As iPhone-mania continues to grip the World, developers have been releasing music–related applications, some of which offer a surprising level of sophistication. Forget the idea of a laptop studio — it's time for the pocket studio!
When the iPhone was first announced nearly two years ago, I was pretty sceptical about its potential for running general-purpose software, let alone software that would have a musical purpose. Initially, this was something of moot point as, citing security issues, Apple had stated that the platform would not be open for third-party development. But following much consternation from third-party developers (many of whom had taken matters into their own hands with unofficial solutions), Apple finally released a full Software Development Kit (SDK) earlier this year to allow developers to create native iPhone applications.
In addition to providing the tools needed to create iPhone applications, Apple announced the App Store, a new service that would make it easy for developers to sell their creations directly to end users. For a percentage of each sale — except on those applications released for free — Apple would host developers' applications on the App Store and deal with the transactions necessary for users to make purchases and downloads. Launched this July, along with the iPhone 3G and the version 2.0 OS (which is required for running applications built with the SDK), the App Store makes purchasing applications as easy as buying songs, albums or movies. Indeed, the App Store is part of the iTunes Store, and iTunes manages your purchases and synchronises newly downloaded apps with your iPhone.
As with any computing platform, you can always expect developers to come up with some ideas for music software; and, despite the fact we're still witnessing the first days of the iPhone as a platform, there are already some surprisingly useful apps for musicians beginning to appear on the App Store.
Given the abundance of novelty musical applications appearing that turn your iPhone into a shakeable percussion instrument, you might be thinking that the device seems more like a musical toy than something you could use for serious programming — but think again. While more complex applications will take time to develop, there are already a number of sample-based sequencing tools that allow you to create MPC-style tracks, and one of the first examples of this type of application is Intua's BeatMaker.
When you first load the application, which takes a moment or two because of its size, you're presented with the Home screen where you can perform various load and save operations, and navigate a number of browsers that provide information about how to use the program and more. At the left-hand side of the screen you'll notice two buttons in the top and bottom corners which reveal the Navigation bar, where you can select between the Home, Pads, Sequencer and FX screens, and the Transport bar, where the traditional sequencer-style transport commands can be found. Having these bars accessible but not always visible is a good way of keeping such global buttons in easy reach without consuming precious screen space.
The Pads screen offers 16 pads that you use to trigger each of the 16 samples that can be stored in a Kit, and you can make a recording on the pads to either a new or existing Pattern. To get around the fact that there's a tiny bit of latency before hearing an audio response when tapping the iPhone's touch screen, a quantise mode is provided so that everything sounds in time when you play back the recorded Pattern.
In addition to a Record mode, the Pads view also offers an Edit mode where you can manipulate the Kit's samples with a surprising number of options. You can adjust the sample start and end points by percentages (or graphically, by dragging a region on the waveform), change the playback volume of a sample and which output it's routed to within BeatMaker's onboard effects system, and also alter the pitch of a sample and the direction in which it's played.
The Song Sequencer is where you can decide which Patterns play where along a timeline. Time is displayed in bars along the horizontal axis, as with most sequencers, while on the vertical axis you see a list of Patterns. Since each Pattern has a length of one bar, what the Song Sequencer provides is way of toggling which Patterns play in which bars by simply tapping in an empty bar to set the appropriate Pattern to play there, or tapping where a Pattern plays to remove it from that bar.
Tapping one of the Pattern names presents a drum-editor-like view where you can edit which samples in the Kit play on which beats of the Pattern, with a 16th-note resolution. This enables you to either edit Patterns recorded with the Pads view or program new ones from scratch, and additional views are provided to let you adjust velocity or groove settings for each beat of each Sample in the Pattern. As you might be noticing, BeatMaker offers aun unusual amount of depth for a mobile application.
Finally, BeatMaker provides two effects racks, which can be edited on the FX view, each comprising a delay, equaliser and bit–crusher. And, as mentioned earlier, you can specify in the Pads view whether a sample is routed to the main output (bypassing all effects) or to one of the two FX outputs.
As you can tell, BeatMaker is a pretty complex application, and since you might end up using it to create some fairly intricate Kits, Patterns and Projects, it would only be truly useful if there was some way to export data from BeatMaker back to your desktop computer. While BeatMaker does provide a way of exporting an audio or MIDI file version of a Project, it's by way of a free tool called BeatPack that is downloadable from Intua's web site (www.intua.net) and makes this exchange possible.
Once BeatPack is running on your Mac (or Windows computer), assuming it's connected to the same wireless network as your iPhone, you'll be able to upload and download files from a special section in BeatMaker's Home view. But the really neat thing about BeatPack is that it also provides an additional page where you can create your own Kits with custom samples, simply by dragging audio files from your computer onto the pad display in the BeatPack window, making BeatMaker a genuinely useful tool for working on your own loops.
The only slight criticism I have with BeatMaker is that the user interface is slightly non-standard, often a little sluggish, and not always intuitive. For example, when you want to save or export a file, you navigate through the file system to the location you want to save the file, click the new file icon, a non–standard text entry keyboard appears for you to enter a filename; and then, once the file is added to the system, that's when you press the OK button to actually commit the data to the file. It works, but it would be nice if the process was a little more fluid.
Ultimately, though, when you consider the amount of features Intua have packed into BeatMaker, it's hard not to be impressed. At $19.99 it's the most expensive music-creation oriented application in the App Store, but it's also the most flexible, especially since you can create your own kits with the companion BeatPack application. Despite a few quirks, this is definitely something an iPhone-owning electronic musician will enjoy.
If you're interested in programming drum loops on your iPhone, another really neat application is Izotope's iDrum Mobile. Although less sophisticated than BeatMaker, iDrum Mobile offers a brilliantly intuitive user interface, with a Kit Selection view (a Kit encompasses a collection of sounds and the programming of those sounds into Patterns), a Pattern view and a Part view. As soon as you see the Pattern view, you know you're dealing with a rather slick application.
Each Pattern gives a mini-graphical overview of the samples in it, and when you tap a Pattern to open it for editing, the user interface zooms in so that the 16 Parts making up that Pattern are displayed. Tapping a Part in Pattern view zooms the display so that the Part fills the screen; and here, in Part view, you can program when the sound is triggered for any of the 16 Steps in the Part. You can easily change the velocity of steps, and as you use the back button to navigate back to previous levels in the song's hierarchy, the interface zooms back to reveal the appropriate view. While these animations might seem like a gimmick, they make it easy to understand where you are within the song hierarchy.
Two different editions of iDrum Mobile are available from the App Store, each offering a different genre of sample content: Club and Hip-Hop. If you own the full version of iDrum for Mac or Windows, you can apparently exchange Kit samples with the iPhone version, although I didn't have a copy of iDrum on hand to try this out. There's also a tool that non–iDrum–owning users can download from Izotope, called iDrum Ringtone Sync, which allows audio exports of songs to be copied to your computer, although at the time of writing this seemed to have issues with iTunes 8. Hopefully an update will be forthcoming.
In many ways, iDrum Mobile sets the standard for other music-oriented iPhone apps to beat, mostly because Izotope have created something completely appropriate for the iPhone, rather than scaling down ideas from more powerful platforms. At $4.99, it would be churlish not to click the 'Buy App' button!
I think the most successful music applications on the iPhone are ultimately going to be those that work as an extension to your computer, rather than those that either try to replace or work directly with it. For example, looking at the issue of replacement, an application like BeatMaker is good as a stand-alone application, but its ability to export audio and MIDI files to your computer via BeatPack is what makes it really good and, ultimately, useful.
By comparison, control software that turns your iPhone into a device that becomes a direct peripheral to your studio computer, such as the Far Out Labs Pro Remote Pro Tools controller software for the iPhone (which we may look at in a future issue), also seems somewhat questionable. At the end of the day, the iPhone is a phone, and to have to juggle Airplane modes and wireless connectivity when in the studio is potentially going to be frustrating for certain users.
So in the same way that Palm Pilots found success by acting as a satellite device to your computer in the '90s, maybe iPhones will become similarly useful satellites for musicians. Given that it's still early days for the iPhone as a platform, developers have already done a pretty amazing job in creating a range of diverse and compelling tools. So the next time you see someone tapping away on one of Apple's pocket devices, they might not be an executive unleashing thumb–powered email. Instead, there's a chance they might be composing a masterpiece!
Although, for the sake of brevity, I've only referred to the iPhone in the main text, the iPod Touch is also capable of running the same applications as the iPhone if you have the version 2.0 OS.
The iPod Touch is pretty much identical to the iPhone, except that it can't be used to make phone calls, which may be preferable to some, as it means you can buy the device without needing to worry about the added expense of phone contracts or service providers, especially if you already have a phone. There is one issue to be aware of with the iPod Touch, though, which is that because it isn't a phone, it doesn't have a built-in microphone. This isn't perhaps a big deal, although it does mean that audio applications relying on a microphone being present to provide core functionality are pretty much useless. It might be possible to use an add-on microphone device with such applications, but this isn't something that I've tried.
Until recently, I would also have said that the lack of a built-in speaker was also something to consider with the iPod Touch, since for casual use it's something of a pain to have to keep plugging in headphones, especially if you want to show somebody else what you're working on. However, the second-generation iPod Touch (which went on sale in September) now includes a built-in speaker, and while the quality might not be great, it definitely enhances the experience of the device.
The iPod Touch is available in three models, each offering a different storage capacity: 8GB, 16GB and 32GB. While having a 32GB device may seem like a possible advantage over the iPhone (where only 8GB and 16GB models are available), if you're mainly interested in running applications (as opposed to using the device as a media player — and who'd want to do that?) it's worth bearing in mind that most applications are pretty small in size. Many are under a megabyte, and even some of the music applications that offer built-in sounds weigh in at well under 100MB.