Figure makes better music than I do

Figure is an iOS app that is designed to belittle my music making abilities. If it had the ability to talk, I imagine it would say to me, “Oh, you spent two hours making a catchy four-bar loop? That’s cute. I came up with eight in the same amount of time.” And then it would laugh derisively until I turn red and walk away in embarressment.

Basically, it’s a groovebox, providing just enough features to let you come up with a simple hook, ranging in length from one bar to eight bars.

At your disposal is one drum track, one bass synth, and one lead synth. You choose which drum set or instrument to use for each, then program in the melodies. The interface is designed for touch devices, and is pretty much just X/Y pads. On some instruments, the X axis is used to control the pitch, and Y is for the volume. The X axis is divided into a configurable number of sections representing a particular pitch, quantized to a particular key signature – the default key is C major, but you can also change it to minor, dominant, and atonal keys for any note. Figure will also quantize the notes to a configurable rhythm – you can chose from 1 to 16 notes per bar, and it will choose a preset rhythm. Drums follow a similar concept, with four narrow X/Y pads representing bass, snare/clap, hats, and percussion sounds. One bar can represent multiple sounds along the X axis, and variants on a sound along the Y axis. The tonal instruments are monophonic, so no glorious chords or nutty harmonies are possible.

Anyway, the point is that it’s ridiculously easy to come up with a short hook.The maximum length of a loop is 8 bars, so you can’t use this to make a full song, but it’s great as a source of inspiration.

You are forced to use the preset sounds that come with the application, so you’re challenged to come up with something that sounds fresh. You can try tweaking some of the instrument’s parameters, or apply the rhythms in an unusual way, or adding a bit of shuffle to spice things up.

While you’re limited to only the three tracks, Figure lets you connect to multiple iOS devices, effectively doubling the number of voices available per extra device connected. It’s actually a bit odd, as it’s really just synchronizing the clocks; each device can have a completely different song loaded in a different key, it’s just that when the master is triggered, all other devices will also start playing.

I’ll also say that I love the auto-generated names it provides for songs. You can get song names like “Bupubofyvu”, “Lukisekaka”, “Lige Kebogu”, “Duva Japyvi”, and “Bambosa”, none of which would look out of place in the tracklisting of an Aphex Twin album.

Although Figure runs fine on a 3rd gen iPad, I found it a bit slow on my older iPod Touch (from 2009) – often when you try to record something, there will be a bit of input lag, and the quantizing places your beat a fraction after you wanted it, making you have to re-record until you get it.

The only downside is it feels like the app’s made the music, rather than the person using it! However, just browsing some of the creations made by people using Figure will show that it doesn’t matter what functionality the tool will provide, it’s ultimately up to the user to shape the sounds based on their own creative impulses.

Here’s some tracks I’ve made mucking around in Figure.

This is some crazy game music.

This is a fairly happy little track…

… and here it is again, with a different bass instrument. Then, with a few more tweaks…

… you end up with an action sequence soundtrack.

Part 2 of the above, where the beat breaks down into something a bit grittier.

Part 3 of the above, where the lead synth starts gating.

An annoying ditty left out of a side-scrolling platformer featuring a blue hedgehog.

As above, but with a swing beat; more jaunty, non?

You can also do goa trance, if you really wanted to.

Or pretty little melodies.

Or something to finally fight, or rage in the street.

Finally, some slow, slightly menacing, uncertain, stomping music.

Figure is a blast, it helps the train trips just fly, it can easily be used by non-musicians, and it can act as a source of inspiration for larger pieces of music. I love the pitch and rhythm quantizing. My only wish is for the ability to use Figure as a pure MIDI controller, so I can plug it in to any synth I want!

Figure is available for iOS devices, on iTunes and the App Store.

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