I did a round-up article not so long ago looking at creative audio effects apps available to the iOS musician. However, even a relatively short time later, we already have a number of excellent additions to that already very good list (I’ll need to update the article when I can find a few minutes to do so). So, we could add Flux: FX, R0Verb, Sparkle and Reverb FDN to that list, all of which – to a greater or lesser degree – can do ‘creative’.
As I mentioned a week or so ago, now we have another contender; DFX Digital Multi-FX from Fingerlab (the developer behind the DM1 drum machine app). Currently priced at just UK£2.99, the app requires iOS7.1 or later, runs on iPad and is just a 20MB download. The initial spec includes Audiobus and IAA so DFX can be placed into any standard iOS music making workflow. And, with 4 effects slots available at any one time, 10 effects categories (with over 30 different effects in total), there is the potential for plenty of audio experimentation.
Finger experiment lab
In some respects, when you look at they main screen layout of DFX, there are similarities to the excellent Flux: FX. What you get is multiple effects slots each with an X-Y pad for real-time touch (finger) control of the key effects settings. Each of the four effects panels offers you the same complement of controls; a scrollable list of effects to chose from (and you can change the selection on the fly; DFX doesn’t seem to skip a beat), wet/dry mix, solo and bypass buttons and those X-Y pads where two key parameters for each effect can be adjusted and also automated in sync with DFX’s internal tempo setting.
The interface also includes a master volume slider (on the right edge), master bypass (very useful) and a ‘Swap’ button (top-right). The latter is a neat idea as it opens a small additional panel that allows you to change the position of the four currently selected effects. This essentially adjusts the order of the signal processing as it runs from top-left to bottom right.
Along the top-edge of the display you get access to the preset system, a useful CPU indicator, access to the internal recording system (DFX can process live audio and record the results as either WAV or AAC files if required) and the Setting menu. The last of these allows you to tweak various global settings. These include turning off the live waveform displays that appear within each of the X-Y pads if you want to save a few CPU cycles and configuring the Limiter that can be applied across the app’s final output (a useful addition, helping to avoid any extreme output levels being hit by a combination of effects). This is also where you set the internal tempo of the app and which a number of the effects types with sync to.
What’s impressive about the design, however, is just how streamlined and simple all this is. The vast majority of the controls for the app are very comfortably placed within the single main screen. This does make the app easy to get to grips with. The flipside – and one reason this is possible – is that, aside from the two parameters you can tweak for each effect via the X-Y pads, there is no ‘dig deeper’ option for each of the effects types… and hence no need for additional windows and/or pop-ups to make the user experience more complex.
This is perhaps one of the obvious contrasts with Flux:FX where you also get the X-Y pad as the main way to tweak an effect’s settings… but, in Flux:FX, you also get to open a more fully featured page of controls if you want to dig deeper. Neither approach is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here; DFX will suit those that are happy to keep things simple (if chaining up to four effects together is every simple in sonic terms) while Flux:FX will better suit those that want the option to delve a little deeper.
Feeling the effects
With four effects slots and some 35 effects split into 10 categories, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to putting together some processing options in DFX. The categories include both the more conventional delays, reverbs, etc. but also some less obvious such as the voice FX and ‘instruments’ categories. However, even within the more conventional sounding categories, there are some less-than-conventional options.
For example, while the delay category includes a fairly standard sync, ping-pong and tape delay styles (all of which sound very good indeed), the reverb category includes metal box, hall, descent, horizon, reflections and freeze types. Of these, only the hall option perhaps approaches something you might call a conventional reverb. The others are much more experimental in nature and, it you are into sci-fi-style sound design, there are some great options here for getting even a simple sound placed into a very odd (virtual) space. A ‘room’ option might have been nice to see included though for when you did want something smaller and more conventional…
The filters cover low/high and pass/shelf options so if you are fond of the occasional filter sweep cliché (and who isn’t?) then you can create that with ease. The X-Y pads show some very useful graphical feedback as you set your filter up. The phase and modulation categories include some cool options. I particularly liked the auto-wah and vibe chorus effects but, across the board, there are some fun options amongst this lot.
Within the distortion group, I found the things were perhaps a little too fizzy for my own tastes and gentler overdrive or tube options would be great additions to see added here. However, for extreme effects, the bit crusher is suitably horrible and the synthesizer option is just plain bonkers (in a good way).
I particularly enjoyed the vocoder and formant options within the voice FX category. Both of these work really well applied to a range of different sound sources, from drums to guitars to synths to, well… to vocals. Within the pan section, both auto pan and Leslie work well but, if I’m after stereo widening effects, then Holderness Media’s Stereo Designer would still be my go-to option.
The dynamics category includes both a noise gate and a compressor. These work well enough and you can create some nicely squashed sounds via the compressor. These are, perhaps, the kinds of effects that, when used for conventional processing (as opposed to abusing them for creative purposes) really require more than just a couple of parameters to fully control but they are fun to have included in this format.
The final two effects – within the instruments category – are essentially sound/tone sources with both a ‘tone hi’ and ‘tone bass’ option. Both generate a simple sound and you can adjust the waveform and frequency. While you could ‘play’ these sounds to create a melody (well… with a lot of practice you could), I suspect what they are really intended for is sound design, whether it is just to add some bleeps and bloops to your overall sound or even to act as a sound source in one effects slot that you can subsequently process with effects from the other three slots. They are both a bit mad but if you want to sound like R2D2 then now is your chance.
All together now
Of course, as with any multi-effects processor, while you can use a single effects to create both subtle or not-so-subtle results, the really interesting bit comes when you start to combine those effects in various ways. It’s here that the approach adopted by Fingerlab – where each effect offers you just a couple of parameters all controlled via the X-Y pad – will start to pay dividends, particularly for the more novice sound designer.
The streamlined control surface gives you plenty of options once you start combining multiple effects but without the chance of you getting lost amongst multiple screens of controls and a maze of interacting parameters that you can change. Dedicated sound manglers with enjoy DFX for a quick splurge of experimentation while those wanting to take some first steps into the wonderful world of creative sound design will not be too intimidated by the control set.
Either way, the quality of the sound is not compromised by the streamlined control set. DFX sounds great and, whatever your experience level as a creative sound designer, you will be able to get something fun, useful and experimental out of Fingerlab’s app.
And, to make it even easier to get to grips with, Fingerlab have included an excellent range of presets covering a range of applications. You can, of course, create your own presets and there is also the useful ‘fullscreen favourites’ option so you can put a dozen of your favourite presets into an easy-to-access gird. You can use this grid to switch between different presets in real-time… this would be great in a performance context, whether live or in the studio.
The other element of the app that is implemented in a straightforward fashion – entirely consistent with the overall design approach – is the automation system. This essentially allows you to define the shape and size of an ellipse within each of the four X-Y pads and then to set the speed at which the effects setting follow the path around that ellipse. The speed is linked to the tempo setting of the app. Real-time finger control can tweak the automation settings at any time and it can also easily be toggled on/off.
The only quirk I experienced in using DFX came here. While I could get the automation system to function quitye happily while using the app via Audiobus, for some reason, I could not get it to function when using the app via IAA. I’m not sure if that was something I had missed in terms of the settings required, an oddity of my particular test system or just a plain old bug… but hopefully Fingerlab will look into it and see if a solution can be found.
Slot it in
Over and above any of the ‘usual’ workflow issues (you know, the occasional loss of communication between apps via IAA), DFX behaved very well whether used stand-alone or via Audiobus or IAA (using Cubasis as my IAA host). As with the obvious competition within the creative effects category therefore, this is an app that you could easily slot in alongside other iOS music apps in whatever makes for your usual music production workflow.
It is worth restating here though; when it comes to workflow, DFX is pretty much as easy as it gets in terms of a creative multi-effects processor. The comparison with Flux: FX is both obvious and tempting to make. I think both apps are excellent; hugely creative and with well-designed user interfaces that make experimentation a joy. From a feature perspective, however, the two developers have taken a different decisions about exactly what to offer and, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think there is a right or wrong here; just different.
Indeed, while Flux: FX is not the most difficult app to get your head around (compared to, for example, the weird, wonderful, but incredibly deep experience that is Turnado), it is almost tempting to describe DFX as a ‘Flux: FX lite’. That’s not a bad thing… just the consequence of some different design choices. Both apps have their place, both can produce great results but one, or the other, might suit particular users, or particular situations, better than the other.
Or, given that both are insanely inexpensive given what they have to offer, by both and have done with it…
I do hope Fingerlab are not offended by my ‘Flux: FX lite’ comparison. DFX is a brilliant app in its own right and offers a huge range of ways to combine its various effects for creative audio manipulation. And, at UK£2.99, it is brilliant value for money.
I think any iOS musician who has a fondness for getting experimental with their audio will get something useful out of this app and, at this price, it could easily be treated as a causal (experimental?) purchase just to see what you might be able to do with it. I certainly woundln’t have any problems recommending DFX to anyone in that contexct.
However, where I think the app is likely to press the most obvious buttons is with those iOS musicians who want to get into creative sound processing and have not, as yet, made a start. In that context, DFX would make a very good first choice. Then, if DFX gets you hooked on the whole ‘creative effects’ adventure, there are some other obvious candidates – a little way up the App Store price range – that you can consider to compliment (not replace) what DFX can do.
Like Fingerlab’s DM1 that, despite a few stutters in response to iOS8, is still a bit of an iOS music app classic, DFX Digital Multi-FX is well designed, very competitively priced and comes highly recommended.