I’ve commented before on the blog that one of the things I really like about iOS is that it seems to offer indie developers a more accessible platform so that us users get to see a wider variety of software products come to market. The Cotracks music app – produced by Futucraft – is a classic example of this.
Futucraft describe Cotracks as a ‘collaborative music studio for teamwork on a single iPad’ which sounds intriguing and certainly suggests this is not just another ‘me too!’ music app going head-to-head with other, well-established leaders in the synth, DAW or guitar amp sim categories. That said, while the description suggests Cotracks might have some novelty value, it doesn’t really explain exactly what or how it achieves the collaborative element – so let’s find out….
Before getting in to the collaborative possibilities offered by Cotracks, let’s start with the basic functionality on offer. When you first launch Cotracks, the app defaults to single user mode and the main screen is organised in portrait mode. In this mode, the display is divided into four horizontal instrument zones, each with a performance panel beneath it.
The instrument panels are colour coded; orange for a drum pad instrument, blue for a mono synth instrument and magenta for a poly synth instrument. While the layout suggests you only get four instruments playing at once, in fact you can have up to 12. Each of the coloured instrument panels can have a series of up to three tabs at its right side (tap on the ‘+’ sign to add the second or third instrument) and, within each zone, you can mix and match between the three instrument types (drum, mono, poly).
For each instrument, you can either record a short sequence (you can set the length of this for each instrument independently from 1 to 128 beats) or just play ‘live’. Each instrument panel includes a Record’ button and, once triggered, recording will start the next time the pattern gets ‘in sync’ with the overall playback of the project. Once you have recorded a pattern for one instrument, it will automatically start to loop playback alongside any other patterns, while the instrument tabs mentioned earlier also all include a ‘Play’ button (these glow green when playback is active for a particular instrument), so you can trigger the playback of any of the 12 instruments on/off as required. Again, playback start and stop is synced to the overall project playback so everything stays in time.
There is, of course, plenty more to say about these various instruments and what they offer and I’ll discuss some of the key features in a little more depth below. However, the basic idea here is that you have access to up to 12 sound sources – a mix of drum, mono and poly synths using Cotracks own synth/sample engines – all capable of playing back live or pre-recorded sequences, with the software doing the job of keeping everything locked together in time.
This is great fun to experiment with on your own but, of course, that’s not all that Cotracks is supposed to offer; there is also the collaborative options. To the left of each of the coloured instrument panels is a further small, square(ish) panel. These are not linked to the instruments but, instead, each contains specific global features for the app as a whole.
So, for example, the top panel (when viewed in the ‘solo user’ portrait mode) provides access to the help options, while the next one down provides a CPU meter and a visual guide to the bars/beats as the app cycles through playback. The bottom-most panel contains the tempo, metronome and global play/stop controls.
However, the second from bottom panel, as well as containing the Session button (giving you access to the project management and export features) also includes three rather cryptic icons. These buttons switch the app between three different modes; single user, two-user and four-user.
Tapping the two-user mode flips the top half of the display around so that a second user could sit opposite that end of the iPad and use those two panels. Tapping the four-user button reconfigures the whole screen so that one panel faces each of the iPads edges. Four users could, therefore, sit around the iPad and each control a single panel. In this mode, the four mini-panels with the global settings get relocated to the centre of the display.
I have to say that this is beautifully designed and cleverly implemented. It really does make it possible for four people to ‘share’ the app on a single iPad (providing they are all fairly nimble fingered, polite, and don’t get in each others way).
As mentioned above, Cotracks contains three different sound sources, giving you sampled drums, a mono synth and a poly synth. Note that, at present at least, these are the only sound sources you get as there is no Audiobus support, inter-app audio support or audio recording capability. That said, while the synth engines are not in the same class as Nave or Thor, it is possible to coax a range of pretty decent sounds from them and there is a very useable set of preset sounds provided.
On the right-hand section of each instrument panel is a series of nine icons. These give access to a number of different features. The first icon (the little mini-keyboard icon top-left of the set of nine) provides one route into the presets but, if you dig deeper into the panel that opens, you eventually get to the synth parameters and can tweak the settings as you see fit.
Given that four users might be doing this at any one time, the sub-window in which you do this editing is (understandably) rather compact and it requires a bit of scrolling to move through the various parameters available. However, there is a surprising degree of sound editing available and, while the basic synth oscillator choices are limited, beyond that, there are some interesting possibilities and the controls themselves are easy to adjust. All the instruments also feature basic effects (phaser, delay and EQ).
For the drum instrument, you get four drum sounds in a single instance. There are presets here but you can also create your own custom combinations from the included drum samples and, if you need more than four drum sounds, then you simply assign a second of your 12 instrument slots to an additional set of pads.
In terms of the sounds themselves – both drums and synths – there is plenty of variety. If you wanted to create a sort of classic Kraftwerk or Gary Numan vibe then you could get close. Equally, if you want to wobble some Dubstep, then that’s also possible. Again, don’t expect Thor or Nave et al., but the instruments within Cotracks are still very playable.
And talking of playability, Cotracks does a pretty good job of managing what could – potentially at least – be quite a chaotic performance with up to four people playing up to 12 different instrument sounds all at the same time. The key thing here is that, aside from when someone is simply playing ‘live’, any performance sequences that have been recorded are then always triggered in sync with the beat/bar of the overall session playback. This really does help keep things from getting out of hand.
Each instrument panel includes either four drum pads or eight ‘note’ pads. For the drum pads, each includes two tiny indicator LEDs. Top-left is a small green arrowhead that acts as a mute button for that pad (so you can drop individual drums out of a sequence playback if you wish). Top right is a blue LED that indicates which pad was most recently hit. This is useful as it also indicates which pad is being edited if you decide to tweak the sample or other settings for an individual drum.
For the synths, the ‘note’ buttons are simply tapped to play and, for the poly synth, you can, of course, play chords if you wish. This is a ‘smart’ selection of notes that, by default, is controlled from the Session button’s ‘Config’ panel. Here, amongst other things, you can set the key and scale of the project. There are different scale options available but, as a global setting, it does mean that you’re your instruments (and all the performers) are working with the same sub-set of notes. Things do, therefore, tend to stay in tune which always helps :-)
If you are feeling more ‘experimental’, however, one of the options under the Sequencer Config panel (accessed via the middle-top of the nine mini icons in each instrument panel) is Scale and this allows you to override the global Session setting and pick your own for that instrument. For further experimental options, you can also toggle between the standard eight ‘note’ buttons and a continuous pitch ribbon strip (tap the centre button of the array of nine in the panel). There is all sorts of weird and wonderful fun to be had here.
Building a composition within Cotracks is an interesting process, whether as a solo performance or in one of the collaborative modes. Once global playback has been initiated, you can, of course, just play along but, at any stage, you can initiate record for an individual instrument. The record button then gives you a visual countdown and goes ‘live’ the next time your new pattern would be in sync with the overall playback (this depends upon the step length you have set for your pattern via the Looping section of the Sequencer config settings described earlier). Once you have played through the pattern once, record is automatically disabled and the pattern you have just recorded continues to loop playback in sync with any other current sequences.
However, you are not limited to a single sequencer for each of the 12 instruments. If you initiate record for a second time, then a second part is recorded and this one then takes over the playback priority for that instrument. You can repeat this process multiple times. If you then tap on the ‘lanes’ icon (middle-left), you get a scrollable list of the various takes and simply tapping on the one you want selects it for playback.
These ‘sequence lanes’ make it very easy to build up a huge range of variations for each of your 12 instruments. With four users flipping between different takes for their three instruments, the performance possibilities are very impressive and it really is a lot of fun.
Once you have a sequence created for an instrument, while there isn’t a means of overdubbing notes on an existing sequence (at least, not one that I could find), you can add controller data using the X-Y controller pad (the bottom-right icon of the nine mini-icons). Tapping record allows you to blend this controller data into the current sequence lane (the record button shows a ‘blend’ icon). You can, of course, record both note and controller data in a single pass if you wish. The parameters influenced by the X-Y panel are set within the instruments parameters as described earlier).
If you create a sequence you like in one instrument, you can easily copy it to another by dragging and dropping. If you tap the bottom-left of the nine icons, the current sequence is shown within the instruments central panel (along with any controller data). You can then just tap and drag the sequence from here and drop it on another instrument of the same type. The instrument tabs on the right edge of each of the instrument panels are highlighted as you do this to show you the available targets for the drop.
Can you capture?
The above description gives a sense of the various performance options Cotracks provides and it is very easy to see how the app is (a) a lot of fun and (b) capable of generating some excellent synth/drum based instrumental performances, particularly with four sets of experienced hands working together. So, from a performance context – where the user or users create a composition on the ‘fly’ – the potential of Cotracks is considerable. But what about in a wider recording context? What can you do to either capture these ‘performance compositions’ or use the individual elements in a more controlled (DAW timeline arrangement) sort of a way?
Given that Cotracks doesn’t (yet at least) support Audiobus, if you want to capture the live performance, then you can, of course, simply feed the output of your iPad out to another recording device. The app does, however, also provide export options via the Session button. This allows you to export a full audio mixdown or to export individual audio files for each instrument. It’s worth noting, however, that the full stereo mix only contains a mix of those instruments that are currently set to ‘play’; non-playing instruments are not included. Equally, when you select the individual audio files output, you only get audio for any instruments set to play and only for the current take. Files created can then be copied from the iPad via iTunes file sharing.
[UPDATE: As of v. 1.0.11, released on the 8th October, 2013, Audiobus support is now added :-) ]
This whole Export system works well enough but it does mean that if you have multiple takes for particular instruments that you want to export, then you would have to do this is multiple passes. This is not a big deal, but it might be nice to have an extra option that allows you to export all the takes if you wished.
Once you have the audio exported – essentially, a set of audio loops – you could, of course, then import them into your favourite DAW (desktop or iOS) and, having created the various parts almost in a ‘live jam’ fashion, use them as building blocks to build a more structured composition.
Are we there yet?
Cotracks is a fascinating music app. Even as a solo compositional tool, there are a lot of creative possibilities here but these expand – along with the fun factor – when you get multiple users working together exploiting Cotracks’ collaborative features. This is a novel (if not unique) approach to music making on a single iPad.
Cotracks encourages a sort of live jamming approach to musical composition and, while it might take a while to export all the possible loops if four users do get busy with multiple takes, once the magic has been created in a free-flowing form, you can then take that content into another software tool and craft a more structured composition and perhaps add further elements or some additional sounds/audio.
A ‘live record’ function – where you could initiate global playback and the app just captures whatever then happens until you disable the record mode – might be a nice addition, although it would obviously place an extra load on the CPU so might be restrictive in other ways. The ability to capture Cotracks’ output in an iOS DAW via Audiobus would also be great to see although, again, there would be CPU loading issues to contend with.
Cotracks’ sounds themselves are very useable but the whole collaborate concept is so good, I’m sure users would welcome the possibility of accessing 3rd party synths from within the app. Perhaps IAA support might be added at some point to make this possible and perhaps one IAA instance might be provided within each of the four instrument blocks? I’m sure this would have a significant CPU implication and users you have to configure these external apps prior to starting a Cotracks jam as you could flip over to the 3rd party app without everyone losing access to the Cotracks controls. I’ve no idea whether this might be possible at some point in the future (with more powerful iPad generations) but it would certainly be an interesting addition. In the main, Cotracks is easy to learn but I did occasionally find myself struggling to work out how a particular feature worked and, while there are some very useful tutorial videos available from within the app, a PDF user guide would also be a welcome addition.
Cotracks is a brilliant concept and, on the whole, has been beautifully realised by Futucraft. The ‘collaborative’ tag is most certainly appropriate and this feature is a lot of fun to experiment with. Other descriptors are perhaps a bit less obvious. Cotracks is not really a recording app in the conventional sense of that term but if you think of it as a ‘live jam compositional tool’, then that perhaps catches the strength of the app fairly accurately.
The app is stuffed full of interesting and creative features but, even with a relatively short exposure to it, it’s tempting to think about ‘where next?’ While the CPU limitations of the current iPad technology might constrain how realistic some of these possibilities are, Audiobus support and, if at all possible, IAA support would be great. At a more modest level, the ability of open a mini-mixer in the central panel of each of the four instrument blocks would be useful. This would allow each user easy access to level/pan for their three instruments and would be great for ‘live mixing’.
I really hope Cotracks gets the support it deserves. The app is already an interesting, intriguing and novel music creation tool and a pleasure to use. It makes excellent use of the iPad’s touchscreen and, even with four users around a single iPad, it remains easy to use because to the elegant design on the user interface. Hopefully, with that support, Futucraft can keep pushing the app forward.
The usual selling price is going to be UK£6.99 and Cotracks is well worth its asking price. However, at the time of writing, there is a launch offer (UK£2.99) so you can grab an even better bagain. If synth-based compositions are your thing, whether you are a solo musician or you have a few friends to play with, Cotracks is well worth exploring and comes highly recommended.