As most regular Music App Blog readers will be aware, I’m a bit of a fan of what developer Olympia Noise Co do with their iOS music apps. For example, Chordion has always been a personal favourite because of its easy-to-use design. The app is perhaps one of the best examples of some clever design to exploit the strengths of the touchscreen and create a playable interface that musicians can use. However, both Ondes and dot Melody are also well worth checking out. And, as I mentioned on the blog a few weeks ago, Ben Kamen and the team at Olympia Noise Co have been working on a new app; Patterning.
As the name might suggest, Patterning is a drum machine app but, if you did take a quick look at the teaser video, you will soon have seen that this is not going to be another ‘me to’ 16-pad, pattern-based virtual drum machine. The video didn’t give too much away at this stage but the circular interface looked interesting (maybe it has a hint of Sector about it? Or perhaps even the ‘eye’ display found in desktop VST sample playback instrument Elastik?)…. and, of course, it sounded very interesting.
After the announcement there was quite a lot of chatter online and I think it is fair to say, quite a build up of anticipation. The wait is now over… and we can all hit the ‘download’ button and get hold of a copy of Patterning – with a launch price of UK£7.99 – from the App Store to find out whether the it lives up to expectations….
And does it live up to the hype? Well, if you are the kind of person who is just waiting for a reviewer to say ‘yes’ so that you have an excuse to buy another iOS music app then feel free to stop reading now and go buy Patterning without any hesitation; in short, this is a brilliant app with a great design and some fabulously creative features…. If you like drum machine apps or you like to get creative with your rhythmic tools, you are very likely to think Patterning is the dog’s do-dahs….
… if, on the other hand, you like to read a full review before you commit to yet another drum machine/electronic groove app… well, feel free…. but the conclusion will be the same… Patterning is a thing of brilliance and beauty and, if it doesn’t make almost every iOS music blogger’s ‘top ten apps of 2015’ then I will be very surprised.
So what is Patterning? Well, at one level, you could use it as a conventional pattern-based drum machine where you get eight parts (drum sounds; although as the sound sources are sample-based and you can import your own samples, you are not restricted to just conventional drum sounds), can create multiple patterns (each with up to 64 steps but also with variable step duration so there is plenty of scope for break-neck madness or extended, multi-bar, pattern creation) using those eight sounds within a project and then sequence those patterns along a timeline to create a ‘song’ arrangement. So far, so good but also pretty much ‘conventional’ in terms of any sample-based, pattern-based drum machine.
You also get Audiobus support, triggers for Audiobus Remote, IAA support, MIDI sync and MIDI out (so you can capture your Patterning patterns into a DAW/sequencer if you wish). The app is supplied with an impressive selection of preset drum kits build on an equally impressive set of included samples and, as already mentioned, options for importing your own samples via various routes including DropBox, AudioCopy or iTunes File Sharing (I used the latter and it worked very smoothly). The app is a 70MB download, is iPad-only and requires iOS8.1 or later.
In terms of the structure of the interface, the key functions are spread across six ‘tabbed’ screens – File, Pattern, Drum Kit, Song, Mixer and FX – that you can access via the buttons/labels along the top edge of the display. While the whole app definitely has the rather smooth (and very appealing) house style of Olympia Noise Co’s other iOS apps, rather pleasing looks aside, a number of the screens are also fairly ‘conventional’ in their content and, if you have used other pattern-based drum machines, there might not be too many surprises.
For example, The File menu gives you access to your projects, allows global tempo setting (including a ‘tap tempo’ options, although the app also locked to MIDI Clock pretty solidly for me with used alongside Cubasis and followed the Cubasis tempo setting) and the MIDI configuration options. The latter allows you to toggle on/off MIDI Clock (send or receive) and to set up the MIDI out configuration of each of patterning’s eight sound channels.
The Drum Kit page is where you can load any of the preset drum kits (or save your own; I’ll come back to that in more detail below). Kits can be loaded either with just the samples or as a combination of ‘samples + FX’; Patterning has some useful effects options that you can save the settings for as part of your kit preset. To reiterate, there is a very impressive set of preset kits supplied and some great electronic drum sounds included. I imported a set of acoustic drum samples into the app (there are a few included already) and was easily able to construct a basic acoustic drum kit preset if you did want to use some more ‘conventional’ acoustic drum sounds with Patterning’s pattern editing options.
The Song page is where, once you have created a few patterns, you can arrange them along the timeline. This is very easy to use and simply involves dragging and dropping patterns onto the timeline. The timeline itself can be scrolled left/right so you can view what’s going on elsewhere in the arrangement. If I had one single criticism of the app then it was going to be that you can only see six bars at a time in this screen… but then I discovered that you can pinch/stretch on the timeline to show more/less as required. While I’ve been lucky enough to have had access to the release version for a few days ahead of the actual launch, I’m sure there are a few other little in the user interface like this that I’ve missed…. but it is going to be fun finding them (or. maybe after launch, their will be a PDF manual available to help new users find all these little gems?). You can easily switch between ‘song playback’ and ‘pattern playback’ depending using the ‘three small circles’ button (located on the Song page but also available in the top strip of buttons from any page).
The Mixer page is definitely ‘house style’ but it contains the basic controls required for setting levels, pan, mute/solo and send levels to the global reverb and delay effects for each of the eight sounds. You also get faders for the delay, reverb and master output level. It’s all fairly simple but easy to use and perfectly functional.
The FX page provides access to the key controls for the delay, reverb, EQ and distortion effects. These are easy of the eye and easy on the finger… just tap away and tweak. The delay can be tempo-sync’ed or set to run free and the filter on the delay is effective for changing the tonal character of the repeats. In terms of tempo-sync’ed repeats, you get a full range of note types; if you want space triplet delays then you can have them. The reverb is also perfectly useable and includes a filter. The three band EQ is simple to use but also very effective; more bottom end? Well, there is plenty on offer it you need it… I’m not quite sure I’ve got my head fully around the distortion effect but, if you want to get things overdriven, then you have come to the right place.
Again, so far, so straightforward…. Very competently done, nicely designed/presented and very functional…. Come on John…. when are you going to tell us why we should be getting excited about this app…?
Not so simple patterns?
Will now do? :-) The really interesting stuff is happening on the Pattern screen. This is split into three areas. Down the right is a strip of eight circular buttons and these are used for bringing any one of the eight drum sounds into the ‘foreground’ while to edit the sound or the pattern for that sound.
The bulk of the screen is dominated by the larger, circular, pattern editing section. This is filled with eight concentric circles – yes, one circle for each of your eight sounds – and the circles zoom in and out of ‘focus’ as you switch between different sounds. This means you can see the patterns for all the sounds all the time but the pattern for the currently selected sound is ‘zoomed in’ so you can see it in more detail.
On the right-hand side is a further multi-tabbed section with four options; ‘pattern’, ‘sample’, ‘mixer’ and ‘edit’. Touching any of these tab buttons changes what gets displayed in the right-hand column but, and this is important point to appreciated when first starting with the app, the contents of this section of the screen are sound-specific; the settings shown apply to the currently selected drum sound from the eight available.
Perhaps the first observation to make about this particular page is that it is rather wonderful to interact with. The design is attractive and, as you switch between the eight different sounds, the way the main circular pattern display/grid (can you have a circular gird?) zooms the required sound layer in/out of the foreground is both elegant and intuitive. Hit the ‘play’ button on a pattern and the way the pattern grid lights up as the pattern plays is also just very cool (actually, cooler than that, but I’ll come back to why in a minute). In short, this is one heck of a pretty app to look at. Incidentally, you can switch between the eight different sounds by tapping on the pattern grid itself.
In terms of programming your patterns, you simply select the sound layer you wish to work with and they tap on the wedges within the circle to place a hit. By default, the settings for the Step Duration and number of Steps mean that you have patterns of one bar long and with 16 steps although, as we will see in a minute, there is plenty of flexibility here. As you place a hit, you can set the MIDI velocity (volume) of the hit by dragging towards/away from the circle’s edge; the taller the yellow/brown bar of the hit, the louder the sound will be. This makes it very easy to add in dynamics to your patterns as you program.
Note that while only one sound layer can be seen in expanded view at any one time, all the others are still visible – including the locations of any hits – in the thinner circles. In addition, if you just tap and then drag your finger around the foreground circle, you keep creating hits in all the wedges as you drag. Located bottom-right of the main circle are pencil and eraser buttons; if you want to delete a hit completely (other than just turning its velocity right down), then switch to the eraser tool. This has other uses that I’ll come to in a moment.
Above the main circle’s top-right are buttons for switching between patterns (left and right arrows) while the third button (featuring a slightly curved arrow) duplicates the current pattern. If you are in programming mode rather than ‘song playback’ mode, and just want to work on individual patterns, this makes it easy to switch back and forth as you fine-tune each pattern.
Out of step
OK, so it looks beautiful but, at this point, you might still be wondering quite why folks are thinking Patterning is just a bit special… As described above it is simple a 16 step pattern-based drum sample sequencer with a circular grid (albeit a rather elegant one and with a host of excellent electronic drum sounds built in). Actually, for some, that might be more than enough but, if we dig into that tabbed right-hand section, then we begin to get to the rather simple – but also rather brilliant – idea within the design that makes patterning somewhat different from your conventional virtual drum machine.
The first tab (the one with the small circle icon) display settings that allow you to configure the pattern format. There are two modes here; Standard and Euclidean. In the absence of any documentation with my pre-release version, I’m not exactly sure what the later is for (other than it greys out a few of the settings) but Standard mode is where I spent most of my time anyway.
Here you get settings for Step Duration (in note lengths), Steps (number of), Playback Mode (forward, backward and a few other more exotic options), Auto-Rotate (keep this one in mind for a minute) and Swing % (to add a little swing groove to your pattern. At the base of this list is the Apply To All option and that should give you a hint that all of the other controls listed above are sound-specific; that is; you can, if you wish, apply different values for each of these settings to each of your different eight sound layers… or you can create some settings and then ‘apply to all’.
The obviously interesting thing here is that you can, if you wish, create a pattern where, for example, the kick and snare patterns use 16 steps but the hihat might be set to 17 steps. And, if the step lengths are set to the same values (for example, 16th notes), as the pattern loops, the first time through, when the snare/kick pattern reaches beat 1, the hihat will still be playing beat 17 of the first time around…. and on the next completion of the 16 step kick/snare, the hihat will have only reached step 15… and so on…. With each repeat through the pattern, the hihat pattern becomes offset to the kick/snare by one beat….
Of course, it doesn’t have to be just one beat (set the hihat pattern to any number of steps you like) and you can set the playback mode of any layer to be ‘backwards’ (for example) or some other direction… The point here is that, by having the ability to create patterns where the different sounds are looping through different numbers of steps, you pattern sounds different every time it loops until, of course, the patterns eventually (for one cycle only) get back into sync with one another.
The effect is not unlike the Steve Reich Clapping Music approach but with more options and with the software taking all the hard work out of the process. The results can, however, be utterly hypnotic; providing you don’t add too much ‘chaos’, what you get is a sense of a regular, repeating, pattern but one that is evolving and breathing as it repeats.
In terms of the main circular interface, when individual sound layers are set to different step numbers, the number of ‘wedges’ simply adjusts itself in the appropriate layer (up to a maximum of 64 steps) and, very cleverly, on playback, the way each layer lights up clearly shows how ‘out of step’ (or offset) each layer is compared to the other layers. This makes excellent use of the interface and it’s here that the reason for the circular ‘grid’ as opposed to a more conventional (er….) grid-shaped grid makes so much sense.
If that was Patterning’s main ‘trick’ over and above a conventional grid/pattern-based drum machine, it might well be enough to make it an intriguing purchase for any iOS musician. However, there are a few other rhythmically interesting tricks still up Patterning’s rather attractive sleeves….
Take the ‘Auto-Rotate’ setting for example…. Yep, tweak this for an individual layer and, each time the pattern repeats, that layer will ‘rotate’ by the number of steps set in the Auto-Rotate setting… and this is fascinating to both watch and hear as it happens in real-time. Whether you stick will all layers having the same number of step or not, Auto-Rotate means you can have a never-ending variation as the pattern plays back…. Combine this with the different step lengths and… well… the options are bewilderingly complex should you wish to explore them. This is a drum pattern programming environment that can make beautifully complex rhythms from even the most simple of starting points.
If you switch to the waveform tab, the right-side section provides controls for tweaking the sound associated with the currently selected layer. You can adjust the key envelope settings (attack, hold, decay) and the coarse and fine tuning. You can also assign a sound to one of two choke groups (useful if you are creating complex hi-hat patterns using open and closed hi-hat sounds on different layers).
If you tap on the waveform graphic of the sound itself, you open the sound browser. Here you can change the actual sample used. These are organised into some useful categories and there is also a User samples section which is where your own samples will get placed if you import them (as I did via iTunes File Sharing). You can trim the sample in the upper section of the browser and, if you tap and drag up/down on this section of the screen, you can adjust the gain of the sample. The only thing missing here (well, I couldn’t find it if it is available) is an option to simply audition the samples within the browser by tapping on them. That would be useful when selecting sounds but, if it is AWOL, then I suspect it is something that would be easy to add in an future update.
The other thing worth noting here is that when you have the waveform tab selected, a further option appears next to the main grid circle; the Auto/Rec button. If you tap and hold this while a pattern is in playback, you can tweak any of the waveform controls on the right-side of the display (for example, the Coarse Tuning control) and those changes will be recorded within the pattern and automated on subsequent playback once you have released the Auto/Rec button; very neat.
The same Auto/Rec feature is present in the ‘mixer’ icon tab and is perhaps of more obvious use here as this screen provides you with filter, delay and reverb send controls, pan, volume and mute/solo options for the currently selected sound. You can, therefore, automate things such as pan of basic filter sweeps if you want to.
However, Patterning’s automation (or is it programming?) capabilities don’t stop there. Switch to the final right-sided tab – the pencil icon – and a whole range of further options appear. here you can copy/clear/paste layers (very useful) but you can also toggle the display of the main circle ‘wedges’ so you can enter something other than just velocity data (which is the default setting as soon as you switch away from the pencil tab). If you want to add tuning variations, pan, filter or send-level data to your patterns on a per-step basis then you can do so.
There are two additional observations worth making here. First, with the tuning options, if you load a non-drum sample (a bass sound for example), you can apply some pitch variations to create a melodic phrase within your patterns. If you look very top-right of the display as you adjust any layer setting within the pencil tab, you will see the actual value you are setting for the current parameter…. for the Coarse Tuning option, for example, this shows you the number of semitones of pitch shift…. you can, therefore, easily create a simple bass line if you wish.
Second… and don’t let the significance of this one pass you by… there is also a probability option within the parameter list. Yep, just as in the rather brilliant DrumPerfect, you can set a probability value for each hit in each sound layer…. And if the probability is set at anything less than 100% for a particular hit, it might not playback every time the pattern is looped. At this into the other features described above that can make your pattern evolve as they playback and you can begin to see why Patterning is quite such as interesting rhythm production tool… and why the app’s name is totally appropriate.
Going for a song
The whole process of pattern creation within Patterning is pleasure. The graphical environment is intuitive and visually attractive and, given the various ways in which you can add complexity and variety into your patterns (well, if you wish to; 16 step ‘normal’ patterns are allowed also), if you want a source of almost endless rhythmic variety in a format that is also easy to use, Patterning is going to be a very attractive proposition.
Once you have created a few patterns, however, it is also very easy to start chaining them together using the Song screen. Yes, you do have to enter a pattern multiple times onto the timeline if you wish to repeat it, but the process is still very speedy and very easy to use. The other thing to point out here is that if you do repeat a pattern – and that pattern contains ‘offset’ sound layers with different step lengths – on playback, those offsets work beautifully as the pattern cycles through tis various repeats. If you like to work with subtle variations built around one or two core patterns, patterning is going to make life very easy for you (OK, not all of ‘life’ but certainly the drum programming bit!).
The app also seems very easy to use with other iOS music apps right off the blocks. I had no issues with the Audiobus support (including the Audiobus Remote options) and, aside from having to ensure that I had launched patterning first, it seemed to behave pretty well used as an IAA app with Cubasis as my IAA host. Either via Audiobus or IAA, I had no issues getting Patterning’s audio output into Cubasis. The MIDI Clock sync also worked well with Cubasis.
I did a little testing with the MIDI out capability of Patterning and was able to capture the MIDI data within Cubasis. I can understand why you might want to do this – driving another drum machine app from patterns created in Patterning – but, actually, the sounds within the app itself are very good. Still, it’s great to have the option. I can also understand why the app doesn’t seem to feature MIDI in (at least, not that I could find). Why, when Patterning is perhaps the most flexible pattern programming environment iOS currently offers, would you trigger it from elsewhere? It might be interesting to see if users to request this feature though….
Patterning is a complete joy. The performance was solid in my testing and, even if just used as a ‘conventional’ drum machine to create ‘conventional’ drum patterns, it is still an excellent choice simply because the design is easy to use and very easy on the eye. It is far from shabby in terms of the included sounds either…. for electronic drum/rhythm programming, this is a very cool sound set covering a range of musical styles.
And then you can add in all those rhythmic variations – different step numbers for different layers, auto-rotate options and the probability options – create one simple pattern using these features and I suspect you could leave it for quite some time without hearing the same pattern repeat. This is a hugely creative rhythm creation environment.
It is also beautiful to look at and, while functional software can be both great and very effective, there is something very appealing about just looking at Patterning as it does its stuff…. don’t underestimate the positives of being good to look at… it will keep you coming back.
iOS is now blessed with some excellent ‘conventional’ drum tools and/or rhythm creation options. There is nothing wrong with ‘conventional’ – it is not a criticism – but, equally, we also have some tools that simply take things that bit further or move us left of centre. Given the ‘controlled random’ that Patterning offers, an obvious comparison is with Sector. Sector is really a loop manipulation tool but, because of its ability to add probability into the way those loops ate sliced and played back, you also get that ‘evolving rhythm’ effect that Patterning provides. Sector and patterning are nor an either/or however… they are very different in operation… but both are brilliant in their own way.
There is one other comparison between these two apps that I think is worth making though. I’m a big fan of Sector and I’ve said many times that, if it existed in a desktop VST format, I’d buy it in a flash. It is simply a great piece of software and, while it appeared on iOS, it is unique and could work brilliantly on the desktop. Patterning is the same…. The graphical user interface is fabulous and it makes excellent use of the touchscreen… but there is nothing here that would not translate perfectly well to a desktop and a mouse. If Olympia Noise Co ever go down that route, and could get the marketing right, I think Patterning would go down a storm as a VST/AU virtual instrument; I’d be first in the queue.
So, to get back to where I started…. If you have ploughed through the full review, my conclusion is both simple and the same as when I started…. Patterning is brilliant; beautiful to look at, so very clever in terms of the programming options and, as far as I’m aware, unique as a drum/rhythm programming environment (iOS or desktop). Ben – hat’s off to you – I know we are only talking about a virtual drum machine, but this is an app with a touch of genius.
If you have any use for programmed drum pattern and/or electronic drum sounds, at UK£7.99, Patterning is a no-brainer…. this is an app that is good enough to buy an iPad for…. Top notch stuff and recommended without any reservations.