There are some undeniably great music apps for the iPhone and iPad, but most of them are pretty involved and not meant for fast music creation on-the-go. Propellerhead, a Swedish music software company and the creators of Reason, saw this gap in the market and are trying to fill it with Figure. This lightweight, 99-cent app lets iPhone users of all skill levels quickly create electronic tunes with a creative interface and a huge variety of customization options. This isn't Propellerhead's first iOS app, but it's a far simpler and better-looking app than the ReBirth "micro composer."
The first thing you'll likely notice about this app is the simple and stylish interface. Instead of the faux-3D graphics that crop up in too many iOS apps, you'll find flat, Metro-styled graphics and an uncomplicated user interface. Navigation is straightforward; five tabs on the top and bottom clearly state their purpose, and transitions between each are fast and accompanied by great animations. There's tons of thoughtful graphical polish throughout, and the app never felt slow or unresponsive.
It's a challenge to make this app sound bad
The core of the Figure is built around three instruments: drums, bass, and lead. Each instrument further lets you set a pattern and "tweak" the instrument's sonic qualities. Patterns can be set with numbered circles (a recurring motif throughout the app); this essentially lets you set the ryhthm of your chosen instrument. For bass and lead, you can also set the number of "scale steps," or different pitch tones, as well as the range (how low or high your instrument can go) — and then you can play the instrument simply by sliding your finger across the screen. It's not the simplest interface to put into words, but it is incredibly easy to use, and is very hard to play badly. Tweaks are pretty straightforward — again, you can slide your finger across the screen to adjust various tonal characteristics of each instrument.
There's also a few master controls: you can set the tempo, key, and specific scales within your chosen key, all of which are applied to each instrument. There's also a basic mixing menu, which lets you adjust overall volume for each instrument, or mute it entirely. If that's not enough customization for you, each main instrument category has about 20 creatively named variations that you can access by swiping left or right across the name — it's a stunning amount of options for such a small app. You could quite easily never make the same song twice.
Speaking of songs, there are only minimal recording features in this app. Figure can record two eight-beat bars and loop them endlessly, and that's about it. However, this feature is meant more for allowing you to tweak and improvise over your basic pattern than as an actual way of archiving your creation. Once you've set a basic drum, bass, and lead pattern, you can jump into any part of the app you want and tweak your creation. Pull the drums out of the mix, adjust the filter of your lead, change keys, improvise on the melody — when you're done, you still have the basic recording for the app to revert back to.
Your creations are completely ephemeral
It's worth noting that there's no way to export or save songs — your creations are completely ephemeral. That's not really a knock against Figure; for 99 cents, it's clearly not meant for in-depth recording sessions. Still, we'd love a way to save some of our favorite creations nonetheless.
Words don't quite do this app justice; the creative and unique UI make it exceedingly fun and easy to use. There's almost no way to play it "wrong" or sound bad, and those who spend a little time learning the different sound options and features will make some great sounding tunes. For less than a buck, Figure can be a great time-waster as well as a deeply involved music-making experience.