Korg have created a synth production studio that works on all your devices. Could this be your new second DAW?
Korg Gadget is one of the most successful music apps on the iOS platform, and the only one that I’ve used routinely over the last few years. The appeal is that you can dip into Gadget and noodle with the eclectic instruments, and also generate useful ideas that you can use later via Gadget’s ability to export to various formats, particularly Ableton Live. Korg have now ported Gadget to the Mac, not only bringing the app to the desktop, but also turning all the Gadgets into VST/AU/AAX plug-ins, with the promise of seamless transition between your mobile and studio platforms.
Gadget for Mac closely mirrors the iOS version: it’s a collection of musical ‘Gadgets’ within a sequencing and mixing environment along the lines of Ableton Live’s Session view. The feature-set is exactly the same on the Mac version, as is the look, except that the interface has room to spread out and relax in the extra screen space. The only significant difference is that Gadget For Mac comes with the complete set of Gadgets while the iOS version provides a starter pack and then offers others as individual in-app purchases. This goes some way to explaining the difference in price between the versions.
Starting a new project, I was slightly sad to see that Gadget For Mac doesn’t have the automatic song-naming feature from the iOS version, which has blessed me over the years with such wonderful songs as ‘Flat Expression’ and ‘Vertical Crab’. You are, however, presented with the same palette of colourful renders from which to choose your first Gadget. Type and Tag filters help you narrow down your choice here from among the various synths, drum machines, sampled instruments and audio recorders. When you’ve made your selection you find yourself with one track in a combined mixer and scene arranger view. Each Gadget lives on a mixer channel, above which are stacked clips associated with that device. Horizontal rows of clips represent Scenes, from which you can create an arrangement playlist that progresses downwards. In the iOS versions you flip between this view and another page that houses the control panel of the selected Gadget along with a clip recorder/editor. On the Mac you can blow up either of these pages, or show both views at once for constant access to all four working areas. The only time you’re not in this unified view is when choosing sound sources from the Gadget browser.
In the default ‘Easy’ MIDI mode, whichever track is selected receives MIDI from all inputs and drops into record with the main transport. An Advanced mode allows for specific MIDI input assignments and multitrack recording. Clip length is set ahead of recording, with the longest clip determining the Scene length. With Loop engaged, a single Scene repeats; otherwise playback automatically progresses through the Scenes, obeying any Repeat times you’ve specified per Scene. A neat trick compared to other scene-based DAWs is how you can record across Scene boundaries into separate but contiguous clips. If you’re recording with Loop mode disabled, new clips pick up recording where the previous ones left off as playback moves to another Scene.
MIDI editing follows familiar piano roll conventions, with Draw and Select modes, velocity stalks, and clip-based automation curves. (Automation is also captured live any time you move a Gadget or mixer parameter during recording). There’s an innovative and fast way of moving and duplicating sections within a clip, using source and destination buttons for each bar. Another novel approach to editing is Function mode, which gives you access to project management actions in the Scene/Mixer view. Toggling into Function mode overlays every section of the UI with operations that can be applied to it. For clips this includes copying, muting, etc., and for mixer channels includes freezing and re-ordering. This comes directly from the touch UI on the iPad/iPhone versions and allows you to quickly make multiple changes without using menus.
Despite the move to the desktop, Gadget For Mac is still unusually well set up for mobile use using just a laptop. The single, flexible window is well suited to MacBook displays and supports retina resolutions. Pinch to Zoom is supported from the trackpad in the clip edit area, which, combined with two-finger scrolling, makes for one of the best screen-navigation systems in any DAW. I enjoyed the extensive Touch Bar implementation, which includes keys and drum pads to play the Gadgets, audio waveforms and even little thumbnails of the Gadgets when in the browser.
At all times the whole QWERTY area of the keyboard is dedicated to playing notes, starting from C2 (C1 in regular money) on the Z key and working upwards along the rows. This always puts drum machine triggers within easy reach on the bottom row, but the positions of other notes varies by scale. The Scale setting filters which notes are present on the Gadget panel, Touch Bar and QWERTY keys, but doesn’t transpose existing recorded clips in the song; external MIDI keyboards are unaffected. One minor note (sorry): on such a beginner-friendly DAW I’d have gone with ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ rather than ‘Ionian’ and ‘Dorian’. There’s also an Arpeggiator with multiple modes and rhythms. The Chord mode is very simple with no options (you get an open 7th that conforms to your scale), but combines nicely with the Arp for instant gratification. For some reason the Chord player didn’t work when playing my external MIDI keyboard, but the Arp did. Talking of MIDI controllers, Gadget has ‘native modes’ for Korg’s NanoKey Studio, NanoKontrol Studio and NanoKontrol2, giving them integrated, pre-defined functionality. For other controllers there’s no MIDI learn functionality, but each Gadget’s CC assignments can be displayed in a pop-up.
While Gadget is predominantly focused around its internal Gadgets (there’s no support for other plug-ins), you can record and import audio from other sources. This is achieved via two Audio Track Gadgets: Zurich and Rosario. While a cute concept, you’re not really recording ‘into’ the Gadgets as such: they’re signal processors on dedicated audio tracks with input selectors and waveform displays. The Zurich-based track option is for general-purpose recording and audio file playback. It looks like a reel-to-reel tape machine, but is there to give you gain controls and a choice of 25 insert effects. As with other tracks, you set the clip length ahead of time to determine the length of the recording, which can then be set to Loop or Single Play mode. As with MIDI, though, if you’re not in Loop mode you can record a continuous performance spanning a multi-scene arrangement. Sadly, there’s no audio warping to enable the importing of loops in time with your song. The second recording Gadget is Rosario, which is a guitar effects processor and amp/cab simulator. This is surprisingly good, with a range of genuinely usable tones, and a generous collection of effects.
There’s no MIDI equivalent to Zurich, so you can’t sequence external MIDI sources via Gadget, but you can at least sync with the wider world. Ableton Link allows beat locking with other people using Gadget, Live, and many other Link-capable systems. Alternatively, Gadget can sync to incoming MIDI clock, but can’t generate it.
Gadget can sync with both iCloud and Dropbox to keep your creations available on your computer and mobile devices. Any user-imported samples can also be shared in this way. Songs I’d made on my phone and iPad opened up on the Mac version and were, as far as I could tell, identical. This really is the killer feature for me: to be able to take work done on a mobile music app and use it unchanged on my Mac. The fact that you can go in both directions makes it even more compelling, but there is a limitation. If you use Gadgets on your Mac that you don’t own on the iOS version you won’t hear all the tracks. Freezing these tracks on the Mac doesn’t help. Ideally the mobile app should open these tracks frozen while keeping them live when on the Mac. The good news is that, unlike some systems, round-tripping does not strip the unavailable instruments from the song file, so everything is still there when you come back to your Mac.
One of the reasons I’ve found Gadget so useful in the past is the Ableton Live project export. This recreates your Gadget project in Live’s Session view with a remarkable degree of accuracy, including mixer settings. Previously, each clip was bounced to an audio loop, and that is still available from both versions. But now there’s an even better option: you can export as VST or AU, resulting in a Live session with MIDI clips and all the Gadgets replaced by their plug-in versions. Even parameter automation within the clips is present, and tracks using the Zurich audio recorder and Rosario guitar processor are converted to clips on audio tracks.
We have to talk about the pricing of Gadget For Mac, which is curious. $299, compared to $39.99 for the iOS version, takes it out of the zone of most ‘casual’ users. The economies of scale are certainly different between desktop and mobile apps, and there’s no doubt a lot of development time has gone into the various plug-in versions; but another explanation is that the Mac version includes all the add-on purchases available for the iOS app. If you were to buy all of those you’d spend $245, plus another $100 to load up on the Module expansion packs. The desktop app has a large inherent value in terms of Korg IP, especially as it’s also a VST/AU/AAX plug-in bundle: you’re getting the M1, Wavestation and Odyssey as plug-ins for a start. But I can’t help thinking Korg would be giving the Gadget platform a better chance in life if they offered the same model of add-on purchases to bring the cost of entry down. And remember, if you want full round-trip compatibility with your phone/iPad you’ll need to buy all the Gadgets you use on the iOS version as well...
Gadget For Mac is lots of fun, and you get a lot of intriguing synth toys to play with alongside some more grown-up instruments. Nothing ever gets very deep; you usually have just enough to get things done. It’s not trying to replace the major-league DAWs; in fact Korg are marketing it as an ‘ideal second DAW’. More compelling is that it’s the first truly device-agnostic production package (well, Apple device anyway), where you can freely move between your computer, tablet and phone, working on the same song sketches. And when you see your song open in Live with everything being reborn as VST it definitely feels like a glimpse of the future.
Apple’s GarageBand comes close to Gadget in terms of iOS/MacOS parity and you can open songs in Logic, although transfer is one-way only. Maschine also makes for a good ‘second DAW’, with import to your main package via its plug-in incarnation, which is not limited to Ableton Live. The iMaschine app gives you a mobile sketchpad component, but is a one-way street again.
Of Gadget’s 29 instruments, around half are synths, with the rest split between drum/beat machines and sample-based ‘keyboards’. Some are quite simple and geared towards quite specific sounds/genres, while others are deeper synths and workstation-style sound banks. Occasionally there’s some overlap between the basic Gadgets that come as standard with Gadget iOS or LE and the high-end add-ons, but overall it’s a large range. There’s plenty of beat-making potential and the cream of the drum machines, Bilbao, and the Abu Dhabi loop slicer both let you load your own samples. The Tokyo analogue drum module is also a favourite. There are analogue-style synths such as the Prophetic Phoenix, and Dublin, which is somewhere between an MS10 and MS20, complete with patch cables. Wolfsburg and Kiev offer versatile modern synth sounds. Some quirky gems are the Kamata drawable wavetable synth and Kingston chip-tune king.
It’s not all about synths though, there’s plenty of sample-based acoustic instrument modelling on offer. Individual Gadgets take care of piano, electric piano, vintage organ, electric bass, and acoustic drums. Then there’s a top layer of Gadgets that pack some serious Korg heritage. Glasgow and Darwin are ‘Gadgetised’ PCM sample and synthesis workstations: varied sound banks with just enough controls to tweak the sounds and effects a bit. Darwin is a simplified M1, with every M1 and T1 ROM ever! Works for those of us who are rendered moist with nostalgia at the twinkling ‘Aah Of The Universe’ patch, but I imagine my kids will quickly want to head back to the Miami wobble bass generator. The two jewels in the crown are an uncompromised and awesome-sounding Arp Odyssey (Lexington), and Milipitas: a fully loaded Korg Wavestation with a lovely colour interface.