Make Music is FACT’s new section devoted to making music anywhere, whether you’re a seasoned producer or a total novice, using an arsenal of analog gear or just your iPhone.
There may be a time when you find yourself separated from your familiar tools with a musical itch to scratch. Scott Wilson picks some of the best drum machines, synths and samplers you can use by loading up a web browser.
Web browsers have come a long way since the dark days of Internet Explorer. You may not know it, but your browser is now a surprisingly powerful tool for musicians thanks to the Web Audio API, a system that usurps dated Flash plug-ins and allows developers to build synths and other musical tools.
As long as you have access to an up-to-date browser (preferably Google Chrome),you can create a drum loop, make chiptune music or bang out some acid house. The dream of making music on our lunch break, during lessons or even when we’re supposed to be working is very much a reality.
But where to begin? This list selects some of the web’s most fun, innovative and useful browser instruments to play with, no matter what your ability, from replicas of classic drum machines to quick and easy samplers.
If the idea of making music on a computer makes you anxious, Google’s Chrome Music Lab is the place to start. The art style is cutesy verging on nauseating, but the Lab is actually a very sophisticated teacher of many of electronic music’s basic concepts. It’ll show you how to sequence melodies, play basic chords and lay down a drum beat, and tell you the difference between different oscillators – essential for creating synth patches. Thirty minutes with this and a beginner could open Ableton Live and have enough of an idea of all the core concepts to get started.
Novation’s Launchpad is one of the most ubiquitous MIDI controllers on the market.There’s a standard version, a pro version and an iOS app, but for those times when you’re stuck at work, there’s a browser version you can use on the sly. It’s limited to just one set of samples, but if you want an introduction to making music with loops (a key part of Ableton Live, GarageBand and lots of other software, it’s a very straightforward way to get started. If you own a physical version of the controller, you can control the session with that as well.
Samplers are the ideal kind of instrument for browsers, because a computer keyboard is closer to an MPC than a synth panel or even a keyboard. Sampulator is the easiest sampler you can possibly find; it comes with a full set of percussion, keys, guitar and vocals already loaded, cutting out the expense of buying a second-hand Akai unit and removing the hassle of having to prepare your own samples. Hit record, and you can build up a whole song track by track and save it. If the sounds are too limited, you can buy more. There’s even a DJ Khaled sample on board, if you feel like finding your own major key.
If you’ve used a Novation Launchpad, Ableton Push or even a Monome, Patternsketch will be instantly recognisable. The interface features eight lines of eight pads, each of which can be turned off or on to trigger a percussive sound. You can set your beat anywhere between 16 and 64 steps, allowing you to create simple or incredibly complex loops using one of nine different kits, two of which are based on the classic TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines. It’s pretty much foolproof to use, and you can export the audio when you’re finished to use in your own software.
Even if you don’t know a square wave from a sawtooth, it’s easy to make sounds using Pixelsynth. It’s a visual synth that turns any image into sound; simply select one of the included templates or upload your own, hit play, and the cursor will travel across the screen playing notes as it hits the white parts of the monochrome image. It’s not a tool for creating melodies or chords, but if you want to make glitchy, Raster-Noton style tones with mathematical precision, it’s a better (and easier) tool for the job than most expensive plug-ins.
Good emulations of Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines aren’t difficult to get hold of thanks to the company’s TR-8 and TR-09 models, but you can never have too much of a good thing. The HTML-808 and HTML-909 are the best browser-based versions on the web, replicating the simplicity of the original models while adding a few features that make them a little more user-friendly. There are controls for tuning, decay and volume, and you can switch easily between four patterns. They don’t sound as good as the originals and there’s no way to export your sounds, but if you feel like sketching out a beat, they’re perfect.
If you want a simple drum machine that isn’t a Roland, load up WebX0X. It’s only got four drum sounds to choose from, but the amount of control you get over each channel is beyond what you’d get on some physical gear or plug-in software. It’s more of a drum synth than drum machine,allowing you to change the waveform of each oscillator, add noise, and tweak filters, amplitude and pitch to shape the drums to the sound you want. If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, you can choose from lots of different kits uploaded by WebX0X’s small but dedicated community.
Making acid house, whether it’s with a real TB-303, replica or plug-in, is one of the most satisfying things you can do with a spare 10 minutes. For those not lucky enough to live a 24/7 studio existence, there’s Acid Machine. Incorporating two mono synths and a simple drum machine,it’s more similar to Roland’s all-in-one MC-303 groovebox than the real TB-303, but it’s one of the most powerful browser instruments on the web. As well as a randomise button for instant acid, there’s an Ableton-style sequencer window, the option to flip between sawtooth and square waves, and knobs for tweaking cutoff and resonance to get that all-important squelch.
Chiptune synths and apps are easy to find, but software that specifically emulates the Commodore 64’s SID sound chip is rare. WebSID is a Chrome plug-in tthat will give you the video game sounds of the early ‘80s computer in your browser, going so far as to replicate the distinctive arpeggio sounds heard in games such as Last Ninja, Dizzy and Bubble Bobble, offering full control over the synth’s envelope, filter and echo. You can also record it and share your creation direct to social media. In short, a dream toy for retro video game fans.
WebModular looks incredibly basic, but what it gives you is a working version of a modular synthesiser in your browser, patch cables included. Featuring all the elements required to create a basic electronic tone and twist it into strange shapes, WebModular allows you to link each module with virtual cables, modify pitch, frequency and tone, experiment with shaping envelopes and more. If you have no idea what any of this means and just want a preset, there are plenty of basic patches you can load that make it easy for you.
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