About 10 years ago I had a fairly powerful Macintosh laptop (*a 540c if memory serves), a copy of Cubase (professional level music sequencing software), a MIDI interface kludge, a couple of drum pads and an Akai 2000 sampler. Off the top of my head that little lot probably set me back around $10,000 and took up half of a room! Fast forward to today and NanoStudio for iPhone promises pretty much everything I had back then, on a device that fits in my pocket, all for less than $15 and the price of my iPhone – which I had anyway! Does NanoStudio live up to the hype? I was very keen to find out and hope to take you on my journey of discovery in this review.
I purposely fired up NanoStudio without looking at any more than the screen shots and promotional blur on iTunes. If you want to do your homework on this app the links to Blip Interactive’s web site are at the bottom of the review. Their website is a wealth of resources, including free samples a full manual, and a few other treats I touch on further down the review.
The moment you fire up NanoStudio you immediately feel that you are getting into a different class of iOS app. It takes a little while to actually start up the app the first time. But throughout the process an understated loading bar and nicely presented text info flashes details of an impressive number of files it is installing. Once that is done you are presented with a beautifully rendered keyboard, and a synth control panel that will make you feel right at home if you’ve ever dabbled with real electronic instruments.
The overriding design for the User Interface for NanoStudio’s instruments is very much the digital instrument version of Apple’s more acoustic and homely flavoured GarageBand look and feel.
When you first start using NanoStudio it is very easy to feel a little lost, and if I had one criticism of the app it would be that finding your way around, and finding the included documentation is a little non-obvious for the first hour or so. Having said that this is not GarageBand; it is a much more serious stab at music making on iOS. The manual is available as a PDF on the developers web site, and you really should download it and read it to get the most out of this package. Even though poking around and discovering stuff yourself is also great fun. To be fair the app does actually pop up a dialog telling you how to get help on specific controls when the app first loads. I was just too excited to pay attention and clicked through; forgetting instantly what it had said. And then I was a little lost – initially.
Being a bit overwhelmed by this app is in some ways a blessing and an adventure at the same time. Very quickly I was an hour or so into using NanoStudio and still delighted to be discovering new basic features – and making some cool sounds. Initially I was very excited by the different effect boxes, and keyboard controls I had for choosing voices, setting up arpeggios, and pitch bending or overdriving really great sounding synth voices. Soon after that I discovered the settings which enable you to change the waveform of the instrument you are using, and later still the excellent pair of X/Y controllers – kind of like pitch benders and filters on steroids! The X/Y pads (named because movements in their X and Y axis affect the synth’s sound) are touch sensitive and can even be patched into the accelerometer of your iPhone to free up your fingers for other tasks.
All of this variety of control panels is accessible by tapping little arrow buttons at the edge of the screen to make new synth control panels smoothly glide into view on the top half of the screen. With this method of navigation it is very easy to imagine that my iPhone 4’s screen is a window through which you peek at different panels of an instrument, which is actually the physical size of a 17″ monitor.
My next discovery was that I could have an upper and lower deck mini keyboard on screen, and also cycle through upper, middle and lower portions of a full keyboard to have more musical range for playing riffs on. The split keyboard is a great way to play two very different parts of a track at the same time. Let’s say you are laying a bass track, you slide in the lowest keyboard section you can. Conversely for a lead voice track you might use the same or a different instrument or sample in a different octave range. All of this is available to you on a single iPhone 4 screen which simply scrolls units and keyboards in and out of view with a single tap, as and when you need them.
Each panel will allow you quick access to virtual sliders, knobs, buttons, and switches arranged for each contextual panel related to voice banks, filter settings and so forth. When I was a kid my Dad had to bring most of the music gear home for the weekend from the school he taught at for me to have this kind of diversity of music making equipment in one place at the same time.
By now I was already seriously impressed with what NanoStudio offered. But I hadn’t even opened up the box of additional tricks this app presents you with once you go into the Main Menu. The Main Menu button is a very unassuming nub at the top left of the screen. In here alongside LED monitors showing each instruments current playing level and giving me the ability to jump to each instrument quickly, I also found a complete digital manual for the app, and in that I discovered I actually had 4 separate analogue subtractive synths, and two 16 button Trigger Pads. And that all those instruments could be blended and routed via a multi-track mixing deck, each with their own chance of grabbing some 48 polyphonic notes, and even feeding their sounds back into the mix, or through filters, so that I could build my composition using layered samples of my own work – as well as digital synth voices and sample packs in the apps storage banks.
The Trigger Pads come with a heap of classic samples, like an 808 set for example. And the Eden Keyboards come with both synthesised sounds and the capability to play samples. I also noticed that on Blip Interactive’s website for NanoStudio they have a partnership with LoopMasters, which enables you to download some additional free samples to augment the already comprehensive set that is included. Not only that but NanoStudio has a companion app for the PC or OS X which allows you to sync and upload sample files and songs to NanoStudio on your iOS device. It works seamlessly over your Wifi network, with a little app on your laptop which you can drag and drop sound files to. In NanoStudio meanwhile there is an auto-connecting panel in that tells you how the connection is, and helps you with connection issues – of which I had none.
The array of import and compatibility options that NanoStudio provides is also impressive. It can not only expert your songs and instrument setups, but import both from other sources too. On top of that it has a full MIDI control panel and functionality. You also have the ability to switch banks of samples and instruments in and out of the app, as well as duplicating them and then saving song specific instrument bundles. If you are a budding digital “muso” I can’t help but think that you’d be impressed by what you’ve heard up until now. I was, and there is so much I am unable to cover in this review.
Everything I have described so far is presented through a super responsive, stunningly rendered interface that seems devoid of any requirement for unnecessary clicks or navigation taps, and seems to do exactly what you want when you want. It seems very much like this app was designed by a person who really uses both the app itself often, and studio gear on a regular basis. In short it is my absolute favourite iOS app to date.
NanoStudio stays true to one of the overriding tenets and oft quoted sound bytes that people associate with Apple and iOS. It “Just Works”. During my time with this app, so far, I have had no issues, no glitches, and no bugs – and the UI is as smooth as butter. The developer himself, in an interview around the time of the app’s original launch, said that he felt the GUI was not as pretty as it could be. But I think he is wrong. It satisfies my need to feel that I am in a grown up music app – and not a toy – perfectly.
But the “Pièce de résistance” in NanoStudio I have yet to describe. It is hidden away under an unassuming button, just next to the Mixer and Manage buttons in the Main Menu. The Manage button is the one that access the “mother-load” of options for setup and connectivity in NanoStudio by the way. But that other button I was referring to is the “Song” button. Once you tap that you are instantly transported into a full screen GUI which features a multi-touch 6 track sequencer. The depth that this touch driven sequencer offers rivals the layout and functionality of the best mobile-app spreadsheets, the latest iteration of GarageBand and even the last copy of Cubase I remember using. Cubase, the developer says was one of his inspirations for NanoStudio.
Briefly the multitrack sequencer in NanoStudio allows you to pinch zoom, scroll, edit, select, copy, paste and even draw note by note into the digital score of your song. And when you play a track you can zoom in and out, or follow along any individual track, and even edit loops as they play. Copying, and sliding music loops around on a digital score is a breeze on the iPhone’s touch interface.
Once you’ve delved this deep into NanoStudio you start to make connections in your mind. OK, so there are 4 Eden Keyboards, and they each have their own channels which feed into the mixer, and all this feeds through various recording methods into a full multi-track sequencer – with individual channel level control, master volume, panning and even two additional special effects units for the final output. Alongside all of that you have a dreamy multi-track sequencer with an incredible GUI. And you can switch between all of these modules, all of the time seamlessly, while you are playing, editing or recording tracks.
Zooming back out for a moment. Once I had discovered the sequencer in NanoStudio I also found the options to load and save tracks – and located the app’s demo tracks. All of which can actually be loaded very quickly. A fairly basic tune is already the current project when you start NanoStudio for the first time. And you can play it by simply hitting the play button on the front screen of the app – something I admit I missed through my own lack of observation skills! Firing that up is a very good way to then see how all the layers of NanoStudio work together. You can switch from keyboard, to Trigger Pads, to sequencer and mixing deck, and watch keys being played, effects being changed, Trigger Pads being hit, and the track progressing against a time line.
To actually produce a piece of music on NanoStudio live is probably something that would take a lot of confidence and familiarity with the User Interface. But it is most certainly possible, and would be a doddle once you’ve spent some time with this app. Which is a pleasure!
But then again, NanoStudio is ahead of the curve here too. You can both record and mix live, but at the same time you can also sample your own track components, edit them note by note in the sequencer, or even draw a note sequence with your finger. You can even sample your own sounds via the iPhones mic, as well as your own tracks, and then load them as samples for your Trigger Pads or your keyboards.
And all the time this editing of your track is backed up with an incredibly fine grained undo framework. You can both delete individual notes, choose a point in a recently done list to fall back to, or undo an entire live performance section; live performance sections can be segmented at any point you wish by simply starting and stopping a new recording sequence. The options are seemingly unlimited, and very obviously designed by someone who wants maximum flexibility from their work environment and has covered all the bases I can think of. Bravo!
Those of you that occasionally check my Twitter feed will already know how I feel about NanoStudio. But if you still need convincing then you can even download a free version of the app to try out on OS X or a Windows PC, for free.
For those wanting the exact specs of this digital musical studio and its instruments, all the details you require are right here.
I cannot recommend NanoStudio highly enough. If you are someone who loves making music, and has the patience to learn how to use a very good, fully featured music creation app then this is simply the best product on the market for any mobile device today. I am so looking forward to the next time I can spend some quality time with this app, and am even trying to concoct some business trips so I can be alone with it in an airport and on a plane and see what I can come up with.
The only caveat I would make where NanoStudio is concerned is that if you prefer the kind of simple organic music making that is part of apps like ThumbJam (also an amazing app by the way) then NanoStudio may go a little too deep for you.
- Feature Level of the Keyboards.
- User Interface is dreamy; The best I have seen on any serious iOS app.
- Incredibly Versatile and well implemented Multi-track GUI based editing of songs.
- Live Recording as well as single step editing.
- Sample editing and importing.
- MIDI support, and import / export support.
$14.99 (View in iTunes)
Updated: Feb 06, 2011
Current Version: 1.13
Size: 69.0 MB
Seller: Blip Interactive Ltd
© 2010 Blip Interactive Ltd.
Requirements: Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.2 or later
*It is worth reflecting on the fact that the resolution on my iPhone 4 screen is higher than that of my PowerBook 540c at the time, which was 640×400!