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Friday, June 29, 2012

Yamaha Synth Arp & Drum Pad Review

I'm a pretty big fan of Propellerheads' Figure for making quick and simple tunes on my iPhone or iPad (it has an Android release too). I will get round to writing a review at some point for it, but meanwhile, I had high hopes when I saw a Twitter post from the lovely people at Computer Music mag announcing Yamaha's new iPad app: Synth Arp & Drum Pad.

I was hoping that it would be simple enough to get pretty quickly, but have a few more options than Figure does - particularly when it came to creating and saving songs.

At this point, I should say that I've been sucked into music applications and apps since 1997 when I got my hands on a beta tool that would turn into Propellerheads' ReBirth. I've enjoyed using a few, but too many times been frustrated at how complex some of these applications could be. The birth of the tablet offered hope of a quick and easy music creation experience with touch.

The blurb on iTunes sounded good:

Synth Arp & Drum Pad is an iPad app with arpeggiator and drum pad that allows you to easily play the internal synthesizer or any connected MIDI device and produce music with phrases having an abundant variety of musical styles.
(The arpeggiator automatically plays the individual notes of a chord in a selected pattern.)

There are 342 arppegiator patterns that can play phrases from all kinds of music genres like dance music, hip-hop, rock, pops, with one finger.

I love arppegiators. Don't know how much of my life has gone in fiddling with them, but to have 342! Awesome!

The screen shots looked good too:

It looked like a good balance of synth parts and a programmable drum machine

Would Synth Arp & Drum Pad be that killer combination of easiness combined with power?

It started well. The arppegiator is great. You can lock the link between the voice and the arp sequences, or you can break the link and get some pretty wacky effects with the many voices included with the tool. I have to say, I spent a good hour just playing with all that and had a whale of a time!

The tricky bit came to the adjustments. For a start the touch sensitivity is woeful. When you turn the effect pots there is a noticeable lag, making real time or sensitive adjustments pretty much impossible. Transitioning notes during the arp sequences to create chord variations is hit and miss too. I found horrible missed cuts, even with quantization on, as the touch sensitivity just lagged behind.

Once you do get an adjustment going and hit the right notes at the right time you can make some killer leads and bases. Yamaha have put at lot of thought into the arp sequences, and as I said before, the voices are all pretty good.

On to the drum machine screen.

Again, started well. Nice array of sixteen pads. Bashing some of the demo notes revealed some good sounds. On with the programming. And here another hour was lost. But instead of a joyful hour, it was an hour of frustration trying to make the damn thing do what I wanted it to do.

OK - at this point I must point out my drum machine history. Roland. Sorry, it just doesn't get any better and I've never seen a reason to change my view on that. The TB sequencing and step sequencing come natural to me. Yamaha's interface didn't.

Now it might be me. it might be the Korg guys and the Yamaha guys, and even you Roland people out there, just get this interface and make beautiful patterns. I just didn't get it. The manual is rubbish, and was no real help.

You can assign a pad to be a sequence or a hit. The yellow ones in the picture above are sequences. Take a lot at the screenshot below:

When you edit a pad with a Seq that is what you see. The notation is flamming MIDI. I'm sorry, I'm sure lots of people like that, but as a Roland guy I like "House Bass" or "Techno Kick" and I like to rename them if I want to. And I know I can rename them in the Pad Edit bit. But seeing "C1" just means I have to muck about figuring what type of sound "C1" actually is. Life's too short...

The bars below are where the hit occurs in the 16 step sequencer. Just try getting that to work easily. You can see my pathetic attempt on the end of the bar to do a rolling kick. I just couldn't get the levels right and got fed up.

The final kick in the teeth was the measure panel. I thought I could edit each measure so that in four bars I could add variation. Nope. It is an indication of when the sounds are triggering. if you deselect 1,2,3 then the sounds only fire in bar 4. So if you want so variation between bars that has to be done on another pad. Grrr....

So would Synth Arp & Drum Pad be that killer combination of easiness combined with power?

Frankly - no

Sorry Yamaha. I'm sure this may turn out to be a great app, and probably is for some people, but just not for me.

I realise I haven't touched on other aspects of this app, but I got fed up with it. I love the arps, and will probably sample them or use them with another app in some way. The interface is not for me, and the drum machine is - well - pants.

Of course, this is my opinion. What do you think? Is it right up your street? Or do you agree with me?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Alternatives to

Our organisation uses, or rather, it did until the founders sold the company to SalesForce. Whilst they are "excited" about this news (whilst pocketing a few quid no doubt), it does leave those of us using their technology - well - a bit buggered.

You see, they are discontinuing the service. As soon as the calendar hits 25th July, 2012, they will wipe out the data. Lord knows why SalesForce doesn't want to keep the data, and just keep the service going, but it doesn't. So we are in a bit of a pickle.

Having looked for alternatives, I was quite shocked at how few there are on the market. Thinkfuse is so simple, so laughably simple, that I would have thought there would be loads of alternatives. It is basically a fairly poor web editor where you write up a report every week for your manager. You get some reminder emails, and the manager gets a nice dashboard to view your reports. Well, a simple dashboard at any rate.

If I were Theo on Dragon's Den, I'd be thinking "barrier to entry - zero - I'm out...". But it seems this market has passed by many web types. There are lots of heavy weight online tools out there, which have status reporting as part of projects, but not many that have team status updates.

Here's some I have found:

This seems to be a recent tool, and is currently running in beta. This means it's free to sign up, although once it exits beta it will be a paid for service.

There is a short video tour that shows you around the product.

It is different to Thinkfuse in that team members submit their reports via email (in Thinkfuse there is a web-based interface to do this). Two emails are sent; one for "Things achieved" and a second for "Things planned". This many be a good way for your team to do this, if they are wedded to email, but if you are trying to encourage more collaborative tools, perhaps it's not for you.

The manager can then view a rather nice PDF report, that really looks quite flashy. It would certainly be very good to forward on to senior management "as is".
Of course, getting it to look that good for you will need nice photos of your team (tough if you run a development team) and a bit of design flair. Still, it's a good thing to have.

There are also iPhone and iPad interfaces if that floats your boat, as well as standard web interfaces.

This site is a bit more organised than Thinkfuse and Weeklydebrief. Employees are encouraged to organise their activities into categories, shown in the screen shot below:
As you can see, there are Goals, Tasks and Accomplishments. You can add your company's logo to the dashboard, as set preferences to see the information how it best suits you.

It's not too clear on the website how it works, but it appears that status reports are centred around the information in these three categories.

Again, different from the more freestyle entry in Thinkfuse, but may suit some better.

There is a short video to watch, to try and glean more information.

This is also in beta, which means it's free but is limited to 10 users in a team. It will convert to a paid for service at some point.

If you scan to the comments below, you can see Shane  @ 15five got in touch suggesting his company's product. I checked out their website, and it didn't help me much, but have found some good reviews on the web which helped figure the product out.

15five is based on a simple concept; it should take team members up to 15 minutes to write their report and a manager 5 minutes to read it. The manager assigns questions which can be one line answer, multi line answers and so on. The employee gets an email notification and fills in the report on the web. The manager has a dashboard and can then review them.

There is an emphasis in hierarchies too. So in our example, once the manager gets his reports, he can submit a report to his director, who then submits his report to the CEO. That's quite a neat idea.

There is a 4 week trial period and the price is $99 a month for up to 20 employees.

For more information check out an thorough report over at appstorm and also an article from a real-life user over on the Inc. website. Also, email Shane who I'm sure would be happy to help out.

Many thanks to Scott who posted a comment telling me about his solution over at

Teamly gets you to enter your top 5 daily, weekly and monthly priorities (great for fans of the Nick Hornby novel High Fidelity!). Managers can see all the priorities set. Comments can be recorded by both managers and their reports. Priorities can be made private.

There is an ability to mark priorities according to their status, so the manager can see what everyone is doing. There is some basic reporting packaged too. For a user workflow, check out A video tour is available from the home page.

There is a free to use, ad supported option or to remove the ads and access some more features for $8/mth per user.

I can see this being a good solution for some, but for others, it could feel like micro-managing if a boss insists on daily goal setting. The red / amber / green colour coding might induce panic in some employees, which might be a good or a bad thing!!

A word on the website - it's good and the information is well laid out - but strangely no menu options are available from the home page. Click through into the tour, and you get menu options for the pricing, testimonials, etc.


I was also asked to check out siasto. It doesn't have the greatest website in the world, and what was quite odd was that in one screenshot someone seemed to be sharing with their team that they were going to fire someone. I suspect this breaks several EU working laws!

Anyhow, the tool does appear to be very project-oriented, so probably not for us.

Someone also recommended workflowy. This is a real "marmite" tool - people either love it or hate it. It seems most suited to keeping personal lists and sharing with friends/colleagues, rather than sharing them within a team hierachy. If you like lists, take a look. If you like mindmaps - avoid. It's not suited to replacing Thinkfuse, in my view, but you may think different.

I did look at binfire, but it is far too project-oriented and I also took a brief look at estatusreports, but it is software and quite complex, so not a simple, online tool.


Initially I found two comparable services, but as this blog has been read other services have been suggested. There still isn't a like-for-like competitor. which still amazes me, considering how successful Thinkfuse was. Whilst Thinkfuse was great, it was pretty simple and very easy to replicate better than they did it. Now it has gone the way of the Dodo, there is room for a simple tool to replace it.

The market seems to want to focus on helping people organise their worklists, rather than allow a sort-of brain dump. As such, there aren't any like-for-like replacements I can recommend. You are best checking out the ones above you think might be interesting and exploring from there, recognising they all force some kind of structured thinking.

Please let me know if you have any further alternatives. I'd love to hear about them!

N.B Company Websites

Small rant. Throughout this investigation, I have been amazed at how poor some of these websites were. All I wanted was some screenshots, some words on the features, maybe a short video, a pricing plan and a link to some reviews or testimonials. Only weeklydebrief and teamly actually had this (and teamly's is hidden!). The rest required looking for reviews on Google, or trying to work out from other articles how the thing worked. The websites were mainly moody photos and little content, insisting your signed up to see more.

Not everyone wants to sign up for a free trial just to see how a solution works!

Rant over...