If you have any background in music technology then the Novation brand (and sister company Focusrite) will be well known to you. Novation’s Launchpad hardware/software combination has been incredibly successful for both live and studio musicians and their ‘free plus IAP’ iOS music app version of the Launchpad concept has proved equally popular amongst both iOS musicians and, I suspect, lots of more general users (folks interested in music making but without traditional instrument skills/background) because of the fun to be had mixing and matching audio loops to assemble instant musical ideas.
Novation have released another loop-based iOS music app – Blocs Wave – a couple of weeks ago, launched with its own website/branding presence. Given that Blocs Wave and Launchpad are both built for creating music from loops, the obvious question is perhaps why Novation didn’t simply offer the new Blocs Wave functionality within the existing Launchpad application (perhaps as an IAP add-on)?
Having now had a proper chance to spend some time with Blocs Wave, I can see the logic of Novation’s thinking here. The two apps do perform distinct functions and, while I could imagine some iOS LaunchPad users might like the Blocs functionality ‘built in’, it might well have been a distraction to what is an established workflow.
In fact, I think the focus of Blocs Wave is perhaps somewhat different to Launchpad. The new app is still about mixing and matching audio loops but, in Blocs Wave, you get something that is perhaps a little closer in concept to a looper app in that the design not only provides a platform for working with pre-recorded loops, but also encourages you to record your own audio to create loops for use in your projects.
Indeed, Blocs Wave offers quite an interesting ‘middle ground’…. Where most looper apps encourage you to build music around your own loops, and where LaunchPad encourages you to work with pre-recorded loops (for example, available as IAPs), Blocs Wave offers a tool set that brings a bit of both. The app’s obvious appeal, therefore, is to users who perhaps don’t want to do it all themselves (which would be a more looper approach), or don’t just want to work with pre-recorded loops (which would be a more LaunchPad approach), but want blend a few pre-recorded loops together with a few of their own….
Blocs Wave does, therefore, brings something a little different…. Let’s find out more….
What about some basic technical details? Blocs Wave is a universal app that requires iOS8 or later and will run on an iPad 2 or newer…. and has a special launch price of just UK£3.99/US$4.99. In terms of iOS technology, Audiobus support is included and the app therefore also comes with basic IAA support (I had no problems getting it to work within Audiobus, AUM or Cubasis, for example) although, as yet, the app doesn’t offer any sort of automatic sync to other apps and there is no Ableton Link support offered (NOTE: Ableton Link support was added a few weeks after the initial release). However, folks at Novation tell me that there are other features ‘in development’ for the app and that Link support is both possible and on the ‘to do’ list…. so watch this space.
In a Blocs Wave project, you can mix and match up to eight loops at a time and these are housed on eight ‘pads’ for triggering that appear in the upper-most portion of the display. However, you can swap any of these loops in and out with others from your loop library and you can record new loops as your project plays (looper style).
Along the very top of the display you can, from left to right, access the Project menu, online news, set the key (essentially the root note to use for Blocs Wave’s real-time pitch-shifting) and tempo (including a tap tempo option). As yet, there is no option for automatic tempo sync between Blocs Wave and other iOS music apps but, as mentioned above, it does seem to be something that’s coming. Until then, some manual tempo setting will be required to match Blocs to whatever else you are running.
Tapping on any of the eight pads will select it (it becomes slightly larger to signify it is ‘in focus’). Either side of the eight pads, you get a ‘solo’ button (this solos the currently selected pad) and the play/stop button. Once in playback, tapping and swiping down on any pad will toggle its individual playback on/off. Active pads are shown in colour (pads not played are shown in grey) based upon how the loop has been categorised – bass, drums, melodic, percussion, vocal and FX – and, as we will see below, you can adjust the category a loop belongs to if you wish. The colour coding is useful though as it provides a nice visual cue of the sorts of loops you have loaded into your eight available slots.
When triggered, the playback of a loop is sync’ed to the beat/bar of any other pads already in playback. As with Launchpad, therefore, your various loops will all stay nicely locked together. Loops of different lengths (bars/beats) can be played back together and, in another useful visual cue, the very top bar of each pad shows the current playback position through each loop.
Beneath the pads themselves are three tab buttons – Find, Edit and Record – and tapping any of these will change the contents of the lower half of the main screen. When starting a new project, the Find tab is where you will go for a selection of loops from within your Blocs Wave collection. The app is supplied with around 300 loops and there are (of course!) a number of inexpensive IAP packs that you add (including a free ChipTune pack) within the app’s store.
With Find selected, you get a further four tabs right at the bottom of the display. This is where you can access the store but the other three options allow you to browse the existing content in different ways to find some loop-based combinations. The Packs and Types options are straightforward; you can browse and audition loops based upon the sound pack they come from or their type (one of those six colour-coded categories mentioned above).
More interesting, however, is the Discover tab and, having now spent a little time with the app over the last week or two, I think this is actually a rather cool feature. In Discover mode, you get presented with a series of hexagons with one for each of the loop categories and an ‘auto’ option. Tap on any of these and Blocs Wave will automatically selected a new loop for you from that category and place it into the currently selected pad at the top of the screen (it will fill an empty pad or replace the current loop in a pad that is already filled).
This is neat on a number of levels. First, and I’m not sure if there is any real musical ‘intelligence’ being applied here, it makes a great way of finding some new loop combinations. And if the first tap produces a new loop that don’t work with whatever else you have selected, then just tap again and an alternative loop will be coughed up…. and again…. well, you get the idea.
Second, you can use this ‘discover’ process while your project is in playback…. and the new loop that you have just ‘discovered’ will simply slot in, in sync, alongside whatever other loops/pads are current in playback. This makes it very easy to just keep tapping to audition new loop combinations.
Indeed, this smooth loop replacement process means that it is perfectly possible to ‘play’ Blocs Wave above and beyond the eight loop slots. The same smooth transition occurs when you select a loop via either the Packs or Types views (and, from where, you can perhaps make a selection that is a little less random) and this gives you plenty of control for switching in/out loops on the fly. There is a lot of fun to be had here and also a lot of loop-based creativity to be explored.
On the edit bloc
The Edit tab allows you to tweak various aspects for the loop within the currently selected trigger pad. This includes basic waveform editing, with trimming, slipping and gain adjustment provided as well as a mute button (bottom right beneath the volume fader). Again, all these functions can be used on the fly for real-time manipulation.
Pinching gestures on the waveform display allow you to zoom right in for more detailed editing. Indeed, as you dig into this and explore, you can sort of ‘play’ an individual loop by adjusting its start/stop points while the project is in playback. For bass and melodic loops this allows you to create some almost ‘improvisational’ end results as you trigger different sections of a longer loop.
Roll you own
The Record tab allows you to record your own loops into Blocs Wave. This can be done via the internal mic of your iOS hardware (although use headphones while monitoring if going down this route to avoid the obvious possibility of feedback and bleed) or via any external audio interface/mic combination you might have attached.
You can, as part of the recording process, specify the length of the recording or select the ‘infinity’ option. I’ve no idea just how long you can record for here but I had no problems recording a vocal ‘loop’ of over a minute. This would, therefore, make for an easy way of adding a full-length instrument or vocal part to a Blocs project if you wished.
Once you have made the recording, if you then flip back to the Edit tab, an additional option – Attributes – appears at the base of the screen. This is available for all audio you import or record yourself and it allows you to name the file and set its properties. This includes the key, type (category for colour coding) and the tempo/number of beats.
The combination of key and tempo/beats is important. If you are recording directly into Blocs, then you have probably set both the key and tempo of the project anyway so these details should be easy to deal with. However, if you import audio from elsewhere – commercial loops or loops you have created within other iOS music apps – getting these details right means that Blocs Wave can then apply its real-time tempo/pitch manipulation algorithms and the new loop – recorded or imported – will be suitably tweaked to match whatever project is happens to be dropped into.
Blocs Wave actually does a pretty good job on this front. Rather like something such as Acid Pro on the desktop, if you adjust the root key or project tempo of your Blocs Wave project, the loops will follow. As with any pitch/tempo shifting process, you can only take things so far before the audio artefacts become obvious (particularly if slowing tempo down by more than c. 20%) but I think Blocs delivers very respectable results.
Once you have imported or recorded your own loop you can, of course, use the same waveform editing options to fine tune how the new loop behaves on playback. And given that you can both import and export loops via AudioCopy and AudioShare, you could even just use Blocs Wave as a utility to pitch/tempo-shift the occasional loop that needs a tweak for use elsewhere….
A chip(tune) of the new bloc
The loop content supplied with Blocs Wave is uniformly good and, if you never worried about recording or importing your own audio loops, you could have a lot of fun with the app. Six loop packs are included (going from hip hop to funk to house) and the free chiptune pack can be downloaded from the store. There are already a dozen or so additional packs available within the store. These are each priced at a modest UK£1.49/US$1.99, contain just shy of 50 loops, and you can audition a few examples (at your current project’s tempo) before you decide whether to stump up.
There is some excellent additional content here covering a range of musical styles but, unlike LaunchPad – where I think the majority of casual users will spend most of their time using the app with the IAP content – the design of Blocs Wave really does encourage you to record and/or import your own loops and to mix and match between a few well-chosen pre-recorded loops and something that adds your own musical input. In use, I found this approach worked really well. The recording facilities are very easy to use and, as you can easily trim and slip edit your audio, even if you don’t get things spot on, you can fine-tune after the fact. That said, the app actually makes it very easy to get things in sync with minimal effort.
Importing audio loops from elsewhere is also very easy. For example, I had no problems importing audio loops made in Patterning or Sector (and recorded as audio via AUM) and then exported to AudioCopy or AudioShare for import into Blocs Wave. Perhaps the only (obvious) comment to make is that – as far as I can see – at present, this is a one-at-a-time process; there isn’t a ‘batch import’ function. To an extent, that’s understandable, as you need to set the key/tempo data for each loop anyway….
As mentioned earlier, the other element of Blocs Wave that I really liked was the Discover option. At first, it struck me as, well…. just a way of browsing content…. which it kind of is… but the more I used the app, the more I found this semi-random way of experimenting with loops to be both fun to use and very creative. It threw together all sorts of interesting loop combinations and, because they get instantly tempo/pitch matched, you can very quickly experiment until you find something you like to get your musical muse to pay attention. Providing you have some decent source content within your loop library, for me, this feature of the app is well worth the price of admission on its own.
More blocs required?
Having exchanged a couple of emails with folks at Novation while working on this review, it’s obvious that they have some future plans for Blocs Wave. This certainly looks like it will include Ableton Link (as noted above, this has now been added) and, if I had to pick one feature that it would be great to see added, then that would be it. I could then easily see a role for Blocs Wave alongside a few other of my favourite iOS music apps – all sat happily in AUM or Cubasis – as a ‘loop player’ tool next to a drum tool and a synth or two. Fingers crossed that feature gets added soon….
Blocs Wave ships with plenty of loop content to get you started and there is the additional content available via the store. Novation obviously already have a lot of loop-based content available for Launchpad and this could, of course, be just as useful within Blocs Wave. It will be interesting to see if another ‘future feature’ Novation consider providing is a system where a single loop pack could be purchased for use in both Launchpad and Blocs Wave. That’s just the kind of user-friendly feature that would, I suspect, appeal to a lot of iOS musicians.
In term of importing loops, the other obvious feature it would be nice to see is a ‘batch import’ option (perhaps through iTunes File Sharing?). Even if this had to be a system where each batch of loops had to be imported using the same default key/tempo data, I think this could be very useful.
I really like Blocs Wave. I can see what some LaunchPad users are suggesting when they wonder why the same functionality hasn’t just been added to Launchpad as an IAP but, in practice, I think Novation have probably got Blocs Wave right as a separate – albeit, loop-based – musical tool.
The LaunchPad concept is already well-established and defined; this is something a little bit different and does, I think, merit its own space. And, if both apps get Ableton Link at some point….? Well, then you will easily be able to run them side-by side. As commented above, however, the option for sharing loop content between these too (somewhat different) tools would be a big plus.
I’ve always been a fan of loop-based approaches to music creation. While I’m no expert ‘looper’ (in the Loopy HD sense of the term), I find mixing and matching pre-recorded loops a great way to start off a new musical idea. With Blocs Wave, the toolset means I’ll then perhaps be more inclined to roll a few of my own loops alongside that nub of a musical idea provided by those two or three ‘starter’ loops.
Who else (aside from me that is) might find Blocs Wave a good fit? As I commented at the start of the review, I think Blocs Wave sits right between something like LaunchPad and a looper app such as Loopy HD. If you think mixing and matching between these two different approaches might be something that appeals, then Blocs wave is well worth a look. In addition, aside from its more creative functions, I’ve already used the app simply in a utility role a few time to tempo/pitch shift a few loops I wanted to use elsewhere.
That said, at the introductory price of just UK£3.99/US$4.99, this is not too much of a stretch for almost anyone to take a punt with. Novation really do know what they are about when it comes to loop-based musical tools and, while this is not a ‘do everything’ kind of tool, like some of the very best iOS music apps, the focused feature set is a strength here rather than a weakness; it makes for a fast and efficient – and creative – workflow. For lovers of loops, Blocs Wave is well worth a look.