One of the real positives of the whole mobile music making revolution has been the way developers have exploited the touchscreen. This has involved virtual recreations of traditional instrument interfaces – piano keyboards and guitar strings, for example – but also providing us with totally new ways to trigger sounds or a music performance such as MIDI performance tools.
In the former group, we could put lots of apps including those synth/keyboard apps that present you with a touchscreen piano keyboard but allow you to customise the key/scale of the notes displayed (so there are fewer duff notes generated). Equally, we might include an app such as Guitarism (a strumable guitar) or something like Steel Guitar (a slide/pedal steel guitar that is, frankly, easier to play than the real thing but sounds very good indeed).
In the second group we have apps that make playing a virtual instrument just that bit more intuitive via the touchscreen or even make playing an instrument possible for those who don’t have traditional instrument skills. At one end of the spectrum, the virtual instruments within Garageband are examples here, as are the iFretless range or ThumbJam (although there are plenty of others), while at the other, we have a number of excellent MIDI performance apps such as Chordion, ChordPolyPad or Navichord.
One relatively new app that falls closer to the ‘recreation’ of the playing experience of a real instrument (rather than the total reinvention) is FingerFiddle from Matthias Demoucron. That’s not to say that FingerFiddle is an exact recreation of the experience of playing a standard violin or cello but Matthias has created a touchscreen interface that will feel conceptually familiar to those who have experience on the real thing…. while also being fairly accessible to those who have never picked up a real string instrument in their lives.
As the name suggests, FingerFiddle is a virtual string instrument. On first launch, the base app is a free 20MB download (although I suspect this might change after the initial launch period), requires iOS8.2 or later, will run on more recent iPad hardware (Air 1 and newer but including the Pro and the mini releases of the same or newer generations) and, as of the v.1.1.0 update that appeared a week or so ago, includes Audiobus and IAA support.
In that base app you get access to a full cello instrument. However, via IAPs, you can also add violin, viola and double bass in a couple of different forms. The app also provides you with an opportunity to try these various instruments before buying. Anyway, if you are quick off the mark, this is a user-friendly, ‘try-before-you-buy’, policy.
String to my bow
The main screen for FingerFiddle is split into three areas. Along the top is a representation of the four strings of the neck. Within the Settings menu option, you can tweak the layout here – change the size of the notes or spacing of the strings or select just to show the first few notes on each string, for example – so you ought to be able to set this area up for any size and shape of fingers.
As you might expect, this is where you finger the notes that you wish to play. This can be one note at a time or you can finger up to four notes (one on each string) just as you could on a real instrument. However, unlike the real thing (thankfully for us non-string players), once you have selected a note (or notes) you can take your fingers away; the note will continue to be held until you trigger another note somewhere else on the neck.
Also welcome is the fact that the finger positions for each note are shown. Unlike a guitar, the neck of a cello or violin is fretless; thankfully, FingerFiddle doesn’t emulate that particular characteristic…. although you can slide between notes for a glissando effect and you can vibrate your finger on the neck to obtain a vibrato (although, as described below, this does take some getting used to).
The ‘blank’ area that sits in the bottom/middle left/centre of the screen is where you ‘bow’ the notes you have fingered on the neck and, until you apply a bowing gesture, no sound is actually generated. Bowing requires a left/right motion with one finger. There are actually plenty of expressive options here. For example, the sound you generate depends upon the speed with which you swipe left/right and you can also change the timbre by using just the tip of your finger or applying a larger area of you finger’s tip (it’s the surface area of the touch that matters, not the pressure).
Equally, bowing at the top of this area simulates bowing close to the neck (a softer sound) while bowing at the bottom of the screen simulates bowing near the bridge (a brighter tone is generated). You can also use very short left/right ‘bowing’ action to create a tremolo-style effect.
The final area is the actual graphic of the string instrument on the right. A left/right swipe in this area will play a pizzicato (plucked string) sound. I’d have liked a slightly clearer demarcation between the bowing area and pizzicato area (I found the latter to be a bit small also) but this is something you soon get used to with a little practice.
Practice your scales
OK, now I’ll admit that my experience with a real cello or violin is actually pretty limited and, on the few occasions when I have had a go, it has been something of a racket. When my own music requires strings, therefore, I’m happy to turn to a sample-based solution.
While FingerFiddle is not (I think) build on an extensive sample library, as a virtual instrument solution for string sounds, they way you play it is most certainly closer to the experience of a real string instrument that using a piano-style keyboard. As such, I suspect it would encourage you to ‘play’ the instrument in a way that more closely resembles how a real violin or cello would be played.
I’ve embedded a video below that shows a demo of the instrument in use – and this also illustrates just how good it can sound with a little practice using the interface. In my own limited time with the app so far, I have to say that I didn’t get anywhere near to this level of performance. However, the results were encouraging and most certainly more musical than my efforts using the real thing :-)
I think the key point here is that, while this touchscreen interface is much easier than playing a real string instrument, there is still an initial learning curve. A bit of practice and familiarisation will be required so, if you do give the app a go, do bear that in mind.
There are also some playing techniques that seem a little harder to emulate than others. For example, long sustained notes were fairly easy to perform, whether single notes or two/three note chords. However, I found shorter, staccato, notes, more difficult to pull off. Equally, I found using vibrato on the neck, while also performing the bowing action, to be quite tricky. I’m sure this is something that you do get used to but if you have ever tried to do the party trick where you pat the top of your head with one hand while simultaneously stroking your tummy with a circle motion with the other hand, then you will get a sense of the challenge :-)
I also felt it was just a little bit too difficult to apply the vibrato to the notes on the neck…. but maybe that response is something that could be adjustable in a future release? Equally, perhaps the staccato articulation might be better triggered by a short tap in the playing area rather than a short bowing action? That might provide a basis for the app to trigger a somewhat different (more strident?) tone when that gesture is used?
OK, so there is a learning curve to be overcome although it is not in the same league as with a real instrument. However, even with a bit of practice, it is possible to see the potential of the interface and, thankfully, FingerFiddle also seems to have a decent sound engine behind it to then deliver some very pleasing string sounds as a result of all that finger-based note selection and bowing. Is it as good – or as expressive – as the real thing? Well, no, obviously not…. but it is certainly very useable.
The cello patch that is unlocked within the base app gives a good steer as to what’s possible and I have to say it sounds pretty good. I gave all the other instruments a go via the ‘trial’ option and these all seemed to be of a similar standard. On the whole, I like the basic sounds that FingerFiddle offers.
I’ve got better sounding virtual string instruments on my desktop and, for pure sonics, iSymphonic Orchestra is, for a full-on string section sound, still the best that iOS currently has to offer. However, there is something rather pleasing about the tactile nature of FingerFiddle’s performance interface that gives the performance a sense of being ‘real’ and true to the nature of the instrument….. and I quite like that.
If you just want a wash of strings to sit as a pad for your next ambient composition, or a full string section for a dramatic film score role, then there are perhaps better bets than FingerFiddle to get the job done quickly and efficiently. However, if you want a sense of (sort of) playing a real string instrument recreated as a virtual touchscreen instrument, then FingerFiddle is well worth giving a shot.
There are perhaps still some refinements that could be made but, given that this is still a relatively new app – and that you can currently try it for free – I think Matthias deserves a lot of credit for what he has done so far. This is yet another interesting example of just what the touchscreen can do in the world of virtual instruments. Check out the video demo below – played by someone who actually knows what they are doing with the app – and then hit the download button to give it a shot for yourself…. FingerFiddle is free to try, no strings attached :-)