Toca Band (iPhone / iPad review)

We’ll get to the important bit without delay: if you have young children and an iOS device, download Toca Band right away.

The kids will love it, but so will you. In the week since we got our review copy, we’ve spent almost as much time playing with it as our sons have. And they’ve played it a lot…

But to cover the almost-as-important bits, Toca Band is the latest app from Swedish startup Toca Boca, which has made a succession of marvellous digital toys for iPhone and iPad over the past couple of years.

Previous apps have had children driving trains, cleaning houses, cooking, making robots and playing shopkeeper, among others. This time round, they’re making music with the help of a collection of colourful characters.

As with those previous apps, Toca Band is easy to pick up and play: even our three year-old needed the bare minimum of help to figure it out. You’re presented with three rows of circular plinths, onto which you drag and drop characters from a scrolling carousel at the bottom of the screen.

There’s a drummer, a bass guitar, an accordion and a guitarist, but also a couple of singers, a pair of boinging frogs, a whistling triangle… thing, a ticking clock, a cat that makes theremin-like noises that wouldn’t sound out of place on Doctor Who, and best of all a little round rapper with a baseball cap, a pair of Elton John specs and an ace line in Ragga-chatting.

Each character has a different melody or sample depending on which plinth you place them on – slower or less notes for the front row, and faster / louder at the back. Wherever you put them, they’re playing parts for the same song, but there’s bags of flexibility.

We’ve made everything from a clattery drum’n’bass’n’frog version through to a theremin-cat plus stomping-spider plus deflating-balloon which sounds a bit like an Orb B-side. A bit.

Place a character on the big yellow spotlight, and they’re lifted up, filling the screen for what’s effectively a solo – you can play individual notes / beats / etc by tapping on them while the other characters continue playing their loops below. Essentially, Toca Band is a fairly powerful electronic music synthesizer masquerading as a wonderfully easy-to-use children’s app.

Criticism? There is only the one song, and it’s enormously earwormy. By which we mean you will be singing, whistling and humming it pretty much all the time after just a couple of plays from your kids. Which is a compliment, really. But also potentially maddening.

We’ll be really interested to see if Toca Boca adds new songs over time, either as free updates or as in-app purchases (IAP). Like many parents we worry about inappropriate use of IAP in kid’s apps, but in this case, we’d happily pay for new songs. If only to change what’s playing on our internal jukeboxes… There may also be scope to add new characters and sounds, of course.

Explaining the individual parts may not quite get the magic across, so here’s a video we shot of us putting a melody together, breaking it down again, and testing out some of the solos:

In the meantime, Toca Band is excellent. It takes something potentially fiddly – making music – and turns it into something so intuitive that a pre-schooler can be up and running within a couple of minutes. Yet it’s flexible enough to also be fun for older children who are thinking more about the elements of the song, and how to affect them.

Plus it makes dads laugh like a drain – my iPad narrowly avoided being covered in tea the first time I heard the rapper. And here’s a thing: it makes kids move too.

In their first session playing Toca Band, our two children ended up dancing around the iPad once they’d got the song going. We know a lot of parents worry about apps encouraging their kids to be less active, but this is one of the examples that proves the opposite is also possible.

We mentioned the phrase “digital toys” early in this review: as a company, Toca Boca has always stressed the playful nature of its apps. Yet we think Toca Band isn’t just a bit of interactive fun.

If three year-olds are playing with this kind of app now – and we’d file Toca Band alongside KBC Kids, Morton Subotnick’s Pitch Painter and Little Fox Music Box in this regard – what are they going to be doing with proper sequencers, samplers and music-making tools in 15-20 years’ time? It’s an intriguing thought.

But to return to our introduction, which is worth restating: If you have young children and an iOS device, download Toca Band right away.

Rating: Five-out-of-five five-out-of-five five-out-of-five hello, hello, BASS!

Toca Band costs £1.49 in the App Store, and is a universal app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

25 thoughts on “Toca Band (iPhone / iPad review)

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