AC Sabre review – interesting MIDI instrument and motion controller for iOS

Download from iTunes App StoreAC Sabre logo 1One of the things I love about iOS is that it has made accessible a number of interesting, creative and unique means by which an instrument can be ‘played’. And while there are undoubtedly elements of the iOS music making experience that do not yet compete with what’s possible on a desktop system, when it comes to delivering unconventional and novel ways to generate MIDI data, iOS has most certainly bought something new to the party.

This has come in a variety of ways and I did a roundup article looking at some of the MIDI performance apps available for iOS some time ago. These are an eclectic bunch of apps and, whether you simply want some chord pads (for easy of MIDI data entry into a DAW/sequencer) or something that focuses more of the creation of MIDI-based ‘expression’ within a performance, there is something for pretty much everybody.

Falling very much towards the second of these types is a new (ish) app from developer Air Craft. AC Sabre was released a couple of weeks ago and, thanks to Ashley at PalmSounds (who offered me a spare code to take a look at the app), I’ve now had a chance to wield AC Sabre for myself.

So what is AC Sabre? Well, the iTunes tag line describes the app as a ‘professional MIDI instrument and motion controller’. The emphasis is most certainly on the word ‘controller’ here; AC Sabre allows the user to use the touch screen and the motion sensitivity of an iOS device to generate all sorts of MIDI data. This data can be sent to an app (for example, a synth app or DAW/sequencer) running on the same device or, via Bluetooth or WiFi, that data can be sent to a second iOS device or to a suitable desktop computer.

How cool and space age do you like your MIDI controller to be? AC Sabre ticks all the boxes….

In terms of general details, AC Sabre is a universal app, it requires iOS8.1 or later and is a 10MB download. Given how it is used – more of which is described below – it makes most sense to use it on a suitable iPhone or iPod Touch, but it does also work fine on an iPad. At launch (and until the 19th of August), the app is priced at UK£9.99/US$12.99, which represents 50% off what will become the standard price. If the app is something that might be of interest, it therefore makes sense to grab it while you can; at the full price, it is perhaps well beyond what most iOS musicians might consider a ‘casual’ purchase. That said, I think this is a niche app and the most obvious user group might be more than willing to pay the full price given what the app has to offer….

Talk talk….

Getting AC Sabre setup to function proved fairly painless. Given that my focus here is always on things iOS, I did most of my testing running AC Sabre on my iPhone 6S and transmitting the data via Bluetooth to my iPad Pro (and running a number of different synths to see how things worked).

I did, however, just for testing purposes, also connect to my OSX desktop system. That also proved pretty straightforward. Thankfully, if getting wireless MIDI up and running is not really your thing, both the app itself, and Air Craft’s website, include very clear documentation to work through the steps involved…. This is well worth a read before you get started.

The app walks your through the setup process and, while there are a few steps involved, the process is well documented.

Once you have established the connection between the hardware, it’s then just a case of making sure your MIDI destination – in my case synths like iM1, Synthmaster Player, iSEM or Model 15 – are open to data input from the AC Sabre source/channel number. At this level, AC Sabre is no different from any conventional hardware controller, whether wired or wireless.

Remote control

For a moment, I’ll leave the detailed motion-based control to one side and just deal with the main UI of AC Sabre. This is shown in a number of the screenshots and, as can be seen, there is a flower-like set of buttons that dominate the screen. This is referred to as ‘the bloom’ in the documentation. The central circle is intended for your thumb (while you hold your iPhone in the palm of your hand as usual) and will generate a MIDI note on message to the connected synth when you tap and hold it.

The pitch of that note is determined by a couple of other things. First, you can configure AC Sabre to only generate notes in a given key/scale combination (and I’ll say more about this in a minute but the options are commendably extensive). However, once that’s done, the pitch is actually determined by the colour ‘light beams’ that you can see in the background of the screen. The root note is indicated by a yellow beam, the 5th note by red and all other notes in the chosen scale/key combination are shown in blue…. and you trigger these various notes by moving your iPhone in a circle around you…..

The coloured light beams presents notes on your chosen key/scale…. and you rotate your iOS device in a circle around you to ‘cross’ the beams as part of the note triggering process.

The best way to imagine this (aside from watching the promotional videos embedded below!) is to think of yourself at the centre of a circular MIDI keyboard. If you hold the central button down and hold your iPhone horizontal, as you turn left or right, the beams stay fixed in position and the central circle rotates over them…. and as it crosses a beam, that note becomes the selected pitch….   so, to play a melody, you simple rotate yourself in a circle (or part of a circle depending upon how wide a range you want your melody to span).

This sounds a bit weird and, initially at least, it also feels a bit weird. However, you soon get used to it and you very soon see the potential for some rather fun ‘performance’ elements about AC Sabre; it’s your movement (or rather, your movement of your iOS device) that generates the MIDI notes…. as a means of sound generation in front of an audience, this is something with some obvious theatrical appeal.

The other ‘petals’ generate a range of different MIDI messages. In the default arrangement, this includes adding either octave or 3rd harmonies, trills and a whammy-bar (pitch-shift) mode. However, there are four ‘Bloom’ presets that offer different combinations of additional responses and aimed at different types of musical performance style.

Flower arranging

Arranged around the central ‘bloom’ are a number of other controls that can be used and/or accessed. Bottom centre is, for example, the ‘Drone’ button; if you tap this while a not is playing, then the note (or notes) will be sustained until another note is triggered. Top-left/top-right are button to shift +/- by one octave, while the bottom-left/bottom-right buttons toggle legato and portamento modes on.

Peeping out at the sides of the screen are four ‘swipe-able’ tabs. Touch and swipe on any of these are further controls and/or settings appear. Top-left brings out options for setting MIDI up, adjusting the key/scale, changing the density of the light beams and the properties of the petals within the Bloom. You can also tap the Patch button and this gets you into the detailed settings for AC Sabre. There is a lot of stuff to dig into here and plenty of options to fine-tune the sorts of MIDI data generated by the app as part of your performance.

The scale options feature the conventional….

The key/scale options are worth a further note. There are a huge number of different presets here; besides the usual chromatic, major, minor, pentatonic there are also modal presets, arpeggio-based preset, bass-orientated presets, plus a whole range or ‘world’, Indian and Jazz scales types. Even the somewhat experimental nature of the music that AC Sabre encourages you to make, some of these more exotic scale types are going to prove very interesting to explore.

… and an impressive collection of the more exotic.

The top-right tab swipes to reveal various MIDI options, configuring the Drone behaviour, the MIDI ‘panic’ button and the centre control that allows you to recalibrate the ‘start’ position for your iOS hardware (a bit like calibrating the motion sensors within a Wii remote).

The lower two tabs left/right both open touch controller strips that can then be used to add further expression to your performance. You can configure exactly what might be controlled by these by dipping into the Patch options but obvious candidates are pitch and modulation wheel type behaviour… but feel free to think outside this particular box by defining something different if you wish :-)

There are also two ribbon configurable controllers available.

The sound of motion

AC Sabre is not, however, just about tapping notes and spinning around in a circle though; it also makes full use of the motion sensors in your iOS device. And, if you open the patch options and take a peek, you will find six different sorts of motion gestures can be defined – pitch, roll, yaw, shake, shuffle and what AC Sabre call ‘intensity’.

The Patch button allows you to access the full range of configuration options within the app.

Tapping on any of these allows you to customise its behaviour, both in terms of calibrating the response, and also in terms of the MIDI CC number it is associated with. And if your synth target includes a MIDI Learn system, there is also a MIDI Learn button within AC Sabre that allows you to send test message out to your target app to make it easier to establish the parameter link (this is a good idea because, otherwise, the app is transmitting MIDI data based upon almost any movement of your device).

All the motion gestures can be full calibrated and configured by the user.

I only really scratched the surface of what’s possible here but did enough to appreciate that, with the right target synth, there is plenty of scope for making your iPhone produce some dramatic changes in your sound with the right synth and a bit of thought. Very usefully, there is a preset system within the app so, if you do define a configuration to work with a specific patch in a specific synth, you can save that setup and then recall it again later.

There is plenty to get stuck in with here…. and, as a consequence, also quite a bit to learn and experiment with. Finding combinations of synth patches and AC Sabre settings that work together does, at first, take a bit of work…. For example, there is not much point in getting AC Sabre to generate some obscure MIDI CC data if your target synth isn’t also configured to respond to it in some way. Be prepared to do some setting up in this regard but, if you like the sense of control that the app then provides you with, then I suspect that will be effort well spent.

Performance art?

Given that AC Sabre is transmitting note data and also MIDI data based upon physical motion of your iOS device, it will be sending a lot of MIDI data out to your target synth. Equally, given that there are lots of gestures to get used to… as well as becoming familiar with how you trigger the different elements of the Bloom, don’t expect to be playing complex tunes too quickly with the app….

While I did most of my testing connecting my iPhone to my iPad pro, I also had no problems sending AC Sabre data to my iMac…..

… well, not complex tunes that you can repeat anyway. That does take some practice. However, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes with the app to appreciate its obvious potential. Even if your initial hand waving and thumb jabbing is a bit random, with the right synth patch, you can create some pretty impressive (if somewhat abstract) musical sounds. Even as a tool for a bit of pseudo-random improvisation in the studio, I can see AC Sabre being a very interesting tool.

However, I think it is pretty obvious that this is an app that is really going to appeal to the live performance iOS musician. Yes, there will be some practice involved and, yes, it is a performance tool that might well suite more improvisational styles, but it really is a rather wonderful experience to start slowly moving your iOS device and experimenting with the sounds that then appear.

You can configure almost every aspect of the MIDI behaviour of the app….

Indeed, do watch the two short trailer videos for the app embedded below. OK, so they are exactly that – promotional videos – but you will get a sense of what’s possible with the app. What you will also get a sense of is the potential for adding some theatrics to your performance. I know, the way we musicians move and/or dance our way around a stage often has very little to do with the actual music but those stage theatrics are very much part of the experience for the audience. AC Sabre makes the performer movement very much part of the performance…. the show-person in you should embrace and enjoy that element of the app… it really is rather cool :-)

It will be interesting to see what directions Air Craft might take the app. It already offers a very sophisticated set of features…. but I also wonder whether they might offer some alternatives either for the Bloom – or even instead of the Bloom – to give the app a more obvious appeal to the more conventional iOS musician. Maybe that might be some sort of chord pads (major, minor and others) but where the chord’s root note is still selected via the light beams as you rotate through the circle? Anyway, it’s already a powerful tool… but I’m sure it could be evolved in all sorts of other interesting ways.

The ribbon strips and option controls can be opened while still ‘playing’ and generating MIDI data if you need to tweaks some settings on the fly….

In summary

I’m sure I’ve not grasped the full extent of what’s possible with AC Sabre. However, I do think this is a very powerful MIDI performance app and I’m looking forward to exploring just what it might do for me in the studio. However, the real fun would be in live performance and, in that context, I think this brings some interesting and novel elements to the idea of an ‘iOS MIDI performance app’.

AC Sabre doesn’t really require any traditional musical instrument skills but it is a powerful and flexible MIDI controller for whatever synth you might like to point it at. While you don’t need to know one end of a guitar or piano or violin or trumpet from the other in order to use it, you will still need to put in a little practice (to mater the gestures and interface) and techie time (to configure the app to work with a suitable synth patch or three); don’t expect to instantly ‘get it’ and be able to make music like a seasoned musical pro…. but its fun even in the learning phase.

With all that said, it is perhaps no surprise that AC Sabre is perhaps a bit of a niche app. More conventional musicians might be interested in the technology but, if your musical output tends towards more song-based tunes, then perhaps AC Sabre is not really for you. However, those with a more experimental bent will, I think, find it very appealing. And, for what it offers, at the launch price, it is very temptingly priced.

Even a novice user can get some abstract music going very quickly (with the right synth patch) but if you are serious about iOS as a platform for live performance – and as a musical instrument controller in its own right – then AC Sabre is well worth a look.

AC Sabre

Download from iTunes App Store

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