My mission was to supply the music for a friend's big birthday party. Sounds simple enough, right? Set up a playlist on an iPod and throw in a little Motown, because everybody likes Motown. Plug it into the sound system at the bar we had rented out and hit play. Instant revelry.
I decided to complicate matters.
Like any good D.J., I wanted some input on what song would play when. But I also liked the idea of handing over some control to my fellow partygoers, letting them queue up what they wanted to hear. My search for a way to do this led me down some twisted technological pathways.
For years, my standard tool for party soundtracks was the iTunes DJ feature, formerly known as Party Shuffle, available at the top of the list of playlists in iTunes. This lets you select a source playlist and then queues all of those tracks in random order. The advantage over standard shuffle mode is that you can see which songs are next in the queue, rearrange the sequence and take out any that might kill the vibe.
Like iTunes generally, iTunes DJ is functional but not all that fun. It is also not a great group activity, though you can set it up so that guests who have Apple's Remote app on their iPhones or iPod Touches can request songs and vote for their favorites in the queue. (But show me a bunch of people silently submitting song requests on their phones, and I'll show you a lame party.)
The trouble with using iTunes for the soundtrack was that it would involve letting potentially inebriated people gather around my laptop in a crowded bar, a recipe for digital disaster. My aging iPad seemed a little more party-friendly, but the iPad's Music app has no equivalent to the iTunes DJ function. I would have to venture into the depths of the App Store.
Many D.J. apps for the iPad aim to transform you into one of those guys who are paid a pile of money to fly to Ibiza and spin techno tracks until the sun rises over the Mediterranean.
One top seller is Djay ($20), a beautifully designed app that lets you mess with two virtual turntables and a pile of special effects, things like echo, flanger and bit crusher. This made for some good mucking around with headphones on, but it looked as if it would take a few weeks to master, and to really fit the part I would have to hover over the iPad and pump my fist in the air the whole night.
It struck me that if I wanted something that gave party guests a choice of songs, what I really needed was a jukebox. As we all learned from "Happy Days," jukebox technology revolutionized public music consumption in the 1950s.
If you love that old-timey Wurlitzer look, the App Store has plenty of options for you, though some of them take things awfully literally. Diner Jukebox (in free and $1 versions), for example, wouldn't respond to any of my button-poking until I figured out that I needed to drop in a virtual quarter first.
StereoMatic ($4) has a great look to it, down to the typed red-and-white track labels and simulated wear and tear on the metal coin slot. But again, it felt as if the effort to remain true to the design of a bygone era was getting in the way of making the app easy to figure out and use.
Then I stumbled across Tune Drop ($1), a jukebox app that nobody would ever mistake for a Wurlitzer. Hitting a button at the top pulls up a list of the songs on your iPad. Pick one and it drops down from the top of the screen in the form of a gently bouncing ball, with cover art if available.
The balls land on some simple platforms and roll down as if they were barrels in Donkey Kong. When a song-ball drops into a slot in the corner, it starts playing. Other balls line up behind it, waiting their turn. The fun part is that you can drag the balls around on the screen to change the order or toss them out, turning playlist management into something like a video game.
Tune Drop was a hit when I unleashed it at the birthday party. I passed the iPad around and people could almost instantly figure out what they were supposed to do. There were some awkward moments when an antisocial guest started furiously tossing out everyone else's songs so hers would play next.
The app is so simple and so quirky that it felt as if it must be one person's labor of love -- which it is. I got in touch with Tune Drop's creator, Jason Moore, who described himself as a nomadic app developer currently living in Hanover, Germany. He said the app grew out of his frustration with parties where people were always going into iTunes and clicking on the song they wanted to hear and immediately cutting off the song that was playing.
"I just wanted to make something that was completely nontechnical," Mr. Moore said. The app is so easy to use that Mr. Moore said he had heard from parents whose children liked it. Discovering it made me wonder how many other gems were languishing in obscurity in the App Store.
Remember the part about plugging into the bar's sound system? I decided to complicate that, too. I brought along an Apple AirPort Express that I had configured as a basic AirPlay receiver, meaning it could pick up wireless audio sent by AirPlay-friendly apps like Tune Drop. I plugged the AirPort Express in behind the bar and stuck in the jack that fed the speakers. The iPad was free to roam the room.
More recently I was given D.J. duty for another birthday party, this one on a beach. In the months since the first party, my listening habits had migrated from iTunes to Spotify, the streaming music service. I liked the idea of using Spotify this time because it would save me the trouble of buying songs that would please the guest of honor but that I would never listen to again (sorry, Willie Nelson).
Tune Drop wasn't going to work with music from Spotify, but I decided I could forgo the social aspect this time and stick with a straight playlist. I went with the iPad as a music player again instead of using my phone, which I might need for calls. But the iPad is Wi-Fi only, so for beach purposes I needed to store the music on the device itself rather than stream it.
Spotify's $10-a-month premium version allowed me to download specified playlists so they were available offline. This was easy to do before leaving home, though I discovered that the downloading process would pause when I stopped using the iPad for a few minutes, so there were a couple of stops and starts.
For amplification I took along a Big Jambox ($300), which does a good job of putting big sound into small speakers. The Big Jambox could receive the music wirelessly from the iPad over a Bluetooth connection. It worked without a hitch, and the speaker had plenty of power. I put it on a beach chair, facing out of a big cardboard box, which helped focus the sound a bit amid the expanse of sand.
Yes, a cardboard box. Sometimes it's best not to complicate things.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.