Tabletop : Modular Mobile Music Production
Modular music production was the craze during the retro analog era when individual analog components had control voltage inputs and outputs and midi was unheard of. Later on packaged synth hardware became popular because of stability and cohesiveness of having the modules preconnected.The real digital renaissance came with Reason for Windows and Mac around 2001, which rocked the DAW paradigm and arguably was more of a soft-studio because audio and VST plugins support was not provided. The beauty was that all the instruments could be rerouted or have their signals shared or split with other controllers and fx modules that gives it the immense flexibility that Reason is known for. However, rewire came along soon and that changed the workflow barriers. Any rewire supporting music software could communicate with another software or a DAW with rewire support as master or slave.
iOS has been the ideal playground for creative software ideas and innovative implementations of tried and tested software features on other platforms since the inception. Its no surprise that a sizable selection of developers have done some creative brainstorming to bring usable apps into the foray. Music programming has always been a black art of sorts especially in those early software renditions when crashes were the norm, with audio APIs mostly developed from scratch and the operating systems were less sophisticated (think Win 95,98 (pre NT)) than they are now. Even Linux still struggles with a definite set of pro audio tools inspite of growing support of frameworks like ALSA and JACK (kinda like rewire for Linux). For Linux the two really pro level audio applications for desktop would be Renoise (Tracker Software) and BitWig Studio (DAW, new entrant to the market). Of course native solutions like Ardour and LMMS do the work well but aren’t too popular outside Linux audio enthusiasts’ circle. Most music producers use Windows (XP to Win 8), and it does have a really good selection of audio tools. But portability is still the bane of a hardware based music setup and even software-wise in those early days the DAW loading phase was a major talking point as some took over a minute to load all the plugins and actually start. Some of the producers with 500+ VST plugins commented on interviews and forums that they made coffee during that bootup phase.
Fast forward to the present day, the real take from the early formative days to now, is the convenience factor in terms of portability. Now that we got that covered, the next thing we need is more hardware power. If we can run desktop level apps on mobile devices, I think the market for the consumer PCs will truly face a turning point. Its getting there and enterprising companies like Apple seem to be taking things with stride.
Tabletop gets the tone right without necessarily getting the workflow at its best in my opinion. Its a great concept to abstract a production table and fixate devices along a divided grid and make music in a modular fashion. Re-routing is the keyword. The synths and samplers are bread and butter for most electronic productions, but rerouting gives the workflow an edge. It comes as mighty 1GB download via App Store. Some of the modular components like the Gridlock sampler and RS3 synth come free, there are many effects modules and a few instruments that come as in-app purchases. There are a good collection on demo songs that give insight as to the song construction and routings used. The welcome guide is well written and provides a complete overview of all modules in the app. iMPC can be used as a Tabletop app, so it looks promising that apps can work with each other inside this environment.
We get a cacophony of sound generators with RS3 being a simple 2 octave rompler synth. You cant load your own samples or make keyzones and multiple velocity maps, but its does the job with its preset collection of bass, lead, pad and effect sounds. The patches that work well in a variety of genres are – Dirge bass, Reso Pad, Pure Love and Salva Sine Poly 1/2. These 5 patches sound good enough to be used in a gospel track to a trip hop dirge. The only controlling parameters are an ADSR envelope for the amplitude. No modulation wheel and just a pitch wheel. But the good part about the pitch wheel is that it is set at +- 12 semitones. So doing a full swing up or down gives two more octaves to play with, which makes it effectively a 4 octave synth. Thats all there is to it, and its a bit constraining that there are no piano sounds or simple string sounds etc. The other feature I would like to see is the use of this keyboard to send midi to the Gridlock sampler. A general feature in all tabletop sound generators is the integration of the piano roll sequencer which is good for note entry and post dub edits. But some of its features like “fix to grid” tap-hold context menu , which basically quantizes the notes recorded to the grid quantize value just vanish and don’t appear the second time around in the same piano roll view. Note entry is just by simple click in the screen grid, selection is better done in a per note select mode which envelopes all the selected notes in a blue translucent rectangle with the selected notes orange in color. Select all option is there of course. Note lengthening is a bit of hassle as unless the zoom is to a point where the two fingers can touch the note ends it just wont work, so you first have to zoom into a note by pinching the screen a few times. The pitch wheel has no automation pane. The velocities per note do not actually work and any kind of edit is useless. If you reduce the velocity to a zero the note itself is vanished. The only sounding velocity is statically set at around 100 I suppose (0-127). It shows that management wanted the product to hit the stores before the features are even done. The one swipe motion that is implemented in the piano roll is the ‘pluck’ motion for copy and paste, which in my opinion is a great invention and very intuitive, but beyond the occasional requirement for in-piano roll sequence copy pasting, once the recording and quantizing is done, its use is limited. In fact a much better job regarding patterns is handled by the T101-Triggerator.
Tabletop crashes quite a bit ostensibly due to iOS shutting down the app before it takes its quota of memory beyond scale so that iOS can run normally. For other software like Beatmaker 2 which I think personally is a masterpiece after Garageband in terms of usablity and productivity, the memory limit is around 32MB and Beatmaker makes use of sample streaming to to work with large samples off the disk. At the last check Retronyms is working on stability fixes with their latest version, and they do communicate with fans through Facebook which shows that they value customer feedback.
Up next is the Gridlock sampler. The first thing that becomes apparent is that the one shot and hold toggle switch does not work. So basically all samples are one shot. The gain, length and pitch parameters work as expected. Sample loading and recording is a good feature and audio paste can be used to import sequences and wav exports from other apps. A nice MPC style pad arrangement gives a good interface for sample triggering and beat creation. Its integrated piano roll sequencer provides a means for complex beat patterns or melodic arrangements to be written.
The default Goblin MX8 mixer is a minimal as it gets and has only a set of gain faders and rotary pan faders. No sends or anything of the sort, and with just a master output. It has 8 inputs.
The 3EQ and FLTR LP fx modules are basic renditions of these utilitarian signal processors and they don’t sound too exciting in my opinion. The lack of parametric EQ means that you are stuck with car stereo type EQ controls that give a general boost or cut but it sounds muddy to me. Certainly not Waves plugins level, but while not complaining on various points, as the iOS platform may not support realtime heavy DSP processing for just a single EQ, I hope they provide with a better sounding EQ algorithm.
The LP filter has a good interface to manipulate the Q and the frequency at the same time as an x-y axis. It sounds good enough for a general LP woosh effect and dub beats and basslines, to accentuate the lower end or give beats a trippy edge.
The Magic Mic and Recorder-M2 modules do the recording via iPad mic or an iDevice compatible mic. But again the monitoring switch does not always work and a sure humming noise sans audio occurs on the third or second runs especially if you switch to another app and come back to tabletop. The audio copy feature is a great thing, the exported basslines and loops can be used or edited in AudioCopy and effected in another app. The created samples cannot be deleted within the app and this nonsensical “feature” is something that has plagued other Retronyms apps like iMPC. You cannot delete it via iTunes on PC, or via linux filesystem mount. Its just eats away at you hardrive till you run out of space and the only solution is the delete the app and reinstall. Nice user experience for a 1 GB install.
I purchased the LMTR limiter processor, and ran a few mixes and individual beats and basslines and found that it does not sound good at all. The output gain is more like a distortion control and the release times are not sync with the release times you are used to hear on desktop equivalents. The threshold setting at any value to below 12 o’clock results in distortion, and with no perceptible limiting happening at lower values, just a general gain via compression increase with added distortion. Needs more work.
The Triggerator is something I really like and its idea of banks in a single view pane resemble something like Ableton’s scenes view in Session View in Ableton, and works like it too. So you have banks which are individual patterns that can have their bars set from 1 bar to 99 bars. Each bank has its own edits saved. So you could have a verse, chorus and refrain all from the same core pattern and trigger them in sequence or play with them live and record the output to the recorder module. The real time triggering is good and the instant, beat, bar and block modes provide ways of manipulating patterns as they are being played – so the repeating turntable effect of a same chord and bass pattern being played as a hip hop intro segued with the full ‘tutti’ chorus and a quick switch to the A verse and the A minus one verse can be done with the click of your index finger making performance an integral component of this modular approach to music production. Settings for each bank can be effected single or the whole ‘table’ or project basically via a slide switch beside the transport panel. Thus settings like a fader gain value can be kept constant and the per bank filter settings can be persisted per pattern for song construction. This in my opinion is the killer module for Tabletop, really nicely done and a creative component too.
The M8RX polyphonic 16 step matrix synth is a good concept but unlike Matrix module in Reason which can be rerouted to other modules with features such as ties and shifts as well as bipolar and unipolar curves for cv signaling; its quite a simple fare here with no routing capabilities and just the preset sounds.
The Mastermind module is the inter-audio controller via which other apps can be recorded into Tabletop. Its handy and does this job well.
Midi input via CCK or USB connector kit makes note input a quick affair and works well. You tap the midi learn mode via settings and choose the device you want to control. At this point the devices show the zones available for control like in RS3 the keyboard and ADSR knobs are highlighted. So you tap the zone and play a single key or twist a CC knob on your controller. It works like a charm and even during a live performance, so you can switch between synths while recording multiple parts. The events are recorded per bank. Additionally Korg’s WIST feature is also provided to sync multiple devices via bluetooth.
Tempo and swing parameters are set from the settings menu.
Overall, I get the impression that Tabletop is headed in the right direction. However, the standards set by the desktop behemoths like Propellerheads’ Reason for PC and Mac are yet to be fulfilled in this particular offering. While a single tabletop is nice, ideally producers will need more than just one table to effectively construct their opuses. In a 9 grid division, without the Triggerator, the whole song would just be a 2 bar loop. So its 8 grid spots implicitly provided. An 8 channel mixer and output module (Mr. O) is mandatory without which signal chaining would be cumbersome. That gives us 7 spots to work with. Gridlock sampler will ideally take one offering minimum as beats are required of many electronic genres and RS3 could be used for melodic and chordal inputs as Gridlock cannot be played as such like a synth. 2 RS3s fit into one grid position, so effectively 5 spots can be used keeping 2 free for fx and recorder and mic. At this point, this bare bones setup has no per track eq or compression and a separate mixer setup with the 4 track mixer (on purchase) would be required to develop this to something more useful. What Propellerheads Reason did with Combinator is a testament that providing more options rather than limiting them always garners the audiences affection.
In my own sessions with Tabletop, I found that 3-4 RS3s a Mic and recorder pair, a recorder at the main output and a single Gridlock can do a lot of sound generation and variation as well as layering but the mixing avenue is greatly limiting. On the whole I forged entire songs and arrangements but only due to the Triggerator module and its versatility. The sound generators themselves don’t sound too high def as opposed to Arturia’s Camel synth app, and at the outset there are no reverbs or delays to play with, and the use of available signal processors does not give too much confidence on the utility of such other fx modules.
Thus the limited space and rather raw sounding fx and limited mixing options don’t really stretch the full potential of this brilliant concept, but with enough patience and creativity, the routing notwithstanding, the interface options provide a fertile ground for music production where the limitations might just as well be considered the creativity boosters. Just as 4-track machines can be layered and dubbed over to create a full track, same thing here. But again its not too convenient and the process is destructive, meaning if it goes to tape and you wanna change something, you can’t and have to repeat the process. Finally audiobus and inter-audio protocols are not being implemented as of yet which reduces the efficacy of having an experimental concept to play with, as the communication with other apps is only via WAV export through AudioCopy.
There are other synth modules like Arturia Mini and RS4000 which are in-app purchases which provide more modulation options and sound generators like Stryke, which looks like a horror music fanatics’ draft with garish hues of pink and teal and animal faces, but would probably sound interesting in the right context. The inclusion of iMPC Pro as a tabletop device is an exciting prospect as the sampling extravaganza on offer greatly accentuates this production environment. The iMPC merits it’s own review in this regard.
Tabletop is a breath of fresh air and though the limitations are glaring, I hope to see more of solid development efforts to make this the new iOS standard.