Chordion music app review – Olympia Noise Co’s brilliant MIDI chord/melody playing tool

Download from iTunes App Storechordion logoOlympia Noise Company’s Chordion music app has been around for a while but I’ve never quite managed to get around to reviewing it for the blog (too many apps, not enough time:-)  ). However, having posted a review of MIDImorphosis a few days ago – an app that can allow guitar players with limited keyboard skills create MIDI data – I was prompted to think of the other ways that I employ to circumvent my very inadequate piano skills. And one of those is the rather brilliantly conceived Chordion so, just what might ONC’s app have to offer the iOS musician?

Touchscreen musician

As I’ve written elsewhere, the touchscreen has introduced a whole range of new ways to create music. However, perhaps one of the less-than-perfect experiences of an iOS virtual synth is playing complex keyboard parts via a virtual touchscreen piano keyboard. Don’t get me wrong – these are great to have when you want to make some music on the move and only have access to your iPad – but even for accomplished keyboard players, it’s not the same as playing a real, physical, set of keys.

The smart instruments in Garageband for iPad and apps such as Figure or Thumbjam or Triqtraq provide good examples of touchscreen interfaces designed to avoid the traditional keyboard and create instruments that are more ‘playable’ via a touchscreen. It doesn’t matter whether you are a guitar player who can’t play keyboards very well or an skilled keyboard player, these types of innovative performance surfaces are a big plus.

Chordion saves the day

Chordion - stylish and clean.

Chordion – stylish and clean.

Chordion is another example – indeed, perhaps one of the best examples – of some clever design to exploit the strengths of the touchscreen and create a playable interface that musicians can use. In that sense, it has something in common with the apps listed above. However, the emphasis with Chordion is somewhat different; while it has its own synth (and drum) engine, perhaps its most valuable role is in generating MIDI performance data for other apps to use.

In short, Chordion can be considered as a playing surface just like a MIDI keyboard but, because the onscreen interface places user-defined chords onto a series of hexagonally-shaped buttons, it’s a playing surface where whole chords can be triggered from a single finger tap. For my bumbling, guitar-only fingers, this makes playing complex chord sequences on my iPad an absolute breeze. Whatever your reason for finding virtual piano keyboards a bit of a challenge, Chordion is a solution waiting to be explored.

Chordion basics

Chordion's main playing screen -one finger chords and a touch strip for a melody.

Chordion’s main playing screen -one finger chords and a touch strip for a melody.

The Chordion interface is stylish but restrained and easy on the eye. Six hexagon-shaped buttons located top-left allow you to navigate through the main elements of the interface. In terms of the playing functions (accessed via the bottom-right button that, itself, contains an icon of four hexagons), this contains two elements; a set of hexagons that each trigger a named chord and, down the right-edge, the Melody zone where you can trigger individual notes from (in the default setting at least) the same chord as the currently highlighted chord hexagon.

As Chordion includes a basic synth engine, you can audition both of these zones without the need for any other apps. Triggering a chord simply involves tapping the required hexagon, while you can also simultaneously play individual notes via the melody strip.

You can configure Chordion's playing interface and set up a different  voicing for each of your chords.

You can configure Chordion’s playing interface and set up a different voicing for each of your chords.

Tapping the ‘hex-icon-button-thing’ containing the note icons allows you to configure the layout of the performance screen. Here you can change the number of chords that are available (a layout of 7 or of 12) and also choose to split each hex button into two (giving you 14 or 24 chords to play with). You can also pick the key and a preset selection of chords for that key from a number of styles (blues, folk, minor, minor with 7th chords, etc.). Usefully, you can also adjust the voicing of each chord so inversions, etc. are easily configured. So, if you want multiple different voicings for a single chord, this can done my having several hex buttons set for the same chord and them adjusting the voicings used in each case.

The Chordion melody strip can also be customised.

The Chordion melody strip can also be customised.

You can also configure the melody strip in terms of an ‘auto’ mode (the default and which gives you the notes of the currently selected chord) or a scale (which then allows you to define which notes are available). This all sounds like it might be a little complex but, in practice, it is very straightforward and intuitive.

The ‘squiggly-waveform-hex-button’ takes you to a series of screens where you can tweak the internal synth settings and select between four different sets of drum sounds (including 808 and 707 sets). The drum sounds are decent while the synth engine is perhaps best described as ‘basic’. Given that it is intended for you to audition what Chordion can do in performance terms, it is, however, more than adequate.

Chordion's internal synth is fairly basic but very useable.

Chordion’s internal synth is fairly basic but very useable.

The final sub-page in this cluster offers you the choice between Chordion’s two main modes of operation; audio and MIDI. The former uses the internal sounds while the latter disables the internal synth/drum sounds and, instead, gets the app to transmit the same MIDI data out into the wider world. In MIDI mode, therefore, you can use Chordion as your playing surface for other synth apps and as a means of recording the same MIDI data to a sequencer app such as Cubasis. When you are in MIDI mode, the ‘squiggly’ hex button changes to a MIDI connector icon so it is easy to see which of these two main modes the app is currently operating in.

The real power of the app comes from it sending MIDI data to your favourite synths.

The real power of the app comes from it sending MIDI data to your favourite synths.

The other key feature is the pattern sequencer for the drums and an arpeggiator, accessed via the ‘grid-icon-hex-button’. As pattern/step sequencers go, this is not going to win any great prizes for features but it is easy to use and, combined with the internal synth and drum sounds, is very playable. Usefully, the arpeggiator is also available when in MIDI mode so you can transmit your chord performance in an arpeggiated form to your other synth apps if you want to.

Finally, the disc-icon hex button allows you to save the current configuration of Chordion’s settings as a preset. If you use the app extensively in a performance context, this would be a great way of keeping all the required settings for a particular song/track in one place for easy recall.

Performance time

When in MIDI mode, the top-left icon changes to a MIDI connector.

When in MIDI mode, the top-left icon changes to a MIDI connector.

Of course, the real power – and genius – of Chordion is in using its brilliantly conceived performance interface as a way of playing MIDI parts into other synths and your MIDI-friendly DAW. I’ve used this with any number of synth apps – Thor, Nave, Sunrizer, Animoog, etc. – and, providing the synth allows incoming MIDI data, it works an absolute treat.

Equally, there is usually no problem with passing the same data into Cubasis. This can be done by passing the MIDI data from Chordion, through your synth app and then onwards from that synth app to Cubasis (if the synth app supports this) or sending the data from Chordion to Cubasis and using the Cubasis MIDI Thur feature to then pass it to your synth app. While this occasionally requires some experimentation with the appropriate MIDI in/out selection in Cubasis, once this is done, it works beautifully.

Chordion's pattern sequencer and arpeggiator are easy to use if not as fully featured as some.

Chordion’s pattern sequencer and arpeggiator are easy to use if not as fully featured as some.

Perhaps the only obvious feature that it would be great to see added to Chordion is some mechanism of adding variable velocity data. At present, you can only set the velocity to a fixed value. In a recording context, this is not such a big problem as you can always edit the velocity data after you have got the basic MIDI note data entered. I’m sure there are a number of ways this might be implemented. For example, a simple(?) ‘velocity strip’ beneath the chord hex pads that you could slide a finger along to vary the velocity as you played would do the trick nicely. Maybe this is something ONC will consider for a future update?

I want one of those

As a means of generating MIDI chords and simple melodies – all without the danger of hitting a duff note – Chordion is music app treasure. For my own iOS MIDI recording or performance tasks, this is undoubtedly my favourite playing interface. If your keyboard chops are a bit sketchy, or you just don’t like playing virtual keyboards when you need to make music without a hardware MIDI keyboard in sight, this app is just the tool.

Chordion can offer you up to 24 different chords in a single screen.

Chordion can offer you up to 24 different chords in a single screen.

My desktop DAW of choice is Cubase (hence my preference for Cubasis on the iPad). Cubase 7 has a MIDI plugin called Chorder that, in a sense, is a more sophisticated version of Chordion. The downside is that it is nowhere near as easy to use. Indeed, the chord button feature in Cubasis itself is more intuitive than the desktop plugin; neither are a patch on Chordion.

Chordion's MIDI data can easily be passed to synths or, in the example, recorded into Cubasis for playback via Thor.

Chordion’s MIDI data can easily be passed to synths or, in the example, recorded into Cubasis for playback via Thor.

All of which makes you wonder why, if Chordion is so useful, don’t we have something equally as good in all our desktop DAWs? I don’t know the answer to that but, if you are up to the task of getting your iPad hooked up to your Mac or PC via a wireless network, then now you do… because Chordion’s MIDI data can be transmitted over the network into your desktop DAW. I’ve used this setup with Cubase on a regular basis. It works well and is another example of why iOS music apps are not just musical toys; they can enhance the musical workflow in a very positive way. For someone with my less-than-stellar keyboard skills, the Chordion/iPad combination is a fabulous tool.

In summary

iOS has some truly brilliant music apps and, amongst the DAWs, synths, guitar amp modellers, DJ rigs and drum machines, it’s easy to overlook some of the more ‘utility’ style apps like Chordion. Whatever your keyboard skills, as a way of getting basic MIDI data into your iOS (or desktop) synths when all you have available is a virtual MIDI keyboard, Chordion is just top-notch. It’s easy to use, beautifully designed and does the job with a minimum of fuss.

Given all I’ve said above, it will be no surprise that Chordion comes highly recommended…. Indeed, if I was to compile a list of ‘essential’ apps for the newbie iOS musician (that’s a good idea for a post), then Chordion would most certainly be on it.

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    1. It’s will be on my wishlist !

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