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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review: Musicverse Electronic Keyboard (Nintendo 3DS)

Review by Harvard L.

Musicverse Electronic Keyboard is a new music-making app for the Nintendo 3DS, using all the capabilities of the system to provide a robust composition and performance tool on the go. Developed by Abylight, the team behind the Music Go series for DSiWare, Musicverse comes from a long running line of bite-sized music apps for the Nintendo line of handhelds. Musicverse simulates a complete electronic keyboard complete with programmable settings, rhythms, instruments and chord progressions.

Most of your time spent with Musicverse will be on the keyboard using the touchscreen. Using the stylus, players have access to two octaves of a traditional keyboard at a time, with the option to go up and down to reach a total of six octaves. A handy feature allows the highlighting of notes that pair well with the currently playing chord, allowing for easy improvisation which always sounds half decent. There's also a feature which lets you bend the pitch of your current note up or down a tone, leading to some particularly trippy sounding tunes. Unfortunately, the 3DS screen is single touch which means you'll never be able to play two notes at the same time. This is a huge limitation which I had hoped would have been remedied with a loop function or something of the like, but seems to have not been addressed by the developers.

With the digital keyboard section however, the developers have really gone above and beyond. There are 16 traditional MIDI instruments to choose from and another 16 "retro" soundbanks. I had a lot of fun with the Retro banks as their sound effects perfectly mimic old school NES chiptunes. Try to guess what game I've been playing lately from this next song!

Musicverse also offers a variety of backing tracks to play along to, with 16 different musical styles to choose from. Each of these has three variations, mapped to the Y, X and A buttons for easy access when playing the keyboard, as well as a 4 beat flourish mapped to the B button. Variation changes are automatically done at the end of each bar, with smooth transitions automatically programmed in. These backing tracks are split into basslines, melodies and drum lines, and each of these can be turned on and off at whim. While I found most to be well composed, there were a few styles which didn't interest me much (Dixieland and Bossa Nova come to mind) and others were a bit over-composed to the point where the player isn't really adding much with their single keyboard notes to the overall feel of the song.

That being said though, playing around with the backing tracks is still much more fun than using the rather limited keyboard. For the music theory geeks out there, Musicverse actually has an astounding repertoire of chords for you to sequence, including everything from augmented and diminished, major and minor sixths, sevenths and the minor major seventh. If those words didn't mean anything to you, they're variations of chords which are nearly never seen in popular music: the sixths and sevenths, especially the major seventh, sees some use in jazz improvisation (which is a lot of fun in this app, by the way), whereas I've never even managed to find an appropriate use of the minor major seventh in a song. Each chord can be assigned to a face direction making for eight in total and can be called upon in real time.

It's a real shame that the app doesn't teach you how these progressions are used though. There is an in-game tutorial which outlines the uses of all the buttons, but it doesn't teach anything about music theory. The light-up keys feature, while intuitive, doesn't tell you anything about what patterns sound good with each chord, but only which notes fall into the domain of that particular chord pattern. As a result, it's hard to figure out what a good melody in a particularly uncommon key is supposed to sound like. There's also no help in designing your own chord progressions or any instruction on which chords sound good leading into each other, so you might need to do some outside research to get the most out of this app.

When you're feeling confident, you can try out the record feature which condenses the backing track and everything you play down into a script, which you can then convert into an AAC file. I found that at times the touch screen was a bit small so it was easy to hit the wrong key by mistake. There's no way to fix this up either - in fact, Musicverse Electronic Keyboard doesn't use music notation at all and all the composition you'll ever do has to be done live. If you mess up, you can rewind back to that particular bar and try to record it again, but there's always going to be a degree of personal skill required to ensure that all your notes are on beat. Musicverse's conversion to AAC tool leaves your compositions sounding pretty decent on most devices. And it's easy to then share this music across your social networks, which is always an appreciated touch.

Altogether, Musicverse Electronic Keyboard is an app with its heart in the right place and you can tell the developers really wanted to make a robust and viable performance and composition tool for the 3DS. While Musicverse really shines in some departments, certain design flaws limit the creative potential offered to players and leave the software feeling much more like a toy than a legitimate composition studio. To its credit, this software is fantastic for trying out new chord progressions on the fly and improvising basic melodies alongside them, but aside from that feature as a reference, or a way to "jot" down ideas for tunes while on the go, budding composers would want to transcribe their ideas onto more reliable software.

- Harvard L. 

Review: Musicverse Electronic Keyboard (Nintendo 3DS)
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