As I’ve confessed on these pages a number of times, my keyboard skills leave a lot to be desired. When you combine that with the rather slippery beast that is a touchscreen virtual piano keyboard, without a little help, the MIDI parts I create require rather more editing than a Wolf Of Wall Street cut designed for pre-school viewers – which is to say, too much editing given the state of the art for MIDI editing under iOS (best described as basic).
All of which leads to my interest in apps like Chordion, SoundPrism Pro and Synthecaster. While approaching the task from different angles, all of these apps essentially provide a touchscreen user interface designed to make generating MIDI performances easier for those without the keyboard skills to efficiently play those same parts via a traditional piano-style keyboard. I have all three of these apps on my iPad and regularly use them all, both to send MIDI data to other iOS apps or, by connecting my iPad to my desktop computer, to play MIDI parts into virtual synths running in Cubase or Reason (and, with the advent of Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth, the iPad-to-desktop MIDI connection is even easier to establish).
All three of these apps have their own features that I like. I love the simplicity of Chordion but also its ability to define chord voicings and add a melody line that’s always in key. I like the way SoundPrism Pro allows you to add a bass line and create a performance that flows between different chord inversions and different chords. And I like the guitarist-friendly layout of Synthecaster that provides me with a MIDI note layout that instantly feels familiar. This is not, therefore, a category of music app where you might only wish to find ‘the best’; all of these apps have their uses in slightly different musical contexts depending upon the parts I’m looking to create.
Over the last few weeks I’ve also been using a further app that falls very clearly into this category – ChordPolyPad (UK£7.99) by developer Laurent Colson – and, having now spent enough time with it to find my way around and get comfortable with the interface, I have to say this is another brilliant tool for creating chord-based MIDI performances. So, as ChordPolyPad has been on the iTunes App Store for a few months already, it is about time I got around to a decent review.
The essence of ChordPolyPad is very simple; you get 8 banks of 16 pads into which you can define any chord you like with full control over how that chord is voiced (the number of notes and their spread across the MIDI note range). You can switch from the main ‘editing’ display (where the pads dominate the upper-left portion of the interface) to a ‘performance’ view (where the pads fill almost the whole display). You can also switch between the 8 banks of pads very easily (using the strip of buttons to the left of the pads).
It is therefore very easy to see how you can build up a large number of chord pads to use in a performance, whether that performance is for ‘live’ use or simply within a recording context. And with so many pads at your disposal (and the ability to save complete sets of pads as a preset), not only can you have as many different chord types as you might need but also have duplicates of the same chord with different voicings to keep things interesting. If three chords is all you need, then that’s fine but if you like the exotic or are a big jazz fan, the PolyChordPad will allow you to create plenty of variations.
Like Chordion, SoundPrism Pro and Synthecaster, ChordPolyPad also includes it’s own internal sound engine. There are a range of basic sounds available covering a few pianos, some synths, pads and a string sound. If you already own a few synth or sample-based sound sources, I suspect you probably wouldn’t want to use any of these internal sounds in an actual performance but for building your set of chords on the various pads they are more than adequate.
Of course, ChordPolyPad’s real reason for existing is to send MIDI data elsewhere and that is easily configured via the MIDI options available. Rather brilliantly, you can set this globally but, if you wish, also define it at the level of an individual pad. If you want the ability to play chords to two (or more) synths at the same time, then this is perfectly possible.
The bulk of ChordPolyPad’s other features provide a large number of options for configuring the chords to be played by the pads. As mentioned above, there is an excellent preset system so you can easily save (and then recall) a pad configuration suitable for a particular song or project. The app is supplied with a number of factory presets and these make a good starting point when exploring how the app works.
There are two key elements to the pad editing tools; the virtual keyboard at the base of the display and the tabbed zone to the right of the pads themselves. Do note, however, that you need to select a pad for editing before you start using these tools; simply tap on a pad and the small blue (virtual) LED will light in its top-right corner to indicate it is selected and ready to edit.
The virtual keyboard provides the most straightforward way of selecting notes for a pad to play back. With a suitable pad selected, you simply tap on the required notes on the keyboard to include them in the chord (although you could, of course, just assign a single note to a pad – or series of pads – and use these to play single note melodies if you wished). Selected note have a blue dot displayed with a vertical ‘handle’ that indicates the note velocity; grab the little open circle at the top of the handle and you can adjust the velocity on a per note basis. This is very neat and if you want to give, for example, the root note a higher velocity than the other notes within a chord, then that is easily achieved. To remove a note you simply tap on the keyboard again.
This basic approach is very flexible. It means you can chose exactly how a chord is voiced; ‘tightly’ (as it might be with a single hand on a piano) or widely spanning several octaves (as you might if you want a single chord to play an ‘orchestral strings’ patch). You can see approximately 3 octaves of the virtual keyboard at any one time but you can swipe left/right on the strip above the keyboard to see lower/higher notes as required. There are also some excellent additional editing tools for the keyboard accessed via the ‘pencil’ icon that allows you to adjust velocity, transpose a chord of even disperse the voicing; all very useful and well thought out.
Tab the pad
While the virtual keyboard provides one route for pad editing, the four tabbed sections to the right of the pads themselves provide plenty of additional options. Under the ‘Pad’ tab you can name a pad (it is given the chord name by default but you can change this if required) and it is also here that you can set an individual MIDI out destination for the currently selected pad. This section also includes a ‘strumming’ setting. No, it’s not quite a guitar strum but is basically allows you to play an arpeggio for the current chord in a ‘strum-like’ fashion; again, this is a very useful feature. If you want to colour-code the pads you can also do that here and the final set of tools in this tab allow you to copy, cut, paste and clear a pad.
The Control tab is very neat; this allows you to turn each pad into its own X-Y controller as well as a MIDI chord generator. You can link any MIDI CC number to both the X and Y-axis of the pad. Then, depending upon where you tap on the pad, as well as getting the MIDI notes, you also get the corresponding controller data. Moreover, if you keep holding the pad and move your finger around, the controller data continues to get sent. Obviously, you don’t have to define these controllers if you don’t wish to but there are some obvious things you can do here (filters on a synth as targets, for example) although defining one axis an volume can be quite useful. Do note, however, that the definitions are on a per-pad basis; if you want to have all the pads sending the same controller data then you would need to define it for each pad.
The Library tab provides – as its name suggests – a chord library. This is ‘intelligent’ in that if you define the key/scale combination, the chords that you then get offered are only those that apply in that key/scale. You can audition chords within the tab itself and, when you have found the chord you want, you can simply drag and drop it onto a pad. Other useful features in this tab are the ability to pick the octave the chord will be played in and whether you would like an additional bass note added 1, 2 or 3 octaves beneath the chord. Whatever chord you load in from the library system, however, you can tweak the notes via the virtual keyboard if you need to.
The final tab – Random – is quite an interesting option. Again, once you have picked a key/scale combination, you can get ChordPolyPad to populate either an individual pad, all the empty pads or just all the pads within the current set of 16 with a random chord from that key/scale. This works very well and, while useful if you already have a few chords to work with and just want some extra options, if you are starting with a blank pad set, it is actually a rather neat way to pull up a few chords you might not pick yourself and see if a song idea can’t be created. If your muse ever deserts you, this might just help you find it again.
There are a few other settings that can be tweaked and perhaps the most important of these are accessed via the Pad Setup options (via the button top-right with the ‘grid’ icon). These allow you to switch the trigger mode (including a ‘hold’ function), add a random element to note velocity and apply a realtime transpose.
While ChordPolyPad’s configuration options are impressive, this wouldn’t be much use if it then failed to get that MIDI out into the wider world. Fortunately (in my own experience anyway) this doesn’t seem to be an issue. The app makes it very easy to target other iOS synths running on the same iDevice and I was easily able to play the likes of Thor, Nave or Arctic ProSynth and to record MIDI data from ChordPolyPad into Cubasis, without any problems.
Sending MIDI data from ChordPolyPad to my desktop computer – both using wireless MIDI and MIDI over Bluetooth (via Apollo) – also proved pretty painless. As a means of playing chord parts (complex or otherwise) into my desktop DAW, ChordPolyPad is a brilliant tool.
As I commented at the start of this review, the other three ‘MIDI performance’ apps that I regularly use – Chordion, SoundPrism Pro and Synthecaster – all have their own feature set that makes them appropriate for different types of MIDI performance task. Of the three, I probably turn to Chordion most often simply because it is such an easy tool to use for bashing out a few quick chords yet it also allows me to define those chords exactly how I want them.
ChordPolyPad is different again but is probably closest to Chordion in nature. However, where Chordion is designed to be very easy to use and to allow you to combine chords with a simple melody tool, ChordPolyPad is perhaps deeper and more powerful. That depth and power does come at a price (and I’m not really talking about the cost difference between the two apps) as to access all this power and depth does require some considerable setting up in ChordPolyPad. That said, when you need these more detailed options, the effort is most certainly worth it.
I could easily imagine using ChordPolyPad in a live context. With a pad preset ready to recall for each song and that ‘full screen’ pad view option, it would be a very neat tool. However, for me, the app is going to find itself well used alongside my other MIDI performance apps both for iPad-based and desktop-based MIDI recording duties. ChordPolyPad is a brilliant tool with a well thought-out interface and, if your keyboard playing sucks as badly as mine, it comes highly recommended.