Freematik in studio
Freeman pumped his iPhone's audio output via stereo cable through a preamp into his Mac Pro.

Freematik (Tom Freeman) is a San Francisco-based hip hop music producer. But outside of his fully-equipped studio, he is armed only with his iPhone and imagination.

For months, Freeman's been experimenting with apps that let him make beats and riffs on the go. The iPhone's limitations forced him to improvise and he found himself feeling "more creative than he had in while."

He had so much fun with it that he decided to produce an entire album, called iMatik, available on freematik.com. iMatik is a fun psychedelic beat-powered ride that flows from track to track with originality and style.

I got the chance to interview the man behind the touchscreen:

RVE: Style-wise how does iMatik compare to your previous albums?

TF: Well, I usually produce hip hop and rap albums that are vocal-based, with verses and choruses, etc. I thought about getting a bunch of artists to add vocals to the album, but once I started actually working on it, I thought the vibe was more upbeat than most of my other work. I used to love instrumental "Scratch DJ" albums like DJ Shadow, Invisible Skratch Picklz, etc. and thought maybe I could go in this direction.

Once I found Flare, the iPhone app that is remarkably like a real vinyl turntable and mixer, and found out how realistic it sounded, plus that it allows you to upload your own samples, I knew what I was going to do. I used to have a DJ rig when I was younger, and knew a little bit about scratching, so I just made it work with an iPhone.

I really love the result, since most of my other music is dark or just plain strange, and this album immediately seems to make friends with people, instead of scare them off!

RVE: Mobility is the obvious advantage to iPhone music creation, but how do iPhone apps compare feature-wise to software and drum machines?

TF: There are some limitations on the iPhone that are hard to overcome. The biggest issue is pressure sensitivity. Not having pressure sensitivity takes a lot away from the expressiveness of an instrument, since each note comes out with the same volume and timbre. There are ways to overcome this though, such as programming individual sounds to play just right, or editing velocity after the performance, on apps like Beatmaker that support velocity editing. Also, just picking the right sound sometimes is the solution without having control over volume, some sounds are better suited to fitting in, or can be edited to fit.

The second, and more obvious disadvantage, is the small screen. I can't tell you how many times I pressed the wrong drum sound or key, and had to go back and try again. This is just something you have to live with if you are doing music on a phone, although some apps allow you to adjust the size of the playing area to try and make it easier. For me, the solution to this problem is in the iPad, which I am foaming at the mouth for already!

Besides these two limitations, it is amazing how much sound quality, programmability, and depth some of these apps have! Especially Intua Beatmaker, which allows you to import/export any sounds you want via wireless, so you can program sounds in your computer and load them on your iPhone. This is an area I just brushed the surface of.

RVE: You mentioned Beatmaker, iDrum, Flare, and Jasuto. Can you give us a breakdown on the advantages of each app?

TF: Sure:

  • Beatmaker is definitely the most "pro" as far as looking and feeling like a real production device. It is very similar to an MPC with some of it's functionality, having a 4 x 4 grid of pads to work with, and being able to assign anything to those pads. Beatmaker's sequencer also lets you build complex arrangements, so if you really want a program that will mimic a computer application like Fruityloops or Reason for example, this will come the closest to doing that. My desert island app is definitely Beatmaker. That's the one I can sit down with anywhere and feel like I'm in the studio.

  • iDrum was my first favorite. It's so easy to get hooked on its simple, fun, step sequencer. The main method of programming beats with this device is a visual grid of buttons that represent a note value (mainly sixteenth notes) that you can touch and they light up. When the button is lit that means it will play on that step each time around. You can use common iPhone motions like finger sweeps and shaking to get around in the sequencer. There's an option for realtime sequencing as well. The built in sounds were awesome and well programmed, so even though I could have used my own huge arsenal of sounds on my main computer, I found using the built-in sounds almost always got me the sound I was looking for.

  • Flare is the ultimate iPhone DJ app. It is a lot like having a mini actual turntable on your phone, with a built in DJ scratch mixer with features useful to a DJ. I used the mixer in hamster-switch mode for most of my scratching, since it allows you to punch in just little snippets of audio. The feature that truly makes this app amazing is it that enables wireless upload of any audio file you want to use. I grabbed weird found sounds, movie samples, old beats, just about anything I could think of, and uploaded it into the phone to scratch with.

  • Jasuto is crazy. It's a modular synth and effects-creation environment on your phone. You can drag and drop modules such as oscillators, compressors, delays, and route or key them from all types of things. I'm a bit of a caveman when it comes to this stuff, so I just dragged objects until it made crazy sounds, and used that. In the future I plan on trying harder to learn how to use this app more, since I think the idea is so amazing!

RVE: What features would like to see in the next round of music production apps?

TF: I think everything right now regarding mobile music apps is limited to screen size. That is such a limiting factor, since you can't add a lot of buttons or menus in a small area without killing the fun. So when the iPad is released, I really hope application developers take advantage of the screen real estate, and make apps that offer more features visible without having to hunt through menus. Also I hope apps start taking more advantage of the gyroscopic features of the iPhone—like I would want to be able to wave or tilt the phone to control filter frequencies, etc.

RVE: What's your beat-making software of choice in the studio?

TF: It's a toss-up between Reason and Ableton Live, and now sometimes Logic. My day job is testing music software, so I know all the apps, and I love little things about all the apps that keeps me switching from one to the other. I guess I would choose Reason just because I am almost guaranteed to not crash my system with that!

RVE: Do you prefer programming the beats or recording them live with your fingers? What's easier on the iPhone?

TF: I've always been more of a live-recording guy, coming from a bass-playing background, so I usually record in realtime. But on some apps like iDrum, they make step sequencing so fun, I ended up doing a lot of that too. This album definitely has way more step-sequenced parts than I usually make.

RVE: Did you transfer the iMatik album tracks to your computer to do post-production, or was everything done on the iPhone?

TF: Yes, everything was transferred to a Mac Pro running Cubase 5, which is my main recording app, and I just used the computer like a tape machine. I used a mini-dual 1/4? cable to get everything over to my Universal Audio 2108 stereo preamp, and tracked everything in using that, since it usually sounds great with line level sources.

Because the iPhone does not have the ability to run two apps simultaneously, I realized all overdubs would have to be done using a separate app. To me this still fits in with the mentality of an iPhone-only album, just like a saxophone-only album could be tracked into a recording app and still be considered "pure" if there's anything "pure" about an album made on a phone. ;-)