As I’ve written elsewhere, the touchscreen has introduced a whole range of new ways to create music. However, perhaps one of the less-than-perfect experiences of an iOS virtual synth is playing complex keyboard parts via a virtual touchscreen piano keyboard. Don’t get me wrong – these are great to have when you want to make some music on the move and only have access to your iPad – but, even for accomplished keyboard players, it’s not the same as playing a real, physical, set of keys.
The smart instruments in Garageband for iPad and apps such as Figure or Thumbjam or Triqtraq provide good examples of touchscreen interfaces designed to avoid the traditional keyboard and create instruments that are more ‘playable’ via a touchscreen. It doesn’t matter whether you are a guitar player who can’t play keyboards very well or an skilled keyboard player, these types of innovative performance surfaces are a big plus.
While these kinds of touchscreen interfaces can make playing synths or other virtual instruments within those specific apps easier, if you want a more generic ‘performance’ interface, then you need a somewhat different type of app; the ‘MIDI performance’ app. And, fortunately, as there are some iOS music app developers who like to think out of the ‘virtual keyboard’ box, we now have quite a number of these available for iOS.
The focus of these apps is perhaps somewhat different. While many of them might have their own internal sounds (so you can use them as a virtual instrument in their own right), that isn’t really their main reason for being. What these apps are really about is creating an intuitive touchscreen interface that makes the creation of complex MIDI performances (chords and melody lines) a simpler, more creative, process, whether you have traditional piano or guitar (or other instrument) skills or not.
These app then allow those MIDI note data generated to be passed to other iOS music apps. This might be an iOS synth (Thor, iProphet, Z3TA+, etc.) or an app with MIDI recording capabilities (such as Cubasis). Equally, providing you have a means to establish a MIDI connection between your iPad and laptop/desktop computer, these MIDI performance apps can also serve a very useful roll for a computer-based recording setup.
With improvements in MIDI data transmission via Bluetooth – and in particular the new MIDI via Bluetooth feature built in Yosemite for Mac users – this is something that is going to catch on in a big way… and, I suspect, expose a lot of desktop-based musicians to the very useful roll an iOS device might play in their music making.
So, with that context in mind, what about a selection of the best MIDI performance apps? As with the other ‘roundup’ articles I’ve published, the following list is not intended to be exhaustive; simply a list of those apps that I’ve found most useful in this roll. So, read on and enjoy… and if you have other suggestions that you want to add to this selection for other readers to consider, then simply leave a comment at the end of the main article….
Essentially, Chordion (UK£2.49) provides you with a customisable set of pads that you can associate a particular MIDI chord to; tap the pad and the app plays the full chord and will, if required (the app has its own basic synth engine if you want to use that), pass that MIDI data on to your virtual synth or to a MIDI track in your DAW app. In addition, you also get an intelligent ‘note strip’ that you can play melody lines with and that ensures the notes are harmonically correct for the current chord.
Depending upon how you configure the app, you can have up to 24 different chords available to you. These could, of course, include different versions of the same chord perhaps with inversions or other differences in the voicings. Being able to specify chord voicings is very useful when, for example, using Chordion to play things like an orchestral string sound, allowing you to spread the notes of the chord out over more than a single octave.
The other key feature is the pattern sequencer for the drums and an arpeggiator, accessed via the ‘grid-icon-hex-button’. As pattern/step sequencers go, this is not going to win any great prizes for features but it is easy to use and, combined with the internal synth and drum sounds, is very playable. Usefully, the arpeggiator is also available when in MIDI mode so you can transmit your chord performance in an arpeggiated form to your other synth apps if you want to.
Chordion is a brilliant example of something that a touchscreen makes possible under iOS that is not so easily implemented in a desktop computer system. It works very smoothly with other apps and can, if configured correctly, be used to send MIDI data to your desktop music system if required. Perhaps its only downside currently is that it does not yet provide a means of generating MIDI velocity data. That will, I expect, come in a future release but, even so, at its current pocket-money price, Chordion is an absolute no-brainer for non-keyboard players and, even if you have keyboard skills, is far easier than playing a virtual piano keyboard on a touchscreen. The app supports iOS8, Audiobus and IAA.
ChordPolyPad does a similar job to Chordion but, reflecting its higher price, perhaps offers a more comprehensive feature set. You get 8 banks of 16 pads into which you can define any chord you like with full control over how that chord is voiced (the number of notes and their spread across the MIDI note range). You can also switch from the main ‘editing’ display to a ‘performance’ view (where the pads fill almost the whole display) making playing very straightforward and you can also switch between the 8 banks of pads very easily.
It is therefore very easy to see how you can build up a large number of chord pads to use in a performance, whether that performance is for ‘live’ use or simply within a recording context. And with so many pads at your disposal (and the ability to save complete sets of pads as a preset), not only can you have as many different chord types as you might need but also have duplicates of the same chord with different voicings to keep things interesting. If three chords is all you need, then that’s fine but if you like the exotic or are a big jazz fan, the PolyChordPad will allow you to create plenty of variations.
Like Chordion, ChordPolyPad also includes it’s own internal sound engine. There are a range of basic sounds available covering a few pianos, some synths, pads and a string sound. If you already own a few synth or sample-based sound sources, I suspect you probably wouldn’t want to use any of these internal sounds in an actual performance but for building your set of chords on the various pads they are more than adequate.
Where ChordPolyPad really scores is in the detailed way you can configure each pad and the ability to define MIDI controller data to be transmitted based upon where you tap (X-Y) on the pad when triggering the chord. MIDI data can, of course, be transmitted to other iOS music apps such as synths or your MIDI sequencer/DAW (such as Cubasis). The v.1.2.3 update – released at the end of October – also included support for Bluetooth MIDI; if you are running Yosemite on your Mac then ChordPolyPad will work seamlessly with your desktop MIDI instruments.
At UK£8.99, ChordPolyPad is more expensive than Chordion but, if you do any serious amount of MIDI sequencing work, it is still an absolute bargain. While my heart tells me I should be practicing my piano skills, my head knows that apps like this allow me to work much faster (and at a much lower cost than piano lessons) than I would otherwise be able to. You can read the original review of ChordPolyPad here but the app comes highly recommended for all those creating MIDI data, whether your keyboard skills suck as much as mine or not :-)
SoundPrism Pro – produced by Audanika and priced at UK£2.99 – is also a MIDI performance app, although there is an interesting twist when compared to both Chordion and ChordPolyPad. Again the app includes its own audio engine and has a small collection of sounds built in to it (and a number of additional inexpensive IAPs that you can buy to expand upon these), but its real strength is as a performance interface that uses the touchscreen to allow the user to send MIDI data to other synths.
The performance interface provides two elements; a ‘chord’ area and a ‘bass note’ area. On the main screenshot from the iPad version shown here, the chord area dominates the centre/right of the display, while the bass zone is located as a strip down the left edge. In between the two are various buttons that either adjust the performance settings or provide access to further menu options.
As you might expect, tapping a button within the bass zone generates single bass notes. In fact, you can actually play two bass notes at the same time if you wish; the app is ‘multitouch’ and responds to a maximum of two touches within this bass zone.
The chord zone is also multitouch and can respond to up to five simultaneous touches. However, you don’t need to use these to voice chords by using multiple fingers (although, as explained in a minute, you can if you wish). The six buttons that form the left-hand vertical strip of performance options dictate how a touch in the zone generates notes. The choices allow you to generate a single note, two notes or three notes and whether you want those notes repeated over a single octave, two octaves or three octaves. You can, therefore, get a single touch to generate either one note or quite a dense, full chord; the choice is yours.
The chords themselves are either major or minor in flavour. The chord zone is divided into seven lanes and these are alternately light and dark in shading. Tapping on a lighter-shaded lane will generate a major chord while the darker lanes generate minor chords. And, as you move your finger across the chord zone, Soundprism Pro triggers new chords as you swipe; stay in a lane and you get a different voicing for the current chord while switch lanes and you get a new chord. If you send the MIDI output to a piano or to a slow pad sound, either way, it is ridiculously easy to create complex chord performances.
However, aside from creating bass/chord parts with a single target synth, SoundPrism Pro has another trick up its sleeve. As noted above, you can apply two touches to the bass zone and up to five to the chord zone. Via the MIDI preferences settings, you can assign each of these ‘touches’ to a different MIDI channel number. If you then have multiple iOS synth apps running in the background, and you specify a particular MIDI channel for each to respond to, you can use SoundPrism Pro to create multiple parts with a single performance.
SoundPrism Pro is a very creative tool for chord/bass MIDI parts, particularly so if you like to work with ambient styles, although it can also be used to bash out some cool dance chords if that’s your thing. The app is iOS8 ready.
SoundPrism Pro offers something different to Chordion or ChordPolyPad. While almost anyone could use SoundPrism Pro to create harmonically correct music, a little bit of musical knowledge opens up the possibilities further. This is a seriously well thought out MIDI performance tool that almost any iOS musician could benefit from.
At the opposite end of the App Store price range is Synthecaster (UK£0.69). Daniel Resnick’s MIDI performance app might well appeal to the guitar and bass playing iOS musician community, as the MIDI performance interface design is definitely ‘guitarist-friendly’.
Synthecaster (UK£0.69) is perhaps intended primarily as an alternative performance interface that can be used to send MIDI data out to other iOS music apps (or to desktop software if you have a suitable MIDI connection). However, it does include a very usable synth engine so the inclusion of both IAA and Audiobus support within the app make good sense. The app is also iOS8 ready.
On the iPad (the display is slightly different on an iPhone), you get six rows of colourful note triggers (and three on the iPhone version). These note ‘keys’ are colour-coded in relation to pitch (all G notes are one colour, all B notes another, etc.).
By default, the interval between each row of notes is 5 semitones, as on the lower four strings of standard guitar tuning, and that sort of makes the ‘caster’ (as in Stratocaster) element of the app’s name make sense. If you are a guitar player, this will feel instantly familiar although you can adjust these settings as required.
While the note layout is suggestive of a guitar, unlike a guitar, with Synthecaster you can play more than one note on the same ‘string’ (row of notes) at the same time (up to the total iPad polyphonic maximum of seven notes). Depending upon how you set the Glide control (in the Osc settings options), as you tap and slide along a row of notes Synthecaster will either play each note individually or gradually pitchbend (glide) between them. There are some nice effects to be had here.
In addition, if you tap a note and then slide it vertically up or down, you get a pitchbend effect on that note. And like a guitar – but unlike the response you get with most synth pitchbend wheels – if you are playing several notes, you can choose to just bend a single note in this way; the pitchbend is note-specific rather than global
In sending out MIDI data, Synthecaster transmits on multiple MIDI channels so this could be a very flexible system, particularly if you are sending data to a multi-timbral synth that can play multiple sounds on multiple channels at the same time. In addition, it means that the single note pitchbend (with other notes being played at the same time but not being pitch bent) is still possible. However, if you set your iOS synth to OMNI mode, it can then receive MIDI data from any of Synthecaster’s MIDI channels and play them back as a polyphonic part with a single sound.
Just as with the other apps listed here, Synthecaster capitalises on the touchscreen capabilities provided by an iPad to give musicians an alternative interface for music creation. It could appeal to almost any musician but I suspect guitar-playing, keyboard-challenged musicians (like me) in particular would find this a useful tool.
Like most of the other apps in this list, Gestrument (UK£5.49) does include it’s own sound engine, built around a sample-based GM-compatible sound set, and while these sounds are perfectly respectable and allow you to experiment with what the app is capable of, the prime purpose of the app is really as a generator of MIDI data to be sent to other music apps. In that sense, it is very similar to Chordion, with its basic internal synth engine, but the expectation that most users will really want to feed the MIDI data to a more sophisticated sound source.
As its name suggests, you ‘play’ Gestrument through gestures. One-finger gestures will work but, with a second finger, you can also add some extra performance details such as dynamics (MIDI velocity); essentially, the wider you ‘spread’ your fingers, the higher the MIDI velocity generated, although this second finger can also be used to control other elements of the performance.
The main functions of Gestrument are dived between two screens; a Performance screen with the main touchscreen playing area and the Editor screen where you can configure how the app will respond to your finger-based gestures. The app includes a recording facility for both audio and MIDI as well as being able to send and receive MIDI data via Virtual MIDI. You could, therefore, use an external MIDI control surface to tweak the app’s performance options while you generated MIDI notes on the touchscreen. Equally, the app will send MIDI data onwards to other apps (or beyond) if you want to use it as a performance surface for your desktop-based synths.
The exact configuration of the playing surface is user-configurable via the Editor screen but, in essence, the note pitches generated are lower at the base of the screen and get higher towards to top. The left-right axis controls how many notes are generated, with fewer to the left and more to the right.
To ‘play’ the instrument, you can tap or, more usually, tap and hold or tap and slide. As you do, Gestrument applies its magic and, based upon the ‘rules’ you have configured within the Editor, MIDI notes will be generated. In this sense, Gestrument also has some ‘generative music app’ characteristics and is perhaps a little less direct than apps such as Chordion, ChordPolyPad or Synthecaster.
One other interesting aspect of the app is that Gestrument can generate up to eight parts (sounds) from a single finger gesture. If using the internal sounds, each of these eight parts is monophonic and based upon one of the sample-based GM sounds built-in to the app, although there is no reason why you can’t set up the same sound on more than one part and create something polyphonic. When using the app to drive an external synth (iOS or on the desktop), as you can specify the MIDI channel that each of the eight parts is transmitted on, you can take your pick as to how your external synths respond; eight individual monophonic synths, eight note polyphony for a single synth or some combination between these extremes.
Gestrument is a very intriguing app. It combines the very best of what iOS touchscreen music creation is about into something that is both creative and inspiring without being difficult to play. Yet, beneath the surface is a very clever set of musical ‘rules’ that allow those who take the time to master their subtleties to define how the app generates a performance and point it into certain musical directions. Yes, the performance still has a random element to it but, from a creative perspective, that should be seen as one of the app’s key strengths.
If you like the way a touchscreen provides you with alternatives to MIDI keyboards for music creation, Chordion or ChordPolyPad or Synthecaster and Gestrument compliment each other brilliantly. If you have some chords and a melody in mind, pull out something like Chordion and get the job done that way. If you want something more experimental and want to be surprised and inspired by what might appear, then Gestrument is just the tool.
I reviewed Navichord back in September after it was first launched. I was impressed with the app and it was (is still) a brilliant example of an app that does one thing but does it very well. On first launch, that ‘one thing’ was function as a rather beautiful means to explore the harmonic construction of chords and melody using something that combined the best of touchscreen visuals with the ‘conventional’ in the form of a virtual piano keyboard.
Navichord has its own sounds so you can play ‘shapes’ using the arrangement of notes in the upper part of the screen. However, if you tap in the space between a set of three notes, you will get a chord build on those three notes. And, given the way the notes are arranged in this grid, if you tap in the space represented by an upwards pointing triangle then you get a simple major chord while, in contrast, if you tap in the space between a downwards pointing triangle, then you get a minor chord.
One-fingered, triangle shaped, major and minor chords are not all you can do though. If you use a second finger while playing a basic ‘chord triangle’ then you can create 7th, maj 7th, m7, add 9 and a few others besides (especially for the jazz types!). Equally, if you play three adjacent notes along a diagonal, you get either a diminished or an augmented chord depending upon which direction the diagonal runs in. In fact, any combination of finger presses can be used in this upper grid and, even if you don’t really know what you are doing, Navichord will tell you if you have struck lucky and, if it exists in its library, will ‘name that chord’ for you.
Developer Denis Kutuzov released an update to Navichord just a few days ago (v.1.1). This added a number of significant new features but, for the purposes of this review, they key one is MIDI out. This means that you can now use the app as a MIDI performance surface. This works very well and, in addition, the virtual piano keyboard that you use for melody parts now provides velocity sensitivity by way of where you tap on the key (bottom of key gives higher MIDI velocity).
So, while Navichord started life as something that was perhaps more about musical exploration and chord theory education, it has now become a rather nice MIDI performance tool as well. It’s iPad only, requires iOS& or later (and supports iOS8) and, at UK£4.99, represents very good value for money.
I’ve not got around to doing a full review on Musix Pro (UK£6.99) on the Music App Blog website but this is another interesting contender for your MIDI performance app needs. Unlike an app such as Chordion or ChordPolyPad, Musix Pro doesn’t feature single pads that trigger a whole chord. Like Synthecaster, what you get instead is a single note-based display. However, in the case of Musix Pro, the default layout is hexagon based and, depending upon the key/scale combination you select, certain notes are highlighted to guide you in note selection.
While there are all sorts of settings that you can tweak to change the layout to suit your own preferences (including the ability to disable notes that are not in the selected key/scale), whatever layout you use produces a consistent harmonic pattern. In practice, what this means is that a certain ‘shape’ on notes will always play the same type of chord. So, for example, if in a given layout, C major is played by tapping three notes in a vertical line, any three notes in a vertical line will also produce a major chord.
This consistent harmonic structure actually makes playing chords in Musix Pro very straightforward and, once you have found the appropriate ‘shapes’ for the chord types you need, you can easily combine chords and melody by using both hands to play at the same time. Equally, however, the app serves as a bit of subliminal music theory trainer; in seeing these chord ‘shapes’, you can’t help but absorb just what notes actually make up a specific chord.
The app has a number of internal sounds you can use to explore. These are OK but it is obviously more fun to toggle on the MIDI out feature and pass the MIDI data to another iOS instrument (or beyond to the desktop). This is very easy to configure. The app supports iOS8 and Audiobus.
Musix Pro perhaps takes a little more learning than something like Chordion but it perhaps has less of a learning curve than an app such as ChordPolyPad. However, if you likethe idea of combining a MIDI performance app with a bit of music theory exposure, developer Shiverware have created a rather elegant interface with which to do it.
Last on my personal list is Fiddlewax Pro and, while this does more than function as a MIDI performance tool – the app is also cutting-edge musical instrument, part virtual drum kit, part multi-channel MIDI looper, part audio idea catcher, part virtual instrument and part ‘song idea sketch pad’ – given that it provides a sophisticated set of chord trigger pads and a scale/chord constrained virtual ‘keyboard’ (think of it as a harmonically correct melody strip) and that it can transmit MIDI data to other apps, it has the required features to perform the MIDI performance role.
I’ll leave you to read the full review of the app elsewhere on the site for all the details on the other aspects of the app but, from a MIDI performance perspective, the chord section is very interesting. Unlike the more streamlined view of chord buttons that an app like Chordion gives you, here you get a large button for each of the main chords in the current key/mode combination and then, surrounding it, you get a whole range of variations. You can, therefore, easily play sus2, sus4, 6th, 7th, 9th, etc. variations as well as somewhat ‘out of key’ variants such as sharp/flat of major/minor.
These pads, while quite small, are also velocity sensitive in that tapping close to a pad centre produces a louder sound (higher MIDI velocity). When you play a chord using this zone, the button lights up blue (and stays blue until you play another chord). The other buttons in the chord panel are either grey (to indicate they are ‘in key’) or black (out of key).
The ‘virtual keyboard section of the display offers up to three ‘lanes’ (you can tweak this display by zooming in/out) and the bottom two rows of note buttons are quite clever. The upper one shows just the notes from the current key/scale combination. Like some of the ‘scale dependent’ virtual keyboards in other iOS music apps, hit something here and it is pretty much impossible to play a duff note. The lower (bottom-most) row is dynamic in that its content changes based upon the most recent chord triggered… and it only shows notes from within that chord. Again, notes played here will not only be ‘in key’ they will also be ‘in chord’.
The internal sounds are more than adequate for experimenting with the app (or for using it in one of its other ‘roles’ such as a MIDI idea sketch pad) but it is also easy to send the generated MIDI data onwards to other iOS apps (or beyond). The app supports iOS8, Audiobus and IAA. At UK£13.99, it is one of the more expensive apps in this list but then it is actually somewhat more than just a MIDI performance tool. However, if the other aspects of the app are of interest, then the MIDI performance elements are well thought out and implemented; one app, multiple functions.
Experienced iOS musicians may well be able to think of a few other contenders for this list so do feel free to chip in below via the comments section if my own personal selections have missed a favourite of your own. If I was looking to buy my first MIDI performance app – and my keyboard skills were basic (yep, mine actually are) – then I don’t think you could go far wrong with an app like Chordion as an introduction to the genre.
Beyond that, however, any of the apps here have something unique to offer in their own way and there is no reason at all why you might not get good use out of two or three of these apps simply because they each have their own particular strengths.
What all of these apps demonstrate, however, is just what a touchscreen interface can offer to musicians. In the hands of the right iOS music app developer – the ones that are prepared to think beyond virtual piano keys or virtual guitar stings – the iPad (or iPhone) screen can be a powerful and intuitive ‘performance’ instrument in its own right. As a means of getting MIDI data into your iOS synths or iOS MIDI sequencer – or even into external MIDI hardware or your computer – MIDI performance apps have a lot to offer. If you do a lot of MIDI sequencing work but don’t have the keyboard skills required, having two or three of these apps in your toolkit is going to pay for itself in time saved doing multiple takes or editing duff MIDI notes. Money well spent….