Confession: I have always wanted to play a musical instrument. Somehow, it never happened; I could never find the time, or the instrument, or some other excuse would come up. So for me, musicians have remained somewhat magical people, folks who can understand a language I can only hear. Because of this, I am always intrigued by musical “toys” – doodads and gadgets that lets you play with sound in interesting ways, to capture some of the experience of playing an instrument.
NodeBeat is an application available both for Android and iOS (both and iPad). Like many apps, it is free for Android but costs $1.99 for iPhone and $3.99 for iPad. For this reason (and because I have an Android device) I will be reviewing the free and lovely version for Android.
Sounds & Images Collide
Above you can see what NodeBeat looks like when it’s in the middle of playing an intricate tune. Large round nodes, known as Octave Generators, emit pulses of energy. These pulses travel along the thin lines as dots, until they hit the smaller nodes – individual notes. When a pulse of energy hits a note, the note makes a sound. Notes are played in sequence, based on their distance from the generator.
So, for example, in this included example layout, rising nodes are played one after the other:
As you can see in the palette along the left edge of the screen, Octave Generators are not the only generators available: There is a square generator, called a Beat Generator. Swapping out the Octave Generator from the screenshot above with a Beat Generator turns this simple arrangement of notes into a percussion beat:
The fuzzy edges you see in the screenshots are notes pulsating as energy hits them and they sound off. And now, if I want to add some complexity but keep things in harmony, I can use those same notes with more generators:
So now, my layout still only has the same nine basic notes it had in the beginning, but they are played by three different generators, all synchronized to the same basic rhythm. And I can control that rhythm, as well as other properties of the sound, such as the waveform NodeBeat uses:
Any changes I make in this dialog are applied on-the-fly. So, for example, if I pick a more “square” waveform, I can instantly hear what it does to the sound (makes it more “electronic”). The instant nature of the changes means you can use this dialog not just to tweak “permanent” settings, but also as part of your composition: You can have a loop play in the background, and then go into the Audio dialog and change its key or lowest octave for a few iterations, and then change it back to what it was before.
The Audio dialog also lets you control other sound properties:
These sliders all have very technical names, but because they are applied instantly, they offer a great way to learn what all of these complicated terms mean (“Echo” is simple, but how many non-musicians understand “Decay” and “Attack”?). Just play with each slider at a time, and you will gain a clear understand of what they do.
Last but not least in this dialog is the “Background keyboard” setting, which does something very cool. It lets you use the rest of the screen as a keyboard, while your composition plays.
One very important feature I can’t capture in a screenshot is node movement. Even the most beautiful static loop can get boring after a while; but what if the nodes floated around, interacting with each other in new and surprising ways? In NodeBeat, you can have just the generators move around, capturing different notes and playing them. Or you could have the notes move around, entering the impact fields of the generators and making sounds as they float by.
Or you could have both nodes and generators move, and even add gravity, and control the speed and the size of the field. This means you can lay out a few cool notes on the field, and then just let them start moving around and see what happens.
NodeBeat comes with seven readymade layouts that you can load to get a sense of what the application can do. You can also save your own layouts, as well as record the audio and share it with friends. NodeBeat produces WAV files, which are large, but my recording sounded excellent on the pair of powered studio monitors I use as computer speakers.
NodeBeat is an incredible app, and we will be adding it to our Best of Android list. Are there any other music creation apps you would like to share or recommend?