ThumbJam update – Sonosaurus add new features to their classic iOS music app

Download from iTunes App Storethumbjam logoGiven that iOS has only been with us a relatively short time, is it possible to define an iOS music app as having attained ‘classic’ status? If so, I would have a few personal candidates that I might hang that label on. One of them – mostly because it was one of the very first apps to really show the way in terms of what a touchscreen interface could bring to the practice of music creation – would undoubtedly be ThumbJam from Sonosaurus.

ThumbJam was one of the first apps I reviewed on the Music App Blog way back in June 2012. iOS has seen an ever-expanding stream of excellent music apps since then (a good number of which exploit the touchscreen brilliantly) and, while the graphical presentation of ThumbJam is a little quirky in some respects, the app is still a favourite with lots of iOS musicians because of the very intuitive performance interface. It also includes a rather good set of sample-based instruments that, because of the interface, it is possible to coax some interesting – and expressive – performances from.

ThumbJam's main playing interface - now with the option for IAA :-)

ThumbJam’s main playing interface – now with the option for IAA :-)

Of course, ThumbJam has received a number of updates since my original review most notably perhaps when Audiobus support was added in v.2.2. However, things have been pretty quiet for the last 12 months so it will have come as good news to existing fans and users off the app that an update was coming. Well, today, v.2.4 of ThumbJam has arrived on the App Store and, as might be expected given the extended wait, aside from the usual round of bug fixes, it also brings some significant new features.

At UK£5.99, ThumbJam is perhaps in the ‘lower/mid’ price bracket for music apps. It was already well worth the price of entry…  so what does v.2.4 add to the overall package?

Thumbs up

If you need a refresher on the basic concepts of ThumbJam then have a scan through the original ThumbJam review as much of the basics outlined there still hold. In essence though, ThumbJam is built around four key elements; a sample-based instrument collection, an innovative (and now much emulated) user-interface that exploits the touchscreen brilliantly, a loop-based recording environment (where  you can layer and mix different instruments) and, almost as a separate function, a MIDI controller that can be used to generate MIDI data to trigger other apps.

ThumbJam's Audiobus 2 support includes State Saving.

ThumbJam’s Audiobus 2 support includes State Saving.

So what’s new? Well, headline features include IAA and Audiobus 2 support. The latter includes State Saving and it is great to see more developers starting to integrate this element of the new Audiobus 2 feature set into their apps. Using ThumbJam within Audiobus was very straightforward.

In terms of IAA, I was able to use ThumbJam on both an audio track and a MIDI track within Cubasis. This included being able to record MIDI data created in ThumbJam and, rather wonderfully, all the pitch bend data created using the ThumbJam interface was captured in Cubasis and appeared as MIDI automation data under the new automation system Cubasis v.1.8.

MIDI data sent from ThumbJam to Cubasis includes pitch bend data and this can now be edited within the new Cubasis v.1.8 automation system.

MIDI data sent from ThumbJam to Cubasis includes pitch bend data and this can now be edited within the new Cubasis v.1.8 automation system.

Another new element is support for velocity layers within the sampled instruments. For any sample-based sound source this is a big deal in terms of realism. Indeed, many desktop sample-based instruments end up being many GB is size because of the multiple velocity (and articulation) layers required to give the user the expressiveness required. This is particularly the case with orchestral sample libraries but the principle can be applied to any sample-based instrument.

ThumbJam how supports sampled instruments with multiple velocity layers and several are available for download.

ThumbJam how supports sampled instruments with multiple velocity layers and several are available for download.

Sonosarus have added a few new instruments that you can download that take advantage of this new feature and, while there are not as many sample layers used here as you might find on the desktop (simply because of the finite storage capacity of an iOS device), for instruments like the new Wurlitzer and upright piano, it’s great to hear the tone of the sound change as well as the volume when you trigger different MIDI velocities.

ThumbJam now also supports up to four split screen. You can pre-load up to eight instruments and have up to four of these playable at any one time. This is a very neat feature. What’s even better is that the app is capable of receiving data on multiple MIDI channels so it can now act as a four-part multi-timbral sound source driven from your MIDI sequencer. I experimented with this using Cubasis and, whole it did take a little time to work out the MIDI settings required. The key thing is to set the ‘In Channel Start’ channel number from the MIDI options of the Prefs menu to something other than OMNI; set it to 1 (for example) and each instrument then receives MIDI data on consecutive channels from this initial setting. Thanks to Jesse at Sonosaurus for helping me get that working :-)

While you do have a quick option to force the instruments to all follow the same scale, I couldn’t find a similar options to easily match the note ‘span’. While this might be problematic when you are trying to match the spans of instruments that have very different natural ranges, it would make playing multiple instruments at the same time somewhat easier even if it only spanned a couple of octaves.

You can use up to four screen splits with different instruments available on each split.

You can use up to four screen splits with different instruments available on each split.

There are a number of other additions to the app – better support for AudioCopy 2, new support for AudioShare, improvements in various MIDI options (which are pretty comprehensive now if you want to use the excellent performance interface to send MIDI data to other synths) – amongst a few other things. All-in-all, this is a significant update and should appeal to new and existing users alike.

Oldie but goodie

ThumbJam also does audio-to-MIDI conversion - if you know which button to press :-)

ThumbJam also does audio-to-MIDI conversion – if you know which button to press :-)

Jesse also pointed me at one feature of Thumbjam that I simply wasn’t aware of (my bad!) but that has been present in the app for some time; mic input pitch tracking. This is activated using the button with the microphone and not combination on it and, it then allows you to sing into the iDevice mic (or play your guitar) to trigger ThumbJam’s instruments. Essentially, this is doing monophonic audio-to-MIDI pitch conversion much as apps such as MIDImorphosis and MIDI Guitar do.

Incidentally, it doesn’t just have to be the internal mic; I got is working with the audio input from an iRig PRO. It is also possible to send the MIDI data created onwards to other apps and their are modes that allow to to opt for scale mapped, chromatic or not snapped. Trying this with my guitar was a bit of a ‘how did I miss this?’ moment and there is a lot of fun to be had being able to pitch bend notes using my guitar skills rather than tilting my iPad. While the tracking does require you to play (or sing) fairly carefully, in truth this is no different from any other audio-to-MIDI conversion process. What a nice surprise :-)

In summary

ThumbJam deserves its ‘classic’ iOS music app status and v.2.4 just brings some excellent new features to the overall package. Perhaps my only reservation would be that the app has now so well featured that I do wonder whether it might be time for (a) a bit of a re-design in terms of the menu structure to access all these different features (although this kind of re-shuffle is something that always upsets some of the existing user base) and (b) a through update of the user documentation. I’m sure the latter is probably in hand but, for new users in particular, this is now a very deep app and a clear and current manual is always going to make the learning curve a little easier.

All that said, this is a great update and the introduction of multiple-velocity layers in the instrument structure is a big deal. ThumbJam has always been expressive; as more instruments become available for download that support this feature it could take the expression to another level.

At UK£5.99, ThumbJam would be good value for money if it was just seen as a virtual instrument. Add in the very expressive performance interface and that you can use that to send MIDI data elsewhere and the value is undeniable. If you have not yet given this classic iOS music app a try, ThumbJam v.2.4 is a pretty good place to start.

ThumbJam

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    Comments

    1. One feature I’ve expressed a need for ,and one I left a message on at the TJ forum, is a better way to do pitch bend. TJ was designed for the iPhone. So to bend a note you have to tilt the device. Fine for a phone, clumsy as hell for the iPad.

      So, I’m disappointed it didn’t make it into this update. Even more so because Jesse left a favorable (in terms of the technical implementation) to my post.

      • Sonosaurus LLC says:

        Bob, I need to go back and dig up your request, looks like it slipped through the cracks!

        • Jesse,

          If you can find a way to get that in, it’d be great . TJ and Chordion are my 2 favorite midi controllers. And, whenever it want the best sounding cello on iOS, I launch TJ.

    2. +1 for Bob’s request. I have experienced the same awkwardness trying to use the iPad’s accelerometer.

      TJ is an awesome app though, and the updates to both it and DrumJam are much appreciated!!

      Thanks for the write up here. I didn’t realize that it was possible to stack the 8 different loaded instruments for multi-timbral use. Very cool! You can’t do it with the built in TJ controller, right? This would have to be via external MIDI?

    3. Rüdiger W. says:

      Hi, thanks for the article, i purchased Thumbjam today and i must say: Wow… great app. I have many things to discover for the weekend. ;) Blown away. Greetings from Berlin, Germany.

      Rudi aka Tao Beans on Soundcloud.

    4. Great write up. Long live Thumbjam.

      “While this might be problematic when you are trying to match the spans of instruments that have very different natural ranges, it would make playing multiple instruments at the same time somewhat easier even if it only spanned a couple of octaves.”

      You can pretty easily set the spans/octaves for any visible instrument. Tap a note on the screen and then use the same controls you normally use to adjust span/octave – it will only affect that instrument.

      Also, one correction. TJ is actually capable of playing **8** simultaneous instruments via MIDI though it will only show 4 on the screen at once.

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