Friday, February 15, 2019

Caustic 3

Last year, I hadn't been making much music.  In part because I was busy with other things, but also because I wasn't feeling too inspired to make much. It can help to switch up a routine.

I discovered an app called Caustic 3 which I installed on android. It is described as follows:
Caustic 3 is a music creation tool inspired by rack-mount synthesizers / samplers rigs.
Everything is real-time and optimized for mobile devices.
You can download it for free on google play but if you want to be able to save or export (important features!), you'll need to buy an upgrade key. At $9.99, this app is a steal.

I started using the app, not anticipating much from it.  I thought it would be a fun toy. I was surprised what sounds I could get out of it. As a bonus it allows me to make music anywhere.

Caustic's design is informed by limitations of being a mobile app on a small screen. It makes up for the limitations by providing a "batteries included" experience, sane defaults/presets, and making everything you need a few presses away.  Rather than give you absolutely everything, it gives you a well thought out subset of essentials and a stream-lined interface.  It's not an environment of providing harsh limitations for the sake of it; limitations are either by necessity or to provide compromises that enhance your work-flow as you make music.

The app initially seems pretty unassuming, but looks are deceiving. Upon opening a new song, the app greets you with the following screen which prompts you with how to get started and links to tutorials/docs. Even without looking at the tutorials/docs, it is often easy to intuit what you should be doing.

The "press the button" page
The bottom bar of the app is usually the same on all pages. But the apps functionality is split into multiple "pages" or "machines".  Upon pressing the bottom left button, it takes you to the rack page:

"Empty" rack page
The app gives you options to add 14 instrument slots.  It is followed by two pages of effects and mixer pages, a master slot, and the sequencer.  You can tap on an empty slot to add a machine or tap on an existing slot to access the given page. In a single screen, this page allows you to navigate to any section of the app. So from any specific page, you are two taps away (jump to the rack page and then click the slot you want on the rack page).

Below is an example of the rack page after adding various instruments:

Rack page with machines inserted. Also note my difficulty taking screenshots without the view being obstructed by the volume slider.
Caustic makes it easy to see what each slot is with clear labels and distinct slot images.  While not a universal policy, Caustic prefers keeping things to a single page and rarely makes use of scrolling (expect in the sequencer and sometimes the pattern editor).  These choices makes it much easier to grasp your project as a whole and move around quickly and efficiently.

Most DAWs provide instruments via 3rd party plugins that you load, usually via VST.  Caustic doesn't got this route. It gives you a limited number of built-in instruments. Once again, your choices all fit on a single page.

Instrument screen.

Initially this seems limiting only having a few selections, but there is a large amount of flexibility within each of the instruments provided. Also there is a lot of diversity of sound in the synths; they each have their own distinct style. Per the caustic website, here the synths available:
Subsynth - Virtual analog subtractive synthesizer
PCMSynth - Multi-sample wave synthesizer
BassLine - 303-like monosynth
BeatBox - 8-channel sampling drum machine
PadSynth - Harmonic table pad synthesizer
8BitSynth - 8bit equation solver synthesizer
Modular - Fully configurable and routable synthesizer
Organ - Hammond-like tonewheel organ with rotary speaker
Vocoder - 8-band harmonic vocoder
FMSynth - DX-style 3-operator fm synthesizer
KSSynth - Karplus-Strong string modeling synth
SawSynth - Supersaw-type polysynth
In a way, calling this "limited" is all a matter of perspective.  If you put all of the physical hardware equivalents of these in a room it would be considered a tragedy of excess.

Geoff Downes playing with Yes in 1980 with what I assume is every keyboard you could buy that year. Now all this fits in my phone and costs 10 dollars.
The point is, Caustic gives you 12 choices over an infinite number of choices.  The interface makes it easy to pick a sound that you are looking for and hit the ground running. If you need more sounds, you can load all sorts of external samples/soundfonts in the PCM synth.

Caustic is a pattern-based sequencer.  You create patterns for each instrument slot and then arrange them in the sequencer view. This pattern-based work flow can really aide getting a song done fast.

The pattern editor/sequencer

From any given rack page, you can swipe up or down on the left border to switch between the different racks. There are options along the right to select patterns and copy/paste. Everything is close by.

To add a pattern, you simple tap an empty grid and it will prompt you on what pattern to add. There are a limited number of possible patterns (64), but honestly I have never needed anywhere close to the maximum number.

Adding patterns

Here is the page for editing a pattern.  As you can see you can easily switch between patterns directly from this page.

Editing a pattern

In the effects page, each channel can have a maximum of two effects.  It is perhaps one of the harsher limits.  I often find myself wanting to add more to a channel.

Effects page
Caustic provides you with two racks for a mixing board as well as a master channel rack with everything you'd expect. 


master channel

Similar to the instruments, you can to choose from a predefined number of effects that have been carefully selected and cover most of what you'll ever need.

One of the cool things about Caustic being completely self-contained is that you can share the project files with anyone. You have options for exporting to WAV or OGG.  It even has the ability to export stem files if you want to load them up in another DAW. I can imagine it being a great way of "prototyping" songs.

Caustic manages to pack a lot of features without the interface feeling in anyway cramped or unwieldy. I've had fun using it.

If you are looking for infinite and unbounded flexibility, Caustic doesn't offer it. Its strength is in its willingness to trade away that flexibility for better design.

I'll have a EP coming out soon with some songs I've been working on.

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