After finishing Borderland I upgraded from Garage Band to Logic Pro, having exhausted the capabilities of the former, and have been trying out different music apps for the iPhone and iPad, preferably with MIDI control capabilities.
I used to use the Commodore Amiga with a midi keyboard and Yamaha Tone Generator some 20 or so years ago and have some fond memories of the Music-X sequencer. I also have memories of the high levels of dumb insolence that can be displayed by recalcitrant MIDI connections which can only be fixed by triggering the OOTW sensor. (This is the inbuilt sensor electronic kit has that fires when it senses that it is about half a second away from being thrown out of the window. You can’t spoof it though, it knows whether you really mean it or not). This is no longer a problem with IOS apps and Macs (Maybe windows stuff too, I am really out of touch with that now) as you can set up a wireless MIDI connection in seconds and control each from the other with many of the apps.
I’ll leave out the apps that simulate 1980’s synthesisers as those make noises I hate so I have deleted them after one try-out.
MUSIC MAKING APPS
A 16 x 16 grid sequencer (Similar to each layer on the Tenori-on) which produces music in only one voice. You tap the nodes you want to fire and it processes them in a cycle. Hypnotic at first but will drive you mad if you let it. No MIDI.
Lovely to look at and use but unless you like the sounds for other than playing, just a diversionary toy. No MIDI.
An app replicating Daphne Oram’s 1957 composition machine which read markings on 35mm film. Must have been wonderful then. A nice tribute but no good as an instrument. No MIDI.
You draw what becomes a 3D wireframe on the screen and the app traces the frame and plays it as music. You can let the composition rotate and then move it on the Z axis, causing the tones to change, but this rapidly gave me a headache. Limited selection of tones / Scales so useless as an instrument but beautiful and diverting to play with. No MIDI.
OK so its a pre-millenial sounding synth and apart from a few basic controls the tones are fairly minimal. What sets it apart is that Pitch, Modulation and Volume are controlled by twisting your iDevice in the air in all three axes. If it sent out MIDI messages it would be great as a controller, but it doesn’t.
Preset pairs of sounds are blended on the screen, moving top to bottom changes the balance from one sound to the other, left to right changes the pitch. You can’t change which sounds are used or load your own, or use MIDI to drive it as an instrument. All in all it’s rather like finding that someone else has filled in your crossword.
TNR-i (Software version of Yamaha Tenori-on)
Wonderful sketchpad which has a 16×16 matrix sequencer to draw on for each instrument. You have 16 of these layers in each block which all play concurrently. There are 16 of these blocks which can be chosen randomly switching between parts of a song. I like many of the sounds but find switching blocks whilst it’s playing a bit fiddly. I used this to write After the Rain and as the basis for Resolve, two of the songs on Borderland. Sends out MIDI note information.
Designed with Brian Eno, has limited tones but can be set to vary “Moods” (Scales) as it runs. You interact with it as it is running. Used on all the ambient pieces on Borderland, where using a limited palette was part of the plan, but limited in use elsewhere. You can set it to run generating on its own which is nice. No MIDI.
An array of blocks that slide about a containing box and emit sounds when they hit a wall. Limited variety and boring tones. No MIDI.
By the same author as Otomata but a league apart. Tapping on the screen causes a balloon to grow centred on the tap. When balloons touch, the larger continues to grow, the smaller one yields. When a balloon’s growing edge touches the centre of another balloon, one of a limited palette of lovely tones is triggered, the tone dependant on the location on the screen, the size of the balloon and some other factor I can’t put my finger on yet. Easy to get carried away and create too many balloons but restrained use can yield very satisfying results. I used this as a sketchpad and background on one song I am writing for Mr. Thompson inside himself. That’s probably the only time I will use it as an instrument though as everything it does sounds the same.
Tapping on the screen places nodes which are either notes or “reactors” which respond to notes. Each gives out waves like circles in a pond triggering other nodes. Each node can carry a rule which causes it to change each time it fires into another note. Nodes can also be caused to orbit other nodes varying the timing. Sends OSC messages which you can, I believe, knife and fork into MIDI messages but I didn’t proceed that far as I found the music generated tedious. I shall persevere though as I like the look and feel and want it to succeed.
Fairly abstruse and intractable interface which tempts you to just fiddle with everything in an attempt to stop it making such a horrible noise. Does send a stream of MIDI data but I have yet to find out why I would want it to.
You are given the apparence of control over drum bass and lead loops and it makes music that sounds like all the music you hear bumping out of teenager’s cars. I knew that stuff was written by machines. No MIDI.
Promising but limited interface allowing you to move about the trigger points and nodes to alter timings. Sends MIDI note information but notes are all of the same length and intonation. Produces dull mechanical music when I use it.
Direct descendant of the KOAN software used by Brian Eno for “Generative Music”. A bit limited in that it is a performer / player app using components made by Noatikl which needs a Laptop or above to run. These components can be generative within their design and you can randomly assemble them just to see what comes up, so it does generate new music continuously. Doesn’t transmit MIDI events but can record them into a file which you can then import into the software of your choice. I haven’t had much success yet but see more hope for this than any of the others so I’ll persevere.
MIDI Control devices
Turns your iDevice into a touch screen pitch-bender for those 80’s moments. Works well.
Set your scale and it lets you tap out notes, pairs, or triplets always in key. Not used it much as being in key is less of a problem for me than knowing which tune I am trying to navigate.
Weird keyboard layout, like one of those early ergonomic PC keyboards and some lovely sounds. Has plenty of life when played as an instrument but only seems to transmit basic note data over MIDI so sounds flat and lifeless when cast at another instrument. Can’t receive MIDI for use as an instrument.
I’m on the lookout for others, if you come across a good one please let me know.