ThumbJam is an app I came across while browsing the Appstore. I’m always in the Appstore looking for interesting new music apps. There’s a lot of chaff out there: generally speaking, if it’s free on under £2 it’s novelty, throwaway or bogus. Once you hit the £3 mark you start to get into the quality. Not that the price tag is always a sign of quality – read the reviews and there are plenty of ‘expensive’ apps that have serious stability/design issues. And this is ‘expensive’ in the contextual sense of the Appstore, where 69p is considered standard. In the wider context of music creation software, these apps are dirt, dirt cheap. At the time of writing ThumbJam retails for £5.99.
ThumbJam allows you play your phone like an instrument, using the screen to go up and down the scales, tilting and shaking the device for emphasis and vibrato. You need to play on your feet and get your whole body into the rhythm. It’s extremely intuitive.
What sets ThumbJam apart is the quality of the samples. They are, really really good. Particularly the string samples (there is a violin, viola, cello and string ensemble). With a bit of practice you can sound like a virtuoso! (Is that “cheating”? Well I guess that depends if you have access to a violinist willing to work on your project for nothing. I should imagine the answer to that question for most people is “no”. But I digress.)
Other samples include: Banjo, Glockenspiel, numerous pianos and organs, Mellotron, loads of percussion, Flute, Trumpet, lots of guitar, Bass, Double Bass and Tanpura (can’t wait to use that in something!). At the time of writing this is version 2.1.1, and new samples are being released all the time. Some work better than others. I’ve yet to find a really good guitar sample that doesn’t sound obviously fake, and ThumbJam is no different (though the Power Chords sample is nice and crunchy). And some of the samples sound very similar to others, just in a higher octave. However, all the samples are configurable (attack, release, polyphony, humanize and more) as are the controls and three banks of effects (Reverb, Delay, Filter).
There’s lots to play around with. Every scale I’ve ever heard of is represented (and plenty more I have not) as well as chords and intervals – you can even create your own scale. You can create your own instrument by recording your own samples. You can loop performances, layer the loops, mix them, and export them as an audiofile (or directly to Soundcloud). You can use an external MIDI Controller, via CoreMidi, to play the instruments (makes sense for the piano samples). You can even, via Bluetooth, collaborate with other users running the app on their devices – you could play together as a virtual string quartet.
I can’t imagine myself writing songs exclusively using ThumbJam (alright, I’ve written one), but as a repository of quality samples with an intuitive interface I’ll certainly be using it to embellish other recordings.