Virtual drum machines come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and, depending upon quite how you choose to interpret the ‘drum machine’ label, you might go from something more towards the virtual drummer end of the spectrum (the excellent DrumPerfect, for example) through to the more modest of the sample-based, pattern-based beat boxes (the budget priced, but still very useable Beat-Machine, for example).
Launched just before the Christmas break, however, was Elastic Drums, from the same development team – Oliver Greschke and Mouse On Mars – that bought us the rather weird (and occasionally wonderful) WretchUp effects processor app. Elastic Drums is, in basic format, perhaps closer to the pattern-based beat box than the virtual drummer but, unlike most of the beat-box/virtual drum machine apps available on the apps store, the sound source is not sample-based. Instead, Elastic Drums gives you up to six channels of synthesised drum sounds.
Designed initially with the iPhone in mind (although it scales up nicely to a full size iPad screen and native iPad support with a landscape mode is, apparently, on the way), the app is a compact 10MB download and is priced at UK£5.49. Full Audiobus and IAA support are also on the way.
So, if you are looking for a beat-box/drum machine – but with a bit of a sonic twist – is Elastic Drums an app worth a look?
At present, the main user interface of Elastic Drums is arranged to work in (and locked into) portrait mode. Both top and bottom of this screen provide access to key controls, ranging from the transport to trigger playback through to the compact mixing and file management options. The contents of the remainder of the display will adjust to reflect which of the various options/functions you have chosen to work with.
Along the top edge you can trigger playback either of a single pattern or of the whole ‘song’ (essentially a series of up to 16 patterns chained together) depending upon the status of the ‘diamond’ icon button. The ‘O’ icon button opens an Options menu containing various default behaviour settings and some record/export options. Here you can record your ‘song’, play back that audio recording and then use email, SoundCloud, or AudioShare to export the recording.
The ‘tools’ icon opens a further set of options and the choices here depend upon which of the major screen modes you are in. For example, in the Instrument screen (instr), you get options related to randomising various settings as a means of kicking off an idea. In the centre of the upper control strip you can see a small grid graphic showing an overview of the current pattern. If you swipe left/right on this, then you can step through any patterns within the current project. The pattern displayed here then becomes available for editing and, in single pattern playback mode (rather than song mode), its playback will be looped.
Along the base of the screen, the five buttons give you access to the Instrument, Pattern, FX, Mix and File screens respectively. If you tap on one of these buttons, the contents of the main screen will change and the icon itself is replaced by a text label for the current screen.
The Instrument (instr) screen is where you (a) choose each of the six synth sounds you require and where you create the patterns. The Pattern (patt) screen is where you arrange any patterns you have created into a song order. You can insert new blank patterns here, copy, delete or switch to ‘song’ mode for playback.
The FX page allows you to identify up to four FX options and also includes an X-Y controller pad. You can use this to adjust the amount of each effect that is applied. Movements on the X-Y pad can be recorded and automated within a pattern so you can create some cool effects and adjustments to your sounds.
The Mix screen provides basic mixing options with volume, pan, mute and solo controls for each of the six sound sources. This screen also contains master volume, tempo and a tempo multiplier as well as a stereo pair of virtual level meters.
The File screen allows you to save/load projects, delete them or email them to other users. However, this screen also contains a ‘master FX’ function with a further X-Y pad and that has some nice creative options including swing, freeze, stop, delay, compression and param (an EQ-based filter I think). The compressor aside (which has its own set of controls if you tap the button), these master effects are only active while to are touching the X-Y pad. There are some very cool audio mangling options you can therefore create for a little extra ear candy by playing with these features.
In order to build your patterns, you are going to spend the majority of your time in the Instrument screen. While the interface doesn’t look too intimidating, there is actually quite a lot going on here. On the right edge are buttons to tab between the six possible sounds. Tapping on one of these selects that sound slot and the rest of the controls in the screen then apply to that sound only.
This includes the sixteen steps in the pattern grid so, if you have select sound slot 1 (and, let’s say, that happens to have a kick sound assigned to it), the 4 x 4 grid provides you with 16 steps to program your kick part for the current pattern. However, you don’t have to use 16 steps and you can set the step length using the ‘len’ knob within the small set of controls in the lower portion of the display.
Rather wonderfully, the ‘len’ setting applies on a per-sound basis so, if you want you kick drum to cycle through 16 steps but your snare or clap to cycle through just 15 steps, this is perfectly possible. You can, therefore, create individual patterns that play differently on each cycle through; you might not always choose to this for your bog-standard dance/electronic drum beats, but it’s a great option to have if you want some more experimental, evolving rhythms.
Creating a pattern is simply a matter of tapping on a step within the grid to trigger a hit at that particular step point. You get to see an overview of your whole pattern via the top-most control strip but, if you want to move from programming your kick to programming your snare, you do have to switch to the appropriate sound slot using the 1-6 buttons on the right edge.
You can also include automation in your patterns. For example, if you tap the ‘velocity’ button, and then tap the ‘volume’ button, when you tap on the grid to create a hit, you can also drag up/down to adjust the volume of the hit. This makes it very easy to add dynamics to your patterns.
There are plenty of other automation possibilities though… you don’t have to use volume in this way; simply pick a different parameter (pan or fx levels) and these can then be automated in the same way (although I think you can only automate one parameter per sound slot in this fashion).
Equally, if you tap the ‘autom’ button, you can then tap on any of the controls and automate them for that pattern in real time as the pattern plays back. Tap ‘autom’ again and that automation data is stored with the pattern and played back every time the pattern is played.
The sound of drums
Tap on the little downward arrow underneath the ‘synth’ label and you can pick a preset sound for the current sound slot. These are organised into a number of categories; kick, hihat, snare, tom, clap, for example… but there are also some less obviously percussive sounds in the fm, fm4op, wobble and grain groups. If you want to add, for example, a bass line type sound to your patterns, then Elastic Drums will allow you to do this.
Each sound group provides you with between 7-12 presets but you can, of course, also create your own and add these to the presets. This is where the synth-engine basis of the sounds really comes into its own. Back on the main ‘instr’ page, simply tap on the ‘up arrow’ icon (to the right of the ‘len’ knob) and the control set then expands to show you the synth parameters for the sound in the current sound slot.
There is all sorts of creative fun to be had here and, as you can choose to automate the pitch knob as part of your pattern, if you want to create some bass line style elements, it can be done. Note that depending upon the synth group you choose from the list above, then the bottom-most group of eight controls will be group dependent; what’s available for a snare is different from a kick and different again from a hihat or wobble. In effect, you get a somewhat different synth engine for each sound group.
There are some really interesting synth (as opposed to drum) sounds you can create here – blips, bleeps, basses and other cool-sounding synth sound effects, all of which can add some sonic colour to your patterns. However, it is the drum sounds that are obviously going to be key (this is a drum machine after all) and, if you are into electronica or urban music styles, then the supplied presets will give you some great starting points to work with.
You can create some nice punchy kicks and snares with plenty of snap, crackle and pop, while the hihats can be tinny or splashy. I particularly liked what was possible with the snare engine. This seems pretty flexible and there really is a wide range of sounds that can be generated with a little experimentation.
I was perhaps less excited by the engine for the kick sounds but the fm engine is obviously also designed with kick sounds in mind. Between the two different engines you actually get plenty of scope and, if you combine them in your patterns, then you can create some pretty huge kick sounds.
Tapping the ‘patt’ button opens the Pattern screen and it’s here you can move beyond working with a single pattern and set up a sequence of up to 16 patterns to create a ‘song’ structure. This screen is a doddle to use. You can create more empty patterns using the ‘+’ button (or delete patterns using the ‘-‘ button). Equally, it is very easy to copy patterns using (surprise!) the copy button.
The only obvious limitation is that your song can only consist of a chain of 16 patterns. While this may be plenty for lots of applications, I could imagine occasions where some additional flexibility would be welcome.
Hitting the ‘song’ button flips the app into song playback mode (as does the ‘diamond’ button in the top row of options, so you don’t have to come to the song screen to engage this mode) and, if you trigger playback in this mode, the patterns will just play in sequence. As a means of ‘song’ construction for your beats, this is about as simple as it gets.
Beat it out of me
Aa mentioned earlier, the large ‘O’ icon button within the top strip opens what is essentially a record/export popup. ‘Manual Record’ allows you to trigger playback and will record whatever plays until you disable recording again. You can then choose ‘Play Record’ to listen back while the email, SoundCloud and Audioshare options allow you to get that recording out into the wider world. This is all pretty straightforward.
On first launch, Elastic Drums didn’t have support for Audiobus or IAA. However, a very quick update appeared and this provides basic Audiobus support. You can, therefore, place Elastic Drums into the Audiobus Input slot and feed the output into another iOS app such as your DAW of choice. This works well enough but, at present, you do have to manually sync the app with whatever else is going on in your workflow (both in terms of tempo and start/stop).
If you just want to bring a few patterns from Elastic Drums into a DAW then this is not such a big deal but, obviously, full Audiobus, IAA and MIDI Clock sync would be welcome. These are, I believe, all features that are planned for the app so, fingers crossed, the development work progresses smoothly. The other obvious thing – again minor but would be welcome – is the ability to use Elastic Drums in landscape mode. I suspect this is the preferred orientation of most users (and most iOS music apps). This is, however, also already declared as being on the development ‘to do’ list.
See me whole
Elastic Drums is a neat little app. Where it really scores is in the flexible – but fairly easy to use – synth engines that underlie its sounds. The synthesis-based sound sources do set it apart from the majority (although not all; something like MoDrum is also worth a look) of pattern-based drum/groove machines that are based upon audio samples. And while the synth-based engines will perhaps chew through a few more CPU cycles than a sample-based drum machine app, you really can coax some great sounds from it.
Once you get into the workflow, creating patterns is pretty straightforward and chaining them into a sequence is also fairly painless. Audiobus/IAA/MIDI Cock sync aside, however, perhaps the other obvious ‘wish list’ item in terms of features would be for a ‘pattern overview’ mode where you could program all six lanes in the pattern in a single screen without having to switch between the different sound sources. I appreciate that this might need some though given that you can have different step lengths within a pattern for each of the six sound sources, but it would speed up the pattern creation process a bit.
The interface does take a little exploration to find your way around but the manual is worth a read (access this from the ‘tools’ option menu when you are in the File screen). This document is still a little brief but it does introduce you to the basics and is a big help for your first dip into what the app can do.
There are some quirky elements to Elastic Drums (well, it did come from the same development background as WretchUp so perhaps we should be expecting that?) and, as yet, still a few ‘in development’ tweaks that will help flesh out the feature set.
However, where the app does score is in the most important features – the sounds and the ability to create interesting sound variations within your patterns – and for these features alone, I think many electronic musicians will be interested in giving it a spin. For electronic music styles including house, dubstep and industrial styles, I could see the sounds really appealing. And if you are currently only using a sample-based drum machine, then this might be an interesting alternative.
While the screenshots I’ve shown here were all taken from an iPad, the iPhone-friendly interface will obviously also appeal to many. The ability to carry a drum synth/pattern programming tool around in your pocket so you can pull it out and work on some beats in any idle moment is going to be most welcome… and to repeat, the sounds are very good indeed without the actual synth programming involved being overly complicated.
Elastic Drums is an interesting – and cool to use – app. Yes, there are a few places where we are still waiting for a little additional polish to round off the overall experience but this is a great starting point and there is obvious potential. And, if you are prepared to take a punt as an early adopter, the price of UK£5.49 is unlikely to cause you too many sleepless nights. For those that like to get creative with their electronic beats, Elastic Drums is well worth exploring.