Here we go with the first of ten little musical challenges over the next ten weeks, which will help me familiarise myself with some of the more obscure and under-used instruments and musical software in my collection.
I picked up the walnut flute at one of the two musical instrument stalls (klingklang.at) at the Karlsplatz Christmas Market, my favourite of the many markets running at this time of the year in Vienna. It is a very simple whistle made from a walnut shell, a single piece of wood which serves as a frame and a short length of bamboo that forms the mouthpiece. A small hole in either side of the shell gives a little control over pitch, but the range is only really three notes, so getting an interesting melody out of it is quite a challenge.
Fingerlabs’ DM1 is an iOS application with versions for both iPad and iphone/ipod. It is, at heart, a recreation of a set of classic drum machines, but set within a very easy-to-use touch interface that makes it a joy to work with. I have never been much of a fan of drum machines; in the right hands they can be incredibly effective, going far beyond the basic machine rhythms that were so over-done in the early 80’s, but to get a quality performance out of them requires delving into their workings and, on most machines, that means multiple button pressing or navigating through menus. The DM1 puts everything on screen and makes it simple to adjust pitch, note length, volume and various other parameters without jumping through hoops. You can manually enter a pattern with 9 large drum pads or via a graphical step programming page, then there are two touchpad effects units that allow control of reverb, delay, phaser, distortion and more. Not only are there sounds from classic drum machines of the past (from the ubiquitous Roland boxes to Farfisa rhythm sections, but there are also several acoustic drum kits, latin percussion, household objects and even orchestral kits. These can all be used to create customised kits of your own, or you can sample your own sounds (in the iPad version only, unfortunately).
I started out with some simple patterns in the DM1, just to get an idea of how it works. I started the first using the Farfisa kit (having a soft spot for its cheesy sounds from my days in The Deserters). Once I had strung a couple of basic patterns together, I moved into the effects section and used the built-in automation to apply some delay and filter effects to make it all a little more unusual.
Then I moved on to try out one of the instrumental kits, in this case a set of harp samples. This first piece was created from four main patterns, building up and adding more detail over time. Since the melody notes of the kit were all used up, I decided to try out the wireless synchronisation via the WIST system, setting up a simple drum pattern on my iphone and using the iPad to trigger it. WIST allows you to set the tempo and have two devices start in perfect time with each other, though it doesn’t seem to track tempo changes, so changing the playback speed on one device results in the two going out of sync. This does have its own advantages (Nancarrow-inspired multi-tempo pieces may work well), but prevents live adjustment of tempo. Although the DM1 responds to MIDI-in signals, it cannot act as a controller for external devices (at least, not in the current version, though this is being developed according to their website), which would be a great way to control other instruments or apps. The ability to sample and the wide range of built-in sounds makes this less of an issue, but it is the only real weakness in this great application. The only other thing I would like to have seen would be a way to share songs and patterns between the iPhone and iPad versions, perhaps using iCloud sync.
Finally, I tried out the sampling facility on the iPad version – this lets you add new samples from existing tracks on your device (in iTunes, for example) or to record new ones. Since I don’t have any sort of audio interface for iOS, I just used the built-in microphone, which is far from ideal, but still allows reasonable-quality samples when compared to beat boxes from the 80’s. I recorded the three possible notes from the walnut flute, as well as some percussive sounds from tapping the nut and some other effects like overblowing the flute. By doing this, I was able to easily fill the nine sample slots. The sampling process allows you to record and then trim the samples using a waveform display and sound playback – there are no advanced facilities like looping, but you wouldn’t really expect those on a drum machine anyway. Once in the system, it is easy to use the ‘mixer’ page to adjust the stereo spread of the samples, their relative levels and fine-tune the pitch. I found that pitch-shifting the percussive samples down made them a little more substantial. The following little ditty is the result: