Version tested: PSP
Beaterator, as a piece of serious music software masquerading as a videogame, is not without precedent. In 1999, Codemasters' Music introduced a generation of PlayStation gamers to the world of digital music sequencing and, apocryphally at least, was in part responsible for launching the careers of Dizzee Rascal and The Streets. Beaterator, like Music before it, approximates the form and function of professional mixer packages such as Propellerheads' Reason, Apple's Logic and even ProTools, supplying a bevy of Timbaland-endorsed loops alongside the tools to write and even record your own music. The result is an extraordinary piece of diminutive compositional software, one that's primarily limited by user imagination and perseverance in mastering its somewhat labyrinthine menus and options.
For musicians familiar with the Nintendo DS' Korg DS 10 package, Beaterator offers a significant upgrade in terms of features and raw potential, despite its somewhat cartoonish frontend. At its core sits an 8-track sequencer allowing up to eight audio channels to be filled with loops of music and then played back simultaneously to create a song. The 'Song Crafter' interface will be familiar to anyone who's dabbled with digital music-creating software. Time's represented on the X-axis, divided into bars and subdivided into 16th beats. On the Y-axis you'll find eight rows, each of which can be assigned to a different instrument. By adding loops to these channels you build up your song, adding texture and form layer by layer.
To begin with, the simplest way into Beaterator composition is to pluck ready-made loops from its library of thousands of premade samples. You can search this brimming database by genre or by instrument and, generally, unless otherwise marked, everything is written in the same key as everything else in order to loosely fit together. So, on the first channel you might cue up a drum and bass drum pattern, before adding a dub-style bass on the second channel, a classical guitar on third and so on. All of the loops match to the .bpm of the song template (which can be easily changed at any time) and so, in next to no time, even beginners can have a rhythm and melody up and running.
Of course, while the stock loops are great for finding inspiration, if you want to start making unique creations you'll need to get stuck in writing your own loops and patterns. This is done via a standard Midi editor tool, which for melodic instruments presents you with a few octaves of a keyboard and then allows you to write in notes by hand along a rudimentary stave, right down to 16ths of a bar. Here you can set the length of each individual note and its associated volume and thus begin to write your own melodies. Once you're happy with your melodic 'loop' you then drop it into the mixer as you would any premade loop.
Samples in the library can all be individually tweaked, adding reverb, phase, and delay effects and you can even go into a waveform editor to, say, reverse a drum loop for style. Of course, you're fundamentally limited to just 8-tracks of simultaneous audio, so compositions can never become too complicated or layered, but as a pocket sketchpad for ideas, or even a tool for learning the basics of production and music composition, Beaterator is peerless on console platforms. Indeed, almost all of the lessons you'll learn in piecing together music are directly transferable to the aforementioned desktop programs, so would-be producers can be sure that they won't pick up any bad or superfluous habits.
Once your song is complete you can isolate and export individual instrument tracks as Midi files (useful if you're using Beaterator as a sketchpad away from a more serious set-up at home) or export your entire song as a .wav file ready to distribute to the world. Theoretically it would be straightforward to write and record an entire album of tracks before bundling them onto iTunes. In the event that this seems like too conspicuous a debut, you can always upload your song direct from the PSP to Rockstar's Social Club servers (a feature unavailable at the time of writing) in order to have it heard and rated by peers. While it's possible to import .wav samples to the sequencer (say, the a cappella track from NWA's Straight Outta Compton or Handel's Messiah Chorus, depending on your tastes) you won't be able to upload tracks that use bespoke samples to Rockstar's site (presumably to avoid licensing issues). Still, there's nothing to stop you creating, exporting and distributing whatever you want in the privacy of your own web-space.
We've started at the deep end of Beatertor's functionality because that's really where its value lies. Elsewhere there are concessions to beginners but these are, generally speaking, virtue-less over the long haul. A 'Live play' mode allows you to cue up a number of loops and freely switch between them as a sort of live set while a digitised Timbaland dances somewhat awkwardly to your efforts. While little more than a light distraction, it is possible to record your 'live set' and then fine-tune it within the Song Crafter mixer, as a sort of rudimentary remixing tool.
Beaterator's library of samples includes classical instruments as well as the expected cascade of warbly synths, but, predictably for a sample library at this price point, the quality of 'real' instruments is rather basic. Like its closest rival, Reason, Beaterator is naturally skewed towards electronic music creation. That said, it is possible to use the PSP's on-board mic to record onto your PSP's memory card as an impromptu sample creator, so if you do happen to kick ass at violin or French horn, you can add your own bespoke samples to replace the bundled ones (the quality of this recording won't be good enough for professional playback but, with some heavy effects, good stylised results can be achieved).
Despite this dizzying array of features there are some natural limitations when compared to similar desktop releases. It's not possible to change tempo or time signature within a song, and the restriction of eight instrument channels and no smaller unit of time than 16ths may frustrate more ambitious composers. But really, the criticisms that can reasonably be levelled against Beaterator are limitations of hardware and not software. In a sense, Beaterator is held back by its choice of platform, but then, at the same time its choice of platform is inextricably linked to its purpose: to provide a musical sketchpad upon which young, would-be producers and music makers can learn sequencing basics and quickly realise their ideas. Its limitations are, in that sense, strengths, in that it's just accessible enough to not overwhelm the newcomer, while offering enough complexity and breadth of options to meet the aspiration of the experienced.
The opportunity to record your own live music over the top of your sequenced compositions, to export Midi files with your loops and to save out songs as .wavs are features that go beyond where console-based music packages have ventured before. The product may suffer from the sort of identity crisis that's bound to befall any software semi-dressed as a videogame, with the Live Play environment and visualiser sitting awkwardly with the more serious elements of the package. But what it lacks in cohesive identity it more than makes up for with raw features. As such, Beaterator is a rare triumph, a piece of sober software whose unusual ambitions are just about matched by its hardware's capabilities. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Beaterator may not be the soundtrack to the future, but it might just unlock the door for those who will write it.
8 / 10