ThumbJam from Sonosaurus – music app review

ThumbJam - Sonosaurus LLCthumbjam logoWhile every iDevice-owning musician ought to have the Garageband music app installed simply because it is so good, so fun and so cheap, what are the other killer music apps that you really ought to purchase? I listed my top-ten suggestions in a previous post but, of course, new apps are released all the time and, as some point soon, I’ll update my picks to reflect that. However, new apps aside, there are also a bunch of older apps that would make serious ‘must have’ contenders (maybe I need a top 20 list instead?). For me, ThumbJam, from Sonosaurus (such a cool name!) falls into that category.

While ThumbJam has been around for a little while, the version 2 release (v. 2.1.1 is the current release at the time of writing) introduced some new features as well as the usual range of bug-fixes, etc. However, what has always made ThumbJam interesting it the user-interface and, in particular, the way its sample-based instruments are played. So, let’s take a look at ThumbJam and see if it is worth adding to your iDevice’s musical arsenal.

ThumbJam basics

In essence, ThumbJam is built around three key elements; a sample-based instrument collection with what can only be described as an innovate user-interface though which those instruments can be played, a loop-based recording environment where the user can layer and mix performances from those different instruments and, almost as a separate function, a MIDI controller that can be used to generate MIDI data for your computer-based DAW.

ThumbJam’s main performance display. Click on any of the images to see a full-size version.

While these are the three key features (and I’ll get to them in more detail below), there are, of course, other things worth noting. For example, you can use your iDevice’s internal microphone (or a 3rd-party add-on mic if you have one) to add audio parts to your musical performances. Equally, you can use the same route to create your own sample-based instruments that you can then play and record using the performance interface. There are also a range of import and export options for both audio and MIDI data should you need to move your compositions to a desktop system or need to import loops to use within ThumbJam. Finally, ThumbJam includes a system for downloading new content – both instruments and loops – that Sonosaurus make available, so there is regular fresh inspiration for you to work with.

So, in general terms them, what you have here is a sample-based performance and recording environment to which you can add your own audio performances (vocals, acoustic guitar, etc.), mixdown and export to other platforms. Expressed in that fashion, ThumbJam doesn’t sound that different from any other music and/or recording app available (Garageband for example?). However, that is some distance from the truth. Yes, ThumbJam is a performance/recording app but it is a pretty unique take on the genre. As we will see, that can be considered both a good thing and, in one respect at least, perhaps not such a good thing. Let me explain….

Twiddle your thumbs

Much as I enjoy using a virtual piano keyboard via the touch-screen of my iPhone or iPad, one to the most interesting aspects of the mobile music software is the fact that some developers are prepared to let the touch-screen allow them to re-think the performance interface. To a certain extent, Garageband does this with its smart instruments and apps such as Figure provide a brilliant re-invention of how a performance is ‘played’. In ThumbJam, Sonosaurus have also tired to think a little outside the (piano-shaped) box.

The screenshot shows an example of the main performance area (click on any of the screenshots to see a full-size version). At first sight, it is all rather underwhelming (er…  bland?) but the visual impression is misleading. The main screen is divided into note areas (striped in different colours) with low pitches at the base and higher pitches towards the top. As might be expected, notes are played by tapping these stripes with your thumbs (fingers allowed too!) and, if the instrument allows notes to sustain, the note will do so if you keep your finger in contact with the stripe.

Four menu buttons are located in the four corners of the screen (Sound, Loop, Edit and Prefs) and, as might be expected, these provide access to the various features of the app. Also shown in the screenshot is a button strip (the Sidebar) down the left-hand edge. This is not displayed by default but can be switched on via the Prefs menu and, while it adds a little clutter, it does provide direct access to some of the key functions. Equally, the note pitches are displayed down the right-edge (the Pitchbar) and this can also be toggled on/off via the Prefs menu.

ThumbJam comes supplied with a large library of possible scales.

The eagle-eyed will have spotted two things here; first, in the example screen shot, the Pitchbar is only showing certain notes rather than a chromatic piano keyboard-style layout and, second, the words ‘Minor Blues’ appear centre-bottom. These things are related as one of the key features of the performance interface is the ability limit the available notes to those from a specific scale in a specific key. Garageband has a similar feature and, whether you are a seasoned musician or a musical novice, this means far fewer ‘bum’ notes in your performance. The choice of scales available via the Sound menu is massive and, if needs be, you can also define your own. It is difficult to describe just how much easier this simple feature makes ‘playing’ a performance but knowing that whatever you hit is going to be ‘in key’ does inspire a certain confidence. Usefully, you can also change the total number of stripes (notes) available on screen at any one time – displaying fewer notes (thicker stripes for each note) also helps accuracy in your performance.

Users can configure the performance options for an instrument

However, that’s only part of the ThumbJam performance experience. Depending upon the instrument and how it has been configured (and you can explore this via the Edit menu), where you tap (left to right) on a note can be used to control pan or volume. Equally, shaking your finger can be used to add vibrato (or tremolo) to a note. Finally, you can configure pitch bend to respond to tilting of your iDevice. The full set of control options are shown in the screenshot but, taking vibrato and pitch bend as examples, these can add a tremendous degree of expression to a performance – and this is easily illustrated by loading up a patch like the cello or string section and just adding some slow vibrato to notes – just brilliant! It is also worth noting that the ‘finger shake’ vibrato is note-specific so you can add expression to just one or two notes while others stay at a constant pitch.

Thumbing through the sounds

ThumbJam comes supplied with a useful selection of instruments. More are available for download or you can create your own.

All of ThumbJam’s sounds are based upon samples and cover a broad range of musical genres. So, we have various orchestral sounds such a cello, violin, full string section, trumpet, sax, and trombone. Equally, there are pianos, organs, various guitars (including the wonderful JR Zendrix distorted guitar which responds brilliantly to pitch bend and vibrato) and bases. Drum kits are also included (the performance screen is somewhat different when a drum kit is loaded) and there is also a selection of more unusual instruments such as a theramin. Perhaps the weakest suit is the synth sounds. What’s included is fine but, because they are sample-based, you don’t have a synth engine here where you can tweak the sounds to suit your needs.

Via the Sound menu, you can also access additional downloadable sounds and loops. This is well worth doing and, interestingly, the instruments occupy only a few MB of data. This suggests that the sampling itself is fairly basic when compared to the kind of multi-sampled, multi-articulation instrument that clogs up most sample-based virtual instruments on a desktop DAW. In that sense, therefore, you might expect ThumbJam’s instruments to sound a little limited. Perhaps in dynamic terms they might be but, because of the excellent expression options, it is possible to squeeze an awful lot of performance out of the fairly modest sample base.

Going loopy

The recording options are accessed via the Loop menu.

The Loop menu is where you can start to layer your ThumbJam performances into a complete musical piece. As well as setting tempo and activating a metronome, you can also load pre-recorded loops such as drum loops, to start to build your composition. Again, there is extra loop content you can download but it is also possible to import loops from your desktop sample library collection if you want to.

So far, so good….  but, for me at least, this is the point at which, if not completely coming off, the wheels do start to get a little bit wobbly. When recording, every track you create is bar-based. Tracks do not have to be the same number of bars long so, for example, you might have a two-bar drum performance layered with a four-bar bass and an eight-bar string section part. For each time through the strings, the bass will play twice and the drums four times and this is represented on screen via small position counters that move through each track as playback is in progress. However, I found the recording process just a little clunky and rather unintuitive. This is not helped by the rather basic way in which the various tracks are displayed (superimposed upon the note performance area).

Recorded loops are shown overlain on the performance area.

Equally, once you have recorded a part, there are no editing facilities if you need to tidy up the performance or perhaps just select a single bar that can be used in playback. This latter point is a bit frustrating as ThumbJam rounds up your recording to a whole number of bars and doesn’t allow the user any input as to how that process is executed. The only way to correct a duff note is to record the part again. While you do get better at the recording process with a little practice, the lack of editing gets old pretty quickly. Equally, you can’t easily adjust the tempo of a project once you are started – so get it right before you begin building your performance.

Providing you can capture the necessary loops as you want them, the mixing facilities are also somewhat basic. While you can set the levels for each track, mute a track and set the send level to a single global effect (reverb, delay or a filter), there is little more on offer.

The limitations of the recording process are all the more frustrating because of the brilliance of the performance interface. You can play some really expressive parts only to find that you have not quite got the bar length right and it doesn’t ‘fit’ with the rest of your project. While project editing/arranging features on some of the other leading music apps (Garageband, NanoStudio, etc.) are still somewhat limited compared to a fully blown desktop DAW, they are useable and steadily evolving. As an environment for recording, ThumbJam perhaps has a little way to go to catch up with the competition.

However, it is possible to think of these recording facilities in a slightly different way. ThumbJam does make it easy to both mix down your multi-track loops and to then export these to another environment (iDevice or desktop computer) for further work. Perhaps then, the best way to think about these limited recording options is simply that they provide a way of creating short musical loops – 2, 4 or 8 bars long – and you then take them elsewhere to sequence them or process them in them in other ways to build a full project? That said, it’s a shame that something like Garageband’s arranging and editing features can’t be married with ThumbJam’s performance environment – it would be an combination with lots of creative potential.

Thumb control

Fancy an alternative MIDI controller for your desktop DAW? ThumbJam can do that….

The third key element of ThumbJam is almost a separate, independent feature of the software; its ability to act as a performance interface to generate MIDI data within your desktop DAW. And given that all the performance details I described above – including expression such as vibrato and pitch-bend – can be sent from ThumbJam to your desktop recording studio, some might consider this reason enough on its own to purchase the app.

The principle here is fairly straightforward. Via the MIDI Control options available from the Prefs menu, you can use a WiFi connection to link the iDevice and your desktop computer and then transmit MIDI data generated from the iDevice to play virtual instruments within your desktop music apps. This process works using CoreMIDI for the Mac (and works best with an ad-hoc WiFi link directly between Mac and iDevice) and requires a little configuration via the Mac’s Audio/MIDI Setup options. On the PC, it requires a 3rd party driver such as rtpMIDI that provides a virtual MIDI driver usable over WiFi. I didn’t get to try the PC route (although posts on the ThumbJam Forum demonstrate that it can be made to work smoothly) but, linked to my iMac, I had no problem getting ThumbJam to ‘play’ virtual instruments in Cubase or Reason. What’s more, the performance was very responsive. Again, the combination of ThumbJam’s performance interface features – configurable scale notes, large note strips (to suit my clumsy fingers) and the expression control options just made this a whole lot of fun and I’d certainly add this to my selection of MIDI input options alongside my MIDI keyboard and MIDI guitar controllers.

Thumbs up?

So, what to make of ThumbJam? To me, it’s a mixed bag of brilliant and, frankly, baffling. I have to admit to being underwhelmed by the recording options within ThumbJam. Yes, they work and you can layer performances to build up a complete musical project but it feels under-developed compared to some of the other leading music apps such as NanoStudio or Garageband. I’ve no idea if Sonosaurus plan to continue development of this aspect of the app but I hope they do. If they could plug this gap, ThumbJam would be right up there with the best of the mobile music apps. And if they could add in a basic synth engine, that would be the icing on the cake.

In contrast, the performance control options, while looking rather bland, are a joy to use. By thinking about creating something that makes best use of the touch-screen interface, rather than something that emulates a traditional piano interface, Sonosaurus deserve to be congratulated. I’m sure there are plenty of ways in which this system could be further developed to give the user even more options but, even if all ThumbJam does is demonstrate that the touch-screen musical input does not need to be constrained to software versions of traditional pianos and strings, then other music app developers will take note. Equally, the ability to use this performance interface to drive virtual synths in my desktop DAW is a big plus. And as the asking price for ThumbJam is unlikely to break anyone’s bank, this last point is enough of a reason to purchase on its own.

In summary, I think the positive of ThumbJam more than outweigh the negatives – buy, install and have some fun. And I think the innovative performance system is a brilliant hint as to where touch-screen technology can allow mobile music applications to go. In that regard, here’s hoping other developers will follow the lead being set by apps such as Garageband, Figure and ThumbJam.

ThumbJam

ThumbJam - Sonosaurus LLC

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