Music is about feeling, and emoting, and hanging out with groupies, and writing cool songs, yeah? But learning to play can be so godawfully hard. You have to practice, and when you’re down on practicing you’re supposed to practice some more. Then you’re supposed to eat lunch, think about music and then go back to practicing. What a bore! I’m still looking for the moment where I can just pick up a guitar and play some filthy, mind-blowing licks and whatnot. For now, I just keep on picking up guitars whenever I see them and hope for the best.
But, the advent of flashy, new applications for computers, and iPhones, and all sorts of technological gizmos is making my dream of being an awesome electronic musician a near reality. Sure, the professionals have auto-tune, vocoders, and audio-engineers to run it all. But that stuff is expensive. I just want an app on my iPhone where I can open it up, tap a few buttons, and really get into my zone. Figure, by Propellerhead, is that app, and the songs you make are awesome.
Propellerhead is an electro-rocking Swedish company who developed Reason, a professional software client that emulates hardware synthesizers, samplers, signal processors, sequencers, mixers, and all sorts of other bit-crunching doohickeys. The pros can have Reason because the amateurs now have Figure.
When you open the app, the flat, no-nonsense interface pops up. Five tabs sit across the top row: record, play, drum, bass, and lead. Five tabs sit across the bottom row: pattern, tweaks, song, mix, and system. Between the rows is the creation space—the specific controls that will make your song “bumpin’,” or if not “bumpin’” at least acceptable.
With Figure you build your song off three sonic tracks: drums, bass, and lead. Tap the record button and a metronome clicks you off for eight beats. Anything you play in that eight beats will be recorded and then looped. So you build your track up. Start with drums, adding in kick, snare, hats, and cowbell as you go along. Move into your bass line and lead, adjusting rhythm, range and scale steps. Once your song starts to move itself, you can tweak the sonorities of the drums, bass, and lead. There are a few master controls as well that allow you to change key, and tempo, as well as move the tonality within a certain key. Then there’s the mixing panel which allows you to change the volume of each track. And finally, if that wasn’t enough, each of the main tracks has several instruments underneath it (just swipe left or right over the instrument name). It’s an insane amount of customization for such a small, responsive, and cheap app.
Anything you add to the mix gets looped over that eight beat span. This allows you to augment your tracks, supplement your beats, and make some gritty sounds. But beyond those eight beats, nothing gets recorded. There is no native way to save or export the tunes you make in Figure. You become a natural sound creator, but once a sound is made, it might never be recreated again. Some see this as a drawback, I see this as an wonderful feature. Every time I open Figure, I’m forced to think of a different approach to the sound I’m creating. And even if I tried to recreate something, I likely can’t which forces me into new and unexplored creative spaces. Yes, it is possible to record anything that goes through the headphone port on the iPhone, but that’s secondary to holding onto the mechanism of creation. You can save the song, but you can’t save the instructions to make it.
For one dollar, it’s about as close as you can get to becoming a great music maker in a matter of seconds. (Unfortunately, becoming a musician takes a whole lot longer. In the end it’s worth it.) The app is ultra-responsive on the iPhone, and the audio processing is great—this is likely due to Apple’s Core Audio, which makes an Android release of the app very questionable. You really can’t play it wrong because all of the pitches are set within the context of a key. Go ahead and download it. You’ll become engrossed in the app. Whether you’re looking to kill time, or actually trying to create your next musical masterwork, Figure is a good place to get started.