Though things are getting better, our wealthier iOS cousins still have devices that are better optimised for creating music with, there's no way around that. That said, we Android music makers should certainly not despair. iOS users have many, many brilliant apps to choose from but we have a really solid, albeit much smaller, group of apps that are just as capable - some are cross-platform which surely proves the point, doesn't it? We all know what those apps are - they are mentioned regularly throughout this website - and we love them all. Given the talent and imagination, these apps can easily yield great sounding results so don't ever feel you can't seriously make music just because you're on Android. The truth is that, even on Android, we have an astounding amount of high quality music making possibilities we can carry around in our pockets. Just consider how much the equivalent technology would have cost 20 years ago? You certainly couldn't have carried it in your pocket either. Consider also what a musician you admire from the past could, would have done with the same technology were it available to them when they were starting out? We have a lot to be happy about. That core group of really solid, extremely capable Android apps serve us really well and together give us a huge variety of creative possibilities and control. One of those apps, the subject of this review, is unquestionably Stagelight.
I always feel Stagelight doesn't get the attention it deserves. Maybe that is just an erroneous assumption on my part - I hope it is - but I wanted to write this review to alert anyone who might not be aware of it to what a capable and comprehensive app it truly is. What's more, Stagelight Version 4 has just been released which offers many improvements and an amazing new instrument called SampleVerse.
Stagelight began its life as a desktop application for Windows. It then made its way to Android and Mac and, with Version 4, it also makes its debut on iOS. All versions are identical except for the unavoidable omissions/additions due to platform restrictions - the desktop version has full vst support for example.
A while back, with the Android Version 3 Unlock, Open Labs - the developers of Stagelight - combined all of the app's features into a one off purchase. Previously, some features had only been available as extra in-app purchases but this new pricing structure immediately made what had always been a very fairly priced package into one that was fantastically good value for money. With Stagelight you really get an amazing amount for your money and that certainly remains the case with the new Android Version 4 Unlock.
I will get to Stagelight Version 4 in a moment, but first I'll give you a brief overview of the Version 3 features. There’s a huge amount of depth and functionality in this app so I will undoubtedly fail to mention everything it is capable of - after all, I don't want to end up writing a user manual - as such, I'll concentrate on the features I'm most impressed with and my apologies if I miss anything you think is a highlight; please mention it in the comments if that's the case.
Overview of Stagelight Version 3 features and highlights.
Stagelight is a full Digital Audio Workstation. It has the capability to record and edit audio, create and work with midi, add effects, arrange and mix your music and export it in a variety of formats. It does almost everything you'd expect of a DAW, perhaps only lacking some advanced audio file editing which will no doubt come at some point. It has two ways of constructing your music: an innovative Loop Builder interface and a more traditional Timeline view, which will be familiar to anyone who's used such software before. If you enjoy building your tracks in the Loop Builder, but then want to transfer them to the Timeline, no problem: just select the correct record mode and the audio and midi tracks are transcribed across to the Timeline in real time according to your Loop Builder arrangement. You then have your audio and midi tracks available as complete, full length tracks should you want to make further edits, rearrangements or add extra automations. In either viewpoint, your track is constructed from individual tracks. You can choose to add Audio Tracks (imported or recorded in-app), (virtual) Instrument Tracks and Drum Tracks. You can also add Send Tracks for effects and there are track templates if that's something that interests you.
Found within a Drum Track, the drum sequencer element of Stagelight is an area in which it particularly shines. The included samples are plentiful and of excellent quality. Further sample packs can be bought from the Stagelight Store if you want and these are of equally fine quality. The remarkable thing is the amount of control the sequencer gives the user. Open up the sidebar on the left and the controls for the individual samples can be found. Here you can adjust the start and endpoint of the sample, change its direction, tune it up or down (with selectable Stretch mode between Vinyl or Smart, which changes the pitch whilst preserving the original sample length), control the overall sample gain and adjust Low and High EQ. This panel also allows you to apply any of Stagelight's effects to the individual sample. That selection of controls is admirable in itself but where the Stagelight drum machine really impresses is with the amount of per step automation it offers for each sample. Double tap one of the sample names and the automation controls are revealed. These are all set by adjusting sliders for each individual active step. The automation options on offer are Velocity, Pan, Pitch, High Cut, Low Cut, Sub-Divide (roll), Push/Pull (to shift steps away from the exact beat), Reverse, and Velocity Jitter and Pan Jitter (to add more, or less, fluctuations to those parameters’ settings at each pass). Add all of this together and you can very easily make some very intricate, great sounding beats. Should you then want to apply some effects or adjustment across the whole drum sequencer, just do so to the Drum Track which contains it. What's more, you can have Drum Tracks with different time signatures running simultaneously should you want to create some really complex polyrhythms - change the time signature setting, create a new Drum (or Instrument Track) and that new track will have the new time signature whist those already existing before the change will continue to run on the original time signature. The Stagelight drum machine capabilities are really impressive and very sophisticated.
Stagelight Version 3 had seven virtual instruments (plus, of course, the drum machine) and Version 4 adds an eighth which I shall come to later. These seven consisted of two very fine synthesizers and five sample based instruments. In truth, the five sample based instruments are really the same virtual instrument, split into five instrument types with their own interfaces but with identical parameter controls for each. These are the ElectroComposer, for orchestral type instruments, and the self-explanatory ElectroBass, ElectroGuitar, ElectroKeys and ElectroOrgan. The quality of these sample based instruments is generally excellent though personally I don't think the orchestral instruments are a high point. That said, all of these instruments allow the import and use of SFZ based instruments and there are some very fine, and free, examples of orchestral instruments in SFZ format to be found out there if you want them. The interfaces for these sample based instruments allow an impressive array of controls for shaping the initial sound including a Filter (selectable between different types), two assignable LFO's and four built-in effects as well as the usual Pitch Wheel, Modulation Wheel and attack and release controls. It's worth pointing out that if the controls for these parameters available on the instrument interface itself aren't enough for you, click on the little four-square icon on the top left and select Show Parameters: this makes all of the parameters available for user adjustment via an interface of sliders. Again, a huge amount of control is given to the user and it means these are all very versatile instruments for sound creation.
The same Show Parameters option is also available for both of the Stagelight synthesizers, ElectroSynth and ElectroPulse. If, like myself, you enjoy creating your own synth sound from scratch, this is great news. Both synths offer a great deal of control from their well designed instrument interfaces, but the Show Parameters option will almost certainly give you access to anything you feel is missing. ElectroSynth is a three oscillator, highly versatile synthesizer. It has all of the controls you'd expect to find - different wave type choices for each voice, filters, ADSR envelope, two assignable LFOs and four built in effects - and sounds very good. ElectroPulse is a two oscillator synth (plus a Sub oscillator) but gives you more control of each of those two voices than the ElectroSynth, both of them having their own filter and volume envelope. The other main addition to the features of ElectroSynth is the ElectroPulse's built in Gater effect. This is a sequencer based gater for easily giving the synth output its own rhythmical component. The gater step sequencer can be from 8 steps per bar (mono or stereo) up to 16 steps (stereo) or 32 steps (mono). Gater attack and release can be controlled from within the Show Parameters options. This is a great feature and really makes ElectroPulse a uniquely capable synth on the Android platform. The two synths together allow you to create a huge variety of high quality sounds and, of course, there's a wealth of included presets if you're not into creating your own.
All of these instruments can be controlled by the on-screen keyboard, by a connected midi keyboard (if you have the required OTG cable and a tablet or phone with such functionality) or by using Stagelight's piano roll editor. There is also a Key Lock feature which, when on, allows you to set the key - with a full range of types available - and then restricts the visible notes on the on-screen keyboard and the piano roll to notes within that key. Thus, you always stay in key. If you then want to add some accidentals to your music on the piano roll editor, just turn Key Lock off and the rest of the notes will reappear. The piano roll editor in Stagelight, I must admit, isn't my favourite of those available in Android apps. It just isn't, to my mind, optimised for touchscreen usage as much as it could be. This is a minor quibble though and the functionality is certainly all there. What is impressive within the piano roll editor is the excellent automation controls and the vast number of parameters available for automation. Again, great creative control given to the user.
Stagelight offers the full range of effects that you'd expect to find in such software, so no complaints there. It does have, for me, two stand out effects though. The first is the Gater which is a standalone version of the gater effect found in the ElectroPulse to be applied to anything you choose; a very useful tool to have. The second is the Glitch6. The Glitch6 is a remarkable thing and a genuinely creative tool. It could easily be a standalone app in its own right. Glitch6 takes the signal of the track you've added the effect to and applies six types of manipulation to that signal. But, when those different types of manipulation are applied is controlled via the effect interface and a sixteen step ‘probability’ sequencer for each type of manipulation. Each type (Repeat, Gate, Pitch, Crush, Reverse and Reverb) has a sequencer of sixteen sliders. Set a slider all the way on/up and that type will definitely take place at that step of the sequence on each pass, set it all the way off/down and that type will definitely not be applied at that point. Setting the slider anywhere in-between increases or decreases the likelihood/probability of the manipulation being applied at that step for each pass. The Pitch type sequencer also allows the possibility of the step possibility slider to be pitch up or pitch down (by a user determined amount of semitones). I hope that description of the effect makes some sort of sense and isn't too bewildering - it is not an effect that you are going to get completely predictable results out of, probability isn't completely predictable, but it's a really unique, creative and exciting tool to have and can easily yield some fascinating results. It's great fun as well.
Don't forget, but the way, that there are Show Parameter options for effects too. If some controls aren't available on the plug-in interface itself, try looking. They usually are on the interface but if, for example, you want to apply an LFO to the Filter effect, you'll find it in the Show Parameters options.
So, I think that rounds up my brief overview of the Version 3 features. Everything you'd expect from a DAW, overall high sound quality for all elements and many standout features. As I said though, that was by no means an exhaustive tour of Version 3 and there will be plenty that others will feel should have been mentioned. Glancing back over what I've written I see, for example, that I've not mentioned Stagelight's track freeze function…well, yes, it's got that too if you need to free up some cpu usage…oh, and the Mixer view, it got one of those, yes…
Stagelight Version 4 and SampleVerse.
That brings us to Stagelight Version 4 which has recently been released. Back in 2017, Open Labs conducted a user survey to ascertain what features users most wanted to be added to Stagelight. Apparently, the overwhelming result was ‘a sampler’. As well as many user interface refinements, under-the-hood improvements and improvements to the superb automation system, the major new addition in Version 4 delivers on this user feedback in the form of Stagelight's new instrument, SampleVerse.
SampleVerse is a sampler but it's so much more as well and has clearly been created with imagination and attention to detail so that it can be as useful as possible to the end user. As with the Glitch6, SampleVerse could easily be a standalone app in its own right.
When you first create a SampleVerse instrument track and open up the SampleVerse interface, you'll see a bank of playable note pads. You'll immediately find that you can slide your finger between the notes and have the pitch bend to follow your course. This is due to SampleVerse's support for MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression) and is especially impressive when used with real world samples. Try, for example, the included Tele Lite preset and you'll see how effective it is at mimicking the effect of sliding between notes on a guitar fretboard. You can, of course, also play many notes at once unless the preset is set up deliberately to not allow it and you can use the on-screen keyboard instead of the pads if you'd prefer. But that's just the start of SampleVerse's charms.
Within the SampleVerse instrument the user can add not only up to three different Sample Banks but also up to three Oscillators and three LFO's which can be assigned to modulate various parameters. There is also a very sophisticated Arpeggiator and a Master section. From that, I think you easily see that this instrument is going to be capable of allowing you to create some amazing sounds.
The Sample Bank elements are sample players. You can open one of the included set of samples, import your own wav file, import your own SFZ instrument or record your own set of samples using the device microphone to create a Sample Bank. The way SampleVerse allows you to create a set of samples from the device microphone is truly impressive. Open up the Sample record area, press record, sing a note, press stop and the waveform is there in front of you, where you can then set a loop point if desired. Not only that though, SampleVerse has a built in, and very accurate, pitch recognition and pitch correction function so that your recorded samples will be correctly assigned and in tune with the oscillators. That pitch correction is all done automatically but it can easily be turned off, so don't worry if it sounds like it's taking the control out of your hands - it isn't. But that still isn't the most impressive thing. With SampleVerse you can press record, sing many different notes with gaps in-between them, press stop, and SampleVerse will automatically split that single recording into the separate samples and assign them to their correct pitches - with correction if desired and necessary. How clever is that? You can then select each of those individual samples and set their loop points. Those samples will be automatically and logically spread out across the instrument range by the app. Then, just save the set of samples and you've created your very own multi-sample Sample Bank. You can even export your completed Sample Bank as an SFZ to use in the other instruments in Stagelight which support them (they don't seem to work with other Android apps that support the SFZ format though).
Currently, the wav file import is rather limited, only allowing the import of a single wav file per Sample Bank element. This individual sample is then stretched across the entire range - not ideal. The developers have confirmed that multi-file wav import will be possible at some point though, which will make it easily possible to create multi-sampled Sample Banks from your own wav files. Stagelight is very actively developed so I've no doubt this will happen. For now, if you want to create your own multi-sampled Sample Banks you'll need to use the method described above or make and import your own SFZ instruments (which really isn't as difficult as you might think - please check out my mini article about Folder-to-SFZ Convertor by Versilian Studios after this review; it's a great tool you really should be aware of.).
As you can imagine, if you add three Sample Banks to your SampleVerse instrument you're already going to have some interesting things going on. But as I said, you can also add up to three LFOs for some modulation. Parameters which can be modulated by the LFOs are indicated by little asterisks underneath them and found throughout the SampleVerse interfaces. Press the asterisk and select the LFO you want to modulate that parameter from the pop-up list and its done - simple as that. Each LFO element has its own comprehensive set of controls which, by now, will come as no surprise.
Still want to add to your sound design? Well, you can. You can add up to three Oscillator elements as well if desired. SampleVerse isn't just a sample player, it's a synthesizer too. Each Oscillator element allows you to choose from a selection of waveforms which can be added together to create the final output signal. Each individual waveform within the Oscillator can also be edited using a grid of sliders and that grid resolution can be selected between ⅓ and 1/64 beat - this gives you a lot of control. The user can also control the gain, phase, pitch (octave shifts) and length of each waveform. This makes each Oscillator element very flexible, and don't forget you can include up to three of them in your SampleVerse instrument.
All Sample Banks and Oscillators include an Amp envelope,a Modulation envelope and a Filter as well as an overall gain and fine tune control. The Master section allows you to control the overall gain and pan for SampleVerse. It also includes an overall filter and built in reverb if you want them but, most interestingly, you can find the option to turn Portamento on and off (plus some settings if it's ‘on’) in the Master section of SampleVerse.
The last element of SampleVerse is the Arpeggiator. This is a fully editable arpeggiator with control over just about everything you could want. What impresses most is that the Arpeggiator has five programmable layers, whereby each additional arpeggio layer is triggered when another key is simultaneously pressed. Press one key and the first arpeggio plays; add another key press whilst continuing to hold the first key and the second arpeggio is added, add another and the third arpeggio is added and so on until you have five arpeggios running simultaneously. It's slightly more complicated than that though as the first layer will always start its arpeggio at the lowest note currently pressed and the highest active layer will always start the arpeggio at the highest currently pressed note. Thus, if you have three keys pressed, the lowest will be the start point for arpeggio one, the middle one the start point for arpeggio two and the highest note the start point for arpeggio three. If you then press another key, lower still, that will then become the start point for arpeggio one and the other key/start points will be shifted up one layer to become the start points for arpeggios two, three and four (which will now be active). Give it a go, you'll see what I mean. Again, this has clearly been designed with creativity in mind and is a fascinating tool to have. It works very well but it is currently let down by the editing interface on smaller screens - if you want to create a really long arpeggio sequence with very short length notes, you're really going to struggle unless you've got a big screen at your disposal. This is really a shame when the functionality is definitely all there. I've mentioned this to the developers and they have confirmed that it is not currently ideal and that they are planning to find a solution sooner rather than later, so fingers crossed.
Those, then, are the elements that can be combined together as you see fit to create your SampleVerse presets. They make SampleVerse an immensely powerful tool and it's hard to imagine a type of sound that couldn't be created with all of these elements available and used skillfully.
The SampleVerse user interface itself is very pleasing. One area where Stagelight excels is in its representation of LFOs, showing you them in real time in a very clear and understandable way. SampleVerse does this as well - in a prettier way still - but also applies a similar approach to depicting the waveforms in the Master, Sample Bank and Oscillator elements. It is very easy to see, for example, how one, or more, waveform added to another forms the resulting shape of the Oscillator output. Assign an LFO to one of the available parameters and you'll see how it affects the Master output. It's all laid out to show you what's happening which is very satisfying. From their website, I see that Open Labs run some sort of educational program - I don't know if this has anything to do with this sort of ‘show what's happening’ approach to UI design but it certainly does make it easy to grasp what's going on and I like it a lot.
Actually playing SampleVerse is very satisfying and the MPE support means the user can do some genuinely subtle performances - I can easily imagine that some users will become experts at playing and performing with SampleVerse as an instrument in its own right. SampleVerse also allows for Roli Blocks control but personally I have no experience of that so cannot comment; and don't even know if Android devices support such functionality yet?
Knowing that multiple wav file import will be coming at some point, I don't really have any criticisms of SampleVerse beyond the aforementioned Arpeggiator editor interface. It's a really unique instrument and enormous fun. You could perhaps emulate what it does, with all the elements, if you really know what you're doing with Sunvox, utilising its extraordinary Touch Theremin with its ability to use samples, plus its other components, but it would be nowhere near as easy, or as quick, to do. That aside, I don't think any other app offers anything like it. What's more, it's one instrument built into the whole Stagelight package so it can, even with all of its self-contained brilliance, be used in just the same way you use any of the other instruments once you've created your SampleVerse sound or selected one of the included presets. It's a fantastic addition and easily justifies the upgrade cost from Version 3 to Version 4.
That Upgrade cost for those who already own the Android Version 3 Unlock is currently $4.99. That's an amazing deal in my opinion - if SampleVerse were a standalone app, and it really could be, I can't imagine it'd be that cheap, plus you’re getting all of the other v4 improvements and a ton of extra presets for SampleVerse as well. What's more, you get $10 of Stagelight Store Credits included in that purchase! At that price, the Upgrade is a no-brainer for existing users as far as I can see.
If you are a new customer, the Android Version 4 Unlock, for full version 3 and 4 functionality, is currently $14.99. Pleasingly, this gives new customers exactly the same deal as existing ones - the Version 3 Unlock was $9.99 and the version 4 upgrade cost is $4.99, so there it is and completely fair in my opinion. That $14.99 also gives you $10 of Stagelight Store Credit to spend on extra content. Content packs are $3.99 each and fall into two types - Sample/Preset packs and Loop packs. I've bought several sample packs and they've all been of excellent quality, especially the drum samples. Personally, I'm not interested in Loop packs but I can only imagine they're of the same high quality. After all, all of the Stagelight content is the same regardless of platform so mobile users aren’t getting a slimmed down version of the content desktop users get which probably explains a lot regarding the sample quality. High quality does mean bigger files though - can't expect one without the other I'm afraid - so your device storage will take a hit (…though, thankfully, one shot drum samples are very short in length, so even high quality drum packs don't take up too much space).
There is also the Stagelight Version 4 Ultimate Unlock for $149.99 which includes the ‘Unlocks’ for all mobile and desktop versions of Stagelight as well as everything in the Store - all content packs currently available as well as any others which are added - and others will be added - up until Version 5 is released. This apparently gives you content worth $700 were all items bought individually.
And, of course, you can try just about everything in the Free but ‘locked’ version. If I recall correctly, it's mostly the ability to edit the parameters of instruments and effects that is locked along with the Pro export options, but there might, quite reasonably, be other things which are disabled in the free version which I can't remember. You can very much try before you buy.
One thing's for sure, Stagelight gives you an enormous amount of functionality and content for your money. The Platform Unlock for a new customer of $14.99 for Android gives you access to the full capabilities of SampleVerse, the excellent Drum Machine, ElectroPulse, ElectroSynth and the five other sample based instruments; access to the full controls of all effects, including the Glitch6 and Gater, plus the Pro export options as well. Not only that, I checked with the developers and it also adds (to what's already there in the free version) over 800 one shot drum samples, 37 additional drum kits and over 375 presets across all of the nine instruments! This equates to just over 1GB of installed content. Plus, you get $10 Stagelight Store credit to buy even more content. I think that's extraordinarily good value by any standards.
If you're wanting me to say whether Stagelight is better than this, that, or the other app, well, I'm afraid I'm not going to do that. As I said at the beginning, I love all of the significant music making apps for Android and I want to see them all succeed, thrive and continue to be developed. They all have their stronger and their weaker points but what those are is probably subjective at the end of the day so what good would my comparisons really do for you anyway? I did, though, take the time to write all of this purely to alert you to what I think is a really, really good piece of software, one I think you should be aware of, and using, if you are making music on your Android device. Stagelight is incredibly capable, full of features, superb value for money and, most importantly, it all sounds great. You can just do so much with it and it gives you an amazing amount of control over every aspect of your production so that you get things sounding exactly as you want. It could be used for any type of music and personally, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a friend.
If you're interested in making music and haven't tried it before, I think you'd be crazy not to give the free version a go, and if you've tried it before but decided against it for some reason, I really urge you to try it again, give SampleVerse a go and see what you think now. I think you're going to like it.
Stagelight can be found on the Play Store here: