I posted a review of WretchUp from the Mouse On Mars some time ago on the blog. WretchUp is most certainly a bit of a wild ride as an audio processor but, if you like to mangle audio in all sorts of unpredictable ways, and particularly if you like to do that in a performance context, then this is an app that might well appeal.
The MoMinstruments team includes Oliver Greschke (of Elastic Drums fame) but, given WretchUp’s pedigree, I think we should expect anything under the MoM banner to be a little out of the mainstream…. and that’s exactly what we have got with their latest release; fluXpad. DEveloped by MoM in collaboration with Jan T.v. Falkenstein, and Oliver helping out with promotion, the app has now been on the App Store for a few weeks and also created a bit of a pre-release buzz…. but, to my bad, I had not yet got it to the top of my ‘to do’ review list. However, with a very polite nudge from Oliver earlier this week, it’s about time I put that right…. so here goes.
Category of one?
MoM describe fluXpad as a sample-based sequencer but where you ‘draw’ your pattern sequences for each sound. Multiple patterns (clips?) can be sequenced within a single project and these then triggered to create a full performance. As shown in the screenshots, given the ‘drawing’ element, the UI can look a little like a child’s sketchbook (!) but, if you check out the videos below (and once you have stopped laughing at the first one; it’s brilliant), you will soon realise the app is more than capable of creating some cool music.
In technical terms, the app requires iOS8.1 or later, is currently iPad-only, and is a 90MB download. Audiobus, IAA, MIDI sync and Ableton Link are included from the off. There are a number of demo projects to get you started and a collection of preset samples… but you can also record your own or import samples from elsewhere. There will also be options to buy sample IAPs. The app is launched at a fairly modest UK£5.99/US$7.99.
Before digging in, however, it is pretty easy to appreciate that the UI of fluXpad encourages a somewhat different approach to the creation of music. It is most certainly novel in its own right so, while it is part music sequencer and part sample player/sampler, there is certainly something about the app that suggests it qualifies for its own sub-category within the music app section of the App Store. That said, to me, the ‘drawing’ element of the music creation process has elements that are not a million miles away from apps such as Oscilab or Composer’s Sketchpad in the way you interact with the interface to create music.
Visit my pad
A sub-windows aside that handles the sample management and recording, pretty much all the main controls for fluXpad are housed on the single main screen. This is split into a number of areas. The top strip contains the key tools such as the transport controls, tempo setting, quantize options, undo/redo buttons and the help option (worth a look for an introduction to the key features of the app).
Beneath this are a row of seven pattern slots. Each project in fluXpad can contain up to seven patterns and this section of the display allows you to (a) select a pattern slot for editing (and that pattern then fills the main pattern editing area that spans the rest of the upper half of the screen) and (b) to switch between patterns of the fly during playback to create a performance or pattern sequence.
As mentioned, the next section of the display shows a zoomed in view of the currently selected pattern and it is also this area of the screen that you can use your finger to tap and swipe across to add elements to the pattern. Beneath this is a row of coloured controls. As well as R button (to engage recording) and eraser (so you can swipe in the pattern editing area to delete notes you have created), the rest of this shows seven identical sets of controls with mute, column and solo buttons for each of the seven sample-based sounds that can be used within a project. There is also a pencil icon for each of these seven sounds (instruments) and, if you tap one of these it tilts slightly to indicate that that is the currently selected sound for any editing operations you might perform in the pattern editor above.
The bottom third of the screen provides a further way of triggering the currently selected sound. This is essentially a live performance pad with pitch control of the current sound provided by the Y-axis (higher pitch at top, lower pitch at bottom) although, as far as I could see, no velocity control as yet (maybe that’s something that could be added as an option for the X-axis at some point?). Once you have a few patterns grooving along, you can use this bottom area for improvising/live playing but, equally, if you engage the R (record) button, any notes played on this bottom-most area get added to the graphical pattern area above.
It’s worth also noting that both areas used for note entry are polyphonic; you can use multiple fingers at the same time to (sort of!) generate chord-like elements. I say ‘sort of’ because you don’t really get a direct indication of pitch via the interface. If you are fond of thinking… ‘oh, I’ll start at a melody at C, move to F and then add a Gm7 chord….’ well, that’s not really what fluXpad is about. Yes, you an quantize your note entry to either a major or minor scale (and more options on that front would be good to see such as specific scale types or custom scales) but the whole ethos of the app is about a different type of creative process – swipe it and see what happens – rather than the more conventional piano-roll style musical grid to find in most DAW/sequencers.
The right-most of the seven instruments (shown in cyan blue) is somewhat different to the other six as it is dedicated to drum sounds and, when you select this, the bottom post panel actually divides into seven smaller areas each of which can trigger a different sample. These don’t, of course, have to be drum samples, but that’s obviously the design function of the track. For this track, therefore, if you want to create a rhythm part, the bottom-most panel is perhaps the more obvious route as it is rather like having a set of seven ‘drum’ pads.
If you tap and hold on one of the coloured instrument buttons, this will open the Sampler Settings panel. Here you can load the sample to be used with that sound (or a sample for each of the seven pads in the case of the cyan blue drum instrument). You can also define the portion of the sample to be used, toggle between looped and one-shop playback and adjust the volume, pan, attack and release settings.
The app is supplied with a sizeable collection of samples to get you started and, while there are a few more conventional sounds included, in the main, the sample collection is dominated by the weird and the wonderful. Don’t expect to find huge collections of pianos or strings or guitars, etc.; the experimental nature of the MoM team most definitely comes through on this front. There are going to be further samples made available from the app’s store which you can access from the Project menu.
You can, of course, import your own samples either via iTunes File Sharing (stick them in a folder before copying them across to your iPad and the folder will then appear in the Sample Settings browser section) or AudioShare. I tried the iTunes route and it worked a treat. It did make me appreciate, however, that the way fluxPad re-pitches samples when you then play them is very much ‘old-school’ sampler style. When the pitch is raised, the sample plays back more quickly (and vice versa); there isn’t (yet anyway) any sophisticated time-stretching going on here within the engine.
On the right of the sample Setting panel you can also record your own samples live using whatever microphone technology you happen to have hooked up to your iPad. This is dead easy to do and the file is automatically added to the browser. I suspect this the the route that MoM really intend you to take with fluXpad; record your own samples on the fly and then just start sequencing them together into the seven pattern slots… and see what experimental musical madness might happen :-)
For flux sake
And, features-wise, that perhaps about it…. Ableton Link is included and Audiobus and IAA (including IAA sync) are also supported. Having given fluxPad a bit of a run alongside a few other apps, that support all seems to work smoothly. For example, running fluxPad and Patterning side by side in AUM, they tempo-locked very well and stayed in sync as I switched patterns within fluxPad or started/stopped playback in fluxPad; is was a pretty fun combination :-)
Within Cubasis, loaded as an IAA instrument, fluxPad also played nicely and I had no problems routing audio from the app to be recorded into a Cubasis track. Indeed, this is the route I’d use if I wanted to ‘capture’ a bit of a fluXpad ‘jam’ as I switched between a project’s seven patterns or added a bit of improvisation using fluXpad’s ‘live performance’ panel.
Drawing in patterns is a very easy process. It will undoubtedly help if you have a bit of musical knowledge as you will have feel for what might work rhythmically or melodically but, as there is basic quantize available to sort out and sucky timing and also basic ‘pitch correction’ in that you can force your notes to a major or minor scale, this is actually an app that you could give to a non-musician and they could have a lot of fun with. Whether the results would be conventional music….? Well, perhaps not, but then maybe that’s the point.
In terms of the major/minor scale pitch correction, this is useful, although quite what it might mean given that any pitched samples you might be using – particularly those you have simply recorded on the fly directly into the app – might have pretty random tuning and/or root notes in the first place, can be difficult to predict. Given the experimental nature of the app, and the underlying ethos of the design, this is not really an issue, but it will be interesting to see if MoM do go one to refine the sample engine so that users can (a) define the original pitch of a sample (imported or recorded), (b) choose to have it playback with or without time-stretching and (c) offer more sophisticated key/scale based quantizing. That would certainly add a further – albeit more conventional – string to fluXpad’s musical bow.
All that said, fluXpad is a heck of a lot of fun to use and the supplied demo projects (like the embedded demo videos below) give a pretty clear steer as to what the app is about for any potential users. Creating sequences using this interface is a very different experience to most conventional DAW/sequencing environments and, like some of those other quirky iOS music apps that we have grown to love and cherish for their innovative use of the touchscreen, fluXpad is yet another iOS music app that offers a rather unique music making experience.
Like MoM’s WretchUp, I suspect fluXpad will not be for everyone. If you like your music structured in conventional ways and create conventional tunes – even if in some cutting edge styles – perhaps fluXpad is not the platform that is most obviously suited to that approach. However, for those of a more experimental nature, those who get a bit of a buzz from the unconventional and, yes, even for those who don’t actually see themselves as musicians, fluXpad will have an obvious appeal; it’s quirky, novel and a heck of a lot of fun.
And, of course, it is cheap as chips; just UK£5.99/US$7.99 if, whatever your musical background and usual working practices, you want to get a peek inside the rather experimental world that is Mouse On Mars. No, fluXpad might not be an app you would eventually reach for every day when working on your next album project, but it is an intriguing app with a simple, yet creative, approach to music construction.
Ok, so fluXpad is built on familiar enough concepts – samples used to playback sequenced patterns – but how you create those patterns is all down to the touchscreen-based note entry system. This bears almost no resemblance to any conventional musical instrument and, as such, you don’t always get conventional music. And that, for many musicians, iOS or otherwise (see the video featuring stellar musician/artist Bon Iver below), that might be reason enough to invest….