San Francisco producer Scott Whitehead introduces us to Modstep, a modulation and MIDI sequencer for the iPad.
Developed by AppBC, Modstep is labeled as a Modulation Monster and the first full-blown MIDI sequencer for the iPad. Modstep allows you to create music on your iPad with your favorite IAA Apps, Audio Units, Mac and PC software, and MIDI hardware as well as the internal drum sampler and synth. This versatile app can be used as the centerpiece of your setup to create and perform music on the go, in the studio, or on stage.
When Modstep was first released in 2015, it aimed to be that ‘Ableton in a Box’ which has eluded everyone but the developers of Ableton itself. What is it about Ableton that’s so great; time stretch, clip launch, plugins, tight integration, interface? Yes. Can any of this be achieved on a touch screen without losing sight of what’s so great about iPad music apps? Let’s see.
Modstep suffered growing pains common to early releases, and as a result, we chose not to review it until it was fully baked. The developers addressed the frustrating stability issues and rather than reworking the ambitious UI, they engaged the talented Jakob Haq to produce a series of training videos. The former was necessary, and the latter is an excellent solution to a difficult problem that lets you meet the developers halfway to their vision.
Working with Modstep
Modstep uses a clip launch metaphor as the top layer of its interface. Each clip contains note and automation data. The clips are organized in rows and columns (scenes and instruments) and are also color coded and named. There are also controls for moving clips around, assigning columns to instruments, live MIDI and audio recording, and much more – all of the important features you’d expect from a DAW. Instrument targets can be hardware synths, iOS synths and effects or the full featured sampler and synth included with Modstep. When you drill down from a clip you can view it as either a piano roll or in a sequencer view. Many features overlap between these two views, but the sequencer view adds live performance sequencer options like ‘Active Step’ and disabled steps where the piano roll excels for individual note editing.
As sequencer apps go, Modstep strikes a powerful balance between composing and performing. A compelling feature of Modstep’s sequencer is the clip within a clip functionality. A MIDI clip can contain up to 16 bars which can be individually disabled, transposed, and reordered or played at different speeds. If you like to have the ability to change your mind, this is the place to do it. Further, note velocity and length can be edited on the fly using your choice of the two interfaces. If you find the scaling on the sequencer interface a little fiddly as I do, the piano roll is less fast but more precise. In addition to editing velocity and note length with the drag of a finger, Modstep provides easy access to synth modulation values – thus the name.
Modstep’s unique weapon is its library of synthesizer CC value mappings. As you build a channel in Modstep, you can associate CC values for your synth by dragging them out of the inventory of synth templates and into your channel. You can then select sound design functions like filter cutoff or decay and then automate them using an intuitive finger-drag interface or XY pad. In the end, it works like a custom LFO designer. All your edits are saved with your MIDI clip and can be further edited on the fly. Once you figure out the interface, the ease of selecting mod targets and drawing in automation will make you wonder why it’s not a standard feature on every app.
Modstep also adds a useful audio mixer including master channel effects. You can record individual tracks or the master mix, then drag up to 30 seconds of that audio back into the onboard sampler. This is very cool if you’re working entirely in the box but unfortunately, does not include audio from external hardware instruments. It’s always something…
Apple chose not to include a global file manager into iOS. Modstep creates its own with a folder system for synth templates, audio recordings and samples, midi files, and Modstep sessions. The latter includes an autosave feature that’s always running and serves as an undo. Thanks Modstep! As with so many things about this app, the file system is powerful and a little confusing. For sessions, recordings and saved midi files, folders and contents are displayed left and right. For instrument selection, you browse a cascading menu that expands as you drill down. Edit, transpose, and quantize are expanding menus across the top while playback speed and bar enable/disable are elsewhere. You get the idea. Again, Haq’s tutorials to the rescue.
Modstep successfully merges several apps worth of features into one interface. The touch and drag functions of iOS are leveraged successfully although sometimes it’s easy to forget where you are and delete something instead of selecting it. A little patience and a little time invested in the YouTube tutorials pays off with powerful integration, excellent live features, and a fast interface. Ableton in a touch interface box? Perhaps.
Modstep is available to download from the App Store.
About Scott Whitehead
Scott Whitehead listens to and produces electronic music in San Francisco. He also makes interactive art at the crossroads of music and technology as well as spoils the heck out of his pit bull. Hear some of Scott’s work on SoundCloud.
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