I reviewed a new iOS MIDI sequencer app last week – Fugue Machine from Alexandernaut – a rather wonderful, and very iOS, take on creative MIDI sequencing. Fugue Machine is a brilliant concept and offers some unique and very creative features but it isn’t a MIDI sequencer in the same sense that, for example, Cubasis (or Auria Pro when it arrives) is a MIDI sequencer. Indeed, while the ‘desktop-lite’ approach available in Cubasis etc. is great for a more conventional approach to MIDI sequencing, one of the things that is so interesting about iOS as a music making platform is that indie developers are constantly offering us novel ways to approach what a ‘MIDI sequencer’ is and the things it might do.
Another week, and another offering…. hot on the heels of Fugue Machine comes midiSTEPs. This is another – again somewhat different – take on the MIDI sequencer. There is some considerable iOS pedigree behind midiSTEPs as the developer is Art Kerns who will be well known to regular iOS musicians through apps such as midiLFOs and Funkbox, both of which I’ve reviewed here on the Music App Blog in the past.
So, do we need another MIDI sequencer for iOS and, more specifically, do you need another MIDI sequencer sitting on your iPad? Let’s find out.
Apparently, the design ethos behind midiSTEPs is based upon the sequencing tools built into the original (classic) SH-101 sequencer; Art’s idea was to create something super-simple to use that allows patterns to be created quickly. However, if you then want to dig a little deeper – and started controlling step-level data – then you can also do that.
In fact, what you get here is, at one level, a fairly conventional approach; midiSTEPs sequencing is built around step-based patterns. Patterns can feature up to 64 steps (with control over step-length relative to the musical grid) and you can create 16 patterns. However, the first less conventional element is that you can do all this four times; midiSTEPs actually offers you four separate, but linked, MIDI sequencers (each accessed via the different colour-coded tabs at the base of the main screen).
What’s more, you can specify a different MIDI output destination for each of these four sequencers so, if you want to drive four different synth apps, send MIDFI data to four different MIDI tracks within a more ‘conventional’ MIDI sequencer, or send data to four channels of a single multi-timbral virtual instrument (bs-16i or SampleTank, for example), then that’s also possible.
Back to the conventional (although perhaps adding some more modern touches to the SH-101 inspiration), at a step-level within a pattern, you get to edit velocity, add accents, place rests or ties and add MIDI CC data. The majority of the tools for doing this are accessed via the Options button (located within the strip of controls that runs along the centre of the main screen). When just doing basic note/rest/tie/accent data entry – that is, when first creating a new pattern – all these additional controls are, in effect, ‘hidden’ behind the Options button. This does make for a very straightforward and streamlined interface; initial pattern creation is, therefore, a quick and easy process.
Perhaps the other obvious ‘unconventional’ – but also both interesting and highly creative – option that midiSTEPs offers is that you can vary the length of patterns on an individual pattern basis. This opens up all sorts of possibilities. Yes, you can have a pattern for a bass part that is 16 steps on the first of the four sequencers and then a melodic or chord pattern (yep, you can have multiple notes on a step to create chords) on the second sequencer that is 64 steps so that the bass pattern repeats exactly four times for each cycle through the melody pattern. However, if you also want to run a 16 step pattern alongside a 15 step pattern (or any other combination of non-matching pattern lengths) then that is also possible. This is a big deal as it makes possible all sorts of interesting rhythmic and harmonic possibilities….
At a more mundane technical level, midiSTEPs is currently priced at UK£7.99, requires an iPad running iOS8.2 or later and is a 3MB download. There is support for MIDI Clock sync (both send and receive), MIDI in (for example, for MIDI note in or so you can trigger patterns and other functions from a MIDI keyboard; there is a MIDI mapping function that lets you configure this) and a global ‘swing’ control if you want to apply a bit of a groove.
Basic pattern creation in midiSTEPs is a bit of a doddle (and therefore also a bit of a joy). Whether using a MIDI keyboard, or the virtual keyboard at the base of the screen, once you have selected which sequencer you wish to use (blue, red, green or grey) and which empty pattern slot to place your pattern into (tap the pattern button located top-centre and make a selection from the pop-up panel that appears), it’s then just a question of entering notes.
You do need to make sure you are in ‘record’ mode first though. Tap the button just to the right of the ‘cc’ button in the central strip. This will toggle through three functions; Record, Pattern and Transp and certain elements of the display will change as you move between these different modes. Record is (obviously) where you want to be for pattern creation. Pattern mode allows you to use the virtual keyboard to switch between patterns for the currently selected sequencer (blue, red, green or grey) when the sequencer is in playback. Transp allows you to use the virtual keyboard to transpose the current pattern in real-time while in playback.
And talking of playback, while midiSTEPs main performance controls are to be found in the Pattern Mix screen (the tab for this is located bottom-right), two buttons located top-left allow you to start either all four sequencers (the currently selected pattern for each will be played) or just the one currently shown in the main screen (effectively allowing you to solo just the pattern you are currently looking at).
This works as a conventional step-based sequencer so, once you have played a note (or multiple notes together), these notes are placed in the first step and the sequencer then automatically moves you on to the next step, etc. In this way, you can quickly enter a pattern. As you add notes/steps (or rests and ties; there are dedicated buttons for these functions within the middle strip of buttons), the pattern length automatically increases (the steps light up and start/stop markers appear around the first and last steps used). Patterns can be anywhere between 1 and 64 steps long and, as shown in the various screenshots here, once you add something beyond the 16th step, the display changes to show a 64 step grid with slightly more compact step buttons.
Once a pattern is created, various editing options are available. These are accessed in various ways depending upon what you want to do. For example, if you want to simply edit the notes associated with a step, simply tap and hold; the colouring of the screen will change (indicated that you are in ‘edit’ mode) and you can then hit some different notes or apply one of the other functions (tie, rest, clear, etc.). As soon as you release your finger from the step being edited, you leave edit mode, although you can press the ‘hold’ button that appears when in edit mode to change this behaviour temporarily if you prefer.
Whilst in record mode, if you tap on the Options button, you can do a number of things. For example, you can tweak the default MIDI note velocity and accent velocity levels, adjust the note lengths and step speed. However, this pop-up panel also includes options for how the patterns playback and sync with each other. There are plenty of choices amongst these settings and, if you want to keep things easy, then everything can be set to sync while if you want more creative control, then you can opt for that also (for example, so patterns trigger as soon as you tell them to rather than waiting for the next bar division to roll around).
Tapping the ‘cc’ button squeezes the virtual keyboard graphics a little and up pop three MIDI CC sliders. By default, these allow you to adjust velocity, length and MIDI CC no 74 (often used for a filter parameter on synths). By tapping and holding on a step (to enter edit mode), you can then adjust these slider setting for step-level control. The graphics of each step show three virtual slider settings so you get a visual cue as to which steps have had these values adjusted from the default values). In addition, if you tap and hold on the names of the three sliders themselves, a pop-up selection panel appears so you can change the parameter to be set (you are not, therefore, limited to just velocity, length or MIDI CC 74).
Once you have created a pattern you can, of course, copy it and paste it into a second pattern slot; just tap the ‘pattern’ button at the top-centre and copy/paste options appear. However, I couldn’t find an option for copying patterns between the four different sequencers. Art Kerns tells me this is a genuine wrinkle in the original release; it should be possible and an update is on its way to fix it. That’s good to hear as this is (obviously) something folk would want to do quite a lot.
There are plenty of other useful tools for pattern manipulation though. With a pattern selected, tap the Tools button (in the top strip) and a number of useful presets for pattern adjustment appear. midiSTEPs therefore makes it easy to start with a single pattern and soon create some interesting variations based upon it.
There are other details tucked away in the sequencer section that I haven’t mentioned here but I hope this gives you a sense of what’s possible. The bottom line here, however, is that initial pattern creation is very straightforward and rapid because of the slick and simplified user interface. However, when you then need to dig in to spice things up a bit, midiSTEPs lets you do that also without getting bogged down in too many choices and a cluttered control set.
Of course, if you are going to hear anything of these patterns, you need a sound source. Unlike some sequencer apps, midiSTEPs doesn’t include any internal sounds so you will need to use the MIDI out features to link each of the four sequencers to a suitable synth or virtual instrument app.
For my own testing, I tried a number of my favourite iOS synths and had no problems at all getting them to respond to midiSTEPs. In the end, I did most of my testing using four basic sample-based sounds in the multi-timbral bs-16i, but you could just as easily be running four individual synth apps alongside midiSTEPs providing your iPad is up to the task.
Usefully, once you have selected a suitable MIDI destination for one of the sequencers, the label on the colour-coded tab at the base of the screen changes to reflect this so you have a suitable memory jog as to what MIDI data is heading off where.
In the mix
Once you have assembled a bunch of patterns in your project – oh, and saved your pattern collection via the big Save button located top-right – flipping over to the pattern Mix screen then allows you to get busy triggering them to create a performance. This screen is very neatly laid out and, even in a live performance context, most folks would probably find the various trigger buttons large enough to get along with.
For each of the four sequencers you get a grid of 16 numbered buttons to triggering patterns plus mute, solo, start and record buttons. You can also tap on the large buttons that indicate the MIDI destination for each sequencer and reset the destination or change the sync options.
For any one of the four sequencers, only one pattern can be played back at a time. Tapping on a numbered button will cause that pattern to be triggered and, depending upon how you have set up the various ‘sync’ settings, the new pattern will either trigger straight away or wait for the current pattern to complete before starting. There are various options here so plenty of flexibility depending upon how you like to work. However, if you let the app handle all the ‘syncing’, then even a total MIDI novice can get something going here once a few patterns have been created.
With options to mute and solo, it is also possible to make a live ‘performance’ of your patterns breath a little and, all in all, this screen is very well designed. The only problem I encountered was when I hit the Record button here (this allows you to direct incoming MIDI data to a specific sequencer/pattern combination); if I actually tried to then enter some MIDI data from my external keyboard, midiSTEPs didn’t seem to like it too much. This might be something specific related to my test system but, if not, I’m sure Art will be on to the issue in a flash. Recording while viewing one of the four sequencer screen worked fine.
In use, I found the pattern creation and editing features an absolute please within midiSTEPs. This is down to a rather beautiful, simple, visual design and some good choices about which features to have readily available (note entry, rests, ties, etc.) and which to hide behind some menu options (more detailed step editing settings). Equally, the Pattern Mix page is great fun to play with once you have a suitable set of MIDI patterns created.
As a basic step-based sequencer, midiSTEPs is, therefore, a great tool and, while there is plenty hear to appeal to the more experienced MIDI meddler, equally, I can imagine MIDI newbies finding this not too daunting. This is helped by the fact that the app’s website has a very well written PDF reference manual available. Hats off to Art for putting this together as it is very information; RTFM.
However, this simple exterior is a bit of a front because as soon as you start to explore what’s possible in terms of both step-level editing and, in particular, options for combining patterns of different step lengths, all sorts of creative options open up. I managed to lose a lovely couple of hours exploring how two simple patterns of 64 and 63 steps respectively could me played together and how their two melodic phrases interwove with each other as the one pattern cycled through one step more quickly than the other. The ability to create what seem like endlessly evolving phrases is, therefore, considerable.
It might not make any sound itself, but booked up to a few synths or a multi-timbral sound source, and with some suitable sounds selected, midiSTEPs is a powerful musical tool wrapped up in a rather friendly and inviting user-interface.
As noted above, I did have a few minor technical issues with the v.1.0 release. The only other thing (and perhaps no surprises here) is that I couldn’t get much joy from the MIDI Clock sync either ‘send’ or ‘receive’. That said, there is nothing here that is particularly problematic and that I couldn’t work around…. not that would stop me using the app to get a shed-load of creative fun from what it can do. And I’d fully expect the developer to be on top of any wrinkles in a pretty prompt fashion. I’ll keep you posted.
There are all sorts of limitations to making music on a mobile platform but one of the reasons I love iOS music technology is that is provides a format where independent developers can make their pitch and get some attention. And, while we do get some ‘me too!’ apps that mimic others or something from the desktop (albeit serving a useful function in their own right), it’s those apps that, on occasions, just pop up on the App Store and offer us a twist. midiSTEPs – as with Fugue Machine last week – is an excellent example of that.
Step-based sequencing is, of course, perhaps more suited to some musical styles than others so, unless you are just into dance, electronic or perhaps ambient styles, then midiSTEPs is perhaps not going to be the only MIDI sequencer that you might need to have installed on your iPad. However, at UK£7.99, it offers a heck of a lot of features, a beautiful design and plenty of creative possibilities. It is also a pleasure to use providing , of course, you are comfortable with the a step-based approach. This is another top-notch example of iOS music making tools at their best; Art Kerns… take a bow…. midiSTEPs comes highly recommended.