Friday, 29 May 2009


I have this list in my head of music apps I always like to try to have (or wish for). One day I'll turn it into a written list, but generally it includes things like a drum sequencer, Hammond organ, analog synth, vocoder, effects unit, GM sounds, guitar fx, piano, step sequencer etc. What I'm pining for is a virtual Yamaha TX81z. I used to have one and I loved it, but I sold it as I didn't have space for it and I was going fully digital anyway. So I've been looking for a replacement for it on the iPhone. 

One day I encountered the quirky OuiLead, a Japanese synth that has some fantastic sounds, but sadly no patch editing. Definitely worth grabbing, especially as it is free and regularly updated.

Some odd sound toys appeared that let you play with a single FM sound, varying the frequencies etc for some unusual effects, but they weren't really what I was looking for.

The makers of the fabulous Digidrummer have created Destiny, an FM synth, but it looks a tad basic for me.

Then came Pianofly, a truly brilliant little 3-op FM synth with extensive editing and a great user interface. I'm getting closer to my TX81z replacement.

Finally this morning I came across Innocencer, which I wasn't sure what to make of - it looks a bit like OuiLead and was free, so I thought I'd give it a go. It turns out it's a 4-op FM synth with control over the algorithms. The closest yet to my TX81z dream! I haven't tried out its
 innovative midi file playback yet, but it does a great job as a polyphonic FM synth. Clearly this is a developer with the potential to make what I seek. And I'd pay a good price for a proper emulator that could load up my gazillions of SYSEX formatted TX81z (and other Yamaha FM synth) patches.

So far so happy.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The iSYN on the cake!

Terrible pun, but great app just got better. iSYN is a fantastic app, and very close to matching Korg DS-10 on the Nintendo DS. Anyway the latest version features an arpeggiator that makes live play even better. Has a few options such as up/down/number of octaves and a useful "hold" mode. Set it running and hit the XY pad for some awesome results.

I had a great session with it yesterday and wished there was a simple way to export a loop from each unit (2 synths and 1 drum) that could then be imported into Looptastic or Beatmaker. Please please PLEASE Apple let us have a shared area for media files that apps can access!

Monday, 4 May 2009

In search of the perfect App keyboard

Mobile music is cool, but you've got to be able to get what's in your head into your device. Whilst there are loads of "funky" new paradigms courtesy of the iPhone's touch screen and accelerometer, in the main we're looking at piano keys or guitar strings. For this post I'm looking at piano keys. 

When the iPhone was announced I was excited at the prospect of multi-touch for one reason - chords! Although I love my Glofiish's pinpoint stylus accuracy, and my DS's ability to detect touch pressure, neither of them allowed me to play chords on a virtual keyboard. 

There have been many different approaches to the virtual keyboard on the iPhone, so I'm going to go through some of the good practice and pitfalls I have encountered along the way, in search of the best possible solution (that no-one has as-yet implemented).
1. Noise.IO uses a split row design, giving good width keys and access to two octaves. Key length obviously suffers here, but that's unavoidable. Changing octaves requires a trip to a separate screen, which isn't ideal but it does work. There's also a very handy modulation slider area to the side, along with a volume slider. Horizontal slides along the keyboard trigger the next note (I think that is technically called a Glissando). Initial vertical key position affects (I think) "key pressure" and can be modified afterwards with a vertical slide. Overall an excellent solution. In addition Noise.IO
 makes good use of the accelerometer for configurable modulation of just about every parameter when you move the device around.

2. Nlog Synth has a single row of keys with configurable key width, giving from 13 to 22 keys on screen (not sure why they stopped short of two full octaves). Configuration is a key (ho ho) requirement I think - everyone plays in a different way, and I personally have broad fingers. Nlog could easily fit in a second row of keys though, for a performance mode, giving access to 44 keys. To get around the octave issue, Nlog allows you to smoothly slide the keyboard left/right as you play it. Very impressive, but means you cannot slide up and down the keys, as the keyboard moves with you. So close to
 perfection! Nlog also has vertical key position mapped to key pressure, and allows a vertical key slide to control a configurable modulation. This is incredibly expressive. It is "sort of" polyphonic when modulating, but triggering a new key seems to reset the modulation for the held key.

3. Vocoder SV5 takes an interesting approach to the octave issue. In normal play, a horiontal
 slide triggers the next note. If you hold down the octave button though, the horizontal slides scroll the keyboard. Very useful. Also well worth a note is the sprung pitch wheel. I love it! There are other UI innovations I've writen about in a previous post, such as "sticky" rotary controllers. No controllable modulation is a minus, but there is a full-screen dual row keyboard option, which has some useful spare space for, for example, a future mod wheel.

4. iSyn offers a highly playable full-screen
 two-octave keyboard with switchable Legato and multiple scales. Changing octaves is via octave up/down buttons, which I'm not a big fan of. Vertical key modulation works brilliantly although it's tied to the same modulation as the Y axis of the XY pad - I'd like to see an independent option. Interestingly, sliding up and down the keyboard doesn't retrigger the next note, it slides the pitch smoothly even across the width of a single key, which is great for leads and "finger wobble" pitch modulation, and reminds me a lot of Bebot. It would be good to have this optional like it is in Bebot (when set to "Snap" mode). The current note display is a nice touch. By default the keyboard has "virtual wide" black keys. This means you cannot trigger a white key from the black key area (scale dependent), which I personally like.  Wavesynth also has this, but it is optional.

5. Speaking of Wavesynth then, it also features a lovely big sprung pitch bend wheel and a whole heap of configurable options (along with the black key mentioned above): pitch bend range, single or double layer keyboard, "shake to modulate" (which I find a little gimmicky), configurable portamento and switchable mono mode. The only missing option here is configurable retrigger/don't retrigger envelope (Legato). A great little synth but a bit overlooked (presumably because it is touted as a general midi rompler).

6. Megasynth. Keyboard is very basic, and lacks a lot of the features mentioned in this article, but it is worth noting the slidable octave display that lets you see and choose your keyboard range.

7. Pianofly. A new App, and a great sound engine, but what I really want to mention here is the keyboard. Switchable to full screen is nothing new, but I absolutely love the novel approach to the octave issue. Playing the keyboard is similar to Nlog - silky smooth scrolling left/right - but you can "hold" the keyboard still with another finger (either on a key or on the black scroll area at the bottom) and now your other fingers are free to slide up and down the notes. Genius.

8. Grand Pro. An honourable mention to this app for offering optional 1, 2 and 4 octaves on screen at once! Also has optional note names on each key, which is a useful feature.

Ok, there's loads of apps I've not mentioned, and I may have made a few mistakes for which I
 apologise but hope you can correct me.

So what would make the perfect keyboard for me then? Hmm let's see:

  • Configurable key width
  • Configurable split/single key row
  • Pianofly's scroll lock
  • Optional note names (Grand Pro and makes a brief appearance on Wavesynth)
  • Initial vertical position configurable to a parameter (would generally choose pressure, but options are nice)
  • Vertical slide configurable to a parameter (Nlog)
  • On screen pitch wheel with configurable range (Wavesynth and Vocoder SV5)
  • On screen mod area (Noise.IO)
  • Optional "virtual wide" black keys (Wavesynth and iSyn)
  • Optional smooth slide portamento (I don't know what to call this as it doesn't exist on a real keyboard, but on a fretless bass or trombone! - iSyn and Bebot). It is different to normal keyboard portamento as it is controlled by the player, not a predefined time.
  • Configurable Legato (iSyn)
  • Configurable scales (iSyn and Bebot!)
  • Optional mono/poly (Wavesynth)
  • Configurable portamento (Wavesynth)
Maybe I'll mock-up a few screenshots of a keyboard and settings screens?

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Time to start a new fund.

For ages now I've been following the netbook trend. I've stood, credit card at the ready, drooling over Asus 8.9" EEEPC netbooks. I stopped just short of buying because I had a nagging feeling I was looking at old tech. Then all the glowing reviews of the Samsung NC10 had me cruising the local electronics shops trying to convince myself that 10" was better, even though it was getting to be almost as big as a laptop. So I decided to wait. Was a higher resolution screen on the way? Faster processor? Cheaper price?

Now a whole raft of new UMPCs seem to be appearing that fit into my original Netbook budget (ish) but with loads of extra features such as 3G, GPS and touchscreens, and a form factor that almost compares to the early palmtops. All this whilst running XP with up to 1Gb RAM, 60Gb hard disk and 1024x600 resolution. So basically a netbook in less than half the space. Or more to the point, all my favourite PC music apps IN MY POCKET. Being PCs, they also support normal USB devices, like (presumably) midi keyboards, my Korg Nanopad, DJ controller, multi-output external soundcards etc. Can you see why I'm excited?

I don't know if the typical Atom processor is up to the job of, say, Virtual DJ or Ableton, but this truly looks revolutionary for mobile music.

Throw-in bluetooth and wifi and all sorts of possiblilities spring to mind such as OSC control from my DS or iPod Touch.

A lack of cash is a slight snag, as is choosing which puppy to go for. The Viliv S5 is definitely a front runner, and the Umid M1 is almost too cute for words (although it needs a lot of external bits for USB etc.)

No doubt by the time they are available in the UK, and my fund has come close to affording them, something else will be on the horizon, but I think I've found the "class" of device I'm looking for.

Anyone got experience of using a UMPC for music?