It’s coming up to two months since the iPhone 3G launched in Australia. Over that time I’ve been keeping a close watch on music applications available on the iTunes App Store and as of today there are 75 music-related applications to choose from. That sounds impressive, but once you remove the tuner and metronome variants plus the numerous novelty applications (does the world really need two cowbell applications for iPhone?) the pickings get a little slimmer.
One application that launched this week that shows some real promise is BtBx (short for Beat Box). It’s a fairly comprehensive sequencer that allows you to compose via steps or patterns.
If you grew up in the ’80s, a huge chunk of music produced at that time relied on step- or pattern-based sequencers. They have their limitations but some really creative music can be made if you take the time to understand the interface and the creative options it offers. BtBx’s interface is intuitive — if you’ve used a sequencer before. If you haven’t you’ll get the hang of it after twenty minutes or so. There are six pages of online help in BtBx that explain the interface fairly well, although I still believe experimentation is the most fun with this sort of application.
The feature set of BtBx isn’t to be sneezed at. There are eight different drum sounds, two instrument sounds (piano and brass), two real-time synthesisers, distortion and delay effects and a low pass filter with cutoff frequency and filter resonance. That’s code for true electronic goodness.
There are sixteen patterns and steps. I personally like the step-based approach but if you prefer a more musical interface, the keyboard option will probably suit you better. A very nice feature is the ability to cut and paste patterns — as great as the iPhone interface is, anything that reduces the need to re-enter information is a great thing. Once you’ve set up the patterns to your liking, you can use the keyboard to play live riffs over what you’ve alread created. The sounds themselves aren’t shabby at all — they stack up well against Apple Loops in GarageBand. Once you’ve layered three or four instruments, you have a real song in the making. Playing around with combinations of tempo and effects can deliver some very funky outcomes.
All that said, there are some significant limitations in BtBx. The first is the lack of master volume — there’s a volume slider for each instrument used but you’ll need to set your iPhone’s overall volume before launching BtBx. The killer limitation for an application of this magnitude is the lack of an export function. If I’m going to spend more than ten minutes creating music, I want to be able to transfer it to my Mac. I’m guessing this is as much a limitation of the iPhone as the application itself but it remains a big issue for the musician wanting more than a random doodle pad. The only workaround I can see is to record the audio via the headphone jack.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice. For less than five dollars you get a well-fleshed-out sequencer backed by some tasty but limited sounds — what’s not to like? BtBx is arguably one of the first serious music applications for the iPhone and iPod touch. Once you can actually export your work, the true mobile music revolution will begin — without cowbell.