Friday, September 16, 2011

IPad app review: Rebirth by PropellerHead

In the dim and distant days, popular dance music was performed on real instruments.  Then in the late 70's, electricity was invented. boring instruments went out of the window and God gave us the TR-808 drum machine.  It rocked.  He also gave us a TB-303 bass line generator.  That also rocked.  Together, they rocked like two rockers rocking to rock music.  Except it was hardcore rave music and we loved it and we bowed down to their collective greatness.

Those fantastic bits of hardware gimmickry were consigned to the scrap bin and it wasn't until a resurgence of interest in the late 80's and early 90's, thanks largely to the illegal rave music scene, did pioneers of dance music embrace them with open arms.  That all changed in 1997 when Propellerhead released a software emulation package for the PC that reproduced _perfectly_ those old pieces of kit.  And what software.  The attention to detail was stupefying, the sounds were faithfully accurate and for something mouse-operated, turning all those dials and knobs, albeit on a screen, made it all seem satisfyingly tactile.  At the time, I longed for a touch screen version and in a fortuitous display of forward-thinking, my wish has been granted and here it is. 

What is it and how does it work?

Rebirth is a software emulation of three pieces of studio hardware, namely the TB-303 bass line sequencer, the TR-808 drum machine and the TR-909 drum machine.  If these numbers and names don't mean anything at all, chances are, if you've heard any kind of electronic dance music from the last twenty five years, you'll have heard what they produce without actually knowing what produced them (if that makes sense?).

The software is presented as a rack system where the different components are stacked on top of each other.  There are two TB-303 sequencer modules and in addition to the dials for changing how it sounds, they each have a small keyboard for entering notes.  Programming one of these bad boys is not really like playing a 'proper' keyboard.  Each bar (or pattern as they call it) is split into 16 'steps' and 4 steps equates to a beat.  Pressing the next and previous buttons, the user loops through all the steps, entering a note and pressing another button to say if the note is 'on' or 'off'.  The current step number is signified by a small LED-style counter. 

As the keyboard only spans one octave, there is another button that adds or subtracts an octave from the currently played note.  This gives a total of 3 octaves within which notes can be played in.  Each note can also have an 'accent' where it's played with slightly more emphasis and a 'portamento' where the note slides from one to the next in a smooth fashion.  This does allow a fair degree of character and personality to be built into the patterns to ensure they don't sound too clinical or sterile.

Patterns are stored in a pattern 'bank' on the left hand side.  Roughly 80 patterns per sound module can be saved in any one song.  That's ample considering the repetitive nature of electronic dance music.  These pattern banks are extended to the two drum machines as well.  A sequence of patterns is linked together to form a whole song.  This is done via the current pattern selector at the top of the rack (ok, screen).  Select a song step, select a pattern and that's it.

The drum machines work slightly different.  Instead of a piano roll, all 16 steps of the pattern are represented and one or more of the drum elements can be assigned to each of those steps.  Turning the dial allows different drum parts to be selected such as snare, bass drum, high hats etc.  A very basic drum loop may contain a bass drum on every 4th step, a high hat in the middle and a snare sound on every 8th step.  It will sound something like; bff-tsk-scher-tsk-bff-tsk-sher-tsk etc.

Once patterns have been programmed, a 'live' recording can then be instigated.  Flicking the top switch to 'live' mode enables Rebirth to capture changes to any of the dial positions that affect the sounds.  As the song keeps looping round, more and more dials can be recorded and the timbre of the song can be altered quite dramatically.    There really are too many dials and knobs and gadgetrickery to list them all.  The echo effect is worthy of mention and adds a lustrous quality to any bass line.  Turn it to max and you've got your very own Goa-trance sequencer unit.  Marvelous.  There are also dials for such esoteric stuff as frequency cutoff, modulation and resonance.  It doesn't matter what any of that means, just twist those dials and play baby.

It's quite a powerful little system and reminiscent of high-end automated mixing desks found in recording studios.

Like the PC version, Rebirth comes with some user-created 'skins' for the app that alters radically how it looks.  I don't find much value in these extra mods as there's a lot going on already in the basic version without some spotty oiks idea of a user-interface to confuse me. 

In Use

Thinking back to using this software on a PC, I would have killed for a touch-screen as it seemed such a natural fit for that kind of device.  Moving dials and pressing buttons would be a doddle, I thought.  In reality, it's just too ... fiddly.  The limited screen size of the iPod doesn't help at all and it's like trying to create music by poking your finger through a letter box.  Other music apps on the iPod (and iPad) work really well as they have been designed with the iPod in mind.  As Rebirth is a straight port from the PC version, no thought has been given to the limitations of its form factor.  Using on an iPad helps a lot as the whole rack is shown in all its glory but the graphics are too blocky.  Sure, it's the sounds that count at the end of the day but I've got a high-def screen here and I want high-def graphics.  To be fair to PropellerHead, they do do an iPad version with exactly the same sounds but for more than twice the price.  Go figure.

This is the HD version. The iPhone version running on the iPad is much more blocky.

The implementation of moving the dials isn't how I expected them to work.  You tap a dial and as the finger is dragged up or down, the dial moves from left to right.  Weird, really weird and takes some getting used to.  I always imagined I'd do a kind of 'spinning pinch' move with my fingers to turn a dial.  I was as deflated as a punctured lung.

Construction of songs is as weird as it has always been.  Then again, it was never straight-forward on those old devices anyway.  To recreate the hardware perfectly means to also recreate its limitations.  I can only say, you _do_ get used to it.  It's not hard to get sounds out of it though and just random pushing of buttons will soon get you going.  The handful of sample songs included as examples are really good and show what can be achieved with a _lot_ of time and effort.  The drum machines are particularly useful, especially when creating drum loops for use in other packages.  Individually exported patterns are easy to export and then pick up through iTunes.


I haven't fired up Rebirth on my PC for years and I admit, there was an element of nostalgia creeping into my purchasing decision when buying this for the iPod.  Over time, I had built it up in my own mind to be this incredibly fantastic beat box that will do everything.  It's a fantastic beat box, sure, but it certainly won't do _everything_.  The sounds it produces have aged somewhat and are not quite in vogue any more.  They've been done to death and with the mercurial rise of genres such as Dub-step, Drum n Bass and others, there is a much more heady mix of tonal textures going on in the bedroom-producers' arsenal. 

Then, it suddenly dawned that I *never* used it for full song production anyway, even on the PC.  I used it to create bars and loops of beats and bass lines that I exported to another package, and that's probably where it's at its most useful.  At £3.99 for the iPod version and a pretty scandalous £8.99 for the iPad version, it's _reasonable_ value for money.  As a source of home-grown electronic beats, bass lines and arpeggiated synth lines, it was up there with the best.  It's just that it's been surpassed by much more modern software and equipment.  PropellerHead have done nothing to bring their 1997 release up-to-date and that seems like an opportunity missed.

You'll like this if ... You're into 'old skool' acid-house rave music.
You won't like this if ... You're still doing The Charleston at the family Christmas party.

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