Of all the wonders that the touchscreen makes available to musicians, a virtual rendering of the classic piano keyboard is generally not one of them. Yes, it’s great to be able to knock out a tune or a few simple chords on the move without needing any other hardware handy, but playing an emulation of a traditional piano keyboard is not the most satisfying of musical experiences. Which is why, of course, the more inventive of iOS music app developers created some alternatives…. so, whether it is an Animoog-style ‘blade’ keyboard (as now also found on Model 15) or a completely alternative take on the MIDI performance concept, there are now some much more intuitive options designed to make the touchscreen an real advantage for MIDI performance rather than an obstacle.
I looked at one such option – ChordUp by Dmitry Klochkov – when it was first released back in December. ChordUp brings a guitar-like MIDI performance tool to the iOS musician and, whether it’s for strumming or picking, ChordUp provides a neat alternative to that virtual piano emulation you might find in most synth apps.
Anyway, Dmitry has now released a further app – called Clawtar – and this is also an alternative take on a MIDI performance tool. It’s not too difficult to see where the name comes from if you look at the screenshots or the introductory video; you can essentially custom fit two ‘claw-like’ zones on your iPad’s screen to fit your hand/finger size…. and then use the resulting button/pad grid that Clawtar offers to play notes and generate certain performance controller data.
Clawtar is an iPad-only app (it requires the real-estate of iPad-sized screen and wouldn’t make much sense in an iPhone format), requires iOS8.0 or later, comes as a 42MB download and is priced at UK£4.49/US$5.99. The app offers MIDI out (for example, to other iOS apps) and includes support for MIDI over WiFi if that’s your chosen route to feed your other MIDI devices from your iPad. It does, however, also include a number of internal sounds so, if you want to get used to the interface (practice your Clawtar skills), then you can do so without needing to configure any other apps. I like ChordUp a lot…. so, if you are also a fan of alternative MIDI performance tools, is Clawtar worth a look?
It’s the claw
The principle of Clawtar is pretty simple; it offers a two-handed MIDI performance controller and, as the first thing you do each time you launch the app is ‘calibrate’ it for the size and position of your fingers on the touchscreen, it’s a controller that is, by design, going to ‘fit’ your hands/fingers. The sole menu button (located top-centre) does, amongst other things, allow you to repeat the calibration process at any point should you so wish.
One of the things that the app’s App Store blurb most correctly makes clear is that it is the lack of a ‘tactile reference’ on the touchscreen that makes it difficult to play. Because you can’t ‘feel’ the physical keys, strings or buttons under your fingers (just the smooth touchscreen surface), you can only really adjust your hand position/fingering by sight. This is not really how most of us play a real musical instrument. And, while I’m perhaps less convinced by the notion that Clawtar’s adaptive interface might somehow completely overcome this constraint of the touchscreen surface, it is logical that a playing interface that has been scaled to fit your hands would most certainly help….
The array of buttons generated by the calibration process are your two ‘claws’ and the left and right hands perform different functions. The right hand ‘claw’ is used to generate notes, adjust volume, change the root note used and offers a ‘repeat’ button (this falls naturally under your thumb and allows you to quickly tap to repeat the last note played). The 12 notes – arranged in three rows of four) represent the 12 chromatic notes of an octave and are designed to fall under your four fingers. By default, they are labelled using the Roman system so, no matter what key you are in, you can always find the root note easily.
On the left-hand, the 12 finger buttons adjust the octave played or, for smaller shifts, you can adjust by steps of a third, etc. The left hand ‘claw’ also includes pitchbend (for your thumb) and mod wheel controllers.
I’ll say a little more about using the interface in a minute but my only other observation at this stage is that I’m sure some users would welcome the option for a ‘leftie’ mode where you could flip the left and right hand controls. I’m sure that’s something that Dmitry could easily add in a future update if users do request it.
On the menu
That option, if it was to be added, would most obviously appear under the main menu. Opening this at present, however, does give you access to a small number of additional options. You can change the colour scheme and, if you prefer, turn off the note labelling.
However, the key things are the option for using the internal sounds or sending Clawtar’s MIDI data onwards to another destination. The internal sounds include a number of (sample-based?) instruments including a couple of synth sounds. These are fine when you are just experimenting with the interface.
However, the real fun starts when you specify the MIDI output. I gave the app a spin with a few iOS synths (including Model 15 as shown in the screenshots) and it worked a treat…. I was also able to send the data to Cubasis for recording on a MIDI track without any issues aside, that is, for some faffing about to set the right MIDI inputs/outputs (choose the Clawtar MIDI out within Clawtar itself).
Hands on experience
So how is Clawtar in use? Well, I’ve only had a brief time with the app so far but it is most certainly a ‘comfortable’ playing experience. I did find myself not quite following the expected finger combinations at first but, even with a little use (and a little discipline) this is something that you start to get used to. I suspect, however, to get really comfortable with Clawtar might take a little more time than I’ve so far put in…. but I can certainly see the potential here. Whether you would ever get the same ‘play by feel’ that you get with a real instrument? Well, I perhaps doubt that but I’m sure practice would certainly make the process feel suitably ‘natural’…..
The right-hand note triggering is perhaps where most users would focus their initial efforts. This ‘claw’ works well and, as you can trigger multiple notes, you can teach yourself a few basic chord shapes as well as playing melodies. Switching octaves at the same time via your left hand takes a bit more getting used to but I certainly found the pitch-bend and mod wheel options easy enough to use…. there is potential here also, particularly if users are allowed to configure these additional touch zones for themselves so they could use them for other MIDI CC data.
Indeed, left/right hand switching aside, it is possible to see a number of additional and desirable features that could be added to Clawtar to extend its current feature list. As mentioned, being able to customise the non-note pads would be useful. However, perhaps the other obvious thing would be to be able to add some chord pads (perhaps to the left hand claw as alternatives to some of the non-octave shifting triggers) and an option for specifying non-chromatic scales (so you could confine the available notes to those in your chosen key/scale. These kinds of options are a help in any touchscreen MIDI performance tool as a means of making note/chord entry more efficient.
As stated earlier…. Clawtar is already an interesting concept…. but there is some potential here that could easily take it further so it will be interesting to see what Dmitry has in mind for any future updates.
It’s great to see a developer bring a new – and different – take on the touchscreen MIDI performance tool. We now have a number of such apps available for iOS and they all bring something interesting to the party. They all do, however, require some initial time on behalf of the user in order to fully exploit – you are, after all, learning a new musical instrument interface and that can require some practice – so don’t jump in without expecting to have to put some initial work in to get a benefit.
That said, Clawtar may well appeal to those frustrated by the conventional virtual piano keyboard and, at just UK£4.49/US$5.99, the app is not going to break too many banks if you want to simply give it a try. Here’s hoping Dmitry can, as he has done with ChordUp, keep the development work going as I’m certainly interested in seeing what directions he might have planned for what is an interesting concept.