At the risk of repeating myself, I’m thrilled to live in the future. As someone who has been fiddling with electronic music since I was a teenage with a Atari 1040ST and Cubase, I’ve seen the world of “computer music” undergo sea change after sea change. It used to be pretty incredible that you could make cutting edge music on a laptop. Now it’s mind blowing that you can do it on a phone.
Gear4′s pocketloops is an interesting example of thinking outside the box in the potential race to the bottom that is app development. Pocketloops is a free app, but is also a dedicated hardware peripheral that has to be purchased separately for magic to happen.
As you can see from the image above, pocketloops is a keyboard with a little dock for an iPhone to the left-hand side. The unit it pretty light and compact so it’s very portable. My first impression when I got my hands on the unit at IFA was that the keys were a little bit square and flat, but this design makes more sense once you dive into the app.
It’s worth noting at this point that pocketloops isn’t really a keyboard peripheral – at least in the conventional sense- so if you were hoping to use it for jamming with other apps then prepare for disappointment. I’m not sure why pocketloops doesn’t play nicely with other apps – it would make it a great tool for travelling musicians as the flat, light design pops easily into most bags.
However, the flat keys are not the most fun to play musically – I wouldn’t want to do lots of scales or chords with them over and extended period of time, which perhaps was the thinking behind the external app-lockout. Once you fire up the free pocket loops app you get why the keys are the way they are. Rather than playing melodies conventionally, pocketloops is much more geared towards remixing and jamming with loops – with the keyboard keys more loop triggers than piano keys. Once you get into this mindset the design of pocketloops is fantastic.
The main app interface is a 4 x 4 grid where you lay down beats or melodic loops. Various instruments are provided including the wonderful Look Around You nod to Synthesiser Patel. Rather than resticting you creatively, the limited palate of tracks and instruments is actually quite liberating and you are innovating within parameters and are able to focus on doing fun things with what you have – rather than staring out at infinite potential. Sounds you play are recorded as loops and you can then switch back and forth DJ style between tracks, mixing and remixing dynamically. This has lots of interesting performance potential as you could build fun little tracks live on stage.
You can also vary your sounds (and have fun in a live environment) by using pocketloops’ built-in effects to tweak echo, chorus or distortion via the XY Filter Pad (remember when plain old ribbon controllers seemed amazing).
Once you’ve made your track, rather than hide it under a bushel (unless it’s awful), you can bake a remix on the spot and email it as an m4a file to all and sundry. Overall, pocketloops is a fast and incredibly fun way to create music on your iPhone and if you like what you see and are ok with using the loop based software it would be hard not to recommend it.
I should note that I struggled to get pocketloops to play nicely with iOS5 and had lots of problems switching instruments or with the app recognising the keyboard after a bout of multitasking or a trip to the notification centre. However I had an older iPhone lying around with a slightly older OS and everything went swimmingly when that was popped in. I expect an update to iOS 5 is around the corner.