Tuesday, September 27, 2011

IPad app review: Groovemaker D'n'B

What is it?

Groove Maker DnB is part of a series of apps by IK Multimedia in the Groove Maker range.  Groove Maker is a remixing tool that allows real-time mixing of loops and samples as well as step-time sequencing.

It costs £5.99 from the App Store and is a 19.1MB download.  It's advertising literature claims it has over 300 loops and samples to play with, representing an additional 127MB of storage space.

All the Groove Maker apps look the same and it's only the samples and loops supplied that are different.  This is a genius marketing ploy by IK Multimedia.  They are essentially releasing a full version of the software each and every time and charging £5.99 per pop.  Ok, six quid is not a bad price to pay for a nice piece of kit but still, as far as apps in the App Store go, it's verging into 'premium' price territory.

After using two different versions of Groove Maker, I would rather pay extra for a 'base' version then pay less for the add-on packs that simply extend it.  The DnB version reviewed here is graphically and practically no different to the free version from the App Store. 

Groove Maker's origins lie with the iPhone and this version has been re-designed to take advantage of the extra screen estate as afforded by the iPads 9.7 inch display.

What is D 'n' B?

The DnB part of the name refers to Drum and Bass, a genre of electronic dance music typically identified by very fast drum and break-beats paired with heavy, resonating bass lines.  It can also be sub-divided into other smaller genres such as Jungle, Tech-step, Dub-Step, Jump-Up, Atmospheric, Liquid etc.  It very much originated from the hardcore rave music of the late 80's and early 90's. 

Pioneers and exponents of Drum and Bass include Roni Size, Goldie, Shapeshifter, High Contrast, London Electricity, Chase and Status and many others.

The Interface

The screen is split into 4 sections:

  • In the upper middle is the control area and the majority of functions such as mixing, selecting loops and all menu items are accessed through here.  It looks complicated and it's fair to say Groove Maker has a fairly steep learning curve that levels off pretty sharpish.  This is both good and bad.  Good in that patience is rewarded and eventually there's a Eureka! moment as you think, 'So THAT'S how it works'.  Bad, as in, moments after the Eureka! moment, you go, 'Is THAT it?'.
  • On the left hand side is a bank for patterns (or Grooves as IK call them).  Different amalgamations of samples are placed in these banks ready for bringing back into the mix.  Next to the groove bank is a tempo slider.
  • On the right is a Master volume.
  • The bottom half of the screen is taken up entirely by the individual slider controls for each of the 8-tracks available to the user.  Each track has a volume slider, solo and mute buttons as well as a mini sample up/down selector.  Additionally, the current loop name is displayed which is useful to see which samples are loaded into which sample banks.

With all the sliders and buttons and eye-pleasing clean green screen, it's a geeks wet-dream (see what I did there?). 

In Use

Starting off with Groove Maker means to select a 'song'.  A song is essentially a collection of loops and samples categorized into drum loops, bass lines, percussion, lead synth lines, sound effects and additional drum elements such as bass drums.  The first time a song is selected, all the samples are 'unpacked' and this takes a minute or so, a message appearing warning of the dangers of interrupting this process ('Don't turn off or your hair will fall out', 'Your pet rabbit will attack you' and 'Your trousers will fall down in an embarrassingly tedious situation' etc).

Once unpacked, the song loads more-or-less instantly.

On first use, the interface seems bewildering and cluttered.  It took me a while to realize many of the options are 'toggles' and the function the button gives access to is either there or it isn't.  Sounds a bit daft (and probably reflects badly on me) but it's an important lesson to learn. 

Watching some of the video demos on the IK Multimedia website, the main use of the app seems to be in a 'live' mode where a loop is entered into one of the 8 banks while the song is playing.  This works really well and there's only a slight delay as Groove Maker turns on the new loop and syncs it into the mix.  Individual banks can be solo'd or muted.  All very nice and good.

There are some presets, one of which is a 'Randomizer'.  This randomly selects loops and fills the banks with a unique mix.  There are 3 other preset buttons that will attempt to select a certain mix of loops, such as a 'mild' mix.  I'm not sure what constitutes 'mild' when it comes to Drum and Bass but there you go.

Once an agreeable set of loops has been entered, it can be saved out to the 'Groove Bank' by hitting the 'Groove Snap' button.  This worked well _except_ it only ever added new grooves and for the life of me, I can't find a way of editing existing grooves without getting rid of the whole lot and starting again.  Very annoying.  There's a lot of banks though and I'm pretty sure it would never be filled to capacity.

Adding and changing samples in a groove bank is simple enough and the loop selector is dead-easy.  Select a channel, select a sample and that's it.

The step-time sequencer is also easy to use.  It presents a list of the grooves that have been saved which can be dragged onto a time line.  Existing grooves can be dragged off easily enough.  It's all very intuitive and fast, once you figure out how it works that is (which is a bit of a stupid thing to say as anything is fast and intuitive once you figure out how it works).

The volume sliders at the bottom for each of the tracks work nicely, reacting responsively to the users touch.  When a song is playing, all the little gauges and dials move up and down and should you turn the lights down, you could have your own hardcore rave in your living room.  Don't forget the whistles, Vics vapour rub and smiley-face t-shirts.

There's an export facility which will export your current mix to MP3 format.  It tries to get round the iPads limited connectivity by providing a localized web address and downloading it to a PC from there.  This completely baffled me.  Why didn't they just save it to the iPads memory and allow access through the files section in iTunes?  That's just weird.

Drum and Bass

So far, this review can be applied to any of the flavours in the Groove Maker range.  The difference is the samples.  Here, there is a large collection of Drum and Bass samples, split over four different 'songs' (loop packs, if you like).  There doesn't seem to be any way of incorporating samples from one song into another.

The samples and loops themselves are of good quality and quite typical of the Drum and Bass genre.  Drum loops are complex, bass lines are low and deep and heavy, synths are satisfyingly and eclectically weird, pads are dark and ominous.  It's fair to say there's a decent variety, split over the four songs, but not enough in each of the songs by themselves.

The Bad Bits

  • No ability to import other samples.  I can kinda' see why they haven't done this as all the samples in a song are keyed the same, with the correct tempo and timed perfectly.  It does limit the usefulness of the product though.  IK Multimedia claim there are millions of tunes that can be created which, while strictly correct, in practice this is not so as the songs will still _sound_ the same. 
  • An example of this inflexibility is being able to put a drum fill at the end of a bar of music.  In a more free-form package such as Sony's Acid Pro, loops can be placed anywhere on a time line.  Here, they are all synced together with no option of breaking free from that constraint.  This, to me, is the most frustrating part of the software.
  • It crashes.  A lot.  In one half hour session, it crashed 4 times.  Not acceptable really.
  • While the loops are very professionally done, I did notice a few of them that are in the public domain and even some which I've used in my own musical endeavours, years ago at that.
  • The drum loops are a little dated and not quite cutting the edge.  I couldn't find anything to match more current artistes such as Pendulum or Chase and Status.


I mentioned Sony's Acid Pro which is my normal weapon of choice when it comes to home music production.  Groove Maker is a neat gadget but offers little more than that.  The sequencer is good but seriously needs more flexibility as to where samples can be placed on a timeline.  The samples included in this Drum and Bass edition *are* very good and one could imagine including them in some sort of track (or tracks).  The export option, as strange as it is, definitely extends its usefulness and will allow me to use the loops in another package at least.

The iPad offers so much to the aspiring bedroom producer and its touch screen fits perfectly the kind of techno-gadget electronic musicians like to employ.  However, the music production and editing scene is starting to become a little disjointed and I believe the iPad needs a way of unifying all these competing musical production apps together.  If they can do that, Apple will have an absolute 'killer' studio tool.  At the moment, with apps like Groove Maker, it's hard to see how professional studio outfits will regard the iPad as little more than a gimmicky toy.  Saying that, the Gorillaz album of January 2011, _The Fall_ was recorded entirely on Damon Allbarn's iPad during their _Plastic Beach_ tour of America.  Not with Groove Maker, I hasten to add.

Groove Maker DnB is ok, I guess, and at £5.99 I can't complain *too* much.  It's easy to get a decent track going, I like the interface and there's plenty of samples to keep me occupied.  For a while, at least.  Except ... I received a £15.00 gift voucher and I've blown a third of my app shopping budget on this and it's more than a little galling.  I'd already tried the free version and somehow, I'd gotten it into my head the paid version would offer something more.  As it happens, it was £5.99 for what is really just a set of samples.  I can get cheaper than that off Ebay AND use them with my beloved Acid Pro.  They need to sort out the reliability too.

I'm trying hard not to be too down on IK Multimedia as I reckon with a bit of tweaking, they can get this app to be a lot more useful than it is.  Some of their other apps are extraordinary.  iRig, their guitar effects processor as seen on the iPad TV adverts is astonishingly good.  Unfortunately, Groove Maker is not quite as revolutionary. 

A nice idea but perhaps version 2.0 will be much better ...

You'll like this if ... You want to hear what the 2004 Drum n Bass scene sounded like.  You like gadgets.
You won't like this if ... You want a bit of flexibility in your musical arrangements.  You want to hear what 2011 sounds like.

Essential Info

Name: Groove Maker DnB
By: IK Multimedia
Prive: £5.99
Size: 19.1MB plus up to 130MB for unpacking the songs.

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