I reviewed the rather wonderful Arpeggionome Pro from developer Alexandernaut some time ago here on the Music App Blog. As the name suggest, this is an argeggiator app but, with the use of the touchscreen, it brings a very novel approach. It might not be for every iOS musician but, if you are into electronic and ambient music styles, it is an inspiring and very creative app…. It may also be one that slipped by a lot of iOS music makers which is a great shame.
Alexandernaut is back with a new app this week – Fugue Machine – and this has already caused quite a buzz online amongst the die-hard iOS music making faithful. Like Arpeggionome Pro, this is something familiar – in this case, a fairly simple piano-roll-based MIDI sequencer – but delivered with a considerable twist; multiple playheads. If you have not yet seen the app in action, then I’ll say a bit more about this in a minute but this is the kind of inventive idea that, once you have seen it, you wonder why nobody had offered it up before; it’s a simple idea but, like so many simple ideas that nobody thought of before, it’s also brilliant. Let’s find out more…
Start the machine
At its heart, Fugue machine contains a fairly basic MIDI sequencer where you can program in a MIDI pattern of up to 8 bars in length within a piano-roll-style editor. Like many iOS music apps, this piano roll is ‘intelligent’ in that notes are forced into a user-selected key/scale combination. You are, therefore, pretty much guaranteed to get something that is harmonically correct and, if you switch the key/scale combination, the notes in your existing sequence are re-mapped to that new combination.
The app also supports Program Change messages via MIDI in (you can toggle this option on/off via the menu system that is, itself, accessed via the button located top-right) so, once you have created a number of patterns within the sequencer, you can switch between them via MIDI; you are not stuck with creating a piece of music from just one core pattern.
Within the piano roll, you get a set of fairly standard MIDI editing tools. You can, therefore, erase notes, add new notes, move notes, change the length of notes, select multiple notes, copy notes and change the MIDI velocity of notes. This is all done via the touchscreen and there are some multitouch gestures included to access some of these functions, with some requiring you to also tap and hold the Option button (located top-left). Options to zoom vertically in/out of the piano-roll editor are also provided although, in the current version at least, the horizontal zoom is fixed at a single bar and the top strip of the main display provides a swipe-able overview so you can access other bars in your sequence for editing.
The app has its own built-in synth engine. This is fairly basic and provides a single synth sound but is more than adequate while you are putting patterns together. There is, of course, the option to send MIDI data out so you can drive your favourite iOS synths from the Fugue machine sequencer if you want access to some more sophisticated sounds. Equally, you could send the MIDI output to an app like Cubasis for recording to a MIDI track and further editing.
So far, so standard MIDI pattern sequencing then and if this was all Fugue Machine was bringing to the party then I think we would all have gone home by now and been tucked up in bed.
However, the rather novel element of the app is that you get four ‘playheads’ that can operate at the same time to play the programmed sequence and, because these playheads can be set to start at different steps, play at different speeds, be re-pitched relative to one another, have the pitch patterns inverted and even play in different directions, your single MIDI sequence can actually become a hugely complex and evolving, harmonically correct, four-part composition.
While the sounds produced by this four-headed playback system can be complex, producing them is not because the user interface is as beautifully designed as the concept is novel. With the piano-roll editor dominating the central portion of the screen, along the base are four separate, colour-coded, transport section for the four different playheads (also colour coded. Here, you can start/stop each of the four playheads independently. There are also ‘global’ start and stop buttons located on the far left and far right respectively.
If you tap the notation button within any of the four transport sections, a further panel pops up at the base of the screen that contains the playback configuration controls for that playhead. These allow you to adjust the direction, tempo, start point, invert the sequence, change the octave and pitch and constrain the MIDI velocity, all independently for that particular playhead. The controls are easy to use and you can adjust them while playback is in progress without the app skipping a beat for some extra variation.
The sound of one hand clapping
Again, this is a simple – yet very clever – concept and it has been rather beautifully implemented in a minimalist design. And the results can be absolutely fabulous. Even just used with the simple internal synth sound, you can have a lot of fun with this app. There is most certainly an element of generative music about it although you do, at least, get to hand-craft the original musical sequence. That said, if you are struggling for a musical starting point, this would certainly be a great place to come and conjure up a bit of musical inspiration.
If you set all the playheads to operate at the same speed but just offset their starting point by one beat (or bar), the end result would not be too far removed from that of several singers ‘singing in the round’ or multiple performers playing Steve Riech’s clapping music. However, add in one or two playheads playing the sequence at somewhat different multiples of the overall tempo and the notes start to weave in and out of one another in some really beautiful ways. I’m not sure it is the kind of thing that a classic rock or metal-head would get a kick out of but, if you like ambient, electronic, trance or even classical music styles, then I think you would find Fugue machine absolutely fascinating. It is, frankly, just ridiculously easy to create some beautiful music using this app.
Let’s play together
Fugue machine worked quite happily for me as a standalone app under iOS9.0.2 but it also has both Audiobus and IAA support. You can, therefore, use the internal sound sources within a wider music project and, MIDI Clock sync aside, I had no problems with either of these options.
However, perhaps more interesting, given that the app is such a good starting point for a new musical idea or three, I also had no problems getting Fugue machine to send MIDI data to (a) other iOS synths apps or (b) to a MIDI track within Cubasis from where I could either edit it further or drive another synth sound. Used with another iOS synth – and pick the right sort of sound – and the results can be magical. This review has appeared somewhat later than I had intended simply because I got engrossed in playing rather than writing the review itself :-)
At UK£7.99, Fugue Machine is going to be in the casual purchase price bracket for many iOS musicians and, while it might not appeal to absolutely everyone and be useful for every musical genre, any musician with a soul could have some fun with this. Indeed, if you are into ambient and mediation styles of music, this is going to be right up your street but almost any electronic musician will find something to love here.
Brilliant though it is even in its first release, it is already possible to think of ways the concept could be expanded upon, although I’m sure Alexandernaut have already got much of what I’m about to suggest on a well-established ‘can we do this?’ list.
For example, at present (unless I’ve missed something), there doesn’t seem to be an option for recording your MIDI pattern via a live input (for example, from an external keyboard). That would be a useful option. Equally, in the first release, all the MIDI out is transmitted on a single MIDI channel. My understanding is that multiple MIDI output destinations is a feature that’s already in development and that would open up some obvious extra creative potential.
As mentioned earlier, at present (again, unless I’ve missed something obvious), there is only a single build in synth sound. It might also be nice to have a few additional internal sounds so you can work on patterns just using Fugue Machine and stir the pot a little bit more in terms of the results obtained. Equally, while there are some interesting scale options provided for you to select between, a few more wouldn’t go amiss or even the option to define your own scales.
On a technical level, I couldn’t get the MIDI Clock sync to work with my usual Cubasis MIDI Clock master/host. MIDI Clock is, at times, a pain in the a** under iOS so I’m not altogether surprised when it doesn’t work… but if you have tried Fugue machine and have this working, feel free to leave a comment below and let us all know. My only other (very minor) technical gripe was that I found setting the MIDI velocity for notes a bit of a pain and MIDI velocity values for notes are quite difficult to see unless to are working at a high vertical zoom level.
There is one other option that I think would be very interesting to see and this is an idea borrowed from the equally brilliant patterning drum machine app. At present, all four playheads loop through the same length of the pattern. So, if you pattern is four bars in length, regardless of the speed of their playback, all four playheads will, eventually, cycle through all four bars. However, if you could set up different loop points for each of the four playheads, that would open up all sorts of very interesting creative options in much the same way that patterning’s different drums can be set to patterns with different step numbers. I’ve no idea what the technical challenges might be to code this sort of feature… but it would be great to see (and hear).
Fugue Machine is a brilliant concept that has been beautifully realised and is based upon such a simple and novel idea. As a musician, it is engaging to use – and you feel like you are actually having a musical input – but the app could also be classed as generative in nature.
The feature set is streamlined so that new users can easily be up and running within a few minutes… but there is hours of fun to be had here. No, the results might not get you too far with creating your next pop-punk or thrash metal hit, but for electronic musicians in various genres, there is plenty of scope for getting creative.
At UK£7.99, the app is great value for money and, requiring iOS7.0 or later, running on iPad only and being just a 7MB download, it ought to be accessible to lots of iOS music makers, even if you are working with somewhat older iPad hardware.
It’s Friday pm as I type this…. Something for the week-end sir? You know the answer… go get a Fugue Machine…. Oh, and if you have not already, check out Arpeggionome Pro at the same time :-)