Figure: Music Sketches Made Fun

The iPad continues to flex its musical muscles, with many developers and composers coming to terms with the fact that it can be a legitimate and powerful studio tool. But as exciting as it is to have a fully featured audio workstation in your bag wherever you go, sometimes it’s nice to scale things back to the basics.

Propellerhead is well known for its famously integrated music software, Reason, which is designed to be as streamlined as possible. It’s no surprise then that their latest iOS venture is an app designed to be fun, accessible, and mobile. Figure is a delightful musical sketchpad, and we’re eager to take it for a spin…

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Introduction

While the app features components taken straight from its desktop cousin, Propellerhead is quick to point out that the power under the hood is designed to stay out of your way. Figure isn’t an app about hundreds of channels, effects, and tweaking. It’s about developing musical seeds that you can further explore once you’re off the bus, back home.

As a result, you don’t interact very directly with the parameters of the synth engine and drum machine that generate the app’s fantastic sound presets (Thor and Kong, for those familiar with Reason). Your control is limited to a couple of specific aspects of each sound, and while this limitation might seem frustrating, it’s deliberate and forces a shift of focus designed to keep you from missing the forest for the trees.

Figure is for sketching musical ideas, and having fun doing it.

Exploring the Interface

Figure has five distinct areas, though you’ll spend time mostly in the first two. The first one you’ll see when you open the app is the Pattern page, where you’ll be actually performing the rhythms and melodies of your track.

Pattern

Along the top of the interface are a couple of buttons for initiating playback and recording, and beside those are tabs for the three layers of instrumentation that Figure allows for: drums, bass, and a lead sound. If you have playback running, you can freely explore the various sounds available and work out patterns and ideas. Hitting record primes Figure to capture your ideas; simply start playing and it will begin.

Choosing sounds is as simple as swiping left or right on the name of the preset. Each preset has its own characteristics and responds differently, so while you can’t create your own sounds, you do have a respectable variety of sonic clay to sculpt with.

In the Drum tab, there are four components that you can use: a kick, a snare, a hi-hat, and an additional sound. Each drum kit has very different sounds, ranging from traditional EDM style kits to bizarre sound effects. The coloured bars allow you to play the sound with a tap (different areas of the bars usually produce variations on the basic sound), and the circular rhythm wheels allow you to set the number of beats you want per bar and then simply hold your finger on the bar to have Figure perform a pattern for you.

This makes setting up a beat very easy, and since it’s so simple to delete patterns and clear layers, you can always set up a basic beat and then spruce it up once you have the rest of the track down.

Tweaks

The second tab along the bottom of the interface brings you to the Tweak section. Depending on the sound preset you have loaded, you’ll have access to different synth and/or parameters here. These are mapped across an X/Y pad allowing for easy modulation with one finger of both parameters at the same time.

The effects can sometimes be controlled in a very detailed manner, as some presets have three separate aspects of the sound that can be controlled (selectable via the hexagons). Since every movement on the X/Y pad can be recorded, you can develop intricate modulations and give your tracks a compelling sense of motion with very little effort.

Song

Usually one of the first areas of Figure you’ll want to set up before working on a new track, the Song page is where you can select the key signature, tonality, and tempo of your new piece. Using the tabs along the top will also give you an opportunity to set the loop length between 1 and 8 bars, depending on what you’re after.

There’s even a wheel to let you dial in some shuffle if you’re looking to inject some swagger. While it is possible to work chromatically in Figure, the ability to pick a tonality helps keep everything sounding “in tune” for those who prefer to focus on the feel and don’t want to worry too much about the theory of what’s going on.

Mix & System

The final two pages of Figure are fairly self-explanatory. The Mix page gives you three large sliders to help you adjust the levels of the three sound layers, and a darker bar within the sliders shows you the realtime volume of that layer so you have a visual reference to help you balance things out.

You can also selectively mute channels here, and on the left there’s a simple wheel labelled “Pump” that you can use to dial in some of that club-friendly side-chained compression pumping that’s popular in most electronic genres today.

System is where you go when you’re satisfied with everything and want to save or export it. As of v1.4 of Figure, your options are very diverse and include direct SoundCloud, AudioCopy, and iTunes direct export. Sessions can also be saved internally, of course, so you can save works-in-progress and call up any of your past masterpieces for adjustments.

Making Music

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the basics, you can start making some tunes!

As you work with Figure more and more, it becomes evident that this was truly a labour of love; everything works fluidly, the sound is precise and rich, and the process of working on tracks is joyous.

It’s the little details that stand out, including the fact that Figure jumps to your rescue in one of the most difficult aspects of working on something: naming it! When you start a new track, Figure assigns it a Swedish sounding nonsense name. You can change it, of course, but having a title in place keeps you focused on the music.

In fact, that push toward the music is the strongest impression that Figure makes; it isn’t interested in anything else except helping you write some cool musical ideas with minimal distraction and no unnecessary fluff or clutter. Whether you are content to leave it at that, or whether you want to make use of its Wist or AudioBus capabilities to bring that material into another app for more detailed processing is left up to you.

Conclusion

It’s difficult to find fault with Figure. While it is admittedly a little on the lean side for someone like me who enjoys having access to the knobs under the hood, Figure stands resolutely by its mandate to equip anyone to make great tunes wherever they go — and from that perspective it accomplishes its goals perfectly.

If, in the future, they added an ability to “flip the rack” like you can in Reason, or if they included more scale/mode types to choose from, their power users would no doubt be thrilled. But then the question remains: just how much tweaking power do you actually need when you’re sketching an idea on the go?

Propellerhead’s answer is made manifest in this app, and despite my love of tweaking and digging deep into sound creation, I can’t help but agree with them. Go Figure.


Summary

Figure is the definitive iPad musical sketchpad. It combines superb sound with just the right amount of tweaking power and wraps it in an intuitive and clean package that helps you focus on the music.

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