Notetracks review – Notetracks Inc bring their musical collaboration tool to the App Store

Download from iTunes App StoreNotetracks logoWay back when (er… well, pre- the explosion of broadband internet connectivity) musicians met at gigs or music stores or college, bands formed and collaboration began. You rehearsed where anyone would let you make a noise and you booked a recording studio to capture a demo or three. As I outlined in the iPad Recording Studio series, recording technology is now available for the masses and, while you can still meet your musical partners face-to-face, the internet has made remote collaboration not only possible but also a ‘norm’.

This is a great thing…. that you can hook up with musicians pretty much anywhere in the world and, whether you have ever actual met or not, begin a musical collaboration. OK, this is more likely to be a production, song writing or recording collaboration than a live performance one, but any musical interaction that can get you away from always being a ‘one person band’ is generally a good thing.

Notetracks offers a utility app to help keep your collaborative projects moving forward.

Notetracks offers a utility app to help keep your collaborative projects moving forward.

Of course, we need the appropriate tools to make this happen and, in Notetracks, developer Notetracks Inc. are hoping they can help in this regard. The underlying idea of the app is a good one for those working remotely with collaborators. It allows you to build a project containing an audio track (for example, the latest stereo mix of your ‘in development’ collaborative track) and add a range of different annotation alongside it (written notes, markers, instrument symbols, freehand sketches or audio notes). These various note forms sit within your Notetracks project and the project file can then be passed back and forth between the various collaborators as the work on the track develops.

The app has an introductory price of UK£3.99 and is a universal app. It requires iOS7.1 or later and is a 22Mb download. I did my own testing on an iPad Air 1 with iOS8.4.1 installed.

Making notes

Systemising the way you exchange your thoughts on a collaborative project is going to be something that many musicians find useful so how does this all work within Notetracks? The first task is to create a new Notetracks project and get your audio file (perhaps a ‘working mix’ or a rough song demo idea) into the app. When you first start the app, the opening screen allows you to create a new project, open an existing one or import a project via Dropbox.

You can import your master audio file from a number of different sources.

You can import your master audio file from a number of different sources.

Once you have a new project (and named it), the Tracks menu allows you to import the required audio file from your iTunes library, Dropbox, WiFi transfer or AudioPaste. All of these work in a straightforward fashion. You audio track then appears at the top of the ‘tracks’ area and beneath the menu/controls section that fills the top-most section of the main display. This menu/control section includes transport controls for playback, master volume and access to things like the ‘effects’ controls and Settings menu.

For the imported track, you also get a volume control and a timeline (in min/sec format) view that shows the waveform of the audio file. You can zoom in/out on the timeline although the waveform display does get a bit ‘blocky’ when you start to zoom in; in the current version at least, this isn’t perhaps a tool for seeing the waveform in too much detail.

Notetracks offers a number of different 'annotation' tracks that you can add to your project.

Notetracks offers a number of different ‘annotation’ tracks that you can add to your project.

Tapping on the waveform allows you to add a marker. These are automatically numbered and, if you add a further marker before one already placed, the numbering is readjusted so that they all appear in number order from low to high. Once placed, markers can be moved by tapping and dragging if you need to reposition them. If you tap the ‘marker’ icon in the control strip, this opens up the control panel a little further to show additional options for selecting multiple markers and giving you options to ‘turn off’ the display (the crossed-out eye icon) or to delete them.

As shown in the various screenshots, aside from markers, via the Tools menu, you can also add four further track types to your project. A text track allows you to tap and add text notes, a symbol track provides you with various musical instrument symbols, a drawing track allows you to draw freehand with your finger while a Record track allows you to add an audio recording track. While I couldn’t find a way to ‘move’ any audio notes made, for the text, symbol and marker options, these can all be moved or edited after they have been initially placed.

You are allows multiples of each track type so you could, for example, have a separate track for each collaborator to add their own test notes. You can, however, also colour code and adjust the size of text notes (within a small set of default settings) if you need to distinguish between the text notes of different users on a single track.

You get a 10-band graphic EQ and the option to adjust the speed/pitch of the master audio track.

You get a 10-band graphic EQ and the option to adjust the speed/pitch of the master audio track.

If you tap the ‘sliders’ icon the upper section expands to show controls for a 10-band graphic EQ and both pitch and speed sliders. The EQ works well and, if you do want to (for example) just isolate the bottom end to hear what the kick and bass are doing, then this would be useful. I sort of expected the pitch and speed sliders to shift these properties independently of one another (rather like they do, for example, in AnyTune Pro) but, in fact, at present, both sliders seem to do pretty much the same thing. If you tweak the pitch, you also change the speed while if you tweak the speed you also change the speed. Double tapping either will return the slider to its default setting.

While I’m less sure I would genuinely use the symbol track, the markers, notes, freehand drawing and audio recording tracks could easily be useful for making notes or marking key positions in an audio track and, whether I was making these notes just for myself, or to share with a collaborator, these are the sorts of tools that would be useful. There is, therefore, plenty of potential here but perhaps also still a few features that suspect most users would like to see. I’ll come back to a few of these in a minute….

Share the work

Having added your various notes to your project, you can then share it. The File menu offers your three options; to share as a PDF (essentially what you get is a screengrab of the full project), to share the project (a full Notetracks .prj file that could be opened by another user who also has the app) or simply to copy the text. I had no problems emailing myself either PDF or .prj files.

Projects can be easily shared with other users... but a 'share to Dropbox' options would also be useful to see as this is currently the only route by which you can import a .prj file.

Projects can be easily shared with other users… but a ‘share to Dropbox’ options would also be useful to see as this is currently the only route by which you can import a .prj file.

Nearly there?

So, the basic idea is most certainly a good one… but there are a number of elements to the workflow that, at present, might be refined. For example, rather oddly, however, you can’t share directly to Dropbox in the current version and, as the only way to currently import a project into the app is via Dropbox, that means a user receiving a project from one of their collaborators has to save the email attachment and then move it to Dropbox before importing it. It would be useful if a direct sharing feature via Dropbox was added in a future update.

In addition, while the ability to record an audio track directly within a project is an excellent idea (you could, for example, add spoken notes rather than written one or even hum a melody or some lyrics as a song idea develops), the potential of this feature is somewhat restricted because, at present, you can’t record an audio track while the overall project is in playback. You can’t therefore, dictate your audio notes as the main track is in playback and nor could you sing along to suggest a melody or pick out a lead line on your guitar.

It's a shame you can not currently record any additional audio tracks while the master track is in playback; this would be a very useful feature to have for adding a 'commentary' on a track in progress.

It’s a shame you can not currently record any additional audio tracks while the master track is in playback; this would be a very useful feature to have for adding a ‘commentary’ on a track in progress.

Being able to do this would be so useful that it’s difficult to imagine in is not already on the ‘to do’ development list…. and if the app was happy to work with external audio interfaces, and could therefore work at suitable audio quality, this would be a very neat way for collaborators to simply record a track or two (their lead vocal or guitar part) alongside the ‘work in progress’ track and pass it back to the member of the collaborating team to drop into the master DAW/sequencer project.

The other thing to note is that at present the various ‘notes’ – markers, text and symbols – are not ‘linked’ in any solid way. For example, if you add a marker to signify where you have a suggestion about the master track, and then add a text note also, the marker and text track can’t be ‘locked’ together so that, if one is moved, then so is the other. This would be a cool option to have and it would be great if the locking could be toggled on/off for individual markers/text notes as required. Alternatively, you could have the option to include a text note with a marker in some way (perhaps double tap a marker to add a text note to it and make it collapsible so you can toggle on/off the display of the note text?).

The various annotations you can make are all useful in their own way and will, I'm sure, each suit different user's needs.

The various annotations you can make are all useful in their own way and will, I’m sure, each suit different user’s needs.

Finally, if the pitch/speed adjustment controls can be made to work independently, this would greatly improve their functionality… I can easily imagine a remote collaborating singer listening to the mix and adding a comment ‘shift it down two semitones before we record the vocals’ once they had been able to hear the mix at different pitchs (but still at the original tempo).

In summary

Given just how many musicians now collaborate online, Notetracks is an excellent idea. The basics of the concept are both useful and easy to use and, even with my list of ‘I wish it could….’ comments made above, I’m sure some musicians would find this a useful way to keep track of projects as they pass between different collaborative teams.

There are, however, also some areas in which developers Notetracks Inc. might (fairly easily??) push a useful utility app forward and fully realise the potential of the idea. Online collaboration is just going to get more popular as more and more musicians build their working networks online and through social media connections rather than face-to-face ones. These kinds of tools, if they can genuinely facilitate collaboration and help it to run smoothly and efficiently, will therefore have a ready-made market. It will be interesting to see just how quickly Notetracks Inc. can take Notetracks the app forward to grab a share of that market….

Notetracks


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