With studios getting smaller and smaller as digital audio workstations get more capable, it’s only a matter of time until you can fit a whole studio in your hand. Music-making apps are often seen as toys or gimmicks, but there are some powerful mobile apps out there that let you take a lot of the studio process out on the road — even if you leave your laptop behind. Here are seven apps any music maker should consider keeping in their pocket.
Let go of any preconceived notion that GarageBand is child’s play; ask almost any musician working in a home studio and they’ll tell you they got their start using Apple’s GarageBand. Now that GarageBand is available for iOS, the capabilities for creating full tracks on the go are endless. It includes a full array of preset instruments and sounds, playable via an onscreen keyboard or drum kit, and you can create compositions in a traditional linear view or in the new Live Loops feature, designed for electronic or hip-hop musicians. You can also plug a guitar directly into your iPad or iPhone via an adapter and record riffs. The features for visual EQs, effects, and mixing even rival those of more capable applications like Logic Pro or Ableton, making GarageBand for iOS a (surprisingly) powerful tool and a great choice for beginners, hobby musicians, or travelers looking to bang out ideas outside of the studio.
Roli’s NOISE features a 5×5 grid that that allows you to create drumming patterns, write synth lines, and trigger effects based on how you touch, glide, or lift your fingers off the screen. NOISE is also a great app for non-musicians and beginners, as it includes a Learn mode to always play in the proper key and a Snap mode to help stay in time. You can create and save loops you make in Studio mode, and NOISE also features sound banks and presets from a number of established artists, including RZA, Grimes, and Steve Aoki. If you love playing with NOISE, also check out Roli’s BLOCKS, a set of external modular drum pads designed for the app.
3. Virtuoso Piano
Practice your chops and your Chopin with the Virtuoso Piano app. This free app for iOS is about as simple as it gets — you can play a simulated piano with the options to add reverb, sustain, or lid position to your liking. You have different pianos to choose from, you can toggle note names on or off, and play to a metronome. It may not feel as real as an actual pian,o but at least you won’t be aggravating your neighbors playing “Don’t Stop Believin'” at 2am.
4. KORG Gadget
The KORG Gadget is a long-awaited mobile app that combines the best sounds and synth-modeling engines offered by KORG with an easy-to-use recording program. Scroll through hundreds of the manufacturer’s signature synthesizer sounds with customizable interfaces. The KORG Gadget not only works as a standalone recording program, but can also be linked via MIDI to any KORG synthesizer and syncs up to Ableton Live. The number of features and settings may, however, be overwhelming to some beginners.
5. iMaschine 2
Native Instruments’ iMaschine 2 is another hybrid drumpad/recording app that eschews a traditional, linear interface in favor of a more intuitive one. The app features a set of 4×4 drum pads with which you can sequence loops or ideas by tapping on your screen. An onscreen keyboard allows you to add piano, synth parts, or string arrangements. You can then save compositions, loops, and ideas by exporting them directly to your DAW of choice. For musicians who have used Native Instruments programs like Maschine or Kontakt in the past, iMaschine 2 is a great addition to your arsenal of music-making tools.
Ditch that binder of sheet music with ForScore. The app lets you save hundreds of pages of compositions, allows you to play along to recordings, and even turns pages for you. You can change fonts, add your own notes, and even scribble in annotations with an Apple Pencil. ForScore also includes features to import PDFs and export new ones of compositions with your annotations and changes incorporated.
Akai’s iMPC is an incredible tool for hip-hop producers or sample aficionados. A mobile version of the famed MPC drumpad, iMPC is used by the likes of Kanye West and Dr. Dre, and lets you import samples directly from songs in your library, take a specific 8-bar loop from them (say, a drum break from a James Brown song), chop it up, add effects, and arrange it in a linear studio view. It includes more than 1,200 built-in samples, hundreds of preset sequences, and the ability to tweak timing and arrangements to your minute specifications.
Top image: Still from Putting Smartphone With Notes on Guitar by Pavel_dp
Are there other mobile apps you love that you think are must-haves for musicians? Let us know in the comments below!