ScalePlay review – music education meets generative musical instrument in RoGame’s latest release

Download from iTunes App StoreScalePlay logo 1Regular iOS music app geeks will be familiar with RoGame through their Qunicy app. Quincy is perhaps best described as a generative music app. It has been around on the App Store for a number of years and I’ve covered its various updates here on the Music App Blog on various occasions. Generative music tools are, perhaps, a bit of a niche interest but Quincy has proved itself to be very popular within that category and, as a means of inspiring a new musical idea, these sorts of apps are always interesting.

Arthur Roolfs and the RoGame development team now have a new iOS music app to tempt us with; ScalePlay is an iPad-only app that was launched a couple of weeks ago. And, having now had a little time to fully explore the app, it’s time for a full review. So, just what is ScalePlay all about?

ScalePlay - part music tuition/practice tool, part generative music app and part musical instrument.

ScalePlay – part music tuition/practice tool, part generative music app and part musical instrument.

What’s it for?

Some pieces of software (apps included) are easy to describe…. a DAW, a reverb effect, a guitar rig sim, etc. I’m not sure ScalePlay is such as app…. Indeed, I think the app has three ‘roles’ it can play and potential users might be interested in any one (or more) of these.

First, it could be seen as a tool for musical education where, if you happen to play guitar, bass, violin, banjo, cello, double bass, mandolin, piano or viola, ScalePlay can help you develop some personalised scale-based exercises that would, with practice, undoubtedly improve your command of your instrument.

Second, the app most certainly has a generative music element. Your control over that process comes in a somewhat different form to that found in Quincy in that you set scale, scale interval, scale-aware transpositions and chords details that define just how ScalePlay then creates music, but this is undoubtedly a way to get software to surprise you with some new ideas.

ScalePlay offers support for a number of string instruments as well as the piano.

ScalePlay offers support for a number of string instruments as well as the piano.

Third, it is also a musical instrument. ScalePlay is supplied with a set of 128 GM-style musical sounds, Audiobus and IAA support and MIDI out (so you can record the MIDI to a DAW/sequencer or send it to your favourite iOS synth). It also features what RoGame refer to as a TouchPlay feature (essentially a set of chord pads that you can use to trigger ScalePlay in a live performance context) so music creation for live or studio use is most certainly an option.

In terms of other practical details, the app is iPad-only, requires iOS9.3 or later, is a 30MB download and is currently priced at UK£4.99/US$6.99. Arthur has already said to me that there are a host of additional features that are in the development plans including ideas suggested by some of the beta-testers and/or early users.

Read the f(lipping?) manual

OK, I know that giving users the RTFM advice is something every developer wishes they could instil in their users but, frankly, some music software manuals are…. well…. not always very informative. Thankfully, ScalePlay’s manual is…. and while it might not be quite as much of a page-turner as the latest John Grisham novel, if you want to understand exactly what ScalePlay is about and how to use it, then it really is worth working through. It’s an online document (so I assume RoGame can more easily update it as the app gets new features and refinements) and available via the ‘i’ icon/button located top-right of the main interface.

Don't ignore the manual... it does a great job of explaining how the app works....

Don’t ignore the manual… it does a great job of explaining how the app works….

Indeed, it’s so useful – and covers all the app’s current functions in such a clear fashion – that there is really no way I could match that level of comprehensive coverage on a feature-by-feature basis here. Instead, I’ll focus on the bigger picture – the most significant features of the app – so you can get an idea of whether it might be for you and, if so, you can fill the details in via the manual.

Main attraction

By default, ScalePlay’s main screen is divided into five areas. Top-left is the fretboard/piano keyboard view. This display changes based upon the instrument type you have selected in the General section of the app’s Settings menu (this menu is accessed via the cog wheel button located towards the bottom of the central control strip) and, as ScalePlay plays notes, these are highlighted in this section of the display. Used as an instrument tuition tool, this would obviously help you with your fingering patterns.

To the right of this is the Notation panel that shows the notes within the currently selected key/scale combination. There are various display options within this panel including (if you don’t need it all the time) expanding the fretboard/piano keyboard display to the right so that it fills the entire width of the upper portion of the screen.

The top-left Instrument panel changes depending upon which instrument type you have selected.

The top-left Instrument panel changes depending upon which instrument type you have selected.

The remaining three panels include two ‘matrices’ (grids) and (along the base of the screen) an area for chord buttons called the Chord Slider (because you can slide it left/right if your project includes more chords than can be displayed in this area at one time; you define the number of chords in any project via the Song Settings menu).

ScalePlay offers a set of 128 internal sounds.... but you can also send MIDI data out to another app if you prefer.

ScalePlay offers a set of 128 internal sounds…. but you can also send MIDI data out to another app if you prefer.

These three panels are the key areas for making ScalePlay do something musical. The left-sided matrix is called the Phrase Matrix and it is here that you create a musical phrase based upon notes within the current chord/scale combination (which, itself, is defined by the currently selected chord button in the Chord Slider).

While you get some tools (just above the matrix) for drawing preset shapes, you can also just tap within the matrix to set a note ‘on’ for each step. This does, in essence, create a melody that, on playback, will repeat itself….. although, as I’ll come to in a minute, you can generate changes to this melody in a number of ways.

You can also expand the Instrument panel out to fill the full width of the screen.

You can also expand the Instrument panel out to fill the full width of the screen…  and note the ‘Line’ within the Phrase Matrix.

Do note that you are currently forced to have a single note playing on each step of the matrix. No stacked notes (chords) are allowed and nor can a step be left empty. Equally, each step/note is currently of a fixed length. I can imagine some users might seeing these points as a bit limiting if thinking of ScalePlay as a musical instrument rather than a tool for learning about, and practicing, scales and moving scales across chord changes.

However, this is a first release of the product and I know Arthur is both keen to get initial user feedback and already has plans for future updates…..   I can’t think of any specific reason why either of these features couldn’t be made more flexible in a future update (although maybe I’m wrong?).

There is, in fact, already a feature in ScalePlay that allows you to workaround having a note on each step. In the Song section of the Settings menu, you can define the position of the ‘Line’ (with 0 meaning no ‘Line’ as the Line is at the bottom of the matrix). If you set this to 3 (for example) then a bold line appears in the Phrase Matrix separating the bottom three rows (notes) from the rest of the matrix (one of the screenshots shows an example of this).

The Song Settings allow you to define the sizes of the two matrix grids, the number of chords and the position of the 'Line'.

The Song Settings allow you to define the sizes of the two matrix grids, the number of chords and the position of the ‘Line’.

In the central control strip (above the Phrase Matrix) there is then a button that allows you to switch playback between three modes; all the notes, just those notes below the line or just those notes above the line. This isn’t perhaps as flexible as simply being able to leave a column blank (no note) but it does provide something close to that functionality as well as giving you one option for adding variety to your programmed phrase on playback.

Getting shifty

Once this basic melodic pattern is defined, the ‘Line’ feature aside, there are a couple of other ways to then manipulate it. The first of these involves the second (right-hand side) matrix; the Step Matrix. When you trigger playback, both matrices start to cycle. The Phrase Matrix defines the ‘shape’ of the melodic phrase generated but, each time that repeats, the Step Matrix moves along one step.

The cells within this matrix define a scale-based ‘offset’ for the phrase. Row 1 of the Step Matrix causes no offset relative to the root note of the scale. However, if the second step is set to row 2, then every note within the phrase is shifted up in pitch by one note within the scale….   and so on for each row in the Step Matrix. Note again, this is scale-based…. it is not a simple transpose where, for example, every note in the phrase gets shifted by a set number of semi-tones. In other words, ScalePlay brings some scale-based intelligence to how it offsets the phrase so that all the notes stay within the root note/scale combination defined by the current chord.

You can set alternative tunings for a string instrument if you wish.

You can set alternative tunings for a string instrument if you wish.

The second element is based upon the chord boxes within the Chord Slider. For each chord in your project/song, you can define the root note, chord type and scale. On playback, ScalePlay simply plays through each chord in turn, playing the full phrase once for each column (step) within the Step Matrix.

Just how many scales types would you like? There are lots to choose from....

Just how many scales types would you like? There are lots to choose from….

So, if you have four steps within the Step Matrix (and this is, again, defined within the Song section of the Settings menu), then ScalePlay will play the phrase four times based upon the root note/chord type/scale defined by the first chord (including any offsets defined by the Step Matrix) and will then repeat the same phrase but adjusted for the different root note/chord type/scale defined by the second chord (again including any offsets defined by the Step Matrix) and so on until all the chords have been played at which point the app simply starts again with the first chord in the sequence.

The sizes of the two grids can be adjusted to provide different sorts of phrase building and offset combinations.

The sizes of the two grids can be adjusted to provide different sorts of phrase building and offset combinations.

Touch me

OK, so far so good….. it is easy to see how these various tools could make a great practice environment for those wishing to expand their knowledge of scales, wanting to program (and then practice) ways of playing scales that are not just single scale step up/down runs, and wanting to program routines they can then practice on their instrument that move between chords. Both in term of basic understanding of scales/chords, and in terms of working on specific instrument skills, this would obviously bring benefits if you put the time in.

However, don’t forget that ScalePlay includes Audiobus/IAA support and MIDI out…. so, if you like to create music that features melodic patterns that cycle, repeat and also vary while staying ‘in key’, then you can also see how ScalePlay can make a pitch as a ‘generative’ music app.

The TouchPlay area introduces some interesting live performance options for the app.

The TouchPlay area introduces some interesting live performance options for the app.

The final bit of the jigsaw – ScalePlay as a performance instrument – is provided by the TouchPLay screen. This is accessed via the ‘four arrows’ icon/button located on the far-right/centre of the screen. The concept here is really pretty simple; you can now trigger the various chords programmed into your project/song simply by tapping the appropriate chord pad.

I had no problems sending ScalePlay's MIDI data out to another iOS music app... such as Thor shown here.

I had no problems sending ScalePlay’s MIDI data out to another iOS music app… such as Thor shown here….

There are various options provided here including the option to switch between those three different playback modes involving the ‘Line’ defined in the Phrase Matrix so, once you have your phrase and chords defined, TouchPlay might make for an interesting live triggering environment with the app sending its MIDI out to a synth app or two. I had no problems doing this using Thor (for example) or recording the MIDI out into Cubasis (where it could, of course, be edited further if required). It is easy to think that more features might be forthcoming in this section of the app; there is some obvious potential here.

... and it was easy to record the MIDI data into Cubasis....

… and it was easy to record the MIDI data into Cubasis….

Want to play with scales?

Having tried to give a flavour of the key functions ScalePlay can perform, I hope that makes it a little more obvious to potential users just who the app might appeal to. ScalePlay is perhaps not an app for everyone but, if you are a student of scales and chords – or want to become one – then this is most certainly an app to consider providing you play one of the instruments currently supported.

Equally, if you are a collector of generative music apps then ScalePlay ought to appeal. It certainly has ‘generative’ elements and, while I might choose a different app as my first dip into that category (Quincy included), it is definitely one that will add something different to an existing collection of such apps.

The chord settings can be easily adjusted and offer plenty of chord types and scale options.

The chord settings can be easily adjusted and offer plenty of chord types and scale options.

ScalePlay is also interesting as a musical instrument/live performance tool. This is, perhaps, the area of the app that feels the least ‘complete’ as yet in this initial release. It is, however, also the area of the app’s functionality that it is easiest to see how it could easily be expanded upon… and I’d be very surprised if RoGame don’t do just that as the app gains a user base.

In summary

So, as I said at the beginning, part tuition/practice tool, part generative music app and part musical instrument/performance tool…. ScalePlay offers something in all three of these areas….

RoGame have created another interesting – if slightly left-of-centre – iOS music app that will, I’m sure, find a suitable audience. Given what Arthur has already said about future developments, I’m guessing that’s an audience that will grow as the app gains more features. For me, the obvious direction here is to develop the performance elements of the app (and, in particular, more flexibility in creating phrases within the Phrase Matrix). I’m sure this is the area that would most easily broaden the appeal of the app within the wider iOS music making community.

If you are not already tempted, this is most certainly an app to keep an eye on as it develops further….. I’ll try and help on that front so watch this space :-) However, even if you are really only interested in one or these possible applications of the app, given that the price is currently set a pretty modest UK£4.99/US$7.99, you wouldn’t be pushing the boat out too far if you did decide to take a bit of an experimental punt. Like Quincy, ScalePlay is an interesting app and, if scales and generative music are your thing, most certainly worth exploring.

ScalePlay

Download from iTunes App Store



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    Comments

    1. Another great review John.

    2. Agreed. Great in-depth review John.

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