iPad Music App Review: FunkBox Drum Machine

by chip on July 25, 2011

APP NAME: FunkBox Drum Machine
VERSION: 2.2
APP DEVELOPER: Synthetic Bits
PRICE: $3.99
PLATFORM: iPhone/iPod/iPad
TYPE OF MUSIC APP: Drum Machine/Sequencer

Overview:
FunkBox Drum Machine is a solid drum machine that works across iOS platforms and delivers the ability to easily manipulate a variety of classic drum sounds.

What can it do?
Upon opening FunkBox, you arrive at the main panel, a place where you can make a variety of changes and access all the app’s features – a home base of sorts. At the very top of the screen, you’ll see a photo of your current drum machine, along with its name, and buttons that switch between devices. FunkBox offers a choice of sounds from nine vintage drum machines – TR-808, TR-909, TR-606, CR-78, MRK-2, ER-1, MD-SPS1, TR77, and LINN. Directly on the right of your drum selector lie 8 finger size drum pads, giving you the opportunity to tap out your beats. Each drum machine actually contains twelve different sounds, but in order to access the additional four sounds, you’ll need to flip switches in the panel to the left. The part mixer lies in the middle of the screen, allowing you to adjust master volumes for each drum sounds. Press the Master button and you’ll also have options to change panning and accents. In the lower left hand side of the screen, twelve buttons allow you to select either pre-loaded or original drumbeats that you’ve saved. Each button holds three different drum beats and there are accompanying buttons labeled A, B, & C that switch between each one. A fader sits on the lower left hand side of the screen that lets you adjust the tempo or amount of swing. Convenient buttons on the left and right hand side of the read out make small adjustments, enabling you to capture your exact tempo. The main panel packs a lot of punch, containing the ability to manipulate a number of factors in your drumbeat.

Press the “Edit Pattern” button and you’ll find the FunkBox pattern sequencer, which allows you structure your patterns. The main bulk of the action happens on the two large pattern sequencers labeled “Sequence A” and “Sequence B.” In reality, A and B each represent a measure of drumbeat, giving you a view of two full measures. Within each sequence, you can access the pattern for four different drum sounds. A button above each list of sounds flips the view to four different sounds, providing a total of eight drum sounds in your pattern. If you want any of the additional four sounds in the drum machine, you’ll have to swap them out through the buttons on the main screen. The size of the pattern sequencer works nicely – everything is easily visible and the buttons are just large enough to tap. On the left of the screen, you’ve got a large button to jump back to the main panel and a convenient clear button to quickly delete the pattern. The speed switch will multiply your tempo by two, pushing you into those speedy zones. The split switch changes your perspective on the pattern sequencer, showing you the first half of “Sequence A” and “Sequence B” across all eight drum sounds. The two buttons marked “Seq” and “Acc” move you from the pattern sequencer into a series of switches designed to mark the velocity of each attack. The bottom of the screen mirrors the main panel, giving you access to all your patterns and tempo adjustments. With everything laid out clearly, it’s pretty easy to move your drumbeat from your head into FunkBox on the pattern editing screen.

In the top middle of the main panel, an “Edit Box” button exists, that leads you to a screen for altering the sonic contents of your drum machine. A picture of the loaded drum machine sits prominently in the middle of the screen, and once again, you have the option to switch machines. Directly below the picture, you’ve got two faders designed to help “humanize” FunkBox’s performance. The “Random Timing” fader speeds up and slows down your drumbeat spontaneously, based upon the amount of fader that you’ve pulled to the right. The “Random Vol” fader places a similar effect upon the volume of each drum, making the performance a bit less consistent. On the right hand side of the screen, there are two buttons that open some serious possibilities. The “Edit Part” button takes you to another screen where you can assign any sample to any of the twelve slots in the drum machine. Before you place it there, you can do some basic editing with two faders that allow you to alter the start and end of the sample. Once you’ve effected the sound with these two faders, you can also raise or lower the pitch of the sample. If you like the change, you can save it, and if it doesn’t sit with you, simply press the “Revert” button to return to the original sample. Back on the “Edit Box” window, the “Import Sample” button takes you a list of available samples. If you’ve got oodles of samples sitting on your desktop hard drive, you’re in luck – simply drag them into FunkBox via iTunes and you can get them hear. This opens up the possibilities of FunkBox, making it much, much more than a vintage drum machine. The customizable options of FunkBox are very powerful and take it a step beyond many other drum machine apps.

The storage and export options for collecting your FunkBox drumbeats are a wonderful combination of vintage aesthetic and modern approaches. In order to save your bank of patterns, go to the main panel and select the “Pattern Storage” button on the right hand side of the screen. Simply press the “Save” button and you’ll get an option to place your collection of patterns into one of three memory banks – A, B, or C. Name your bank of patterns and you’re ready to go. When you want to access these patterns at a later date, go back to the “Pattern Storage” page and select “Load”; you’ll see all of your saved banks, ready to make some noise. If you’ve got a golden drumbeat and you want to put it into a song, click the “Export” button on the left of the main panel. In order to work with a .wav file, press the “Record” button with the flashing red light. You’ll hear the drum beat several times, and then a .wav file will be ready to do. At this point, you can e-mail the file, copy it to the clipboard for use in another program, or ready it for iTunes export. If you want a MIDI file for use in another program, look at the bottom half of the screen labeled “MIDI File Export” and press e-mail. You’ll be able to send the MIDI file right away for use elsewhere. These easily executable pieces of FunkBox make it a fluid app that smoothly slides into your workflow.

Experience Level (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced)
While a beginner can get into FunkBox, load some sounds, and tap on the drum pads, intermediate and advanced users will really get the most out of it. When a user walks into FunkBox with some experience on pattern sequencers, drum beat creation will be incredibly intuitive and immediate. There’s a little bit of a learning curve to personalize your drum kits and import samples, but a little exploration will get an intermediate user into the mix quickly. In reality, FunkBox is so addictive that any user with some background in drum machines will be compelled to dig deeper until they’re using FunkBox at full throttle. Advanced users will find FunkBox to be a vital piece of their musical construction kit. It is CoreMIDI compatible, with a number of customizable parameters, making integration into larger professional scale projects a reality. Advanced users will be able to trigger FunkBox sounds for live performance or larger recording projects. The ability to share MIDI files created in FunkBox is useful too – create a great drumbeat on the go and then transfer it into another project. Beginners can potentially have some fun checking out the FunkBox sounds, but intermediate and advanced users will find the app quickly making its way into their workflow.

Sound Quality
FunkBox faithfully replicates a number of classic drum machine sounds, sending you on an aural journey to a past era. Working with these sounds not only brings back memories, but also makes them applicable to the digital world. They are reproduced in high quality, delivering the sounds that you know and love just the way that you remember them. In some ways, these sounds scream of certain eras, but FunkBox makes them fun. You can mix and match sounds from different drum kits, making new variations on classic sounds. FunkBox is expandable beyond the pre-loaded samples too, so if you tire of the classic drum machine sounds, bring in your own. The quality of your own samples is up to you, and you won’t be able to do much with them once you bring them into the app. FunkBox only includes very limited sample editing capabilities, so what you have is what you get. In a way, this strengthens FunkBox as an app – it doesn’t try to be everything to everybody. It’s a darn good drum machine that allows you to make great drum loops with fantastic samples. The sonic quality of FunkBox is very good and can get better through sample import, so you won’t be disappointed.

What’s It Missing?
FunkBox delivers everything that it promises; in a perfect world, there would be a few additional features that would push this app over the top. I would love to be able to alter the view of the pattern sequencer, allowing me to see all the sounds across one measure. The Split Switch is a nice feature, but since you can only see half of the measure, it’s not totally practical. I’d be happy to swipe between measures or some other manipulation; either way, it would be great to control the view. While this might not be possible on the iPhone, the iPad certainly has the screen real estate. Making this option available could also lead to patterns that last over more than 2 measures. It would be nice to break out of 4/4 and explore other time signature possibilities in FunkBox. Most musicians lean towards 4/4 when using drum machines, but FunkBox packs such a punch, it would be great to integrate it into more complex songs. I absolutely love the import sample feature, but it would be nice to grab samples from other sources. Integrating samples directly from your iPad iTunes library, audio recording apps such as FiRe 2 – field recorder, or SoundCloud would open many more artistic options. FunkBox works magically in its current state, but these wish list items would move it to the next level.

Final Thoughts
FunkBox Drum Machine is a smartly conceived drum machine that has a wealth of powerful capabilities and an extremely friendly interface. The familiar sound set sparks ideas immediately, and anyone with some drum machine experience under their belt will quickly be making music. It’s the details that make FunkBox essential though; Synthetic Bits has packed a ton of great features into the app to make it much more than a collection of classic sounds. The ability to mix and match sounds alongside same import, MIDI compatibility, and great export options are just some of the things that take FunkBox to the next level. Despite the powerful set of composition tools provided, FunkBox is aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. The look of the app truly gives the sensation of an old school drum machine and the large clearly labeled buttons make it next to impossible to get lost within the app. There’s a smart emphasis on a user-friendly experience that doesn’t dilute the music making power; rather, it enhances it. While I’ve discussed the iPad version in detail here, FunkBox is an extremely useful music construction tool on the iPhone/iPod as well. The large buttons and clear design make FunkBox easy to use on the iPhone while retaining the powerful composition features. In every form, music seems to come flowing out of FunkBox Drum Machine – this is a must-buy app that will surely enhance your music making.

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CHECK OUT THESE RELATED ARTICLES:
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Music App Review: Hokusai Audio Editor

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