Could this natty iPhone app help you structure your songs and make better demos?
Marketed as the world’s first intelligent pre‑production app for songwriters and musicians, iOS app Songzap is the latest offering from RT60, whose iDrumTune Pro app we reviewed back in SOS Oct 2017. Songzap aims to remove the barriers to and mystery from the music pre‑production process — which, essentially, means everything involved in arranging a track and creating a demo in advance of a professional‑quality studio recording. It also serves more generally as a quick and effortless mobile tool to capture inspiration whenever it strikes. Songzap is the brainchild of Dr Rob Toulson and MTV award‑winner Dr Mike Exarchos, who have both enjoyed success as artist and producer, and are experts in music education and audio technology.
The Songzap interface is engaging and intuitive, and the functionality it accesses superb. On opening, you find yourself in a home page which is divided into five sections, each accessing deeper functions for the defined stages that lie at the heart of this app: Groove, Arrange, Mix, Track and Export.
Starting with the Groove machine, this provides several drum kits and a variety of kick, snare and hi‑hat patterns, which can be tailored to taste and can be adjusted for individual song sections in the arrange window and labelled accordingly (intro/verse/chorus etc). With 4/4, 3/4 and 12/8 time signatures available, the most common bases are covered, and if you need to get a shuffle groove with swing eighths the 12/8 pattern can make that happen. This window is also where you set your project tempo (once you’ve made any audio recordings in the app, this tempo cannot be changed.)
The kick and snare parts are manipulated using an X/Y grid, the X axis determining the core beats of the groove and the Y axis adding some extra syncopated sizzle; GarageBand and Logic users should be very familiar with this concept from Drummer tracks. By tapping the icon on your snare or kick you can lock your axis to one or the other, should you prefer to deal with only one element at a time. The hi‑hat control operates only on a left‑to‑right basis, with patterns increasing in complexity towards the right. Working in sections, the hat can also be switched out for either a floor tom or a ride cymbal. You also get the option to prescribe how frequently the crash cymbal appears (for example, once every 1, 2, 4 or 8 bars).
The Groove machine page’s headphone icon provides you with a choice of 13 individual kits, all created using original drum kit samples recorded by RT60. You can program your own parts, but the grid icon accesses 16 pre‑programmed beats, which is great if you’re in a rush and/or don’t want to roll your own. These beats are labelled alphabetically, A to Q, and increase in complexity and syncopation the further into the alphabet you travel. There’s also a very slick option to copy the beat that you’re working on over to any other section in the song (sections that are all helpfully laid out for you with meaningful titles). There’s no provision for dynamic changes, but the arrangement window allows you to detail patterns for song sections ranging in length from 1 to 32 bars, so you can really go to town on fine‑tuning the arrangement.
One particularly cool feature is that the programmed grooves are graphically represented in standard drum notation. While this may seem a little daunting to the uninitiated, it’s actually a great learning aid for those hoping to get a grasp of how rhythms are notated, and helpful if you want to communicate ideas to a session drummer. Another plus is that you can also add or remove individual notes from the drum score, to perfect the part you’re aiming to create.
The kick and snare parts are manipulated using an X/Y grid, the X axis determining the core beats of the groove and the Y axis adding some extra syncopated sizzle.
The home of the next stage is the Arrange window, which is where you build up your song in sections. It provides you with a plethora of Segment types: count‑in, intro, verse, verse B, bridge chorus etc, and the length of any of them is easily changeable in situ. You can also loop one or multiple sections, which enables you to audition the transition from one section to the next, and you can edit the transitions between them.
The arrange window also includes a simplified drum score editor, so you can make changes on the fly without changing pages. You can, of course, also flick back to the Groove machine at any time if you wish to access the more powerful X/Y pad interface.
The Track window is laid out with the four available audio tracks in view, along with the Groove track at the bottom, and this also details the arrangement labels for ease of reference. By default, the internal mic is used as the input source, but any iOS‑compatible audio interface with a lightning connection/adaptor can be used. Changing the volume of a track alters the size of the its waveform, which is a really nice touch, but you do need to be aware of it — turn it down too far, and you might not see your audio.
Operation is simple and you just need to arm a track to get rolling. You can also switch to input monitor by holding the icon until it turns orange in order to do a practice run with a live feed, and there is an option here to fire up the onboard metronome. There’s no dedicated punch‑in/drop‑in function, but you can start recording from wherever you place the playhead. This give you more than enough versatility to work around tracks that have lengthy spaces in them like vocals.
Harking back to Tascam’s Portastudios, the nostalgically named ‘high‑speed bounce’ function allows you to bounce the other tracks onto track 4, which will then operate as a stereo track. Working this way obviously requires a level of commitment and the kind of decisions we once upon a time had to make! There’s no need to incorporate the drum tracks into the hi‑speed bounce, by the way. I turned mine down for that, and brought it back up after the bounce, to keep my options open right up until the end of the pre‑production process.
In the tracking window, you can also import a mix of your current project as a high‑speed bounce or import other mono/stereo files from iCloud. Be aware, though, that using the import function will overwrite anything currently recorded to track 4, so you’ll need to make sure you take the time to get your balance right before committing. That said, there is a way to preserve all your tracks by using the handy Duplicate Song function... If you duplicate your song (project 1) before committing to a high‑speed bounce you can start afresh in a new project (project 2) by high‑speed bouncing everything to track 4 and using the available tracks for more content. This can be repeated multiple times if need be.
Once you’re ready to export your files to your DAW of choice, you can then pull in all variations of the song and still have access to each individual track. Track exports are dry so that, whatever cool reverb and EQ settings you may have applied within Songzap for your bounces, it’ll be a clean slate once you open the files up in your DAW.
The Mix window gives you a full visual of your four‑track recording and the Groove machine components. You can solo and adjust the volume of individual tracks and the kick, snare and hat/ride/tom components of the Groove machine. This is also where you’ll find the volume control for the onboard metronome. There are panning controls to adjust the stereo placement of each track as well as a control to add incremental amounts of reverb. A double‑tap on the mixer icon reveals additional functions: compression, and low and high EQ (which set parametric boosts at 110Hz and 3kHz, respectively). There’s enough here to make those dry recorded parts shine.
Once you’ve got your mix finalised and the pre‑production is wrapped there are options to share or archive the project for further use. The share function allows you to share a mixdown via email, social media or messaging apps. The archive function gives you the opportunity to export all song data to iCloud, and this includes full‑resolution track and mix files, lyrics/notes, arrangement and MIDI data. I tested this process with both Logic and Pro Tools and it all worked seamlessly.
There are also options to export MIDI files (including song tempo and arrangement markers) as well as text/PDF files with lyrics/arrangement and notes.
Songzap isn’t designed to compete with DAW applications (mobile or desktop), but to fill the gap in the market for artists who want to remain creative without unnecessary technological distractions, and it does this incredibly well. In fact, I reckon Songzap is an excellent app — one which achieves even more than it was designed to do, and which can genuinely inspire productivity. The feel is very much like working with a four‑track Portastudio, which many of us of a certain age will find nostalgic while others may find a novelty. Either way, while fully embracing that ‘limitation breeds creativity’ philosophy, Songzap does accommodate many of the advantages of modern DAWs, such as bouncing, processing, and high‑quality audio exports to DAWs or online services.
The app comes with a wealth of step‑by‑step instructions but, by the creators’ own admission they are also looking to establish a community, not just offer a mass‑use production tool. As with their drum app, then, you’d be missing out if you didn’t also check out the online resources they’ve provided to accompany the app: on the Songzap website, you’ll find a comprehensive suite of practical videos and tutorials to assist new users and enthusiasts. At this price, it really is a no‑brainer.
- Helps you focus on what really matters!
- Refreshingly simple to use.
- Very usable drum machine with original kits, drum notation and MIDI export.
- Backed up by a great online resource.
- Might some users wish for more tracks or instruments?
This pre‑production app offers a great way to organise and develop your song and recording ideas without getting bogged down in the inevitable distractions of a full DAW.