I’ve reviewed a number of iOS music apps that fall into the audio effects category here on the Music App Blog and, a few weeks ago, did a couple of ‘roundup’ articles looking at both ‘conventional’ and ‘creative’ effects types. While these are pretty arbitrary categories, we are beginning to get pretty well served in both of these groups so, whether you want standard processing options such as compression or EQ, or you need to get more left-field and mangle your audio in a range of directions then, as the saying goes, ‘there is an app for that…’
We now have a further choice within the audio effect category; Flux:FX. Developed by a team that go under the moniker of Noiise, Flux:FX is a multi-effects unit. It probably falls more naturally into the ‘creative’ category but, as we will see later, given that it offers some more conventional effects types as part of the package, you could easily put it to good use in that context if you wished.
The development team includes guitarist Adrian Belew, the ElephantCandy team (the developers behind apps such as LiveFX and Level.24) and mobile specialists Mobgen. As described in the excellent manual embedded within the app, Flux:FX was very much a collaborative effort and grew out of discussions about how the touchscreen can allow creative control of audio effects.
Given that starting point, the expectation might be that the design of Flux:FX should capitalise on touch control. So, does it…? And, user interface aside, does it sound good? Let’s find out…
The state of flux
Flux:FX is an audio processing app and, as such, you need to feed it with an audio input, allow it to do its processing, and then output the processed audio. Audio input can be achieved by all the usual routes as the app supports your iPad’s audio input, audio received via a supported audio interface (and if it works with your iPad, then Flux:FX ought to be work fine with it) or audio from another app via either Audiobus (the spec includes State Saving support) or IAA. In terms of output, the app is equally flexible, although you are advised be careful that your input/output combination doesn’t allow a feedback loop to be created.
In terms of basic operation, you can select up to five individual effects processors from the choice of around 30 (and with more to be added in future updates apparently). The five effects can be placed in any order within an effects chain and, if required, you can select multiple instances of the same effect should you so wish.
The effects themselves are organised into a number of groups – loopers, dynamics, distortions, EQs/filters, modulations, delays (including reverb) – making it easy to find what you might want. Each effect type has a dedicated and (as we will see later) easy to adjust, set of controls. For each of the five effects slots, this includes an individual X-Y control pad and you can easily assign any of the effect’s controls to this via the interface. You then get very easy real-time control of the effects.
The app includes a comprehensive preset system that operates at a number of levels (for example, there are presets for the entire configuration of the app but also for the individual effects) and, similar in principle (although very different in execution) to Sugar Bytes Effectrix, there is also a ‘sequence’ mode, where you can change the parameters of each of your five effects on a step-pattern basis. Equally, the app includes support for external MIDI control of many of its features. This is also something that there are plans to develop further apparently, but what’s here already looks like it covers the most obvious ground.
At a more practical level, Flux:FX is iPad-only, requires iOS7.0 or later, is a 146MB download and is currently priced at UK£14.99. While audio effects processing can (depending upon the type and efficiency of the processing) place quite a load on a computer system, thankfully, Flux:FX does include a CPU meter so you get a clear indication of how hard the app is working your system. The manual indicates that the app will work on older hardware but also suggests an iPad 4 or newer is recommended.
I don’t know about you but, to my eyes, the visual design of Flux:FX just screams ‘slick’. By default, a slowly evolving background image sits behind the various controls and lends the whole experience a very high-tech feel. It is, of course, totally without purpose and, if you wish, you can turn off the animation via the Video Settings section of the main menu (tap the button located top-right to access this) and this will help save a few CPU cycles. The image is rather attractive but it might also have been nice to have the option for a plain black or grey background (no image at all) for those that find it a bit distracting.
Aside from a top strip of options that stay in place all the time, the action is actually split between three different screens – Performance, Edit and Sequencer – and you switch between these three modes via that top strip. In each case, however, there is plenty going on in the display. Noiise have, I think, struck a pretty good balance between making all the functions and features accessible and having to tab between multiple screens to get at everything. Overall, I think the graphical design is modern and very effective.
The main menu also includes access to the manual, the app’s audio settings and the MIDI settings. Amongst the audio settings is the option to toggle on/off a master limiter effect that is applied to the app’s final output. This is on by default and is probably best left that way as it reduces the possibility that any extreme audio processing you might apply with create any nasty overloading of the signal being passed to either your speakers or another app.
Performance view is sort of the ‘top-level’ view of Flux:FX. Along the top of the screen is a scrollable list of all the available individual effects plus the five slots into which you can drag and drop your choice of individual effects. Once placed, you can drag and move any of the five slots to change the effects processing order. If you swipe up on one of the effects slots, the current effect is removed, while if you drag a new effect from the selection list into an already-filled slot, the effect is replaced. Drag down on one of the filled effects slots and you open the Edit view for that effect; more on this in a minute.
Aside from a strip at the base that contains element of the sequencing options, the bulk of the rest of the performance view is split into three areas. This is dominated by a large ‘master’ X-Y pad that can be used to control parameters in all five effects slots simultaneously. As we will see below, there are individual X-Y pads for each effect available in Edit view.
To the left of the large X-Y pad are vertical sliders/level meters for input, output and wet/dry effects mix levels. There is also a large tempo display; tap on this and you can drag to adjust the tempo. You can also use it to ‘tap’ the tempo in if you wish. Tempo can, of course, also be controlled from an external app via MIDI Clock sync and you can configure this within the MIDI settings section of the main menu.
This section also contains the Step Smoothing setting. This is described more fully below as it applies when using the sequencer options within the app.
To the right of the large X-Y pad is the Performance preset system. A Performance preset contains all the settings for the app (it’s the top-level of the preset options) and these are organised into banks of six individual presets, buttons for which fill the bulk of this panel. Tap on one of the six preset buttons within the current bank and the settings it contains will be loaded into Flux:FX.
Swiping left/right at the top of this panel allows you to move between the various banks. There are quite a number supplied with the app for you to explore and they are suitably labelled so you know what kinds of end results each bank (and each preset) might be intended for.
If you tap on the small ‘+’ icon that appears top-right of the preset panel, then the full preset system opens. Here you can quickly browse all the banks, select a bank or select an individual preset to load. You can also create new banks. The small ‘-‘ icon (again located top-right) closes the main Performance preset panel and returns you to the standard Performance view.
The five effects can all be toggled between a number of different modes of operation through a combination of tapping on the main slot or the circular icon at the right end of each slot. Each slot can be switch off (bypassed), set on all the time but without X-Y pad control or set to only be active when a touch is made on the X-Y controller. These various options do take a bit of time to get your head around but, once you have done so, it provides a very flexible set of control choices.
One other feature worth noting here is that tapping on the small ‘+’ icon that is located in the performance View button within the top-strip of controls, closes the selection list of effects options and expands the X-Y pad to fill more of the screen. If you are ‘performing’ with the app – live or in the studio – then this extra screen real estate may well be useful, especially if your fingers are of the jumbo variety.
Become an editor
Tapping the Edit view button opens the Edit view window. Here, you get to see a selection of controls for each of the five effects slots plus a small X-Y pad. This is all very neatly laid out and the controls and X-Y pad can be used in real-time to adjust the effects if you wish.
Each of the five sections in this display features a small ‘+’ icon located top-right; tap this and the Edit view changes to focus in on that specific effect (although the five X-Y pads are still displayed towards the base of the screen). This generally gives you access to some additional controls for each effect and the screen also includes a large ‘Fine Tune’ knob so you can make more precise changes to parameters should you wish.
Easily missed is that the majority of the parameters allow you to set not only the current value but, by tapping and dragging at the ends of the range of each slider, you can adjust the minimum and maximum values also. If you then assign a control to the X-Y pad, for instance, this can allow you to constrain the range of values over which that particular parameter can be varied. This is a nice touch and makes the effects very controllable.
Sequence in flux
The Performance view and Edit view both contain a strip along there base that, by default, shows 16 ‘steps’ into which you can save settings for the X-Y pad nodes for each of the five effects. If you then hit the Play Sequencer button, in sync with Flux:FX’s tempo (or in sync with a host via MIDI Clock), the app will step through these changes automatically (that is, the effects settings are automated in a step-based pattern).
Edit view is perhaps the best place to setup any quick values for each step as you can see all five of the mini X-Y pads at the same time. If you toggle the REC button on, then tap on a particular step, you can simply move the X-Y controller nodes to the required position. Repeat this for different steps as required and then toggle Rec off. When you then trigger Play Sequencer, these new step settings will spring into life.
Back in the Performance view, you might recall I mentioned the Step Smoothing control (just above the tempo section). The setting here dictates how the various X-Y settings transition between steps; higher values mean smoother movement of the nodes between each step while lower values mean the changes are more abrupt. This is easy to see in the large X-Y panel as the node movements are shown in the background while the sequencer is running.
However, if you want further control – and the option to use more steps (up to 64) then you need to engage Sequencer view. Here you get the five mini X-Y pads again, all the various controls just mentioned but also the ability to change the sequence length. This looks pretty busy but is actually very easy to use. When you use the Clear Sequence option and then start to create new steps, there is a certain amount of assistance offered whereby changes made to one step and automatically applied to the rest of the steps in the sequence unless you have also edited a step further down the sequence. In this case, the changes are only applied up until the next step that you have already edited by hand; very neat.
The other element of Sequencer view is the sequencer preset system. This is a further level to the app’s overall preset features. While sequencer presets are saved within the overall performance-level presets, you can also save the sequences as separate presets should you so wish. Again, the app is supplied with an extensive set of sequencer presets to explore and, if you tap on the ‘=’ icon in the sequencer presets section, the panel will expand to show you the full preset options.
The effect of flux
So far then we have a very slick looking user interface with a modern design, some very promising looking control options for hands-on (er… fingers on) control of the various effects, a deep and very flexible step sequencing system for automating the effects and multiple-levels of presets operating at different levels within the app. It is, without doubt, a pretty impressive feature set.
All of which would count for very little if the effects themselves – and the various ways they can be combined – didn’t cut the sonic mustard. So, what do the effects themselves have to offer?
As indicated earlier, the individual effects are organised into a number of groups. The Dynamics group includes a nice compressor and a ‘pump’ effect. The latter is great when applied to drums and does exactly what its name suggests; if you like your kit to have an obvious pumping effect, this is an instant way to achieve that.
The Modulations group includes some fairly standard chorus, flange and phase options but there is also the more unusual ‘resonant drone’, ‘pitch delay’ and ‘ring modulate’; if you want something a little more out there, then this group can oblige. The auto pan effect is also very well implemented and can create some great stereo movement in whatever audio it processes.
Indeed, what’s cool – and well judged – about all the effects groups is that they generally offer both subtle (that could be used almost in a conventional processing context) and more extreme. Overdrive can do a nice touch of ‘warm’ but decimate… well, you can get exactly what you might expect.
Wherever you look though, there are some interesting options. And, like Effectrix or Turnado, you can use just a single effect – and things can be kept fairly conventional if desired – or you can start to chain things together, at which point you can easily dial up the ‘mangle’ dial if that’s what cranks your audio handle.
The various ‘looper’ effects are all very useable and I particularly liked the ‘stutter loop’ and ‘loop slice’ options. These are all worth experimenting with though and there are some great DJ-style options waiting to be explored here. The ‘delay’ section also has some gems and I really liked the sound of the ‘tape echo’ effect with its combination of ‘feedback’ and (!) ‘feedforward’ controls.
In terms of the individual effects themselves, the bottom line here is that they are all very good indeed and, if you can’t get creative by chaining two (or more) of these together, they the problem is not likely to be with Flux:FX; think ‘operator error’ instead :-)
Flux in action
As mentioned earlier, Flux:FX has both Audiobus and IAA support, it ought to be pretty easy to work with the app in whatever your usual iOS music-making workflow happens to be. In terms of basic operation within the Audiobus Effect slot (where I suspect Flux:FX would most commonly be placed), I had no problems at all aside from on a single occasion when switching to Flux:FX booted me back to my Home screen. Other than that, things seemed very solid and reliable.
Used as an IAA effect within Cubasis, the performance also seemed very solid. Flux:FX shows a rather neat Cubasis transport panel if you tap on the Inter-App Audio button (located top-right) so you can control playback of Cubasis without leaving Flux:FX itself. Equally, as Flux:FX obviously has some support for MIDI Clock sync (you can enable this under the MIDI settings section of the main menu), the tempo will lock to that of your host. Any tempo-based effects and the operation of the sequencer will then sync to the host project.
It wasn’t all plain sailing with MIDI Clock though. If I left my iPad long enough for things to go to sleep, when nudged back into life, the sync didn’t always re-establish itself. Equally, for me at least, I couldn’t get the MIDI Clock sync to work via the Audiobus route. I’m not sure if that is just something I was missing or whether this is one of the MIDI features that the documentation mentions as ‘still in development’.
The little CPU usage chart located top-left(ish) is also very useful when using the app within a busy project. It gives you a pretty good idea of when Flux:FX itself is pushing your iPad’s resources close to the edge. It’s up to you to then decide how to rein things in but at least you are getting a sensible indication of what’s going on.
Despite these comments, I have to say that, on the whole, the user experience with Flux:FX is a pretty good one. While I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a candidate for ‘my first effects app’ – not because it is particularly difficult to master but simply because there it is pretty deep – as a creative audio effects app for those looking beyond the basics, this is a class act.
My personal favourite app in this class is Turnado (although there are a number of other, very good, options); the approach adopted by Flux:FX is different from Turnado and, as a result, it is capable of different types of ‘creative’ (through to different types of ‘bonkers’) when it comes to audio processing, but I’d most certainly place it in the same league as Sugar Bytes offering. Flux:FX is seriously good at what it does, offers almost unlimited creative processing combinations and has a great control system.
Flux:FX is a fabulous addition to our iOS music app world. The interface is slick, modern and, with just a little bit of time to learn your way around, actually pretty easy to use considering just how many features are on offer. For a first release, the app was also a pretty smooth experience, with only the most minor of wrinkles to be negotiated on my own test system.
Oh, and it also sounds brilliant. The individual effects are very good, offer plenty of user options and, used by those with a more temperate attitude, can easily do ‘subtle’ or ‘conventional’ if required. That would, however, be like owning a Ferarri and only using it to do the school run. This is an app that is just crying out to be pushed a bit harder than that.
You could buy Flux:FX just to do the occasional bit of ear-candy. It would do that job with ease and I’d have no problem recommending the app to any iOS musician. However, for electronic musicians who have a real experimental streak, like Turnado or Effectrix, Flux:FX is going to be a highly desirable addition to their app collections. ‘Must have…?’… well, perhaps not, but ‘really want!’… most definitely.
Noiise set out to produce a creative multi-effects app that is flexible, powerful and easy to get creative with in a performance context. I think they have succeeded on all fronts. At UK£14.99, Flux:FX is most certainly worth the admission fee and comes highly recommended to any iOS musician with a fondness for creative audio processing.