I’ve looked at a number of audio looper apps that are available for iOS (although not all of the prime candidates; I’m still to review Everest and Group The Loop, both of which look good). The whole ‘looper’ concept is an interesting one and is probably best know in its hardware format – looper pedals for example – that are used by live musicians to layer audio loops on the fly to build up a live performance.
Demonstrated at its best, this can be brilliant to see and artists such as KT Tunstall, Ed Sheeran and Jack Garratt, for example, are all seasoned practitioners of the art. And while hardware pedals offer a robust and reliable (well, mostly reliable; live looping is something for the well-rehearsed and brave), software audio loopers – such as LoopyHD or LoopTree – running on iOS hardware are becoming increasingly popular and viable alternatives, both live and in the studio (where looping can make for a very creative idea generation process).
Of course, modern music creation includes MIDI as well as audio and while that MIDI data eventually drives an audio sound source such as a synth or drum machine, using short MIDI phrases that are then looped within your DAW/sequencer has been a big part of the production process since… well, since computers first started appearing in recording studios.
Patrick Madden – the main man behind Secret Base Design’s series of iOS music apps and part of the team that bought us Music IO – has recently launched a new app – Infinite Looper – that takes some of the concepts that are more generally associated with audio loopers and applied them to MIDI loops (or clips). This approach means that you can build a loop-based composition based upon some short MIDI phrases and trigger them ‘live’, or via a pre-configured ‘song’ structure, to create your music…. and, instead of audio in those loops, the MIDI data triggers sounds based on virtual instruments, whether those be within Infinite Looper itself (it has a built-in GM-style SoundFont sound set), other iOS apps (Infinte Looper can act as a host of IAA apps) or, given appropriate MIDI connectivity, external MIDI sound sources.
In terms of basic practicalities, Infinite Looper requires iOS8.0 or later, as of the v.1.1 update that appeared today, is universal and a 37MB download. It is launched at a price of UK£7.99/US$9.99. And while Infinite Looper is now universal, there is also a dedicated iPhone version called Aleph Looper which is available for the lower price of UK£3.99/US$4.99.
Of course, we do have other iOS apps that, in their own way, offer a similar underlying concept. Gadget, for example, essentially allows you to trigger MIDI loops from a grid on the fly and Modstep does a similar thing while also offering IAA and AU hosting. However, first impressions suggest that Infinite Looper is a little more stripped back than either of those options so, if you like the general idea of MIDI-based looping, but perhaps wanted presented in a somewhat more streamlined package, is Infinite Looper a potential contender?
Infinite in a nutshell
As can be seen in the various screenshots, Infinite Looper’s main screen is split into three key zones; a top strip of global controls including the transport and tempo features, the upper half that displays the grid of MIDI loops (clips) within the current project and, at the base, a virtual piano keyboard for entering MIDI parts into a clip (although you can also hook up an external MIDI keyboard and this worked fine for me; the v.1.1 update add some more refined control over use if MIDI channels on input which is useful when targeting different sounds within Infinite Looper). This last section is tabbed though; you can, for example, access the mixer, song construction and MIDI settings, amongst other things, from here and the this section can also be ‘hidden’ so that you can see more of the MIDI clip grid.
The grid is a 6 by 8 affair; you can use six instruments in a given project and, for each of these six, you can create up to eight different clips. The length of individual clips can be set to anywhere between 1 and 64 bars as you record it and, when clips of different lengths are played alongside each other, then shorter clips just cycle through the appropriate number of times alongside the longer clips.
Playback of a clip can be triggered on/off simply by tapping and, interestingly, and unlike Gadget or Modstep, you can have multiple clips playing at the same time for a single instrument. This makes for some useful variations when in playback. For example, you might put different layers of a drum part into different clips and then you can trigger them all together (for the full drum part) or drop some of them out for a breakdown. The same approach could also be applied with melodic instruments – chords and melody clips, for example, with a piano – and it does encourage a somewhat different thought process as you create your initial clips.
In terms of the transport section, you can set tempo, engage Ableton Link (and this seems to work well when used with other Link supporting apps) and toggle a metronome on/off (useful when recording your initial loops or a drum loop to then guide you later). The controls here also allow you to define the length of any clip (in bars) as well as showing you the current bar/beat position during playback or recording. The strip of buttons labelled x, 1/4, 1/8, etc. toggle off (x) or on the MIDI quantize as you record. This is useful to tighten up your MIDI input if you find using virtual piano keyboards a bit limiting.
You can select your instrument for each of the six sound slots by tapping on its Setting button at the top of each column in the grid. This brings up a dialog that allows you to select one of the internal Soundfont sounds (these are actually OK and more than good enough if you are just knocking some ideas together), to disable the internal sound, to select from any IAA apps you have installed or to configure Infinite Looper to set the data off to an ‘external’ MIDI destination. This could be a hardware port or another iOS app running outside Infinite Looper’s own IAA hosting. When using the IAA hosting, you see the app’s name within Infinite Looper. However, it would be nice if you also saw the external MIDI destination displayed if you were using that option.
I’ll get to the recording process in a minute but, once you have created whatever loops/clips you require for your project, you can then either just ‘jam’ with them by triggering playback on and off in whatever combinations you require or, if you prefer, you can open up the Song tab in the lower section of the screen and create a sequence of song ‘sections’. Each section is essentially some combination of clips and you can edit its name and the number of repeats required (based upon repeats of the longest clip within the selection for that section). Once created, sections can be edited, deleted or re-ordered as required. The only slightly distracting workflow issue I found was that playback really needed to be in ‘Loop’ mode rather than ‘Song’ mode while making the loop selections for a song section. If you start tapping loops in the grid while in Song mode, these then get overridden when the next song section is reached. Otherwise, this is a pretty straightforward process.
The Mixer tab is a very simple affair. Perhaps the only comment to make is that it (understandably) only works with the internal instruments or hosted IAA instruments; if you are sending MIDI data to an external MIDI instrument (such as an iOS app running standalone) then you will have to control its volume elsewhere.
Incidentally, if you do find playing a virtual piano keyboard hard work for chord parts then Infinite Looper includes a set of 10 chord pads (although they can also be configured to send single notes). These do give you velocity control based upon where you tap from top to bottom. These pads are not as fully featured as a dedicated MIDI performance app such as Chordion or ChordPloyPad but they do a neat job and you can easily configure a suitable set of chords including, if required, some suitably esoteric types for all those jazz fusion jams J
While Infinite Looper is not perhaps the prettiest iOS music app I’ve ever used – like most of Patrick’s app, the emphasis is on straightforward functionality rather than ultra-slick looks – it is generally very easy to find your way around and the feature set is not so intimidating that it brings a significant learning curve; what you get is a core feature set to do a specific job.
And, on the whole, I like the feature set and the underlying concept. Being able to jam with MIDI loops is a fairly simple format is both fun and very creative. Once the loops are created, Infinite Looper makes a very useful tool for experimentation…. and, being MIDI rather than audio, you can easily swap in and out different sound choices, adjust the tempo and edit your MIDI data until you are totally happy. That level of flexibility doesn’t generally apply when you work with audio loops.
However, I did experience some slightly unpredictable behaviour when recording and editing my MIDI loops. The bar position indicator did occasionally move around in an inconsistent fashion, for example, while recording. Having tried a few IAA synths hosted within Infinite Looper, my impression was that this issue was more prevalent when using IAA apps rather than the internal sounds. IAA hosting is, I suspect, not a straightforward task so, if there are some gremlins with the MIDI timing still to be ironed out there, I guess it would not be particularly surprising.
That’s obviously an issue ‘under the hood’. In terms of the interface itself, perhaps my only other request would be for somewhat more flexibility with manual editing of the clips/loops. If you tap and hold on a clip, the upper half of the display flips to show a piano-roll-style editing environment.
You can see a window on the clip that is about 1.5 octaves and a single bar in length and scroll around that by swiping up/down on the left (on the note labels) or using the ‘ball’ slider along the top of the editor section. A basic tool set allows you to enter, delete, move and change the length of notes. This works well enough but, if you have a clip that is several bars in length, it would be nice to have some zoom options so you can look at more than a single bar and perhaps even a wider range of notes. With complex sequences this would make editing much more efficient.
Going beyond infinity
While you can, of course, send all of Infinite Looper’s MIDI data out to external sound sources (such as other iOS synth or drum machine apps), and could therefore capture that performance as an audio recording (for example, by routing those apps through AUM), there is one additional simple feature of Infinite Looper that did make me grin when I first tried it; MIDI export.
This allows you to export your full ‘song’ structure as a MIDI file and, of course, to then import it into another MIDI sequencer. OK, this is a simple idea, and MIDI note data is, of course, quite a simple format to move around, but it was still rather a nice thing to press the export button, get offered the option to pass the MIDI file straight to Cubasis, and then open the MIDI file from the Cubasis MediaBay and have it all appear within a few seconds. Yes, you would still then have to configure a set of suitable playback sounds within Cubasis but that is just a few minutes work and then your Infinite Looper MIDI ‘jam’ is ready to be fine-tuned using the more powerful MIDI editing tools available in something like Cubasis (or, of course, Auria Pro).
I think this export feature is actually quite a significant indicator of the role Patrick seems for Infinite Looper. While, in virtual instrument terms, you can go quite far in building a composition using the app as your MIDI hub, I suspect Patrick seem the app as an ‘idea capture’ tool… and perhaps an ‘idea developer further’ tool…. but perhaps not an ‘idea finish off’ tool; exporting your MIDI to your iOS or desktop DAW of choice is made easy therefore for exactly this reason.
If you like the basic concept that Infinite Looper offers – a sort of MIDI looper experimentation platform – but then want to refine that jam and perhaps add audio elements to it, this export feature is both very welcome and, from my testing at least, seems very nicely executed.
Oh, and there are a few other options worth noting…. MIDI Learn is supported allowing easy external control of the app’s key features, MIDI over Bluetooth is offered (with appropriate hardware) and there is a neat ‘notepad’ tool so you can annotate your projects or capture lyric ideas as you work.
I really do like the underlying concept of Infinite Looper. It perhaps doesn’t bring anything dramatically new in terms of powerful MIDI sequencing features and this kind of clip/loop-based MIDI sequencing is available elsewhere… but Patrick has presented in a somewhat different way here so that it is a little more immediate and, unsurprisingly, more ‘looper’ like.
I’m sure there are perhaps a few tweaks that might still be required under the hood – and you can take your own position on the ‘functional’ graphical presentation – but, if a Gadget or a Modstep is simply too much for you when it comes to piecing together a few new MIDI-based ideas, Infinite Looper has a streamlined feature set that might appeal. I know Patrick already has plans for additional features but, some tweaks to the MIDI recording/editing workflow aside, I think the feature set – and, in particular, its streamlined nature – will be seen as a positive by his target audience rather than a negative. Some fine-tuning aside, this is a great start and it will be interesting to see how the app develops.
For more details, check out the introductory video below or the App Store description via the Download button…. Oh, and while you are at it. check out Patrick’s other Secret base Design apps as many of these are currently ‘on sale’ to coincide with the launch period for Infinite Looper.