When it comes to a really killer virtual drum instrument – an iOS sized version of something like Superior Drummer 2 or BFD2, for example – I think we are still waiting. However, in the ‘virtual drum machine’ category – which is something of a different beast – we already have some very good contenders. I reviewed Funkbox a while back and was very impressed but it is not the only candidate. Another option is provided by the subject of this review – Fingerlab’s DM1 music app – a virtual drum machine available in iPhone, iPad and OS X versions. So, what does DM1 have to offer? Let’s look at the iPad version to find out….
DM1 has a pretty impressive feature list. Drum parts are built as patterns within a step sequencer. This default to 16 steps but you can set the length to any number of steps up to 32 on a per-pattern basis. You can program parts in the step sequencer itself or using a set of drum pads where you simply play your parts in and DM1 will quantize and layer sounds as you cycle through the pattern.
The app includes a neat mixer where you can set the level, pan, pitch and length of each drum sound as well as setting any sample to play reversed if you wish. Within the mixer screen you can also program in automation data on a per-drum basis for the current pattern. This is nicely implemented.
DM1 also includes a range of effects options and these can either be applied to specific drums or as ‘master’ effects to the whole kit. The FX section includes two X-Y controller pads so you can programme in FX variations. These can, in turn, be automated.
A project can contain up to 25 different patterns and, once you have created a number of patterns you like, these can easily be chained together to form a song. As the app supports Audiobus, WIST, has import/export options via Dropbox and iTunes file sharing and a pretty full MIDI spec, it is also easy to integrate DM1 into a wider music workflow. In short, this is a well-specified virtual drum machine with plenty of features to keep you interested.
Most of the key features can be accessed via the top strip of controls that remain present throughout. This includes the Play button, drop-down lists for tempo, drum kit and pattern selection and five buttons to access the five main pages of the DM1 interface; Steps, Pads, Mixer, FX and Song.
Well kitted out
DM1 is also well stocked with drum sounds. In total, the app is supplied with 86 different drum kits covering classic drum machines such as the TR-808, TR-606 and TR-909 through to 80s classics such as the MPC and Linn 9000. Equally, there are a range of acoustic drum samples that would suit rock, pop and jazz plus some ‘processed’ kits if you are feeling a little more experimental. There are even some melodic instruments that you can use that, in combination with the pitch options available, allow you to add a melodic line to your patterns if required.
Equally, you can create your own kits, either by combining some of the supplied samples or adding your own. For the latter, samples can be imported from you iDevice, via Audiopaste, Dropbox or iTunes. You can also record samples via the microphone so, if you want to add your own beatbox sample set, this is very straightforward to do.
Of course, all the kits are based upon single sample sounds so, while the samples themselves are excellent and you can add volume variation to give a sense of dynamics to the patterns, this is not the same as using a multi-layered sample set. For classic drum machine emulation this is exactly how it should be but, for acoustic kits, it is still not quite the same as an iOS ‘Superior Drummer’ equivalent. That said, the samples are very good and, in the context of a full musical arrangement, work very well indeed.
Step on it
Pressing the Steps button brings up the step sequencer screen. This is pretty standard stuff, allowing you to tap a grid square to cause a drum to play. Swiping a finger will add/delete a series of hits. Double tapping a grid square produces a louder hit, although you can get more subtle control over hit volume via the Mixer screen as described more fully below.
Top-left are buttons for setting the time base (4/4 is the default but there are plenty of options if you want them) of for switching to the 32 step mode (the x2 icon). There is also a randomiser button (the little tornado icon) which is quite useful as you can set the amount of randomisation and just experiment to see what magic might occur. You also get a metronome (more useful when playing patterns in via the Pads screen) and a button to engage ‘Song’ mode (when the app will play patterns in sequence as dictated from the Song page).
This aside, there is little more to add here other than to say the interface is very nicely styled and dead easy to use.
If you prefer to play your patterns rather than program then, then DM1 can do that also via the Pads screen. Here you get nine drum pads to play plus a pitch wheel. You can record in two modes; add or replace depending upon how you like to work and the pitch data can also be recorded. There is also a MIDI Learn option if you want to associate the virtual pads with those on an external hardware MIDI pad set that you have connected to your iPad. This is all very impressive stuff and could make DM1 a nice little ‘live’ drum sample tool if required.
Follow the pattern
Up to 25 patterns can be created in a DM1 project. As it is straightforward to copy and paste patterns, it is easy to build two or three ‘core’ patterns and then generate some variants on those.
Once you have created a set of patterns, the Song screen allows you to sequence them along a timeline. This is done a bar at a time and while it might be a bit slow to do this when you want the same pattern to repeat for a few bars, it is a very intuitive process of dragging and dropping patterns onto the timeline. The length of the timeline expands as you extend the pattern sequence.
The Song screen contains a few other key controls. These include the ‘loop’ button so that your song sequence will just be repeated and the rather excellent Swing slider that allows you to add a variable amount of groove to the performance. The New, Duplicate and Load buttons allow you to deal with routine project management tasks and DM1 is supplied with a nice set of example projects to get you started.
At the base of the Song screen are the Export, WIST, Audio Background and MIDI options. I’ll come back to those a little later.
All mixed up
The Mixer is a fairly simple affair but offers all the key features in a very easy to use format. Three rotary knobs per channel allow you to control the level, pitch and length of each drum sound, while a small horizontal slider provides a pan control. Just beneath each channel name is a small arrow icon. Tapping this reverses the arrowhead and reverses playback of the specific drum sample. A solo button is also provided if you just want to listen to particular drum sounds in isolation.
The bottom-most button on each channel selects which drum’s step sequence is currently displayed along the base of the screen. This is very useful if you just want to tweak a pattern without leaving the mixer as you can easily flick through the different drums using the appropriate channel button.
However, the bottom bit of the display offers a further function. If you tap the Automation button (located top-centre next to the Randomiser button with its distinctive tornado icon), you can add automation data to the currently selected drum. If you tap on any of the level, pitch, length or pan controls (the label will flash to show it is selected), you can then add automation data into this lane. This is very well implemented and a breeze to use.
The FX page allows you to choose two effects to be active from a list of options including overdrive, delay, reverb, compression, filter and a few other ‘special effect’ types. The twin X-Y control pads then provide you with access to two key parameters for the chosen effect. You can then ‘play’ these effects in real-time while your song sequence is playing or, it you wish, automate your FX tweaks by engaging the FX Automation button.
Each effect can operate in one of two modes. In Master mode, the effect is applied to the whole kit while in Mixer mode, you can specify which drums the effect is to be applied to leaving others unprocessed. Again, this is very flexible and, given the effects themselves, which include both bread and butter and more creative options, there is a lot of fun to be had here.
Get your drums out
DM1 offers plenty of choices for using your drum sequences as part of a wider musical workflow. From the Song screen, the Export button provides routes to SoundCloud, Dropbox, Facebook, AudioCopy, Email and iTunes file sharing. You can choose to export just a single pattern or the entire song in either WAV or ACC formats. Impressively, you can also choose to export the entire drum mix as a single stereo file or individual drums onto separate tracks. If you wanted to do some further per-drum processing in your DAW, this latter option would be particularly useful.
WIST support is provided for those working with other apps supporting Korg’s WIST stop/start protocol (for example, Korg’s own iPolysix or iMS-20 and other apps such as Figure, NLogSynth, BeatMaker 2 or Nave) so, if you want to run DM1 in sync with any of these other apps, it ought to be straightforward.
DM1 also includes MIDI support. I had no major problems getting MIDI note data to flow in either direction between DM1 and Cubasis although I did have to make sure I started Cubasis up before DM1 in order for DM1 to then detect it was available for MIDI data transmission. I also had to experiment a little with the MIDI port settings in Cubasis (Virtual MIDI in/out seemed to do the trick). However, DM1 doesn’t seem to support MIDI Clock so syncing playback was a bit hit and miss. This would be a useful addition to the DM1 spec if it was possible via a future update.
Finally, the Audiobus support worked very well and I was able to record DM1’s audio output directly into both Auria and Cubasis without any problems.
DM1 is very easy to use and given the excellent collection of drum samples included, it is capable of working in a wide range of musical styles. The interface is very well thought out and given the range of programming options, the effects included and the neat automation system, you can coax some brilliant drum performances from the app.
In use, I did experience a couple of minor glitches when working with DM1 and Cubasis (MIDI data that seemed to get lost in translation) but aside from that, the app seems very robust.
As a virtual drum machine environment for iOS, DM1 is most certainly up there with the best that is currently available. It sounds great and, given that the iPad version is only UK£2.99 (with the iPhone edition even cheaper), it is an absolute bargain. Indeed, there is also a stand-alone Mac version and, so impressed was I by the iPad version, that I’ve purchased that as well (hope there is a VST version in the pipeline at some stage; that would be awesome) :-)
DM1 for iPad is a top-notch music app and comes highly recommended.