If you have hung around these parts for any length of time you will know I’ve been a bit of a long-standing fan of Fingerlab’s DM1 drum machine app (I own the desktop OSX version as well). DM1 first appeared on the App Store… well, way back in the mists of iOS music app time and I first reviewed it in August 2013. It was updated as recently as March 2016 and now stands at v.5.4.1.
However, there have obviously been some changes behind the scenes, as Pascal Douillard, who was involved with Fingerlab and the development of DM1, has now set up his own iOS development studio and has released a new iOS music app…. DM2 appeared on the App Store today and, as you might expect given the name, Pascal obviously sees the new app as having some shared heritage with the original DM1…. but this is a separate app from a separate development team…. It’s not, therefore, an upgrade from DM1.
That said, a quick wiz through the app’s key features would soon confirm that there is instant familiarity in the DM2 workflow; this is, in part, because it follows some fairly conventional drum machine formats found in other drum apps than DM1 but, if you happen to use DM1, then DM2 will also feel a comfortable place to be.
However, there are two obvious – and very striking differences. First, DM2 comes with a super-slick (and very modern) user interface; the app feels very much up-to-date in terms of looks. Second, while DM1 is a sample-based drum machine emulation, DM2 is based upon a drum synthesis engine; this is closer to something like Elastic Drums in terms of its sound source than one of the many other sample-based drum apps that you can find in the App Store.
Of course, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to drum apps…. so how does DM2, as the latest offering to tempt us, stand up to the obvious competition? Let’s find out….
What’s in the (virtual drum) box?
In many ways, the feature set of DM2 is exactly what you would expect from a modern, software-based, drum app regardless of the development heritage. You therefore get all the key elements that you would imagine – pattern-based step sequencing (with patterns having up to 32 steps and up to 48 patterns within a single project), virtual drum pads for triggering sounds and ‘live’ recording of patterns, MIDI in and out (so you can record patterns from an external MIDI device or trigger DM2 sounds from a sequencer as well as dumping MIDI data created in DM2 into an external sequencer), a mixer, a series of audio effects and, of course, a song construction environment where you can drag and drop your project’s patterns into a sequence.
Of course, DM2 also offers Audiobus, IAA, MIDI Clock sync and (hooray!) Ableton Link from the off. The latter is, I think, now becoming pretty much a ‘must have’ for any iOS drum/groove app. Incidentally, I had no problems getting DM2 to sync with other Ableton Link-enabled apps and, as shown by the screenshot with both DM2 and Patterning running together in AUM, it can combine with some other iOS drum/groove apps to create something very interesting indeed. The app is launched at just UK£3.99/US$4.99, requires iOS8.0 or later, is a 60MB download and requires an iPad to run.
There are also a few other things amongst the DM2 specification that are perhaps not so common and less likely to be found in as many other iOS drum or groove app. As mentioned above, DM2 comes with a beautiful looking design (this was, I think, the work of graphic designer Jonas Eriksson; take a bow – the app looks great); it’s modern and well-thought-out. Indeed, this element of using the app should not be underestimated; while you might think of some features that you would like to see added to flesh out the (already impressive) specification, there is nothing here that feels awkward or cramped. In short, from a design perspective, DM2 is, for my money at least, spot on.
The second is the app’s drum synth engine. This is, apparently, build upon the Pure Data audio library (and that Pascal speaks very highly of). My coding days are long gone but, whatever the algorithms behind the sounds, my initial response is that the app sounds very good indeed. Hooked up to my studio monitoring system (I’ve an Adam-based 2.1 system attached to my desktop studio) I got a bit of a shock when I didn’t check my levels before triggering DM2 for the first time; it certainly packs a punch and my sub was pushing a lot of air from the DM2 kick sounds :-)
At present at least, the app is obviously very distinct from DM1 in this regard; that app was sample-based while DM2 is synth-based. That perhaps means that DM2 is more likely to appeal to those looking for synthetic/electronic drum sounds as, while DM1 perhaps isn’t the best iOS drum app for acoustic drums, it does at least include some nice acoustic drum kit samples if you need them. Without knowing what development plans Audionomy have for DM2, it’s impossible to know whether they might consider adding a sample-based element to their new app…. it would, however, be a welcome addition if they did so.
There is one further feature that’s worth emphasising. While basic pattern construction can be done in the usual 16 or 32-step formats, patterns can be any step count up to 32-steps. Even more significant, however, any of the nine drum sounds within your pattern can have its pattern length set independently. Rather like the wonderful Patterning from Olympia Noise Co., therefore, DM2 is just waiting for the more experimental drum programmer to start work on some poly-rhythmic patterns, with different drum sounds cycling through their individual patterns on different step counts. This can create all sorts of really interesting evolving pattern options.
Hey, good looking….
The key sub-screens of the app can all be access via the top-strip buttons – Steps, Drums, Pads, Mixer, FX and Song – all of which open the appropriate page within the main display. This top strip also contains the transport, tempo, preset and pattern controls; tap on any of these and further options open up.
In terms of presets, DM2 is provided with a good crop of drum kits and these do a pretty good job of illustrating the range of sounds that the drum synth engine is capable of. While I’ve spent a little time dipping into the synth engine, I’m sure I have not realised the full potential it has to offer…. but the supplied presets do suggest that is considerable.
The pattern button allows you to pick a specific pattern to work on when not in ‘song’ mode (when patterns will obviously switch as you move through your song arrangement). You can see a grid of 2 x 24 pattern slots, each with a distinctive colour-coding and the pattern’s note pattern displayed within the pattern’s icon as a visual cue as to how busy (or otherwise) the pattern is. With playback active, you can use this screen to trigger patterns on the fly for a bit of ‘pattern jamming’. Patterns can, of course, be copied or cleared as you develop the patterns for a particular project.
The Steps screen gives you a conventional (but very smart) step grid for pattern programming. You can toggle this between 16 and 32-step displays using the ‘X2’ or ‘/2’ toggle button located upper-left. There are nine lanes provides and, as you expect, tapping on a grid slot simply inserts a hit for that step/instrument combination. You can double-tap to create an accented hit. This does, however, bring me to the one element that, currently at least, I don’t think is in the DM2 spec and that it would be nice to see; velocity sensitivity. While I might have missed something (I got hold of the app a few days before release but I’m sure I have not explored every corner), I couldn’t see any means of adding MIDI velocity data to the drum hits over and above this accent feature. Maybe this is something for the DM2 ‘to do’ list?
The Steps screen does, however, include a Swing setting for adding a little extra groove to your patterns and, of course, there is the step-length adjustment option mentioned above. This is very simple to use…. just tap and drag on the thin cyan-blue ‘stopper’ at the end of each lane and you can change the number of steps used. This might, of course, be something only the more rhythmically adventurous will use on a regular basis but it is well worth anyone exploring the options it provides…. With a fair wind behind you (or more drum programming skills than I have) you can create some seriously cool rhythmic variations.
Come to my pad and mix
The Pads screen contains the nine, large, trigger pads, the ‘record’ button and, usefully, the add/replace toggle button for use while recording. The latter means you can overdub drums into your pattern as the pattern cycles through; you don’t have to play it all in one go. You also get the Beat Repeat buttons. On playback, these allow you to ‘hold’ a particular number of beats and have them playback in a loop until you release the button. This makes for some interesting variations if you like to improvise a little over an existing pattern.
The Mixer screen is simple enough but also nicely styled. You get level faders, pan and solo buttons for each of the nine sounds plus a master fader. Each channel strip is also clearly labelled and, at the top, includes a trigger switch (the ‘play’ arrow icon) so you can audition each sound if required.
Having the right effect
I’ll get to the synth engine in a minute (save the best until last!) but the FX page provides you with plenty of ear candy options. There are four XY control pads each associated with one of the four effects modules; Pressure (compression or overdrive), Modulation (phaser or chorus), Delay and Reverb. You can toggle each effect on/off individually and there is also a global effects bypass button as well as wet/dry faders for each effect.
There is a lot of fun to be had here and, as elsewhere, the graphical design is slick and all the controls easy to use even on a standard-sized iPad; on the larger iPad Pro, it is just even easier.
Going for a song
The Song screen is equally well thought out. As well as being able to create, duplicate and load DM2 projects, you get two strips of colourful boxes. The lower strip contains your collection of individual patterns (and, again, a button to toggle between the two sets of 24 patterns that can exist in a project), while the upper set contains the song timeline.
To add a pattern to the timeline, you simply drag a pattern from the pattern section and drop it wherever you want it on the timeline; existing patterns simply shift left/right to make room as you do so and the timeline expands as you build the arrangement. Usefully, each slot on the timeline includes -/+ buttons and this allows you to repeat a pattern as many times as you like without it occupying multiple slots on the timeline to do so…. If pattern 2 needs to repeat 8 times before pattern 6 is then triggered…. well, that’s easy to do.
Building a ‘song’ – arrangement of patterns – is therefore incredibly easy in DM2; the interface looks slick but is also slick in terms of workflow.
It’s a drum machine, stupid….
OK, I know…. I’ve got this far and I have not, as yet, really said an awful lot about the most important aspect of a musical instrument/tool; how it sounds. So we know DM2 is built on drum synthesis rather than drum samples, but how does that synth engine operate and how does it actually sound?
If you tap on the Drums button then you can find out…. and, yes, this section of the app is just as well laid out as the rest of it. Down the left edge you can select which drum sound you wish to work on from the nine available. There is also a ‘Solo’ button if you just want to hear the selected drum as a pattern plays back and you are tweaking the sound. At the base of the screen you also get the step grid shown for the currently selected drum sound so you can also adjust the actual sequence in this screen if you wish without having to flip back to the Steps page.
The bulk of the screen is dominated by the six key elements of the drum synth engine plus a few additional controls (including pan and fader on the right that mimic those found in the Mixer screen). Essentially, you get a single oscillator with pitch modulation, filter and envelope plus a noise filter/envelope combination with which to build your sounds. The key controls are presented graphically – that is, you can tap and drag on the six waveform graphics to adjust the parameters. There are also buttons to toggle between different waveforms or filter modes. There are some really neat graphical touches here and I particularly like the way the waveform changes to reflect the frequency you are setting and the fact that you see the frequency value displayed in real-time as you change it. If you want the fundamental frequency of your kick drum to be (for example) 60Hz, well DM2 makes that easy to set.
I’m not going to claim any great expertise in designing drum sounds via a synth but, even on first use, the Drum page of DM2 just sucked me right in. This really is a pleasure to use and, because of the elegant visual design, it encourages you to experiment and tweaks sounds. This is, in part, down to great graphical design but, equally, I think it is also down to hitting a sweet spot in terms of the number of controls vs the complexity of the engine. Audionomy have, from non-drum synth experts like me anyway, got this just about spot-on. There is enough to keep more accomplished programmers happy but not so much that even the (mostly scared) programming numbty (that’s me then) would be too intimidated; this is a design that could appeal to almost any level of user.
As to the sounds themselves? Well…. very good indeed…. and it is difficult to separate the sounds from the editing environment because the ease with which you can experiment with the controls just means that tweaking is a pleasure…. rolling your own kick, snare and hi-hat sounds is, therefore, something anyone can do. The preset kits provide you with plenty of starting points and, as the Sounds button on the Drums page allows you to load individual sounds from any of the drum categories into DM2 for editing, then it’s easy to find a suitable sound as a template and begin adjusting.
Underneath the six graphical elements, you get controls for Distortion, a ‘balance’ slider that adjusts between the oscillator and noise element contributions to the current sound and a Stereo button. I’m not quite sure how the latter works but it makes the current sound super-wide and is very addictive; I suspect a ‘use with caution’ statement might be required if you even imagine someone might actually listen to your track via a mono speaker system but, in stereo, it is a very appealing effect.
For those new to drum synth programming, the contribution of the Noise element is actually a big part in creating certain drum sounds (snare and hi-hat for example) and adjusting the balance between the more conventional oscillator and noise components can radically change the character of the sound. Again, the very neat design of the interface makes this something that is easy and fun to do.
And what of the sounds themselves? Well, there may well be more sophisticated and flexible drum synth engines out there that offer more complex options, but, even so, DM2 can coax a huge range of excellent drum sounds out of what is a reasonably simple (conceptually at least) sound engine. Kicks that go from big and boomy through to tight and punchy? Tick the box…. Snares that go from boing to splat to crunch? Yep, that’s covered also. Hi-hats that just click to ones that buzz, rattle and fizz….? Yep, got those as well.
And perhaps the only category that really left me wanting the ‘real’ sound of the instrument was the cymbals…. but then I feel a bit like that with most drum synths…. The sounds are all very useable in the right context… but there are times when only a real crash cymbal (or a sample of one) have the right impact :-)
The bottom line here, however, is that DM2 sounds very good indeed. If electronic drum sounds are what you need, this is absolutely a very credible source to get them from.
DM2 played very nicely with whatever other iOS music apps I tried to put it alongside. As a standalone app it worked without any fuss while it was also smooth within Audiobus or when used via IAA in, for example, either Cubasis or AUM. The Ableton Link support worked well and, locked to Patterning (both running in AUM) it made for a brilliant app combination. Incidentally, I’d love to have both these apps in a VST format for use on my desktop system. For a first release version, therefore, DM2 seems pretty solid.
That’s not to say that DM2 is absolutely the finished article (well, yet at least). It would be great to be able to add velocity data on a per-step basis to your drum patterns and even better if the synth engine could be modulated by such data. It would also be cool if you could add FX automation data to patterns…. and… well, maybe you can already think of your own suggestions. However, DM2 is most certainly an excellent start and I’m pretty sure Audionomy already have a whole number of additional features on their own ‘to do’ list for the app.
Under iOS, when it comes to electronic drum sounds, you can, of course, take your pick of a number of excellent iOS music apps. Apps like Sector or Patterning are both excellent, for example, and while they create their sounds in a very different way to DM2, sonically, they are in the same territory and could be used in the same sorts of musical contexts.
However, when it comes to drum synths, perhaps the more obvious competition is Elastic Drums, Attack Drums, SeekBeats and Different Drummer. Both Different Drummer and Attack Drums are perhaps aimed at the more power user; both offer more features and, it has to be said, a more demanding learning curve. SeekBeats is perhaps a little less conventional than DM2 although it is most certainly just as approachable in its own way.
However, perhaps closest in terms of concept is Elastic Drums. This has long been a favourite of mine and it has evolved tremendously since its initial release. I think Elastic Drums has an edge over DM2 in terms of features and depth (it does, for example, offer a number of different synthesis engine types aimed at different drum sounds) but, as a trade off, it perhaps is somewhat more demanding of the new user…. both are great, they would, however, just appeal to somewhat different types of iOS musician.
If I was looking for my first iOS drum synth, and was comfortable with the conventional approach adopted by many virtual drum machine apps, I think DM2 would make for an excellent choice. The interface is super-slick and the sounds are great. As stated earlier, I also think the balance between features and ease-of-use would be spot-on for anyone new to this kind of drum sound generation. Audionomy have got an awful lot right with this initial release… hats off to Pascal and his development team…. and, at just UK£3.99/US$4.99 at launch, this is an absolute bargain.
DM2 is, however, up against some stiff – and very well established – competition, particularly from Elastic Drums. The latter comes with a somewhat higher price tag (UK£9.99/US$11.99) but also with universal operation and a deeper feature set…. but not so deep that you wouldn’t recommend it to a drum synth newbie providing they were happy to get stuck into the somewhat steeper learning curve.
OK, so I know everyone’s budget constraints are different, and I’m also happy to preach the gospel of keeping your core app collection streamlined for a more productive workflow, but these prices for this quality of software are just amazing. If you own Elastic Drums maybe you don’t need DM2 as well…. but if you love the synth drum approach, then I suspect – at just UK£3.99/US$4.99 – DM2 will prove very tempting indeed. And, incidentally, they sound pretty awesome when used together….
However, if you are looking for your first drum synth app, then DM2 is most certainly a very credible – and very accessible – contender. In DM2, Audionomy have created a top-notch app at a ridiculously good price. Highly recommended.