I ran a SoundPrism Pro giveaway last week on the blog and, at the time, promised to write up a review of the app so here goes…. SoundPrism Pro – produced by Audanika and priced at UK£5.49 – is essentially a MIDI performance app. Rather like apps such as Chordion, Gestrument and Synthecaster (all of which I have reviewed previously on the site), while SoundPrism Pro includes its own audio engine and has a small collection of sounds built in to it, its real strength is as a performance interface that uses the touchscreen to allow the user to send MIDI data to other synths.
There are a number of reasons why this can be a good thing. First, if you don’t like playing a ‘virtual’ piano keyboard on your iDevice, SoundPrism Pro gives you an alternative performance interface designed to capitalise on the touchscreen rather than mimic a piano key interface. Second, if your keyboard skills are not the best (that’s me; I’m a guitar player rather than a pianist) then an ‘intelligent’ touchscreen interface can allow you to create keyboard parts in a more efficient fashion. And, third, if you have little by way of conventional musical instrument skills, but lots of musical ideas you would like to express, an interface that lets even non-musicians create something musical (and so encourages their creativity and musical development) is a worthwhile tool.
So, if any of the above apply to you – and assuming you didn’t win a copy in the giveaway – is SoundPrism Pro worth adding to your app collection?
In the prism
As indicated above, SoundPrism Pro is an instrument in its own right. It includes a sound engine and ships with four different sounds; organ, pad, Rhodes and synth. There are others available as IAPs. All these are fine and, as tools for experimenting with the interface when you are just getting started, they are perfectly adequate. However, I don’t think the sounds themselves are going to be the main reason that most people would consider buying the app.
No, that main reason is the MIDI performance interface. In essence, this provides two elements; a ‘chord’ area and a ‘bass note’ area. On the main screenshot from the iPad version shown here, the chord area dominates the centre/right of the display, while the bass zone is located as a strip down the left edge. In between the two are various buttons that either adjust the performance settings or provide access to further menu options.
As you might expect, tapping a button within the bass zone generates single bass notes. The main screenshot here shows the notes on these buttons but you can choose to toggle this off if you wish. In fact, you can actually play two bass notes at the same time if you wish; the app is ‘multitouch’ and responds to a maximum of two touches within this bass zone.
The chord zone is also multitouch and can respond to up to five simultaneous touches. However, you don’t need to use these to voice chords by using multiple fingers (although, as explained in a minute, you can if you wish). The six buttons that form the left-hand vertical strip of performance options dictate how a touch in the zone generates notes. The choices allow you to generate a single note, two notes or three notes and whether you want those notes repeated over a single octave, two octaves or three octaves. You can, therefore, get a single touch to generate either one note or quite a dense, full chord; the choice is yours.
The chords themselves are either major or minor in flavour. The chord zone is divided into seven lanes and these are alternately light and dark in shading. Tapping on a lighter-shaded lane will generate a major chord while the darker lanes generate minor chords. With the note display switched on (as in the screenshots shown here), this is also reflected in the note labels; major chord lanes have a capital letter while the minor chord lanes have a lower case letter. Incidentally, you can identify the overall key that you are playing in via the letter in the middle of this vertical set of lanes and, if you tap the up/down arrows within the control strip, you can shift the key as required.
When playing chords, tapping anywhere within a given lane will generate that particular major or minor chord. However, exactly where you tap from left to right dictates the overall pitch of that chord (left = lower, right = higher) and, if you tap and then drag horizontally along a lane, you effectively adjust the chord voicing (inversion) as you move. This is all rather clever and, when patched to a suitable sound source such as an orchestral string sound or a pad with a slow-ish attack, you can create some wonderful evolving and flowing sounds using this approach.
The app also features a ‘hold’ feature (activated with the hand icon button) so that any touches are sustained once you take your finger off the screen until you tap elsewhere or toggle hold off. Again, this is useful and it can allow you to play quite complex chord structures without being required to play Twister with your own fingers.
If you do want to lay something more melodic rather than chord based, the ‘single note’ mode for the chord zone allows you to do this. However, as the note order of the seven lanes doesn’t follow a conventional A, B, C, etc. sequence, but is instead based upon intervals that make more sense for chord sequences, it does take a little time to get your head around this. The trick, however, is to use the left-to-right position of the dark shaded notes on each lane as your guide; then it all makes sense :-)
If you do want to see which notes are being triggered – whether for chords or melodies – then simply swipe the control strip containing the octave/note preference buttons vertically upwards. This displays a piano keyboard graphic and, as you trigger bass notes or chords, you can see which notes are being played on the keyboard.
You can, of course, simply ignore all the music theory and just let your fingers flow. And, if you do that, more often than not, SoundPrism Pro will produce something very musical. Even in the hands of someone with very little musical background, this app will create something harmonically coherent; whether you think that is a good thing is another matter.
That said, add in a little musical knowledge, and the ability to generate chord sequences as a basis for song construction is an absolute doddle using this interface. This is a very clever bit of design with a lot of musical thought built in to it.
Less sound, more MIDI
As commented earlier, while the internal sounds are fine for experimenting with the interface, SoundPrism Pro really comes into its own as a MIDI performance interface for other iOS synths. I experimented with this approach using a number of my favourite synth apps – Thor, Nave, Arctic ProSynth, iSEM, etc – and, aside from needing to adjust the various MIDI settings in the target synth, the process was very straightforward.
What I really like about SoundPrism Pro in this role is the way a slight horizontal movement keeps the same chord but creates a sense of change though a different inversion. This is particularly effective with pad sounds so, if you like to create ambient sound textures with evolving pads and drones, this is a very neat tool for that job.
However, aside from creating bass/chord parts with a single target synth, SoundPrism Pro has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve. As noted above, you can apply two touches to the bass zone and up to five to the chord zone. Via the MIDI preferences settings, you can assign each of these ‘touches’ to a different MIDI channel number. If you then have multiple iOS synth apps running in the background, and you specify a particular MIDI channel for each to respond to, you can use SoundPrism Pro to create multiple parts with a single performance.
The obvious thing to do here is to assign one synth for the bass and another for the chords and, in my own testing, this worked really well. More complex setups are, of course, possible and, providing your fingers are dexterous enough, having two or more synths linked to the chord section can also create some brilliant results. To be able to generate a bass line and two different synth chord parts from three fingers is quite an impressive feat.
In testing on my iPad Air, all of this worked very well with either a combination of various iOS synths or using Bismark’s multi-timbral bs-16i app. Equally, was also able to transmit multi-channel MIDI data to Cubasis from SoundPrism Pro and to record it on multiple MIDI tracks. This then allowed me to edit my SoundPrism Pro MIDI performance and fine-tune it using the Cubasis MIDI editing tools.
SoundPrism Pro can apply a fixed velocity to your MIDI note data and you can set that velocity value. However, the Expression options within the preferences allow you to toggle the Humanise option on/off and, when on, the app adds a ‘human’ element by translating the impact of your fingers into subtle variations in MIDI velocity.
I have to admit that I found this a bit of a non-event in use and, even when I was using a synth patch that responded to MIDI velocity, I couldn’t actually seem to generate much variation in response based upon my SoundPrism Pro playing. In addition, the MIDI velocity of notes recorded in Cubasis all seemed to be identical. Having watched the excellent video description of this feature on Audanika’s website, it clearly can be made to work. Perhaps my issue was something related to different generations of iPad? Fingers crossed I can work out what I was missing here at some point as it would be a useful feature to have :-)
However, the other expressive option built into SoundPrism Pro is much easier to use. This allows you to link two MIDI CC in your target iOS synth to each of the X- and Y-axis accelerometers in your iDevice. Tilting the device then changes those synth parameters in realtime as you perform.
It does require you to know the MIDI CC number of the required parameter but, aside from that, it is very easy to use and provides lots of creative potential. And as MIDI velocity can be controlled via MIDI CC, you can easily add some playing dynamics if, like me, you can’t get your head around the Humanize option. Via this route, I was able to get Cubasis to record MIDI velocity data as part of my SoundPrism Pro performance.
One size fits all
Without wishing to contribute to the ‘music technology is dumbing down the music creation process’ debate, it has to be said that almost anyone could spend a few minutes with SoundPrism Pro and create something that resembled ‘music’ without too much effort. However, add in a little underlying musical knowledge, and there is a lot more than just some random musical ramblings – however harmonically correct they might be – that SoundPrism Pro is capable of.
Because of the easy way chord inversions can be generated, the app is particularly effective with sustained sounds, pads, slow evolving textures, etc. But the multitouch and individual notes options also make it possible to create something other than just ambient chord beds. As a tool for simple melody construction, SoundPrism Pro perhaps wouldn’t be my first choice (I think Chordion’s melody strip is perhaps a bit more intuitive?) but, with just a bit of practice, it certainly can be used for this.
Where SoundPrism Pro also scores, however, is in its ability to work with multiple synths at the same time and the accelerometer-based expression features. This really does add an extra dimension. The end result is a MIDI performance tool that is easy and intuitive to learn but, in the right hands, also very powerful. And for my guitar-friendly hands, a whole lot easier than trying to play the same performance via a virtual piano keyboard.
One other comment is worth making here; SoundPrism Pro is not just a tool for the iOS purists; it also works well as a controller for your desktop computer’s synth collection providing, of course, you can establish a MIDI link between your iOS device and your desktop. Such a connection can be via hardware or wi-fi. For Mac users at least, the other alternative will be Secret Base Design’s very interesting Apollo that uses Bluetooth LE technology to transmit MIDI data. Having been impressed by Apollo in an iOS context, I’m looking forward to trying this when Apollo is officially launched for Mac.
SoundPrism Pro is a very creative tool for chord/bass MIDI parts, particularly so if you like to work with ambient styles, although it can also be used to bash out some cool dance chords if that’s your thing. SoundPrism Pro offers something different to Chordion. Indeed, the two apps complement each other quite nicely, each bringing their own take on a purpose built touchscreen performance interface.
While almost anyone could use SoundPrism Pro to create harmonically correct music, a little bit of musical knowledge opens up the possibilities further. This is a seriously well thought out MIDI performance tool that almost any iOS musician could benefit from.