December 14, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Review: PolyChord Music Creator/Composer for iPad

Polychord, an intriguingly-designed iPad music creation and composition app, lets anyone compose relatively complex musical statements by tapping on chords, playing with some basic parameters, and accompanying themselves on a strip of golden keys on the right of the iPad’s screen.

Having tested it in the waiting room of a doctor’s office and in my own office (listen below), I can safely report that Polychord, created by Shoulda Coulda Woulda (which was founded by Gregory Weiber, Duncan Malaschock, and sound engineer for Radiohead and Primal Scream Hugo Nicolson), is a hoot to use. Fair warning: I intentionally did not practice or rehearse before recording this, the better to represent what’s possible with PolyChord even in a spur-of-the-moment context (and also perhaps because I didn’t have the time or skill to put together a fully-finished symphonic sketch, which would be possible with this app in the right hands).

This clip contains two segments; in the first, I’m just tapping on chords on the left side — mostly all major with a few diminished thrown in for good measure, although far more variety is possible in terms of beats and tempos. In the second segment, I’m pretty much randomly tapping the yellow keys on the right, which always play a note within whichever chord is playing in the pink area on the left:

The Polychord iPad app ($10) offers a full range of keys and modes (click the above image to expand), making it a powerful and worthwhile composition tool. For those of us who have forgotten much of the music theory we may have learned over the years, the app serves as a useful reminder of the difference in sound between a diminished and augmented chord. And there’s no latency — it’s as responsive as any instrument we’ve played.

However, Polychord currently lacks a record mode –a major drawback, and one that the company plans to overcome soon. (I recorded the above sample using an outboard audio recorder).

Shoulda Coulda Woulda’s Gregory Wieber told that the development team is working on record mode, but that the first priority for now is a Wifi MIDI interface for linking up to soundbanks and audio programs on a computer (more on that below):

“We’re working on a record mode,  but our focus for the first version was on making a performance instrument / compositional scratchpad.  We’re wrapping up the WiFi MIDI update, and with any luck it will get through Apple in time for Christmas.”

For now, you can bitshift the sound of each element in the composition to make it sound a bit more overdriven, and the golden keys on the right are programmed always to sound in tune, and add some sonic variety, but the aural palate of the app, while pleasing, is somewhat limited.

“As for the sonic palette,  we think that the ability to use MIDI to control the infinite software instruments available for programs like Logic and Pro Tools will satisfy the power users for the time-being as we decide what kind of tones we’re going to include in future versions.”

Once the device can function as a Wi-Fi MIDI controller, the sky will be the limit in terms of what Polychord compositions can sound like and how they can be recorded, as he mentions. Still, the native in-app record mode will be a useful addition.

Even as it evolves, Polychord is already an excellent demonstration of why some apps work much better on the iPad than on the iPhone: There’s simply no way you could have this much control over these finely-tuneable parameters without having this much space to tap around on. It’s also a real musical tool that will get even more real once it links up to Pro Tools and Logic, and adds a record mode.

Shoulda Coulda Woulda’s Polychord page in the iTunes store shows one possible sitting option for composing with Polychord:

And here’s a demonstration video of the app in action: