This time last year I did a round-up article covering some of the more high-profile generative music apps available to the iOS musician. Music software with a ‘generative’ element is, however, an attractive proposition on a number of grounds.
First, even for an experienced and accomplished musician, it can often help throw up a new idea. If you need a bit of musical inspiration to get you started, having a bit of software to act as a writing buddy can be a useful thing. Second, for music producers without traditional musical instrument skills, or, for novice musicians looking for new ways to learn about or get inspired by composition, these kinds of tools can be genuinely useful, providing a source of musical ideas that they can then seek ways to develop.
One of the apps mentioned in that article was Noatikl from developer Intermorphic Ltd. This software has been around for some time and Noatikl exists as desktop software as well as under iOS.
Essentially, the app provides you with up to 16 MIDI tracks of sound generation based upon harmonic rules and patterns that the user can select and adjust. These can be played back via the internal sound engine (based upon Soundfonts and some basic synth options but also including some effects and some flexible ‘modular’ like audio routing) or the MIDI data can be sent out to external instruments (for example, other iOS synths). Intermorphic also make a further app – Mixtikl – that combines some elements of Noatikl with the use of audio loops. It is perhaps less deep than Noatikl but the two apps do complement each other.
This week saw the launch of Noatikl 3 (and, incidentally, Mixtikl 7). This is a new app – with some significant enhancements – rather than an update to Noatikl 2 so existing owners of v.2 will have to purchase the new app. There are, however, some ‘app bundle’ offers in preparation so there are possibilities to make some savings. That said, as Noatikl 3 is priced at UK£7.99, this is still pretty much pocket money priced software; whether you are an existing user looking to move up or a potential new users, the bank is unlikely to be broken.
Intermorphic are keen to point out that this release represents a pretty substantial overhaul from Noatikl 2. However, perhaps the highlight new creative features are an additional collection of new templates (pre-defined sound generative rule sets; you can, of course, edit these feely, but they give you a suite of excellent starting points to experiment with and develop further) and a major enhancement to the internal sound engine.
This is called the Partikl Sound Engine (PSE) and it also now stands at ‘v.3’. Part of this engine is the built-in SoundFont player and this now offers support for stereo SoundFont formats and SoundFont samples in a 24-bit format. However other elements of PSE3 have also been enhanced allowing you to build more advanced synth/effects combinations and the workflow within the user interface has been streamlined in a number of different ways.
The app now includes updated Audiobus support and support for Audiobus Remote Triggers. All the earlier Noatikl 2 templates and features are still present, however, so existing users should not find the transition to be too difficult.
There are different sorts of generative music apps out there but, something like SessionBand aside (which sort of crosses over into generative territory in some ways), I think it is fair to say that the bulk of these are more likely to appeal to fans of ambient and electronic music creation that those looking for a 3 minute pop song.
Like apps such as dot Melody, NodeBeat, Quincy, Beatwave or Xynthesizr, Noatikl 3 is most definitely more in the ‘ambient/electronic’ genre; this is not the place to come if you want to create thrash metal or pop ballads. That’s not to say that the app might not have something to offer to all sorts of musicians though; generative apps can be as useful for simply stirring the creative pot as they can be for producing a finished piece of music.
Starting that creative process with Noatikl involves picking one of the various ‘templates’. This can provide a preset for a whole range of settings including a specific SoundFont sound (or, in many cases, a series of sounds), settings for the very comprehensive rule sets that guide those sounds in generating MIDI data, MIDI routing in terms of the 16 channels available and any audio effects applied to the sounds.
The layout for all these elements is summarised on the Design page and, from here, you can add further templates and access each of the elements mentioned to tweak their properties as required. This Design screen is perhaps best thought of as an ‘overview’ of your project but, along the base of the screen, there are also tabs to access three other pages; Blend, Voices and Piece (more on these in a minute). At the top of the screen you also get the main menu button (top-left) and Settings menu button (top-right).
Within the Settings menu you can turn off the internal sound sources and engage Core and Virtual MIDI output (or have both active and use a combination of both). Feeding Noatikl’s MIDI output to some external iOS synths does, of course, give you access to a wider variety of source sound possibilities and, having given this a try with a few of my usual iOS synth suspects such as Thor and SynthMaster Player it really can add an extra dimension to Noatikl’s output. That said, the internal sounds are perfectly respectable and, if you just want to get instantly creative, are more than good enough for getting some initial ideas started.
The main menu is where you go to load an existing project or create a new project. There are few example projects included with the app so you can quickly get a feel for what the app is capable of. These are well worth exploring for any new user as you begin to find your way around.
The nice thing about the main Design screen is that it gives you a pretty simple visual guide as to the overall structure of the project and the MIDI routing. The graphical design is perhaps not the most slick or sophisticated you will see in an iOS music app but it gets the job done. However, behind some of these colour boxes are a plethora of further options…. if this is your first encounter, be prepared for a little head scratching to start with until you adjust to the parallel universe that is music making with Noatikl :-)
And no, I don’t understand how all the controls and options interact with each other fully either…. but there is little harm you can do and plenty to explore…. and both a PDF manual and video tutorials available via Intermorphics’s website if you need a little moral support.
While Noatikl is undoubtedly a deep app, and it will take new users some time to feel they have really got to grips with all that it has to offer, in essence, you can think of each sound element within your projects as being built from two elements. First, there is the MIDI element where Noatikl’s various musical rules can generate combinations of MIDI notes that, by following those rules, will be ‘musical’ (just how musical or how abstract will depend upon the rules applied and how the user tweaks them).
Second, those MIDI notes are used to trigger MIDI sound sources, whether those are SoundFont/effects/internal synth combinations within Noatikl itself or, if the MIDI data is sent on elsewhere, sounds in other iOS music apps.
Building a complete project is, therefore, simply a process of finding suitable combinations of these two ‘MIDI data generation’ and ‘sound’ elements, and then repeating the process to find further combinations that somehow work together to build your arrangement. Considered at this level, the process is pretty straightforward…. and in some ways it is…. but once you start tapping on a few of the boxes in the Design screen and revealing the numerous options they contain, you soon realise that the choices you are presented with are considerable.
If I went in to all these options here then there is a danger that this review could becomes (a) very technical and (b) a cure for insomnia. However, by way of illustration, take a look at the screenshots that show (just some of) the controls that are sitting under each of the Voice buttons that appear on the left side of the Design screen. You can most easily access these via the Voices tab (at the base of the main screen) and this is where your MIDI data generation is defined and there are literally dozens of different settings you can adjust divided into over 20 sub-categories.
This is where new users probably need to spend some time with a very simple project (one or two sounds only) and explore how these various controls interact and influence the MIDI data that gets generated. Crack this and you probably have cracked Noatikl…. but there are lots of details here so don’t expect it to click into place without a little effort.
In the blender
Once you have got Noatikl generating a few different parts, for the internal sounds at least, a quick hop over to the Blend screen allows you to both balance their volume and their pan position. You do this simply by placing each voice object on the screen with pan functioning along the left-right axis and volume along the up-down axis.
These functions work in real-time so, if you want to do a bit of live mixing as the performance plays out, then that’s perfectly possible. Equally, if you tap on any one of the voice objects, a pop-up menu offers you options including mute and solo.
If you tap on the Piece tab, this opens up a set of project-level settings that can be adjusted. There are all sorts of interesting things to be found in here but the control set includes tempo options, root key and options for setting how scales and harmonies are used by the generative engine. Again, working out quite how these project-level settings interact with those available at the voice-level will take some experimentation…. but it is generally quite easy to keep things harmonically satisfying.
Noatikl’s internal sounds mean that it is perfectly capable of being used as a standalone application. However, as it seems to work well within Audiobus and via IAA in a suitable host, as well as being able to send MIDI data directly to other iOS synths or virtual instruments, it is perfectly possible to use the app in a broader iOS-based music workflow.
Indeed, as one of the obvious strengths of Noatikl is the creation of ambient ‘soundbed’ style music, I managed to while away a lovely hour creating some evolving textures in the app and them just noodling with a sparse solo piano or guitar over the top…. all very chilled. As with lots of generative music software, there is a bit of a danger that, while every composition is technically different (different melodies/chords/harmonies, etc.), it is all of a similar genre…. ambient soundbed chillout…. How you choose to avoid this particular trap is up to your own imagination and just how far you dig into the deep options Noatikl offers but a good start is to make use of the tempo controls (please, not everything at 70bpm!) and to experiment with the more varied sound palette a couple of decent iOS synths will offer.
Still, this said, at what it does, Noatikl is very good indeed and if ambient and/or sound design and/or chillout meditative music is your thing, there is some obvious inspiration to be had here.
So, if generative music is your musical weapon of choice, then I suspect Noatikl 3 will prove to be a very tempting proposition. Equally, I’m sure there is plenty here that someone wishing to explore this approach to music making for the first time would very much enjoy. I will, however, qualify that with a few further comments.
First, as noted a couple of times above, this is a pretty deep app. Unlike some iOS music apps (for example, Figure, which almost anyone, musician or not, could make music with in minutes), this one does take some working out. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible in my own exploration of the app and I could imagine it being a touch on the intimidating side for a new user especially if they were also new to music tech and/or music software in general. That’s not to say a newbie could buy this and really enjoy it; just be prepared for a bit of stumbling around and orientation first… and read the documentation or watch the tutorial videos as both will help.
Second, as I hope the screenshots shown, the interface design is perhaps not the most elegant example I’ve seen in an iOS music app. There are a lot of iOS default graphics used here so it’s not that there is a host of unfamiliar looking elements…. but it perhaps doesn’t make for the most exciting or visually attractive of user experiences. I’ve no problem with the KISS aesthetics… but, if you are a potential new user, it perhaps doesn’t look as visually appealing as some other music apps that you might also have on your ‘shall I buy?’ list.
Third, there are also a few places where the interface might benefit from some further tweaks. For example, when scrolling down through the many settings in the Voices screen, the top-most entry – the Voice label and the swipe-able panel that allows you to step through the different Voices used in the project – scrolls off the top of the screen as you scroll down. This means you can easily lose track of which voice you are editing and, equally, you have to go back up to the top again in order to change between different Voices. In an app as deep as Noatikl, I’m sure there is always scope for some UI design refinements so, hopefully, that’s something that Intermorphic will continue to work on as the app evolves.
Generative music software is, by its very nature, a bit of a niche product market. For ambient fans, apps such as Noatikl will have a very obvious appeal but for your average singer-songwriter or metal-head… well, perhaps not so much. That said, given the very modest price of Noatikl (and a number of the other iOS generative music apps), it isn’t actually too much of a risk to dip your toe in the generative music waters if you just fancy a little experimentation and to broaden your musical options.
Coming myself from the school of classic rock, I’d never really experimented with this form of generative music making until I did it via iOS. And, while I can’t imagine myself penning a personal album of ambient or chillout music based on this technology, I could easily find a use for it in some media music or music-to-picture type projects. Noatikl 3 is a very clever bit of software and, while it does take some mastering, if you’re in the market for a collaborator for your ambient/chillout music creation, Noatikl 3 is unlikely to steal your significant other or drink all the beer/wine. It will, however, if you work at it a little, give you a helping hand in creating some suitably chilled music…. :-)