If you have hung around music technology for any length of time then you will be familiar with the UVI brand. The company specialise in soundware products for computer-based musicians including the UVI Workstation sample playback/virtual instrument system.
Given their track record on the desktop, it is perhaps not so surprising that the company are now taking an interest in iOS and their first iOS music app – BeatHawk – was launched on the first day of the NAMM show. With its 16 virtual pads, BeatHawk is obviously going to be aimed at beat and groove makers and the obvious comparisons would be with apps such as iMaschine or iMPC Pro.
BeatHawk includes a 750+MB sound and instrument library and as as well as beats, promises multi-sampled instruments, sampling, time and pitch stretch of samples and a 16-track (that is, one ‘track’ for each of the 16 pads), pattern-based sequencer. The initial release includes IAA, Audiobus and CoreMIDI support as well as AudioCopy, WIST and import and export of audio. There is also the prospect of additional sample packs – via IAPs – being made available from UVI’s extensive catalogue.
On launch, BeatHawk was offered at an introductory price of UK£3.99 and, as I write this review, that introductory pricing still holds. So, if you are on the lookout for a beat/groove/sequencing toolkit in a single app, is BeatHawk worth grabbing?
Leaving aside what BeatHawk might actually sound like or whether it manages to deliver a combination of features and ease-of-use to make you want to actually use it, it certainly looks great. The interface looks modern and very slick – in much the same way that apps like Gadget and Cubasis look modern and slick – so if it performs as well as it looks, then BeatHawk is going to be something pretty impressive.
With the exception of the Song screen (where you arrange your patterns) and the Browser (where you can load samples onto one of BeatHawk’s 16 pads), almost all the key controls for working with the app are contained within the single main display. This is split into a number of different areas and, as some of these can be tabbed between different sub-sets of controls, this one screen – while looking clean and clear in terms of design, actually has plenty going on once you start to explore.
Along the top strip you get access to the Project/Kit preset system, a button to switch to the Song screen and a master volume fader. Immediately beneath this is a narrow timeline display. When in playback, this shows you the play progress through the current pattern. As patterns can be set to be anything between 1 and 16 bars in length, the time units shown in this strip will vary to reflect the length of the current pattern.
At the base of the screen is a strip of controls containing the Undo button, the transport controls and buttons for setting/selecting tempo, groove (swing) and quantize resolution when recording.
By default, the centre/left of the display is dominated by the 16 ‘drum’ pads (sample pads; you can place any sort of sound on a pad, not just drums). However, the set of buttons running down the left edge include some options that change this portion of the display.
For example, if you select a pad (by tapping it; it gets a yellow highlight around its edge), and then tap the Volume button, the pads change their function. Each pad will now play the same sound – the one you had previous selected – but at a different volume. You can, therefore, use this mode while recording hits for individual samples within a pattern to add some volume (velocity) dynamics. Note, however, that you can also use an external MIDI keyboard to play/record your patterns and that the pads do respond to MIDI velocity if you prefer this means of data entry.
The Pitch option brings a more dramatic visual change and you get two octaves of keyboard to play with here. Again, based upon which was the currently selected pad (sample) back on the Pad screen, you can now play it with real-time pitch shift. This obviously works fine for drum samples but, with a suitable instrument sample loaded onto a pad, you can also start playing bass lines, melodies or chord parts; very cool.
The Mute button simply allows you to toggle mute on/off for any of the 16 pads. This is a global setting and, if you change to another pattern, the muted pads stay muted. I’ll come back to the Erase, Select and Repeat buttons below when talking about pattern recording…
The right-center of the display contains the Track and Pattern tabs, each of which provides a different set of controls for this portion of the screen. With Track selected, you get a further set of tabs – Edit, ADSR, Record, Sample – each of which apply just to the currently selected (highlighted with that yellow edge) pad. So, for example, from the Edit tab, you can open a browser to select a different sample, adjust the gain, pan or pitch, or tweak the high pass/low pass filter settings or the send level to the global reverb and delay effects. You can also configure the pad as a one shot and assign a pad to a choke group (useful if you have multiple hi-hat samples, for example, and only want one to be able to play at any one time).
The Pattern tab allows you to manage the 16 pattern slots that are contained within a BeatHawk project. As mentioned earlier, a pattern can have up to 16 bars, so there is actually plenty of flexibility here… but I can imagine a few users wishing that they perhaps had more than 16 patterns to play with. Anyway, patterns can be copied, pasted, cleared and their length set. Each pattern icon has a number of highlighted dots displayed upon it as a visual reminder of the length (in bars) of that particular pattern.
To repeat, this all looks great and, once you have the basics under your belt, navigating the interface is a breeze. As I’ll come back to in a minute, there are also a few rather neat elements to the design that, in use, demonstrate the attention to detail that has been exercised. Like some of the very best iOS music apps, BeatHawk is very focused and has a streamlined feature set; the clever bit is the choice of those features though; the most important things are here, there is enough to keep you interested but without lots of things that just get in the way when you are in a creative flow.
Pattern of choice
As mentioned above, a BeatHawk project allows you to create up to 16 patterns each of which can be up to 16 bars in length. Pattern creation is pretty straightforward. You select a pattern slot (via the Pattern tab section on the right of the screen) and set the length of the pattern (there is a drop-down menu that allows you to do this). Once this is done, you simply engage record mode via the transport controls and then play in your part using the pads.
You get a metronome to help keep you in time when you first start a new pattern and you can also engage the quantize option, and set a quantize resolution, and this is applied as you record your parts (rather than on subsequent playback). You don’t, of course, have to play in all the pads in a single pass; BeatHawk just cycles through the pattern and you can add beats on any of the pads in each pass. Usefully, while recording, you can change the quantize resolution so, if you want 1/8th note quantize for your kick/snare but 16th note quantize for your hi-hat, then that’s perfectly possible.
Other useful features here include the Erase button. With recording engaged, if you hold this while also holding down one of the pads, any hits occurring while both buttons are pressed will be erased from the pattern; very easy and very neat. Equally neat is the Repeat button. Hold this down and then, when you also hold a sample pad down, it will simply be repeat triggered at the current quantize resolution. This is very useful for building up things like drum machine style snare rolls.
The other button within this group – Select – is useful because it allows you to select a sample pad (that is, get the yellow highlight around it) but without actually triggering the sound; simply hold Select and then tap the pad you wish to make the current pad. This is useful in a number of ways but, as we will see in a minute, if you want to add pitch or volume data for a pad but without dropping out of recording mode, this allows you to switch to the pad without accidentally also adding a hit to the pattern for that pad.
Keen beat programmers may have noted that I’ve not yet mentioned anything about a ‘grid’ view of your pattern. That’s simply because BeatHawk doesn’t provide one. You record everything by playing the pads as the pattern loops (or playing an external MIDI keyboard); there is no view where you can see an overview of the pattern steps and toggle hits for the various pads on/off. Some users might miss this but I can see why UVI have adopted the approach that they have. Indeed, the combination of tools actually makes pattern creation very straightforward and, given that the quantize option allows you to work with a resolution of up to 1/64th triplet feel, it would be difficult to imagine the grid required (with 16 lanes over 16 bars) fitting on something the size of an iPad screen and still feeling efficient to use.
Make a pitch
I described the use of the Volume mode pads earlier. This is one option where being able to use the Select button can be helpful; you can switch to a different sample pad without triggering the actual sound, and then engage the Volume mode and start entering hits for the selected pad but with velocity (volume) data attached to them.
However, BeatHawk is not just about drum hits or loop triggering; it can also do playable, sample-based, instruments and, while this is perhaps not going to challenge a dedicated sound module such as Korg’s Module in terms of the sophistication or subtlety of the sample-based sounds, it is a master-class of design; streamlined, elegant and very useable indeed.
Having selected the sample pad you want to play, toggling the Pitch mode display on brings up 2 octaves of a virtual keyboard to play with using that sound. You can tweak the available octaves up/down or, of course, use an external MIDI keyboard to play the sound. This works whether the sample pad has a drum hit, loop or an instrument sound loaded… and, when you play, what you get is rather good pitch-transposition of the sound but, tempo-wise, everything remains locked tight; so, for example, loops can be pitch shifted using this method but will stay at the same tempo.
Whichever mode of note entry you use, once in Pitch mode, you can record parts using that sound in exactly the same way as when using the sample pads; just cycle through the pattern with record engaged and add whatever notes, chords or melody you like as the pattern cycles through.
I’ll say more about the sound sets included with BeatHawk below but it is worth pointing out here that not all the sounds are created equal for ‘pitch’ purposes. The drum hits, the loops and many of the instrument-based sounds (you can distinguish between these based upon the different icons that appear in the bottom right corner of the pad) will play polyphonically (that is, you can play chords if you wish).
However, any of the supplied bass sounds seem to be programmed to play just monophonically with a glide between notes if they overlap (I didn’t test this exhaustively but the behaviour occurred with all those I did try). This is a sensible default option as most bass lines would be monophonic but, unless I missed something obvious, I couldn’t see any way of adjusting this behaviour. Again, this is not a big issue but worth noting before you spend too much of your own time scratching your head about it….
The ability to add melodic content you your patterns obviously means BeatHawk isn’t just about beats… and I have to say that I think UVI have implemented this feature in a brilliant fashion. Whether it’s a bass line, a few chords or a complex melody line, the app makes it easy to turn your patterns into fully-formed electronic music productions. The app’s great for drum beats… but it is really a full-on electronic music production environment.
When you dip into the Load Project/Kit menu option, or you open the sample browser that is available in the Track/Edit tab, you can access the pre-supplied content of BeatHawk. In terms of project, you get half-a-dozen example projects that you can load and explore. This is well worth doing as it gives you a good idea of just what it possible.
Usefully, when loading a project, you get a choice between loading the full project (kit and patterns) or just the samples within the kit. The latter means you can start with a pre-configured set of 16 samples spread across the pads but start your own set of patterns around them. You can, of course, save your own projects in the User Library section of the Project Browser.
Once you have experienced the various pre-supplied projects, it is then time to explore the supplied samples via the Track/Edit browser. Tapping on the green ‘Browser’ button opens a fairly standard browser-style display where you can search through the available samples, audition them and, as required, load them onto one of the 16 sample pads. The samples are organised into themed ‘libraries’ and then categorised in various ways so, whether you want a sound, a loop or an instrument sound, you can easily narrow down your search; then, just tap once on a sample to highlight it and tap a second time to audition it.
By default, when you the hit the Load button, the sample will load into the sample pad that you had selected prior to opening the Browser. However, you also get a mini set of the 16 sample pads located top-right of the screen and you can change the pad selection here (as well as audition samples that are already loaded onto any of the pads) if required. This makes the whole process of setting up your 16 samples pads very straightforward. Usefully, you can also playback patterns from this screen if you want to experiment with loading sounds and hearing them in context.
Unsurprisingly, the sample content is based upon UVI’s own sample libraries and you get two default packs; EDM Factory and Urban factory. There are, however, already a decent collection of additional packs that you can add as IAPs and priced from UK£2.99 up to around the UK£7.99 mark. I purchased a few of these just to see what was on offer and I have to say that the standard of the samples is very good indeed. And, considering the pricing, I think all the packs represent pretty good value for money. They are not perhaps as extensive as some sample libraries you might buy for a desktop music production system but then they also cost a lot less.
The advantage of using UVI’s content is that it is, of course, all pre-configured for use within BeatHawk. If you did make a commitment to using the app as a core part of your iOS music production process, then you could, soon rack up quite a bill if you want an extensive collection of samples to work with. That said, the quality is high and I hope UVI continue to offer new packs to purchase within the app so that regular users have some fresh material to work with on a regular basis.
An alternative approach is to either import or record your own samples, both of which BeatHawk allows you to do. There are various routes for importing but I simply explored using iTunes File Sharing. This worked fine providing, of course, that you took due notice of the tempo of any audio loop that you imported. BeatHawk does a decent job of identifying the tempo of imported loops and the app will time-stretch the loop to match the tempo of the project… but don’t expect miracles. You can, however, use the Track/Sample tab to crop a sample and apply a little stretch if you need to tighten things up. The tools are fairly limited but work well enough when needed. Again, this is an example of the design providing the core tools in a compact – and very useable – format, but without going over the top and giving you lots of fluff that you might never use.
Recording your own samples provides the same, no-nonsense, approach. Tap the Track/Record tab option and you get a simple panel where you can record live audio input. You can then name the sample (it gets stored in the User Library) and then flip over to the Track/Sample tab to tidy up the ends, etc. Not only is this great fun to use but, with the right sorts of sample sources, you can very quickly create some virtual instruments to add you your BeatHawk productions. Equally, you could use it as a means of adding extended vocal samples to your instrumental projects.
As shown in some of the screenshots included here, the Track/Edit and Track/ASDR tabs allow you to do some basic processing on the sample on each pad. The options allow you to tweak the gain, pan and pitch plus a low pass and high pass filter for tonal control. You also get send controls for each pad to the global reverb and delay effects.
The settings for the effects themselves are adjusted via the Preference page (accessed from the main menu). You can set a few controls for each of the reverb and delay and there is enough control to get the job done without a lot of fuss. This page also allows you to configure your MIDI options and a few other ‘set and forget’ global options.
The Track/ADSR tab provides you with exactly what you might expect; a simple, but effective, ADSR envelope that you can adjust for each sample pad. Again, very useful without going overboard.
At present (at least as far as I can tell), none of the Edit or ADSR controls can be automated as part of the pattern recording process. Indeed, the only control that does seem to be capable of automation is the MOD fader found in the Pitch tab (located above the keyboard). If you slide your finger along this while in record mode then the movements will be recorded as part of your pattern. This is perhaps one area where it would have been great to see BeatHawk go just a bit further… even if only in terms of automating the Edit and ADSR controls. Perhaps that’s something that UVI can think about for a future update?
Going for a song
Once you have tweaked your samples and created a few patterns, it’s then time to start arranging them into some sort of song structure. Tapping the Song button (top-centre of the main window) is where this can get done. This is also beautifully thought out and designed. At the top is a timeline where you can place your various patterns and this can be zoomed in/out with a suitable two-fingered gesture on the touchscreen.
Placing a pattern is simply a matter of dragging it from the pattern pads located to the left, and dropping it wherever you want it on the timeline. By default, the dropped pattern uses its standard length but, rather neatly, you can select it on the timeline and then use the top two buttons located in the central strip beneath the timeline to ‘grow’ or ‘shrink’ the pattern. As well as allowing you to effectively repeat a pattern several times without the need to multiple drag and drop actions, this also allows you to just play a shorter version… right down to a single bar or even a single beat. You can create some neat effects using these tools.
This page is also where you can export your finished project via (surprise, surprise!) the Export key. There are three different export options; a straight audio export, a ‘multi’ (each track is exported as a separate audio file) or a MIDI file export (so you could then place the MIDI data into a sequencer if you wished and trigger/edit it from there).
This is impressively flexible and means that you can easily get your BeatHawk productions out of the app in a range of different formats that could then be used elsewhere, including into your favourite desktop DAW/sequencer if required. The audio export produces 24-bit, 44.1khz WAV files so the audio quality ought to be very good indeed. Once exported, you can audition the files via the Browser (they are stored in the User Library) and I was easily able to access the created mixes or MIDI files via iTunes File Sharing.
The other key option included in the Song page are the mute pads so if you want to exclude some of the pads (tracks) from a specific instance of a pattern’s playback on the timeline, then you can do so. This is a great way of adding further variety to your productions,
Aside from using BeatHawk as a stand-alone app and export your projects as a finished track or for work elsewhere, as the app supports both Audiobus and IAA, you ought to be able to integrate it into a wider music production workflow. This worked well enough via Audiobus and the main stereo out from BeatHawk happily fed audio into Cubasis sat in the Audiobus output slot. However, as yet, there is no sync between BeatHawk and other via (Korg’s WIST technology is included but not MIDI Clock sync) so there is some manual syncing to be done if you want to work in this way.
Using Cubasis as my IAA host, I couldn’t actually get BeatHawk to play back anything when loaded as an IAA and nor was there any sign of an IAA transport panel in BeatHawk. In my entire testing period this was the only thing close to a technical glitch that I experienced. It would, however, at some stage, be good to see this working correctly and for there to be sync between the transport/tempo of an IAA host and BeatHawk.
All this said, rather like Gadget or Caustic, BeatHawk is perhaps intended primarily as a stand-alone music production app… and you could certainly build the basis of a track in BeatHawk before using the export features to then bring the audio into your DAW/sequencer to start developing the idea further. That would probably be my preferred workflow anyway… but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to have IAA as an option and MIDI Clock sync (however problematic it can be under iOS at present) would still be good to see.
Can you beat the ‘Hawk?
In terms of sound… well, BeatHawk is going to sound as good – or as bad/lo-fi – as the samples you choose to use within it. With the high quality supplied samples, you can put together some classy productions and, without exception, I thought the additional IAPs that I purchased sounded just as good. If you have a supply of your own samples, or are prepared to spend some time recording your own additional sample material, BeatHawk will happily take them and, in some form or another, allow you to work with them… It’s more work that the pre-configured packs perhaps… but also more individual.
My comments about the IAA support aside, I think the workflow in BeatHawk has been brilliantly conceived. You get just enough options to keep things interesting and flexible but without any of the clutter that can befall some software (and, in particular, some desktop music software). While this is a very different app to Korg’s Gadget, the slick, polished, modern – and streamlined – design ethic has much in common with what, for me, was 2014’s ‘app of the year’. That’s perhaps a lot for BeatHawk to live up to but, even at first release, this is an impressive app.
There are some obvious apps already in the beat/groove/pad-based music creation tools category with iMaschine and iMPC Pro being the obvious alternatives. I like both of those apps in different ways but, if I was looking to buy my first app of this type, I’d certainly want to look at BeatHawk as a serious contender. It is not dwarfed by these two more established apps in any fashion and, with its sleek looks and well-designed workflow, it is a pleasure to use.
As you will already of gathered, I like BeatHawk a lot. I think UVI have got an awful lot right – and very little wrong – in the way the app has been put together. This could easily become my ‘go to’ pad-based beat/groove construction app simply because it is – once you have spent just a short time with it – so intuitive and streamlined to use. I’d like a few more options in terms of getting BeatHawk to work with other apps but, as a stand-alone tool for electronic music production based around the well-established ‘sample pad’ concept, this is a lot of fun.
And, if you are quick, you can give the app a try for yourself for a very modest outlay. At the time of writing, the launch price of just UK£3.99 still holds, 50% off what will be the regular pricing. Tempted? So you should be…. BeatHawk is brilliant and comes highly recommended.