There are lots of what you might call ‘conventional’ virtual instruments available on the App Store; virtual pianos, software recreations of hardware synths, strum-able guitars, for example. And there are also lots of other music apps that do things we might think of as ‘conventional’ tasks; recording apps, audio effects or guitar amp sims, for example. These are all great and, in building your own iOS music app toolkit, these kinds of apps are likely to have a prominent place in almost anyone’s collection.
However, there are also some less conventional music apps out there. Apps that, for one reason or another, don’t do these sorts of ‘normal music tasks in software’ functions, but instead offer something just a little bit different. For example, in my own core app collection, I’d put Jonatan Liljedahl’s rather brilliant Sector in this class; it’s a difficult app to describe but ‘stochastic sample slice sequencer’ (the official description) doesn’t really do it justice :-) Sector is, however, all about creating new and interesting rhythms from audio samples such as drum loops or other audio samples with a rhythmic element.
Anyway, if Sector is the kind of app that appeals to you then you might also want to check out Earhoof from developer Psicada. Like Sector, it has a strong rhythmic element to it and it creates those rhythms from audio samples. Also like Sector, however, it does this in an unusual and novel fashion. This is the kind of virtual instrument that definitely suits the ‘unconventional’ tag.
On the ‘hoof
On first startup, Earhoof (currently UK£2.99 and available for iPad using iOS7 or later) presents you with a fairly simple looking interface that is designed for use in portrait mode. At the top is what looks like a small pattern sequencer display while the bulk of the screen is dominated by four pale blue vertical touch strips. Underneath these are a series of buttons that allow you to access the various presets and editing features of the sound engine.
The basic concept with Earhoof is that you can create an overall sound by layering and blending audio files (both those supplied and your own including samples recorded straight into the app). Once you have your basic sound patch, you can then trigger it by using one finger, or more usually, two-fingered gestures on one of the four vertical strips. Each strip can have a different pattern sequence associated with it (essentially you can define a series notes with lengths and relative pitches for each vertical strip).
As you play one of these strips, your sound is triggered with a rhythm that is based upon the pattern of notes defined in the sequence for that vertical strip. The pitch is controlled by a combination of the relative pitches defined in the pattern, the vertical position at which you touch the strip (higher position gives higher pitches) and the width between your two fingers (controls the pitch range).
As the pattern plays, you can move your two fingers along the strip and, while the rhythmic element of the pattern remains the same, the pitch pattern will vary. And, if you slide your fingers across to a different strip, while the underlying sound remains the same, the pattern of notes (both rhythm and pitch) can be changed.
Depending upon the type of sound you are using, what you get is something that can span between a pure rhythmic instrument to something approaching a ‘playable’ arpeggiator. After even just a little time spent getting your head around the basic concept, it is possible to create some very cool results….
Under the hood
Tapping the large ‘funny x’ icon button located bottom-right of the main display gets you into the sound editing controls. This features a global volume control at the top and then a series of tabs (A, B, C, D, etc.) where you can access the controls for any layer (audio sample) that is part of the current sound. There are all sorts of things you can do here; add layers, delete layers, mute layers, change the layer gain and then, for any selected layer, you can also modulate the sound with time by drawing curves for gain, pitch, pan, filter frequency, filter Q and delay.
There is a lot of fun to be had here in terms of creating either really simple sounds or, by combining multiple layers and configuring all these controls differently in each layer, constructing hugely complex sounds. The app is supplied with an excellent range of presets that can help you find your way around.
Tapping on the small step pattern display at the top of the main screen opens the pattern editor. Here, you can define the ‘note/rhythm’ pattern associated with each of the four performance strips. The note pitches (relative pitches at least) and duration are defined in the upper half of this display while you can select which performance strip to work with and audition your patterns in the lower half of the display. If you happen to know the pitch of your original sample, there is also a useful pitch snapping function where you can limit the pitches generated by the app to specific notes in a scale.
Tapping on the small circular buttons beneath each performance strip in the main screen brings up a small menu of options one of which allows you to record your own rhythms via the touch screen.
The overall tempo can be set in the pattern editing screen (as well as from the main performance screen) and this is global for the current preset. You can also define how many beats each lasts for. This latter setting is specific to the currently selected strip and can be different for each strip. You can also edit the volumes of each note in a pattern to create volume dynamics.
Earhoof is supplied with a good collection of WAV format audio files (everything is 16-bit/44.1kHz in terms of format) but you can both import audio files from elsewhere or record them straight into the app (tap the ‘curved ear horn’ icon button on the main display to access this feature). iTunes File Sharing, AudioCopy and AudioShare are all supported.
All in all, there is quite a lot to discover under the Earhoof hood and, aside from exploring the preset sound collection, it is instructive to try and built your own patch just using a single layer so you can find your way around. Start simply… but you will soon feel at home and be able to stretch out into what the app can do.
Actually playing Earhoof can be a bit beguiling at first. This is, as outlined at the start of the review, a somewhat unusual musical instrument. However, do stick with it and get through that initial (fairly modest) learning curve as what can be created is well worth the effort. The rewards are almost endless rhythmic options and, if you like to create electronic beats and rhythmic sound beds, this app should be right up your street. The real joy of the app is that it is a performance-orientated instrument…. by sliding your fingers around the four performance strips you can generate a real sense of a rhythmic (and sometimes melodic) performance.
And, thankfully, Earhoof also supports both Audiobus and IAA so, if you want to capture that performance into your iOS DAW of choice, then that’s perfectly possible. It can appear as an Audiobus Input slot app and, for IAA, it appeared as an audio input app on an audio channel in my usual IAA host DAW, Cubasis.
Perhaps the only obvious downside at present is that you have to manually match the Earhoof tempo to whatever else you might be doing as, at present, the app doesn’t provide any way of external sync for tempo. However, Psicada’s website does say that MIDI Clock sync is a feature that is currently being worked on for a future update. That would be a welcome addition.
Earhoof is most certainly not a conventional musical instrument whether virtual or otherwise. It is, however, very interesting to use and, while it is most certainly tightly focused on creating rhythmic sequences, in that context, it is rather well conceived.
The fact that the interface makes it so easy to create flowing rhythmic performances and that many of the presets use the sound engine to generate electronic (as opposed to ‘real’) instrument sounds, means the app is most certainly going to appeal to electronic music producers. And, with a current price of just UK£2.99, this is a journey into the ‘unconventional’ that almost anyone could afford to take without too many regrets.
That said, unless money is too tight to mention, I’m not sure you ought to have any regrets at all. While I was just a bit baffled at first, I’m now fascinated by just what Earhoof can create. This is yet another example of the strength of iOS and mobile music technology using a touchscreen; highly creative and, in my experience at least, highly unique. Well worth the entrance fee for those with an experimental streak to their music making.