Forever Beats review – quirky step sequencer from developer John Hussey

Download from iTunes App Store

Music creation is a wonderful thing. Whatever the reasons you might feel compelled to do it, you can bet that the next musician will have different ones. And, whatever the workflow you use – and in particular the tools that help you realise that workflow – the odds are that the next musician will do it differently. Whether that’s your voice and an acoustic guitar, or a collection of uber-synths and a MIDI sequencer, the only rule of music creation is…. well…. there are no rules.

All of which is a long way of saying that just because you own a step sequencer application you use and love, you shouldn’t be afraid to take a look at next one that comes along. Under iOS, we have a huge number of music apps that offer some form of MIDI sequencing, often combined with built-in drum sounds or synth sounds, perhaps with options for audio recording, and perhaps with options for sending sequenced data off to other MIDI devices (hardware or software). So, when you launch a new app capable of sequencing, you know that (a) there is already lots of completion for people’s attention and (b) you better add a twist or two to help the app pop it’s head out above the crowd.

Forever Beats – a step sequencer environment with some interesting twists.

John Hussey’s Forever Beats – which made its debut on the App Store back in February (and has been on my ‘to do’ list since then; sorry!) – can, I think, make a couple of quite interesting claims under (b). No, I’m not sure any of the individual features of the app can’t be found in other software….. but what is perhaps interesting is the design decisions made to pull together the specific combination of features that are included within the app. And, to keep things streamlined so that you can get creative as quickly as possible, decisions about what not to include. In a ‘make music quick’ environment – which iOS can be very good at if that’s the way you like to work – the lack of ‘feature bloat’ in an app can be an important factor.

Step on it

So what is Forever Beats? Well, the app allows you to compose music using a step sequencer environment where you can adjust the pitch and velocity of each step. A Forever Beats ‘arrangement’ (project) can consist of multiple sequences of up to 16 steps. That might be enough for many folk even at first glance but, as we will see in a minute, a couple of the app’s ‘twists’ means that things are actually much more flexible than that.

At a practical level, the app is iPad-only, requires iOS9.3 or later and comes as a 17MB download. It is currently priced at just UK£5.99/US$5.99…. so certainly not one to break too many banks even if purchased on a whim.

Each of the six tracks features a somewhat different sound engine… and comes with its own collection of presets for the internal sounds.

The app provides you with up to six sounds (six MIDI lanes/tracks) to use within your sequences and, by default, these are linked to six somewhat different sound engines built into the app. You can, therefore, get composing without any need for additional apps or MIDI hardware. Track 1 and 2 are reserved for kick and snare sounds whiles tracks 3 to 6 provide sounds described as metal, drone, FM and pad.

The respective sound engines for each of these types of sounds offer somewhat different control sets to tweak the sound, and a few preset sounds are provided under each category. The sound tweaking options are kept very streamlined though – the engines are not intended to a fully-formed drum or melodic synths – but to just provide enough scope to get you tinkering and composing. This includes two LFOs that you can configure from the top-most control panel and then, via the little waveform icons beneath each synth parameter, link that parameter to one of the LFOs to provide sound modulation.

The two LFOs can be used to modulate parameters within the internal sound engines.

However, you can individually route each of the six tracks off to another MIDI destination, whether that’s another iOS app or MIDI hardware if you have such device(s) connected. I get the impression that the internal sounds are intended for your quick-fix composing sessions….. and then you set up your MIDI outs when you are ready to really get some speakers moving.

Forever Beats allows you to send each of its six tracks off to an alternative MIDI destination.

Don’t underestimate those internal sounds though. There are enough parameters to tweak to customise their respective flavours and there are also modulation options for the sounds via two internal LFOs. You can access each sound by tapping on the numbered buttons in a vertical strip far-left. The step sequencer then shows the pattern for that track in detail and the sound editing parameters for that track are displayed in the lower half of the screen. These include mute, solo, volume, octave, MIDI settings and preset options for the currently selected track.

What about those two twists I mentioned? Well, located bottom-right of the main display is the Breaks grid. Each of the buttons within the grid sets the sequencer to play a different combination and order of the programmed steps. So, for example, the button located top-right of the grid simply runs the sequencer from step 1 to step 16. However, the button top-left only loops the first four steps, while the button located far-right of the second row misses out beats 4, 8, 11 and 16….. and so on. Some of the Break sequences re-order the selected steps. There are (very) small black dots at the base of each step to show which steps are active in any of the ‘break’ sequences.

Once you have a sequence in place, the Break buttons can instantly transform it on the fly.

For further variety, you can toggle on/off the ‘All Tracks’ button so that the Break selection applies to just the currently selected track or to all six tracks. So, for example, if you just apply an alternative Break to your snare track, this will add a variation to the feel of the overall pattern with the other tracks playing back as before. That said, in use, changing things up for ‘All Tracks’ is certainly easier to get your head around.

The second twist has a touch of the ‘Patterning’ about it in that, like Patterning, you can vary the pattern length on an individual track basis. For example, your kick track might be set to 16 steps but your ‘metal’ track (track 3; quite good for a hihat sound) might be set to 15 steps. Set them playing together and – hey presto! – you have a polyrhythm going on that just keeps varying as the two patterns of different lengths interact with each other. Add some Break variations on top of that and you can coax a lot of variety out of that one single pattern in your Forever Beats project.

Each lane within a sequencer can be set to a different number of steps; polyrhythms anyone?

Oh, and add in those Shift and Reverse buttons (located just to the left of the Breaks grid) for even more variation. Oh, and you can also set the key/scale at the top of the screen. Any pitch-based elements in your various tracks will automatically adjust themselves to match the new key.

It’s a mystery

So far, so good….   we have our six sound/tracks and a step sequence programmed that can be given a twist via the Break keys. However, as I mentioned earlier, a project can contain multiple sequences. This is perhaps one feature in the app that is a bit ‘hidden’ and it isn’t really described in any detail in the manual either…..

In the top-strip menu, if you tap on the right-most item, a new zone appears in the upper part of the display. Here you see a ‘mini’ version of your sequence and this zone allows you to copy the sequence (and delete sequences) and then, if you select the copy, to edit it to create a second ‘song section’ (or just a variation on the original).

You can create a sequence from your step-based sequences…..

Far-right of this new zone is the Loop On/Off toggle and, when switched on, any sequences in this ‘chain’ will playback in order. You can also set the repeat number for each sequence. This feels like it ought to be a ‘build your song sequence’ part of the app and it sort of is….   but with some limitations. For example, I couldn’t find a way to reorder the sequences within the chain….. add this and it would be a much more useful option. I’ll come back to this later….

Keep the beat

In use, Forever Beats seemed to behave itself pretty well on my iPad Pro/iOS10.3.2 test system. Used stand-alone it seemed solid. I then did some testing within Audiobus 3 using a combination of the internals sounds and sending some tracks out to other iOS music apps also loaded into my Audiobus session. Again, this proved a pretty smooth experience and, the usual faffing about with MIDI output ports (in Forever Beats) and MIDI input ports (in the target apps) aside, it was easy to set up.

Indeed, sending the MIDI out to some more powerful sound sources soon turned by basic Forever Beats composition into a bit of a raging synth and drum monster. I suspect this might suggest a pretty obvious workflow….. start with an idea just within Forever Beats using the internal sounds, open up the idea by sending some (or all) the tracks to other sound sources and, finally, crack it all up though your studio monitors and/or live rig speakers and use the Breaks options to ‘jam’ a live performance from your single Forever Beats sequence.

Forever Beats seemed to play nicely with other iOS music apps via Audiobus…..

The app does offer MIDI Clock send and receive but, in this kind of workflow context, the other obvious addition it would be great to see is Ableton Link support. You could then run a drum machine or two alongside your Forever Beats session or maybe even another sequencer while you use Forever Beats as a tool to ‘improvise’ with over the top. Thankfully, Link support is in the plans…. so watch this space.

Anyway, the bottom line here is that I quite like the creative workflow Forever Beats offers. The feature set is very streamlined and that means you can very quickly get yourself up to speed. Equally, it means ideas can flow pretty swiftly. As a tool for a bit of instant creativity, the design choices make for a pretty cool platform.

However, much as the streamlined feature set is a positive, it is also easy to think of just a couple of extra features that might take the app to another level. For me, that would be a combination of two things. First, in the ‘song construction’ zone described above, some further options for editing your sequence chain would be a real bonus.

Tracks that have pitch information within their sequence will automatically follow the projects key/scale combination.

The second suggestion would be a ‘live performance’ tab…..   so you could flip to a second screen that took away the main pattern editing elements and replaced them with larger sets of buttons for the Breaks, track mute/volume controls and, for each sequences added (day up to a maximum of 16), buttons to flip between the different sequences on the fly. This could make for a killer live improvisation environment…..

I’ve no idea if these are options that the development team have already considered  – and I’m sure they have other ideas beyond these anyway – but I can’t imagine something like this (or an alternative approach that might achieve the same end result) would be a massively complex programming task given that all the key elements are already present in the app. Forever Beats is already a lot of fun, and I like the streamlined design approach, but there is also some further potential awaiting release here and that wouldn’t undermine the basic workflow.

You can assign LFO control to any of the internal synth parameters for sound modulation.

In summary

iOS has a number of very good ‘make music quick’ apps available with varying degrees of complexity and varying degrees of accessibility to those with non-traditional musical skills sets. Yes, some musical knowledge will undoubtedly help, but you really don’t need to have a background in piano or guitar to get something going with Forever Beats.

This means the app could easy appeal to EDM music makers in the same way that (at the simple end) Figure or (at the more complex end) Oscilab might do. Both of these apps are great for musicians but, equally, both can make great music with sequences crafted on the touchscreen without a virtual keyboard or string in sight. It also has a somewhat quirky approach to the music making process and I’m sure that will also find favour with some.

Forever Beats will also appeal to those who enjoy ‘live’ improvisation around an EDM theme. Set up a few sequences then, via the Breaks buttons, and perhaps ordering the sequences in the song construction part of the app (and this is where a more obvious means of pattern switching on the fly would be great to see), and away you go. The creative options are obvious.

And, at just UK£5.99/US$5.99, there really isn’t too much over-thinking to be done. Even with a couple of items on the ‘feature wishlist’, this is an interesting little app with considerable potential. The workflow is fast and it could easily be seen as a sort of EDM idea generator even if you then offload those ideas elsewhere rather than perform them using just Forever Beats itself.

Anyway, well worth a look…. and certainly one to keep an eye on for further developments. Feel free to check out the short demo videos embedded below and then hit the download button to find out more via the App Store.

Forever Beats

Download from iTunes App Store



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    Comments

    1. It’s all about what I can get my head around, and incorporate into my workflow. Vastly complex apps I’ve bought in the past go unused, because they take too long to learn and there is so much fun to be had with apps that can do a lot, but are easier on the brain. This would seem to be one such app, and it’s gone into my wish list for the next spending spree.

      • Hi Zen…. it’s a cool little app. Enough features to make it interesting to work with but not so many that it takes too long to find your way around. As with any streamlined app that tries to focus the feature set, they key thing is whether that selection of features is a sensible/useful selection. In this case, I think the developer has done a pretty good job on that front….. best wishes, John

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