This difference becomes immediately clear with Tabletop for iPad. It’s not just a collection of sequencers and sample pads, but rather a full-service, multi-channel, multi-machine modular workstation for creating and performing electronic music and custom hip-hop beats.
The app is so similar to the free, flash-based DAW Audiotool for computers (also available on Android as Audiotool Sketch, likely the best DAW app on Android) that we initially assumed Audiotool developer André Michelle must have been involved. However, it appears Retronyms (publisher of Tabletop) has gotten away with a pretty decent, albeit more expensive, iOS copy of one of our favorite modular studio apps for the web.
Tabletop probably couldn’t exist on the iPhone, although the iPhone 4s’ dual core A5 chip could probably handle it. Really, it’s the extra screen real estate that makes this app so iPad-worthy, allowing you to assemble and re-arrange a custom music workstation from a variety of included modules, with more available for in-app purchase.
Selecting any of the individual modules makes it occupy the full screen, or you can view modules in the same grid-block (of which there are nine) side-by-side. You can also zoom out to view your entire configuration at once — hence the name, Tabletop.
For an introductory price of just a dollar, you get 10 modular devices and can bolster your arsenal with 16 more (be warned, these are relatively expensive at three and ten bucks a piece.) That’s why we say this app is “potentially” awesome, because you’re going to end up spending a lot more than you probably wanted to, in order to get the most out of it.
The basic outfit comes with many essentials, but standard effects like reverb, delay, and compression will cost you extra, which is a bummer. For this review, we focused on the stock configuration: a sampler, a polyphonic keyboard, and a pattern machine; two mixers (one eight-channel and one splitter); two effects units (a three-band EQ and low-pass filter); a turntable for queuing tracks from your iTunes library; a sequencer that acts as a master controller for triggering or arranging recorded loops; and an output recording device for capturing your final performance and sharing it as an audio file (to SoundCloud or as an MP3 or AIFF uploaded via iTunes).
As with real studio hardware, you’ll have to wire these machines together manually to get them to work, which might sound like a pain, but it gives you much-needed flexibility, because things sound differently depending on where they are in the audio chain. If you start with a blank session, it will only present the master output module; you’ll have to add a mixer and connect a couple instruments before you’ll hear any sound at all (make sure you get your inputs and outputs right, or the silence will continue.)
For a more plug-and-play option, the app includes nine template configurations, each optimized for a particular genre or style of beat making — hip-hip, dubstep, and acid techno, to name a few.
The catch: these templates seem rigged to convince you to pay for the in-app purchases. Six out of nine include at least one module that you’ll have to pay for. If you want to get up and running fast without buying anything, try Basic Hip-Hop, Gridlok (sample pad), or M8RX (pattern machine).
Perhaps the most exciting feature, curiously omitted from the publisher’s description, is the ability to integrate wirelessly with iOS instruments on a neighboring device using Korg’s Wireless Sync-Start Technology (WIST). This allows you to use even more instruments while expanding the “tabletop” to another device, whether it’s an iPhone or another iPad, should you be lucky enough to own two. Compatible apps include the popular iElectribe, iKaossilator, ReBirth, and Nlog Midi Synth.
In addition, the app supports audio copy/paste, so you can grab samples from other apps.
Tabletop for iPad has clear potential as a way to make beats and songs on an iPad, but getting everything you can out of it requires a considerable investment. An iOS version of Audiotool Sketch for Android could easily beat it on price. All things considered, we’d recommend tinkering with the one dollar version of Tabletop; you can always expand it later if nothing better comes along.