Funkbox by Synthetic Bits – music app review

Download from iTunes App StoreFunkbox logoMy own iPad is stuffed full of some brilliant music apps. I’ve got a number of excellent synth-based apps, at least four guitar amp sims that I’m happy to employ, a selection of very useable (but quite different) DAWs and a range of utility-type apps (including Audiobus and MIDI Bridge), all of which, with a little care and attention, can be combined into a suitable music-making workflow.

In terms of it being a ‘complete’ music production system then I know that, at present, it can’t compete with what I also have available on my desktop-based system. However, in terms of the core functions, iOS is most certainly playing catch-up pretty quickly and, for those new to the wonderful world of music technology and recording, it is now a very viable starting point (and light years ahead of the 4-track cassette-based system I cut my own teeth upon many years ago).

From a personal perspective though, I think there are still a couple of weak spots in my own personal app collection. As I’ve commented elsewhere, I’m still searching for a killer audio editing app – a Sound Forge or Wavelab replacement scaled down for the iPad – and while there are some nice examples on the App Store, none of them have really grabbed my attention as yet. And the second app gap to fill? Virtual drums….

Actually, there are two spots to fill here; a beatbox and/or drum machine app and a ‘realistic acoustic kit’ app. That’s not to say that there are not candidates to fill these roles. For example, Garageband offers both electronic and acoustic drum sounds and, with the Smart Drums instrument, actually does a pretty decent job. However, what I’d really like is a dedicated app (or apps) that offers a little more control and a little more functionality.

Get your funk out

Funkbox's main display - retro but everything is easy to hand.

Funkbox’s main display – retro but everything is easy to hand. Click on any of the images to see a larger version.

For the drum machine function, however, I think a candidate might just have presented itself. Funkbox, developed by Synthetic Bits, has actually been around for quite a while as it was first released in 2010. However, v.3.1 (released in December 2012 although I actually used v.3.2 for this review) added Audiobus support.

As keen iOS musicians will already be aware, Audiobus has begun to make constructing a workflow between your various music apps a whole lot more practical. So, as Funkbox is now easy to integrate into your overall music production process, is it worth considering for the drum machine and/or beatbox spot in your app collection?

What’s in the box?

Funkbox offers a very comprehensive selection of classic drum sounds - and there are more if you swipe across to the next screen or two.

Funkbox offers a very comprehensive selection of classic drum sounds – and there are more if you swipe across to the next screen or two.

Like Korg’s iMS-20 or iPolysix apps, Funkbox attempts to emulate a bit of music technology history; in this case, the sounds of a goodly number of classic drum machines such as the various Roland TR series, Yamaha’s RX-11, Korg’s KR-55, E-Mu’s Drumulator and the Linn Drum. While the user interface definately has a vintage vibe to it, the app doesn’t attempt to recreate the visuals of each of these classic drum machines. Instead, you get Synthetic Beats take on the retro look and a single interface (much easier to master that lots of different ones) that allows you to load up presets based on the classic sounds of each of these old school drum machines.

As shown by the iPad screen shot, the main display is split into a number of areas. This is, however, a universal app so it also runs on the iPhone although here, to accommodate all the controls, the various sections of the main iPad screen become available as separate tabs that you switch between. This works very smoothly and it certainly preferable to having a small screen packed with too many controls for the average human finger to deal with.

Most of the main controls are fairly self-explanetory. So, for example, we have a suitably large Start/Stop button located top-left that does exactly what you would expect. Equally, the ‘tap’ pads, mixer, tempo controls and pattern selection controls are all very intuitive and it is to Synthetic Beat’s credit that even novice users will probably find their way around the interface without too much head scratching.

A few things are worth noting though. For example, both the tempo section and the drum machine selection areas feature ‘lock’ switches. This is because the patterns you can programme to playback Funkbox’s sounds can include both a particular drum machine and tempo. This is a useful feature as it allows you to swiftly switch between both sounds and tempos in a performance if you wish too. Equally, if you want to stick with the same tempo or sample set when you switch patterns, locking these switches allows you to do that also. The tempo section also allows you to tap the tempo in and to set the swing level to add a little more groove to your grooves J

Within the ‘tap’ pad section, you also get Roll and Odub buttons. If you switch on the roll button and then hold down one of the drum pads, that drum will play continuously; great for old school snare rolls. The Odub button switches on overdub mode and any hits you play from this point will override what is in the current pattern. As described below, Funkbox includes a very nice pattern sequencer but the Odub features allows you to easily play your pattern in in real-time if you prefer that route.

The Mixer controls also have a couple of tricks up their sleeve. For example, the right-most fader is, by default, the ‘master fader’ that controls the overall output level from Funkbox. However, if you tap the MST button itself, three new buttons appear that allow you to switch the behaviour of the individual drum faders between volume, pan or accent. In addition, tapping on any of the buttons along the base of the mixer mutes that particular drum. You can use these in real-time while Funkbox is playing to create on-the-fly breakdown sections, for example.

Finally, while each of the drum machine presets is actually built around 12 samples (that is, 12 different drum sounds), you only have eight faders (and eight ‘tap’ pads and, furthermore, only eight lanes in the step sequencer as described more fully below). However, the small switches located directly above the four right-most faders allow you to switch to controlling the level/pan/accent of these additional four sounds. Equally, these switches also change which sounds are allocated to the 8 drum pads and which samples are displayed in the lanes of the step sequencer.

Set me up

The Settings options include a range of options for configuring Funkbox's MIDI capabilities.

The Settings options include a range of options for configuring Funkbox’s MIDI capabilities.

The Settings button does what you would expect and there are various MIDI and audio latency options available here. The MIDI functions are switched off by default but, when on, offer a whole range of possibilities. Funkbox supports Core MIDI so MIDI over a network is possible as is control via external MIDI hardware or linking via virtual MIDI to other iOS apps. Funkbox is both recognised by, and recognises, MIDI Bridge.

The Export settings allow you to export either audio or MIDI. This is done at a pattern level so, if you did want to export a whole performance via this route, it might take some time. However, it works smoothly enough. Given the Audiobus and MIDI Bridge support, exporting something other than just a single pattern or two might be more efficiently done by sending the data to a suitable DAW. I had no problem passing audio data from Funkbox to, for example, Cubasis and, while it involved a little more head scratching and experimentation with settings, I also got MIDI data going back and forth. Once I had the necessary settings configured, this worked a treat.

Pretty patterns

Funkbox's main pattern editing screen. The step sequencer is easy to use and has a good feature set.

Funkbox’s main pattern editing screen. The step sequencer is easy to use and has a good feature set.

The pattern section provides access to 36 patterns at any one time via the 12 pattern buttons (in their rather glorious multi-colours) and the three pattern bank buttons (A, B and C). When Funkbox is playing, simply pressing a pattern button will instantly switch to that pattern. However, if you engage the Pattern Queue switch, then you can queue up the next pattern and Funkbox politely switches once the current pattern reaches the end. A pattern simply loops if no new pattern is selected.

As expected, the Pattern Edit button takes you to the step sequencer where you can create and edit patterns. This is a fairly conventional environment and anyone with experience of step sequencing will soon find their way around. Patterns have 32 steps and programming in which drum sound is triggered at which step simply requires you to tap on the grid and programming can be performed while the pattern is playing.

There are a couple of details to accommodate the limited screen real estate of the iPad. By default, the display shows an 8 by 16 grid of the step sequencer; 8 drum sounds and 16 steps.  Tabs at the top allow you to switch between which of the 16 steps – either 1 to 16 or 17 to 32 – are displayed. Alternatively, if you toggle the Split switch the display changes to showing all 32 steps of the current pattern but only for four drums at a time. Tapping the Hit button changes the display again. This allows you to specify a volume level for each of the 32 steps in the pattern. This is great if you want to accent certain beats to give your pattern a bit of extra groove.

Having carefully crafted your patterns, the Pattern Storage button (back on the main display) allows you to save a pattern bank for later recall. Equally, pattern banks are also available as *.BNK files in the Funkbox folder on iTunes so you can backup your patterns to a desktop computer or share them with other users.

Funkbox also supports a monophonic bass sequencer track for each pattern.

Funkbox also supports a monophonic bass sequencer track for each pattern.

Tapping the DRM button in the Step Sequencer switches to the new (new to v.3 of Funkbox that is) bass sequencer mode. This allows you to programme a monophonic bass part to go along with each of your drum patterns. Providing you enable it in the Settings page (the Bass Out switch under the MIDI Routing tab), this bass sequence will then be transmitted as MIDI data when Funkbox is playing a particular pattern and you could pass this MIDI data to a suitable synth app to get your bass part played. Again, I had no problem getting this to work with a number of different synth apps including NLogSynth Pro, iMS-20 and iPolysix. While this might not be the easiest way to program bass lines if you are using Funkbox with a DAW that supports MIDI, for live applications it could be quite fun.

Roll your own

You can build your own drum machines within Funkbox. This include the ability to add your own samples via iTunes or AudioCopy.

You can build your own drum machines within Funkbox. This include the ability to add your own samples via iTunes or AudioCopy.

If you tap on the drum machine icon located top-centre of the main display, this opens a selection screen where you can pick from the range of preset drum boxes. Given that this is a £3.99 (or the equivalent $/€ price) app, the selection of sounds available is most certainly impressive. What’s equally impressive is that when you feed the output of Funkbox to a half-decent monitoring system, the sounds themselves are actually very good indeed. I’d happily use these samples in my own productions and I’d certainly be happy to integrate my iPad into my desktop system to use them in that environment. In short, Funkbox sounds great and it is worth repeating that at this price, it is an absolute steal if only for the samples themselves.

That said, if you want to customise the selection to build your own ‘perfect’ drum machine, Funkbox also makes that possible. The editing process is very straight forward and allows you to drag a sample from the virtual ‘eprom board’ into one of the 12 available sound slots. In addition, you can also access ‘user’ samples that you might have placed in Funkbox’s iTunes document folder either via iTunes or via Intua’s AudioCopy. This also worked fine and I was able to drag se nice acoustic drum samples into Funkbox to build a basic acoustic kit. The only constraint here seems to be the files size of each sample; larger samples produce an ‘unable to import’ type message within Funkbox when you try to load them into a slot. Obviously, Funkbox doesn’t support multi-layered samples so building a very realistic acoustic kit is not something the app is designed for. Even so, having the option of importing your own samples is very useful.

Talk to me

The Step Sequencer also includes velocity editing for each step - great for adding some extra groove to your drum parts.

The Step Sequencer also includes velocity editing for each step – great for adding some extra groove to your drum parts.

As mentioned above, I was able to get Funkbox to pass audio to Cubasis via Audiobus without any problems at all. Equally, after a little experimentation with MIDI settings in both apps, I managed to get MIDI data going in either direction between them and I was also able to send Funkbox’s bas track MIDI out to a number of other synth apps. All in all, Funkbox seems to play very nicely with other apps on the same iPad.

Nor did I have any trouble getting Funkbox to work within my desktop system, either by Networked MIDI or by a hardware MIDI connection. And very good it sounded to.

Acoustic matters

Obviously, being able to bring samples into the app to build a basic acoustic drum kit ‘drum machine’ is a useful option and the process works well. However, Funkbox is not an iOS version of something like BFD2, Superior Drummer or Addictive Drums. All these virtual acoustic drum instruments offer highly detailed sample-based acoustic drum kits on a more powerful desktop system where sample storage is not such an issue and more processing power is available to drive them.

At present, something this ambitious would be difficult to replicate fully on an iPad without choking the whole system to death. However, a cut-down app that focuses on the key features and at least allows perhaps half-a-dozen sample layers for each kit piece would be good. Maybe it exists already? If you already think you are using such an app, or are the developer of such an app, then please feel free to get in touch :-)

In summary

The comments in the previous two paragraphs should not be seen of a criticism of Funkbox though. It is designed to emulate classic drum machines and I think it does that brilliantly. The user interface is well designed and easy to navigate (and, incidentally, there is an excellent PDF manual available to get new users started). The range of drum samples and preset kits is equally impressive. And the final icing on the cake is that, with Audiobus support now included and a comprehensive set of MIDI options, Funkbox can be integrated into a wider iOS music production workflow with ease.

Funkbox has filled that ‘drum machine’ sized slot in my app collection and, while I’m still on the search for a ‘virtual acoustic drum kit’ candidate, if you are after some classic drum machine sounds in an app that both sounds great and is a pleasure to use, then Funkbox is for you. And at the current asking price, it is well worth adding to almost any iOS music app collection. Funkbox comes highly recommended.

Funkbox


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    Comments

    1. Ian Sainsbury says:

      I think Derek Buddemeyer’s upcoming drum app might fit the bill for your virtual acoustic drum app – but he has been talking about it for months on the ipad musician group on FB and no release date yet. Are you a member of that group? Lots of devs hand out there, including Michael from Audiobus – great group.

      • I’ll keep my eyes peeled for Derek’s app…. Yep, I’m a member of the FB group but probably not as active of FB in general as I ought to be :-( Must. Try. Harder. ;-)

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