Out of the many categories of iPhone apps, music creation has to be my favourite. I’d rather create a funky loop, tight beat or wobbly bassline while waiting for the train than I would play a game of Angry Birds, and recently I’ve discovered Figure for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.
Developed by Propellerhead Software, a company best known for their virtual studio suite Reason, Figure is quite simply one of the easiest and quickest ways of making music on the go. However, while Reason costs nearly $500, Figure is considerably more affordable at only 99 cents. So let’s take a look at what that dollar can do!
At the heart of Figure are two of Reason’s Thor Polyphonic Synthesizer engines (one for lead and one for bass) and the company’s Kong Drum Designer. This allows for three channels of simultaneous playback, which isn’t as limiting as you might think. You can record these three channels over a total of two bars, with the option of changing tempo and key to shake things up.
Figure’s channels are predictably split between drum, bass and lead. Switching between channels is easy using the labels at the top of the screen, along with two fat-finger-friendly buttons for playback and recording. While the iPad enjoys considerably more screen real-estate than the iPhone or iPod Touch, Figure’s interface is identical regardless of device (at this stage, anyway).
First let’s take a look at creating a drum beat. Much like the rest of the app, the drum loop creator is very easy to use. There are four separate sounds to each drum kit, seen in the screenshot above. These change depending on the kit you’ve selected, but nearly all kits follow the basic kick, snare, hat and toms layout.
The four circular selectors above each instrument are used to modify the rhythm – so if your kick drum is set at “4”; holding your finger down on the strip beneath produces four beats per bar (for a total of 8 kicks in your two bar sequence). Rhythm can be set anywhere from “off” to 16 beats per bar, and you’re free to set all channels to “off” if you’d rather layer your own custom beat, minus quantization (beat matching).
Bass and lead also have a rhythm selector in addition to two other variables – range and scale. Range allows you to modify the range of notes played (i.e. lower notes, higher notes or somewhere in between) and the scale steps selector inserts more notes between jumps in the scale. If it sounds slightly confusing then don’t worry – once you’ve played with it for 30 seconds you’ll have mastered the basics.
Sounds are created using the pad, and those of you with larger hands will appreciate landscape view, which maximizes the pad for better precision. A grid would be nice to facilitate the guesswork in finding a particular note, but practice makes perfect. Record mode features a button for removing your patterns, just tap Erase Mode and hold your finger over the pad to remove your notes (also handy for adding glitchy effects by tapping).
Sounds & Tweaks
The drum, bass and lead channels each have their own array of sounds to choose from. All the ingredients are here for a number of different genres, though the nature of a synthesizer means there’s more scope for electronic, dance and hip hop creations than traditional rock and jazz. I’m not going to go through each and every sound, partly because there are a lot included but mostly because it’s really quite fun experimenting.
In fact, experimentation is key to Figure. This is what the Tweaks button is for in the bottom left of the app. Each synth sound or drum kit can be further tweaked in this area, with variables like delay and pitch at your disposal. You can even record your movements in the Tweaks panel to create some dynamic looping effects. Broadly speaking, the synthesizers and drum kits sound excellent and the available tweaks provide even more variations in sound.
You can change the tonality, key, tempo and inject some variation with the shuffle selector on the Song screen. By varying the tonality you can create different sequences, though this will have to be done by hand as there is no way of recording your input on this screen. Finally the Mix screen makes light work of balancing your channels using the large sliders. There’s even a Pump slider which provides a “pumping” volume ducking effect known as sidechain compression.
Uses & Limitations
I’m going to drop one rather large bomb here: Figure does not provide any method of exporting or saving your loops. While I wait for the gasps at the back of the room to die down, I’ll add that this isn’t such a big deal as it first seems.
Don’t get me wrong – I’d love this feature to make its way into the app via an update, but as it stands I haven’t found it too much of a problem. For this reason, Figure feels more like an instrument than it does a “music making” app. Unlike Garageband for iOS, where you’re always working with a project, Figure feels free of the pressure to perfect and carefully construct. At the same time, Figure is less cluttered and technical than iMaschine.
I’d go as far as saying that you could probably “play” a short but decent set with Figure. Transitioning from one “song” into another isn’t particularly hard to do, and with a bit of practice you’ll be able to evolve the sound by making careful changes, muting channels and fiddling with the Tweaks panel.
I’m relieved to say I’ve not encountered a single crash after hours of continuously using Figure, and only once (after a particularly long mess about) did the music become choppy while changing sounds and settings. Other than this, I’ve had no issues and the sound quality is ferocious to put it lightly.
It is for this reason (or maybe this Reason) that I’d recommend Figure to anyone with an interest in fiddling with synthesizers, drum machines and other things that make noise. Minus save and export it’s already worth the 99 cents that Propellerhead are asking for, and who knows what a few updates might bring?
Download: Figure for iOS @ App Store ($0.99, £0.69, €0,79)
Have you played with Figure? What did you think? Are you dying for a save feature? Let us know what you think in the comments, below!