What can the right music-making mobile applications do for you?

Just five years ago, cellphones were just that: phones. Enter the brave new world of smartphones, where the mobile gadgets have evolved into an entirely new category of creative tool—one that can help you create music. With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad tablet in 2010, music software developers have been quick to harness the power of these powerful portable devices. Whether you’re into tweaking eight-bit drum grooves or orchestrating a concerto, creating unique synth textures or jamming on a virtual trombone, chances are that there is an app for that.

With so many possibilities, and more appearing on the market every week, how do you begin? We turned to experts Francis Preve and Eyal Amir for help. Preve is a producer, DJ and the founder of Academik Records. He has created remixes for Dragonette and collaborated with Wolfgang Gartner, among others. Amir is a composer and producer who regularly uses apps in his own music-making. His YouTube videos, produced with his band Project RnL and often in collaboration with Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess, capture millions of views.

What kinds of music apps are there?

AMIR: A big category is musical instruments. You have apps that try to emulate existing instruments—sort-of-pianos, sort-of-guitars, sort-of-drums. You also have innovative new instruments that use the touch screen to create a playing experience that’s unlike any physical instrument. A great one is Geo Synthesizer by Wizdom Music. It’s a weird, guitar-like app, but it’s not actually emulating a guitar. It’s a new instrument completely. I can play on it so much faster than I can play either a keyboard or a guitar, because of its completely unique mechanism.

PREVE: Because of their large screens, iPads can accommodate DAWs [digital audio workstations] for multitrack recording. FL Studio Mobile HD, Apple’s GarageBand and Sound Trends studio.HD are the big apps in that category. Beyond that, there are apps that let you make grooves and process sound in all sorts of ways.

AMIR: There are also virtual sequencers, music notation apps and audio manipulation apps like samplers and loop-creation tools. Sound Trends’ Looptastic allows you to overdub different loops on top of each other, offering a very interesting, experimental way to make music.

What’s a good app to start with?

AMIR: Something like Wizdom Music’s MorphWiz or Normalware Bebot. They’re very interesting synth apps, because you can see how the touch screen influences the way sound is created. The connection between the graphics, the way you move your finger on the screen, and what you’re hearing are fascinating and very educational.

What are some other synth apps?

AMIR: The Animoog by Moog Music is a brilliant synthesizer, and the Korg iMS-20 is very complex and deep. It’s better than a lot of hardware and software synths that would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

PREVE: The iMS-20 and Animoog are really powerful, and I also like Way Out Ware’s SynthX, IK Multimedia SampleTank and Reactable. One of the great things about the iPad is that it’s highly mobile, so I could see using synth apps like these for gigging.

Can recording apps replace full DAWs?

PREVE: Not yet. I see the iPad DAWs more as sketchpads, and they’re great tools to help you get a track started.

AMIR: GarageBand is a good basic tool for multitrack recording. It’s one of the most popular music apps and it comes with a bunch of instruments—guitar, keyboards, drums—which are simple but effective tools. What’s interesting about apps is that, with the power you’re beginning to have with iPhones and iPads—dual-core processors, and soon quad-core—you have tools now that can match their counterparts in the hardware and computer software world. Major artists are using them—the Gorillaz recorded the album The Fall using iPad apps almost exclusively, and Dream Theater uses them live and in the studio. Radiohead has used apps, and Infected Mushroom also uses Wizdom Music apps.

How do you move what you’ve recorded to your computer?

PREVE: Many of the synth apps have the ability to record what you’re playing in real time as audio. You can then just transfer the recording over to your computer as a WAV file and work on it in your DAW. That’s one of the easiest ways.

AMIR: I’ve created entire recordings just using a stereo audio cable with an 1/8-inch plug to get sound out of the headphone jack of my iPad, and the sound quality is very acceptable. If you want to go deeper, there are devices like the Alesis iO Dock. It’s basically a full-functioning soundcard for your iPad, with all sorts of audio inputs and outputs, and even a digital output.

PREVE: The iO Dock is a cool way to just dock your iPad and instantly connect it with the rest of your studio. Line 6 and IK Multimedia make audio interfaces that allow you to connect to your iPad as well.

Can you connect via MIDI?

AMIR: There are some awesome apps that let you use your iPhone or iPad as a MIDI controller.

PREVE: The iConnectMIDI is a high-speed MIDI interface that lets you do all sorts of magic to your MIDI data. It’s a great Swiss army knife, and it’s both iPad- and computer-compatible. I use it with my MacBook pretty often, and it’s easy to have it connect to my iPad as well. It’s a rock-solid piece of gear. You can also use a MIDI connection to have some other device trigger sounds inside your iPad. Through the IK Multimedia iRig MIDI connection, I’ve used the Ableton Live rig I have on my computer to control the Fairlight sequencer app on my iPad. I ran the audio out from the iPad’s headphone jack into my computer’s audio interface to record the sound.

What are the advantages of working this way?

PREVE: The beauty of the iPad is that you can throw it in your backpack and take it anywhere. If you’re on the subway, you can play with the Animoog or iMS-20, come up with a cool musical doodle, render it as audio, throw it onto your computer and build a track around it. With the right apps, you can compose on a mountaintop, in a forest or a park—somewhere exotic and far away from the cozy nest of your studio. By radically changing your workspace environment, you’ll likely gravitate toward different things and change the type of music you come up with.

AMIR: The most awesome thing for me is that most of these apps are free or very cheap. I originally bought my iPad to read books—I never thought about using it for making music. But after watching a video of someone playing an app I downloaded a bunch, and combined it cost $10.

PREVE: Another bonus is that iPhones and iPads make field recording easy. If you’re hardcore into using found samples in recordings, then it’s a great tool—record the cow mooing, the bus driving by or the construction site, then bring the audio back to your DAW and your computer and tweak to your heart’s content. The IK MultiMedia iRig Mic can plug into your iPhone or iPad and help you get good recordings on the fly.

What’s the future of music apps?

AMIR: It’s going to take some time before mobile devices and apps reach their full potential. What we need is for the mobile devices to be as powerful as today’s Mac or PC, which will probably happen in a few years. Once that happens, mobile will eventually take over everything. But even now the possibilities are amazing.

—Michael Gallant

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