Friday, January 24, 2014

Korg Gadget Review - Is it worth it?

Korg dropped its new Gadget software yesterday and I had an iTunes gift card burning a hole in my account so I decided to drop the $28.99 to get the app at its “discount” price before they raise it to its real $38.99 price. I am fairly thrifty with my app purchases and this exceeded my $9.99 limit but for what appeared to be a software workstation with 15 plugins I figured it might be worth it and if it wasn’t I could at least tell all of you about it before you dropped the cash.

What is Korg Gadget?
Gadget is an actual virtual workstation squeezed into an iPad. It is basically like having a sequencer with 15 high-quality softsynths all running in one workspace on your tablet. And to answer the pressing question, yes it is pretty amazing. There is a great diversity of plug-ins including analogue, digital and sample based synths and drum machines. There is also an innovative and somewhat intuitive sequencer. However, where it seems to really lack is effects and mixing capabilities.

The Synths
A rundown of the 15 included plugins can be found here so I won’t go into all the details. Needless to say there is quite a diversity of sounds available in the app. I have only spent a few hours with the synths but I can say I have been able to find at least an approximation of every sound I have wanted to use in my first couple of tracks. The app seems geared towards hip-hop, EDM and dubstep but you can find sounds for just about any type of electronic music if you dig deep enough. One thing that is sadly missing is a universal arpeggiator. It seems like all iPad production apps always omit this essential function and Gadget is no different. 

I usually use FL Studio on a touchscreen PC for production and when I take a look at my tracks for any given project I realize that I really use a lot of the same synths over and over. The last album I did really only used about 6 plugins consistently and a bunch of drum samples. From that perspective the 15 modules available in Gadget could really go a long way if you find 5 or 6 favorites and stick with them dropping in others when necessary.

3 of the Gadgets are drum machines: analog, sample and PCM based options are available. So far it doesn’t look like you can add your own samples but I haven’t dug too far so I could be wrong. I suspect if it is missing this kind of expansion it will be added soon as Korg claims to have a deep roadmap drawn out for the development of this app and this kind of control will be necessary to elevate it to a true production tool as opposed to a competitor for iPad Garage Band. 

The other 12 Gadgets are synths. Again, they are pretty diverse and emulate classic synths in a very stripped down manner (MS-20, TB-303, Polysix, etc). They also add some new ones with specific genres in mind (again, dubstep and EDM sounds abound). There are a good number of presets available for most of the synths but some have just a few which again suggests the work-in-progress feel of the app. The great thing about the iOS ecosystem is the ability to continually update and add functionality to apps.  However, I fear we will probably be looking at in-app purchases in further updates to Gadget as outcry for more Gadgets, more presets and more samples is inevitable and seems like a ready target for more revenue.

The Sequencer
Perhaps the most exciting and innovative part of the Gadget package is the sequencer. The app forces iPad orientation into portrait mode. While this looks kind of weird in still photos, it really makes sense when you start using the app. The screen is usually divided in half with part sequencer/mixer or piano roll/synth configurations. The sequencer and piano roll can be expanded to full screen when doing editing giving ample room for manipulation. This configuration REALLY works well and makes other iOS workstations seem cumbersome by comparison. So GREAT JOB KORG!

The other interesting feature of the sequencer is its handling of parts. The instrument clips for each part are arranged horizontally with the corresponding parts above the mixer track for each synth. The parts themselves scroll vertically with the first one on top, last one on the bottom. Song progression is controlled by arranging parts vertically. Sort of like Ableton, but not really. Once you see it, it totally makes sense and there is a really shallow learning curve for jumping in. Something those new to sequencers will really appreciate.

There are a few missing features in the sequencer that make it a little frustrating to use. I still can’t figure out how to select sequences in the synth piano rolls and move them as a group, but that could just be me. I am sure it is in there somewhere. Again I have only used it for a few hours. Zooming in and out on the piano roll also appears to be limited and you can’t always get the entire part on the screen at once. Little quirks that are easily addressed and will probably be solved in future updates. However, they have frustrated me to the point that I haven’t been able to do some things I really wanted to do during song creation and had me throw the iPad down in disgust. So Korg, if you are listening, CLEAN THAT SHIT UP! Or at least tell me what I am doing wrong.

The Effects
While there are effects built in to each gadget, they generally have little to no parameter control and are pretty generic producing a stock sound that emulates complicated effects chains used in current electronic music. For example you can get a pretty good approximated ducking effect using the whole mix limiter or built in synth effects, but it isn’t really a duck. Its not sidechaining or anything, its just squashing the signal of the synth so it sounds like its ducking even if your kick pattern doesn’t match the duck pattern. There is also a easy way to get a wobble bass using the wobble knob (easy enough) on the “Miami” synth (the gadgets are all named after cities, clever?). This lack of parameter control is really frustrating if you are used to using effects to sculpt your sound beyond the synth parameters. But hey, this is still the first multi-plugin capable workstation I have seen for iPad so I guess I shouldn’t really be complaining.

The Sound
So far the sound of the overall mixes I have created appear to be okay. Not fantastic, but I have yet to dive in and try to get a final mix. However, the lack of mixer and effect parameter control is so limiting that I can’t see final mixing natively in the app. I imagine dumping each track out individually and mixing on a computer using real effects and maybe adding some new sounds. Perhaps something that will be a target for future updates but introducing proper mixing capabilities would take some serious work. With that said, the synths sound great on their own and will provide sufficient fidelity to songs created or mixed elsewhere. The drum machines are pretty limited and I have yet to find a full drum kit I am totally happy with. The snare choices in particular are a little limited and I have found myself using a placeholder snare on every track I have made with the intention of using some of my own samples later down the road.

Hardware Compatibility
Due to the diversity in iPad hardware available now, it would seem the amount of gadgets that you can run simultaneously is dependent on which processor your iPad is using. I have an iPad 3 and I haven’t hit the device cap yet but I have only used about 10 devices at once. A lot of the demo tracks won't open on my 3 so it is clear they designed this thing for the power of the new iPads. You can actually freeze tracks by rendering the audio after sequencing which is an amazing functionality that has been available in PC workstations for a while. This really makes sense in the iOS world. So again, GOOD JOB KORG!


So, is it worth it? I would almost say yes, at this point the flexibility and unique sequencing ability of the app is without match on the app store. $28.99 (current sale price) is steep and $38.99 (regular list price) is even steeper for an iOS app but this is a pretty good deal considering everything you get. External and internal midi compatibility is already baked in and Korg is promising a comprehensive roadmap to introduce new content and features. Once some of the obvious omissions are addressed this will be impressive songcrafting software. I am not sure it will ever be the only workstation you need but new producers will probably be satisfied with the sound if they have nothing to compare it to. I am glad I bought it but I still haven’t produced anything I want the world to hear on it. I’ll let you know if I do.

Korg Gadget