Jam Space: PocketStudio Review
Posted by Zach Kaplan
Dance club calibre headaches without the fun
Among the applications that have made it to DSiWare so far is a handful of music mixing and writing programs, none of which are particularly bad. From the mighty Rytmik and its rockin' follow-up to the slightly more basic but still solid Rhythm Core Alpha, DJs on the go have had their fair share of options; however, until now there's not been a truly subpar choice in the genre. Thankfully, these quality programs no longer have to subsist on their merits alone as Jam Space: PocketStudio is here to make them all look better by comparison.
The app comprises two modes: Quick Jam and Studio Session. The former will allow you to play visual depictions of a drum set, keyboard, guitar and bass, while the latter presents you with a basic MIDI mixer with four dedicated tracks, one for each instrument. Regarding the first mode, playing the piano and drums are a simple enough affair as they're easily replicated on the touch screen for you to click, but using the guitar and bass feels quite silly as you're limited to holding down a direction on the D-Pad to choose a chord and strumming with the stylus. It's a bit unresponsive as well; there might be a slight delay between your action and the required note playing, so it's nigh impossible to do anything complex within this set-up. You may also strike through a section of the screen marked "Pattern" to have the computer do this for you, which removes you from the creative experience and feels awkward, having you rub the stylus over this as rapidly as you'd like the sample to play. You are able to create your own patterns, but utilising them in this odd fashion takes the fun out of it. On the upside, however, the game includes a handy metronome and allows you to record what you create here, overdubbing what you've already played with new material to generate larger pieces, but since there's no visual mixer or sheet music involved it's difficult to do this with any precision.
The four-track mixer is competent at the very little that it allows you to do. If you just want four instruments in a song it'll work fine, but it restricts you to this and only this. You pick a style (chord set) and patch (instrument sound) for each track that apply to the entire tune, and beyond mixing and matching these, you're stuck. Worse still, there's no sample editor or library, so if you create a beat or riff worth repeating, you'll have to lay it down multiple times or continuously copy and paste instead of creating individual samples and placing these within the mixer. You can save your creations for later use, but like its competitors, there's no simple way to export them as music files. (You can, however, read our guide to learn of one handy way to do this.)
Beyond only allowing you to implement one instrument variation at a time, PocketStudio includes woefully few of them with which to do so: six piano, four bass, five guitar and five drumkit patches as well as five styles for acoustic instruments and six for drums don't make for a lot of options, especially compared to the plethora available from its competitors. There's also no way to customise the sound of each note to your liking (with reverb, decay, stereo differentiation, etc.), which is especially unfortunate here as the sound quality of each is a mixed bag, and a little customisability can go a long way. Most drumkits and electric patches, especially synthesisers with a retro feel, sound nice enough, but any acoustic instrument like a grand piano or non-electric guitar plays tinny, basic MIDI samples without any depth or resonance.
Even if you warm up to the small variety of content, you'll face quite a headache making use of it. We expect music sequencers to be difficult to understand, but this one's just poorly designed. Instead of simply clicking to lay down notes or erase them, you'll have to press a tiny button representing a pen or an eraser on a tiny pop-out menu that pops right back after you've selected something with a "Shh!" sound that you'll grow tired of very quickly. There also are buttons for copy, paste, select, grab and so on, and your playback buttons are located on another tiny pop-out menu below that. If you click the wrong tiny button, you'll have to chase the menu back and listen to the same "Shh!" noise twice more, and the same thing will occur for any other reason you can conceive of wanting to press two buttons in rapid succession (play and pause for example). Worse still, the same buttons appear even in areas of the game in which they aren't available, making a simple task like copying and pasting a frustrating chore when you don't know where you're allowed to do so or which specific tools to use. If you need help, you'll have to completely exit the game and access the manual from the main menu. The visuals don't make things any easier, either – the text is as tiny as the tiny menus and appears quite faintly, so even those with good eyesight may have to squint a bit. Meanwhile, the top screen usually repeats the same two sets of simple instructions on button configurations in a continuous loop, so you'll have to wait a few seconds for the ones you need to pop up if you look up at the wrong time.
Beyond this, PocketStudio just exudes a lack of polish. The menus pop out above the action, and if you're using the visual drumkit, pressing a button will also play the drum sample below it (as well as the "Shh!" of the menu retracting), which makes for more trouble when the button in question is Record. Certain commands are unresponsive as well, and we came across such bugs as disappearing menus, a "select area" box appearing in the wrong mode and audio patches that wouldn't switch. Worst of all, we encountered a frozen game, and every musician forced to use shoddy software knows the pain of facing this when in the middle of an inspired moment or a long, complex song they've neglected to save recently.
A restrictive MIDI sequencer, a tiny collection of instrument patches, clumsy controls and an infuriating navigation system make Jam Space: PocketStudio a poor excuse for a music application. At 500 Points it's the same price as Rhythm Core Alpha, a bit cheaper than Rytmik and a bit more expensive than Rytmik: Rock Edition, all of which are vastly superior in every way. Aspiring musicians and DJs, take heed: if you want to jam, avoid this sham.