As I’ve confessed on these pages before, I’m a big Sugar Bytes fan. I use Turnado and Thesys in both their iOS and desktop formats on a regular basis in my own music production work and WOW Filterbox also gets regular exercise on my iPad system.
As a result, I’m always keen to give any new products from the Sugar Bytes stable a close inspection and was intrigued to see if the iPad release of Effectrix (another port from one of their desktop software applications) would keep up their reputation of bringing highly creative apps to the iOS format.
Perhaps the best place to start this review is with a brief introduction to what Effectrix actually is. At one level, this is a multi-effects processor. The app contains a suite 14 different effects processors that go from the standard (reverb and delay for example) to the not-so-standard (stutter and scratch loop, for example) and allow you to combine these in all sorts of ways so you can either add some subtle enhancements to your source audio or you can mangle it to within an inch of its life (or anything in between).
So far, so Turnado, and you might be wondering why you might need Effectrix within your app collection if you already own Sugar Bytes rather brilliant ‘creative multi-effects processor’ Turnado. There is, however, a key difference between the two apps. While there are, indeed, some effects possibilities that are common to both apps, with Turnado, you adjust the effects by using the virtual controls in real time (Turnado provides a brilliant – if somewhat busy – interface by which you can do this). In contrast, with Effectix, what you essentially get is a step-based pattern sequencer but, instead of placing synth notes or drum hits within that sequencer, you place effects. And as the sequencer plays – hopefully fully in sync with your source audio – it is then processed through any of the effects that are ‘active’ on any given step within the sequence.
It doesn’t stop there however. Each effect features multiple parameters and, for each effect, you can also create step-based data to adjust two parameters through the sequence. In essence, this is pattern-based automation of two parameters for each effect. In addition, within an Effectrix preset, you can store up to 12 different step sequences. Once done, you can instantly flip between any of these 12 alternate effects processing sequences via onscreen controls or by triggering from an external MIDI keyboard. This opens up all sort of interesting creative possibilities and makes it possible to switch between very different audio processing configurations in a ‘performance’ fashion.
Effectrix is supplied with some audio loops to get you started and these are great fun to experiment with; you load a loop and can then cycle its playback using the internal audio playback engine. Playback of the step sequencer is synced to this so your audio, and the effects processing supplied by Effectrix, all stay beautifully in sync. You can, of course, also load your own audio into the app for processing or, if the audio is in a suitable file format (wav, aif or m4a but not mp3), open a file from your iTunes library. AudioCopy/Paste is supported (er… sort of…. I’ll come back to this) as is iTunes file sharing.
However, there is also Audiobus and IAA support from the off so, if you want to process audio being generated from another iOS music app, as opposed to audio files held within Effecttrix itself, that can also be configured. This does, however, require one of the other iOS music apps involved in the signal chain to supply Effectrix with MIDI clock data so that playback of the step sequencer in Effectrix (and hence your pattern of effects processing that you have configured) can be properly sync’ed with playback in your other apps (such as your iOS DAW).
Finally, while the Audiobus/IAA support means you can easily record the results of your Effectrix processing in another app (again, such as your DAW), there are also recording options included within Effectrix itself. These allow you to record a performance either manually (where you set the length by starting and stopping recording manually) or by specifying a fixed length of 1, 2, 4 or 8 bars. My own workflow would, I suspect, generally involve using Effectrix with either Cubasis or Auria, but it is obviously very useful to have this internal recording option should you prefer to work that way and then export the recorded results at a later stage.
Effectrix user interface is split into three sections. The upper strip provides transport controls (used only when the app is processing internal audio files; used with Audiobus or IAA to process ‘external’ audio, playback/processing by Effectrix is triggered by MIDI sync data from another app), tempo setting and output meters.
There is also a Mix control (sets the wet/dry balance), an FX bypass button, a Swing slider (so you can add a little groove to the timing of the step sequencer) and options to load both an internal audio file (beneath the transport controls) or an Effectrix sequencer preset (positioned on the left, immediately beneath the app’s title/logo). These presets contain up to 12 step sequencer patterns with, as described more fully below, each pattern essentially switching an effect on or off for each step of the sequence. These two preset systems (audio file and sequencer patterns) are independent of each other.
Other options here include the Export function (the icon with the disc on it) and the Setting menu. The latter allows you to access settings for audio handling (inputs, outputs, buffer size, etc.), MIDI configuration and the internal recording features.
Somewhere over the rainbow
The central strip of the display contains the step sequencer itself. The layout of this is similar to other step/pattern-based sequencers but, instead of having notes or different drums on the vertical axis, you have the rather rainbow-like list of the 14 effects. The order of this list is fixed and dictates the sequence of the signal chain for processing if you have more than one effect active at the same time. Processing goes from top to bottom so, for example, the X-Loop effect is applied prior to the Loop effect which, in turn, is applied prior to the Scratch Loop effect and so on.
It might be nice to be able to vary the processing order but I can understand why Sugar Bytes have adopted this approach. If you were sonically adventurous enough to apply all 14 effects at the same time (eekkk!) then this is an awful lot of processing to be dealt with by Effectrix. A fixed processing sequence does, I suspect, allow for some slightly more efficient coding.
Activating a particular effect for a particular step (or series of steps) within the sequence just requires you to ‘draw’ a suitable strip by tapping and dragging with your finger. You can also edit existing strips by moving them or changing their length. Equally, a double tap will delete a strip. The very colourful format is obviously a benefit here as it allows you to easily see which effects are active at any one time within the sequence.
You can adjust the number of steps within a pattern up to a maximum of 32. The steps are numbered along the top of the step sequencer section and you can drag the small arrowhead icons that sit at each end of this to define which range of steps are active. This setting operates at the ‘preset level’; whatever you set here will apply to all the patterns (up to a maximum of 12) that you might define within your overall preset.
While Effectrix runs at its own internal tempo setting or, if being controlled by MIDI sync from another app, at the tempo of the host, the ‘tempo’ strip (located directly above the effects list) defines the step resolution of the sequencer. The values here represent how many steps of the sequencer are applied to each bar. So, for example, it Effectrix is playing back a at the ‘32’ setting, those 32 steps will be played at a 1/32 resolution. If your audio loop is 2 bars in length, then the sequencer pattern would loop twice for each cycle of your two-bar audio loop. In contrast, if you are using the ‘8’ setting with that two bar loop, then the first 16 steps of the sequence would last for the full two bars of the loop. In this case, the remaining 16 steps in the sequence would be ignored. In written form, this perhaps sounds a little complicated but, in practice, it is pretty straightforward and does provide plenty of flexibility.
Being a mod
At the base of the sequencer section is the ‘modulation sequencer’. This strips allows you to select up to two parameters for each effect and to modulate (change) that parameter for each step of the sequence. The display only shows one set of these modulation data at any one time. The data shown is always for the currently selected effect (just tap on a effect name to select it) and you can toggle between the two ‘lanes’ for that effect using the ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons on the left-hand end of the strip. Tapping the ‘Assign’ field shows a drop-down menu where you can select the specific parameter to be controlled.
This whole modulation system is very neatly implemented and there are a number of additional features that just make it even better. For example, the Smooth setting allows you to smooth the step-based modulation if you wish. Equally, as any of the effect parameters can be linked to an external MIDI hardware control (for example, on your external MIDI master keyboard or something like Arturia’s upcoming BeatStep controller) using the app’s MIDI Learn feature (just double tap on a effect control knob to access this feature), the modulation sequencer also includes a record function so you can create your parameter automation by twiddling with your hardware rather than tapping on the modulation strip itself if you prefer.
On the rack
The bottom-most strip of the main display is dived into two parts. To the left/center we get the controls displayed for the currently selected effect. Again, the use of colour is consistent with the colours used in the effects list and the step sequencer so it is generally easy to see which effect you are dealing with.
To the right is a 12 note virtual MIDI keyboard. This is used to select one of the possible 12 different step sequencer patterns within your current preset; simply tap on a key and that pattern instantly replaces the current one. In use, this process is entirely seamless so, it you want to switch pattern in the middle of a sequence, Effectrix lets you do that without missing a beat. The MIDI trigger switch allows you to use an external MIDI keyboard to trigger pattern changes if you wish, while the other two icons allow you to copy and paste an existing pattern into a different pattern slot.
It’s also worth noting that when switching between patterns it is only the step sequence and modulation sequence data that change. Any parameters for individual effects are not ‘stored’ as part of a preset other than the two parameters that you have assigned to the modulation lanes. Equally, the two parameters selected for modulation are ‘global’ to the preset and apply to all 12 patterns within that preset; change a parameter assignment for one pattern and you change it for all of them. In addition, the modulation data that was already in the lane will also apply to the newly selected parameter.
As shown by the various screenshots scattered through this review, the control sets offered by each effect are actually pretty good and provide plenty of options. So, for example, the reverb offers room, decay, width, hipass and dry level controls plus attack, mix and release (these last three are common to all the effects). Some of these controls are more obvious that others and this, to a large extent, depends upon the effect itself. X-loop – which the PDF manual describes as ‘changing loop size and pitch’ offers size, env, size-chng and p-chng controls. No, I didn’t have a clue what these controls did either until I read the manual (and in some cases, I still wasn’t that much wiser) and then experimented a little. The control sets for the more convention effects will generally involve a little less head scratching.
That said, the DJ-style, audio mangling effects offered by Effectrix – rather like those available in Turnado – are probably what is going to attract most users to the app. The fact that the control sets are, therefore, equally unconventional, it actually a good thing.
Before I move on to the effects themselves and the performance of Effectrix, a couple of other small features are worth mentioning. First, the effects also have a preset system and, for each effect, there is a decent range of presets supplied to get you started. These are well worth exploring and can be accessed beneath the attack/mix/release controls in each effect.
In addition, Effectrix includes two ‘dice’ icons. One is located in the top-most strip and will generate a random step sequencer and modulation lane pattern whenever you tap it. The second one is in the modulation lane itself and just generates random modulation data. If you are stuck for ideas, both of these dice are worth rolling and you just keep going until you get lucky and something you like pops up. Very neat as a source of audio mangling inspiration.
Internal and external
In use, you can operate all these options in one of two modes depending upon the source of the audio you wish to process. In ‘internal’ mode, the processing is applied to an audio file loaded directly into Effectrix itself and you use the transport controls to trigger playback. Essentially, this is a ‘stand alone’ operation of the app, although it does have a background audio option (in the Settings menu) so you could just leave it running and switch to another app to play along if you wished.
Bar one issue, I had absolutely no problems using Effectrix in this mode and, once I’d become familiar with the basic operation of the controls and the layout of the interface, I have to say that this was a whole lot of fun. Even if you just load a simple drum loop, it is possible to process it is all sorts of strange and interesting ways. You can be subtle and just blend in the wet/dry balance so the processing adds a bit of colour or, if you want, to can make your original audio unrecognisable and create something new from something old.
The one issue I encountered – and this is a problem that Sugar Bytes are already aware of and dealing with – is compatibility issues with the Audiocopy app as a means of importing audio into Effectrix. My own personal workflow tends to use Audiobus/IAA so I didn’t find this a particular problem but your own mileage may vary. You can, of course, also get audio into the app via iTunes filesharing so it is easily worked around until an update fix appears. In addition, Sugar Bytes suggest that if you delete the Audiocopy app from your iPad, the Audiopaste/Audiocopy function within Effectrix will work without any problems.
The other mode of operation involves Effectrix processing ‘external’ audio from another app and this means using either Audiobus or IAA as a means of getting Effectrix into the audio signal chain. In testing via Audiobus, I initially couldn’t seem to get Effectrix to do anything. For example, sitting a suitable iOS synths app in the Audiobus Input slot, Effectrix in the Effects slot and Cubasis in the Output slot, I could play my synth and Effectrix just sat there with the sequencer not running.
However, after a little head scratching – and another dip into the PDF manual – I realised that in this ‘external’ mode, Effectrix needs to receive MIDI clock sync from an external app in order to trigger the step sequencer to start or stop. Once I’d activated MIDI clock from Cubasis – and worked out how to route that into Effectrix – everything kicked into life. And once kicked, it worked very well. Again, there was a lot of fun to be had here, whether it was processing some nice synth arpeggio patterns or a live guitar supplied from a guitar amp sim such as BIAS or Mobile POD. The latter was particularly interesting and can turn even the most routine of sustained power chords into a weird and wonderful rhythmic ‘sequenced’ part. I can see myself coming back to this for some serious experimentation :-)
My experience with using Effectrix in Cubasis via IAA was a little more mixed and, half way through writing this review, I received an email from Sugar Bytes indicated that they were aware of some IAA issues and were addressing them in consultation with Steinberg. In one sense I was relieved to get this email – it is, frankly, much better for a developer to acknowledge these sorts of issues than to either go into denial or simply to say nothing – and it is clear that a fix is on the way. That said, I did manage to get Effectrix to work as an insert effect upon an audio track – and, when it did behave, which was quite a good proportion of the time, it was brilliant – it’s just that the behaviour was a little inconsistent.
Sugar Bytes have also recommended that users trying the Effectrix/Auria combination via IAA should ensure that they start Effectrix first before launching Auria. This apparently forces a much lower latency between the two apps but the company are open enough to admit that, at present, operation with Auria under IAA is still not perfect. IAA is still, of course, relatively new technology and what Effectrix is trying to do – both processes audio from a host app and follow that host app’s MIDI clock – is pretty cutting edge in iOS terms. Let’s hope that between them, the various developers can quickly uncover where the source (or sources) of the IAA problems might lie.
So, to summarise, used in ‘internal’ mode, Effectrix is a smooth experience bar the issue over Audiocopy but for which there are suitable workarounds. My experience under Audiobus was also fine once I had sorted out the need for MIDI sync to be sent to Effectrix and this would, currently, be my preferred mode of operation. Under IAA with Cubasis as a host, things are still a bit hit and miss and, while I could easily get work done, I’m not sure I’d really want to rely on this approach just yet. Sugar Bytes are obviously aware of the issue though and I’d expect solutions to appear sooner rather than later…. fingers crossed.
These technical issues aside, the actual processing options provided by Effectrix are absolutely brilliant. As mentioned a couple of times already, the app includes a PDF manual and, while it could perhaps be a little more informative about the basic structure of the app, the second half of this document does do a good job of describing each of the 14 effects. I’ve no intention of detailing each of these here but a few of the more off-the-wall processors are worth a few words.
If you want to get instantly mental with your audio then just start with the X-loop effect and set up the modulation lanes to control the size change and pitch change parameters; it’s weird, disturbing but, with a little experimentation, capable of some breath-taking results. And when you can then follow this up with 13 other effects – well, the options are pretty much limitless – even if some of them get so bonkers that they are difficult to describe as musical.
The Loop effect is an equally wild ride if perhaps a little easier to tame with practice, while Scratch Loop offers a range of DJ-style vinyl scratching effects with control over the direction and amount of ‘spin’. This one is very cool and easy to get some classic scratching effects from. The Vinyl effect provides a further twist to this providing some classic ‘deck stop’ style effects.
The Stretch effect is also interesting as it provides a means of slowing down or speeding up the audio during playback; again, applied to a basic drum loop, you can create some cutting-edge rhythmic effects out of even the most simple starting point.
And while Effectrix includes a range of more conventional effects – all of which are very good at what they do – I think the overall combination means that this is an app that, like Turnado, is going to appeal to the more adventurous of audio manipulators. If you want more conventional processing options then look elsewhere; if you want to take your audio into new sonic territory, then Effectrix will be right up your street.
While I come from a very conventional ‘rawk’ background, having spent the last few years in the murky world of production music, I have, on occasions, turned my hand to a wide range of musical styles (yep, jack of all trades, master of none). In that context, despite a love of all things pentatonic, I can easily see myself using Effectrix on a regular basis… just as I also turn to Turnado when I want something as far from conventional as it is currently possible to go.
Yes, there are – at Sugar Bytes own admission (and it is to their credit that they have acknowledged this) – still some gremlins to be resolved. In my own testing, these were irritating but not show-stopping. How much they might get in your way will depend very much on your individual workflow. I’d love to see the IAA support resolved as that would be my preferred mode of operation. That said, like most iOS musicians, I’m pretty comfortable with Audiobus and, with MIDI clock sync in place, this was – for me at least – a pretty smooth experience.
But don’t miss the wood for the occasional tree – Effectrix is one heck of an app – hugely creative with an interface that is brilliantly conceived and, on the whole, a joy to use. I would fully expect Sugar Bytes to start resolving the initial technical issues in double quick time.
Given its unconventional nature, like Turnado, Effectrix will not be for everyone. But if you are an audio adventurer with a taste for turning even the most mundane of audio sources into something that has been to the future and back, then Effectrix will be right up your street.
On the desktop, Effectrix is selling for US$129 (around the UK£85 mark). In the iTunes App Store you can buy the same processing options for UK£12.99. If you can explain these kinds of iOS app pricing models in a way that (a) makes any sense and (b) doesn’t make app developers realise they need to raise their prices then…. well…. perhaps on the whole it’s just better to keep quiet. Effectrix is creative, powerful, fun and, for what it offers, ridiculously inexpensive. If your credit card is up to the task, for all audio adventurers, it’s time to hit the download button and feed your app habit again; highly addictive and highly recommended.