As regular readers here will be aware, my own use for iOS music technology is focused more on music composition and/or music recording than live performance. All of which makes it perhaps surprising that I have not, as yet, reviewed n-Track Software’s n-Track Studio DAW/sequencer app for the Music App Blog. This is perhaps all the more surprising given that n-Track has actually been around in one form or another for quite some time on the App Store…. very much ‘my bad’!
n-Track actually exists on the desktop (Windows and OSX), iOS and Android. This multi-platform approach might well make it very appealing to some potential users as it means projects can perhaps be started on a mobile device before being easily shifted across to the desktop version for completion. This is, of course, something you can do with a number of other iOS DAW/sequencers (Cubasis to Cubase, for example) but, with n-Track, there is the promise that that cross-platform transition is petty much seamless.
The whole n-Track line has recently been through a bit of a re-vamp. Version 8 has been released for all platforms with the desktop version available in both a ‘standard’ version (US€49) and an ‘EX’ (expanded) version for €99 (the price in US$ is probably similar given exchange rates at the time of writing). The latter ‘EX’ version adds a number of additional features on the desktop but even the standard version provides a solid-looking feature set. Perhaps not in the same league as a Cubase Pro or Logic Audio but, on paper at least, certainly something to consider alongside something like a Reaper or a Tracktion for example.
As this re-vamp obviously also means we now have n-Track Studio 8 for iOS, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a proper look for the blog. Under iOS, the app is universal, requires iOS8.0 or later (and iOS9.0 or later for some features) and a c. 105MB download.
Pay as you play
n-Track launched this ‘mark 8’ release for iOS in a rather unconventional subscription-based model. While this was inexpensive (UK£0.79/US$0.99 and UK£1.49/US$1.99 per month for the ‘standard’ and ‘Pro’ versions respectively), I think they must have received some user feedback requesting something other than the subscription-only option….. As a result, a ‘pay once’ version of the app – n-Track Studio 8 Pro Multitrack Recorder – appeared soon after as an alternative and priced at UK£22.99/US$29.99.
I’m not sure what the approach might be in terms of ‘upgrade’ pricing as and when ‘8 Pro’ eventually evolves into ‘9 Pro’ (I suspect some sort of upgrade IAP might be required which I think is fair enough for a developer to recoup continued development costs) but 8 Pro’s .X updates are obviously going to be provided free as the first of these appeared just a couple of days ago as a free download to existing users.
So what’s your take of subscription payment models? I have to say that I’m a little undecided on the topic. In some areas of life (mobile phones for example), it is something we seem happy to take for granted. In software (and, for many of us, in music consumption), it is still a model that faces a battle for wide acceptance. I’m happy enough to pay for my Microsoft Office subscription and I’m dithering about an Adobe subscription as my CS6 editions are beginning t feel long in the tooth (I use both Microsoft and Adobe products every day; they help me earn my living so I’m happy to pay for the service).
I suspect, however, that I’m still very much in a minority even with my limited use of subscription-based software access. And while it might just be gaining acceptance in more mainstream fields such as office applications, I’m less sure that the music software market is quite yet ready for this approach.
And for iOS music software? Well, while I can see the attraction for the developer (and, indeed, for the serious software user), I don’t think this is something that would find wide-ranging acceptance amongst the iOS musician community for some considerable time yet. As users, we are so used to (a) our software being unbelievably inexpensive and (b) be updated for free (neither of which is actually in the long-term interests of developers or users), that a monthly subscription model is likely to feel very alien. In terms of the differences between a monthly subscription or an annual upgrade fee….. well, maybe, in reality, it’s not so different (in principle or cost)…. but there is still a psychological barrier to overcome…..
Anyway, for the purposes of the this review, I’m looking at the ‘8 Pro’ version of the app available via the ‘pay once’ route…. but if you do browse the App Store to find out more about n-Track, just be aware that there are different versions available.
Show us what you got
Whichever way might suit you in terms of payment options, on paper, n-Track Studio 8 Pro looks pretty well specified. You get any number of audio (mono or stereo) or MIDI tracks (only limited by the ability of your device to keep up), group and aux channels, piano-roll MIDI editing, a step sequencer (mainly for drum programming and new in this release I think), a basic virtual instrument with 128 GM-style sounds, the option to use IAA instruments and effects, a range of basic audio effects plugins covering all the routine tasks, Audiobus support, a mixer environment with options for automating volume and pan, an on-screen MIDI keyboard and support for external MIDI keyboards and, also added for this release, support for Audio Units (AU) effects and instrument plugins.
On suitable hardware, the audio engine offers 64-bit calculations and, again with suitable audio interfaces, audio recording can go up to 192kHz and 32-bit (frankly, I think this is way over the top for most of us mere mortals but, 24-bit and 44.1kHz is supported and suits me fine). Multi-channel recording is possible with a suitable audio interface. MIDI Clock is offered (although not, as yet, Ableton Link) and iOS standards such as AudioCopy, DropBox, iTunes file transfer, and SoundCloud export make it possible to easily get audio or projects in and out of the app. There is also a community-based SongTree feature built in that allows users to collaborate on tracks with others. I’d didn’t explore this in any depth but, at its most basic, it allows you to overdub parts on another users track… and it looks like it might be fun for some online collaboration.
Aside from the basic GM sound module included, there is also a ‘make a groove’ feature. This is essentially a collection of MIDI-based drum and bass parts and, if you want a simple groove to practice against – or perhaps to get a new song idea started – then you can get n-Track Studio to offer something up based upon a browser/filter where you pick a suitable style. Of, the patterns you eventually get generated are not going to win any ‘song of the year’ nominations, but it’s a neat feature for those just getting started with song construction/recording and, with more MIDI styles included – and a bit more variation in terms of how they could be assembled – this could become something rather good.
So, given the respectable feature set, n-Track Studio 8 Pro for iOS is not a million miles away from the technical spec of some of the other iOS DAW/sequencer packages. Perhaps not quite in the same league as something like Auria Pro or even Cubasis…. but certainly not without its merits.
Red light on….
In many ways, using n-Track Studio is conceptually similar to using any DAW/sequencer application, albeit with the usual iOS ‘quirks’ that require us to build workflows involving Audiobus or IAA (and which we take for granted but desktop musicians can find frustrating). You build your project by adding combinations of audio tracks and virtual instruments (using MIDI sequencing), you can edit those recordings to craft the best performances you possibly can (for example, but splicing together the perfect lead vocal or guitar solo), add suitable corrective and creative effects to your sounds, set levels and pan for all these various sounds (and automate these details through your project) and then render out the finished mix…..
OK, I know that makes it sound very simple and, whatever DAW/sequencer you choose to use, what sounds simple in principle is remarkably difficult in practice (well, difficult if you want to create something that might match your own musical heros) but n-Track Studio has a core set of tools that let you do all these essential steps.
So how does this all pan (doh!) out in practice? Well, as regular readers here will know, I’m mainly a Cubasis user when it comes to iOS DAW/sequencer duties. As a Cubase user on the desktop for more years than I care to remember, Cubasis is like a second skin; instantly familiar and I never really find myself thinking twice about how to achieve any operation.
I am, therefore, always subjected to a certain amount of disorientation when faced with an unfamiliar DAW/sequencer environment; all the same key features are there and, in principle, they operate in a similar fashion…. but it still feels a bit strange and can really (REALLY!) slow down the workflow. This is, of course, why many users of this sort of software stick with what they know (a soft of software inertia) rather than exploring alternatives even when they might have some grumbles about their current squeeze; the (re)learning curve can be a pretty steep one.
This expectation of some re-orientation therefore always makes me a little cautious when reviewing a different DAW/sequencer. And, when I get stuck doing something that ought to be simple, but somehow isn’t, the difficult think is deciding whether it is simply unfamiliarity (which it is most of the time) or perhaps a element of the underlying design that could be more refined.
Having put together a basic project within n-Track Studio for the purposes of undertaking this review, I think there are elements of both of the above. n-Track do provide an online user guide for the software but, as far as I can see, the iOS version of that documentation has not quite caught up with the current version (there is no mention of AU for example) and the rather good collection of video tutorials on their website are also for an earlier version (although useful none-the-less).
What I think a new user could really do with, however, is a comprehensive PDF user manual. Yep, time consuming for the developer but, frankly, a massive time-saver for the user. This is essentially so when you are already familiar with the basic principles of using a DAW/sequencer but just want to find out something specific about how a particular operation is performed in ‘this’ DAW/sequencer. YouTube videos are fine and can be extremely helpful…. but they don’t come with an index and the ability to flick through to the exact page where you know the answer to your question is going to be found.
U and I
Some features of n-Track’s UI can help illustrate this. In many ways, this is all very conventional and rather attractively presented. The styling is modern but without straying to far from conventions and you can do the bulk of your work within the ‘arrange’ screen with its timeline vs tracks layout. You can scroll around your project with some usual iOS gestures and zoom in both horizontally and vertically as you might expect.
The very top of the screen shows the timeline itself. This can be toggled between a min/seconds display and a bar/beats display. On first start up, the seconds display is used and it took me several attempts (and quite some considerable time) to work out how to switch to the more useful (for me) bar/beat option. I looked in the Settings menu (accessed via the strip of controls at the bottom of the main screen) several times without any joy…. and couldn’t see any reference to this in the online guide (that PDF manual would have been useful at this point!) but did, eventually, find the process; you have to tap on the time position panel within the transport control section located bottom-left of the screen; yep, easy when you know how but a bit of a guessing game to find out how in the first place.
In contrast, there are all sorts of things about the main arrange/project page that are rather elegantly – and very intuitively – implemented. For example, trimming audio clips, adjusting their volume (at a clip level), adding fades in/out to a clip and copying/pasting a clip are all very straightforward. Some of the copy/cut/paste like functions are accessed via the small ‘spanner’ button located towards the top-right of the main screen and these are all easy to use and operate exactly as you might expect.
The series of buttons located on the right of the bottom control strip include options to access the Songtree community feature, open the Mixer view, display a virtual piano keyboard for playing MIDI parts (although I also had no problems getting n-Track to recognise my external MIDI keyboard), creating a new track (a pop-up appears offering you a choice of track types), undo and redo buttons, various tools, the Settings menu and (represented by the ‘three stripes’ icon), the main project menu. The latter allows you to open/save whole projects, perform mixdowns and import audio amongst a few other things.
And speaking of projects, one thing that did surprise me a little bit, is that n-Track Studio does ship with an example project or two. OK, these add to the default size of the application, but I get the impression that the developer sees their target audience as including those totally new to multi-track recording. I’m sure a couple of short projects that illustrated exactly what’s possible with the app – and that users could experiment with to find their way round the interface – would be very welcome.
The Mixer panel is quite nicely laid out and, if you wish, you can also switch it to a ‘full screen’ mode (via the ‘up arrow’ icon located top-right of the Mixer) if you want to focus on mixing tasks or want longer faders. As well as the usual faders, level meters, pan controls and mute/solo buttons, you also get an EQ button and a panel that, if you tap, provides one way of adding instrument or effects plugins (IAA or AU). The EQ is a rather nice multi-band affair and also include 3D and sonogram displays.
The other options in the lower part of each channel strip allow you to set the audio routing for a channel (including, rather impressively, the option for creating and routing audio to a group channel) and for setting up aux sends (for example, if you are using a reverb or delay as a send-return effect). Aux sends can be set between a number of different pre-post insert/fader positions. This all works very well and with the group channel option is, for example, more audio routing flexibility that Cubasis currently offers.
I don’t know about you but MIDI editing is generally one area where I’m not sure the touchscreen is actually a better environment than a mouse-based system. That said, n-Track’s MIDI editing options are fairly easy to use. The piano-roll editor is pretty conventional and includes lanes for basic automation. As well as volume or pan, you can also add automation data for any MIDI CC number. You could, with a fair wind therefore, program suitable parameter changes to any 3rd party synths or virtual instruments that you are using in you project. MIDI quantizing features are also included.
The Step Sequencer is new to this release (I think) and provides an additional, pattern-based MIDI sequencing option. This is based around a typical grid-based system and so is most obviously suited to drum programming, but it also works well for things like bass synth parts.
The internal instruments are pretty much what you might expect given the ‘GM’ label and I suspect most folks would soon be reaching for a few of their favourite iOS virtual instruments and synths for use within n-Track. In the main, this worked well with both IAA and AU based instruments but I did experience some technical gremlins on this front. For example, I had the occasional audio glitching with 3rd party apps and, when a project was saved and then re-loaded, it didn’t always manage to restore all the 3rd party apps intact (instruments and effects).
I suspect this is not all down to n-Track Studio itself and, in time, I’m sure the AU format will resolve these sorts of issue but, for now, the occasional bit of manual restoring of a plugin or two was required on my test system at least. Here’s hoping that n-Track Software can fine-tune this particular aspect of the software because, otherwise, on a technical front, I didn’t really experience any major issues.
Picking a DAW/sequencer is a very personal decision. My preference for Cubasis is built on a long-standing, monogamous, relationship with Cubase and, while I might have chatted up a few other (super sexy) alternatives over the years, I’ve never been tempted to stray. That said, by best mate is a Logic nut and is more than happy with GarageBand for iPad for his iOS sketchpad.
We have a number of very creditable DAW/sequencers under iOS. I suspect, in terms of an established user-base, products such as Cubasis and Auria Pro are probably the big sellers but with apps such as Multitrack Studio, Meteor and MultiTrack DAW having a smaller, but dedicated, following….
n-Track is most certainly capable of sitting in this ‘more niche’ group. It has a nice overall UI (albeit with some quirks) and offers a very respectable feature set. There are a few downsides. It could do with some up-to-date documentation in PDF form. Equally, the supplied virtual instruments and many of the effects (the EQ aside) are perhaps a bit vanilla in nature; most users will, I’m sure, turn to their collection of 3rd party instruments and effects pretty quickly. In addition, if my own experience is not atypical, then there perhaps are still the occasional wrinkles to be ironed out in terms of how IAA and AU apps are handled; nothing to stop you getting work done but occasionally a bit of a damper on your otherwise smooth workflow.
So, should you stump up and give n-Track Studio 8 Pro a spin? Well, if you already have a very comfortable relationship with your existing DAW/sequencer, I’m not sure there is a killer feature here that might get you looking at the greener grass (although the MIDI-based groove/rhythm tracks could become something along those lines if developed further). However, if your current choice is a source of frustration, or you are still hunting for a first DAW/sequencer to chat up (!), then I’d certainly suggest that n-Track is worth adding to the ‘audition’ list, especially if you already have a good crop of other iOS music apps/synths/effects, etc. and the rather thin-on-the-ground options included with n-Track are not an issue for you.
The other thing to recall is that, unlike Cubasis or Auria Pro, n-Track is a universal app. OK, using a DAW on an iPhone is never going to be the most ergonomic of experiences but at least you can and, if you really are a mobile musician, this might be a key factor, especially if you went the whole hog and also purchased the desktop version of n-Track Studio.
n-Track Studio 8 Pro is a well-features and, once you are over the initial familiarisation issue, easy-to-use recording platform for iOS. There are perhaps a few areas in which there is still scope for development and/or improvement but this is a very respectable platform if one of the more high-profile DAW/sequencers has not already claimed your allegiance.
Price-wise, unless you pick up Cubasis or Auria Pro while on sale, n-Track Studio 8 Pro is somewhat less expensive than the ‘big two’ and not too far removed in price from the other obvious competition. Whatever the merits of these various iOS DAWs, that you can buy a virtual recording platform for the price of an evening meal and a drink in a half-decent pizza restaurant is pretty impressive by anyone’s standards.
Having finally got around to giving n-Track Studio a proper workout, I a bit disappointed with myself for not having done so sooner. No, I’m not about to switch from Cubasis, but I’m sure it would be a platform that many iOS musicians would find suits their creative needs and I’m really looking forward to seeing just where n-Track Software take their flagship iOS music app.
n-Track Studio Multitrack Recorder 8