Ampify has created some of the most popular music-making apps on iOS. Following the success of Launchpad and Blocs Wave, the UK team has introduced a new app for iPhone and iPad, which shuns a sample-based approach for a suite of virtual instruments. Will Groovebox allow producers to get rid of their laptops? Scott Wilson reviews the intriguing new app.
For all its power as a music-making platform, iOS has still to receive anything that can match the all-in-one power and experience of a desktop studio like Ableton Live. There a few options out there, but for the most part they try to replicate the desktop experience too literally (Korg Gadget) or have an interface suited to the mobile format without the advanced sound-shaping options experienced producers crave (Auxy). Hitting that sweet spot in the middle has been difficult, but Groovebox – the latest app from Novation’s breakaway iOS team – has the potential to be one of the best attempts yet.
Groovebox is the third app from Ampify (formerly known as Blocs) after Launchpad for iOS, based on Novation’s popular grid-based MIDI controller, and Blocs Wave, an easy-to-pick-up app based around a unique hexagonal interface. Both of these apps are easy to lean and simple to use, but they’re also limited by the fact they rely on samples. Groovebox takes a different approach, offering three different instruments (a drum machine and two synths) with the traditional piano roll sequencer view that you’d find on Logic or Ableton Live.
Groovebox is free to download, but as is often the case, the best bits are locked behind optional in-app purchases. Functions such as sample cutting and effects for the drum machine, the LFO section of the mono synth and envelope controls for the poly synth cost $4.99 to activate – bringing the total closer to $15. That’s before you’ve purchased any of the additional drum sounds and synth presets that Ampify is promising to release in the future.
“Groovebox hits just the right balance between pick-up-and-play accessibility and something a bit deeper”
However, the free version allows you to play with the app’s three core instruments: Drumbox, a sampling drum machine that’s loosely based on Akai’s MPC; Retrobass, a Moog-style monosynth; and Poly-8, a polysynth that looks a lot like Roland’s classic Jupiter-8. To start making a track, you load one or more of each instrument, select a preset (which also drops a pre-made pattern in for you) and press play. The three-instrument setup is a lot like of Allihoopa’s Figure app (which is possibly still the best use of the iPhone’s format in a pick-up-and-play music app).
If you want to go deeper, then you can delete the ready-made pattern and write your own. There are two ways to do this: hit record and jam it out, or press a button and flip to the piano roll mode, where you can arrange notes on a grid, just like you would with Ableton Live. Both modes change based on what musical key is selected, so it’s impossible to hit or sequence a wrong note, and the inclusion of both options strikes a nice balance between accessibility and the experience of a traditional DAW.
Drumbox is probably the most basic of the three instruments, with a collection of drum kits that include vintage-inspired hip-hop, commercial trap, big-room techno, classic house and more. However, Retrobass and Poly-8 are really impressive, clearly laid-out synths that most people will be able to pick up in just a few minutes, while the presets are a great mix of mainstream-ready sounds and esoteric analog weirdness. While Blocs Wave and Launchpad are hampered by some cheesy sounds, you can imagine using Groovebox for making almost any kind of music.
However, in its free-to-play form, Groovebox is a vanilla experience. You get access to some basic parameters in the free version: a filter and pitch control in Drumbox, distortion, glide, delay, resonance and filter on Poly-8, and wave shape, distortion, pitch and filter on Retrobass. However, if you pay $4.99 to fully unlock each instrument you get options that you’d expect to see on the real-word equivalents of these instruments, dramatically improving the amount of control (and fun) you can have.
Expanding Drumbox allows you to modify the length of the sample waveform. This lets you create clipped drum sounds that will be perfect for anyone wanting something more experimental (though you can’t modify the sample’s starting point – only the finish – which limits it somewhat). There’s also stereo panning, volume, pitch and delay controls for each individual drum sound, so you can better tailor your mix. However, variables including reverb, distortion and filter can only be applied to the whole loop, which limits its potential.
Retrobass’s expansion offers much more hands-on control. It allows you to tweak the two oscillators individually (the global pitch and shape controls only tweak osciallator one) and gives you more control over the filter – instead of just modifying the frequency, you can add resonance and modulate the LFO and envelope. There’s also a full ADSR envelope control and delay control, but the best part is the LFO, which is capable of creating some incredible satisfying wobbles and pulsating leads.
The additional controls for Poly-8 are along the same lines as Retrobass, but with the addition of a reverb control for making chords sound even bigger. The synths have been developed in conjunction with Novation and the sound design potential is great as a result: both Retrobass and Poly-8 are capable of the kind of thick, lush sounds you might expect from Novation’s Ultranova synth, though anyone hoping for the kind of detail heard on Novation’s new Peak synth will be disappointed.
While Groovebox’s instruments are surprisingly flexible on the surface, the sequencer is little limited in functionality. For example, there’s no way to zoom in or out of the piano roll view using the pinch gesture, meaning you have to drag your finger across if the loop is longer than one bar. As a result, the piano roll is more useful for light editing as opposed to laying out whole loops. Also, each loop can only be eight bars long, which further limits the app’s track building capabilities. It’s fine if you just want to make a simple beat, but if you like more complexity you’ll hit a wall pretty fast.
Another issue with the piano roll comes when you want to change note velocity. There are three settings (soft, normal and loud), but there’s currently no way to change this once the note’s been set. Instead, you have to choose the velocity setting, then draw the note in, meaning you have to delete the note if you want to make any changes. It’s also impossible to record automation at the moment, which is a major omission. The app can export loops to Ableton Live, but it’s disappointing that you can’t yet capture all the oscillations and modulations when you bounce tracks down.
Issues like this mean that Groovebox currently falls short of being the full desktop music experience some might be hoping for. It’s what the name suggests: an easy, hands-on app for jamming out beats – not a suite for building polished tracks. However, Ampify was able to confirm to me over email that an improved velocity function is coming soon, with automation recording also on the team’s hit list. Ampify was a little more cagey on whether it’s planning a a “pinch to zoom” function, but it has a long history of listening to its users and making improvements to Blocs Wave and Launchpad.
Overall, these small issues don’t detract from what’s an otherwise fantastic app. Groovebox already offers more creative control than Launchpad or Blocs Wave, and the instruments are among the best I’ve used on iOS, as long as you’re willing to pay a little extra. It hits just the right balance between pick-up-and-play accessibility and something a bit deeper, and anyone who’s outgrown Blocs Wave will love it. It’s not the finished article yet, but there’s a strong foundation for Ampify to build on. Within a year, I suspect its popularity will have surpassed both Launchpad and Blocs Wave.
Groovebox is available now from the App Store
Scott Wilson is on Twitter