So you’ve gotten the laptop, the software, some good ideas, and set about making some music. You get some beats down.. now what? The first road block that many would-be musicians face on this path to music is melody. Many people can pick out a few good notes to play, but where to go from there? What makes a chord compliment another chord? How does one know what emotion will come from a pairing of notes? This can be a complicated path to figure out. The good news is that technology is also helping musicians with melody these days by way of a few iPad applications and Max for Live plug-ins that make writing melody a bit easier for the beginner.
Polychord (by developers Shoulda Woulda Coulda) is one of my favorite melody-creation applications for the iPad. The elegant interface offers the user a selection of key and provides a series of easily understood chord options that you can play. The chords of a selected key will appear together in a grid with smaller selections allowing for easy creation of chord progressions. Add to this a robust MIDI functionality and you have an application that can control other iOS apps or work with your DAW to write complex chord progressions.
In my personal experience with Polychord, I’m using the app in a very rudimentary way – simply choosing chords with the app and recording a basic performance into Ableton or Reason, where I’ll then manipulate the melody further. This simple addition to my studio has offered completely new ideas that I would not think of myself. I find this ease-of-use for chord selection to be the core of the App’s experience. But Polychord currently offers extensive MIDI sync capabilities for DAW use and iOS music app integration. The app’s developers explain further:
“Polychord is drums, bass, chords, and accompaniment all wrapped into one. Anyone can compose and perform music with easy access to over 60 chords at once, and elegant ‘strum keys’ that let you smoothly strum chords and play scales.
Hit any of the chord circles to play a chord. Slide your fingers over the strum keys and play the notes. Go from Major to Minor. Switch Keys. Play a scale. Turn on auto accompany and play along to drums, bass, and an arpeggiator that has a whole range of time-signatures to choose from. Turn on MIDI for any of the instruments in polychord, and use it as a powerful controller for your favorite audio programs.”
SoundPrism Pro (iPad)
Another fantastic application for melody creation is Audanika’s SoundPrism Pro, one of the first applications for the iPad that offered chord creation in a simple visual interface. Over the last two years this application has gone through many updates that continually add new functionality to the MIDI capabilities, resulting in a robust composition tool that works with any DAW, MIDI device or iOS MIDI app. Where Polychord offeres a direct visual reference to key and note, SoundPrism Pro is a different sort of instrument that relies on color-coded notes and ways to select how many notes will be played in a chord. This makes for a more musical sort of application that is fun to play by itself or with your MIDI instruments.
SoundPrism Pro has recently been updated to version 2.5 which offers new functions such as MIDI in, virtual MIDI port management, and updated graphics for the iPad 3′s retina display. For more information on Audanika’s philosophy for music apps and some great tutorials on how to use SoundPrism Pro, head over to soundprismhowto.com where you can pick up lots of great information on the application.
The Schwarzonator (Max for Live)
If you’ve listened to Henrik Schwarz’s music, you may have guessed him to be a well-trained musician because of the beautiful melody that cascades across his recordings. But this is not the case. Schwarz is a producer with no instrument training who found music theory to be a difficult idea to grasp. In response, he found Cycling 74′s Max for Live program to be a solution to his problem. The Schwarzonator is a free Max for Live plug in that has been championed by Dubspot’s Thavius Beck (and numerous others) as an easy way to create interesting melodies. The interface is a bit different than the above applications (Schwarzinator doesn’t actually show you note values) but it’s fairly intuitive after watching Schwarz explain how it works in the above video.
Michael Walsh is a producer of audio/visual art and a journalist living in Southern California. Read more of his work at soundsdefygravity.com