SongForm Rhythm Tracks” from Alive Drumming – Review and Comparison

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SongForm Rhythm Tracks

SongForm Rhythm Tracks” is a mobile Musician’s App with high-quality rhythmic backing that’s now available on the Apple iOS App Store

Alive Drumming Organisation has brought musicians production-quality rhythmic backing, in it’s most convenient form – a mobile App with a simple interface to select, download and play Alive Drumming’s “SongForm Rhythm Tracks”.

SongForm Rhythm Tracks are a new type of backing track composed entirely of rhythmic backing (no melody or harmony) arranged to the musical form of the song a.k.a. it’s “SongForm”. (SongForm in this capitalisation refers to Alive Drumming’s own specialised use of the term “song form” including its naming scheme and their alternative stick notation – see later)

These tracks are complete performances similar to what we expect from a professional drummer. They have a count-in, introduction section, multiple choruses and characteristic endings, all framed with the fills to delineate the start and end of musical sections. The mobile product design emphasizes providing this level of arrangement without a typical arranger’s interface thereby keeping the interface simple and track selection efficient.  One can select a track easily in under 30 seconds, and under 15 seconds once you get the hang of it.

The App includes a player with some precise tempo variation and a basic setlist facility to sequence the tracks for your gig or jam session. Its targeted to musicians of all abilities. For new musicians, the App easily provides an accompaniment to songs they learn with a rhythm that’s sympathetic to the song so that they learn to keep time right from the start and benefit from engaging and inspiring rhythms. Also, gigging musicians can catalogue and play these rhythmic backing tracks in a performance context. It is a real convenience to have great quality rhythmic backing with a setlist facility and a musician’s player, all in the one App.

A “Musician’s Player”: What’s that? One that automatically dims the screen, plays in the background, has good-sized buttons and allows you to change the volume with the device’s physical buttons. Yes, all of that, but this player also spells out on the screen the musical form of the track such as “4 choruses of 32 bars of std. AABA form (8|8/8|8) with no intro’ and 4-Bar ending”, and provides visual tracking of it as it plays it.  This is the information that musicians want right before they are about to play a track.   So, if they start to lose their place a bit a quick glance at the display will likely get them back “on track” again.

There’s a huge number of rhythms to select from (in the thousands) and endless SongForms for your tracks. Once requested, the download can take a few minutes to arrive before it’s on your device for playing.  Alive Drumming grants the user rights to remix the track so they can transfer it to a computer using iTunes file sharing and then include it into their own compositions and album releases.

What sets SongForm Rhythm Tracks apart?

1. Selection Over Sequencing:   The choice of selecting the SongForm by name, or by using stick notation, over providing a sequencing interface is an innovation that hasn’t been seen before and one that gives this App its character.  It does mean that the musician will need to know the musical form of the song they are going to play, but one could argue how could they not know that? The musician might not be familiar with the naming being used but the App, when using a SongForm name, strives to also provide a description with the stick-notation, so when one selects, “32-bar AABA”, it get’s displayed as “32 bars of std. AABA form (8|8/8|8)”. In fact, SongForm names do not have to be used at all, one can also select “8|8/8|8” and get the same description displayed, “32 bars of std. AABA form (8|8/8|8)”.   Additionally, the App provides a flexible facility for musicians to define their own SongForm, allowing for highly complex user-defined forms.  If all of that isn’t enough to ensure selecting SongForm is made as easy as possible the App also includes a “Song name –> SongForm” sharing engine, so if your song name has had its SongForm shared before you will be able to simply populate it with a single keypress.

2. A focus on high-quality, complete, production-ready tracks rather than drum loops:  Alive drumming doesn’t provide a sequencing interface, so there are no drum loops.  Instead, there is a simple selection interface to specify (i) the SongForm and (ii) the rhythm.  This means there’s never visibility of track fragments or sampling part of a track.  It’s a complete track from count-in through to ending or nothing at all.  Looping isn’t even provided in the player interface.   It’s clear that all the way this App is about high-quality, complete, production-ready tracks.  It’s for professional musicians and discerning amateurs.  It’s not a toy, it just gives us the most fun we’ve had in a long time.

3. It’s a client-server solution:  Alive Drumming’s back-end servers have done the sequencing and audio production delivering the completed SongForm Rhythm Track to the mobile device. This is not the approach taken by other Apps that do benefit from everything being within the App, either using bespoke loops or using iOS’ general midi sounds.   This does mean that with the SongForm Rhythm Tracks solution one has to wait for the download to complete, but this allows for higher-quality and greater selection of audio tracks from the server.

4. A musician-friendly interface from selection to performance:  Finally, the whole user-experience is unashamedly “musician-friendly” adopting standard iOS features such as tables and pickers rather than esoteric design and sequencing interfaces.  It’s been designed by musicians for musicians: Your grandmother should be able to use this App.  Having efficient interfaces to specify a track is important to musicians.  They are playing new tracks all the time and don’t want to be wasting playing-time sequencing drum loops – so much so that I suspect the vast majority of musicians never do sequence drum loops – it’s too much effort.  However, taking 15 secs to specify your next track is a totally different prospect.   It’s the same with the player.  Again, it’s important to musicians (performing or practising)  that the player is easy to use – read large buttons – and has the musical structure of the track displayed, not an album cover.  Finally, musicians need setlist facilities integrated with the player.   They need to be able to order their tracks, easily adding and removing tracks across multiple setlists.   These are core features that make a difference to musicians.    All these aspects combined make this App dead easy for musicians to prepare, practice and perform setlists of exceptional quality.

How does SongForm Rhythm Tracks App compare with the competition?

There are alternatives to SongForm Rhythm Tracks.

(i) Same High Quality, More Flexibility, Higher Price, Less Convenience:   Procuring and learning sophisticated workstation tooling for professional musicians to create high-quality backing music.  This has the same great audio quality with undoubtedly more features and flexibility but will take considerably more time (around 30 minutes) to create a new track using sequencing software, render it to audio, tagging that audio and transferring it to a mobile device for practicing, playing or performing using standard music players such as Apple’s ‘Music’ App.  You gain in compositional features and flexibility but lose out on convenience – particularly in the setlists and player.

(ii) Less Quality,  Lower Price, Different Convenience:  Adopting Mobile Drumming Apps.  There’s quite a variety of Drumming Apps with a lot of variety as to features and facilities. They are generally less expensive but don’t’ deliver in the same way.  These are those which are close to the SongForm Rhythm Tracks use-case:

Session Band Drums:  This App aims at a similar proposition – good quality drum backing with a mobile interface, but I feel it falls short in delivering both (i) truly high-quality rhythmic backing music and (ii) a convenient interface.  The user interface is based on visual sequencing, specific to the task.  This is an improvement to having to use a workstation based sequencer and transferring to the mobile device but I suspect would still be a barrier to entry for a lot of musicians.  It definitely is more cumbersome and slower to use than SongForm Rhythm Tracks.    Also, there is no real setlist facility and, as mentioned, I don’t think it delivers enough on engaging, realistic drumming.  It is though considerably less expensive that SongForm Rhythm Tracks.

iRealPro: This is a deservedly popular App,  but probably not ordinarily considered in terms of rhythm-only backing music.   It does a great job of managing setlists, has a user-subscribed library of tunes which often means preparing for a tune is very efficient.  Its strength is in getting a full accompaniment (rhythm and harmony) to well-known tunes complete with an on-screen lead-sheet of that tune being tracked as the song progresses.  It probably is based on midi-technology and provides good facilities to balance the mix.  This mix can be adjusted to have the rhythm part only.  There are not many rhythms to choose from but the small selection has good quality for its price.  That’s the rub.   Again, the quality isn’t really there in the audio.  Like a lot of things, it’s impressive on first encountering it but after a while hearing the same loops over and over loses the lustre. It’s better at a complete mix than rhythm-only tracks.  Why is this rhythmic audio lacking compared to SongForm Rhythm Tracks?   iRealPro is an App with a limited collection of (probably midi-triggered) audio loops.  I don’t hear different loops being used for different tempos of the same rhythm.  I don’t hear a human variation that makes drumming come alive and I don’t hear truly great drumming like one does with SongForm Rhythm Tracks.

There are other mobile-based Apps but nothing significantly new when considering high-quality rhythmic backing with a convenient interface.  Songster is a competitor of iRealPro with a slightly different market and similar results.   There are other drumming specific Apps but they all fall down in terms of supplying the realism,  excitement and breadth of SongForm Rhythm Tracks.  SongForm Rhythm Tracks achieves this quality by being server-based.  What’s served is complete high-quality tracks already optimally sequenced and audio-engineered before being delivered to the end-user.   No sequencing or audio engineering occurs on the SongForm Rhythm Tracks mobile App, it simply selects and then requests the desired track.

Conclusion

SongForm Rhythm Tracks is a class act for truly high-quality rhythmic backing.  You are not going to get tired of these backing tracks.  You are not going to have to sequence anything.  You’ll find that the player and setlist’s user-interface encourages use of the App.  You’ll get to appreciate the form of your songs more and you just might include these tracks into your own single and album releases.   Don’t be put off by previous experiences with mobile drumming Apps.  This is something different.

To check out samples of the audio take a look at Alive Drumming’s Samples page at http://alive-drumming.org/sample-audio-files/

For an interesting back story of SongForm Rhythm Track check out the post, “The Primacy of Rhythm in popular music and practice” at http://alive-drumming.org/the-primacy-of-rhythm-in-popular-music/

Download the App on the Apple App Store at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/songform-rhythm-tracks/id1254346877?ls=1&mt=8