I have absolutely no musical training or background. Give me an instrument, and I’m hopeless. But give me a simple sequencer, and I can make some music. Sequencers are brilliant because they abstract away much of the “hard stuff”: You don’t have to keep a beat, because the sequencer does it for you. You don’t have to try and pick notes that go well together, because they all go well together. If you’re a real musician, you may lament losing all of these nuances and fine-grained elements that combine to make a high-quality composition (in which case, you may want to try one of these music creation tools). But if you’re just looking to have some fun, a good sequencer is all you need. And Rolling Tones for Android is a great one. No, it’s not Holo, and I wouldn’t say it’s a gorgeous app, but it’s well-made, simple to use, and yes — free. It’ll have you making music before you know it.
The Rolling Tones Google Play page says the app is based on ToneMatrix, a simple Flash-based music sequencer that we’ve looked at in 2009. Yes, they’re both sequencers, but while ToneMatrix lets you compose single segments, Rolling Tones lets you record entire songs and offers a much more complete experience. I would say GrooveMixer is actually a bit more similar to ToneMatrix than Rolling Tones.
When you first launch Rolling Tones, you’ll see a blank screen with lots of space for your music:
Tap anywhere on the screen, and you’ll make a note. The sequence keeps playing over and over (at 120 beats per minute, by default), so you will soon hear your note. Tap anywhere else on the screen, and you’ve made another note. A beat is formed. Pretty soon, your screen may look like this:
This is a complex sequence that’s actually a part of the demo song that ships with Rolling Tones. The different colors denote different instruments: You can see the eight available instruments lined up along the bottom of the screen.
The matrix itself is easy and intuitive to read: The vertical axis denotes pitch, while the horizontal one marks a note’s position in the sequence. This sounds clunky when explained, but as soon as you start messing around with it, you’ll get it.
From Sequence To Song
One thing I often find frustrating about simple sequencers is that they’re built like toys: You can make a basic sequence, but you can’t make a song. Any sequence you made will just repeat over and over until you change it, but there is often no way to save a sequence and move to the next one, assembling a song. Tone Matrix does let you do this. Let’s look at the relevant bit of the screen a bit closer up:
Ins and Add let you add a new segment to your song; Del lets you remove it. The << and >> buttons let you scroll through your song, and in between you can see the sequence of segments that go to make up the current song (just a five-segment portion of it — the full song can be much longer).
In the next row, the Song button lets you switch between working on the whole song or playing the current segment. Z lets you zoom in on the sequencer matrix for “precision work” — something I’ve found unnecessary on my own device, but may come in handy if you have a smaller screen. The |< and >| buttons let you change the sequence number for the current spot in the song. The Copy and Paste buttons let you quickly take a segment’s contents and paste it into a new segment, while Clear wipes the current segment clean.
This sounds like a lot to take in, but in practice, it’s quite simple. My own workflow goes something like this: I first start messing with a single segment, working up a simple beat I like. I then hit Add three or four times to duplicate the sequence. Then it’s time to change it up, so I hit Copy, hit >| to create a new sequence number in that spot in the song, and hit Paste. I then make one or two changes in the sequence (not too much though, because it still has to sound like it belongs in the same song). I then duplicate that several times, then make another tweak, and so on. Pretty soon, I have a basic melody. It may not be a hit, but it sounds like a song, and it’s fun to make.
Rolling Tones is easy to pick up, but it also comes with a simple help page:
This is not obvious, and it does help when you’re trying to figure out what each button does. The included sample song helps, too.
Rolling Tones doesn’t win in the looks department, but it definitely has the right functionality, coupled with an intuitive interface and an attractive price tag.
Do you know of a better sequencer for Android that’s still simple enough for non-musicians to use? Let me know in the comments! And if you make anything fun with Rolling Tones, feel free to share a SoundCloud link or two, as well.