Synthesizer App For iOS
Borderlands is a granular synthesis app in which audio is laid out so that animated clouds can float over it, grabbing and playing tiny portions of sound. What makes this slant on granular such an attention-grabber is the Minority Report-style gestures that are used throughout. In no time at all you’ll be intuitively positioning and resizing audio, moving clouds, dictating the actions of gravity and digging into each cloud to initiate deeper levels of sonic animation. The end result is a stunning and completely addictive app that just keeps on giving. Since there’s no manual yet, I recommend watching the tutorial video that also serves as a seductive advert. Once you have the basics, there’s no looking back.
While several audio files are supplied, original sounds are a much more exciting proposition. These can be recorded directly using the built-in microphone, or imported using iTunes file-sharing or from the Audioshare app if you have it. It’s probably easiest to start with a single audio file, creating your first cloud by double-tapping anywhere on-screen. Once this is positioned over the audio, a number of grains — those small chunks of sound — begin to play. By double-tapping the cloud you enter edit mode in which its parameters are accessed as easily as dragging small circles around.
This is when the fun begins in earnest. For a start you can determine the number of voices — from one to 32 — then experiment with the icons along the top of the screen to hear their effect on the way the grains are played. You’re given control over the amount of travel permitted from the cloud’s nucleus, as well as the grains’ envelopes, the direction of playback and whether any stereo image in the source should be preserved, to name just a few options. By touching the small ‘H’ icon, your cloud gains a resonant multi-mode filter, which appears as a new circle joining attributes such as grain pitch, duration, overlap, volume and so on. The values of all these are set by their position relative to the cloud, with the largest values furthest away. Even better, the dragging motions can be captured by clicking the record icon.
You can capture looping segments of the output (up to 30 seconds long) and place these loops amongst the audio files already present. If you like, you can produce named recordings ready to share with other apps, although if you get carried away with this, it can soon start to fill up your iPad’s storage. To keep track of everything, you’ll need to dig into the fairly inscrutable file menu where a list of the mixes you’ve made are stored, along with imported sounds and all the various scenes. A scene is a saved and named arrangement of as many audio files and clouds as you like, ready for future retrieval.
If, while editing a cloud, you double-tap elsewhere on the screen, a duplicate springs into life. Other than the RAM capacity of the iPad, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of clouds and audio files you can place on-screen, which can lead to some mind-bendingly complex and strange results. I mentioned that the cloud’s internal parameters can be animated, but there’s more... The motion of each cloud over the audio landscape is recordable, its playback speed adjustable later if necessary. Alternatively, clouds can be subjected to gravity (unless they’ve been given exemption) and you can direct their motion using the iPad’s accelerometer.
Borderlands Granular produces some truly amazing sounds and is, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve had on an iPad in a very long time. Within a few hours it was firmly in my list of favourite apps, where I expect it to remain. I’m struggling to think of any negatives worthy of mention; the only one that occurs is really Apple’s fault. As I imported yet more copies of my favourite samples, I was reminded that the iOS file system sucks and made to feel quite naüve for ever believing a 32GB iPad Air would be sufficient for my needs! Audiobus support is included so you can pipe the output into effects processors such as Flux-FX, on the off-chance it isn’t crazy enough already. For anyone who enjoys unusual textures, off-the-scale weirdness or any flavour of abstract experimentation, Borderlands is surely a ‘must have’. Paul Nagle
Cardioid Condenser Microphone
Back in the 1950s, one of Shure’s most popular mics was the Model 51 Sonodyne, which had a distinctive design fashioned to look like the impressive car grilles of the era. Built like a tank and designed for general-purpose use, the mic sold well in the US, and is now seen as a bit of a design classic. The new MV51 has been carefully crafted to resemble the iconic Model 51 and shares the same profile, grille and excessively robust metal frame. It’s a bit of an all-rounder too, tailored for speech, vocals, acoustic instruments and band recording. The similarities end there, however, for the new mic is designed specifically for use with Lightning-equipped iOS devices. It also ships with a USB lead for connecting non iOS hardware, and is compatible with both Windows and Macintosh systems.
Bellow its grille, where the old Model 51 had a low-to-medium-to-high impedance selector screw, there is a touch-sensitive panel of controls, allowing the user to change microphone sensitivity and headphone output levels (there’s a mini-jack headphone socket on the back), mute the input, and select the recording mode preset (the five options being Speech, Singing, Quiet and Acoustic Music, Loud Music or Band, and Flat). If Shure’s Motiv app is installed on the connected iOS device, the mode and input level can be controlled remotely, and there is the opportunity to set up an EQ, compressor and limiter. Unfortunately the app doesn’t support mulitracking at the moment, but recording a stereo track is very easy to do.
Ergonomically, the mic has some strong points. On the back there is a short leg with a rubberised foot, which very sturdily props the mic body at an angle so that it can be used on a desktop by podcasters and the like. Alternatively, the foot component can be unscrewed and removed to reveal a threaded socket that’s compatible with mic-stand adaptors.
Spec-wise, the mic is designed around an electret condenser assembly with a one-inch diaphragm. The polar pattern it produces is cardioid and its frequency range is 20Hz to 20KHz. SPL handling is rated at 130dB, which should be ample for band recording.
At first I tried to record to my PC via USB, but couldn’t get my DAWs to hear anything, although the mic’s touch panel lit up and seemed to function properly. I suspect Windows 10 might have caused the problem, because everything worked fine when I used the supplied Lightning cable to record to an iPad Air 1 via Shure’s Motiv app.
As one would expect from a general-purpose mic, recordings made with the MV51 are well balanced and fairly neutral. When placed in front of a guitar cab, the mic does a good job, but its front-facing touch panel is unusable in that position, and having an iPad attached via the short Lightning cable is not very practical. On vocals and speech it performs well and could easily serve for song demo recording or podcasting, particularly as the self-noise level is impressively low. The presets are helpful when time is tight, but best results are achieved by making custom settings, or recording flat and then processing in a DAW.
In conclusion, this is a solidly built product that turns in a decent performance for a very reasonable price. Tom Flint
Sequencing Instrument For iOS
Previously, Native Instruments’ iMaschine was an inexpensive ‘groove sketchpad’, offering a flavour of the full experience for the iOS platform. A little over a year later, iMaschine 2 is here to take the idea a few steps further. The major difference between the versions is that the new one allows the creation of scenes. Scenes are arrangements of patterns in each of the four groups and they can be selected manually or played in succession. While it falls short of a full song mode, the implementation is consistent with Native Instruments’ philosophy on their hardware-fronted Mac/PC versions. Other new functionality includes an arpeggiator, instant chords and scale correction, plus you can colour the pads for ease of identification.
Although there’s no special upgrade path for owners of the first iMaschine, you’ll be relieved to know that existing songs and sounds can be opened in the new version. An internally accessed ‘Expansions Store’ features a healthy list of extra material at 79p99c each, or there’s a bundle deal for purchasing the lot. To get you in the mood for expansion, the free ‘Quantum Collection’ adds urban samples and instruments to the iMaschine 2 library, taking it to a respectable 637MB.
In use, iMaschine 2 is as fast and friendly as its predecessor. Perhaps the only flow-killer is being made to stop for a count-in whenever you start working on a new pattern. As before you’re given four groups, and each can play either a keyboard-based instrument or trigger 16 samples arranged in kit form. Surprisingly, you’re restricted to just four patterns per group, and while each of these can be up to 32 bars long, it doesn’t feel particularly flexible if you’re hell-bent on exceeding the old ‘sketchpad’ concept.
Instead of a manual there are a series of basic tutorials, but there’s very little to confuse or mystify. The swing and metronome settings aren’t immediately obvious but you’ll find them as soon as you reach to adjust the tempo. Everything else is readily accessed via recognisable icons.
The included content is polished and well up to expectations, at least in the percussion department. The rest is mixed, inevitably dance-fixated and consists of a cross section of playable synths, keyboards and basses, plus loops and sound effects of more questionable value. The drum kits are organised by genre and easily personalised by replacing individual samples, colouring the pads and so on. There’s no synthesis to play with (ie. no filter, envelope or LFO), but you can tweak the tuning, gain, pan and sample length of each factory sample — and of your own.
Sampling is reduced to its simplest form, but tools are provided to trim the results to the ideal size — or isolate individual hits from those factory loops. Similarly, human beat-boxers and loop-fanciers in general will appreciate the loop-record mode available to any group. It provides an audio loop alternative to the group’s regular pool of patterns, but it’s basic stuff. You can’t edit the loops recorded other than by adding effects in the mixer section. Speaking of which, the four-channel mixer is unchanged from the earlier version, which means it’s a spartan affair (lacking reverb, EQ or automation), but at least it has twin XY pads for effects performance.
When making exploratory recordings, I enjoyed the addition of scales even if, of the 14 supplied, I didn’t immediately recognise ‘Freygish’. (It’s also known as Phrygian). The process is only concerned with the keyboard entry of notes, so notes in existing patterns are not affected when you switch scales. Even so it can be a handy means of spicing up those four-on-the-floor beats with a whiff of the exotic.
The chord mode features a harmoniser and ‘chord set’. The former is a posh name for a series of preset intervals added to the root note, while the latter is a series of instant chords in eight inversions, major and minor. If you select a keyboard-based group, an arpeggiator joins the regular note-repeat options. Arpeggio speed is dictated by the repeat settings and the velocity is similarly extracted from the ‘Live Play’ window. Repeats and arpeggios can be captured into patterns for that classic Maschine vibe, just as you’d hope. Finally, the new step mode provides an alternative to finger-drumming in the form of X0X or TR-style grid entry, and is reserved to tracks with a kit selected.
iMaschine 2 is an attempt to be more than just a sketchpad, and while you can arrange scenes, colour them and lay them out in order, having such a limited pool of patterns makes it a challenge to turn out something substantial. Without reverb, mix automation and a song arranger, it lags some way behind Akai’s MPC Pro for ‘in the box’ completeness. But for quick composition on the move it’s solid and functional — and its output can be exported for further treatment later. Ultimately, it’s a logical and welcome progression for committed users of iMaschine, but probably less of a draw for the rest of us. Paul Nagle