Can a single DAW really perform well on laptop, tablet and mobile phone?
Although some Windows digital audio workstations give a nod to the touch possibilities in the Surface range of hybrid laptops, it's the iPad that attracts all the finger-friendly attention. Stagelight from Open Labs is thus unique in being a touch-centric DAW forged in the fire of the Windows multi-touch interface. In fact, the new version 4 release of Stagelight brings it to iOS for the first time.
Can a single fully featured DAW really be implemented across desktop and mobile platforms? Open Labs believe so, and Stagelight is now compatible with Windows, Mac OS, Android and iOS — and not just as a fun music-making app. You can build a project in Stagelight on your iPhone and beam it to your PC and finish it off using desktop processing power, though there will inevitably be compromises in terms of mixing performance profiles and interface gymnastics. So, does touch functionality enhance or hinder the desktop experience? And can Stagelight capture the imagination of creators on iOS who want the option of taking the touch interface and the same software beyond the power of the iPad?
Visually, Stagelight reflects many of the apps we see on iOS: it is flat, colourful and stylised, with the neon glow of Tron about it, and stands out from the desktop DAW crowd. It's very adaptable to screen size and unafraid to be chunky when touchscreen fingers demand it. Cascading windows and dockable zones are not its style, and neither are multiple screens or extended desktops. You are encouraged to focus on one thing at a time, as is necessary when working with a phone interface, although this philosophy occasionally delivers strange-looking results in other situations, such as when a small plug-in GUI ends up sitting in the middle of a large screen filled with black space.
It's a lively interface, peppered with LED-style metering and animated frequency spectrograms. The data within clips is expressed in bright white and stands out dramatically from the darker colours of the interface, especially in the Loop Builder, where you can lay out an Ableton Live-style loop grid for live performance. This works well in low-light conditions, but does give Stagelight a playful air that perhaps makes it feel less serious on the desktop.
Stagelight follows mainstream DAW convention whereby clips are placed on a timeline and manipulated in editors. Following its ethos of being dead easy to use, it likes to take you by the hand in an effort to help you start making music fast. One of the ways in which it does this is by opening every new project with a drum kit loaded and the pattern-based drum step sequencer ready to go. That's right, Studio One users, Stagelight has had a drum step sequencer since the beginning. It's pretty versatile, too, and fills the screen for easy hands-on programming.
Using touch with the drum editor is as natural and enjoyable as any touch input I've come across. You can tap and drag horizontally to auto-fill with increasing intensity, or tap and drag vertically to set velocity, which is reflected in the brightness of the step's colour. The drum kit is constructed from the many samples included in the core software. Each sound has a control panel with gain, tuning, panning and a low/high EQ. You have control over a couple of different stretch modes and playback direction, and you can also add plug-in effects. Samples can be imported from your own library, too, enabling you to build your own kits.
Slightly hidden behind a small button are automation editors for individual lanes. For each step you have control over velocity, pan, pitch, and high and low cut, as well as more intriguing parameters like Sub-Divide (ratcheting), Push/Pull, reverse, and velocity and pan jitter (randomisation).
Patterns are 16 steps per bar long within a 4/4 time signature, but by changing the time signature to 16/4 you can squeeze 64 steps into a single bar and push that pattern up to eight bars totalling 512 steps. (There is an alternative view that turns it into a less rigid piano-roll style editor, where you can change the resolution all the way down to 1/64 triplets even in 4/4, but then you lose the controls over the samples, which get replaced with note-related controls like movement and start/end points.) There are no options for individual lane step counts for polymetric rhythms. Patterns can be saved and recalled in the timeline, and there are dozens pre-supplied to get you going....
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