iPhone Music App Tutorial: Making Drum Beats With Figure

by chip on April 19, 2012

When Propellerhead released their high profile iPhone app Figure, the iOS music making world collectively held their breath in anticipation.  The software manufacture became a favorite in the world of electronic music production years ago, with their ground breaking software Reason and everyone hoped that they would deliver in the same way with Figure.  Once the world got a chance to spend some time with Figure, the reaction was mixed – some folks lamented the lack of a Reason like interface while other reveled in the accessible and addictive nature of the app.  One thing was certain though, when Figure hit the App Store, the world stood up and took notice as a blizzard of publicity furiously spun around the app.  There was definitely a love-hate relationship happening with Figure in the iOS music making community, but the greater public absolutely loved the app.  It’s hard not to like Figure – despite its shortcomings, it make music making incredibly intuitive and if you look under the hood a bit, it’s actually got some horsepower.  With that in mind, we’re going to spend some time looking at how Figure works in this series, starting with drum beat creation.  

Setting Up For Drum Beats
The first step in making music with Figure is the creation of a solid drum beat, so let’s start by getting the app set-up for drum kit work.  Press the button labeled “PATTERN” in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, making sure that you’re in the pattern editing view.  This window is where you’ll write your parts, regardless of which of Figure’s three tracks you’re structuring.  In the upper right-hand corner of the screen you’ll see three buttons title drums, bass, and lead.  Notice the color coding here – drums are blue, bass is red, and lead is yellow, a fact that will extend to your work in other areas of the app. Press the button titled “DRUM” and you’ll arrive at a screen with a patch title, four large circles, and four blue strips on the lower part of the screen.  When you see this screen on your phone, you’re ready to make a drum beat on Figure.

Loading A Drum Patch
You’ve got some choices for your basic drum sounds that you’ll use for your drum beat creation.  Directly above the three circles in the middle of the screen you’ll see a name – this is the preset that is currently loaded into the Figure drum track.  As you’ll find out, you’re dealing with some high quality sounds – these are presets ported over from the Kong Drum Machine found in Reason 6.  While the Kong device found on the desktop certainly offers you far more sounds and sonic manipulation options, Figure delivers13 of those high quality core drum sounds.  In order to check out those different sounds, simply swipe the name to the left or the right and you’ll see different patches appear.  Reason users will recognize many of these names – “Animal,” “Elektro,” “Glitch,” “Hornstull,” “Klonkotron,” “Mansion,” “Maskin,” “Northeast,” “Old School,” “Studio,” “TR-BOB,” “Technologic,” and “Urban.”  Scroll through the drum sounds until you find one that you want to try and then move on.  

Individual Drum Sounds
Within those presets, you’ve got access to four different drum sounds, which are represented by the circles in the middle of the screen and the blue lines at the bottom of the screen. While the blue lines sit on the screen without any description, the circles each have the name of the sound listed below them.  The sounds change as you move between patches, but generally the bass drum sound is on the far left, the snare drum sound is just to the right of that, the high hats set third to the left, and a sound effect is in the fourth strip.  Unfortunately, you don’t have any control over the selection of the sounds in each circle – what you see is what you get.  You do have the core sounds that you need to create a solid drum beat though, so you’re ready to start making some music.

Triggering The Drum Sounds
Triggering drum sounds in Figure is a combination of touching the blue strips and checking out the number in the circles.  If you place your finger on any of the blue strips directly below the circles the corresponding sound will start playing.  You won’t just hear a single attack though; Figure will start playing a rhythmic pattern based on the number in the corresponding circle.  The number tells you how many attacks will be in one measure. For example, if the number is set to 2 In the circle above the bass drum, then you will get two bass drum attacks in one measure.  An even number will give you even distributed attacks across the measure while an odd number will break up the rhythm differently. Once again, you don’t have control over where Figure places the attacks within the measure, but for the most part, the app makes pretty logical and musical choices.  Take a minute to try triggering the four different sounds by pressing the blue lines and see how they correspond to the number in the circles.

Assigning Attacks To Each Track
You can manipulate the drum beat playback by changing the number within the circle, which will result in a different number of attacks.  Choose one circle, put your finger on it, and then drag it up; as you do this, the number will rise.  If you put your finger on the circle and drag it down the number will decrease.  You’re working with a maximum subdivision of sixteenth notes, so you can change the number to anything between one and 16 attacks per measure.  Making alterations to the number in each of the four circles can result in a variety of different drum beats – take some time to experiment with changes in attacks and playback.

Adding Your Own Flavor
If you’re not happy with any of the predetermined number of attacks, then you can choose to disregard the preset patterns completely and create your own original pattern.  Press the button above the track and drag your finger all the way down; the circle should now read “OFF.”  When you press the blue strip below that circle now, you’ll only hear one attack.   Each time that you continue to press the track you’ll get another attack. It’s now just a drum pad that will be triggered by your finger.  You can turn all four tracks to the “OFF” position and simply create your own drumbeat from scratch.  You can also turn some of the tracks to the “OFF” position and leave others assigned to a number, allowing you to create unique combinations.  Utilizing the “OFF” position on the tracks opens up your possibilities when creating drum beats in Figure.

Changing The Tone Of Your Drums
Notice that the blue strip has a wide amount of space where you can tap for attacks – the vertical placement of your tap will give you a distinctly different sound.   The top of the blue line gives you a louder attack equalized with an emphasis upon the high end and a health helping of reverb.  Tapping the bottom of the line softens the attack, emphasizes the low end and delivers an effect free tone.  Finding a placement between the two extremes moderates the amount of these changes that you’ll hear on the sound as you tap the line.  You can mix and match the placement of your taps to change the sound over the course of your beat or try to remain fairly consistent.  Precise placement of your attacks in the blue lines gets easier if you move your phone into landscape view; when you do this, the four blue lines will take up the entirety of the screen.  It’s nice to have some sonic variety in your drumbeats though, so take some time to practice playing drumbeats on Figure, nailing your desired tone as you play.

Finding The Record Controls
Once you’ve worked out your drum beat, you’re ready to start checking out the record function.  The record and playback controls are located in the upper left hand corner of the screen, where you’ll see a button with a dot and the word “REC” as well as a button with a triangle.  The “REC” button will trigger the start of the record cycle, which will continue until you press the same button a second time.  The triangle button will allow you to listen to the playback of your drum beat after you’re done recording; once again, the press the button a second time to stop the playback.  Across the top of the screen, there’s a series of white marks across a black line that act as your timeline.  The timeline consists of two measures; you can see a large white mark in the middle of the timeline that represents the division between the two beats.  On either side of the large white mark, you’ll see three smaller white marks which symbolize the placement of each beat.  Once you start recording, you’re limited to capturing a total of two measures, so this timeline will cover your complete recording.  These two key areas will be your focus points as you start recording with Figure, so it’s good to have a handle on them. 

Recording A Drum Beat
Once you’ve oriented yourself with the record controls, it’s time to get some drum beats into the app.  Press the “REC” button and you’ll hear a clicking metronome defining each beat and see a red line start to move across the timeline.  Once the red line reaches the end of the timeline, it will jump back to the beginning, allowing for a loop while you record.  Two additional buttons will also appear below the record controls – a button labeled “ERASE MODE” and another one entitled “REVERT.”  At this point, any attack that you trigger with the blue lines will be recorded.  After the red line cycles back through the timeline a second time, you’ll hear anything that you’ve already recorded.  You can still record additional attacks on top of this; just press anywhere on the blue lines while the playback continues.  If you enter something into the recording but quickly have second thoughts, simply press the “REVERT” button and your recording will disappear.  Once you’ve got some something you like, simply press the “REC” button one more time and Figure will stop capturing your drum beat.

Using Erase Mode
There’s not a whole lot of fine editing available in Figure, but you can make some minor adjustments using “ERASE MODE.”  this will allow you to take pieces out of your recording without eliminating the whole thing.  Getting started with “ERASE MODE” requires you to activate recording, so start the process by pressing the “REC” button in the upper left hand side of the screen.  At this point, touching any of the four blue lines will add another attack to your recording, so don’t tap the blues lines just yet.  Directly below the record controls, you’ll see a button labeled “ERASE MODE” – press that button while the recording continues to play.  Tapping on a blue line at the same point as a programmed attack will now clear the recording at that point in time.  You can also hold your finger down on one of the blue lines for an extended time, clearing the recording through that whole space in time.  Any “erasing” that you do with your finger will only effect that one blue line that you are touching; all the other programmed sounds will continue.  Once you’ve deleted everything that you want to eliminate, press the “ERASE MODE” button one more time – you’ll leave “ERASE MODE,” but you’ll still be in record mode, so tapping the blue lines will add an attack.  If you’d like to completely step way from any editing, press the “REC” button one more time.

Listening Back To Your Final Product
Now that you’ve captured a drum beat and done some rudimentary editing, you’re ready for some listening.  Press the triangle button in the upper left hand corner to start drum beat playback; once you do this, you’ll hear the fruits of your labor.  When you’re ready to stop the playback, simply press the button one more time and the playback will stop.  Unfortunately, you can’t export your drum beat, so you’re limited in the way that you can use them; at least you can listen through playback.  

Opening Your Sonic Horizons
Figure delivers the possibility of quickly and easily creating some dynamic and funky drum beats that use high quality sounds.  The interface is undeniably intuitive; after a few minutes, you’ll be knocking out some pretty cool stuff.  At the same time, you can add quite a bit of detail to your drum beats by paying close attention to some of the finer details of the app.  Altering the amount of attacks that each instrument plays provides some strong variety; if you add your own combinations by setting some circles to “OFF,” you’ll find even more creative options.  Thinking about the vertical placement of your fingers on the blue lines will alter your tone; combining a different placement on each blue line will open the sonic horizons of your music tremendously.  When you dig deeply into Figure, you’ll see the a wealth of options for drum beats, fueling your creative energy tremendously.  Come back soon when we take another look at Figure, focusing on bass line and lead synth creation.  

Figure has certainly provoked some deep opinions in the iOS music community, but there’s no denying the fact that it holds some nice potential for music making. Have you dug into the art of making drum beats on Figure? What has your experience been making beats with this app? We’d love to hear your thoughts – LEAVE A COMMENT below and let us know what you think of making drum beats with Figure.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mike August 14, 2012 at 6:52 pm

I really like this app once I figured out using it, I generally like recording live jams into an external mic connected to my other idevice


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