There were quite a few interesting iOS music products whose primary launch was timed to hit the winter NAMM show held last week. However, in terms of apps, there is little doubting the product that received most of the headlines; Korg’s Gadget.
Having now had a few days to explore the app in some detail, I have to say I’m very impressed…. it’s not yet ‘perfect’ (not in a ‘buggy’ sort of a way – on that front the performance on my iPad Air test system seems very solid – but more in terms of all the features it would be nice to see) but, as a first release, this is a heck of a statement from Korg.
So what is Gadget? In essence, this is perhaps best described as an all-in-one electronic music production platform. It contains a range of virtual instruments – synths, drum machines and sample-playback devices – all of which can be combined in a production system built around a very slick pattern-based sequencing environment with ‘scenes’ (song sections) that allow you to create a full musical arrangement and topped off with a straightforward mixer system including effects.
In terms of what Gadget is not, well, it’s not a DAW in the sense that it doesn’t do audio recording (yet at least). Nor does it allow you to record and sample your own audio (it offers sample playback but not, as yet, for your own samples; only those included within the app). Equally, as of this first release, there is no Audiobus or IAA support so, if you want to use your Gadget devices as part of a wider musical workflow, you will need to export as audio and then import into other apps for further work. It is worth noting, however, that Korg have already made very positive noises about their development plan for Gadget so I suspect it will not be too long before these obvious (and maybe some not so obvious?) features are added.
At the outset it is also worth stating that this is an iPad only app and that it requires iOS7; if you still have not moved to iOS7 this might just be the push you need. Also worth noting is that Gadget includes a fairly painless track freezing capability. This would allow users of older iPad hardware to still get good use out of the app. On that front, while I did the bulk of my testing on an iPad Air, I did give Gadget a workout on an older iPad 3 and, on the whole, it was still a very smooth experience. Finally, before digging in any deeper, be aware that Gadget is, in the main, a ‘portrait-only’ app; most of the action takes place with your iPad orientated vertically rather than horizontally.
In terms of other music production environments you might be familiar with, Gadget can obviously be compared with other iOS apps such as NanoStudio or, perhaps more closely, Caustic. In the desktop world, the obvious comparison is with the earlier versions of Reason. As I mentioned earlier; an electronic music production environment based upon a variety of synth-based sound sources, MIDI sequencing (in this case, pattern based rather than track based) and mixing.
OK, with that basic context in place, let’s start with the key elements of the user interface. When you start Gadget, it automatically loads the song (project) that you were previously working on. This opening display is split vertically. At the bottom you get a Mixer panel with a Master channel (far left and always in view) and then a separate channel for each of the Gadget devices you have added to your project. You can see five of these channels at once but if your project contains more than five devices then you simply swipe left/right to see the others.
For each mixer channel you get a level fader, knobs to set pan and the send level to the global reverb and solo and mute buttons. This is pretty basic stuff but it contains all the key elements. The Master channel has buttons to toggle on/off the global Limiter (applied across the stereo output) and the length of the global reverb effect.
Underneath the Mixer are the transport controls to playback and recording. You can also set the tempo and engage the metronome function here. Located bottom-left is the Functions button; this one is important and it is also context sensitive; as we will see later, exactly what ‘functions’ it gives you access to depends upon what else is going on in the display. When you switch the display to one of the additional modes offered (more on these in a minute), the array of buttons that appears in this bottom-most strip also changes to include additional features.
The top half of the window shows an overview of your patterns (although, in Gadget speak, these are actually referred to as ‘clips’) for each device and their organisation into ‘scenes’. The scenes are numbered from 1 upwards and if you have more than the five scenes that are visible at one time then, again, a quick swipe up/down will reveal more scenes.
The clips (patterns) associated with each device are shown vertically above the mixer channel for that device and, as you scroll left/right across the mixer, so the clips visible to you also scroll left/right so you see the appropriate clips for each device at all times.
If you tap on one of the clips (patterns – I’ll stop repeating this now; hopefully you have got the idea), or tap on the instrument icon at the top of each Mixer channel, this triggers a complete change in the display. In the top half of the screen the clip appears in a piano-roll editor. Here you can access all the MIDI editing options. In the lower half of the display the device’s control panel opens so you can tweak the settings of the device, load presets or, via a virtual keyboard (although this is perhaps more accurately described as a ‘performance panel’), play the instrument.
Going for a song
In terms of understanding how Gadget allows song construction, the combination of clips and scenes is key. You can think of a scene as a discrete song section – intro, verse, chorus, breakdown, outro, etc. – and the length of these song sections are defined by the length of the longest clip within the scene.
Clips themselves can be between 1 and 8 bars in length. You can, however, mix and match clip lengths within a scene. For example, you might have a drum device playing a single bar (the clip is a 1 bar pattern), while a bass sound has a clip length of 2 bars and a lead synth has a clip length of 8 bars. Clips that are shorter than the longest clip used within a scene can be set to either loop (so, in our example, the drum clip would loop 8 times while the lead synth clip played once) or just to play as ‘one-shots’ (the drum loop would play just once at the start of the scene and then we would get 7 bars without drums).
There are other elements that come into play here though and which add to the flexibility with which you can construct your overall song structure. First, while the maximum length of a clip (and hence a scene) is 8 bars, you can set a scene to repeat a number of times. When you initiate playback via the transport controls, providing you don’t have the Loop button engaged (this forces the current scene to play back on continuous loop), Gadget simply plays back each scene in turn, starting from Scene 1 and progressing through to the last scene.
However, you can also set a scene to repeat a number of times once it is reached (tapping that Function button with the main display in view brings up a multitude of options, one of which allows you to set the number of times a scene repeats before Gadget moves on to the next scene). Equally, having created your various scenes, you can re-order them by simply tapping and holding on the scene number and then dragging it up or down. Scenes automatically renumber when you do this.
You can also initiate playback by tapping any of the scene ‘play’ buttons and Gadget will begin playback from that point. If you just want to ‘jam’ with your scenes, playing them back in sequence as the mood strikes, tapping on a second play button for a different scene will trigger that scene once the currently playing scene reaches the end of its playback. This would be great in a live context. Navigation for this sort of free-form arranging is made easier by turning on the full-screen view for the scenes; simply tap the double-headed icon located top-right (next to the Settings button).
As mentioned above, the Function button brings up all sorts of options when you have the main split-screen Mixer/Scene overview in view. In terms of the scene and clip arranging, you can delete, duplicate, insert a new scene or change the time signature/number of repeats of a scene, while for the clips you can mute, copy, clear or change their length.
Incidentally, there are also options for the Mixer section that appear here. You can delete a channel, duplicate it, change the device (synth) associated with it or, if your iPad is beginning to wheeze, freeze a channel. This essentially renders the channel to an audio file that, when used for playback, places a lower load on the iPad. You can, of course, unfreeze a track if you want to do further editing on it at a later stage.
As noted earlier, tapping on a clip within the upper half of the display (or on the device icon) opens the piano roll MIDI editor for that clip. By default, this is zoomed in to show a single bar and, if the clip is more than a single bar in length, you can tab through the bars in turn using the bar timeline shown along the top of the editor. However, using a two-fingered pinch or spread gesture, you can zoom in/out horizontally. If you want to simply scroll either horizontally or vertically (to see a different section of the piano key range), then you also need to use two fingers to do this; single finger gestures are how you add and edit notes.
Top-left of the MIDI editor are two buttons labelled Draw and Select. As might be expected, these change the way in which the editor screen responds to your one-fingered fiddling. Draw mode – as you might expect – allows you to draw notes in, delete them (tap on an existing note), move them (by dragging the center of the note) or change their length (grab the end portion of the note and drag).
When using the piano roll editor, a Quantize button appears bottom-left of the display (next to the Function button). This allows you to toggle note quantizing on/off and it applies to both notes added via the touch screen or, if you have a suitable MIDI keyboard connected, playing in live when you have record mode on. Apparently, if you edit a note, the Quantize button should temporarily switch to become an Undo button so you can undo the last edit made. I have to say that this behaviour didn’t always seem to happen during my testing. A more robust ‘undo’ system would be something I’d certainly like to see on the Gadget ‘to do’ list.
At the base of the piano roll editor are what look like a bunch of lollipops on sticks. These are, of course, MIDI velocity data and, if you tap in this area, it expands upwards so you can edit the velocity of any note. In fact, velocity is only one of many parameters you can edit in this mode and you can edit any clip-level automation here for the current device.
For example, if you activate record and let the current scene loop, you can use the onscreen controls for the current device to adjust the sound during playback. Those parameter adjustments are recorded as part of the clip and, when you then tap on the lollipop display to expand it, you will see a set of tabbed lanes on the left-hand side of the screen for every parameter you tweaked. Select any one of these and you see that data in the main display rather than the MIDI velocity data. You can then make further edits by simply drawing on the screen. Essentially, what you have here is a device-level, clip-based, automation system and it works pretty well.
Incidentally, I had no problems hooking a MIDI keyboard up to Gadget for recording duties but do note that the keyboard will only be active when you have the piano-roll/device control panel view open. However, I couldn’t see any way at present to use the hardware controls on my MIDI keyboard (rotary knobs, drum pads, etc.) to control parameters in the Gadget devices. Some sort of ‘MIDI learn’ facility would obviously be very welcome.
I’ve always found MIDI editing on a touchscreen to be a bit of a pain in the a** frankly (it is one of the areas where a mouse is actually a better tool for the job). That said, Korg deserve a pat of the back for what they have created in Gadget. No, it’s not perfect, and there are plenty of other features you might like to see added, but it is one of the better attempts at iOS piano-roll MIDI editing I’ve experienced and, on the whole, is very easy to use. As an aside, for the single-fingered editing tasks, I found using a stylus designed for the iPad (I use a Griffin model) made things even easier.
Gadget gallery (part 1)
So far, I’ve focussed on the key concepts that structure a Gadget song; tracks, clips and scenes that, between them, allow you to build a musical arrangement and the MIDI editing facilities that allow you to create and edit the smallest building block of this structure – the individual clip. Bar a couple of minor quirks (and, I’m sure, a wishlist of additional features it might be nice to see added), this is both simple to understand, flexible and rather beautifully implemented in terms of the user interface design.
However, all this clip and scene creation is only so much froth without the sound sources to capitalise on it – so how do Gadget’s ‘gadgets’ stand up?
This first release of Gadget is shipped with 15 different devices. These are split between 12 ‘synth’ gadgets and 3 ‘drum machine’ gadgets. These are all given names based upon locations; Berlin, Dublin, Brussels, Tokyo, etc. While I can see how some of these might have a link to the sounds produced by the device (so the Berlin mono synth might offer some sounds associated with a well-known German synth band), many are perhaps more of an attempt to sound exotic rather than actually having any great meaning. That said, naming conventions aside, without exception, the sounds these devices make are pretty darn good….
The three drum machines – London, Amsterdam and Tokyo – all bring something different to the party. London provides the straight-ahead, sample-based electronic drum source. Here you get a kit made of eight samples and the instrument interface features eight pads for triggering those sounds (although they can also be triggered from a MIDI keyboard). Over 60 preset kits are included and these are built for more than 400 individual samples. These cover pretty much all the classic drum machine sounds you are likely to need and there are even a couple of kits based upon more conventional acoustic drum samples. You can also assemble your own kits from the included samples.
As with a number of the instruments, London’s controls are actually spread over multiple screens with buttons located top-center to tab between them. You can also select a single effect from a large number of options and, in short, there are enough sound tweaking option here to keep you interested.
Amsterdam is a very different sort of tool and Korg describe this as a PCM SFX Boombox – errr…. I think that means it plays special effects-style samples. The rather cute graphical interface provides you with a maximum of four different samples slots and you can select the samples from any of the 100+ one-shot sounds that are included. You can also add a global effect, reverse the samples and set the relative levels/pan of each sample.
The final drum device is Tokyo. This is a synth-based drum device and provides four drum synth modules (they look a bit like guitar stomp boxes) that are designed for kick, snare, tom and percussion (i.e. hihat) sounds. Again, you get a single effect that can be applied to any of the four drum sounds if required. Given the rather quirky (almost toy-like) interface, this is a surprisingly flexible source of drum synth sounds.
Finally, it is worth noting that when programming any of the drum machine devices, the MIDI editing display switches from the piano-roll style to something more obviously drum grid-like; most welcome and neatly executed.
With 12 different synth devices, Gadget has more synths than Rick Wakeman’s live rig when Yes were at their flamboyant best (er… worst?). I’ve no intention of going into all of them in detail here but, as you might expect, the 12 devices all offer something different and, while not looking like clones of ‘classic’ synths (old or modern), the inspiration behind many of them is fairly obvious.
Amongst the collection there are, therefore, mono synths (Berlin, Dublin, Brussels, Chiang Mai, Miami and Chicago) and poly synths (Helsinki, Kiev, Kingston, Marseille, Phoenix and Wolfsburg) and different forms of synthesis. This is not a collection of 12 different interfaces onto the same synth engine; each brings its own character to the Gadget toolbox.
For example, if you want some more bread and butter sounds, then Marseille is a good place to start. This is a polyphonic PCM-based synth and, while the sample-base of the individual sounds might not have the depth and details of some sample-based virtual instruments, as a collection of sounds to use within an overall Gadget composition, they are plenty good enough.
If you want some classic analog acid house bass, then Chicago is the place to visit. No prizes for guessing the inspiration behind this one. For something orientated towards bell or metallic sounds, then Chaing Mai ought to be your choice while for synth lead sounds that will rip the dance floor then the monophonic Brussels – with its futuristic interface – is a good choice.
Given just how prevalent dubstep influences have become in all sorts of other genres of music, if you fancy a bit of a wobble then the Miami mono ‘wobble’ synth is the tool to use. This really is a bit of a treat and it is pretty easy to create some great dubstep wobble bass sounds. As the key parameters that control the speed and depth of your wobble can, of course, also be automated within your clips, there is some excellent creative potential here.
For pads, you can turn to Helsinki as a starting point (although it can do other things also) while Kiev can also turn its hand here (and makes some interesting sci-fi sounds also if that’s your thing) while if you want more conventional analog synth sounds devices such as Phoenix, Dublin and Wolfsburg will take you from ‘classic’ to ‘modern’ depending upon your needs.
Oh, and before I finish, I really should mention Kingston. The interface looks like a classic arcade games console and – guess what? – that’s exactly the types of sounds it produces. If you like chip-tone elements in your tunes, this is Gadget’s tool for the task.
On their own, none of these devices perhaps matches the sheer power of the very best stand-alone synths or drum machines that iOS has to offer. However, as a team – tightly integrated into a brilliant interface and a logical and flexible song arrangement environment – this is a shed-load of cracking sound sources at a ridiculously modest price. If you want to see a full list, I’ve included a screen shot of each device at the end of the review in the ‘Gadget gallery (part 2)’ section.
They are also very playable and that is, in part, down to the very well implemented ‘scale’ option that is available on the various synths. This is not dissimilar to the kind of thing available in lots of iOS synths where the notes available on the virtual keyboard can be constrained to just those within a particular key/scale combination. However, the choice of scale types is impressive and it does mean that duff notes are less likely to result. As mentioned earlier, however, you can play all the devices from an external MIDI keyboard if you prefer.
For the electronic music producer (that is, someone primarily interested in making instrumental music), Gadget is a remarkable tool. For that type of iOS music producer, Korg really have just set the bar significantly higher in the ‘all-in-one’ app category.
What’s not to like?
Even at a first release, Gadget is a very impressive app. That’s not to say that it is perfect though and it is easy to identify a few things that it would be great to see added by way of future updates. The first two – Audiobus and IAA support – are both obvious but essential and, given that Korg have already acknowledged that there is a ‘roadmap’ for future developments of Gadget, it would be remarkable if these additions are not already in their plans.
Korg have already declared that the addition of audio tracks is on their ‘to do’ list. There are no details as to how that might be implemented, and I could imagine it being quite an interesting process to make these work within the context of Gadget’s scene-based song arrangements, but some sort of audio recording would significantly widen the scope and appeal of the app.
If audio tracks are to be included then I suspect it may also mean that a somewhat more sophisticated mixing environment might be required. This might not mean much by way of new features but some additional audio effects (the routine kind of things such as EQ, compression, delay, etc. that form the bread and butter of audio processing) and a means of applying them (insert and send effects architecture) would be a helpful. Equally, some means of mix automation, even if only in terms of channel fader levels, would be highly desirable.
The other obvious thing on my personal Gadget wishlist would be a sampler ‘gadget’ to add to the current list of devices. It would be great to be able to bring in, or record, your own samples and create a playable instrument from them. Equally, it would be very cool if you could import audio loops and have them playback in sync with the project. Whether this is one device or two (one as a sampler and one as a loop player with tempo/pitch stretching) doesn’t really matter but the functionality would be welcome. Equally, it would be great to be able to import your own drum samples into the London PCM drum module.
As ever with iOS, it would be good to see some further developments in terms of MIDI. As I commented earlier, I couldn’t see a way of linking hardware controls to synth parameters in the current version (although please let me know if I’ve missed something here). A solid MIDI clock send/receive engine would also be a useful addition if you want to sync Gadget to other music apps. Finally, some additional MIDI options in terms of editing and quantize features would be great to see as would a more comprehensive ‘undo’ facility; as yet, iOS doesn’t have an app that features a really killer MIDI editing environment and while Gadget is perhaps as good as it currently gets in this regard, there are still strides to be taken.
The above might sound like quite a wishlist…. but don’t let this give you the impression that I think Gadget is still a work in progress. Yes, Korg can still take it forward and obviously have great plans to do so but, even in its current form, this is a hugely impressive piece of software. The interface is slick, the scene/clip system of song construction is easy to use yet very flexible and the collection of devices is diverse covering (almost) every electronic music sound source you might want. Oh, and the MIDI editing isn’t too shabby either and the ‘freeze’ feature means that, while it is obviously a smoother experience on a newer iPad, you can still get work done on an earlier model providing you are already using iOS7.
I would also like to mention that, as well as a built-in ‘tips’ system, from within the app you can also access two clearly written PDF manuals – one on the various devices/gadgets and the other on the ‘studio’ (sequencing) components of the app. These are not too long but cover all the basics in plenty of detail; as a new user they are a great introduction and well worth a read. I really wish all music software developers would explain the basic operation of their creations in such a simple and effective fashion; it makes whatever learning curve there might be instantly more manageable.
The heritage of software such as Reason is easy to see in Gadget and, in iOS terms, NanoStudio is perhaps the original of the type – an all-in-one electronic music creation environment. More interesting perhaps is the direct comparison with Caustic. Indeed, if you just consider the core features, the two apps are obvious competitors. However, the graphical look is very different; Caustic has a very deliberate retro vibe while Gadget has a more contemporary look. They are also produced in very different development contexts; the Gadget team is part of an uber-company with a long history of music technology while Caustic is the work of a small indie developer (and, incidentally, has some of the best video documentation/tutorial material I’ve seen for any music software). There is also a significant price difference between the two apps.
Both are great but, even after a short period using Gadget, I can see the considerable potential it offers and, with the weight of Korg behind it, I suspect that potential might start to be realised sooner rather than later. Gadget’s excellent gadgets aside, I think the scene/clip based arrangement system is both powerful and flexible. Again, it is easy to see how this might evolve into something that crosses over into a fully-blown DAW.
I’m really looking forward to where Korg might take Gadget over the first few update cycles. However, this first iteration is already awesome; if, when we reach the end of 2014, Gadget isn’t a strong contender of ‘music app of the year’ then (a) I’ll be surprised and (b) as iOS musicians it will mean we have been very lucky because something else has come along that is even better than this.
Currently, Gadget is available at a launch price of UK£19.99, 25% off what will be the eventual full price. Even at full price, this is an app that every iOS-owning electronic music maker is going to want to own; at the discounted launch price it is, however, an absolute no-brainer. Hit the download button now and grab yourself a whole app full of musical gadgets courtesy of Korg’s Gadget.
App of the year 2014? Who knows, but Gadget comes very highly recommended.