Thursday, March 31, 2011

NanoStudio - Full featured iPad Digital Audio Workstation

NanoStudio - The iPad DAW you come back to!
On my iPad (1st generation) I am definitely suffering from synth ADD. With every new synth offering novel sounds and interfaces all at $15 or less, it is easy to build up a large collection (which I have!).

The hard part is actually learning and using the tools. There are some semi-cumbersome file sharing standards on the iPad that let you copy and share sounds from one device to another and recently a few apps have figured out how to share sounds live over Core-midi.

I have many innovative synthesizer apps all unique and useful in their own ways. Even with the sharing possibilities with Sonoma Audio-Paste and other clipboard routines, it is still very cumbersome to combine sounds from different synths into a cohesive piece. There are a few apps that provide a full or nearly-full solution even given the limitations of the iPad hardware. One, of course is Garageband which I have already touched on. It is ground-breaking in many areas but a few shortcomings include:

  • It does not allow you edit your recorded performance at the MIDI or note by note level
  • It does not provide any real automation or editing of key velocities
  • It does not make it easy to import/export projects (though I believe that has finally been addressed with the latest Garageband update)
An older app that offers almost a complete solution is NanoStudio by Blip Interactive. I came across this app primarily by reading comments and posts on other music apps for the iPad. This application provides a built-in synthesizer with virtual-analog, FM and even crude sampling methods of sound creation along with a great drum solution, full-featured sequencer and editor, the best written documentation you are likely to come across and amazingly, this app runs on older iPod touch models on up to the iPad (though this is also a drawback). Not only that, but there is a fully free edition for Windows and iMac - with the "catch" that the interface is iPhone-sized. It all works, but within a very small window. The desktop versions are obviously marketing tools to encourage buying the app version - which you should!

The app is a one man show really with a very active user community. There are frequent updates that always seem to emphasize function over form. The developer is passionate about delivering functionality and this seems to be putting off some of the 'eye candy' aspects that would add to its appeal on the iPad - and I am convinced, would increase its sales dramatically.

In terms of coverage, there is more here than in almost any other tool. I think its heritage is a boon and a drawback though. I use NanoStudio on an iPad - I will most likely never use it on an iPhone nor on an iPod. When I started researching the tool, it looked promising but before spending the $15 on the app, I looked long and hard for native iPad alternatives - if I had found something better, I would have bought it. $15 puts NanoStudio just above the "impulse buy" level for me and I think the lack of native iPad support, was initially a big concern. 

Once you get past the "pixel doubling" interface though, you will find it extremely usable. The only feature that I find a bit cumbersome is bringing in external audio. You cannot just create an "audio track" in the sequencer. Rather than that, you have to either bring in the sample as a TRG-16 pad or put it into the synthesizer as a keyboard sample. You are also limited in the size of the sample so you might have to carve external sounds into pieces. 

That being said, this is the only app on my iPad that would let me completely design a song on the device. Of course, I will often take sounds from the iPad, bring them to my iMac and complete the projects in Logic 9, but I really do want to have a complete "mobile studio" experience. If you need to "do it all" on the iPad, this is the app for it. 

I am aware that there are competitors and some very good ones but having a solution in hand, any competition has to do something phenomenal to get me to switch! Garageband, while ground-breaking in many ways, has many short-comings.

NanoStudio, with its emphasis on its internal Eden synth for music creation, it is probably best suited for electronica, but since that is what I normally produce, it fits my needs very well. 

Longer term, it will be interesting to see how this app takes advantage of the new iPad 2 possibilities and whether or not it expands beyond its "least-common denominator" support for older hardware (remember Windows ME? Me neither!)

I think its competition will come primarily from Intua (Beatmaker 2), possibly Xewton/FL Studio and definitely GarageBand in its future iterations. For today, however, this is the app to use on the iPad.

Mistral - my amateurish example for NanoStudio 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Garageband for iPad
There have been many postings about the new app, but here is a very quick review. At $5, you really don't have to think too hard about downloading this one. Compared to the Garageband for iMac or Logic 9, it is not as capable but as a sketchpad on the iPad it is hard to beat.

You get 8 tracks that you can create with loops, "smart instruments" and/or manually played keyboards, guitars, synths etc.
The best part of this app is the virtual instruments. The drums for example, let you layout drum parts on an x/y grid based on complexity and loudness - this is a very interesting method of putting a quick drumbeat together. You can also just bang out a beat repeatedly on virtual drums on the screen and record it.

Other means of creating tracks include playing a virtual guitar by chords, or by individual notes OR by individual notes constrained to a particular scale - noodling up and down the notes will always be in tune for the non-talented!

Similar functions are available for piano or keyboards. You can quickly hit chords or just play individual notes either on a keyboard or constrained to a key and scale. You can also use "autoplay" for most of the instruments where a given rhythm is played automatically for selected chords/notes.

For the more talented, you can put instruments (guitars, vocals etc) directly into the iPad and record tracks as well.

Garageband also comes with a few hundred loops that can be put into the tracks as-is. This seems like a limited first release in many ways, however. There isn't really a way to control the volume dynamically (i.e. fade-ins and fade-outs). There also surprisingly isn't a way to manually edit the notes on midi tracks unlike the iMac version - hopefully this will be added. Right now, there is no way to add loops or import WAV files without resorting to live recording.

Also missing in the initial release is the ability to transfer projects to the iMac version - a future update to the iMac version is supposed to fix this.

For now, my favorite all in one iPad solution remains NanoStudio but this is a good addition.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Propellerhead software made Rebirth for the PC and Mac from 1998 until 2005 when it was retired (available for free from their website). With the iPad, they have brought back the program and it is great for putting together techno or dance tracks.

It emulates 2 Roland 303 synthesizers, a 808 Roland drum machine and a 909 drum machine. It is a laborious process putting together songs by dialing in 16th notes but great fun.

Here is my St. Patty's day offering - techno isn't my thing but at least its short!

Techno Irish

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, March 7, 2011

Some other gear...
I have used a PCR-30 full-size keyboard for years in my midi mixes. Recently I have "downsized" my "studio" but this was the first one. My friend has a full-room studio littered with what he calls "analogue" equipment with wood, holes, strings etc. Not sure how he oscillates, filters or attaches his adsr envelopes to the wooden monstrosities but he claims to get good sounds as well...go figure. I will write more on my efforts to use my iPad as my main synthesizer hardware.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

My own musical meanderings are mostly done on either my iMac or on my iPad which I hope to write a great deal more about later.

My main DAW so far has been Apple's Garageband which seems to have a nice balance of simplicity and extendability thus far. I've just ordered Logic Express 9 which should be quite a bit more powerful.

Most of the shortcomings of Garageband are easily addressed with add-ons or plugins such as the incredible Crystal synthesizer. Using this to put together oscillators, envelopes, waves, filters etc. there are few sounds you cannot get together.

Added in to that are tons of software instruments and I've accumulated a library of 20,000+ sound samples so its pretty flexible for anything I might want to do. I've put together tons of songs over the years mostly located at Macjams.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

In the early 70s my father was an avid ham-radio operator - geeky before computers! He was always building ham gear and even hand-soldered one of our first FM amplifiers that I later took to college - loved that Heathkit!

I remember seeing him and his friends mucking with tons of gear including oscilloscopes. Even cooler (at least for a 9 year old) was camping at an ARRL field day and going cabin to cabin seeing every hand-soldered setup made.

I remember in particular the cool "Squelch" button on some rigs used to "tune" the grainy voices bouncing all over the ionosphere on the ham bands. The purpose was mainly to make morse code more audible or voices listenable but playing with that dial would always make the coolest sounds.