Pocket Grooves

I’ve covered in past articles how much I like using portable devices to make music on the go.  From the early days of things like Bhajis Loops on a Palm TX, to more modern apps on the iPhone and iPad, I’ve found it really fun to get out of the studio and still be able work on music ideas.

Even in the short time I’ve been using apps on Apple devices though, I’ve noticed that I’ve slowly started migrating from some of the more full-fledged apps like NanoStudio and BeatMaker, to simpler affairs that are much less like a traditional DAW.  I think part of it is the fact that I’ve always sort of been attracted to more of a groovebox mentality when it comes to writing music.  I like working with short patterns of notes that are tied to the sounds they trigger in a more immediate way than you find with DAWs and more complex tools.

And some of it has to do with the fact that often when I’m out and about making music on the go, I just don’t tend to stay in any one place long enough to feel I can really flesh out ideas in the more complex apps.  I might start something in one place, but by the time I come back to it, the initial feeling or ideas that inspired it just aren’t there any more.  I was finding that I was spending too much time trying to pick up where I left off, instead of just quickly creating something more complete in the moment.

But more than that, I think a lot of it has to do with the way we interact with these new tools on touchscreen devices.  Sure you definitely CAN use an iPad or iPhone to lay out a whole song, and I’ve done so many times already:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith-Slip.mp3  (Created with Garageband on iPad)

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Tarekith-Slat.mp3  (Created with NanoStudio on iPhone)

But to be honest it just ends up feeling a little too tedious and fiddly to me.  Some people say it’s like interacting with your traditional tools with a sheet of glass over them, something I’m slowly starting to agree with.  Now, for some people, this is not really a big deal, but for me it’s just ends up starting to take some of the fun away from the process.

So these days I’ve been focusing using apps that make it simple to lay down grooves that I can expand on back in the studio.  I don’t worry about making a complete song anymore when I’m working on music at a local park, I’m more interested in capturing the basic ideas, the feeling of the moment.  On the go grooveboxes if you will.

I’m especially interested in apps that stop trying to mimic tools that work well on a laptop or traditional computer, and instead focus on creating new ways of interacting via the touch interface.  A nice side benefit of this is that these tend to work equally as well on the iPad or the smaller iPhone, which makes portability even easier.

With that in mind, here are the apps that I find I’ve been turning to more and more these days.  I won’t go into a review of them as the information on how they work or video demos is easy enough to find on the manufacturers’ websites or YouTube.  Instead I’ll focus on what it is about each app that I find so appealing.

Korg iKaossilator


I have to admit, this is one app that I’ve been using more than I expected I would.  Korg’s done a great job at making it really easy to come up with some really cool sounding grooves, and there’s even some decent support for live performance if that’s your thing.  Export to Soundcloud, mixing and matching loops from different patterns via a session view like Ableton Live, and some fun ways to generate fills for your recorded patterns on the fly are all pretty unique to this app.

I do wish it had more sounds you could buy for it though (you can import your own loops if that’s your thing though).  Some of the built in sounds are kind of cheesy at first, but the X-Y pad usually has enough range of control over them that I can get something decent with most of the stock sounds.  I also wish there way a way to control the volume of each of the 5 parts, sometimes the pads can be louder than your lead for instance.

Otherwise I’m a big fan of this app though, it’s probably the one I find myself using the most these days.


Propellorhead Figure


This was one of the first apps that I felt really nailed the way to interact with a touch screen.  It’s simple to lay down some really unique grooves, and even adjust the timing of each part after the fact.  Having only 3 different parts to work with can seem a little spartan at first, but for quick and dirty sessions where I just want to get some ideas down, it fits the bill.

Like iKaossilator you don’t get a ton of sounds with the app, but there’s enough control over how they can sound that you can often take the included ones in a totally different direction than they sound at first.  The included sounds however actually pretty darn good as is, the app does use the sound engine from Reason after all.  Plus, you have separate control over up to 4 parameters of each sound after the fact, including the ability to record automation.

Very glad that a recent update let us record longer patterns, 2 bars was pretty short in the initial release.  Not to mention that now you can chose to have recording start at note on, so it’s easier to make sure your patterns start on the first beat.  In the first version, I would often have a great pattern going, but realize that it was starting on the 2nd beat for instance, which was annoying when I exported the results to an audio file.


Zaplin Music TriqTraq


Not many people know about this app, but it’s definitely one of the better groove-based apps I’ve found.  You get 4 parts you can sequence, but each part can be a single sound or a kit for things like drums.  You can import your own samples as well, so I’ve been using this a lot for coming up with drum loops.  Great support for recording automation of most parameters, and some cool poly-rhythmic features as well.

It’s not the most intuitive app straight away, but they have some videos on the site that will get you up and running asap.  Editing some of the automation can be a little tedious on the smaller iPhone screen, but that’s about my only real complaint.


Anyway, those are the tools I’ve been finding myself reaching for more and more these days.  Generally once I get a few ideas recorded on the iPad or iPhone, I’ll record them into the Octatrack when I’m back in the studio.  I’ve got about 8-10 tracks like this in basic groove form, and I’m toying with the idea of doing an entire album using iOS apps as the original source material, but doing most of the writing and song sequencing in the Octatrack.

Works out well for me though, as I get to enjoy writing music while being out in nature, and I know I can actually create a more finished product with that material once I get back in the studio.  Definitely nice to break up the monotony of being in front of a computer all the time in the studio, that’s for sure!

So, anyone else have any apps or on the go music tools they find particularly useful?  Post them in the comments!

4 Replies to “Pocket Grooves”

  1. Super helpful post, Erik — been considering an iPad for awhile so the more reveiews I read of useful apps the more likely I’ll take the plunge.

    I think you mentioned Animoog as being a good one at some point — I take it that one’s mainly for iPad, not iPhone?

  2. Nice post! I thought it worth mentioning a fantastic pocket studio app for Android: Caustic. Now in version 2, Caustic has full suite of excellent devices and sequencing tools. The best comparison would be to Reason’s vertical strip that is similar to a hardware rack. Rated 5 stars and well deserved, IMO.

    You can check it out in the Google play store: http://goo.gl/Lt4h5

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