While perhaps not as well stocked as the iOS synth app category, if you want a virtual drum machine app to run on your iPad, there are a number of very good contenders, whether that’s a dedicated app or a set of ‘drum and groove tools’ within another app. Obviously, the approaches differ amongst these various apps, whether it’s a Funkbox, DM1, Different Drummer, Impaktor, Elastic Drums, Sector (OK, not really a drum machine but great for creating electronic drum tracks), Beat Machine, iMPC Pro, Boom 808!, Boom 909!, BeatHawk or the drum tools within something like Gadget (phew! I told you there was quite a lot….)
And, as of a few weeks ago, there is a new contender in this category; Diode-108 Drum Machine from Vibrant Digital Engineering. So, if your iPad has room for one more music app – or you are still looking for your own ideal virtual drum machine – is Diode-108 ‘the app for that’?
Ode to Diode
Released at the beginning of April, Diode-108 is – in a virtual sense at least – a ‘classic’ drum machine. It features sample-based drum sounds (you can combine 16 samples to make a full kit) and a pattern-based approach (patterns are a fairly standard 16 steps in length). Patterns can then be chained into a sequence to form a full song. Patterns can be programmed via a pattern grid system or can be played in ‘live’ via a set of virtual drum pads.
You also get a nice mixer to work with and, alongside effects such as reverb, compression and distortion, there are also some almost Sugar Bytes-like DJ-style effects that you can apply on a step-basis to each individual drum sound.
The app is supplied with a pretty impressive collection of preset kits based around samples from an equally impressive set of classic drum machine sounds. These are mostly electronic in nature but there are some acoustic samples and a few off-the-wall collections built into some of the kits. You can, however, import your own samples and also mix and match samples into new kits of your own.
At a technical level, Diode-108 requires iOS7.1 or later, it is iPad only, a 52MB download, has both Audiobus and (albeit limited) IAA support. And the price of entry for all this? Currently, a pretty modest UK£4.49.
Watch the beat
While there are plenty of very nice details of interest in Diode-108’s user interface, in many ways, the app brings a pretty conventional approach to the role of virtual drum machine. The various features are spread across five different screens – Pattern, FX, Pads, Drum Machine and Song – and each is accessed via the large buttons located top-left.
In the Pattern screen, this upper strip of controls also includes the tempo setting and swing slider (so you can add as much ‘groove’ as you like). To the right end of this upper strip are the transport controls, the Playback Mode switch (toggle between single pattern mode or song mode), the pattern select dropdown (pick which pattern you wish to play when playback is in Pattern mode) and the time signature setting. This ranges from 3/4 to 12/4 and the setting here influences the number of steps shown in the Pattern Editor display. There is also a ‘Clear’ button that will (surprise, surprise) clear the current pattern. Many of the controls in this upper strip appear in each of the five main screen… but not all as a few other options appear as required for the functionality offered by each screen.
The layout of the rest of the pattern screen is straightforward; a simple 16 instruments by 16 steps gird (well, 16 steps if you use 4/4 time) and, as you might expect, you can simply tap on a specific grid square to activate a drum hit for that drum sound at that step position. Tap for a second time and the hit gets cleared. You also get mute and solo buttons for each drum sound. Programming your basic pattern is, therefore, a very simple affair and will be instantly familiar to anyone you has used a step-based drum sequencer before.
All mixed up
In order to pick your drum sounds and tweak their basic properties, you need to switch to the Drum Machine screen. On this screen Load and Save buttons appear in the top strip and this provides access to the various preset drum kits. There is an excellent selection of drum sounds provided within these kits. Needless to say, there is something similar to almost any major hardware drum machine you can care to think of. Because you get 16 instruments within a full kit, each kit itself gives you a little breathing space in terms of sample selection.
You can also build your own kits from the supplies samples or import your own samples. The name of the current sample appears towards the base of each of the mixer’s channel strips (in small blue text); tap on this and you can browse the sample collection and find something else that you like. Do bear in mind, however, that many of the preset patterns included within the app make some assumptions about the type of sounds that you might have placed on a particular channel (kicks on the first two channels for example). Unless you just want to experiment and see what happens, sticking with this arrangement will ensure compatibility with the supplied patterns.
The channel strips include many of the expected features – pan, volume, mute, solo and a reverb send level for example – but there are also Gate, Compress and Distortion controls that offer some additional creative options on a pre-drum basis. You can also ‘play’ or audition the sounds using the small pads at the very base of each channel strip.
Finally, one other control appears on this screen; within the top strip you get the Master Volume control.
Welcome to my pad
Flipping to the Pads screen you get a grid of 16 drum pads that you can use to trigger your samples and, while these do not have any velocity-based response, you can use them to create and edit patterns if you prefer the ‘live’ approach to programming a grid. Usefully, if you set a pattern to cycle playback, engage the Record button (located top-left of the Pads screen), you can simply cycle through the pattern and add hits as required. This means you can, for example, build up a pattern over as many passes through the pattern as you need playing one drum at a time if required.
If you are starting a pattern from scratch, you also get a metronome option to keep you in time. This screen also includes a Tap Tempo button if you want to set the tempo by feel rather than number.
For FX sake
Don’t feel too restricted by the lack of velocity response in the pads however as the FX screen allows you to add some volume variation – and a lot more – to your patterns. In one respect, this screen perhaps offers a slightly clunky workflow as you can only work with a single drum at a time (you select which drum from the drop-down menu located top-left) but, on the other hand, this does mean that the workflow is very simple.
Essentially, what you see here is the pattern for any single drum displayed as a single row of 16 steps and with the hits for that drum shown in blue (as on the main Pattern screen. You can add and remove hits here if you wish. Along the top of the screen are a series of buttons and these allow you to pick which effect option you want to work with. As you tap each button, the controls within the main page change to reflect the selected effect but you can set the effect level – including the volume, pan and tone – on a per-step basis. It’s also worth noting that one of the options is Pitch; with the right samples, you could actually program melody or bass parts in Diode-108.
For some of the effects (for example, the delay and reverb), if you look bottom-left when they are selected, you will also see a small set of rotary knobs so you can configure the effect itself. No, these will probably not win any individual process as ‘most fully featured effects ever’ but they are very useable and, as you can use as many of the effects options as you like on each step, in combination you can get very creative.
That creative element is taken a step further with the Special FX category. Here you can add an almost Effectrix-like set of DJ-style effects on a per-step basis. These include reverse, stutters, flams and pitch shifts. There are some cool options here for adding a little extra audio interest and dedicated beat makers will have a lot of fun with these I’m sure.
The other element to note with the more conventional effects screens is the Ramp option. With this engaged, you can draw in ‘ramps’ of values allowing you to increase/decrease an effect in a linear fashion over a number of steps. This is great for creating volume risers of an EQ sweep through a snare roll for example.
Going for a song
The Song screen is where you can (a) create new empty patterns (and give them names) ready to be filled with your beats, (b) copy a pattern (engage the Edit button to see this option) and (c) chain patterns together to form your song sequence. You can, of course, load/save both patterns and songs from here and there is also an Export that will generate a WAV file based upon your current song and provides you with a number of routes to get that audio out of Diode and on to another audio environment.
You can drag and drop patterns into the Song Sequence panel and edit their order as you see fit. The approach is simple (you have to place multiple copies of a pattern in the list if you want it to repeat) but effective. If you flip to Song Mode (the button is located top-right) then you will see a mini-graphic of each pattern at the base of the screen as the song plays back; a very neat touch as it gives you a visual cue as to what’s coming up.
There are a number of elements of the workflow described above that might be described as ‘simple’ or perhaps even ‘unsophisticated’. For example, you can only work with the effects on one drum instrument at a time or that you have to add multiple copies of patterns to the song sequence or that you have to go to the FX section to add volume variations to your pattern).
However, I don’t see this as a weakness of Diode-108. In fact, on the contrary, I think it means that it will appeal to lots of potential users because it means the workflow, while perhaps not super-slick, is, conceptually, so straightforward that it can be mastered within just a few minutes of working with the app. There is generally just one way of doing and function (and not multiple routes) and, while on occasion, this might mean you have to go though a couple of steps to get to that function, there is no confusion and the interface is not overly cluttered.
What all this means is that the learning curve is very gentle and you can just get on with being creative and make some beats.
In technical terms, Diode-108 performed pretty well on my iPad Air 1/iOS8.3 test system. Used as a stand-alone app the performance seemed pretty flawless. The app also seemed to work well enough within Audiobus and I was also able to use it via IAA with Cubasis as my IAA host… although that implementation is perhaps a bit on the basic side (oh, and listed under ‘V’ rather than ‘D’ in the Cubasis IAA app list).
If you are a fan of classic electronic drum sounds (for all their limitations compared to modern drum sampling with multiple velocity layers for each drum), then I don’t think Diode-108 will give you too much cause for complaint. It’s supplied with a healthy stock of kicks, snares, hats, claps and all the other elements required and, as you can import your own samples anyway, if you want to go beyond the included sample set then that’s perfectly possible.
Diode dying for?
So, I like the sounds and I think the user interface, while maybe not as slick as some iOS music apps, is actually very well crafted and makes the app very easy to use. Does that mean that Diode-108 is already the finished article? Well, no…. it’s a great start but there are a number of other features that I’m sure early adopters would, eventually, really like to see included.
For example, it would be great to have an ‘Undo’ feature for some actions (clearing a pattern for example) and to be able to access the master Volume control from more than just the Drum Machine screen.
Equally, on the Pattern screen, it would be nice to see ‘new pattern’ and ‘copy pattern’ items added to the drop-down pattern select menu (otherwise you have to flip to the Song screen to do these common functions). This would be a modest change to the ‘keep it simple, stupid’ ethos of the user interface design but would, I’m sure, help with the overall workflow.
Over in the Song screen, it would also be nice to have the ability to select an existing set of patterns within the Song Sequence and to be able to duplicate them. For complex songs this would speed up the usual verse/chorus creation process considerably.
Perhaps more substantive is the issue of MIDI. As you might well have noticed I’ve not made any mention of MIDI at all yet in the review and that’s simply because Diode-108 does not, as yet, have any MIDI support. Now this is not critical to the use of the app as a tool for beat creation but it would certainly be a welcome addition. Being able to play patterns from a hardware drum pad unit or to sequence patterns from your MIDI DAW/sequencer would both be useful.
However, what would perhaps be even more useful would be support for MIDI Clock and the option to sync playback of Diode-108 to an external tempo source and to start/stop remotely with your sequencer. MIDI Clock is, of course, a right royal pain in the a** under iOS at the best of times but it is a feature that I’m sure most users would like to see. Otherwise, it is a case of building your beat, exporting it (or Audiobusing it over) to your sequencer/DAW and then adding the rest of your production.
Finally, somewhat fuller IAA support would be welcome. At present, I suspect all we are seeing is the default base support that the latest Audiobus SDK provides… but that means there isn’t (as yet) an IAA transport panel available within Diode-108.
I’ve no idea what Vibrant Digital Engineering might have on their current ‘to do’ list for Diode-108. These are all fairly obvious ideas so I’m sure they will all have been considered buy the development team. Anyway, here’s hoping the app gets enough support to make it worth their while moving it forwards in these – or perhaps other – directions.
Despite the wish list noted above, I think Diode-108 is already a very neat app. The sounds are great (and there are plenty of them) but what’s really impressive is the simplicity of the design and the logic of the workflow. Yes, you do occasionally find yourself having to switch between screens to access some options but, in many respects, this keeps each of the five main screen free from clutter and each has its very specific function.
This is a great start and, at UK£4.49, you would have to be a particularly grumpy soul to complain about the value for money offered. Here’s hoping that Vibrant can build on this excellent foundation but, even as it stands, this is an app that anyone wanting some classic-style drum machine beats would have some fun with… and would be up and running with in just a few minutes. No fuss and no drama but fun to use and with enough creative options to keep things interesting. If you are happy to work around the current absence of MIDI support, then Diode-108 comes highly recommended.
Diode-108 Drum Machine
While Diode-108 is most obviously aimed at drums, reader Vecoto sent me a link to this video he made using Diode-108 is a slightly alternative fashion – enjoy :-)