Version Reviewed: 1.1
iPhone Integration [rating:5/5]
User Interface [rating:4/5]
Re-use / Replay Value [rating:4/5]
"Let me take you to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real…" The "nothing is real" in the psychedelic production for this 1967 Beatles hit included a haunting flute-like instrument. If you're familiar with the song (And who of a certain age isn't?), you know what I'm talking about and can probably even hear the instrument in your head right now. That signature sound emanated from a wonderful electro-mechanical device known as the Mellotron. Now, iPhone and iPod touch owners can emulate the sound of the Mellotron with Manetron by insideout.
The Mellotron used an early, innovative method of reproducing the sound of acoustic instruments; it played back prerecorded tape loops housed inside its console. Press a key on the piano-style keyboard and a tape head would engage to play the loop for that pitch. The Mellotron was originally produced from the 1960s into the 1980s and the design changed somewhat over time. The sounds for the Manetron app were recorded from a Mellotron M400 manufactured in the 1970sl which featured three interchangeable banks of instruments. The three included on the Manetron are flute, violins, and cello.
Manetron not only brings app users the sounds of a Mellotron M400, it's of instrument serial number 714. There's a certain snob-factor to this perhaps but it's also indicative of insideout's attention to detail. For example, the app features a full seven seconds of recording for each pitch of each bank sampled at 96KHz/24 bits. As a result, the sounds produced by the Manetron are glorious—in a retro, low-fi sort of way replete with subtle wow and flutter and the idiosyncrasies of the performances used to create the original tape loops.
Speaking of attention to detail, the main screen of Manetron has a switch that lets you include as sonic backdrop the mechanical whir of the original instrument—I assume of ol' SN 714 herself. (Now, that's low-fi!)
Two aspects blemish Manetron's otherwise stellar performance. First, there is a noticeable, annoying click when you lift up a key. I'm not familiar enough with the intricacies of the original Mellotron to know if this is part and parcel of its sound (something like the click of the Hammond B3 organ). Even if it is, I would certainly like the option to disable it. Second, the samples are not looped. At the end of seven seconds, a note simply and abruptly stops. This makes it impossible to create a longer sustained "pad." (Interestingly, no click mars the end of a note held out to its full length.)
Of course, Manetron also suffers from the same problem as all music apps that incorporate a piano-style keyboard. How do you access the entire range of the instrument without creating keys of a size that only Ken or Barbie could play? With Manetron, you get an octave plus a third on the screen at any one time. You then move up and down the keyboard from there using arrow keys at the top of the screen. For me and my sausage-sized fingers, Manetron's keys are too close together for effective playing. I would prefer that it only showed an octave-worth of keys at a time.
The ultimate solution for this problem is of course for Apple to allow an external MIDI keyboard to be plugged into the iPhone. The utility of many music apps, including Manetron, would skyrocket if it did so. In fact, the iPhone would instantly become a serious music-making platform—that is, if you remember to put it into Airplane Mode first so an inspired performance doesn't get interrupted by a phone call.
I love an app that does one thing and does it extremely well. That's Manetron except for the annoying click heard when you release a note. Fire it up and you'll be instantly transported back to the days of King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, and The Moody Blues. Now, if there were only a way to play Manetron while simultaneously enjoying a virtual lava lamp app.