A few months ago, I was sitting on a plane with my cell phone's notepad open, typing something that looked like this:
aEE-- dcE F# G f# e d c A e---
The woman next to me looked over, perhaps to start an airplane conversation, but thought better of it upon realizing I was some kind of madwoman.
There are all kinds of "sketchpad" musical programs available. I have been content with my crazy text method in the absence of staff paper. But one day, someone mentioned something called Rhythm Core Alpha 2 in a Chiptunes Facebook group I belong to. It's for the Nintendo 3ds, $9.99. I was curious enough to drop the ten bucks and try it out.
It is advertised as a performance instrument. The Nintendo E-Shop has a video of a guy setting up some fat beats and then soloing over them, all on his 3DS, while a small crowd politely reacts.
Performance is a big talking point in electronic music, and aside from pushing faders to diffuse a piece, I have not performed my electronic music unless it featured an acoustic instrument along with it. I was curious about performing music on a 3DS, and more curious about if it would be a fun and portable alternative to my crazy letter texts. So let's get to it!
The interface was so familiar I didn't even bother to RTFM at first. Its block and pattern based composition reminded me of a simplified FL Studio. At first glance, we see many things we probably already know and love.
Each beat subdivided into four, a piano roll, and you select the instrument you want and draw it in. My Flute here is Pink and one of the bass instruments was green. The instruments are, unfortunately, monophonic. The help files suggest to play chords, set three (or more) tracks to the same instrument patch, and then draw one note of the chord per track.
You use the stylus to scroll between the top and bottom screens, and of course to draw in your notes.
What gave me the hardest time was, after making several blocks, getting them all to play. I kept getting an endless loop of the same block. Well. That's where the Pattern screen comes in.
You set up your blocks in the Pattern screen. Setting the scale sets the notes available in solo mode, which we'll get to. You can use a block multiple times, and you can also specify if a block goes to the next one, to a previous one, skips back any number of blocks, or returns to the beginning. The length is in steps, or 16th notes.
With all that in place, you return to the main Block screen, switch PAT. RUN to ON, hit the loop button if you like, and then press play. NOW you can hear your composition.
But it's not just about playback, it's about performance! After selecting an instrument in your piano roll, you can go to the SOLO screen and jam.
Depending on what the scale is for your current block, you'll get different notes available on your solo screen. The first thing I did, of course, is scribble furiously around the screen to shred a totally glitched out solo. That got old pretty fast though, and I found the solo mode to be most useful for messing around and coming up with bits of melodies or themes--something I would probably write down if I really liked.
During playback you can also use the d-pad and A B X Y to change the key of the current block. On the top screen there are 8 assignable key buttons, so in the above example, you could hit left for C major and instantly modulate to F# major by hitting B if you so desire.
There is the option to record your solos. You can also record drum beats with a 12-assignable-pad Drum screen. And if you want to do some more work on what you've recorded, you can export the MIDI to your SD Card to import into your DAW of choice.
Rhythm Core Alpha 2 is fun. I'd say it's $9.99 worth of fun. I enjoy playing with it, and I will continue to do so. However, for me, I cannot imagine myself using it as a performance instrument, or as a serious part of my work. For performance, I'd like to have control over more than just pitches*. And for composing, there is too much scrolling with the stylus, the monophony is disappointing, and setting up the Blocks into a Pattern feels like more work than it should.
What I do like, though, is it's a great way to casually mess around, and generate some ideas. I often have my 3DS with me, so it's convenient. There's a good variety of patches, and if you're especially into chiptunes, this could be right up your alley.
If you want to learn more, you can always RTFM! Here is a link to Nintendo's manual.
* As Tim Trzepacz has corrected me, there are more elements that can be controlled besides pitch! Please read his excellent comment below.