Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Korg iMS-20 Review

Korg just released an iPad version of their classic MS-20 analog synth. It is amazing. The only thing is, I don't know what I am going to use it for...

The Overview
The virtual hardware included in the iMS-20 consists of an analog monosynth (the MS-20), an analog sequencer, a drum machine based on MS-20 patches, a drum step sequencer, a song sequencer a virtual keyboard, two virtual kaoss (x-y controller) pads and a mixer.  I guess the word I would use to describe this setup is cool. It all looks and acts like you have a classic monosynth sitting in front of you. However, I wouldn’t exactly describe this as utilitarian. Just as with the iElectribe and even Rebirth (which was also just released as a dedicated iPad app) sometimes the decision to emulate analog hardware in an electronic touchscreen software environment is questionable. For example, the analog sequencer is totally cool, but it would have been much more conducive to songwriting and workflow to use a real multi-touch based sequencer. I understand that Korg is trying to keep it real, so to speak, but I want something that I can use more than something that is just totally cool.

The Step-Sequencer
The Step-Sequencer, Fruity and Good
One place where they got it right is the drum step-sequencer. I have been anxiously waiting for someone to put in a button based step sequencer on the iPad. I am a big fan of FL Studio and the drum sequencer on the iMS-20 will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used FL before. Rebirth kind of hits it with their drum sequencer, but the iMS-20 totally nails it. One thing that isn’t apparent when reading about the iMS-20 is the amount of control the step-sequencer gives you. It would appear from the description of the app that you only get access to one MS-20 synth but in reality, each track of the drum machine hides almost completely controllable MS-20 for its sound source. As you dig in to the interface it is revealed that you can actually load in synth patches, tweak them and then control their parameters including pitch through the step sequencer. This essentially gives you 7 instances of the MS-20 synth to layer. In addition, each drum track has an independent FX unit, which gives you even more control. Unfortunately, using the drum tracks as synths requires a lot of extra work compared to the main synth and can be pretty frustrating. Still the fact that such deep editing is available was like getting a free bonus anyway and really added value to the app.

Too much Fruit can make you sick

The Song-Sequencer This is the real let down in the app that will limit my use of it as an actual song writing tool. The analog/step-sequencer approach works great for drums, but for sequencing parts it is a real let down. I hate to say it, but I am grid obsessed. Give me a touch-controlled grid where I can layer and move song parts around easily and I am totally satisfied. Make me move numbers around on a linear interface and I get bored, frustrated and annoyed. iSequence and Rebirth both have similar song construction schemes and it is for this reason I will again find myself running to the beloved grid of Nanostudio for my song constructing needs. It is a real disappointment too because if we could combine the sounds of the iMS-20 with the editing and control of Nanostudio it would be an amazing production environment. This really makes me long for a plug-in based architecture on the iPad, but for now and probably for a long time, that is just a pipe dream. Also, as far as I can tell, there are only 16 different patterns available which is also quite limiting. For these reasons, as a song creation tool the iMS-20 just isn’t going to cut it. However, the sounds are unbelievable…

The sequencers are archaic but inspirational. Just give me a grid.

The Sounds
This is obviously the real draw of the iMS-20 app. Anyone who has used the Korg Legacy plug-in will know what they are in for and the fact that you can grab patch cables and route them using the touchscreen is almost mind-melting. Like a childhood fantasy come true. The huge sound of the MS-20 is totally there and I couldn’t stop making Daft Punk patches for the first few hours using the beast. Using the MS-20 to make drum sounds is a little dicey but it works. I could do with some sort of sample import for the drum sequencer, but as I said earlier, I don’t really see using this thing for a song creation tool so that may not be necessary. In defense of the analog sequencer, since the sounds are so amazing it can really be fun tweaking their parameters using the knobs on the sequencer.  Adding gate variation and portamento gives crazy 303 sounding melodies. Again, this totally reminds me of FL Studio. The first record I ever released was basically just a bunch of random loops generated by turning knobs and hitting buttons on the built in synths on Fruity Loops. The same effect is achieved here and you can get some crazy sounding stuff by randomly using all the tools provided here to sculpt sounds.

Who would've guessed I like Kaoss so much?

One feature I wasn’t too excited about that turned out to be really fun is the dual Kaoss Pads. The Korg version of the X-Y controller allows control over just about any 2 parameters on the left pad. But more importantly, the right controller allows control over gate and pitch of the synth. The key can be selected from a dropdown menu and there are a bunch of scales available, most of which I will never use. However, the end result gives you a controller akin to the beloved Bebot, but you are controlling an amazing, infinitely configurable synth! I played with this for about 3 hours last night and I will probably waste way too much time just messing around with this feature in the future.

So what am I going to do with this thing? I am still not sure. Nanostudio is still going to be my go to sequencer on the iPad and it will also provide my live rig since I have pretty much refined it to the point of perfection. But I REALLY want to use these sounds in my iPad work. A lot of grumbles about lack of audiocopy have already been surfacing and of course, its implementation would be VERY appreciated. I can only assume Korg is working on this, but they are hard to read. More than this however, I am really hoping for some sort of external MIDI support either through the new framework being introduced in iOS 4.2 or even better (for me at least) MIDI Mobilizer support.

Even without this wish list being fulfilled this app is fully worth the $15.99 Korg is asking. Apparently it is going to go up to $32.99 at the end of the year. I could still see paying that much since it sounds so great, but hopefully by that time the introduction of iOS 4.2 will result in an update of the app with some more utilitarian functionality. I am definitely in love with iMS-20 and it will take a prominent #2 position on my list of favorite apps.

Korg iMS-20

Thursday, November 4, 2010

MIDI built in to new iPad iOS 4.2!

Some really exciting news just surfacing at Create Digital Music and Palm Sounds reports that the next version of iOS for iPad (4.2) will have Apple's Core MIDI Framework available! This is really great as it means that you will no longer need the Line6 Midi Mobilizer to talk to midi devices. You will, however, need the apple iPad Camera Connection Kit’s USB adapter. So you still have to buy something.

What does this really mean?
It looks like certain supported usb MIDI devices that do not require bus power are going to work with the iPad right out of the box (provided you have the USB adapter mentioned above). There are already reports of it working with a Novation Remote 61 (see below) and other hardware is being looked at as I write.

Why did I buy a Line6 MIDI Mobilizer? 
I asked myself the same thing and I decided I am going to hold on to mine. I have actually been using the mobilizer with Nanostudio to talk to my old school/non USB MIDI gear and even with this new framework, it looks like the Mobilizer is going to be the best solution for my needs as it doesn't require any power and is a compact way to get in and out of my old MIDI gear.

In any case, I guess I get to buy another accessory that is small enough to lose (the USB adapter). I have a bunch of USB MIDI controllers so I will report back here when I figure out what works.

(Thanks to Create Digital Music for the vid...)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

DJ Mixer 3 Review

In the neverending quest for the perfect iPad DJ app (basically iTraktor) I have recently stumbled upon the literally named DJ Mixer 3. It has a lot of features we haven’t seen on the iPad and is packaged in an interface that is, well… interesting. So do the functions excuse the graphics??? Let’s find out.

Never judge an app
by its icon
Free Trial: DJ Mixer 3 is a free download so you really have no excuse not to check it out after reading this. The devs let you download and try it and then give you two options for upgrading the package to make it actually useful. More devs could learn a lesson from this approach, it is very effective as I couldn’t resist one of the in app downloads and probably wouldn’t have bought this thing outright for $20. What you get for your download is an almost fully functional DJ app with some free music downloads that are useful for demo purposes. The music selection also sort of gives you an idea where the devs are coming from; the tracks are not really my cup of tea and have a strong connotation of something… I will let you interpret that on your own after you download the app and look at the free song choices.

In App Purchases: The in app purchases unlock one critical feature and one amazingly innovative feature. The first and critical one is “mix your own music” ($9.99) which allows you to access your own music library in addition to the free music you get when you download the app. The second, “DJ with headphones” ($9.99), is a really cool feature that allows you to stream your cue over wifi to another iOS device effectively giving you two stereo channels to work with. There is also a sound effects pack available for $4.99 that probably gives you some airhorns and fake scratch sounds. I am not into that stuff so I didn’t download it.

Autopilot: The app also serves as a stand-alone music player with built in mixing including beatmatching if the songs are near each other in tempo. Sort of like the cruise function on Traktor but with its own interface. This addition is great for someone who wants to DJ parties but doesn’t want to be stuck behind the mixer all night. I use the cruise all the time early in the night at my Saturday night party. I put it on autopilot and hang out with my friends until people show up. The designers also gave the app a “shake to mix” function that is kind of gimmicky but probably could be useful to someone.

Wicky wicky, wha???
The Interface: I have to admit, I am torn over this one. It has some very unique features like the headphones over wifi that are totally innovative and cool. However the whole aesthetic of it is kind of cheesy as the interface design almost seems to center around two fake turntables on the screen. In the initial version they appear to be onscreen for no apparent reason other than allowing you to scroll through the waveform. This can be done on the actual waveform anyway. After talking to the devs it turns out they will be implementing scratch capability into these decks with the next update so at least functionality is on the way. The turntables can be graphically turned into DJ CD players too (?). Like I said, kind of cheesy. This is really the major complaint I have about the interface and the app in general, but it is sort of a doozie.

The Good: The best thing about this app is it is a full-on universal app. It uses all the real estate on the big iPad screen and scales down nicely on the iPhone. The interface has some great ideas built in like letting you see the waveform vertically and horizontally. It even has a unique block readout next to the waveforms that can be used to beatmatch when the tempos are locked. Like Quixpin and Touch DJ, it couples the waveforms on each deck so you can beatmatch. It also has an auto-beatmatch function (sync) that works well and uses timestretch instead of pitch-shift. Speaking of tempo, you can actually pitch-shift AND timestretch on this one. It also has this really interesting “mix” button that when pressed spins back the current track and goes right into the track on the other deck. Sort of a panic button if a song kills the floor. I could probably have used this a time or two when dropping the wrong song for the room (come on, we all do it).

It gets worse. CD players???
The Questionable: This is why I am torn; it has some of the best functionality I have seen in an iPad DJ app, but it is packaged in a kind of ugly and awkward package that is trying to emulate CD players and/or turntables. Why anyone wants to stick to the old system when the hardware has clearly moved on is sort of confusing to me. It might have made sense to use the real estate they plopped the platters on for larger waveforms or hotcues or something else a little more modern and utilitarian. The system is also lacking any effects, which would be a nice addition but not a deal breaker for me.

The Verdict: At $20 (which is the real cost of the app), you get one of the most functional iPad DJ apps out there. It does a lot of stuff in one package that up until now no one else can deliver. The fact it pitch shifts and timestretches is a real standout feature. However, despite the awesome features, I still don’t know if I will use it because of the awkward looking interface. People are going see this thing and it just looks kind of like it was designed for a PC in the late 90s. The functionality however is anything but 90s…

DJMixer 3 FREE!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Nanostudio 1.1 Update!!!

A New Nanostudio Update has just been released and I couldn't be happier! I know I have my head up Blip Interactive's proverbial arse but anyone who uses it knows that Nanostudio is amazing. With this 1.1 update it just got even better. I had been talking with devs about some features I was hoping for and they were almost ALL included in this update.

It's Splitsville for these channels.
The most significant for me are pan controls in the mixer (now I can split one channel off into my vocoder!!!), 8meg sample import (backing tracks in the other channel?) and the most exciting -  MIDI Mobilizer support (I just ordered mine). With this update I will hopefully officially be able to use Nanostudio on my iPad as the centerpiece of my live setup!

I will have a full review with pictures of my live setup when my Mobilizer gets here.
Here is what's new:

* Audio copy/paste - both Intua and Sonoma standards
* MIDI file import/export
* Support for the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer
* Project import/export (self contained projects complete with samples packaged in a single file)
* Direct SoundCloud export from phone
* More mixdown options - individual track split, song regions, render tail option
* Pan controls in mixer
* Note preview in piano roll view when selecting and dragging
* Complete backup/restore of unsaved Eden presets when the app is closed or a call is taken
* Eden preset numbers now begin from zero, not one (this is to match preset changes made via MIDI)
* New (empty) global bank C for Eden
* Increased sample size limit to 8MB
* 'Loop on selection' feature in song editor - sets song loop points to the current selection
* Samples above 8MB can now be previewed in file dialogue (the first 20 seconds)
* MIDI input on Windows version
* NanoSync - Support for 24 bit wavs, copying folders and older PowerPC machines
* Snap to centre zero on pan knobs

* When an Eden controller is mapped to oscillator pan, it now takes it over the full L/R range
* Glide notes not recorded correctly (they don't overlap slightly as they should so they need lengthening afterwards in the editor)
* Drawing lots of notes in the pattern editor can result in a synth not responding until the project is reloaded
* Infrequently there is a hanging note (possibly when deleting a part which is being played), resolved by reloading the project.
* Chorus delay modulation destination doesn't work
* Using '&' in sample file or folder names causes the message 'The project file could not be loaded'. It may be possible to load your project's .bak file and then change any samples using a '&' in the file or folder name before resaving.
* Samples with a rate other than 44.1kHz do not play back at the correct speed.
* Vertical scrollbar doesn't behave properly when drawing in the pattern editor.
* Fix for first metronome beep not being played during count in at certain tempos
* Improved sequencer timing drift - now stays perfectly in time even when rendering a wav of any length
* Changed TRG-16 minimum release time so it doesn't sound different during resample/mixdown

I recommend buying or upgrading immediately!

Friday, October 1, 2010

More DJ Apps - Red Bull BPM HD and Cue.Play.DJ

I noticed that there was some mention of a couple other DJ apps in the comments on here. I thought I would briefly take a look at them. One was pretty cool, one was really not...

UPDATE: The Red Bull App is now called DJ Player and it is awesome. The most comprehensive DJ app on the app store but I STILL WISH YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO CHANGE SCREENS ALL THE TIME ESPECIALLY ON iPAD!!!

It appears Red Bull BPM HD is just a rebrand of a previously released app. I can't remember what it was called, but I remember thinking it was kind of a let down upon its initial iPhone release. Now with a Red Bull brand and a $30.99 price tag, I am almost offended. To add insult, they are asking for another $9.99 to add wifi cue out, a feature that is also $9.99 on the recently released DJ Mixer 3 that is free to try and only $9.99 unlocked and has a much more useful interface (review coming soon). So the total package here is going to cost you $40.98. Seriously? There is a lite version so if you really have to see it for yourself, go check it out.

There are so many things wrong with this app for real use. It has no way to look at both tracks at the same time. Kind of crazy, right? I mean they have all that space on the iPad screen and they just blew up the iPhone version which requires 3 screens to mix. For real, Deck A, Deck B and the Mixer all have their own screens? They could have easily coupled the decks on the same page to at least give you an idea of what is going on. Seriously Red Bull, WTF? You are lucky I like RB and Vodka so much!

I will say the effects were always cool on this thing. Even in the non-red bull version. They use the accelerometer to control an XY pad. Very gimmicky, but kind of fun to mess around with for about 5 minutes. Other than that this thing is just shocking. I probably wouldn't use it for free, so there is no way I am paying to unlock the $30.99 access to my music collection.

Looking online I found all this stuff about the launch party Red Bull had for this thing. I guess they were  so stoked they had to party over it or maybe they have to charge $30.99 to pay for the party? Either way this is a combination of lame marketing and an attempt to create perceived value that have added up to blah. Kudos to the dev that sold this thing to Red Bull though. It is based on an early effort in the app store that at the time really wasn't all that bad. I just wish I could remember what it was originally called. Anyone who remembers please leave a comment.

Cue.Play - A breath of fresh
air after that last one.
Cue.Play.DJ seems to have a lot more going for it. While not exactly the best DJ app out there, at least they put together a good package with a usable interface. Again, this is an iPhone app that you have to scale up on the iPad so it isn't really designed for the whole screen, but it does get some things really right.

This app uses stacked or side by side waveforms depending upon the orientation of your device. When I really think about it, Quixpin's  and DJ Mixer 3's waveform coupling are probably the best as they are right next to each other. Really the best way to do it. But Cue.Play works it out pretty well too as it is orientation sensitive. This is a great feature for use on the iPhone and certainly an innovation in the space.

This one gets 2 pics thanks to
orientation sensitvity
The mixer is really cool if you are on an iPhone as you double tap to open and close it which comes in handy on the small screen. I would assume a proper iPad version would just make it big on the main screen, but it doesn't really hurt on the iPad as is.  It also uses orientation to change functionality. The mixer and pitch adjustment seem to only be accessable in vertical orientation while horizontal orientation gives you more control over play location and beatmatching. Again, cool on iPhone but not necessary for iPad. As far as beatmatching goes, this one syncs by pitching so it kind of loses me there. Timestretching is an absolute requirement as I hate pitched songs unless they are keymatched to other tracks. Even that can annoy me as I like to hear songs in the state intended by the band. Again due to processing restrictions it makes sense that a lot of these iPhone aimed apps use pitch instead of a complicated, processor intensive timestretching algorithm.

With that said, Cue.Play is certainly is a useful iOS DJ app. At $9.99 the price is a lot better than some. Now that I have seen the lower end of the spectrum (read above) I have a lot more respect for the apps that at least try to get it right.

Red Bull BPM HD

Red Bull BPM Master Out


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Back to Basics - DJ App roundup

As you may have noticed this blog has taken a turn straight into music creation territory on the iPad and iOS devices. My original intention was to focus on DJaying but after I got an iPad I realized I did a lot more creation than DJaying with the iPad. One big reason was the possibility of spilling drinks on the iPad, something I have done more than I would care to admit with my computer. I have pretty much solved this issue by using a ziploc bag to protect the iPad. The other big obstacle has been a lack of physical buttons, knobs and sliders on the iPad. This isn't a deal-breaker for me like it is for a lot of other controller obsessed djays I work with, but it isn't ideal either. In any case, I thought it might be interesting to look at some of the iOS dj apps in a little more depth and compare some of the best choices out there.

Sonorasaurus Rex: Ready for Prime Time? Eh... Almost.
You may have noticed that in my Sonorasaurus Rex review I give it a great review but declare it not ready for prime time. As the best available DJ software out there Sonorasaurus Rex still not ready to be my stand alone solution for DJaying. I have used it a couple times in backup situations in the real world but haven't depended upon it yet. It would actually probably serve quite well for a wedding DJ or something less stressful, but for real dance parties, the response isn't fast enough and the beatmatching capability isn't there yet. Sonorasaurus Rex is still the best overall package as far as DJaying on the iPad goes.

Touch DJ: Awesome idea but blown out on the iPad
As far as the little devices go, Touch DJ is probably the best DJ App for iPhone/iPod, as it actually lets you timestretch and do real beatmatching. It also has the coolest interface of the bunch as the interface essentially is the waveforms. You pinch and stretch to timeshift and line up the waveforms to beatmatch. It lets you split the output to two channels for cue monitoring and has made the biggest leap forward in interface design of the bunch. It includes effects, EQ and is generally really cool. Unfortunately, there is no iPad version yet and the interface is clearly designed for the screen of the smaller devices. When stretched to the iPad screen it gets kind of awkward and unruly. Aside from that, it is a really cool little DJ app and if it ever grows up, probably has the most potential of any of the ideas floating around out there for the DJ app space. The existing interface coupled with access to critical controls on the iPad screen would make this one really useful.

Quixync? Cool function, awful name
Another app with some potential for a DJaying solution is Quixpin DJ.  It also has a good interface for beatmatching that uses overlapping waveforms to really facilitate visual beatmatching. It even has a feature called "quixync" which while sounding gross actually is auto-beatmatch that is pretty accurate. It is also a iPhone centric app, but it is a little less awkward scaled up on the iPad than Touch DJ. However, it isn't quite as intuitive or innovative as Touch DJ so it is sort of a toss up between the two. I really like playing with Touch DJ and Quixpin and could see either of them fitting in my DJ setup prominently if they scale up to iPad size. 

A new player on the block which wasn't really up to par until its latest 3.0 release is DJ Mixer. It is an iPad app and FREE download totally worth checking out. I will review DJ Mixer in a later post as I have just started playing with it.

Sonorasaurus Rex
Touch DJ
Quixpin DJ
DJMixer 3 FREE!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

NanoStudio Tips

Here are a couple of new things just pointed out to me by the devs at Blip Interactive that have expanded the potential for song creation in NanoStudio.

One thing I have been trying to figure out is how to change synth patches on a track midsong. It didn't seem possible but the functionality is in there, deep in the menu tree.

In song patch switching:
1. Go to the song editor
2. Select a part and tap More -> Properties
3. Select the Preset tab
4. Tap Enable
5. Pick the preset for that Part
This allows patch switching midsong which means you could have a completely different set of sounds on the verses and choruses. Seriously useful...

Another cool function is hidden in the same properties menu. It is pattern conversion and allows you to convert a part to a pattern and vice versa. Patterns have several useful properties: Patterns loop when their ends are stretched, changing a pattern in one instance changes all of the instances of the same pattern (like FL Studio), and since they are repeated events they save on part number limits. You can even go back to a part after conversion to a pattern. This all at once answered a bunch of gripes I had about the song sequencer. Here is how to make it happen.

Convert to pattern:
1. Go to the song editor
2. Select a part and tap More -> Properties
3. Select the Pattern tab
4. Pick a pattern number with the Using Pattern field
4. Touch Convert to pattern
5. To convert back to a part simply hit Convert to part

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

iPad Workstation Showdown!!!

The top of my wish list for the iPad is an all-in-one app that lets me completely produce a track inside the iPad. I don't necessarily need to record anything external, that is best left to a computer and some decent preamps. I just want to produce electronic tracks that can provide the actual basis for a song. I tried to accomplish this feat on 2 workstation apps: iSequence and Nanostudio. I attempted to record a complete 2-3 minute track on each app and here is what happened:

iSequence for iPad - and one and two and...
iSequence for iPad - BeepStreet
iSequence was really the first full-blown iPad studio app that let the user import samples and offered control over the sounds inside the application. This is an absolute must in my workflow so when it came out I was VERY excited.

The Good
There is a lot to love about iSequence especially considering how early in the iPad's life the app came out. I used the original version on my iPhone a little and was impressed even back then. It is reminiscent of the old tracker software for PCs that I used before softsynths and other such awesomeness was developed. The sounds are certainly some of the best heard on the iPad and the interface is innovative as its 8-track limit was compensated for by the ability to use more than one instrument on each track. The inclusion of the on-screen keyboard and/or drum triggers was innovative at its release and has become indispensable in the format. The inclusion of in-app purchases for more sounds, while annoying, is a life saver as the initial set is a little limited and most users will find themselves scooping up at least the Synthology and one or two other additional banks. All of which are very useful except for the strangely out of place Funny Farm soundset.

This is me screaming into the iSequence sampler.
I looped it too.
One of the best functions of the app came in the first update, sample import and use either as hits or synth waveforms. This turned the app into an actual sampler and really opened up new possibilities. Drum sounds were opened up and everything was right in the world. A new 2.0 update promises to bring even more goodness including more effects in addition to the 2 channels of reverb and 2 channels of delay included now and flexible audio routing. It will be very interesting to see how much of a change 2.0 is from 1.7 and you can be sure to find a review here as soon as it is available.

The Bad
As it was the first all-in-one app I bought I have spent countless hours working with iSequence and, much to my chagrin, I have yet to show anything useful for it. I have produced a lot of really cool loops that could probably be worked in to a song, but nothing complete that is ready for the backing track in one of my synth bands. It is unfortunate and may have more to do with me than the app itself. I really love this app and the devs are really cool and responsive. The one big problem I have is the hard-quantized grid. I can't seem to get it to sound natural. Every track I have made on here sounds like a SNES game soundtrack. While that isn't the worst thing in the world, it is not really what I am going for.

The other thing that is a little disappointing is the song sequencer. Songs are sequenced by pattern using the little field in the upper left hand corner of the screen. Only 9 steps can be shown at a time and each step is a 4 bar pattern. This allows you to only see 36 bars of a song at a time and they are represented simply by numbers. It makes it difficult to sequence a song with any real control.

The Music

iSequence for iPad demo
Above is an example of what I created with iSequence. The sounds are great, but there is a real lack of humanity in what came out and it left me a little disappointed (can't you just see Mario walking to this in the Atari version of Donkey Kong?). Like I said, I have spent a lot of time with this software and have still not come up with anything that is ready for prime-time. As I write this I am rendering a track and it is pretty crazy, the whole track plays at accelerated speed in the background. It is apparently really rendering the sequence down directly to .wav. It also allows HSQ (native format) and Midi export as well as HSQ import.

NanoStudio - Blip Interactive Ltd
The Nanostudio Sequencer - like FruityLoops without the fruit
Of all the apps to come across the appstore, I would have to say that Nanostudio was the one I anticipated the most. The promise of a fully programmable sampling synth with control over almost every parameter was one thing, but its incorporation into a fully functioning sequencing application and inclusion of a sampling drum sequencer was too exciting. One thing to keep in mind is that Nanostudio is an iPhone/iPod Touch app that is scaled up on the iPad.

The Good
There is a lot of good things to say about Nanostudio. The interface is beautiful, flexible and useful. The included Eden synth allows total control over the synth engine and allows import of sample waveforms. Up to four instances of this synth powerhouse can be used simultaneously. It seems sort of limiting when compared to PC or Mac software like Ableton, but when you realize it is all happening inside the iPad it is pretty amazing. The included presets are great, but they can be tweaked endlessly to give infinite sound possibilities and prevent the soundset from becoming outdated or played out. The double keyboard configuration while recording is amazing, in fact, the fact that you can play a song and access every parameter of the app is pretty astounding in its own right.

Touch MPC - Probably worth the price of admission
As for the drum machine, it also does the trick. The TRG-16 can be used in two instances for a total of six tracks. The MPC-like programming interface is a great addition and will make a lot of hip hop producers feel right at home. An autobeat function insures that drums are programmed on the beat and comes in handy when throwing down a 4 on the floor kick or other repetitive patterns. Drums can be routed to 3 separate effects buses and up to 16 hits can be used including full on samples and drum loops.

The sequencing environment is the best I have seen on the iPad. It is very similar to the FL Studio track view but allows some flexibility that is not available in its grown up cousin. Patterns are drawn right on the grid and every pass of a looped pattern can easily have variations giving diversified dynamics that are easy to program.
The Bad
There is very little bad to say about Nanostudio. This early in the life of the iPad the devs have really come up with a winning environment that looks, sounds and works great. However, there are a few things that I keep running into that slow workflow a touch and could be improved upon. Since there are so many screens and levels to the program there are certain functions such as undo, metronome, loop length, etc. that have to be dug out at times. There is a great floating transport bar on the top of the screen that due to its native iPhone resolution cannot be expanded. With that said, if an iPad version is ever crafted putting some more of these often used functions on every screen would be very useful.
The Music

Nanostudio on iPad demo
I have actually created several tracks in Nanostudio that are going to make it to prime time as backing tracks for my band. This is one of my favorites and it really shows off the flexibility of the sounds and sequencer included in Nanostudio. Most of the drum hits are from my own collection and the synth sounds were all tweaked at least a little before final render. The ability to record naturally and off beat really helps with the natural feel of the sound as does the analog nature of the synth patches.

The Wrap-up
Nanostudio Wrapped Up, Ziploc-ed and Ready to Go
Clearly, Nanostudio won a landslide victory in this competition. However, iSequence is still a brilliant, well designed application well worth the $14.99 Beep Street is asking. Also, with the release of 2.0 quickly approaching, I am guessing we will see a lot of the issues mentioned here addressed and some great new features appear to be in the pipe.

With that said, Nanostudio is quickly becoming my favorite audio software period. The fact that one can carry all that magic around in an iPad or even an iPhone is pretty amazing. I have written new songs on it everywhere from the dentist's office to the airport. It has also made its way into my live setup as my go to keyboard replacement and sampler. If there ever is an iPad specific release of this app I will probably instantly explode.

iSequence for iPad

iVoxel Review

Since starting this blog I have been receiving random promo codes from developers a lot of which are for apps I totally missed through normal channels. One of these awesome apps is iVoxel from VirSyn.

I am a vocoder freak. I have used a vocoder live in most of my bands and have tried just about every type of vocoder out there. I actually run my iPad through a vocoder pedal live with my band up in Minneapolis. I also use a lot of vocoded vocals on our records. I have very strong opinions about vocoders and am usually very disappointed in software versions of such hardware. There are a few software vocoders that rock. Waves Morphoder is probably the best of these and it has appeared on quite a few of my recent releases. As far as live situations go, I have recently fell in love with the iron lung pedal from Electro-Harmonix. Up until now I haven't found many useful iOS attempts at recreating vocoder circuitry. iVoxel has a very unique approach to the process and I could actually see using it for something that could end up on a real recording.

The Interface
iVoxel is a universal app so on the iPad it fires up full-screen. This always makes me happy as using all that real estate is often very helpful on audio apps. I will admit that I had a little trouble wrapping my head around the interface on this thing. There are five main screens that control the many functions of the app. Some were intuitive like Mix/Fx screen which pretty much does what you would expect. Others, like the sequencer, were not.

The keys are fun and the synth isn't bad either
The two screens that are the real work environment are the live screen, which is where the virtual keys and synth controls are, and the sequencer. The keyboard on the live screen is divided into zones where "voxels" or words are loaded. The app comes with a whole bunch of words already available so you can actually put rudimentary sentences together without recording a word. The zones are weird. You can apparently make as many as you want by inserting them along the 5 octave keyboard. I guess logically you could have 5 voxels each with their own octave. You can then play the keys for each zone which triggers the voxel and the built in synth which are summed up by the vocoder architecture.

It makes you sound like a robot
Banging around on the keyboard with a bunch of phrases and words loaded up is really fun and you can really make the thing sing if you set it up right. Recording your own voxels or vocals is pretty easy once you figure it out. As a note of warning, you really have to either wear headphones or turn down the volume before recording or you get a feedback loop that can require closing the app to terminate. After a little trial and error I got everything working and was able to record some phrases and even make the thing work in real time using the live input option from the voxel list.

The sequencer takes a little more thought to figure out than the live screen. Luckily the built in help screens really lay it out clearly and after actually reading how to using the sequencer, it totally made sense. You can select position, length and voxels for each note along the timeline. Then you hit play and the sentence you created sings away. It really does work and is very useful as you can control the bpm and create actual lyrical phrases. The record screen allows you to print the phrases to .wav and export them via wifi to a computer for use in other software. You can also copy the songs to the clipboard for use in other compatible iOS apps.

The Sound

There are pretty basic synth setting available within the app. Unfortunately, I never hit the glorious, full vocoder sound I generally use by combining vocals with a fat multi-layered saw patch. There are some good waveforms in there though, I particularly liked the Choir 2 patch. The built in chorus and delay effects also really help fatten up the sound so you can some really great tones out of the synth.

The Consonant control on the synth is very useful and should be available on more vocoders. It emphasizes the consanants of the modulating vocal so the words can be understood more clearly. Cranking this setting up really gives some distinction regardless of the patch settings so you can almost always understand what your robot voice is saying. For me understandability (is that a word?)  is the single most important characteristic of a vocoder and that is absolutely one of iVoxels shining features.


It appears that iVoxel will likely become part of my recording arsenal. As I said I use a ton of vocoders in my bands and iVoxel will really allow me to experiment and come up with new crazy ways to incorporate robot voices into our music. For this reason coupled with the awesome annunciation of the vocoder, I am really excited to start using this thing for real.

While there is live functionality available on iVoxel, I don't really envision ever using it in a live setting. Playing the on-screen keyboard and singing would just be too difficult. It is possible to insert the live voxel into the sequencer and have it play the melody allowing the user to sing which is how I set up most of my live vocodervocoder in a performance situation due to the limitations of the iPad hardware. Mics and cables and all that junk would get really messy on the iPad.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Sonorasaurus Rex Review

Since this blog is called iPad DJ and one of the better iPad DJ apps just released a significant update I figured now is as good a time as any to review Sonorasaurus Rex from Pajamahouse Studios

One reason I didn't start this blog earlier is because no one has really produced any software that really allows the iPad to be the centerpiece of a DJ setup. The holy Grail would be a ripoff of Traktor and this is sort of what Sonorasaurus Rex is going for. Unfortunately whether due to lack of processor horsepower or an accelerated development cycle S. Rex isn't quite there although it does make some strides in this direction with its latest 2.1 update.

The Interface
The interface quite resembles a colorful, stylized version of the classic Traktor interface. Two decks divide the left an right side of the screen complete with 3 band EQ, gain, cue switch, volume fader and independent channel effects. There is also a traditional crossfader between the two decks. tracks are loaded by tapping a load button on either deck which opens a menu containing folders of all uploaded tracks. like most current audio apps, tracks must be uploaded directly to the app as iTunes library support has not yet been integrated.

The lower half of the deck is a slight diversion from the Traktor-esque interface and is where the app innovates, taking advantage of the iPad's touch interface. The waveforms are displayed horizontally one atop the other. Sort of like a horizontal version of the lanes in Serato. This is something I always wished Traktor incorporated a long time ago. This is where things get really fun and interesting. Thanks to the touchability of the iPad, you are actually able to grab waveforms and line them up. This is the feature that really makes Sonorasaurus Rex shine. If the rest of the app gets fleshed out, this could actually convince me to leave my Traktor based PC setup at home on Saturday nights and just carry my Ziploc shrouded iPad down to the bar. It should be noted here that each track must be processed by the iPad to generate waveform data before use in the app.

Track specific scrubbing and pitch are controlled by two sliders beneath the the waveform display. This is where S. Rex let me down a little. There is only pitch control, time stretching is not available in Sonorasaurus Rex. This is kind of the deal breaker. It is likely that the processor load required for such manipulation is too much for the iPad, but other iphone DJ apps like Amidio's Touch DJ have implemented such functionality albeit in less processor intensive interface environments. Pitch shifting is limited to 10% in either direction which is sufficient for me but is not enough for some of my more mashup oriented colleagues.

Other important interface elements include a pulsing orb on each track that helps identify the beat, 3 point plus cue and transport buttons and a BPM cluster. The cue system is actually pretty useful, but the BPM tracking system is kind of lame and requires user input and tracking to determine baseline BPM numbers which are then stored with the track.

The Mix

When it comes down to it, a pretty interface doesn't mean anything if you can't mix with it. To this the verdict is still out. It is possible to achieve acceptable mixes with S. Rex, however advanced mixing such as beat juggling, mashups, etc. are a little more challenging.  The cue system does facilitate some interesting possibilities but it takes some serious planning ahead to do anything really exciting live. The promising thing here is that it is possible. Up until now, no other DJ app really made such techniques possible in the iOS.

Monitoring actually works well in split mode which allows split of left and right channels between cue and play decks. This requires use of a stereo to mono miniplug splitter. This is harder than one would guess to assemble as it requires splitting a stereo signal to mono and then back to two stereo signals. New in 2.1 is the option to route each channel to a separate mono channel.This allows routing through a hardware mixer enhancing control of the output signal.

Wrap Up

Sonorasaurus Rex is probably the best stand alone DJ app available for the iPad at this time. It is the only program I would trust to back up my Traktor rig in case of failure on a packed Saturday night. However, without time stretching and more precise control over starts and stops as well as beat mapping options I am not quite ready to transfer my entire music collection to the iPad and leave PC at home. Giving the devs the benefit of the doubt I will say it is the best attempt so far on iOS and lack of functionality is likely due to lack of horsepower from the iPad's system on a chip. Perhaps with the next iPad, Sonorasaurus Rex will become a full on, grown up DJ app.
Sonorasaurus Rex

Seline HD Review

I thought I would do my first review on the newest addition to my iPad music arsenal. Seline HD from Amidio Inc. is a performance instrument I was really hoping to use last week when I played a show using my iPad in place of a keyboard. Unfortunately, the combination of its minimal soundset and its interface designed for solo/ambient performance made it a little awkward for integration into a live band.

The Interface

The interface on Seline is certainly unique. The main performance area consists of two sets of 8 rectangles that are configured to provide logical access to the notes of the selected scale. Amidio, the creators of this app call this the ioGrid. This is perhaps the best feature of the app as like Bebot or MorphWiz every note on the screen is in the scale so it is hard to make a disastrous mistake. It is also set up so the area of each note is large enough that mistakes are less frequent than in the aforementioned apps. A touch in the center of each rectangle gives the loudest signal while moving to the edges diminishes the volume. It is a pretty cool setup designed to take logical advantage of the real estate on the iPad.

Aside from the main note triggers, there are a bunch of controllers around the screen that have functions that are not obvious on first glance. There is a button under each note cluster that bends tones up to the root note above the currently playing notes. Likewise a single button on the bottom of the screen does the same thing down to the lower root. Sort of useful for playing around but usually useless for live performance in a band as you could only bend to the next note in the scale. Bends to other notes in the scale were not possible with these buttons. A single pitch/vibrato joystick is used for regular bends. It is kind of awkward to use but will do the job once you get used to it. The controls are rounded out by two controllers for attack, one for each set of notes. Again, not as useful as one would hope for live performance in a band.

In addition to the main playing surface, there is a drone generator that automatically creates accompanying parts based on the key and melodies played on the ioGrid. I kind of found this feature annoying as the drones change slowly and I often find myself playing over a drone that did not really match my melodies. This feature clearly is aimed at improvisational composition which is something I am not a huge fan of so if you like that kind of thing you might like this feature. Luckily, you can disable this feature so I just leave it off.


The sounds in Seline are actually pretty good. Unfortunately, there aren't very many of them and there is no control over the generation engine and that is another major drawback that keeps this app in the toy category for me. There are only 20 tones that can be played and 9 drone sounds. The 20 playable tones are really clean and sound great. On the downside, they sound very similar and really limit the flexibility of the app as an instrument. The inclusion of synth settings or sample import would have really opened Seline up as the sound processing is quite impressive. There are reverb and delay effects that sound great and enhance the limited soundset but they are not enough to add the much needed diversity to the palette of the instrument.

Other Features

Amidio has also included a recording function that allows export of performances to .wav. This functionality even includes rudimentary multitrack capability which is a really nice bonus that a lot of similar apps could take a cue from. This feature could actually prove useful in using the app for song creation or as the often touted "musical sketchpad" people love to attribute to the iPad. There is also access to a simple mixer in the settings menu that allows some more influence over the sound of the overall app. Another nice addition that could stand a little refinement.

Wrap Up

Personally I am looking for two specific types of iPad audio apps; either a complete production environment or a usable performance instrument. Seline HD appears to be aiming for the latter and it's recording functionality allows it to creep into the territory of the former. However, it falls short for performance as its design is clearly aimed for improvisation and not use as a normal musical instrument. Lack of control over the sounds and a limited soundest also limit it's usefulness as an instrument.

The unique ioGrid interface and high quality sound engine lend Seline HD a very professional overall sound. Coupling the grid interface with a control over Amidio's Crystal Clarity sound engine would likely result in the performance instrument I was hoping Seline HD would be. Perhaps future updates will expand functionality in this direction, but even more exciting would be the development if an entirely new app which takes the best parts of Seline and puts them in a true synthesizer type environment. Seline is clearly targeted at improvisation and creating "pretty", albeit limited, soundscapes. If that is what you are looking for, Seline delivers.
Seline HD

iPad Live - The Power of Ziploc

Cheap Thrills
The Situation

Last weekend I had to fly to Minneapolis and play a show with one of my bands. I fly to a show about once a month and it seems every time I do, I lose a piece of gear to damage courtesy of the FAA. Usually it is a keyboard. I lost a bunch of knobs off my brand new Korg R3 last time and the same thing has happened to an Alesis Micron and a MicroKorg. The R3 was kind of expensive, so this time I decided to leave my keyboards at home and use my iPad as my keyboard.

The Software

I debated for days about what app to use live and after experimenting with Bebot, MorphWiz , Seline HD, miniSynth PRO, NanoStudio and even Xenon I decided Nanostudio was going to do the job the best.It allowed me to change synth patches quickly, trigger samples and has a double keyboard option that provides enough real estate to play all of our songs.

The Ziploc

iPad, Nanostudio, Ziploc
I packed up my iPad, a Roland SPD-6, an Electroharmonix Iron Lung vocoder pedal and my Roland D2 into a carryon and flew up to Minneapolis without having to check any bags. A huge advantage to my keyboardless setup. I also have a 2 in -1 out Rolls DB25b DI box with a volume knob that allowed control over the iPad volume without using the volume rocker. The final key piece of equipment was a ziplock double zip, gallon-size storage bag that the iPad fit in perfectly. It kept the blood, sweat and beer off the pad while we played. I had originally bought one of the TrendyDigital WaterGuard waterproof iPad cases from Amazon, but at $19.99, the $0.15 baggie did a better job for a LOT less. And yes, for those of you wondering, those cases are just really fancy ziploc bags with some snaps and a neck strap (?).

The Show
Things actually worked really well until Mallman, the singer of the band came over to play a solo in my keyboard and was met with nanostudio. He kind of freaked out for a second as there were no keys. He seemed to figure it out quick enough and the solo went fine. Other than that things went smooth. The Rolls DI or other volume control is a must as trying to control volume with the rocker inside a ziploc would have been a nightmare. Fotunately, no beer was spilled on the iPad during this performance, but the plastic bag did keep the sweat off and probably saved some trouble. The bag didn't really disrupt performance, but I did practice quite a bit with it. All-in-all, I would say this was a success.

The Wrap-up

For out of town shows where I have to fly in and opening slots where we need to get on and off stage quickly this will be my new setup. I will probably still bring a keyboard out on the road for tour just so Mallman can really play a solo and I have something to throw around since they are all broken anyway. Once developers start adding midi-in via the Line 6 midi-mobilizer functionality to their apps I will be able to remove the D2 from my setup and will just use the SPD-6, Iron Lung and iPad. I actually feel like nanostudio will be my performance app as well as my favorite iPad recording app thanks to its fluid set up, double keyboard and ability to trigger samples. I am pretty excited about where this is going. Hopefully someday I will just show up with my iPad as my entire rig. That will sure freak Mallman out...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Let's Begin

I reserved this blog the day they announced the iPad (apologies to everyone who asked me to give up the name) with the intent to document my experiences making and playing music on the iPad. Up until now I have been content to let those who started this effort with the iphone to take the reigns. Recently I realized the content out there on the subject just isn't what I was looking for.

So here we go! Here is one take on the audio offerings for iPad. Let's generate some discussion and see if we can convince the devs to give us what we want as rockstars who play iPads.