Intua’s Beatmaker music app has been around for quite a while. The original version was released as an iPhone app as far back as 2008 and Beatmaker 2 first appeared in February 2011 – for both iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad – and has seen regular upgrades since.
In terms of music making, Beatmaker has always been designed to be a complete (stand alone?) compositional environment. The original tools consisted of sample-based drum machine and keyboard instruments, a well-specified sequencing environment, effects and mixing. Users can also build their own sample-based instruments. With each release, Intua have added extra features – support for Core MIDI and external controllers, additional automation features and virtual MIDI (in and out to provide integration with other MIDI apps), while v.2.3 added audio track support along with support for USB audio interfaces (via the Camera Connection kit).
However, this review was prompted by the release of v.2.4.3 that added Audiobus support to the app. And while Beatmaker 2 has a set of tools that allow you to create some pretty sophisticated tunes without ever going outside the app, bringing it aboard the Audiobus obviously opens up the further possibilities.
In essence, BM2 is a complete music production system. It uses a combination of sample based instruments (each linked to a MIDI track) and audio tracks and so qualifies under the broad heading of a ‘MIDI+audio’ sequencer in much the same way as most mainstream desktop DAWs operate. There are no synth engines built in (although there are sample-based instrument presets of a wide range of synth sounds) but there are some synth-like elements to the Drum Machine and Keyboard Sampler instruments in terms of filter and LFO elements.
The sequencing environment follows a pretty conventional DAW-type format with a vertical arrangement of tracks (MIDI and audio) and parts laid out along a horizontal timeline. While arranging and editing tasks are obviously performed in their own particular fashion within BM2, the basic concepts will be very familiar to anyone who has used a computer-based recording before. Intua also have a fairly comprehensive reference manual available as a PFD via their website and which does a decent job of explaining the basic operation of the app.
As well as various settings that can be configured within the app itself, there are also some general settings that can be accessed via the iOS Settings options. These include various MIDI settings, how the virtual controls respond and a Memory Limit setting. The latter is worth knowing about as it controls how much of your iPad (or iPhone) memory BM2 is allowed to use for loading samples into the various instruments. By default, this is set to 32MB but can be set higher. This feature is obviously a sensible inclusion as you could easily chew up all your RAM with samples if you are not careful and this is bound to compromise the stability of any apps you have running (BM2 included).
BM2’s Drum Machine instrument provides a classic pad-based playing environment. While you only see 16 pads on the screen at one time, you can actually have access to eight banks of pads (and therefore 128 different samples) if required. While this instrument is most obviously used with drum samples, there is nothing to stop you loading other instruments (bass hits, vocal effects, guitar stabs, sound effects, etc.) if you want to.
There is a very healthy supply of drum samples included with the app and these can be loaded individually to a pad or as part of the supplied preset kits. The kits cover all the usual musical genres from Drum & Bass, Electronica, Hip-Hop, Jazz and Rock. There are even a couple of orchestral presets. All the sounds are solid although, of course, they perhaps lack the subtleties that you might find on a desktop equivalent as the sample base is obviously more constrained given the mobile platform.
There are plenty of options for editing and customising your drum sounds and you can work on both individual pads and multiple pads while editing. Basic tasks such as trimming the sample or changing its volume, pan or tuning, are very easy to perform. In short, within the bounds of keeping the overall RAM demands down by using as small a sample set as possible, this is both a very playable and very flexible drum tool.
The Keyboard Sampler instrument is equally well specified. On the iPad, you get a dual-layer, split keyboard for ease of performance and a nice large pitch wheel. The zoom-level of the keys can also be adjusted to suit all sizes of fingers. Presets – of which there are plenty to choose from – can be browsed by category, genre, BPM or artist. Again, they cover all the obvious genres but, as you can also record or load your own samples into BM2, the sounds you have access to are only limited by your own determination to dig in and construct whatever sample-based instrument you want.
And dig in is the operative phrase here because, for me at least, one of the real highlights of BM2 is just how far you can go with the Keyboard Sampler. Tap the Settings button and the top half of the display gives you access to all the functionality that this instrument has to offer. These tools are split into four tabs; Mode, Filter, LFO and Mapping.
Under Mode there are fairly conventional settings for polyphony and the ADSR volume envelope while the Filter settings include filter type and a similar ADSR filter envelope. The LFO tab provides access to two identical LFOs and these can, in turn, be targeted at parameters such as volume, pitch, filter cutoff or filter resonance. These are all very straightforward but do allow you to transform your samples in some effective ways.
However, if you are prepared to put the time in, the Mapping tab is where the really creative possibilities are. Given that this is running on an iOS device, the options are very impressive. Samples can, of course, be mapped to particular keys or key zones, however, you can also create multiple sample layers. These mean you can layer two completely different sounds or create layers that respond to velocity to emulate the different timbre of an instrument as it is played more loudly. The ability to load, record or edit samples is also available directly from within the Mapping screen. While you obviously have to accept the limitations of the iPad’s (or iPhone’s) available RAM and storage capacity, there is plenty of potential here to create some seriously good sample-based instruments.
Audio recording requires that you add an audio track and then configure it to use the appropriate input via the Input Bus dialog. This also allows you to adjust the input gain and engage the Noise Gate if required. Unlike the Drum Machine or Keyboard Sampler, for both of which you trigger recording while actually using the instrument itself, audio recording is done from within the Sequencer screen (as with most DAWs), more of which below.
With all the usual qualifiers about getting the best quality audio signal into BM2 that you possibly can, the actual process of audio recording is pretty painless and, in my testing at least, also seemed fairly solid in operation.
As mentioned earlier, the sequencing environment follows a fairly conventional approach. The top of the display includes a useful ‘info’ panel showing the tempo, time signature time position and, usefully, how much of your available sample RAM is currently being used. Aside from the usual transport controls, other buttons here provide access to the Record Settings and Song Settings dialogs.
Other than this, all the typical functions for moving, copying, deleting or splitting parts are available. Given the relatively compact format of the iPad’s screen, this is a fairly useable workspace, even though (as with all touchscreen interfaces), your fingers do sometimes get in the way of seeing exactly what you are doing. Thankfully, there are undo and redo buttons (located top-right) for when your fingers don’t quite do what your brain would like them to.
MIDI parts can be edited within a fairly standard piano-roll-style screen. Again, notes can be moved, copied and otherwise adjusted. Equally, you can also edit note velocity (and other MIDI controller data) although this is a touch fiddly if you have a very busy part to work with. That said, it gets the job done.
As you might expect, BM2’s sequencer is perhaps not as fully featured as you would find in a typical desktop DAW/sequencer application but it is certainly beyond being described as ‘basic’. There is enough functionality here to create some pretty sophisticated arrangements.
All mixed up
Like the sequencer, BM2’s Mixer is a fairly conventional affair. You get the usual fader, pan knob and mute and solo buttons. Each track also features four FX send controls that can feed signals to any FX busses (the effects options are described below) you have created. If you have more tracks than fit onto a single screen, you can simply swipe left or right to see the others.
The compact track label boxes at the top of each track contain the track name so you can easily navigate around the mixer. However, it also allows you to change the output destination of the track or, when you adjust the volume or pan, it shows the numerical value of the parameter being adjusted – a nice feature.
Feeling the effect
BM2 is supplied with a collection of 11 audio effects. These include the usual suspects; reverb, delay, various modulation processors, compression, a six-band EQ, a filter and an overdrive. These are actually quite well featured in terms of the controls provided. For example, the compressor includes threshold, ratio, attack and release controls and also features a side-chain input. Equally, the reverb, while only featuring a single ‘type’ (no plate, spring, etc. options), has enough controls to adjust to get a range of treatments.
As in most recording environments, the effects can be applied in two ways; as insert effects for a specific instrument and as send effects that can be accessed via any track using the FX send controls within the mixer. Each instrument can have up to three insert effects applied – plenty given the overall processing power of the current crop of iDevices – while you can configure up to four FX busses. Typically, you might set up a reverb and a delay on their own FX busses and then just send as much as required of each instrument to those global effects (reverb can be a CPU hog so a send effect saves you having to insert a reverb instance on each individual track).
In terms of sound quality, the effects are perhaps best described as respectable rather than exceptional but, used with due care and attention, they get the job done with a minimum of fuss. Very solid and very workman-like.
In the lab
If BM2’s feature list stopped here, then it would still represent a well-specified (that is, well-specified in iOS terms) audio/MIDI recording tool. There is, however, another element to the package; the Sample Lab. This tool allows you to edit audio files in a variety of ways including trimming, reversing or crossfading.
However, you also get some quite sophisticated pitch and time stretching functions that allow you to tempo-match without adjusting the pitch or to pitch shift without adjusting the tempo. You can also define looping points in a sample. The other very useful feature is the ability to slice loops in the ‘Chop Shop’. This is similar to the beat slicing found in some desktop DAWs and, if you slice a drum loop in this way, you can then use the individual slices as samples for drum pads and build a Drum Machine preset based upon the audio within the loop. Very neat.
BM2 has provided MIDI support for some time so you can hook up your external MIDI keyboard to play your instruments should you so wish. In addition, the Core MIDI support allows the app to both receive and transmit MIDI data to other apps. In testing, I had the usual fun and games trying to route MIDI data between various iOS apps and BM2. However, with the aid of MIDI Bridge, in most cases, I was eventually able to get things to work. So, for example, I was able to get BM2 to accept MIDI data from apps such as Cubasis or to send MIDI data to other instrument apps such a iLectric or NLog Pro to BM2.
As I commented at the start of this review, it was the addition of Audiobus support that prompted me to review of Beatmaker 2 at this point in time. On its own, BM2 is a well featured music production system – MIDI tracks with sample-based drum or instrument tracks, audio tracks, decent editing, mixing and arranging facilities, very respectable audio/sample editing and some solid audio effects. If you really take BM2 to its limits, you might not really need to dip into other apps at all. However, as anyone who has already discovered the wonders of Audiobus will tell you, being able to combine your various music-making tools into an integrated recording system brings all sorts of benefits.
For BM2, I think it makes it easier to add two key elements; genuine synth sounds (that is, sounds generated by a synth engine rather than samples from a synth engine) and guitar parts recorded via amp simulation apps. I experimented with both these possibilities. So, for example, I was able to use NLog Pro or iPolysix as Audiobus inputs and record the audio into BM2. Equally, I had no problems using JamUp Pro to add some electric guitar parts.
Rather nicely, once BM2 is placed as the Output in Audiobus, as soon as you add an Input app, BM2 automatically creates an audio track for it to record to. The only problems I encountered here were due to my 3rd gen iPad deciding that certain combinations of apps were just too much for it to handle at the same time. Other than that, the Audiobus support seems to work pretty well.
Once you have recorded, edited, arranged and mixed to your satisfaction, BM2 then makes it fairly easy to get your finished masterpiece out into the wider world. File transfer, Soundcloud, Dropbox, audio pasteboard and iTunes file sharing are all supported. Rather useful extras available under the Export options include the ability to create a MIDI file (obviously, this only deals with the MIDI tracks within the project) or to export the project as separate audio tracks rather than a single stereo mix file. This last option would be great if you simply wanted to move all the tracks into a different DAW environment (perhaps on a desktop) to complete your mixing.
Beatmaker 2 is an interesting app. Compared to some of the other iOS recording apps, it has been around for a very long time and has, I’m sure, a significant and loyal following. The feature list is pretty impressive and it could most certainly serve as the centre-piece of your music-making on your iPhone or iPad.
Given that the core functionality is based upon sample-based sounds, I suspect it is most likely to appeal to sample-heads as opposed to synth-heads and, for those prepared to really capitalise on the instrument construction features, this is a deep app with lots of creative potential. For newbie musicians, the learning curve is not too steep but you should expect to spend a little time with the PDF manual and to break yourself in gently. This is not a criticism of the app; simply an acknowledgment that it has plenty to learn about.
For existing Beatmaker users, the addition of audio tracks (back in v. 2.3) and now Audiobus, will have expanded its capabilities even further. These features really widen the appeal of BM2. Used as an Audiobus Output, it can now be used to arrange not just your BM2 instruments but also audio from any other Audiobus compatible app or vocals, acoustics guitars, etc., recorded via a suitable microphone/audio interface combination.
While there were certain aspects of the user interface that I found took me a little time to get used to (editing within the Sequencer window for example), many of BM2′s features are implemented in ways that will be familiar to experienced DAW users. At £13.99 (or the equivalent $/€ price) it might perhaps be described as ‘mid-range’ in iOS music app price terms. It is cheaper than some of the other, obvious (if differently specified) DAW competition but certainly not out-muscled in terms of features.
If you are still searching for that ‘core’ app to build your iOS recording workflow around, do not overlook Beatmaker 2 for some of the more high-profile competition. This is a seriously good app at a very competitive price. Well worth checking out.