Vatanator review – Georgi Georiev brings a streamlined drum machine to the App Store

Download from iTunes App Storevatanator logo 1I’ve reviewed a whole range of different drum and groove apps for the blog over the last few years. These comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes and, within any iOS musician’s app collection, there is most certainly room for a number of these tools as, across the whole range, they offer different features, functions and approaches to working.

There are a number of these apps (actually, quite a number) that fall into the ‘classic drum machine’ emulation category. Some really are ‘classic’ in nature (Funkbox or DM1 for example) while others take the concept but perhaps bring a somewhat modern twist (iSpark or Diode-108). One recent release in this category is Vatanator. This is the first app by developer Geogi Georgiev and, while there are most certainly modern elements to the app, even a quick look at the graphical design will tell you that this is an app whose heritage lines in classic hardware drum machine territory.

Vatanator - a classic drum machine in an iOS music app format.

Vatanator – a classic drum machine in an iOS music app format.

That’s not a bad thing – many of the classic hardware drum machines are highly regarded and fetch significant prices in the secondhand market – so, if you are looking for a bit of that vibe, but in an iOS music app, is Vatanator worth a look?

In the vat

At a technical level, Vatanator is priced at UK£4.99/US$5.99, is currently iPad only, requires iOS7.1 or later and is a 125MB download. Audiobus, IAA and Ableton Link are included as is MIDI support and a comprehensive MIDI Learn system.

The design ethos between Vatanator seems to be set to strike a balance between a streamlined feature set (so the app is easy to learn/use) but with enough MIDI functionality to make it flexible. Vatanator is a sample-based drum machine and is supplied with some 140 preset kits that, between them, contain nearly 3000 samples. A ‘project’ within Vatanator is built around a kit of eight instruments and can contain up to 8 different patterns. The patterns themselves can be either 16 or 32 steps in length.

Vatanator includes a standard grid-based pattern editing environment and a suite of global effects.

Vatanator includes a standard grid-based pattern editing environment and a suite of global effects.

While you get eight instruments in a kit (rather than the 16 found in some drum machines), for each of your eight instrument slots, you can actually load up to eight samples. At first I wondered if this was to allow velocity switching of the samples (which would be nice to see) but, in fact, it provides a means whereby you can switch between the different samples for a given instrument between patterns. You could, for example, use ‘snare drum sample 1’ within pattern 1 (P1) but select ‘snare drum sample 2’ for pattern 2 (P2). Once this selection is saved within a pattern, it is recalled whenever that pattern is played back.

Once you have created a few patterns, you can then arrange them into a ‘song’. On the Song screen, this consist of 16 slots into which you can drag and drop any of your 8 patterns into a playback sequence… and, if you hit the ‘power’ button for this pattern chain, on playback, you get the pattern sequence as opposed to just the currently selected pattern.

The main display provides you with a basic mixer (top half of the display), a cluster of transport, pitch wheel, tempo and volume controls (on the left) and eight drum trigger pads. The latter do not offer any support for velocity control (for example, by tapping in different places on the pad) but, if you switch to the Steps view, then you can program in velocity for each step/lane as required (more on this in a minute).

Yu get 8 pattern slots in a project and can then sequence these into a song arrangement.

You get 8 pattern slots in a project and can then sequence these into a song arrangement.

If you tap the Mixer button, you actually toggle between the upper mixer view and the app’s FX and sample editing features. There are rather nice delay, distortion, filter and reverb effects and, by tapping on the little icons next to each FX name, you can open a panel that allow you to automate the effects settings over the course of a pattern. As far as I could see, this was a global automation; the data are not saved on a per-pattern basis but applied to all pattern within the current project. That’s a bit of a shame (unless I’ve missed something and it can be done?) as the system is easy to use and can create some nice sonic movement in your sounds. Maybe saving automation data at a pattern level is something that might be added in a future update?

The Sample Editor is neat and easy to use....

The Sample Editor is neat and easy to use….

The sample editor is simple but nicely implemented. It allows you to see the waveform for the currently selected sample and adjust the ADSR envelope for the sample and set its overall volume. You can also navigate between pads/samples, while tapping on the ‘import sample’ label provides access to various means of importing your own samples. This includes iTunes File Sharing, Dropbox and AudioPaste; if you want to bring in your own samples then that’s easy enough to do.

Want to make your patterns swing a bit? Vatanator has you covered....

Want to make your patterns swing a bit? Vatanator has you covered….

Oh, and tucked alongside the Sample Editor is the Swing option. This operates at a global level (which is fine) but is also rather nicely done as it allows you to visually tweak the off-beat ‘swing’ to push or pull the rhythm. This is well worth playing with as it can add some really nice groove to an otherwise simple pattern.

You can, of course, also import your own samples....

You can, of course, also import your own samples….

What’s vat pattern?

The Pads/Steps button in the top-menu strip toggles the lower half of the display between the Pads view and the Steps view. In the latter you get a fairly conventional 8 by 16 grid-based pattern-editing environment. If you have set the pattern length to 32 steps then you get the options for ‘page 1’ or ‘page 2’ of the grid. The eight lanes are numbered and, if you tap on any of these numbers, this opens some editing options for the selected lane in the upper portion of the display. It’s here that you can set the step volume for the current lane and pick the sample (for the maximum of eight different samples that can be loaded for each of your eight sounds). You can also tweak the pan.

More advanced pattern editing options include setting velocity on a per-step basis for each of your eight drum lanes....

More advanced pattern editing options include setting velocity on a per-step basis for each of your eight drum lanes….

However, perhaps more interesting is that you can also set the pitch on a per-step basis. In principle at least, this could provide a means for you to use (for example) a bass sample and build a pitched bass line to sit alongside your main drum patterns within Vatanator. That said, even used on drums (for example, across a snare roll), pitch changes can be very effective.

... but you can also add pitch data as well....

… but you can also add pitch data as well….

As mentioned above, you can create up to eight patterns within a project. This does strike me as perhaps a little on the low side and I’m sure users would welcome an option for more. Pattern selection is done via the Song screen. This contains the P1 to P8 buttons – plus the load and save buttons – all located at the top of the screen. This all works well enough but I think there are some workflow refinements that could be made here. For example, in order to switch patches, you have to be on the Song page and you have to press both the pattern number button and the ‘load’ button. Being able to switch between saved patterns from any of the main screen – and being able to do it with a single tap – would make the workflow feel a little slicker…. and I’m sure it could be accommodated within the interface.

Having created your patterns, building the ‘song’ arrangement just requires dragging and dropping from the brown circular (numbered) buttons to the ‘pattern sequence’ slots. There are 16 of these so that constrains the overall length of the sequence you can create…. again, some users might feel this is a little restrictive and it would be nice to see additional slots available as well as the option for making patterns play multiple times without having to fill multiple slots within the pattern sequence chain with the same pattern number.

Vat you gonna learn?

Included in the top-strip menu is the MIDI Learn button. If you tap this then any of the controls that are currently displayed – pads, mixer controls, transport controls, etc. – that can be automated via external MIDI become highlighted in green. To link the control you your external MIDI controller, you just tap the virtual control (its highlighting turns black) and then move the hardware control on your external MIDI device. In testing, this worked without any problems with my own external MIDI keyboard controller and the MIDI mappings seem to be retained when the app is closed and then re-opened.

The app includes a full MIDI Learn features that seems to work very well.

The app includes a full MIDI Learn features that seems to work very well.

And talking of external MIDI controllers, tapping the Preferences button (top-right) opens up a panel where you can configure the MIDI in/out options. You also get the option to enable Ableton Link and a switch on a MIDI velocity lock (amongst a few other things). With the MIDI velocity lock left off, Vatanator happily responds to incoming MIDI velocity data… and, as you can just hit the record button and record your patterns ‘live’, if you have a decent external controller with keys or pads then programming patterns can easily be done via that route.

Playtime

Vatanator includes support for Audiobus, IAA and, as mentioned earlier, Ableton Link. I had no problems using the app via any of these options and, through IAA, Vatanator worked happily within both Cubasis and AUM. In the latter, I got Vatanater and Patterning syncing very nicely via Ableton Link.

Vatanator worked smoothly within Audiobus.

Vatanator worked smoothly within Audiobus.

Technicalities aside, how does the app actually sound? Well, there is a pretty extensive set of sample-based drum sounds included within the app. OK, you might not find anything too wildly original in terms of sounds here but, as a general collection of fairly classic drum machine kit types, I think Georgi has done a pretty good job in covering all the obvious bases (er… drums). Whatever musical style you like – dance, trance, hip-hop, techno, 80s, chiptune, electronica – there is something here that would suit… and a number of acoustic kits also. And you can, of course, import your own samples if you need extra options.

The app also worked via IAA (as shown here in AUM) and the Ableton Link support seemed solid.

The app also worked via IAA (as shown here in AUM) and the Ableton Link support seemed solid.

Room in the vat for more?

While I’ve made a few suggestions above for features that might be added or workflow refinements (for example, more patterns, easier pattern switching and more comprehensive song arrangement options), these are most certainly ‘do-able’ within the existing framework that Vatanator provides.

The app includes some 140 example projects/kits and nearly 3000 samples.

The app includes some 140 example projects/kits and nearly 3000 samples.

Indeed, I think there is a lot to like about Vatanator. The visual design is unfussy and, while I think the manual could do with some more introductory material that covers the basic feature set and concepts of the app in a clearer fashion before digging into the reference-style material on each function, once you have grasped the basics of a Vatanator project, this is a rather nice streamlined environment within which to put some beats together; relatively few distractions, a decent collection of drum samples and just enough options to keep things interesting while staying focused.

Of course, there are quite a number of iOS drum machine apps out there so Vatanator is up against some pretty stiff competition. My own weapon of choice for sample-based drum sounds is currently Arturia’s iSpark…. However, at just UK£4.99/US$5.99, Vatanator is only 1/3 of the price of Arturia’s (admittedly more comprehensive) offering. There is, therefore, most certainly a place for this compact drum machine app within the broader drum machine app market.

Automation is also available for the effects within the app.

Automation is also available for the effects within the app.

Georgi obviously does have further plans for Vatanator. The app was released about 3 weeks ago but I’m already writing this review after v.1.0.1 appeared and added various tweaks. This version is currently iPad only but an iPhone version is due soon and, rather ambitiously, there are even plans for a hardware version… although I suspect that may come with a somewhat higher price tag that the ‘coffee+cake’ price of the app :-)

In summary

I think this is a solid – and promising – start. OK, many iOS musicians may well feel that they already have their iOS drum machine apps already sorted with their current favourite app but, unlike a high-profile release such as iSpark, perhaps Vatanator is not aimed at quite the same user base? If you are looking for a solid, easy-to-use, beat making machine that won’t get in your way or distract you from the core task, then Vatanator has a lot going for it at a very competitive price.

Once you have your head around the basics (and some tweaks to the manual might help in this regard), then there is a very decent virtual drum machine on offer here. Here’s hoping that Georgi gets the support he needs to build on this promising start. If you are on a tight budget, looking to add a drum machine to your iOS music app collection, then Vatanator is well worth considering alongside some of the more obvious competition.

Vatanator

Download from iTunes App Store

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    Comments

    1. Eustressor says:

      Excellent review, John! The fact that you get so many kits, ability to solo (for stems), Link support, and most impressively, the ability to switch samples per pad between patterns is a lot of score for US $6 :)

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