Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Review - Pianist

Pianist (from Moo Cow Music) is a pretty straightforward piano simulator for your iPhone. It presents an octave's worth of piano keyboard for you to play. The iPhone's multi-touch capabilities work well here, letting you play multiple notes at once. Although you're limited to one octave at any time, a few mechanisms are provided for scrolling up and down the keyboard.

Playing on Pianist has some high points. For starters, the fact that you're playing a multi-touch piano on your iPhone is awesome. You can play chords! That alone is pretty cool.

If you've ever had to play on a dinky toy keyboard, and found that your fingers were just too big to be anywhere near accurate... it's going to be more pronounced in Pianist. Because the keys are flat and there's no tactile feedback, it's easy to get the wrong key. That said, it rarely seems to interpret a single touch as two simultaneous keys; if your touch spans two keys somewhat, the most domininant key wins and the other stays silent.

There's a teeny bit of a delay between hitting a key and hearing the note. It's not too bad if you're just jamming on your own, but if you're trying to play along with something, you have to think about leading the note just a bit.

The quality of the piano sound isn't bad for an application like this. I guess you're not going to be playing any concerts using this, so it doesn't have to be perfect, but it's pretty nice as an iPhone app.

Obviously since there's no physical keys to press, pianist isn't velocity sensitive. To compensate, you can set up the keyboard so playing on the front part of the key is loud, and playing towards the back is soft. If you don't care about velocity, you can set up that forward-backward play to control sustain or softness. There is also a "soft" switch, and a "sustain" switch, to globally set softness and sustain.

I can't help but wonder if somehow it could determine the velocity you hit the key, perhaps based on the growth rate of the surface area of the touch on the screen.

There's a very basic metronome + sequencer built in, for recording songs. (I get a lot of writing for this blog done on the bus, and I'm considering using Pianist to record small bits of music to illustrate concepts or games or whatever.) Because you only have access to a small part of the keyboard at a time, Pianist encourages you to record and re-record, layering new takes on top of old ones.

As an iPhone app, it's fun, and I can see how one might use it to jam with a group. I don't think it has much of an application for improvising musicians though - generally when you're working, you already have a piano, a proper one, so getting an extra octave of harder-to-play piano isn't very useful. Still, I'm glad I purchased it - it is nice to tinker with tunes on the bus as the mood takes me.

This is the first in a series of reviews of music applications for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

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