In the seven years since Apple first introduced the iPad we’ve seen a plethora of apps appear, including many designed for music education, giving users plenty to explore and consider adopting in their teaching studios.
One of the latest to make its mark, ScaleTracks is the work of concert pianist and teacher Ben Andrew and coder David Denning. They claim:
“ScaleTracks are professionally composed backing tracks for Scales & Arpeggios that will set your practice on fire.”
Having read positive reviews elsewhere and seen the app commended by several good friends, I decided to take it for a whirl and put Ben and David’s claims to the test. This post is part review, and part story of how I got on with the app in practice.
Download and Installation
As with all apps, ScaleTracks must be downloaded from the Apple App Store, and is automatically installed onto your device. In this case the process took considerably longer than usual – about a quarter of an hour – because of the large audio files included in the package.
The ScaleTracks app itself if free, and includes backing tracks for scales in the keys of C and A only, and in a limited range of musical styles. The purchase of the full version costs just £2.99 and unlocks the scales in all keys, as well as offering a very generous range of different styles.
For One Octave scales, there are three styles for Major and three for Harmonic Minor (no Melodic or Natural Minors, sadly), while Two Octave Scales are supported with 8 Major, 8 Harmonic Minor and 5 Melodic Minor backing tracks in each key. Further style choices are available for scales of Three Octaves and Four Octaves.
Bearing in mind that the full version includes more than 1,000 audio files, it’s important to check your device has sufficient space. The initial version is 220MB but the additional audio files clock in at 3.95GB, making this a sizeable app!
ScaleTracks is highly intuitive and easy to use. The screen layout is very well designed, logical and easy to the eye.
From the top left, choose whether it is a scale or arpeggio that you wish to play, the number of octaves, tonality and key. At each stage the menu folds out, ultimately revealing the various backing track styles that are available.
Once you’ve selected, the notation of the scale appears onscreen, with a large Play button beneath. Bottom right, you can select your tempo, while bottom left there’s a volume control as well as a very useful “solo” option. With this engaged, you can hear the scale itself played in time with the backing, but switch “solo” off and only the backing track remains.
Regardless of which style is chosen, it loads quickly and I found the app highly responsive. After a one-bar count-in, the backing starts, and allows for four repeats of the scale each time.
Getting a Balance
I’ve spent quite a time over many years dabbling in music production – teaching music technology for the local Music Service, beta testing early versions of Ableton and Propellerhead software, as well as creating and producing tracks of my own and in collaborations with others. So when it comes to sound quality, I’m very picky.
From my earliest days of teaching electronic keyboards, I have always advised schools, teachers, parents and students to invest in the best sound quality, understanding that this can have a huge impact on musical engagement.
I have to admit that when I first heard these backing tracks through the iPad’s small internal speakers I was initially tempted to uninstall it. Of course this is not a fault of the ScaleTracks app, but a limitation of the iPad itself
Quite apart from sound quality, the big issue is balance…
The volume level produced by an iPad using ScaleTracks might be fine for a violin or flute player, or even somebody practising on a digital piano (where their own volume can be turned down). But there was no way that the iPad was going to compete with the sound of my Yamaha YUS5.
Time to call in the cavalry – and happily there are several possible solutions!
These days there are a growing number of external audio interfaces that can be used with the iPad, provided you have a suitable cable to connect them to the device’s lightning port. In my own studio I have the Apogee Duet, which with a retail price of $595.00 is a high-end option; there are far cheaper alternatives.
Connecting my iPad to the Duet, and hence to my amplified Yamaha studio monitors, I was able to blast the backing tracks out at any volume I chose, before settling on something suitable for playing my scales with!
For those who don’t have suitable studio equipment, the developers recommend Bluetooth speakers for the iPad, or connecting to a hifi system.
A cheaper option again would be to use headphones, which would help both the quality and balance – but be careful where you put the cable!
Headphones may be the best option for students playing a modern acoustic piano while using the app, and with a little care it should be possible to find a suitable volume which is loud enough to follow the backing track while also being sensitive to one’s own playing and tone production.
The Backing Tracks
Styles included in the free version range from movie-score-like Driving Strings through to range of contemporary popular styles, from Drum & Bass to Bossa Nova, and from Funky Dubstep to House.
As for the backing tracks themselves, listening through studio equipment my ears tuned into the mix, and I think they are mostly very good indeed.
Some, such as Driving Strings, have no drum machine included, so careful listening and a little thought is required to hook into the pulse at first. This makes the track more difficult to play along with than those with a more obvious beat, but this makes a good challenge in itself.
On the technical side, the quality of the time stretching is outstanding, and even when setting the backing track to the slowest tempi, artefacts don’t get in the way.
When practising scales and arpeggios on the piano there are many important elements to work on from the start, including:
- Learning the correct notes and fingering patterns
- Developing finger independence, dexterity and rhythmic fluency
- Developing an even tone and effective balance between hands
After trying my scales in the keys of A and C along with the backing tracks, I realised how important it is that I can already play them well.
Basically, ScaleTracks doesn’t particularly help with the fundamental learning of scales so much as offering a reward for students once a scale has already been mastered. And as such, it seems highly likely to me that many students will find this app a real inspiration to practice and learn their scales effectively!
Playing along with the backing tracks, I found that my mental focus, my attentive listening and concentration were mostly focussed on the backing tracks themselves – making sure that I stayed in time by following the rhythmic lead they provide, and enjoying my own place within the bigger musical picture.
This is of course quite different to the focus that might otherwise occupy the player who is practising scales.
In other words, ScaleTracks adds, I believe, a new element to scales playing rather than replacing our established approaches to learning and benefitting from them. If we use scales as a means to developing mastery of tonal qualities, articulation, dynamics and balance, these will still need separate practice.
Over the years I have sometimes used electronic keyboard backing tracks to accompany students playing scales in my studio, and my Keyquest books include suggested chord patterns that work with all the major and minor scales. For working on rhythm, listening and fluency this has always seemed preferable to using a metronome – and a lot more engaging!
The big advantage with ScaleTracks is that students can so cheaply have their own backing tracks for use throughout the week.
With all this in mind, I’ll be recommending my students download the free version of this and try it out for themselves, with the proviso that their practice with ScaleTracks doesn’t replace their existing scales practice, but is an add-on. You might wish to consider doing the same!
While demoing ScaleTracks I honestly didn’t get much practice done – but I did have a lot of fun. And I feel that is what the app offers most. Some won’t like it, but others will have an absolute blast!
Why not try the free version right now?
ScaleTracks is available for iPad and iPhone from the Apple App Store.