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VoiceBand: Personal music artistry gone wild

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I don't usually gush during App reviews. I think today I will change things up a bit. Because If you like playing with sound and music, and you like GarageBand, empty out your change purse, check under the sofa cushions, steal your kid's lunch money (okay, maybe not that -- kids have to eat, after all), and head over to one of those Coinstar places. Cash in your spare coins to an iTunes gift certificate because you'll want to spend it on VoiceBand [iTunes link]. The $2.99 VoiceBand app is simply awesome.

The marketing buzz on its iTunes home page says the app is a "revolutionary new way to make music," and darn it, they're not that far off the mark. VoiceBand transforms your voice in real time into almost a dozen instruments. You can lay down tracks, layer new performances one at a time, and build up an audio performance that you can then e-mail to yourself or friends.

I bought a copy of VoiceBand for myself, yesterday. And the reason this review didn't appear until today? I was too busy playing with the app to get around to writing it up.

You start by selecting the instrument you want to synthesize. You can pick strings (including lead guitar, bass, and power chords), saxophone, a number of percussion items, and "voice", which does exactly what you expect it to. It lets you add a voice track to your performances. You set the playback characteristics for the instrument including distortion, reverb, auto pitch tuning, and so forth. You can also set the scale and the time signature.

That time signature thing is important, and you'll want to use the metronome, because the real time analysis matches your singing against the beat to determine whether you're creating quarter notes, triplets, and so forth. I'm a bit rhythm impaired (you can substitute the word "extremely" for the phrase "a bit"), and your performances will suffer if you don't quite keep to the beat. The notes will split oddly.

You'll want to wear headphones while using VoiceBand. That way, the synthesized output won't interfere with your voice input. It's seven kinds of awesome to be singing out to an empty room and hearing a sax or guitar playing back the same song in your ears.

Even if you're completely musically impaired, and you don't know a grace note from a cantaloupe, you can still have lots of fun with this app. Select "Voice", pop into the Recorder section, and record a track of yourself speaking as you manipulate the Pan slider. When played back using headphones, you'll hear your voice move around your head as the synthesized output automatically generates stereo results using tiny time delays to fool your ears into localizing that signal. It's really, really, cool. Don't forget to remind anyone you send that recording to that they have to listen to it using a headset. You lose the effect if you listen to it without.

So with all that gushing, that's not to say that the app is flawless. VoiceBand doesn't properly implement a strategy to resist the built-in iPhone idle timer, so if you leave it on your desk, the screen flashes every now and then. That's a feature I found super annoying. Also, I could not find a way to manage my recordings. That should have been a top-level menu item. It should have been obvious how to review, select, edit, and share tracks from your library. Finally, I really wanted more non-string instruments, like flutes, oboes, and other easily synthesized elements. Maybe we'll see these in future updates or through in-app purchases. It would also be nice to be able to download and/or buy GarageBand-like backing tracks that you could perform on top of.

Those quibbles aside, VoiceBand is pretty marvelous. I can't wait to finish writing up this review, so I can go back and resume playing.

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