As I posted a couple of days ago, Blue Mangoo – the developer behind the excellent iFretless Bass, iFretless Guitar and iFretless Sax iOS music apps – have a new addition to the series; iFretless Brass. If you are familiar with any of these previous apps then you will know that they deliver brilliant value for money at UK£6.99 each (and are even cheaper if you buy them in a bundle).
There is a combination of design factors that make these iFretless apps work so well but the two key elements are the guitar-like performance surface that allows you to add various types of performance expression (particularly slides and vibrato) and a very respectable set of sound samples that allow you to exploit these performance options. For new users, perhaps the only (smallish) hurdle to overcome is when trying to play chords. This does require a little practice but, for anyone with some basic guitar or string instrument skills, is soon a comfortable process.
A touch of brass
As with the other iFretless apps, iFretless Brass is a universal app. Obviously, the screen layouts are somewhat different between iPhone and iPad (I’ve shown iPad screenshots here) but the functionality is the same. The app is around 260MB is size (required for the quality of the sample set used) and will work on iOS7 or iOS8. Audiobus, IAA and MIDI support are included from the off and, on the MIDI side, the app offers both MIDI output and MIDI input. You can, therefore, use the interface to control other apps or send MIDI data to a sequencer such as Cubasis or control the app from a MIDI keyboard or a sequencer.
The sample set includes euphonium, trombone, trumpet, tuba, French horn, muted trumpet and a small number of synth patches. Combine these with the saxophone sounds in iFretless Sax (and that also includes clarinets) and you have the makings of a decent brass instrument collection. For each instrument, multiple velocity layers have been sampled for each note. This means that higher MIDI velocities not only trigger louder sounds but that the timbre of the sound also changes. This obviously produces a more realistic end result than when a single sample layer is just played back louder.
I covered the performance interface for the iFretless series when I reviewed iFretless Bass so I’ll not repeat all those details here (just head over to that review and have a quick read). In summary, notes are played by tapping strings and there is a decent stab at velocity sensitivity (you can adjust the settings for this) so that the harder you tap, the louder the note played.
As before you can simulate hammer on/off (I guess a sort of trill effect for a brass instrument), slide from one note to another (great for the trombone!) and add vibrato by wobbling your finger while holding a note. In short, this is a very expressive performance interface that, with a little practice, can create some very effective and believable results.
While the performance interface remains very similar, the key differences in iFretless Brass obviously lie under the hood (in terms of the samples themselves) and in the slide-out side panel that contains all the key settings and controls for the app.
At the top of the control panel you get the usual iFretless settings that allow you to configure just how many strings and frets you see on the performance display and the tuning intervals between strings. The latter are useful if your ‘real’ instrument experience is via a guitar, bass, violin, etc. as you can configure something familiar. You also get Transpose and Tuning settings; again, both useful if you need to match the pitch of an acoustic recording not made at standard concert tuning.
Obviously, the really interesting bit comes in the next section of the panel where you can select from the various sampled instruments available. As with other iFretless apps, you can pick a single ‘lead’ instrument (along with the ability to transpose it +/- an octave) but also two further ‘secondary’ instruments. The secondary instruments can be configures in one of four modes; off, blend, arrange or extend.
‘Off’ mode is self-explanatory, while ‘Blend’ simply mixes the various instruments together so each instrument plays all the notes being triggered. However, if you are after an effect closer to that of a brass section, then the ‘Arrange’ and ‘Extend’ modes offer further useful choices. When playing more than one note at a time, Arrange mode uses the bass instrument to play lower notes, the midrange instrument to play (doh!) mid-range notes and the lead instrument to play the top line. Extend does something similar but confines the primary instrument to its actual note range, replacing notes via the secondary instruments as required.
In use, these two modes are very useful (although take a little getting used to) and create a very different tonal result to the Blend mode. If you are a bit geeky your orchestral brass section arrangements then I suspect these options will prove both interesting and useful.
Further down the panel we get controls to set the velocity and volume range of the instrument. These allow you to configure just how sensitive iFretless Brass is to ‘velocity’ and how that sensitivity is then translated to the volume of the performance. The Tone and Reverb controls do pretty much what you would expect. Tone allows you to move the overall sound from softer to brighter (a low-pass filter is applied I suspect) but the effect is very nice depending upon just how strident you want your brass to sound. The reverb effect built in to the app sounds fine but, of course, if you want more control, then there are plenty of other iOS reverb apps you could pass the output of iFretless Brass through if required.
Beneath these controls you can choose between poly, mono (always useful for solo brass instruments as they can’t actually play chords) or legato playback modes and toggle on/off the vibrato, string lock (scroll lock), wah and volume effects. The two latter options bring up an XY controller pad top-left of the display for real-time control of your performance.
The final panel allows you to configure iFretless Brass’ MIDI behaviour, whether MIDI in, MIDI out or, when sending MIDI data out of the app, to configure the XY pad controller to send other MIDI data for controlling alternative synth parameters. You can also change the position of the XY pad here.
Brass in pocket
So, just how does the set of brass section instruments that you can carry around in your pocket (well, if you have the app on your iPhone) sound? Actually pretty good indeed. The euphonium is suitably beefy but with a nice rasp to it at higher velocities. The trombone is smoother and is perhaps one of the few instruments that fully exploits the ability to slide between notes in the performance interface; comedy trombone glides are a breeze to create!
The trumpet is also pretty smooth but, if you open up the tone control a little then you can get something a bit more strident from it suitable for fanfares, etc. In contrast, the French horn is somewhat more mellow but has a lovely tone, while the muted trumpet has a suitably nasal quality to it. Finally, for the genuine brass instruments at least, the Tuba is big, beefy and nicely ominous sounding.
There are then five brass-themed synth patches with labels such as Penny Lane and Final Countdown. These are actually pretty effective but, if you have a collection of the better iOS synth apps sat on your iOS device, then I suspect you will have access to a more versatile collection of synth brass sounds already. Still, they are good to have and can blend nicely with the acoustic samples.
Stab in the park
In use, like all the other iFretless apps, iFretless Brass is pretty much a pleasure. Whether used as a solo instrument or stacked using the various secondary instruments, the sounds are very good. This is the best sample-based brass instrument (iFretless Sax aside) that we currently have for iOS by quite a stretch.
Used for solo instruments then you could create some pretty convincing performances whether for orchestral style playing or sleazy jazz. I’d would take better finger dexterity (and more practice) than I have to create some mazy up-tempo jazz solos but I suspect you could have a decent stab at it. By combining the various patches in different ways, and experimenting with the different ways they could be triggered (Blend, Arrange or Extend), even with just a little practice, it is was possible to create some very nice orchestral ‘brass section’ style performances.
The samples themselves work well for sustained notes and, if you just tap and release the note, you can do a reasonable job of staccato performances as the attack of the notes is fairly rapid. This is not, of course, the same as having samples of different performance articulations and being able to switch between them as you might be able to do on a desktop-based virtual instrument with multiple articulation samples alongside the multiple velocity layers (and more storage space for the samples and RAM to ensure smooth playback).
In this regard, iFretless Brass does an excellent job as it is but it would be very interesting to know if Blue Mangoo have experimented with a system of performance articulations at all. It would be easy to imagine have a series of tap-able buttons on screen to switch between articulations and, even if it was only two or three key options, users might be happy enough to see the base size of the app increase to obtain an even more realistic performance. You could even give users the choice by making any additional articulations available as IAPs….
All that said, if you are wandering with your iPhone or iPad in the park and need to create a few brass parts in your latest iOS music project, iFretless Brass is by far the best way to do it.
In terms of integrating the app into a wider music workflow, I had no problems working within Audiobus and feeding the output of the app to Cubasis. Equally, getting MIDI data in and out of the app was straightforward as with the other iFretless apps. Finally, I had no issues using iFretless as either and audio instrument or a MIDI instrument via IAA within Cubasis. In short, iFretless Brass seems to play nicely with other iOS music apps.
Blue Mangoo’s iFretless apps are some of the very best sample-based virtual instrument iOS music apps that are currently available. iFretless Brass is an excellent addition to that series and, if you use brass-based sounds in your iOS music production, then the UK£6.99 asking price is a bit of a no-brainer. This is a great app and, for brass sounds, it is a good as it currently gets under iOS.
I’m a huge fan of what Hans Anderson and Blue Mangoo are doing with the iFretless series. The performance interface is very slick and makes great use of the touchscreen and, in iOS terms at least, the samples themselves are detailed enough to allow you to create some very realistic performances.
Of course, that doesn’t stop you wondering just what might come next…. I mentioned the issue of multiple performance articulations earlier and, while it obviously requires additional sampling work (and therefore cost for the developer) and would require additional storage space on your iOS device for the samples, ought to be technically do-able. However, the other obvious thought is whether we are going to see an iFretless Stings, iFretless Woodwind and iFretless Percussion (that one would probably require a different performance interface) to sit alongside the excellent iFretless Brass.
I’ve no idea if these are things that Blue Mangoo are currently beavering away on but I’d be very surprised if they are not options that have been considered. Fingers crossed; with those in the iFretless catalogue, combined together I think we would be much closer to having the virtual iOS orchestra that lots of musicians would like to see.
That said, iFretless Brass is available now. For a brass section on your iPhone (and in your pocket) or your iPad, this is UK£6.99 well spent. Highly recommended.