This is the review that I never would have been able to write a few short years ago. First, before the invention of the iPhone, obviously this would not have been possible. Secondly, I've never been much of a fan of dance/EDM/electronic music. I grew up on Classic Rock and Metal. Give me "Back in Black" or "Appetite for Destruction", and I'm set. But ever since I've purchased an iPhone (and subsequently iPads), I've gravitated towards more electronic styles. The availability of so many synths and drum machines on iOS devices lends itself towards this genre.
The possibility of having a hand-held device, on which you can compose, create, record, and distribute a track is astounding to me. Perhaps I'm just too old, but this technology is still amazing. And so I wanted to write a column about my favorite all-in-one iPhone apps. These are the kinds of apps that you can use to make a quick track while riding on the bus or train on your daily commute, or while waiting in the doctor's office. This isn't meant to be a full "production" rundown, so I'm not getting into DAW's or anything like that here.
What my criteria was for the apps was pretty simple. I needed the app to be available on the iPhone, for total "on-the-go" capability. So this excluded some fantastic apps like KORG Gadget, Oscilab, Stroke Machine, and Cotracks (I may put together a separate review for those). The app needed to be more than just one instrument type, so no Sunrizer XS, Bebot, or Synthecaster. And finally, you needed to be able to record and export your finished track to SoundCloud from within the app.
I'm focusing on four apps here - KORG's iKaossilator, Propellerhead's Figure, Casual Underground's Loopseque Mini, and triqtraq by Zaplin Music. I've left a few apps off of the list, for several reasons. I've not included iMaschine by Native Instruments, simply because I've never used it. Might be fantastic, I have no idea. Another app I wavered on including was dot Melody by Olympia Noise Co. It's a great app available for the iPhone, but it just didn't fit in with the others that I'm reviewing. I do recommend you check it out, though (I've previously reviewed it here).
So, without further ado, let's go!
As many of you are aware, iKaossilator is the iOS version of the very popular hand-held hardware device, the Kaossilator. The big X/Y grid will be familiar, and is the focus of the app. Using up to five different parts (triggered by the small colored circles below the grid), you can select from up to 150 in-app sounds. These of course range from drums, bass, leads, full chords, and different sound effects (think blips, raindrops, etc.). By simply tapping or dragging on the X/Y grid, you manipulate the sounds. So, for example, the drum parts have four different rhythms based on your position on the grid. For bass and lead parts, you control the notes based on the position, and within the pre-defined scale and key (selected in the lower portion of the screen). It's all immediately intuitive.
Other than the X/Y grid, the main interface screen is where you'll change the scale, tempo, select the instruments to be used for each part, and select the loop length. KORG has provided a surprising number of scales (35 total), including some exotic scales. This is a great way to be sure that you're not sounding like everybody else. Each of the five parts can also be soloed or muted here in the main screen by either swiping up (solo) or down (mute) on the colored "part" buttons.
Tapping on the "row" icon (located just to the right of the KORG logo) will bring you to the Loop List screen. Here you can activate different combinations of instrumentation parts for your track. You'll see rows with each of the five parts in colored boxes, and you can mix and match different parts from different loops. For example, if you've set up five different loops, you can choose the drums from one track, the bass from another, and so on, and switch these on the fly DJ-style. Or of course you can switch to an entire new loop altogether. These are set up to change at the beginning of the beat, so you can select them knowing that they will come in on time with the beat.
I've only just begun playing with iKaossilator, thanks entirely to Jakob Haq's recent Haq Attaq video, in which he performed his new theme song. I'm a huge fan of KORG Gadget and Module, so I'm not sure what took me so long to come around to this app. But I'm glad I did. It's a keeper.KORG iKaossilator
Developer: KORG INC.
App developers Propellerhead are pretty legendary for apps and software like Reason and Thor, but another little gem of theirs is Figure. Deceptively simple in nature, Figure allows you to play and record three instrument parts - lead, bass, and drums. The interface could not be easier, and allows for instant creativity.
Each instrument gets its own screen for the playing surface, which differ slightly between the drums and the bass and lead. For the drums, you'll have four separate percussion instruments to play, generally (but not always) a combination of kick drum, snare, hats and an additional sound (clap, etc.). These can all be adjusted to play unique rhythms by selecting the number of beats per measure using the dial directly above the playing column surface. For instance, you can put four beats on the kick, two on the snare, twelve on the hats and six on the bongos and get some interesting stuff going on. The automation feature here is outstanding, and is a super easy way to create loops quickly.
For the lead and bass, the layout is different. Presented with a large X/Y playing surface, dragging a finger or tapping is how you create notes. While the X axis represents the pitch, the Y axis differs based on the preset selected. Therefore the Y axis may represent modulation, or tone or decay, for example. Both the bass and lead instruments have additional settings to control the parameters unique to that preset. Again, these may range from delay, to filter or resonance. Additional tweaks to the sounds can be automated as well, and are found in the "tweaks" tab in the app. Don't overlook this bit, as you can really change the preset sounds here.
I almost feel silly even describing how the interface works, because it's so easy to pick up and go. My two daughters, ages 7 and 5, instantly crank out tunes on Figure. That said, this app is no toy. The bass and lead sounds are from Reason's Thor synth, and the drum parts are from Reason's Kong drum synth. They sound great.
One new feature with Figure is the sharing community. The Discover community is where you can upload your Figure tracks to the Web, and others can grab those and remix them. This service just recently got a big boost with Jakob Haq's "Nebula Rasa" remix (check out his YouTube video discussing this here). It's a great way to not only share your work, but get inspired by what others are doing. There is a very vibrant and active Figure community out there, as evidenced by the Propellerheads Figure Addicted SoundCloud group. It's an extremely easy, fun, and creative app, and at $0.99 USD, there is ZERO excuse for not owning this app.Figure - Make Music & Beats, Remix on Allihoopa
Developer: Allihoopa AB
My next app on the list is Loopseque Mini. This one is the only non-universal app of the bunch, as the iPad version (simply called Loopseque) is a separate app. The interface of Loopseque Mini is a bit different than the others, as the sequencer is based on a circular shape, in which you place the notes/beats in at certain intervals, and the scrubber rotates around the circle clockwise. There are 32 steps available in the sequencer, so that gives you some room to breathe with your track.
(Video shown is iPad version, but the interface is nearly identical for the iPhone version)
It's a very intuitive way to quickly set up beats, as you can easily see where to place quarter notes, eight notes, etc. There are four instrument slots to choose from, and a wide range of instrument sounds that can be selected from. The circle itself is 16 steps, but you can select notes to play every time, or every other time, so this allows for some great variation.
As with the other apps on this list, Loopseque Mini does lean heavy on the 'electronic' side of the spectrum as far as available sounds. A nice feature of Loopseque Mini is the option to import your own samples from Dropbox. This opens up your sonic possibilities. I didn't play around with this too much, as I really liked choosing from the preset sounds. But, if you've got some nice .wavs, you'll enjoy this.
One great feature here is that you can easily set up a bunch of different patterns - nine, to be exact, which are easily selectable with a flip of the finger. Flicking the patterns up or down (accessed by going into the 3x3 "grid" mode allows you to swipe between patterns quickly. In this screen, you can also mute any of the instruments as well. Loopseque Mini also comes with some built-in effects, including reverb, delay, and filter, as well as the option to reverse your sounds.
Loopseque Mini is another apps that looks simple, but is deceptively deep. Small touches like having a note play every other rotation, built-in effects and the ability to trim sample clips provide plenty of variation to the stock samples that are included. Well worth a long look.Loopseque Mini
Developer: Natalia Myasnikova
I recently reviewed triqtraq in Octobber, and had nothing but good things to say about this app. It was a big surprise for me just how much you could do with triqtraq. With loads of automation and 16 patterns available, you can build some serious tracks here.
This app may appeal more to the traditional step sequencer user, as there is a simple 16 step timeline for your beats/notes. However, there are also four different soundbanks with eight different instruments for each pattern, thereby expanding considerably how deep each pattern can be. You can either trigger each step by inserting the notes into the step grid in 'step edit' mode, or by live recording on the eight trigger pads in time. I personally found entering notes in the 'step edit' function easier for me, but that's just a personal choice.
Going back to the patterns, there is a pattern mode where you can arrange your patterns in a sequence, giving you the option to create an entire tune at the touch of the 'play' button. This gives triqtraq a unique feature compared to the other apps I've mentioned. You can even have each pattern play more than once. For example, if you have a pattern that you want to repeat four times, you can put that in the first step of the pattern editor, and press the "+" button three more times to have that pattern play four time before moving on to the next pattern in the sequence. This can extend the length of your final track considerably.
There are loads of drum, percussion, bass and keys kits to choose from. You can mix and match from the provided samples, and create your own custom kits easily. You can also record your own sounds using the internal mic, which is a sweet option. You can also AudioPaste samples into triqtraq, or use the iTunes file sharing, if you are a masochist and love using iTunes.
Another great feature in triqtraq is the automation. It is so easy to set up the effects such as filter, delay, and pan. And for the toned instruments, you can easily set up automation on the pitch to control the notes to create some funky bass lines, for instance.
One more wild feature about triqtraq is the ability to adjust the loop range per pattern to create some poly rhythms in your tracks. On top of that, the loop speed can be individually adjusted, to further get your song out of a monotonous sounding dirge.
As I stated in my original review, triqtraq really surprised me. I'm not sure why I didn't give it credit before I bought it, but it's a fantastic (and powerful) app. Loaded with over 350 samples, and the ability to easily add your own, this app should appeal to everyone.Triqtraq - Jam Sequencer: music making on the go
Developer: Sebastian Schatz
Like I said in my intro, all of these apps are available for iPhone (and are also universal, with the exception of Loopseque Mini, which has a separate iPad version). These apps all provide a workflow that allow for immediate music-making. With any of these apps, it's perfectly reasonable to create a new track in minutes. I've absolutely gotten hooked on these apps. While they are fairly similar in nature, each of these apps has its own workflow or interface that may be more to your liking than the others. For me, each app triggers a different mindset for me. Figure and iKaossilator are "pick-up-and-go" types of app, whereas with triqtraq or Loopseque Mini, I spend more time on the sequencer and patterns to build a full track.
Also of note here are the prices for these apps. If you wanted to pick up all four of these today, you could buy the whole lot for just under $30. That is an amazing value for four quality apps. If you're into electronic music, these should be on your iPhone already. If not, go get these apps. Even if you're not heavy into the EDM genre, these apps are loads of fun, and a great way to kill some time while waiting for the doctor to see you.