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

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. That clarified things for me. I only really need one iphone DAW, I don't want to buy lots to find out which suits me($$$). Nanostudio rocks! TK