I’ve reviewed a number of VirSyn’s excellent iOS music apps here on the blog in the past. As well as some interesting audio effects (for example, AudioReverb) and vocal processing tools (for example, Harmony Voice), these include a number of very good synth app including Cube Synth, Addictive Synth, microTERA and, most recently, Tera Synth.
I’ve also expressed a fondness for arpeggiators here on the blog in the past (they provide one solution to my somewhat average keyboard skills) and a number of these synth include a similar-looking arpeggiator section. While this doesn’t get as complex as something like the beast that is Sugar Bytes’ Thesys, it does contain plenty of options and can be a very creative tool to drive the synth engine of the particular synth app in question.
All of which means that in VirSyn’s latest app, it is rather nice to see that same arpeggiator feature cut loose from one of the synths and re-imagined as a stand-alone app. The new app does have its own internal sound that can be triggered via the arpeggiator (and that are very useful if you just want to spend some time working on a few arpeggio patterns). However, as the app features both MIDI in and MIDI out, its prime intention is to provide a stand-alone arpeggiator app that you can trigger via its flexible virtual keyboard or an external MIDI keyboard and send the resulting MIDI data on to one of your favourite iOS music apps.
At a technical level, Arpeggist is an iPad-only app and is currently at a launch price of UK£3.99 (50% off what will be the usual price). It requires iOS7.0 or later and includes Audiobus 2 and IAA support from the off. Virtual MIDI in/out are also supported.
If you have seen the arpeggiator in any of the other VirSyn apps mentioned above then Arpeggist is going to look very familiar. The main screen is divided into 5 horizontal strips. At the top you get a menu bar for selecting presets, setting tempo or accessing the main settings menu.
It’s in the latter that you can configure the MIDI in/out settings for the app. You can also toggle on/off the internal sound engine here. This sounds like a pretty basic sine waveform sound to me… but it is fine for auditioning patterns if you don’t want the hassle of launching another app just to work on some arp ideas of your own.
At the base of the screen is the virtual keyboard and, like so many iOS apps, this is actually configurable to show just specific scale/key combinations as required. Usefully, the keyboard can also be set to trigger single notes (that is, each finger press plays a single note and you can finger chords yourself as you would with a standard keyboard) or to generate a chord type from a single finger press. As with the scales, there are plenty of chord options including inversions.
The upper half of the display is dominated by the step-sequencer grid. This includes lanes for notes, adding ties (for notes longer than a single step), accent, octave and key. The PDF manual is rather vague (that is, it says nothing) about the last of these lanes but the numbers here essentially relate to the keys (notes) you are holding down and provide a further way to trigger their sequencing. Do note that this setting interacts with the Note lane in some quite interesting ways… it does take a while to get your head around this but it does make for some very interesting – and very flexible – pattern creation options.
You get up to 32 steps in your arpeggio patterns but you can change this to any range up to that number simply by tapping and dragging along the upper strip. If you want some 13 step patterns (or some other odd amount) then feel free to see what it might throw up…. :-)
Within the Note lane, the values refer to steps above/below the root note and are relative to the key/scale selected. This means that you can – if like me your keyboard skills are a bit c**p – pretty much guarantee that you will not generate any dodgy notes. It is remarkably easy to make yourself sound like a very competent keyboard player using this kind of technology.
Follow the pattern
Preset patterns can be created and saved by the user and the app is supplied with around 40 presets to get you started. Immediately beneath the step lanes themselves, you get 8 large buttons that access a selection of the presets. These allow you to switch between any of these 8 presets on the fly…. combined with the fact that you can be switching notes or chords trigger on the keyboard, you end up with a huge number of options when performing to keep things interesting…. this is not just a tool where you can only play one pattern over and over.
If you select one of these 8 preset buttons (it turns yellow) and then use the preset menu to load a different preset, it gets placed into the first button slot and the rest also get changed based upon the order of the presets within the preset list (that is, the buttons display 8 consecutive presets from within the master list). It might be nice if you could tweak this behaviour and load 8 preset patterns from anywhere within your catalogue of arp patterns and, in turn, save that bank of 8 as a ‘preset’. Maybe that’s something for a future update? Even so, these buttons are an excellent feature when you are performing.
And there’s more
In between the preset buttons and the virtual keyboard is another row of controls. These include the transport controls, options for defining the timebase of each step, changing the keyboard behaviour (including a ‘hold’ option), a tempo control (mirrors the one on the top strip) and dials for Swing, Gate Time, Accent and Velocity.
The other thing is the ‘dice’ icon… and each lane has one of these as well. As with VirSyn’s other apps, this provides a randomise function and it is, it has to be said, rather good. Whether you use the global dice or just apply them to a specific lane, if you just keep tapping then something inspiring is going to come along pretty soon. Hooked up to a decent synth sound, this is almost like have a generative music app at your disposal. If you do suffer from the occasional bit of inspiration block, this is a very helpful antidote.
Get set, go
I did most of my own testing simply by using Arpeggist as a stand-alone app (rather than via Audiobus or IAA) and feeding MIDI data to one of my favourite iOS synths. I have to say that I spent rather too long doing this simply because it was a lot of fun. Having not quite got over my infatuation with all things iM1, this is a combination I can happily recommend :-)
The smart nature of Arpeggiest’s virtual keyboard means that it is fairly easy to use but I did also try an external MIDI keyboard and this also worked very smoothly… although you don’t get quite the same benefit from the app’s scale options via that route.
While it is good to see both Audiobus and IAA support in the app’s feature list, I’m not quite so convinced that those features are essential here. yes, in Audiobus, you get the benefit of State Saving with Arpeggist but, as this is really a MIDI tool and not an audio tool, it really doesn’t seem necessary to use it with Audiobus.
The same could also be said about IAA and, while I did try this via Cubasis, I didn’t really get very far and didn’t seem to be able to configure the app in the correct fashion to make things work. I might have been keener to see this happen if Arpeggist supported MIDI Clock sync and would, therefore, follow playback in Cubasis. Indeed, support for MIDI Clock sync would be a great feature to see in a future update…. fingers crossed….
While I had no problems getting Arpeggist to send MIDI data to various synth apps, rather surprisingly, I could not get it to send MIDI data to Cubasis (or I couldn’t get Cubasis to receive it?). I’m going to spend a bit more time exploring the murky world of iOS MIDI on this front to see it I can get it working but it might be nice to see something added to the VirSyn PDF manual for Arpeggist to help new users pick their way through these various options – Audiobus and IAA included – and how they might be used.
My only other comment is that actually making settings within the step grid takes a little bit of practice. First efforts might feel you feeling that things are a bit fiddly (especially if you are a person with larger fingers) but, with just a little practice, you soon get tuned it to the tapping and tapping and dragging required. On the whole, creating your own patterns is a straightforward task.
As a stand-alone arpeggiator, Arpeggist seems to strike a very good balance to me between ease of use and the range of options it provides; it’s deep without being overwhelming. Having too much going on is something novice users often find with Sugar Bytes’ Thesys and, while that app is most certainly the best featured arp app available for iOS, Arpeggist is perhaps a little easier to get into and to find your way around.
There are perhaps still a few tweaks it would be nice to see…. MIDI Clock sync, some more comprehensive documentation and (unless I’ve missed something) somewhat more comprehensive options for routing MIDI and perhaps these are things that VirSyn can address with subsequent updates.
However, all that said, hooked directly up to your favourite synth app, Arpeggist is a heck of a lot of fun and, as a ’performance tool’ – whether in the studio while song writing or in a live context – it can (a) make even a keyboard chump like me sound good and (b) generate some very cool musical ideas. At the launch price of UK£3.99, despite those few tweaks mentioned above, and used in this ‘performance’ fashion, Arpeggist is a heck of a lot of fun.