by the geometry of the ear” and stated that this “makes them more comfortable for more people than any other earbud-style headphone”. The moment I read this I realized the EarPods wouldn’t fit my ear. And yes, the don’t stay inside my ear… which again makes my iPhone more valuable when I’m going to sell it. I have to thank you for that one Apple. ↩
Fun fact: Microphones in 40’s and 50’s were already great recording devices. What was laking was a quality storage medium and quality speakers. ↩
The Neumann KU-81 is out of production for several years now. If you thinking about buying one ($6,000) and you’re not making a living out of recording stuff, then I’d suggested renting one (or a similar one like the newer Neumann KU–100). There are also other candidates but the are also not cheap, plus the rest of the audio gear is also quite expensive. ↩