Beatwave review – generative music meets pattern-based sequencer meets all-in-one music composition app from Collect3

Download from iTunes App StoreBeatwave logoOver the last few months I posted a number of ‘round up’ articles here on the blog each of which has taken a look at a particular group of iOS music apps and identified some of my own personal favourite apps within that group. Two of these articles have looked at generative music apps and all-in-one electronic music production apps and there are some brilliant apps within both of these categories.

There are also a few apps that perhaps fall into both and one further contender – courtesy of a fairly substantial upgrade that appeared on the App Store a few weeks ago – is Beatwave. In fact, Beatwave has been around on the App Store since April 2010 but, with v.2.0 (in June 2014) and now v.2.5 (released April 2015), developers Collect3 have really pushed the app on.

Beatwave - pattern-based sequencing/music creation on iPhone or iPad.

Beatwave – pattern-based sequencing/music creation on iPhone or iPad.

Before we dig in, on the practical side, Beatwave is a universal app, will run under iOS7.0 or later, has Audiobus support and is a modest 80MB download.

Basic beat

In concept, Beatwave is quite interesting. The UI design is of the ‘minimal’ variety and might almost be called abstract. The base app is free and provides its own set of synth, bass and drum sounds. You can, however, expand on the range of internal sounds through a number of themed IAPs. Further IAPs add some additional effects options… or, you can go the whole hog and buy the ‘Pro 2’ IAP (currently at UK£7.99) that essentially bundles all the IAPs into a single purchase at a bargain price.

You can layer up to four sounds at once and these can be mixed and matched between drum-based, synth-based, or a bit of both. Performances for each of your four sounds are then created within a pattern-based grid editor with patterns that are of a variable length (sort of; the grid’s playback speed is varied) up to 8 ‘bars’ in length.

The Beatwave grid can be used to create drum patterns, bass lines, melody parts of chord parts.

The Beatwave grid can be used to create drum patterns, bass lines, melody parts of chord parts.

To build a ‘song’, you put a single pattern for each of your four instruments into a ‘group’. The playback length of that group is dictated by the longest pattern within the group so, if your lead synth line is running at 1/8 speed and your drum pattern is running at 1/1 speed, then the drum pattern will loop 8 times while the synth part plays once.

The Settings menu allows you to add note or drum labels to the grid display if preferred.

The Settings menu allows you to add note or drum labels to the grid display if preferred.

And, if you define multiple groups, these can then be set to playback one after the other to create a full song or, in the Sequencing screen (where you see an overview of all the patterns within each group), you can trigger groups in any order you choose. When you trigger a new group, the currently playing group will finish its playback cycle and then the one you have triggered will simply slot right in on the beat. This kind of ‘group based, pattern-based’ sequencing is not a million miles away from how Korg’s Gadget approaches its sequencing environment….

Patterns for each instrument are combined into 'groups' and these groups can be chained to form a song structure.

Patterns for each instrument are combined into ‘groups’ and these groups can be chained to form a song structure.

Follow the pattern

The Grid view is where you get into the creation and editing of your various patterns. The left/centre of the display shows the grid itself (there are optional note labels/drum labels that can be displayed down the left edge; see the Settings menu to toggle these on/off) while the right hand side of the screen allows you to select which of the four instruments you are going to work with (the selected one is highlighted in purple on my screenshots). You get to see a mini representation of all the patterns that exist for that instrument (and the option to add a new one); just tap on any of these and you can then edit via the gird.

The editing tools themselves are fairly basic but also fairly intuitive. You just tap on the grid to create new notes. If you tap and drag you can create notes longer than one grid-square and ‘chords’ are also allowed.

If you tap on one of the four instrument icons, you get a bunch of further options for that instrument including the ability to select the sound to use.

If you tap on one of the four instrument icons, you get a bunch of further options for that instrument including the ability to select the sound to use.

If you tap briefly on one of the four instrument icons on this view, a further dialog box appears that allows you to tweak a number of properties for that instrument. These are spread across five tabs; Sound, Mix, FX (only applicable if you have purchased the FX IAP), Tune and Grid. As you might expect, Sound is simply where you pick a synth or drum patch while Mix provides some tweaking controls (including volume) for the current instrument. The Tune tab allows you to adjust the playback octave for the current instrument while the Speed control is where you set the playback length.

The Mix tab allows you to tweak a few controls for that instrument.

The Mix tab allows you to tweak a few controls for that instrument.

The Morpher section allows  the app to add a certain random element to your patterns as they play.

The Morpher section allows the app to add a certain random element to your patterns as they play.

The final tab is Grid and this is where the ‘generative’ element of the app comes in. If you have a drum instrument selected then the Generator element of this will automatically create a drumbeat for you; keep tapping until you get something you like. In contrast, the Morpher element will automatically apply some changes to your patterns for that instrument each time pattern plays. This can work really well on a lead synth/melody line-style part to add a little bit of variety without you having to do any work at all.

Beatwave includes some generative music elements and can, as shown here, automatically create you some drum beats to work with.

Beatwave includes some generative music elements and can, as shown here, automatically create you some drum beats to work with.

All mixed up

At the base of the right-hand section of the Grid view are four other icons/buttons. These give you access to the Settings popup, the Project load/save options, the Mixer and the app’s built-in recording features. The latter allow you to simply record your projects playback in real-time and you can then share a link to the audio files that is created.

The Mixer popup screen has two tabs. First there is the Mixer itself where you can adjust the volume of each of the four instruments and tweak some of their basic properties. Tapping in the centre of each large dial will also toggle the mute on/off for that instrument.

The main Mixer panel in Beatwave.

The main Mixer panel in Beatwave.

The Master tab allows you to set the overall volume of Beatwave and tweak the reverb time on the built-in reverb effect. However, its here that you can also adjust the projects tempo, amount of shuffle and the ‘tone’. The last of these is quite important – especially if your technical music theory know-how is a bit of the light-weight side – as it allows you to define the key/scale combination used within the current project (this is what Beatwave will base the note labels on that appear on the left edge of the grid).

Beatwave's Master panel.

Beatwave’s Master panel.

There are a huge range of options here in terms of picking from preset scale types or, if you prefer, defining your own custom scale. This really is rather sophisticated as you can, if you wish, define different notes within different octaves…

Anyway, what this all means is that, whatever key/scale combination you pick, Beatwave will only play notes from within that combination; there is, therefore, no excuse for music doesn’t sound harmonically correct. Once you have found your way around the UI itself, even someone with almost no musical training/experience could create tunes using Beatwave.

Beatwave allows you to pick a key/scale combination and everything is then kept 'in tune' for you.

Beatwave allows you to pick a key/scale combination and everything is then kept ‘in tune’ for you.

Soundwaves

The basic set of sounds supplied with Beatwave are very useable. If you have used Propellerhead’s Figure, then perhaps things are not so far removed from what you get in that app – some nice synths and bass and a few decent drum sounds – but not a huge amount of control over the sounds or the ability to tweak them very much. At least with Beatwave you can add to the collection via the IAPs and I suspect anyone who gets even slightly hooked on the app would soon be tempted to do that.

Equally, the additional effects IAP would be worth a punt as this does allow you to add your own stamp on things. The effects include filter, flanger, echo, chorus, overdrive and a few others.

Tell me how

The comparison with Figure is actually quite an interesting one and, equally, you might also draw a comparison with apps such as Quincy or Xyntheizr. While a die-hard EDM producer might find Beatwave to be (eventually) a bit limiting and crave something more fully featured, for the occasional bit of inspiration to get an idea started, then like these other apps, it is an intriguing and useful option.

Those that perhaps consider themselves ‘aspiring musicians’ – and who are just learning about electronic music creation and the creative possibilities it can offer – would also find Beatwave very appealing. It offers enough to create some cool electronic tunes but without being overly complex.

You can record, and then export, your final Beatwave mix.

You can record, and then export, your final Beatwave mix.

That said, I did find myself with two obvious ‘wish list’ items and the first of these is most definitely something this ‘newbie musician’ group would appreciate. While the app includes a brief built-in tutorial, this really doesn’t do the app justice and nor is it enough to really get a completely new user fully orientated. Documentation may be boring to produce and lots of potential users might never read it but, with an app like Beatwave, where the interface is quite minimalist and certain control options are not obvious to the new user, it would be a very useful addition. Once you find your way around then app is easy enough to use… but a new users – especially one new to music tech in general – might not even get that far without a little bit of extra help both in terms of the overall concept/structure of the app and the specifics of the UI.

The second is perhaps a little more on the greedy side; it would be great if Beatwave offered MIDI out. Having spent some time creating a song using the various sequencing tools within the app, it would be kind of nice to then either export the MIDI data to my main DAW/sequencer or to use Beatwave itself to drive my various iOS synth and/or drum machine apps. If that was possible, it would open up all sorts of additional creative possibilities.

Beatwave projects can be saved and recalled for further work.

Beatwave projects can be saved and recalled for further work.

In summary

Beatwave is a very cool – and very creative – little tool. If you want a streamlined way to create some electronic music tracks it is well worth a look and, as the base app is a free download, it is hardly a high-risk strategy to give it a go. Even without any of the IAPs, you can do some good stuff but, with the extra sound and those additional effects, it would be even more fun.

Yes, some more comprehensive documentation and/or tutorial material would be helpful (particularly for those new to electronic music making) but, again, this is a free app so it is difficult to be too critical without sounding just a tad on the churlish side. Even so, it’s a shame not to do the app the justice it deserves and fully document the overall concept and practical elements required for someone starting from scratch.

That qualifier aside, if you are prepared to explore for yourself, then Beatwave is well worth a look and, as a free app, is pretty much a no-risk, no-brainer for anyone interested in electronic music.

Beatwave



And check out Toz Bourne’s video demo/tutorial of Beatwave 2.5 in action….

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    Comments

    1. John, in what one could say is good timing…(at least I hope you think that), just last week, I released a YouTube instructional video covering Beatwave 2.5. Link: https://youtu.be/UPoECNddCQA

      My videos (actually had to split it into 2-parts) covers a lot that’s not in the in-app tutorial, but I didn’t cover everything. So, while its not “comprehensive documentation” between your excellent write-up and my videos we’ve about got it covered. :-)

      Also note: a bug in the current version (2.5) of Beatwave on iPad prevents one from using the group repeat function (1x,2x,4x, etc), it is fixed in the next released (I used beta build 2.5.1 for my videos).

      It’s an awesome free app, and the $9.99 Pro upgrade is well worth, it then makes this into like you said…a mini-Gadget…with a dozen effects and no MIDI.

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