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DM1: Drum Machines May Have No Soul, but This One Has Brains

By Paul Hartsock MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 28, 2012 5:00 AM PT

DM1: Drum Machines May Have No Soul, but This One Has Brains

DM1 -- The Drum Machine, an app from Fingerlab, is available for US$4.99 at the App Store.

DM1 - The Drum Machine
DM1 - The Drum Machine

"Drum machine."

For some musicians and music lovers, the words alone can cause utter and complete revulsion. Why, they say, should such an abomination be allowed to exist? These glorified metronomes sound tinny, require no coordination, cheapen the art of percussion and in general have no soul or humanity about them -- so the argument goes.

For them, the term is used either as an insult or a not-so-veiled threat to the employment of a human drummer who just can't keep up.

For others, though, "drum machine" is not a vulgar term. In fact, certain styles of music may not have ever come into existence if not for a compact, automated, never-quits beatmaker that in many cases costs less than a full set of drums.

Learning to use a drum machine is sort of like learning the harmonica. It's not very hard to get a decent sound out of it the very first time you pick it up, but if you give yourself enough time to just mess around, you might surprise yourself with what you can do with it.

iPad owners who'd like to try it out for themselves should check out DM1 - The Drum Machine. It's not a full-blown sequencer like Nano Studio, and it's not an overall recording app like Garage Band. It's just a drum machine, and by keeping things somewhat simple, DM1 dodges the trap of frustration by complication sometimes found in music apps.

Viva Variety

When the app starts, you'll be looking at a sample composition. It's not a walk-through tutorial, but it does demonstrate some of the more basic functions of DM1. Hit play and you'll hear the arrangement. Pause it, change some setting here and there, then play it again to find out what changed what. Somehow I liked this better than being hand-held and guided through the process.

Along the top are the main controls: a play button (which also pauses), a BPM adjuster that goes from 30 to 240, a Pattern selector for toggling between any of up to 25 patterns that can be created and used in a song, and selectors for switching between the app's five main screens: Steps, Pads, Mixer, FX and Song.

In this top row you'll also see a sound bank featuring dozens of different modes. This is loaded with sound sets from a wide variety of old-fashioned drum machines (yes, a Roland 808 is on the list). It also has a variety of acoustic tones for a (slightly) more natural sound. There are a few melodic instrument sets included, like a cello and a Wurlitzer. Finally, the app also has a long list of original sound sets. Overall, the variety is very pleasing.

Looking for the Perfect Beat

When you're ready to make your own beat, choose Song from the top menu, hit New and give it a name. Now you'll be able to build up your tune using the app's five main panels.

Let's start with Pads. This display opens an array of nine pads, each assigned to a different tone depending on which sound mode you're using. Here you can experiment with rhythms and test out sound sets from the app's library. You can also use this panel to record "live" (as in, not sequenced) passages if you want to break out of 16th-note lock step or tweak a pitch here and there.

Once you've picked a sound set, head over to Mixer. Here you can adjust individual parameters for each of your nine sounds -- level, pitch, length and pan. You can also adjust levels beat by beat for each sound, set a sound to reverse, and activate a randomizer that will shake up levels in a given track.

My favorite part about Mixer, though, is that you can swap out any given sound in your set for the counterpart sound in a different set. For example, say I've chosen the sound set "Kraut '73," but I think its closed high-hat sounds kind of weak. No problem -- just grab the closed high-hat from any other set on the list (try EPM), and that's what will be used instead.

These settings can be applied to an individual pattern or the song as a whole.

Next we have Steps, which gives you a visualization of your song, a bar or two at a time, as a grid. Pretty intuitive -- just tell the notes where to go, hit play, repeat until you've finally found the mythical perfect beat. Rhythms can be set down to 16th-note increments with a maximum eight beats per pattern. You can even slide the grid's right edge toward the left to create an oddball measure of five beats, seven beats, six and a half, whatever you want.

Once you've mixed up a pattern, head over to FX to put a final, ultra-weird edge on your beat, adding overdrive, delay, phaser, texturizer, robotizer, a filter or a compressor. If you know exactly what you want, go for it, but this is also a place where you can just flip switches, move selectors, and generally mash buttons until you hit something that sounds just right.

By now another trip to Mixer would probably be a good idea, just make adjustments to what's been recorded.

Finally, Song is where you go to set your full composition in order. Each pattern is only a measure or two long, but they can be stacked, rearranged and repeated however you want on a timeline. To start on the next pattern, hit the Pattern indicator on the top bar. You'll be given the option of copying an existing pattern (in order to make small changes) or starting one from scratch.

When you're finished, you can export via mail, iTunes or Audiocopy.

Bottom Line

There are hundreds of musical composition apps for iOS. Some of them are very sophisticated but are also so complex that you can't even get started without careful study of the Help menu. Others are very easy to use but quickly grow stale because they're so limited.

DM1 strikes a great balance between the two. Its impressive library of sounds and wide array of effects are presented in an easy-to-understand interface that lets you experiment, make mistakes, start over, and hit just the right rhythm without trashing entire projects or wondering "how did I get here?" when staring a screen you suddenly don't remember ever using before.

This is a drum machine app you can pick up and start playing immediately, no special classes required.

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