Make music on iOS: create amazing tracks with your iPhone or iPad
12th Jan 2013 | 12:00
The ultimate guide to the apps and hardware you need
It's just before dawn, and you're squeezed into a warehouse club, the crowd jumping as the headliner plays what appears to be their last track of the night. As the beats die out, the lights come down and the main man melts away from the stage.
Just the echoing chants of the crowd remain, when suddenly a small square of light appears through the gloom - and with it, a clattering boom from the sound system. 'Is that… an iPad?' you hear someone exclaim, as the speakers begin to roll out a skin-tingling blast of sound.
Looking closer, you can see the DJ arms aloft, his fingers dancing over an iPad's screen and the sound system obeying his every command. 'How is he doing that?' you wonder breathlessly as the beat starts to kick back in. 'And… can I do that, too?'
The answer is yes - and more besides. Apple has cooked up an amazing opportunity with iOS, and music developers aren't letting the side down. There's an ocean of apps out there, and it doesn't matter if you're a virtuoso violinist or Bez from Happy Mondays - you'll find something that makes your jaw drop.
It's not just possible to perform on stage - you can also play melodies through emulations of world-famous hardware synths; jam on your guitar to the sound of classic stacks; record and manipulate vocals; sample and edit the world around you; tap out banging beats; put together tracks just as you would in a professional audio-editing package; export your efforts for all the world to see; and more.
There's no more innovative platform out there right now - so take a deep breath, because it's time to get wet.
In the beginning it was just you, your fingers, your iOS device and your imagination. Apple's touch interface makes it possible to interact with music in an entirely new way, thankfully free of bewildering score notation - so even if you can't tell a crotchet from a crab apple, you'll still be able to produce surprisingly impressive melodies and tunes, and have more than a few moments of genuine delight along the way.
The best place to start is with Apple's GarageBand for iOS (£2.99): its Smart Instruments will turn your butterfingers into the confident digits of an experienced musician. You can command swelling strings, pick out cool riffs on acoustic and electric guitars, get grooving on bass or jam on the keyboard.
The standard drum instrument is fun, too - you can bash out beats with your fingers on a virtual kit, or experiment with a large range of custom percussion. (For more information on how to get started with GarageBand, download our free guide on Newsstand.)
Budding drummers should also check out Drum Meister Grand (£1.49), where you can expand each of the four kits with funky extras such as cowbells. Pianist Pro (£2.49 for iPhone; £2.99 for iPad) reckons it sounds so realistic, even those who can tickle the ivories in real life will want to play it - so this is the place to whack out that tired (sorry, of course we mean jaunty) rendition of Chopsticks.
If you've never even sat down near a piano, SoundPrism (Free) might be more down your alley: it's both simple and fun to run your fingers across its colourful interface to conjure up gorgeous melodies and chords. Sound Wand (£1.49) is an enchanting virtual harp that responds to movement - it's surprisingly absorbing and great for clearing the mind.
You can turn your iOS device into a flute with Ocarina 2 (Free) - just blow into the mic and pop your fingers on the lights on-screen to play along with songs from Lady Gaga to Debussy. Yamaha's mind-widening TNR-i (£13.99) is your chance to write music using light: just tap to illuminate spots in the matrix and create bleep-tastic melodies.
And if you're blown away by the track-mashing skills of top DJs, try Rocudo DJ Studio (Free with IAPs) - it's a loop launcher stuffed with pro-quality samples that will have you sounding like Deadmau5 in no time.
It's easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of options for stepping up your game, so let's sort the sheep from the goats. Apple's iPad Camera Connection Kit (£25) doesn't just play nicely with photography gear - it also provides a sneaky way to hook up MIDI keyboards with a light power draw.
There are tons of quality compact 'boards out there - we like Korg's microKEY 25 (£49) for its velocity-sensitive keys and wicked pitch/mod stick. You can use controllers like this to play synth apps such as Korg's iMS-20 for iPad (£10.99), a virtual recreation of legendary hardware.
iPhone and iPod touch users can't use the CCK to connect, so they should investigate Akai's SynthStation 25 (£49), where Apple's hardware slots straight into the keyboard. Its app compatibility limited, but you can put together some cool ditties with the accompanying SynthStation app (£1.49), which boasts three synth layers plus a drum machine.
Propellerhead's Figure (69p) is an iPhone/iPod touch app that delivers lead synth, bass and drums powered by the company's celebrated Thor synth and Kong drum machine. With an innovative yet easy-to-grasp interface, it offers a unique, ephemeral method of putting together loops.
Music software behemoth Native Instruments has also brought its industry-standard technology to the iPhone with iMaschine (£2.99), a simple yet powerful beat sketchpad.
The world is an amp-shaped oyster for guitarists - connect your axe with Apogee Jam (£70) and you can rock out dozens of amps, cabs and pedals with AmpKit (Free, with IAPs) plus many other apps, including GarageBand.
Record audio into your iOS device by attaching IK Multimedia iRig Mic (£32) - this condenser mic teams up with the VocaLive app (Free, with IAPs) to create swash-buckling vocal effects. If you already own a mic, attach it to your iOS device through IK's iRig Pre (£25).
Singer/songwriters might prefer Tascam's iXZ box (£39) for connecting both a guitar and mic at once. You need to hear what you're doing, and M-Audio's Studiophile AV30 speakers (£70) are the men for the job - plug them into the headphone jack. If you've got some extra cash, splash out on their big brothers - the AV40s (£96).
An iPad can be the perfect complement to your studio setup, but what's the best way to get everything connected?
The Alesis iO Dock for iPad (£140) is about to become your new best friend - it's hosting a veritable port party. Through it you can hook up MIDI and USB MIDI gear, mics, instruments, headphones and sound systems to your iPad. You'll need some serious studio monitors, with the KRK Rokit 8s (£399) delivering an almighty bang for your buck. If you've got deep pockets, investigate the Genelec 8000 series (£575+).
If you need to make some recordings out in the field and your iO Dock is napping back in your studio, the pocket-sized Apogee Mic (£163) could be just the ticket - this little fella plugs straight into the dock connector.
Turn recordings into samples through SampleWiz (£6.99), a powerful app that offers both conventional and unusual editing interfaces. Voice Synth (£1.99) is an intuitive effect for turning vocal snippets into anything from T-Pain to a T-Rex.
Animoog (£6.99 for iPhone; £20.99 for iPad) brings the famously rich and dynamic sounds of the iconic synth manufacturer to your iOS device. If virtual analogue synths are your thing, also check out NLog MIDI Synth for iPhone (£2.99) and iceGear's Cassini (£2.99 for iPhone/ iPod touch; £1.99 for iPad). Alchemy Synth Mobile (Free with IAPs) is a port of Camel Audio's top-notch subtractive synth.
If you're after a powerful MIDI controller, kings of the scene M-Audio have just updated their Axiom 61 keyboard (£229): alongside 61 semi-weighted keys, it boasts faders, knobs and pads for controlling desktop software, making it a worthy addition to any studio that speaks both iOS and OS X.
Alternatives include Novation's SL 61 MKii (£380), or if you don't need any control bling and would rather more keys instead, try the imposing M-Audio Keystation 88 (£132).
Those who produce mostly on desktop can use their iOS device as a controller. For iPad, touchAble (£17.49) is the best app out there for Ableton Live; touchOSC (£2.99) is compatible with stacks of programs including Logic Pro.
There are several serious groovebox apps available. Korg's iElectribe for iPad (£6.99) is an enjoyable emulation of the company's Electribe ER-1 hardware, while Propellerhead's ReBirth (£1.99 for iPhone/ iPod touch; £10.49 for iPad) is an exact copy of the formidable desktop software.
GarageBand and BeatMaker 2 are great for bringing all of these elements together, but Aurora Sound Studio (£6.99 for iPhone/iPod touch; £27.99 for iPad) is a great alternative - it contains synths, samplers, mixer and effects, all tied up in a Tenori-On-style Multi-Touch grid interface.
Big-name electronic artists such as whizzkid James Zabiela and techno icon Richie Hawtin are famous for using their iPads to get the dancefloor moving, and for good reason.
Slot an iPad into your existing setup and take advantage of this flexible paradigm with performance-focused controller apps such as Liine's Griid Pro (£17.49), which focuses on launching Ableton Live clips, and the intuitive, uniquely powerful Lemur (£34.99), which brings a piece of £1,700 hardware to your iOS device.
Digital DJing suites NI Traktor and Serato Scratch Live can be controlled by TrakPro DJ (£6.99) and MIDI-to for iPad (£5.49) respectively. If you'd like to take a step further and use your iPhone or iPad as the main mixing interface, algoriddim's djay (69p for iPhone/ iPod touch; £13.99 for iPad) is the one all the rest are trying to beat.
Connect two iOS devices running djay together with IK Multimedia's iRig Mix (which incorporates EQ knobs), and cue output and channel faders; or alternatively, buy a full hardware system including CDJ-style platters with the brand-new Numark iDJ Pro for iPad (£309) or iDJ3 for iPhone/iPod touch (£180). The cheaper iDJ Live (£79) provides an affordable gateway to the concept for beginners.
But DJing isn't the only method of performing with your iOS device - you can also play it as an instrument or effect on stage. Morph sounds from one timbre to another, note by note with MorphWiz (£6.99), create sonic mayhem with filter app Moog Filtatron (£5.49) or rub the screen to spit out diverse effects and lead lines with KORG iKaossilator (£6.99).
Reactable Mobile (£6.99) is something a little special: place generator and effect blocks on your screen to build up pulsating arrangements, then edit them in real-time to spectacular effect.
Guitarists will find a neat performance solution in DigiTech iPB-10 (£379), a 10-slot pedalboard programmed through iPad app iPB-Nexus (Free). With almost 90 effects, 54 amps and 26 cabs, you won't struggle to find an appropriate sound.
IK Multimedia's iRig Stomp (£39) is single stompbox that can slot into your existing pedalboard setup; run it through AmpliTube 2 (Free with IAPs) for a top-quality selection of guitar kit emulations. And there's even a handy way to keep your device in view without adding a vibe-killing table taking centre-stage - IK's iKlip (£25) and iKlip Mini (£25) holders clip onto a traditional mic stand.
How to put it all together
Now that you know which apps and kit are worthy of your hard-earned moolah, it's time to investigate how to put it all together and wind up with a track or performance worth shouting about.
First, if you're a beginner and you know nothing about music just yet: chill. Have a go with the apps we recommended in the Dabbler section that require no prior experience whatsoever. Enjoy the experience of creating music and let it bring a smile to your face - that's what it's all about, after all.
Those who can read music like the back of their hand should give these entry-level apps a go, too: there is so often inspiration to be gained from going back to the start and looking at something in a different way.
The Yamaha TRN-i app is a perfect example - it throws the traditional methods of representing pitch out of the window, instead using a matrix of buttons that you tap to illuminate. Aside from looking devilishly pretty, it pulls the rug from under your established compositional practices, forcing you to go about things differently - and so you end up with things you would never have thought to try otherwise.
The Tenori-On hardware that the app is based on is prohibitively expensive, and this proves one of the key points of iOS as a platform: it brings innovative formats and the sound of high-quality gear from the sweaty clutches of the privileged few into the grasp of the everyday humble musician.
Apps like this require nothing more than a deft finger and some spare time, but most others benefit from hooking up a piece of extra kit. MIDI gear (most popularly keyboards) allows you to control software instruments. It's much easier to play tunes on a real piano than it is jabbing with one finger at an on-screen virtual 'board!
How can you connect your MIDI gear to your iOS device without any hitches? Well, iOS 4.2 was the big update for musicians: it brought CoreMIDI support into the fold, allowing your device to communicate with other MIDI devices over either USB or Wi-Fi connections.
Apple's Camera Connection Kit enables some MIDI hardware to be hooked up almost directly, but only if the unit doesn't require too much power. If your kit is causing a warning message to flash up on your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, introduce a powered USB hub into the chain - this will do the trick nicely.
If you've got a piece of gear that runs on traditional 5-pin MIDI rather than over USB, you'll be able to connect over dedicated interfaces such as IK Multimedia's iRig MIDI and Line 6's MIDI Mobilizer. These little black boxes plug into your dock connector one end and your unit's MIDI port the other, and that's it - setup complete!
If you've already got a sweet studio setup that you're inspired to slot your iOS device into, or you know that you want to work with not just MIDI instruments but also guitars, microphones and more, you should buy an all-in-one interface solution.
We mentioned the Alesis iO Dock as a piece of key kit, and for our money it really is the best iOS interface out there. It's got all the ports a serious musician needs, plus preamps and phantom power for getting condenser microphones involved in the party. Just slot your iPad into the dock and hook up any piece of gear as and when you please, and you're ready to go.
You don't want people to grit their teeth every time they hear your vocals, and a key part of getting this right is capturing the audio using a decent microphone.
Hold up a sec, though: it helps to know a little about mics before you hit that big red Record button. Broadly speaking, there are two varieties: condenser and dynamic. Condenser microphones are more sensitive to sound, making them perfect for capturing the expressively wide range of volumes heard in a vocal or instrument performance. These mics require phantom power to work, as well as a preamp, which increases the gain level.
Dynamic microphones are more robust and not quite so sensitive, so they're great in a noisy environment - such as on stage or when recording drums - where you don't want the mic to go into shock every time it hears a loud noise.
If you already own a microphone, there are interfaces available that allow you to hook it up to an iOS device and use it with audio-processing apps. The Alesis iO Dock is one, while the Tascam iXZ is a cheaper alternative offering just guitar and mic inputs (great for a singer-songwriter).
If you just want to record audio and aren't interested in MIDI or instrument connections, IK Multimedia's iRig Pre will hook you up at a budget price. (All of these three provide preamps and phantom power.)
If you don't own a mic, check out an iOS-specific solution such as IK iRig Mic or Apogee Mic. The iRig Mic is an affordable condenser unit that plugs straight into the headphone jack. Reports on its sound quality are varied, so if you want top-dollar recordings, play it safe and go for the rather more expensive Apogee Mic. This bad boy plugs straight into the actual dock connector rather than the audio jack, and is a great portable solution for making samples on the move.
Now you've got your mic and connection sorted, onto some quick tips for a great recording. First, make sure you're in as quiet a place as possible: so shut any windows, turn off any extraneous hum-emitting equipment, get out of the wind, and tell your other half what you're up to so they don't burst in.
If you're recording vocals, place a pop shield in front of the mic to stop bursts of exhaled breath making annoying 'pops' on your recording. You can buy one for around £15, or if you're strapped for cash, indulge in a bit of cheeky bit of DIY by stretching a pair of tights over a coat hanger (seriously).
Ensure your singer or other sound source stays in the same place throughout the recording - if they move about, the tone will change.
Finally, make sure the input gain in your DAW or app is set to an appropriate level. You should never see the input levels light up red, because this means that the audio is 'clipping' and will sound distorted on playback. Test the levels by running through the loudest part of the material you're recording, and lower the input gain if necessary. Once recorded, adjust the start and end points of the audio clip on your iOS device as needed.
But you don't have to stop there - why not transform the material into something else entirely? Powerful sample-editing app SampleWiz is a creative way to take audio clips and free them from their natural form. You could pitch your clip down an octave, drag its final notes out for an eternity and mess with its grain size - then resample your sonic Frankenstein and mess about with it a bit more.
The advantage of using SampleWiz over a traditional sampler is its unique touch-based editing interfaces, so professionals should definitely give it a whirl to see what atypical noises they can cook up.
Attaching a guitar
Want to rock out with your, er, iPad out? Your guitar won't plug straight into your iOS device, so you need either an interface with a ¼-inch input or a dedicated guitar box, examples being Apogee Jam (which hooks up through the dock connector for a digital signal) or IK Multimedia's iRig (which plugs in through the audio jack). This is made specifically to power IK's AmpliTube 2 app (which exists as a paid and free-with-IAP version), which offers an astonishing number of amps, cabs and effect pedal emulations, all of an extremely high quality.
Apogee's Jam, on the other hand, will work with pretty much all guitar amp sims, including those found in GarageBand. These apps are great because guitar hardware normally costs a lot of money, so to have hundreds of options at your disposal without breaking your bank - or your back lugging them around - is quite the luxury.
The same is true of the many amazingly capable drum machines apps. Deceptively simple yet powerful is Native Instruments' iMaschine, which is a tiny version of the company's Maschine hardware/software combination. The focus is on the beats - which you can tap out on the app's 16 drum pads - but there's also a keyboard and audio recording functionality, so you can make a full mini track if inspiration strikes on the go. Trust us - you'd never get your desktop Maschine setup on the bus!
Other more comprehensive solutions include Propellerhead's ReBirth and KORG iElectribe, which showcase the platform's abilities - these are complete beat-making solutions that everyone who considers themselves a 'pro' should be using. After all, it's far more natural to feel the beat right there in your fingers than it is to manually draw it in using a mouse.
Laying down a track
Digital audio workstations such as GarageBand, NanoStudio and BeatMaker 2 act as the centrepiece of your iOS musicmaking experience, whether it's Ed Sheeran or Sasha in your sights. They're like a big melting pot where you can gather together all of your audio recordings, MIDI performances and samples, mix and balance all of the ingredients and then add some effects as a garnish.
But how do you get all your elements together in one app? There are a couple of methods, but it's simpler than you might think!
Back in 2011, Apple began allowing audio to be copied and pasted into and out of apps using the iOS clipboard, and this is the most convenient way to get your stuff into GarageBand or another DAW. Most apps allow you to record or save your work, so simply hold your finger down on the file you want to move, select Copy, open up your DAW, tap and hold on the track you want to add it to, and hit Paste.
And there you have it - the mighty tones of the Animoog, say, ready to be layered up with other elements in GarageBand!
However, before Apple made this functionality available, Sonoma Wire Works created a similar standard called AudioCopy. Over 100 apps are still compatible with this method, so you might spot it as an option when you tap and hold on a file. Feel free to use it instead, although bear in mind that GarageBand doesn't support it.
If an app doesn't support either copy standard, don't panic; it's no problem - you can use your Mac as a middleman. Export the file to your desktop, then re-import it to your app of choice through its File Sharing Area in iTunes. Back in the app, find the Import Files option and select it from the list. This is a bit more of a faff than simply copying and pasting, but it still gets the job done.
Once you've got the whole crowd gathered together - synth parts, drum beats, guitar performance, messed-up samples, blinding vocal part - then it's time to mix them down.
At the most basic level, make sure that the volume for each track is appropriate - you don't want the drum beat to drown out the vocal - and add any effects you think sound good.
If you're a professional put off by the lack of mastering and effect options in GarageBand, take a look at NanoStudio before you decide to write off iOS as for gathering and manipulating sounds only. This comprehensive app offers four insert effects per channel (choose from compression, EQ, reverb, waveshaper, chorus, bitcrusher and delay) as well as two global effect sends, so it's not short on power.
BeatMaker 2 is also a very capable alternative, with ten effect units, three insert slots per track and unlimited global effects racks.
The bigger picture
When you've got your track finished, it's time to get it out of the confines of your iOS device and into the big wide world. No matter what DAW you're using, this couldn't be simpler. All offer the option to export straight to trendy music-sharing site SoundCloud, which hosts everyone from your next-door neighbour to worldbeater Paul van Dyk.
If you'd rather not share your creation with the unwashed masses, you can export it as a WAV, AIFF or AAC file straight into iTunes. GarageBand also supports sharing direct to Facebook, YouTube or through email.
Professional musicians might feel that they can get the track to a certain point in iOS before it requires exporting to their desktop computer for more work. That's no problem if you're using GarageBand - it exports multitrack projects that you can open up in GarageBand or Logic Pro on your Mac, ready to dive straight back in.
Professional users can also look at their iPhone, iPod touch or iPad from another angle: taking advantage of its touch interface to control their existing desktop applications in a new way. Whether you want to widen your musical boundaries or simply control your DAW from your bed, this route is definitely worth exploring.
If you're working in Ableton Live, touchAble is the one you want, while the flexible touchOSC is able to control a host of desktop programs.
When you're making music, it's important that you can accurately hear what you're doing. Many speakers manipulate the incoming signal, pumping up the bass to make it more exciting or boosting the treble so that vocals appear to shine through the mix. While this might make tracks sound 'good', it doesn't reflect their actual frequency content - and when you're working on a track, this adds up to a big disappointment when you hear it being played elsewhere for the first time and it doesn't sound quite as epic as you thought.
The best way to avoid this is to buy studio monitors with a flat frequency response. Such speakers can be really expensive, as they're a specialist piece of kit: for example, the Genelec 8000 series won't spare your blushes, but they won't spare your wallet either, with the cheapest pair costing £600.
The KRK Rokit line are a fantastic (fairly) affordable option, while those who aren't sure whether they want to invest so heavily in making music just yet should take a look at the M-Audio Studiophile AV30s or AV40s we recommended earlier - they cost under £80 and £100 respectively.
Making beautiful sounds with your iOS device can be really impressive, and never more so than when you're performing in front of a crowd!
A host of professional DJs use iPads to wow fans with their technical wizardry, with some apps being a direct result of this innovation: Liine's Griid clip launcher for Ableton Live was developed with top techno banana Richie Hawtin, for example. The same company have gone even deeper with their Lemur app, which emulates a piece of very expensive, much lusted-after hardware: you can use it to delve deep into your configuration and control anything from a stunning light show to the flanger effect in your DAW.
Taking the concept further are apps such as algoriddim's djay, which enable mixing purely with your iOS device. IK Multimedia's iRig Mix allows you to plug in, say, two iPads and treat them as you would normal decks, loading up tunes from your personal library.
But most DJs will tell you that a touch interface isn't as precise as other methods of mixing just yet - so the iOS bandwagon is making inroads there, too. Numark produce a comprehensive line of iDJ controllers, from the iPad-friendly iDJ Pro (soon to be available) to the iPhone-only iDJ3 and the mobile-focused iDJ Live, which is affordable and basic enough to encourage even complete beginners to have a go.
The iOS instruments we mentioned earlier can either slot into a traditional setup for 'special effect' - or they can be the special effect themselves.
Reactable Mobile is an absorbing app that looks at creating electronic tracks from an entirely new viewpoint. It's designed for performance, so don't be afraid to experiment with it on stage - though it's just as much fun to have a go by yourself in your bedroom.
We've already seen how easy it is to connect a guitar to an iOS device, and we've mentioned other key kit that take this idea even further for when you're under the lights. The DigiTech iPB-10 makes it possible to program 10 stompboxes using virtual amps, with a slot for the iPad to slip into.
Don't feel nervous about slopping beer all over your beloved iPad or even cracking the screen with a clumsily aimed foot - it can operate without it, though you have to program it first.
If you want to spend less but still get your iOS device involved, IK Multimedia's iRig Stomp can daisy chain with other effect pedals, slotting into rather than replacing a traditional setup.
So, making music on iOS - what more can we say? Well, don't judge us, but we could bang on for months about all the opportunities it presents - from a new relationship with the very element of sound to its incredible ability to bring heaps of expensive hardware literally into your hands.
Now, that's enough reading - time to put this issue down and have a go at making your own tunes. And let us hear what you've made - firstname.lastname@example.org!