There was a time when some people would say that any application running on a cell phone that has a 37-page instruction manual undoubtedly suffers from too many features, a terrible user interface, or both. That was perhaps before the iPhone changed the game. The phone's capable hardware, in conjunction with its multi-touch input and arguably the most capable SDK ever seen on a mobile device, make it an outstanding platform for robust applications. Join us as we take a look into one of the more most applications currently available on the platform: BeatMaker.
Sequence me this, sequence me that
BeatMaker isn't for everyone; it isn't even for all musicians. BeatMaker is a sequencer, an application used to arrange samples into a composition. Often times, sequencers use pieces of hardware, such as an electronic drum kit or MIDI keyboard, to trigger (or play back on demand) the samples and record the information associated with the velocity, aftertouch, and note pitch and value. With the recorded MIDI data, a user can apply different instruments and sounds to the performance. Modern sequencers allow for the editing and input after the fact while older hardware, such as drum machines, allow for live performance, overdubbing, and limited editing. Sequencers are commonly used in electronic music, rap, and hip hop, but they can really be applied to any genre. Now that we have that out of the way, let's take a look at what BeatMaker has to offer.
You're only as good as your samples
The point of any sequencer is to allow a user to trigger samples, bits of recorded sound, in a pattern they find aurally desirable. Without samples, a sequencer is useless. For those who don't already have a sample library, BeatMaker comes with a variety of different "kits" to work with. Each kit consists of 16 samples ranging from horn hits to a variety of percussion instruments, depending on the set you choose.
This is the way we load the loops
There are five artists, each of which have anywhere from one to six custom kits and an additional 18 non-artist kits ranging in genre from jazz to electronica. You can also mix and match kits by loading samples from other sets into the place of samples you don't want. While this is great in principal, it becomes difficult to choose a new sample because there is no live sampling in the file browser. You must make sure you save your new custom set as well; otherwise, the old kit will be used for the sounds.
A user can make his or her own custom sets using a desktop or laptop with the company's BeatPack software. The software, currently in free beta, allows you to drag and drop samples to any of the 16 pads and then upload to your device. While the software is handy, there is no playback of samples in the application, something that would have been a nice touch. You then need to download or upload, using your machine as a server.
You can also download samples onto the iPhone or iPod touch from a remote server set up by a third party. While this is not really something many people may use, it is a welcome addition for those hardcore sequencer junkies. Regardless of which kit you use or how you acquire it, the maximum size is 35MB.
It should be stated that there are no standard iPhone UI elements anywhere in this application. If this was a native OS X application, UI zealots everywhere would be up in arms. There are times when a QWERTY keyboard is used and, instead of using the one Apple provided, the application uses a custom keyboard.
Welcome to BeatMaker
Despite this, the programmers do a fairly good job with the UI. Inside the main information area there are several options: "Home," which is where the Welcome to Beatmaker and getting started info is; an "RSS Reader," which will bring you BeatMaker information straight from the company; information about the currently-loaded kit; the BeatPack server setup where you can download and upload your custom kits and compositions; and BeatMaker copyright information.
This main screen can also be used for loading your kits, saving a project, saving custom kits, and exporting kits and samples.
To get started making music, we need to load a kit and then activate the the top menu item, which is represented by an icon that can only be described as a combination of a Mac power button and a Pokemon ball. In this menu, we have four options: going to the Home menu, "PADS," "SEQUENCER," and "FX." We will start in the Pads section.
There are 16 drum pads at the user's disposal in BeatMaker, which can trigger any sample a user chooses to assign. The pads are arranged in a 4×4 block taking up approximately two-thirds of the left-hand side of the screen. Each individual pad is a 78×78 pixel square with rounded corners, well above Apple's suggested input element size, and includes the sample name, the pad number, and a color that relates to the step sequencer (we will examine this later). In all, it's a functional and attractive layout, however it does have one flaw: often times, the sample name is too long to fit on the width of the pad, leading to clipped names. This, in turn, translates to a lot of tapping to figure out which sample is which, especially if you tend to forget. Unfortunately with the limited screen real estate, I'm not sure there is a good solution to this problem.
On the remaining third of the screen, you have options for global volume—which coincidentally opens up a volume dialog that is oriented in portrait while everything else is oriented landscape—the ability to load a kit, clear the current kit, and adjust the tempo from 60bpm to 260bpm in intervals of one-tenth of a beat.
The pads are responsive, but can add delay from time to time. If you set the same sample across two adjacent pads, however, you can trigger quite quickly.
From the pads screen, you can access two more screens: Record and Edit.
The Edit screen gives us a great deal of additional flexibility. You can choose to either work on one sample at a time or batch edit. From here, you can edit the sample's start and end position using a graphical interface that shows you the actual waveform and allows you to to trim it using a drag of the finger. Unfortunately, you can't play the newly-trimmed sample from this screen or see how long the resulting clip will be. You have to leave the graphic editor and play the sample manually to get a feeling of what you have. Even then, you don't have a length measurement, but instead a percentage from the beginning of the original sample and percentage from the end.
This is what your samples look like under the microscope
From here, you can also load samples from other kits into your current kit. Just make sure you save it as a custom kit if you intend to use it in the future, otherwise your composition will take on the sounds of any newly-loaded kit. You also have the ability to chop samples by selecting a number of pads and then selecting a sample from the file browser. It then cuts the sample into a number of pieces that matches the number of pads you selected.
The Sample settings section allows for several more alterations to the loaded samples. Here, you can change the volume of individual samples by +5.90 dB or -inf (resulting in silence), select which effects bus to pipe the sample through (we will talk about this further later in this review), and gain the ability to mute one or more pads. This is handy if you intend on rocking out on a couple of pads and need to mute the ones in between.
Pitch and Tune Settings
The first option we have here is to adjust the pitch. This is a bit strange, as it isn't adjusting the pitch in the traditional sense that some musicians might be used to. Instead of just raising or lowering the pitch by increasing the frequency of the the sound wave over the same time period, the program increases the frequency of the wavelength by squeezing the same sample into a shorter period of time, in turn increasing the frequency, but decreasing the duration of the sample. You can increase this "pitch" up to 2x, meaning the sample will play twice as fast and sound a full octave higher, or slow it down to half speed effectively making it one octave lower.
There is a feature here that goes by the name of Scale that I played with for some time, but was unable to figure out what it did. The manual really shed no light, so if you can figure it out, let me know in the comments. The semitones section will raise or lower the pitch of a sample in intervals of one semitone at a time. With the ability to sharpen or flatten the pitch by 12 semitones, the user gains the ability to raise or lower the pitch without affecting the duration.
The means that there are some flaws when recording straight from pad input, but overall it does the job. To actually record, you have to open the lower slide-out menu and hit "Record." Upon doing this, the menu slides away, allowing you to hit all the pads in the interface. The recording feature lets you record and overdub, though only one measure per time. It seemed as though the functionality for recording multiple measures one after another is there, but after attempting to use it, I found it did not work.
It disappears once you hit record
The multi-tracking capability is pretty straightforward; if you want snare hits on beats two and four, and high hat on beats one and three, you simply record the snare hits and then record the high hats right over them. Unfortunately, there aren't any count-in options, but if you have the record set to loop, you can wait for the second iteration of the first measure. If you want to start a fresh new beat, you can hit the "New Pattern" button and you will be recording a new set of beats. If you don't want to hear the pattern you just recorded, then you can change the current bar number and get silence while you record. Further quantization is automatic to the nearest 1/16. You are only able to record in 4/4.
Unfortunately, you can't delete the last recorded overdub; instead you can only clear the last recorded pattern. If you are creating complex patterns, this can be a problem, but it can be remedied by manually editing in the step sequencer. You can also turn the metronome off by deselecting it from the bottom slide-out tab. You can create an entire song from the pads screen using the "Append to Song" and "Remove From Song" functionality, but I found recording then arranging patterns in the step sequencer to be much easier.
Arranging is a bit cramped on the 480×320 screen
The Song Sequencer is where I like to arrange my tracks. As I said before, while it's possible to compose an entire song from the Pads section, it is just so much easier to use this method. Across the top of the screen, you have the measures of the track annotated by the measure number, and here is where we select which bars we want played, where we want the track to start, and where we want it to end. It can all be done easily with the drag of a finger and is fairly intuitive. Adding the patterns to the track is equally easy. You just tap the measure you want and a graphical representation shows up.
There is one negative aspect of the system: you can only really fit six measures and three patterns comfortably on the screen at any one time. Since there is no scaling of the view, this makes editing long compositions with a lot of patterns a bit tedious.
My favorite part of the application is the pattern editor, or step sequencer, brought up when a pattern is tapped in the song sequencer. Here you have all 16 instruments, color coded to match the pads, and a single measure broken into 16 segments. This is the way to do it if you want high accuracy. The only issue is that there is no aural feedback when you hit a segment of the measure, just the highlighted beat. It would be nice to be able to hear what you just placed without having to play the entire measure. From this screen, you can also clear the entire measure or you can duplicate it to a different pattern number.
From here, you can also add velocity data to your tracks. Since the iPhone has no way of telling how hard you hit the screen of your device, this is the only means of applying subtle variances in a track's dynamics. Further, you can also edit via the "Groove Editor." This can help add some realistic timing issues to your piece. The editor allows you to have the sample triggered before or after the actual trigger. There are 64 levels of "groove," 32 on the positive side and 32 on the negative. It can all be a bit time intensive, but in the long run, will improve the sound of your track.
Velocity editor split up by beatFX
As we talked about previously, you can opt to send a track to the effects bus along with any one of the three effects. The effects included are the Equalizer, a three-band EQ, a delay, and Bit Crusher—an effect that will intentionally lower the bit rate of anything piped through it. Ars' creative director Aurich Lawson, somewhat of a hip hop aficionado, tells me that this is to mimic the sound of E-mu SP-1200, a classic drum machine. If you need to apply the effects to individual tracks, then it is worthwhile, but if you are going to apply it to the whole track, you are probably better off doing it with more full-featured effects suites after export.
Here be your FX rack!
When you are done, you can export your composition as the native format or you can export it directly to a .wav file on your iPod. That alone is pretty sweet, but we would like to see the inclusion of MIDI data export.
BeatMaker is very capable, and might be an ideal solution for users who don't want to drag their laptop on trips with them. The UI does suffer from problems associated with a small screen, but the ability to export to .wav almost makes up for it. The application is definitely worth the $19.95 if this is what you do—in fact, it's probably worth several times more than that. If you don't have much need for a sequencer, however, then this may not be the app for you.
Name: BeatMaker for iPhone (iTunes Link)