Review – fluXpad from Mouse on Mars
Get out those sonic fingerpaints and have yourself a ball with fluXpad, a sampler/sequencer with a difference.
by Warren Burt, Nov. 2016
Some apps, such as Droneo (reviewed this issue) require that you have a grasp of numbers, and what those numbers mean for music, to be most effectively used. Then there are other apps, such as this new one, fluXpad, from Mouse on Mars (makers of WretchUp and Elastic Drums http://soundbytesmag.net/musicontablets201507/), which try to remove the use of numbers from sequencing, sampling and composing almost completely. Which is not to say that you can’t use numbers within it; but the primary mode of operation of the program is graphic, and interactive. And a lot of fun, as well.
fluXpad is a combination of a sampling program and a graphic sequencer program. You either use some of the many sample kits included in the program, or you can import your own using either iTunes or AudioShare (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/audioshare-audio-document/id543859300?mt=8 ). For iTunes support, you have to bundle a bunch of samples into a folder, and then import the folder into fluXpad. For AudioShare, you press the “Import” button in the lower right of the “Sampler Settings” panel, and select Import from AudioShare. This will open the AudioShare app, allow you to select one from the list of samples in AudioShare, and import it into fluXpad. I’ve found, at this early stage in the program’s development, that there were certain samples that just would not import into the program using iTunes file import, but when those were placed in AudioShare, they imported into the program just fine.
fluxPad has a very simple user interface. The main panel has seven differently colored icons in the center of the panel, each one of which consists of a volume control, a pencil, and M (mute) and S (solo) buttons – these M and S buttons are wonderful resources for live performance with a thick texture of samples happening! The first six of these are slots for storing a single sample, while the last one is for loading in seven different samples, usually (but not always) in the form of a “drum kit.” This means that for each preset in the program, you can have up to thirteen samples that you’re working with. Above and below these sample controls are two panels. The upper one is for drawing patterns that control each individual sample, each sample represented by a different color. Pitch is controlled by vertical position, and horizontal length of line controls duration. If your line deviates from a pure horizontal line, the sustain part of the sample will glide around, following the curve of the drawn line. And if you draw a line from right to left, that particular sample will play backwards. The lower panel is for performing each selected sample live, with vertical position being pitch. Horizontal position on this panel doesn’t matter. If you press the “R” button on the far left of the row of sample volume controls, and start the sequencer (with the start button at the top of the page) you can then record your performance as a graph into the top panel. So you can draw a pattern for each sample (in its own color), or you can improvise a pattern for the sample in the bottom panel. The “Record” function will keep recording while the pattern repeats, so you can build up very thick textures pretty quickly.
At the top of the page, there is a rank of controls. File name and loading is first, just touch the file name to access this. Then follows a “Play” control, a metronome (on or off), a tempo control settable in beats per minute (from 1 to 279, using the iPad keyboard), a quantize control (long touch to change the quantization), a pitch range control (controls the pitch range over which the sample will be played, and it also has controls for constraining the pitch choices to major or minor scales), a Tools menu, an erase current pattern tool, an undo tool, a redo tool, and a question mark which brings up a help menu. Each of these controls brings up a separate panel in which aspects of the individual sample selected can be changed.
Between these controls and the top graph panel is a series of seven selection panels with small thumbnails in them. You can have seven different panels, each of which can have any of the samples recorded or drawn into them, and you can change from panel to panel in real time. And each panel can have different settings of the pitch range controls for each sample in it! Any sustained samples playing when you touch the new panel will sustain until they would end in the old panel. This gives you smooth transitions between one pattern and any other one.
Here’s what the main panel looks like. In this screenshot, there are two samples, one in green, the other in yellow, playing. Notice the tempo is here set to 8 bpm, so that the entire diagram lasts 30 seconds. To change the length of the pattern, change the tempo setting.
If you long-press on any of the differently colored volume controls on the main page, a “Sampler Settings” page will emerge. It has three columns. The left most is where you load your samples from – touching the name of a folder will open it up for loading. Touching on a sample name will load it. The center panel has sample editing controls. You can select which portion of the sample to use with the vertical dotted lines on the left or right of the sample waveform. Below that is a control to loop your selected wave portion or to play it as a one-shot. Next is a control which always has the sample start at the beginning of your selection, or starts at a random point in the sample each time. This control has some exciting possibilities. For example, I made a sample about 30 seconds long, consisting of about 60 1/2 second samples from different sources. Each time that sample starts, it will start at a different point in the sample. Meaning that each time a drawn line for the sample is played, it will play a different portion of the sample. So you can get a very wide variety of sound types with just a limited variety of samples. This means that with a short repeating pattern of note shapes, you could actually get an eternally non-repeating pattern of sounds.
Below this is an Amplitude control, a Pan control, an Attack control and a Release control. Each of these is different for each sample, and are remembered as part of the patch. The right panel is dedicated to recording and sample import. Press the “Rec” button, and you will be recording into the program’s memory for as long as you hold the button down. The mic input on the iPad is the source for recording, so if you have a high quality microphone feeding into the iPad, you can get high quality sampling. The recording will be available for use immediately. You could, for example, have a pattern in the main page, playing a particular sample. Then you could stop, record a new sample, and use the same pattern to play your new sample. And continue this way, with a pitch, glide, and duration pattern used to continually articulate a perpetually renewed set of samples. That’s just one of dozens of performance possibilities that the program seems to suggest in profusion. Below the “Rec” button is the “Import” button mentioned earlier, which allows you to import a sample from AudioShare.
Touching and holding the file name at the upper left opens the “Projects and Kits” panel. This has controls for making a new project, opening an existing one, saving a project, exporting a project, saving the current kit (the seven samples in the seventh sample slot, controlled by the cyan blue control at the far right), visiting the Store, changing the Project Settings, and About and Contact information. The contact efficiency seems to be quite good. Both Oliver Greschke, the project coordinator (and developer of the wonderful Elastic Drums, reviewed here earlier), and Jan T. v. Falkenstein, the iOS programmer (and developer of the teatracks apps gliss http://teatracks.com/gliss and SQRT http://www.teatracks.com/ ) responded quickly to my requests for more information.
The tempo control adjusts by either sliding left to right (for a range of 10 bpm – 300 bpm) or by touching and then typing in a new value with the keyboard (for a range of 1 bpm to 279 bpm). I don’t know why the two control methods have different ranges, but it doesn’t really matter – you choose the method you want to use based on the value you want to enter.
Touching the notehead to the right of that brings up the Quantize menu. Here you can set the quantization level for rhythm. This will work if you choose to quantize a drawn pattern that was recorded without quantization (it will snap to the value you select) or it can apply to the grid for painting new notes into it. And you can set one quantization value, paint in a few notes, then select another quantization value, and paint in a few notes with that, and both quantizations will stay in place, so that you can get polyrhythms happening. For example painting some notes with a 16th quantization, and some others with a 16th 3rd quantization, results in very nice 3:2 polyrhythms.
This area of the program is one that I would hope could be expanded. At the moment there are only six different quantization settings (divide the note by 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1). I would hope that the developers could add values of say, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, etc divisions of the beat as well. Even better would be the ability to load in a pre-existing file that could divide the beat, or measure, up into any kind of quantized pattern that could be desired, not necessarily simply dividing the beat into all equal rhythmic values.
The next control, with two whole notes connected by a bracket, is the Range control. This controls the range over which your samples can play. You move the two red arrowhead like controls up or down to select a range for your sample from one semitone to four octaves. If you select a small range, like one or two semitones, you will get quite fine microtonal control over your pitch. (I made an example of long slow glissandi moving against a straight horizontal line, with a sine wave timbre, using a two-semitone pitch range, and the result was very slowly changing beating tones, as the two sustained pitches got closer and closer in pitch.) As well, on this page, you have the ability at the moment to have no pitch quantization, or quantizing the scale to major or minor. I asked Jan T. v. Falkenstein, the developer if it would be possible to have other levels of quantization in there, and he said it would be. I suggested perhaps using the tuning files generated by the microtonal program ScaleGen would be possible, and he said that that idea was a very good one, and could perhaps even be fairly easy to implement. So hopefully, there will be more tunings available in the future.
The next icon is the Tools menu. Here’s where you can rhythmically Quantize and Un-Quantize a whole sequence, or just the current color, clear a sequence, change Audio Settings, change MIDI settings (currently only limited to MIDI Sync, but which is promised to improve in future updates), and a Sync control for Ableton Link.
The X next to the Wrench icon erases the current pattern, with undo and redo controls next to it. Also useful is the eraser tool at the far left of the Sample controls. Touching this will enable it for the current color. This is a pixel by pixel erase tool, so if you want to just remove one or two notes from your drawing, you can do it with this.
At the moment, except for the volume controls, there is no way to have samples changing loudness during the sustain phase. This kind of volume control is an issue that Jan T. v. Falkenstein acknowledges is one that needs to be solved. Hopefully, in an update very soon, this will be addressed. For example, maybe the horizontal axis in the lower panel could be used as a volume control. In any case, the addition of this facility to the program would seem to be a high priority, and one that would increase its potential greatly.
In short, this is a very fun program. Cheap, very powerful, with a unique interface that makes you think about music and sound shaping in a visual, hands-on way that is (mostly) free from dealing with numbers. I highly recommend it, if you’re the type that wants to play with sounds like a child plays with putty. I’m certainly that kind of person, and if you are, as well, you’ll have a lot of fun here. In conclusion, here’s a pattern from a preset I developed. The first five patterns each have a pattern using just one sample. The sixth pattern (shown here) has the previous five patterns copied and pasted together to make a composite pattern with patterns of the final two samples added by hand. So all seven sample are being used in this slots (with the seventh having seven additional samples in it, drum kit style), and each sample is set to begin at a random position. Each sample is also controlled over a wide pitch range, so the result is a very complex pattern that, because of the random start times in the very long, multi-sectioned samples, will never repeat. It’s a fun dense texture. And I can change between these patterns in real time, performing the overall form of my piece interactively, allowing the different samples to shine individually, before plunging back into the denseness of the sixth pattern. The seventh pattern is simply long duration notes on each sample. This might be fun as a coda, where a dense mix of all the thirteen extended samples (six individual ones, and seven samples in the “drum kit” slot), are then heard at once. More fun, as they say, than the proverbial barrelful of simians.
Mouse on Mars: http://mominstruments.com/fluxpad/
Get fluXpad from the iTunes Store: $5.99 US; $9.99 AUD. iPad only, Audiobus, IAA, Ableton Link, MIDI Sync capable, iOS8.1 or later required.