Last summer I posted a review of the TempoTeacher app by developer birdSound. As the name suggests, this app was a music tuition app and, while it serves as a very respectable metronome in its own right, it has the twist of being able to test how well you are sticking to a set tempo. birdSound have, however, continued to work on other apps and their latest release is birdStepper. This was released on the iTunes App Store this week and falls into the ‘IOS audio effects app’ category. So, having been able to spend some time with various beta versions – and now the first release version – is birdStepper something keen iOS musicians should be adding to their expanding app collections?
Give me the bird
Perhaps the easiest way to describe birdStepper is as a creative multi-effects processor where the effects parameters can be modulated/automated in real-time over the course of a step-based sequence. At one level, this sounds similar to what can be done with something like Sugar Bytes Effectrix although, as we will see in a minute, birdStepper actually approaches this idea in a somewhat different way.
There are eight effects types provided by birdStepper; pitch shift, fuzz, ambience, delay, wobble, filter, spectre and chorus. Effects can be toggled on/off and you can also adjust the order in which the effects are applied. You also get a basic noise gate, compressor and output volume control that are applied ‘post-effects’. There is also a preset system so you can save/recall your favourite effects configurations. All this sounds like it could be good fun to use (and it is) but, as Audiobus support is included, and because the app can work either from its own internal tempo or via external MIDI Clock sent from another app, you can easily slot birdStepper into the Audiobus Effects slot, sync the effects modulations/automation to your iOS DAW of choice, and use it to process an Audiobus Input app such as a synth or guitar amp sim while recording your performance.
In a world of very slick looking software (you know, a triumph of looks over substance), birdStepper is very… well… yellow (think ‘easily seen in the dark when on stage’). Equally, the design of the interface features mainly chunky controls and pretty simple graphics. However, don’t be fooled into thinking these rather simple UI design aesthetics mean that birdStepper can’t make some serious noise. As described below, it most certainly can. On start up, the main display shows a large oscilloscope view showing you when birdStepper is receiving audio. Underneath you can adjust the noise gate (useful for eliminating hum from a guitar amp sim when you are not actually playing for example), compressor (more compression or less is all you get) and the output volume.
The right-hand side of the display contains a number of buttons. The Effects button takes you to a list of the eight main effects (more on this in a minute) but the Clock button gives you a panel of settings for controlling birdStepper’s tempo and bar/beat structure. The key elements here are whether the app uses its own internal clock (in which case you can also set the tempo here) or an external clock source. You can step through the various sources that birdStepper thinks are available and these should include any app that generates MIDI Clock, or network session that might supply a MIDI source plus the ‘internal’ option. This screen also allows you to specify the length/beat division of birdStepper’s step-based effects parameter sequencing. Patterns up to 8 bars in length are allowed.
Back at the main screen, the purpose of the other buttons should now be a little clearer. The Start button triggers birdStepper’s step sequencer if it is using its internal clock source while the Rewind button resets the step sequencer to the first step. Clear will simply reset all the effects to their zero state and turning them all off. Save and Load allow you to work with the preset system so you can save/recall effects configurations.
The effect of birds
The eight effects cover both conventional (e.g. delay, chorus, ambience (reverb) and spectre, although this last one is actually quite difficult to define; nice though!) and more obviously creative (especially wobble, pitch and filter). You can have as many of these running at the same time as you like and, by tapping and holding within the effects list, you can drag effects up/down within the signal chain to re-order them.
Tapping on the big red ‘I’ icon for any effect within the list gets you to the parameter page for that effect. Each of these has a very similar appearance and features three X-Y pads (where step position/time is always on the X axis) that you can either adjust with the small red arrows if you want a single setting over all the steps or simply draw a pattern using your finger. You also get and on/off toggle switch for the effect, Start/Stop toggle for the sequencer, Load/Save button to access the preset system and a further Clear button. Note that here the Clear button only clears the settings for the specific effect rather than all the effects as on the main page. The Rewind button again resets the step sequencer back to the first step.
You also get a Mix slider to adjust the wet/dry balance of the effect and, while only having three parameters to adjust per effect might seem a little stingy compared to some mega-knob audio effects processors you can find (hardware or software), it does kind of fit the straightforward and uncluttered approach adopted by birdStepper and, in practice, combining changes in three parameters over the step sequence pattern provides plenty of possibilities. And when you start to combine two or more effects in the same way, then options are pretty limitless.
In use, each of the effects are both capable and easy to use. If you do just want a conventional delay, chorus or reverb, birdStepper can do that. However, I don’t really think this is really its reason for being. No, what you are really supposed to do is dial in some weird and wacky effects combinations and mash your audio to within an inch of its life…. and, in that role, birdStepper is equally capable and, it has to be said, quite a pleasure to use (even with all that yellow).
For example, combining the fuzz and filter effects can create some great options for processing synths or guitars. No, you don’t get multiple choices for different distortion/overdrive styles but, combined with the filter, you can coax a quite range of treatments from these two. In addition, if you want to add some dubstep style wobble then (surprise, surprise), the wobble effect is just the ticket; again, added to a suitable synth patch, this kid of effect is easy to achieve.
Perhaps the hardest effect to use is the pitch shifter. It is, it has to be said, perhaps best pulled out when you want something truly bonkers (although do watch the videos embedded below for some guidance from birdSound themselves). That said, I’m sure the more creative audio manglers will find plenty of uses for it.
In experimenting with birdStepper during my own testing, in the main, thinks went very smoothly. I did experience two minor issues. First, on a couple of occasions, the app developed a noticeable audio glitching. This required closing the app fully and then re-launching to clear and while this is just a minor inconvenience in a recording context, if you were using the app in a live performance context (which would be fun to do), then it might be more problematic. This is most certainly not a deal breaker however; it was rare and easily worked around. If this is something other users are experiencing then hopefully birdSound can track down and resolve any remaining issues.
Second – and in this case I have plenty of sympathy for birdSound because it is an iOS nightmare – I had some issues with MIDI clock. Used with its internal clock, birdStepper worked fine and, driven by external MIDI clock sync, it also worked well with some apps (e.g. Loopy HD), starting and stopping on request. However, with others (and, in my case, most notably, Cubasis) it didn’t seen to want to respond to the MIDI clock source. MIDI under iOS is still something of a minefield so a few gremlins in this regard are perhaps not so surprising. Perhaps we need to do some more nagging and get everyone looking at the Midibus and their library of code?
birdStepper is a lot of fun to use and the interface, while some might feel it a little bright (er… yellow!), is actually very easy to use. As a step-based, automatable multi-effects unit, the obvious comparison is with Effectrix and, while the two apps are somewhat different in approach (read the Effectrix review if you want to know more about that app), they both sit in the creative, rather than corrective, categories.
Effectrix, like most of Sugar Bytes software, is both powerful and deep. As such, there is a decent learning curve required to fully get to grips with it. In contrast, birdStepper brings a similar – if somewhat simpler – experience. It might lack some of the subtleties of Effectrix and doesn’t offer the same number of effects options, but it is easy to learn and still very creative. As such, if you want creative step-based effects processing, but in a simplified format, birdStepper should be right up your street. It will be interesting to see where birdSound take birdStepper next. It is easy to think of a few additional effects it might be nice to see (for example, a simple volume effect so you could create tremolo-style effects) and the option of IAA support would be another useful feature. However, even in first release, this is a lot of fun. And, for a few days after launch, the app is available at 50% off what will be the standard price. Get in quick and you can grab a slice of very creative effects for just UK£2.99 before the price goes up. For all iOS audio experimentalists, birdStepper is well worth checking out.
birdSound’s video on using the pitch shifter effect with a guitar source – very cool :-)
Travis at birdSound has also produced this video on using MidiBus to get DM1 working with birdStepper.
And here’s a further video on the pitch effect looking at harmony creation.