At the heart of TonePad, as you’ll see from the screenshots, is a 16 by 16 grid of dots, each of which corresponds to a note in pitch and time. Tap a dot to ‘light’ it and, as the time bar sweeps across the grid, it plays whatever dots are ‘lit’, producing some wonderfully pretty sequencer effects, repeating for effect. You can add extra lit dots in real time, remove some which are already lit, or apply one of the four built-in editing effects (‘Flip’, ‘Rotate’, ‘Shift’ and ‘Shuffle’), each of which rearranges the dots as appropriate and creates a new (and probably equally pretty) sequencer pattern. There’s no break in the rhythm while the change is applied either, with the effect that one pattern seamlessly morphs into the next. Very cool.
Unfortunately, this is where you realise that, pleasant though your initial trip with TonePad has been, it’s over and you’ve already discovered most of what the utility can do. Musically, it’s limited to the same 16 notes (spanning two octaves, but that’s still quite a narrow frequency range) and there’s currently no way to vary the sequencer speed (surely a candidate function for an update?) So, although TonePad is super for getting ideas for patterns, riffs and sequences, and might even make for the basis of an ambient demo, it’s hard to see anyone using it for real in a semi-professional basis.
There is, thankfully, the facility to load and save patterns, so that when you find one you really like, you’ll always be able to get back to it. You can even upload patterns to the TonePad web site, although this was down during the review period so I wasn’t able to download patterns from other musicians. Each pattern uploaded is given a unique reference code, so all you’ve got to do, in theory, is pass this code to someone else and they can then grab your pattern, to play it and perhaps even enhance it in TonePad on their own device.
The interface is intuitive to use, although somewhat fiddly – the dots are quite a bit smaller than a human fingertip and you’ll often find yourself hitting dots you didn’t want to hit. A ‘Colors’ function allows you to change the palette for the dots and background, in case you find one system easier to visualise than another.
Available for free, with just top-of-screen banner ads to endure/ignore, TonePad is highly recommended for anyone with a penchant for electronic and experimental music.