Note: Since posting this article we received the following sound advice from app designer Propellerhead regarding the issue of latency we experienced with this app: “Try re-booting your iPad!” And it worked! The time delay reported herein seemed like a fun dimension intrinsic to the app, but this is not the case. My bad.
Figure is a new music-making app for iOS that allows users with a few minutes to spare to come up with electro / synth-pop grooves quickly while on the go. It’s a load of fun and sounds great, and you will never know what you are going to create next… really.
Figure ($0.99) by renowned Swedish DAW software company Propellerhead is a new instant music-making app for iOS (iPhone / iPod Touch / iPad). Although Propellerhead is highly regarded for its innovative desktop music-making software and industry-standard technology, the new Figure app was developed from the ground up especially for the interface and operating environment of mobile applications, with touch controls, small screen, and no inputs for external instruments.
The results are instant — Figure allows you to make synth grooves in moments. Each groove created is two bars in length, cycling endlessly. That is, the sequencer in Figure is temporary and fixed at two bars. The app remembers the last two bars recorded and will play those repetitively unless the groove is updated by further live recording. When you play the song, Figure will loop these two bars continuously until you tap the play button again.
Synth grooves on Figure consist of three instrumental tracks: one for drums, and one each for bass and lead synths. Figure is powered by Propellerhead’s flagship desktop music production software, Reason, with that powerful program’s built-in polysonic synth Thor and the Kong drum designer.
Figure employs an easy-to-use touch interface. Notes and beats are played, recorded and tweaked on touch pads. The touch pad for drums has four domains, one for each drum instrument: depending on the drum sample, these are typically some form of kick and snare plus a hi-hat sound and other rhythm-makers such as cymbals or toms.
I find it easiest to set a drum beat first before moving on to the synths.
Like the drums, the synths are also played by manipulating a rectangular performance box. In pattern mode, the instrument’s pitch is controlled along the x-axis, while the y-axis determines other sound parameters depending on the synth’s voice. So for example, sliding a finger across the performance box from left to right will play ascending notes in the chosen scale; swiping up and down will alter the sound quality.
For the synths, the range and intervals of the musical scale are controlled by two wheels. Within the chosen key and tonality, one wheel selects the octave range spanning from the lowest to highest notes, while the other gives the number of scale notes desired per octave (from one to seven notes). These patterns are then reflected on the horizontal x-axis of the synth touch pads. Thus tapping or sliding on the touch pad at any location will produce a sound that is on key.
In tweaks mode, further refinements of the bass and lead synths’ sounds can be made. Again using the device of a rectangle to move around on, the sound can be tweaked by moving pointers up and down or side to side.
OK, let’s write a song.
Open the app and tap on song view. This is where the basic characteristics of the song are set. These are: tempo, key and shuffle. Shuffle is an extra refinement of the beat, after its tempo (speed), affecting the looseness of the time keeping. Key, the dominant chord(s) of the song, is also subject to tonality, the scale of notes selected within the key. Playing these affects the overall color and mood of the song, its mode.
To be honest, I doubt whether selecting a key and tonality of a song will mean very much to most users of this app, unless they are highly au fait with music theory (I’m not). They would also have to have an incredibly good ear to discern among all patterns of scales on offer within each key. Playing with the keys and scales on this app is very much touch and see, I find.
The control wheels are also patience-sappingly unresponsive. Even on the iPad’s screen I had to zoom in to 2x size in order to move the settings to anywhere near where I wanted them. This must be practically impossible to do on the smaller iPhone. Another annoyance, this time for iPad users, is that some of the controls entail tipping the screen. This would be easy to discover on hand held device but with my iPad lying on my desk in front of me I wasted quite a lot of time tapping and pinching at the screen to no avail. If this app is primarily for smartphone users then the tiny, recalcitrant control wheels are a real nuisance.
Anyway, by playing around it is dead easy to get a drum beat going no, even if it isn’t the one you originally had in mind.
Next, it’s time to add a bass line. Again, the unresponsive performance pads make playing the bass line you have in mind virtually impossible. There is a significant delay between tapping the screen and hearing the note you played. I tried to record a two-note bass line by tapping a low root-note for the length of four beats followed by a higher note (by ear) five semitones above for another four beats.
After many attempts, I still couldn’t do it. In short, the synths are unplayable as tools for producing the melodies that you have conceived. But, since the tempos are quantized and the notes are from the same key signature by default, whatever you play is in time and in tune. Out of your hands comes music that is out of your hands.
And sounds fantastic! The synths are genuinely professional-sounding instruments. Only, as you play them you have no idea what you are doing, or about to do.
It’s like finding yourself the conductor of a magic orchestra and having no idea what symphonies each sway and point of your baton will produce.
The best way to use Figure, therefore, is to program a random drum beat and experiment to get an enjoyable bass line, then allow these to play over and over again while you improvise musical lines to accompany on lead synth. That’s how I play with the app, anyway. It’s great fun and does sound good, but is all out of control. And the way this app works, I don’t think that hours of practice will allow users ever to gain full mastery of its controls. Between Figure and user, this app’s music is strictly co-productions.
Pros: Simple, great sound, lots of synths, music can’t go wrong, inexpensive.
Cons: Mind of its own, inflexible two-bar song structure..