Modstep review – mega MIDI sequencer for iOS from AppBC

Download from iTunes App StoreModstep logo 1When it comes to MIDI sequencers, the iOS App Store perhaps isn’t as well endowed as it is in some other music app categories. Unlike on the desktop – where pretty much every DAW also features a well-specified MIDI sequencing environment, under iOS we don’t have the same level of choice.

That’s not to say there are not some decent options though. Currently, Auria Pro is perhaps as close as we get to what’s available on the desktop while Cubasis offers a more scaled-down version of the same sort of environment that, for many, strikes a good balance of streamlined workflow and a feature set that feels comfortable on an iPad screen. App such as BeatMaker and MultitrackStudio for iPad also offer very competent MIDI sequencing.

There are also apps that come at the process of MIDI sequencing from a somewhat different direction; not the timeline-based perspective of the standard DAW/sequencer, but a ‘clip’ and ‘scene’ based approach. Korg’s Gadget is perhaps the most high-profile of these. And yet other apps offer other sorts of MIDI sequencing environments; Oscilab, Rytmik Ultimate, Jam Maestro, Caustic, Cotracks, midiSteps or Fugue Machine, for example. These are all brilliant in their own ways and, given the different feature sets, would perhaps appeal to different users or for different types of musical application.

Modstep from AppBC - a fully-blown MIDI sequencer for the iPad with some vey interesting features.

Modstep from AppBC – a fully-blown MIDI sequencer for the iPad with some vey interesting features.

Launched a few weeks ago, Modstep (the same development team that has bought us Studiomux) is now another contender within this category. And, while I’ve been a bit slow off the mark trying to get my head around what Modstep has to offer, I have finally got around to spending some time with the app. So, if you are in the market for an iOS-based MIDI sequencing tool, is Modstep worth a look? Let’s find out….

One step at a time

So what about some Modstep basics? Well, the app comes with a UK£14.99 price tag, as a minimum spec will run under iOS5.1.1 (although newer versions are required for some features to be supported) and pretty much any iPad model (although, again, what apps you can run alongside Modstep will depend upon the spec of your hardware) and is a modest 35 MB download.

The app can be considered a dedicated MIDI sequencer. Within a Modstep project, you can create unlimited (well, limited only by the ability of your iOS hardware to keep up) number of tracks and, within a track, you can create ‘clips’, with each clip containing up to 16 individual patterns and each pattern having 16 steps into which you can put MIDI data. Got that? Phew….

Clips themselves can be triggered individually, with one clip playing at any one time on each track, but can also be triggered as a ‘scene’ (a ‘scene’ represents a horizontal row of clips for all the MIDI tracks).

MIDI 'clips' form the heart of your compositional process with Modstep.

MIDI ‘clips’ form the heart of your compositional process with Modstep.

In many respects, this clip/pattern and scene combination is similar to the MIDI sequencing element of Gadget and, providing you are happy to approach your MIDI sequencing via what is rather like a loop-based approach, where your MIDI data are collected in bar (pattern) lengths or multi-bar (clip) lengths, as opposed to the more ‘linear’ approach found in a standard DAW/sequencer (where a single MIDI ‘clip’ could run the whole length of your project if required), then that’s absolutely fine.

This approach does create a somewhat different workflow but it is both flexible and powerful… and when it comes to a ‘live’ performance of your various MIDI clips, it can bring some very creative options, similar to those found when triggering audio loops using as app such as Launchpad…. except, of course, in Modstep (and Gadget), you are essentially triggering MIDI loops that then trigger sounds from some connected MIDI instruments.

What else? Well, while Modstep doesn’t offer any track-based audio recording (although it can record an audio mixdown for a project for any MIDI instruments it is hosting) to sit alongside its MIDI recording/sequencing, it can make sounds of its own. The app includes two virtual instruments; a synth and a drum machine. However, the app is also a host for IAA apps (instruments and effects) so your MIDI tracks, once created, can have their MIDI data routed to either of the two internal instruments or your favourite iOS synth/drum machine apps.

Modstep offers two internal instruments; a synth shown here....

Modstep offers two internal instruments; a synth shown here….

Or, of course, beyond…. if you have a suitable MIDI interface and want to use Modstep as part of an iOS/MIDI hardware hybrid rig. I think it is important to note that developers AppBC obviously see this as a prime function for Modstep; as a flexible MIDI sequencing environment that could be used ‘live’ (including ‘live’ in the studio) to create a performance based upon pre-recorded MIDI phrases/loops driving a bunch of software or hardware synths.

The sequencing environment doesn’t just include MIDI note data though; you can also record/program more MIDI CC data than you could shake a very large stick at and, if you want some real-time control options, there are comprehensive MIDI mapping options and also XY pads that you can assign MIDI CC numbers to and modulate from there.

... and a sampler shown here that is obviously aimed at drum samples but can be used for other purposes also.

… and a sampler shown here that is obviously aimed at drum samples but can be used for other purposes also.

Of course, MIDI ‘in’ is also available so you can ‘play’ in note or CC data from an external MIDI keyboard but the app also offers step-based programing, keys (not quite a piano keyboard but it does the same job), pads (for the sampler and perhaps most obviously aimed at drum part entry) and chord pads (you can program chords into 16 pads for easy triggering). You also get to confine note entry to particular key/scale combinations (as on lots of iOS music apps); always useful to reduce ‘data entry error’ :-)

Whether you use the internal synth/sampler or a suitable IAA instrument app, Modstep’s mixer environment allows you to insert an IAA effects app on each track and through which your sound source can be processed. In terms of the mixer itself, it is a fairly basic affair. You can set the level and there are mute/solo switches.

Modstep allows you to use IAA instruments within your compositions....

Modstep allows you to use IAA instruments within your compositions….

The ‘A’ button for each track allow you to ‘arm’ that track for recording. This allows you to, for example, record parts in from a MIDI keyboard and, depending upon how many of those individual 16-step patterns (bars) you have activated within the clip prior to recording (and, as mentioned above, there are up to 16 of them available per clip), then you can simply cycle through the clip (with other clips from other tracks playing for context) as you record the new part.

Oh, and there is lots of other stuff you can do also… some of which I’ll try to get to below, but the bottom line here is that Modstep is actually pretty well featured. If you are happy with the clip/scene-based workflow, then AppBC have assembled a pretty powerful set of features and options around it to help you get some music made.

In session

The Session window is where all your clips get orgainsed for your Modstep project. At the top of this – and every – Modstep window is the main menu bar and this is a fairly jam-packed place to explore. There are buttons to access a number of other screens – the piano roll editor, step editor, the template features, etc. plus options to toggle on the mixer display, transport controls, swing/tempo options and, over on the right, help options, the file system, MIDI learn and the global settings page for the app.

Some of the icons – both in the menu bar and the main screen as a whole – are perhaps a little cryptic at first sight…. and a good read of the PDF manual is most certainly required before you go too far. This is perhaps not an app that falls into the ‘fire it up and get started’ category when you initially encounter it.

The main part of the screen is dominated by the grid-style display of MIDI tracks (vertical columns) and their associated MIDI clips (arranged horizontally underneath each track header. On the right side of the screen are buttons that allow you to start/stop all the clips in a particular horizontal row (which represents a ‘scene’ in Modstep speak).

However, you can start/stop individual clips also by tapping on them although, of course, only one clip from each column (track) can be playing at any one time. When clips are triggered, they start playing ‘in sync’ with the rest of the project…. and will wait until any currently playing clip within that track finishes its current playback cycle.

You can add as many tracks to your project as your hardware will allow....

You can add as many tracks to your project as your hardware will allow….

It is also worth noting that Modstep elegantly handles clips that are of different lengths. As mentioned earlier, a clip can contain up to 16 patterns each of 16 steps in length. You can think of a pattern as an individual bar…. So, by using multiple patterns in a particular clip, the clip can be multiple bars in length…. And when a clip of (for example) 8 ‘bars’ is playing alongside one of (for example) 2 ‘bars’, then the shorter clip would simply cycle through 4 times while the longer one completed a single cycle.

Modstep's mixer is basic but gets the job done....

Modstep’s mixer is basic but gets the job done….

You get the mute/solo/arm buttons at the base of the Session screen but, if you tap on the small mixer icon in the menu strip, then the faders also appear for each track. In terms of other features on this screen, you can easily copy patterns into other clip slots, delete clips, etc. Tapping and holding on the track header section opens a panel where you can configure the track’s settings, what IAA apps are being used, which MIDI channel, etc. While the interface is somewhat busy, the features within this section are actually fairly straightforward to navigate.

Instruments of noise

As mentioned earlier, Modstep includes two instruments of its own; a synth and a sampler. I’ve included screenshots of both instruments here. In terms of features…. Well, both have plenty to offer…. But I’m not sure either would qualify as the prettiest of virtual instruments.

The synth is a single oscillator additive engine with, a range of waveforms, an LFO and a series of three effects (filter, reverb and delay). A range of presets are included and, while these would be more than adequate for those moments when you don’t want to bother setting up additional IAA apps just to experiment with a quick idea or three, the synth will give you an efficient (low CPU demands I suspect) workhorse.

Modstep includes a range of global settings to fine-tune its operation.

Modstep includes a range of global settings to fine-tune its operation.

The sampler follows similar lines but, with its 16 sample pads, it don’t take much guessing that this is perhaps intended as a source of drum sounds. You can drag individual samples from a simple browser onto a pad and there are also full instrument presets that include plenty of both drum kits and selections of instrument samples. Again, if you already own one of the better iOS sample-based virtual instruments or drum apps, then that’s probably going to win out over Modstep’s internal offering. That said, both sampler and synth are worthy of inclusion.

On a roll

The are plenty of options for creating those pattern/clip sized MIDI chunks that are required to make your music via Modstep. Perhaps the most obvious choice is the Piano Roll Editor. This is opened via the small keyboard icon in the top-strip menu bar and, usefully, the main display can be toggled between a ‘melody’ mode and a ‘drum editor’ mode. The main difference is in how the note names are presented to the user in the vertical column at the left of the piano roll section itself. This element of the interface – whether in melody or drum mode – is pretty typical of the piano roll format found in lots of MIDI sequencers.

You can edit your MIDI clips via a piano-roll style editor.

You can edit your MIDI clips via a piano-roll style editor.

There are a couple of note-worthy features in other areas of this editor screen. First, running along the top of the piano roll section itself is the pattern grid. It’s here that you can ‘activate’ which patterns are active within the clip. This doesn’t have to be consecutive patterns; just tap a pattern to make it active and it will light up to show its status. Each of the active patterns will playback on each cycle through the playback of the whole clip.

The other area is the bottom-left corner. This contains buttons that toggle the bottom-most area of the screen between a number of different functions. This includes the option for editing note velocity but also, via the ‘control’ button, the option to create controller data. For the two internal instruments, these are preconfigured with appropriate parameters. If you are using an IAA app such as a synth then I’m not quite sure I fully understand how the process works for defining links between controller lanes in Modstep and parameters in the synth. This involves the Template screen (more on this below) but, even having scoured the manual, so far at least, I don’t think this is the most intuitive of processes. Maybe this would make a good topic for a tutorial video at some stage? Anyway, please feel to offer any insights you might have to share with others if you have dug deeper into this section of the app than me :-)

The other option in this cluster of buttons is the Scales option. This provides you with a large selection of scale types to choose between and this, in turn, will constrain the notes that are then shown within the piano roll.

Step on it

The other main environment for pattern creation is the Step Sequencer. This is obviously set up to be used in conjunction with the internal sampler or some other drum-style module that features a 16-pad format. The step sequencer features 16 lanes and 16 steps…. But you can switch between the various patterns within a clip.

The app also includes a step sequencer environment.....

The app also includes a step sequencer environment…..

This environment also includes options for velocity editing, adding pitch or length data and also for adding modulation data. On that front, you can also access two different XY pads. Again, within the Template screen you can define what parameters are linked to these pads. The whole Step Sequencer environment is well featured and offers lots of options…. but it does take some time for it to become familiar.

Handed on a ‘plate

So far then, what we have with Modstep is a well-featured, pattern-based, MIDI sequencer that can host IAA apps. It could, therefore, be seen as something equivalent to Korg’s Gadget but where the sound sources are third party apps (as opposed to Gadget’s own ‘gadgets’). At this level, the key differences (to me at least) would be that Modstep is perhaps a bit more feature rich but that Gadget is, on first encounter, perhaps slicker and easier to grasp.

However, we now get to Modstep’s Template Editor and I think it is here that you can begin to see (a) the clear blue water between the design ethos of Modstep and Gadget and (b) just which (and why) particular users might be attracted to Modstep.

Now, the Template Editor is quite a deep place to go and I’m making no claims to have fully explored what’s on offer here but, as its name suggests, it is designed so that you can construct, save, and then recall, configurations for things such as the chord pads, the trigger pads and – and this one is perhaps the most significant – MIDI CC layouts.

The Template Editor is a powerful environment for those that like to go deep with their MIDI configurations.

The Template Editor is a powerful environment for those that like to go deep with their MIDI configurations.

If you browse around this screen while trying to get your head around what’s on offer, you will find that bundled with the app are some ‘stock’ presets that include devices such as the Arturia Microbrute, Korg’s Volca hardware, the Moog Minitaur, the Waldorf Rocket and a whole bunch of others…. Each of these presets essentially provides preset mappings for those hardware devices so, if you have a MIDI track within Modstep that is, via a suitable MIDI interface, then hooked up to the specific hardware synth/drum machine model, you can load the template onto that MIDI track and have pretty much instant access to the hardware’s key parameters from within Modstep’s sequencing tools.

While there are also some presets amongst the list for a few of the more popular iOS synths, what these templates tell you is that AppBC are pitching Modstep at the MIDI musician who is also a bit of a hardware synth fan. That audience will, of course, overlap with the one that is also happy to work entirely ‘in the box’ (or, in this case, ‘in the iPad’) and, depending on whether you lie in one of these groups or the other, or in both, the choice between MIDI sequencers such as Modstep or Gadget might become a little clearer.

The other thing the Template features then put into clearer focus are Modstep’s two internal instruments. If you are someone who could see a role for Modstep at the centre of your hardware MIDI rig, the internal synth and sampler become obvious choices as ‘placeholder’ sound sources. You can work on your compositions with just your iPad and using those internal instruments knowing that, later on, when you want to flesh things out or take those tunes out to rehearsal or performance, you are going to then re-route the MIDI tracks to your hardware.

So, while this is simplifying things for the sake of making the point, Korg perhaps see Gadget primarily as a MIDI sequencer ‘all-in-one’ electronic music production system while perhaps AppBC primarily see Modstep as MIDI sequencer to sit at the heart of a hardware MIDI rig.

Modstep world

There are all sorts of other details we could get into here (including, for example, the MIDI map feature that provides a MIDI ‘learn’ system for any hardware controller you have connected and the Studiomux-based link so that Modstep can be connected with your desktop music production environment) – and I’m sure lots of things I still have to discover. However, without wishing to make this review longer than it already is, what about the really important stuff; in use; what’s it like inside the world of Modstep?

As mentioned above, the internal instruments are workmanlike and, in that role of ‘placeholder’ mentioned above, they do a perfectly solid job. The presets supplied with them are useable in their own right. However, I soon found myself craving a few of my favourite iOS synths and/or drum machines….

I had no problems using various IAA instruments via Modstep... as shown here for iM1.

I had no problems using various IAA instruments via Modstep… as shown here for iM1.

And, on that front, Modstep behaved pretty well. I didn’t have any particular difficulties getting IAA apps to load into ModStep, nor is getting MIDI data from Modstep into those apps (just the usual faffing about with the iOS MIDI port naming, etc.). I did find, however, that I got the occasional audio glitch appearing once I had a few tracks running. I’d be doubtful if this was a load issue for my iPad Pro hardware in that I’ve had more complex projects than this running on the same iOS hardware through Cubasis, AUM or Audiobus but, equally, it is difficult to say that the issue was as a result of Modstep itself. That said, with an app that is as ambitious as Modstep is, it would not surprise me at all if there are some refinements to be made in the way the app handles its IAA support. And, of course, if you were running Modstep on its own and feeding MIDI hardware rather than a bunch of additional iOS music apps, even more modest iPad hardware ought to cope pretty well.

As with Gadget, the pattern/clip and scene workflow does make you think in a ‘loop’ sort of fashion and encourages a particular type of workflow. For EDM/electronica music styles this works very well and the ease with which you can start with a few small building blocks (clips), copy, paste and modify them, and eventually evolve those simple starting points into a full arrangement, is both creative and fun.

Modstep also offers a chord pad system for easy chord entry into your MIDI clips.

Modstep also offers a chord pad system for easy chord entry into your MIDI clips.

As Modstep is designed with performance in mind – and by ‘performance’, I mean as a means of triggering your pre-recorded MIDI clips in whatever sequence and/or combination that you wish – the Session window is obviously central to that. While perhaps not quite so slick in terms of its cosmetics as something like Gadget, it does have the functionality. Once you have invested the time to scale the initial learning curve, there is some considerable power on offer here.

Given the pattern/clip/scene-based sequencing approach, a comparison between Gadget and Modstep is inevitable but I suspect the two apps will appeal to somewhat different types of users. Aside from the key difference noted above about the design intentions of Modstep vs Gadget, I think the other obvious contrast is perhaps the trade off between power and ease of use.

Korg’s electronic music production system is pretty slick, still quite powerful, but is perhaps less challenging to get to grips with. If you are the kind of user that prefers the ‘all-in-one’ approach (no external MIDI hardware involved), then it would have the edge.

However, for those who do perhaps like to get down and dirty, like to mix and match their iOS sound sources, and, most importantly perhaps, might like to get other MIDI devices (such as hardware synths) involved in the process, then Modstep is going to be very attractive… As long as you go in with your eyes open and expect a short, but slightly steep, learning curve, then you will not be disappointed.

In summary

Modstep is an ambitious piece of software. The feature set is deep and, providing the pattern/clip based sequencing approach is one you are happy to work within, this is a MIDI sequencer that could take your MIDI compositions as deep as you might care to go. The template feature and MIDI mapping mean that you can easily pre-configure some of the complex MIDI connections that are required to fully exploit and/or drive your external MIDI devices (be those software or hardware) from Modstep and, for many, more technical, MIDI users, this may be reason alone to embrace Modstep fully.

Indeed, in that role as a MIDI sequencer ‘hub’ to a wider MIDI system combining iOS apps, other software instruments or MIDI hardware, I don’t think we have anything that really competes with Modstep. While Modstep and Gadget may share the same sequencing philosophy, in other respects, the two apps are very different beasts. As a result, Modstep is perhaps less of an option for the more casual iOS music maker and is of more obvious appeal to someone with a serious MIDI addiction and the MIDI hardware to go with it.

While that might mean this is something of a more specialised app than Gadget, hats should be firmly doffed in the direction of AppBC for the ambition behind Modstep and for delivering with such a full-on feature set. However, with an asking price of just UK£14.99 – which I think is very modest considering the feature set on offer – this is not a budget-busting investment to make even just for the curious. It will be really interesting to see just how the iOS music making community – and particularly those who exploit iOS within their live rigs – embraces and exploits it.


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    1. It would be really good for someone to do a basic ‘copy me’ tutorial on this. All the YouTube videos don’t really do very much, and even the manual isn’t that good in this respect. I’ve been trying to get a very simple song together on this, but it’s quite hard to get going.
      I’m surprised the dev’s didn’t do a better job, after all the work making the app, surely a set of good tutorials would be the easiest part?

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