Discover what today’s mobile music-making apps can do for you

Few technologies have revolutionized how musicians write, practice, perform and record music than Apple’s iOS platform. Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010, software developers have harnessed the power of portable devices, creating a myriad of new and exciting creative paths for musicians.

With thousands of apps to choose from and cool new hardware hitting the market every month, sorting out the options can be intimidating. And with artists and engineers searching for the ultimate combination of music-production apps, audio interfaces, keyboards and controllers, new developments in the iOS realm continuously up the ante.

For better insight, we turned to Mitch Gallagher, a Grammy-winning composer, veteran technology journalist, and editorial director at Sweetwater Sound. Gallagher is responsible for a number of video series, including Sweetwater iOS Update, which showcases new and exciting gear in the world of iOS music production.

When did apps become serious production tools?
For me, the turning point for iOS as a serious music tool was at the 2012 NAMM show, when WaveMachine Labs unveiled Auria. They had this session running with 24 tracks and EQ and compression. When you can handle that many tracks with plug-ins and editing, that’s a real DAW. Professional artists and engineers were also some of the first to get involved in iOS music app development. David Ellefson launched the Rock Shop app, and Jordan Rudess and Brian Eno have created several innovative synth apps.

Who uses mobile music apps?
Guitar players are using iOS for amp emulation, synthesizer guys are using apps as sound modules, and of course everyone’s using it for set lists and lyrics onstage. Many use them for recording rehearsals and writing songs, and then there’s the whole DJ and live electronic music scene. It’s not just what iOS apps are capable of doing, it’s that the whole system is so much more portable.

What are the best for guitarists?
In addition to amp emulators like IK Multimedia AmpliTube, there are all kinds of apps that turn your iPad into a learning tool. I use an app called GuitarToolkit, which offers access to all kinds of chord diagrams, scales and arpeggios. Trainer apps like Jammit take popular songs and let you mix your own backing tracks, slow down playback, and even loop sections. Then there are effects pedals such as the DigiTech iStomp or the Eventide H9, which you can program.

What’s available for keyboardists?
One of the early ones that caught my attention was a Fairlight imitation. It sounded right, so you could use it as a real mobile synthesizer. Another is Crystal Synth XT, which takes a creative approach to using the multitouch screen to manipulate sounds. And when it comes to quality, keyboard apps like Arturia’s iMini and Propellerhead Thor easily live up to their desktop counterparts.

Is connectivity an issue?
In most cases, it’s pretty easy to connect a keyboard to your iPad. Finding a keyboard that will work isn’t hard since most class compliant keyboards tout that they’re iOS compatible. There are even some controllers out there now that plug in directly, and the rest connect with the Apple Camera Connection Kit. Bus-powered keyboards keep you totally mobile, but they drain your battery faster.

What about groove creation?
The variety of electronic music apps are no more restrictive than the apps you’d find for a desktop OS. I have a number of drum machines and groove production apps I like, including iMaschine and iElectribe. There’s even an app version of the MPC. An app that’s really fun is called Impaktor, which uses the microphone on your iOS device, and clapping or tapping on the table triggers sounds. And if you like working in Ableton Live, there’s an app from Novation called Launchpad that basically gives you that matrix of loops.

How do you record?
There are two ways to record on your iOS device, either with an adapter that connects to the device’s communications port, or with a digital audio interface that connects via the 30-pin or Lightning port. Adapters work great for getting down song ideas, but digital interfaces like the Apogee Quartet offer multiple recording channels and latency management—and that makes it a lot easier to get quality results. One cool interface is the Antelope Audio Orion 32, which allows a full 24-track recording session with your iPad.

What do you look for in recording apps?
The apps I like are those that offer multitouch control. You have this incredible touch-screen—why not take advantage of that? Fast and easy onscreen access is also important. Auria does everything that a computer DAW does, whether it’s plug-ins or waveform editing. It’s pretty amazing. Another one I’ve been using a lot is Cubasis, which is an iOS version of Cubase. Audiobus lets you combine apps together by routing sound into a DAW. It provides you with a very studio-like experience. Then there’s Tabletop, which allows you to build an entire studio in a single app.

How about live controlling apps?
A couple of solutions for hands-free app control I’ve used are the AirTurn system, the Keith McMillen SoftStep, and the IK Multimedia iRig BlueBoard. The iRig BlueBoard is really simple—there are just four switches, and you can map it to control anything you want. Although it uses Bluetooth to connect wirelessly, you never have to touch your settings. Just install the app and follow the instructions, and the iRig BlueBoard sets itself up.

Which apps seem to be in demand?
I receive more questions about lyric and set list managers than any other apps. There are many who’ve carried around giant ripped and stained notebooks. It’s a hassle. SongBook Chordpro, which imports the Chordpro format, allows you to transpose on the fly, synchronize your set lists across devices and organize your sets. There’s also a bunch of metronomes that I like, such as Metronome Plus, Metronome Touch and Subdivide Metronome. Drum Beats+ offers more like a drum machine vibe.

Others you’d recommend?
Some of the best apps for musicians aren’t music apps at all. One is Splashtop, which enables your iOS device to act as a virtual desktop for your computer. It’s handy in the studio when you’ve got an acoustic guitar with mics in front of it and you can’t sit at your computer keyboard. Evernote is a great songwriting tool, and Dropbox is essential for sending files from your device to your desktop. I also use an app called My Measures Pro for making detailed notes of microphone positions in the studio.

Final thoughts?
Don’t be afraid to spend a little money to find the right apps. Setting up your iOS music rig is the same as finding the right software for your computer. But you can try out a number of apps, and find the ones that work for you without spending a fortune.

–Phil Selman

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