How to make music on your iPad: The best synths, drum machines and more
Make Music is FACT’s new section devoted to making music anywhere, whether you’re a seasoned producer or a total novice, using an arsenal of analog gear or just your iPhone.
From drum machine apps to powerful sequencers, the iPad is a Swiss Army knife for producers. In this guide, Scott Wilson collects the best apps for beginners and pros alike.
The barrier to making music has never been as low as it is today. You can buy an analog drum machine for under $100, an update of the classic TB-303 for under $300, and your laptop has enough power to run an entire studio in software. But there’s another option for production that’s more portable and just as affordable: the iPad. Apple’s tablet can be a drum machine, a synthesizer and a brain for controlling hardware. You can use it as a workstation to produce entire tracks or you can use it as an additional tool in the studio. It’s no secret that Apple is struggling to sell the iPad amid stagnating sales, but as far as musicians are concerned, there’s never been a better time to invest in one.
“It’s another part of the puzzle,” says Ben Kamen, who makes music apps under the name Olympia Noise Co. “I really like approaching the iPad as an instrument, and tend to use apps more that fit well into performance and live music making. It can also be a great, portable way to generate ideas away from all the cables and chaos of a studio.” For Alexander Randon, who builds music apps as Alexandernaut, the form of the iPad has totally transformed they way he makes music. “I’m convinced that using a touchscreen — as opposed to using a mouse — has a HUGE impact on workflow,” he says. “After my experience with iPads over the past few years, I now notice how constrained I feel when using a mouse. So much so, that it often breaks my musical flow.”
As accessible as the iPad is for novices, there’s still a lot to be confused by. It’s easy enough to download a synth app, but how do you make a full track on Apple’s tablet? What if you want to use it to trigger a drum machine? With that in mind, I spoke to app developers and sifted through my own overflowing iPad app folders to create a primer for those who want to make music with the device but don’t know where to start. Whether you want to create a live setup or just lay down some beats when you’re on the move, this guide will give you everything you need to understand the iPad’s internal ecosystem.
Which iPad should I buy?
If you already have an iPad gathering dust in a drawer, the good news is that many of the synths, sequencers and drum machines will run on models that are several years old. Hardware sequencer Modstep, for example, will allow you to trigger hardware synths using a first generation iPad from 2010. Plenty of great synths, like Arturia’s iProphet, a great-sounding app that emulates Sequential Circuits’ classic polysynth, will run on older models as well. If you don’t have much money to spend, a second-hand iPad will run a lot of great apps.
If you don’t already own an iPad, the options for buying one are more varied than ever. Each model has its pros and cons, but one piece of advice applies whatever you go for: if you can afford it, pay for as much internal storage as you can. Thankfully Apple has phased out the standard 16GB models for 32GB sizes on new models, but a lot of the best synth apps are very large, and the memory will fill up quickly if you’re using your iPad for other things.
iPad Pro (12.9-inch)
If you want to try and recreate Daft Punk’s famous pyramid setup in your own home, this giant-sized version of the iPad is your best bet. It’s the most powerful, but it might be overkill if you’re a light user. If you’re producing everything inside the tablet itself however, the large screen is the best way to take advantage of the iPad’s side-by-side multitasking feature, and the extra processing power allows the use of multiple apps without slowing down. The downside: it’s £679, almost twice as much as an iPad Air 2. “The iPad Pro is beautiful, and I can’t recommend it enough, but I think it will be some time before apps really take advantage of its size and capabilities,” says Randon, who uses his both for live performance and studio work. “I think the currently available, less expensive models are just as good for most use cases.”
iPad Pro (9.7-inch)
The newest member of the iPad family is probably the best all-round tablet yet for music-makers. It’s got the same AX9 chip as its older [larger?] sibling and has the same speedy performance, but the difference in size means it’s nearly £200 less expensive. It’s also a lot more portable: the 12.9-inch iPad Pro looks great and is perfect for those doing image-based work, but it’s actually a pretty cumbersome tool to pull out if you just want to make some beats on a bus.
iPad Air 2/iPad Mini 4
These two models are the best all-round options. Both start at £349 and have the same specs, with the power to run all the latest and greatest apps, such as Moog’s killer Model 15 modular synth. The only real difference is the screen size: the Mini is more portable, but many music apps feature a lot of virtual knobs and controls that are easier to manage with a larger screen. If you don’t want to be squinting, the Air 2 is the model to go for. “I recently got an iPad Air 2, which is super fast,” says Kamen. “Personally I think it’s big and fast enough for most people’s needs.”
Once you’ve got your iPad the first thing you’ll want to do is buy some apps to start making sounds. If you have no music training whatsoever, that’s not a problem – there are lots of apps that will do most of the hard work for you and make it possible to create a whole track with a predetermined selection of sounds. Some will allow you to upload your own samples or record your own vocals or field recordings using the iPad’s built-in microphone.
PlayGround should be the first port of call for anyone getting started. Its interface is more like an abstract impressionist painting than a traditional keyboard, and lets you pick a sound bank and trigger sounds by tracing a line through different shapes. It reframes music making as a fluid, gestural process, making it easy for people who are intimidated by musical scales to create impressive compositions. You’re limited to a stock palette of sounds (with more available with in-app purchases), but the experience is as relaxing as it is fun.
Launchpad for iOS
If you’ve dabbled with production on a desktop, then you’ll probably know Novation’s Launchpad, a ubiquitous grid-based controller that can be used to do everything from trigger clips to add effects. The iOS version is less control driven and more a device for combining pre-loaded loops and sounds, but it will always stay locked to tempo so there’s no way you can trainwreck anything. Add in the filter, gate and stutter effects, and you’ve got what is arguably one the iPad’s most fun music apps. As it’s sample-based, some musicians may find it quite limiting, but you’re just starting out and want something to teach you the basics of how to construct a track, Launchpad for iOS is foolproof.
Blocs Wave is from the same team as Launchpad, but it’s built around a very different concept. It’s another app that uses pre-loaded sounds and samples, but works by manipulating a giant waveform and combining different styles and textures rather than triggering clips on a grid. You can also upload your own sounds if you want a little more variety. It also includes a killer slice mode for chopping up samples and adding more movement to sound. If you’ve ever wanted to hammer an MPC like Just Blaze but don’t have the money or the skills, Blocs Wave will give you a taste.
More apps in this category:
Synths, drum machines and samplers
When you’ve graduated from the entry-level apps, it’s time to start using the iPad as an instrument. The easiest way is to buy a synth or a drum machine app: they’ll get you familiar with using a tablet to make beats or play melodies, and if you’ve already got a studio you can use it as an external device by plugging it into your sound card or mixing desk. Randon believes that a hardware slider or knob will always feel better than its software counterpart, but he also believes that using an iPad app is more immersive than using a synth on a desktop computer. “When I open a music app, I quickly forget what else the device is capable of,” he says. “Opening a music app essentially transforms the iPad into a piece of music gear.”
One of the key advantages of the iPad is that it’s a blank canvas. Developers are able to try out new interfaces without having to take huge financial risks, which has resulted in the sort of weird and wonderful instruments you’d never see in a physical instrument. One of the best is Patterning, a drum machine with a circular interface that encourages you to place your hi-hats and snares in unusual places. If you don’t like the many drum sounds it has included, you can upload your own using Dropbox or iCloud. Best of all, its layout is far more logical for novices than a classic Roland drum machine.
Moog Model 15
Moog is known for creating exquisite analog synths, but the company also has a growing reputation as an app developer. Model 15 is a note-perfect recreation of the 1970s modular synth of the same name, and its touchscreen capabilities allow you to move patch cables, add filters and play with oscillators just like you would on a real modular synth. It also sounds incredible: it will create everything from harsh metallic percussion to glossy strings, all with the unmistakable, classic Moog sound. If you’re daunted by the idea of patching your own synth, don’t be: it’s crammed full of presets. It’s also Kamen’s favourite iPad synth app. “It’s amazing to play around with modular patches and then be able to make them polyphonic,” he says.
Elastic Drums is based around a traditional step sequencer, but the sounds it makes are anything but standard. Designed by German experimental duo Mouse On Mars, it uses its own synth engine rather than samples, meaning the drums it creates are more “elastic” than you’d get with a standard unit – an 808 or 909 emulator, for example. If you want to create unique drum sounds rather than just take them out of the box, this app is one of the best. If you want proof of how easy it is to use, Mouse on Mars used it to help create a 21-track live album in 21 minutes.
Photophore is billed as a “flock synthesis” instrument, which creates evolving sounds by simulating animal behaviour. There are no waveforms or knobs confronting you, but a “swarm” of oscillators that create sound as they move across the screen; you control speed, turbulence, attraction, alignment and how much each of the swarm’s individual agents repel each other. It’s another example of the iPad’s unique form coming into its own, driven by a unique interface that’s easy for anyone to pick up and play. It also holds its own against the kind of expensive soft synths you’d buy for a desktop computer.
Shape Synth is a very simple device that allows anyone to get to grips with the basics of creating sounds without any specialist knowledge. The visual interface allows you to modify waveforms by touching them and gives an idea of the different ways in which it affects the sounds being created. It’s also got an arpeggiator, a tape recorder function you can scrub through and the app even changes certain parameters in response to the iPad’s built-in accelerometer.
More apps in this category:
iElectribe for iPad – Korg’s a mobile version of the famous beatbox
iMPC Pro – Akai’s a touchscreen version of the classic MPC sampler
iMaschine 2 – An easy-to-use take on Native Instruments’ famous rhythm controller
iVCS3 – A portable version of Peter Zinovieff’s unusual ‘60s synthesizer
ReBirth for iPad – Propellerhead’s emulation of the TB-303 and TR-808 and 909 drum machines
Combining instruments with an iPad
Once you’ve progressed from the simpler apps and figured out how to make a beat or a melody, it’s time to start putting different apps together – or look into playing with an app that allows you to sequence several instruments at once.
“I think it’s a great place for people to get started with music production, for sure,” Kamen says. “But in some cases, the work flow might be more complex on an iPad compared to a desktop — navigating multiple apps and connections is certainly more cumbersome than working inside a single DAW.”
If you want to use the iPad to make complete tracks it’s possible, but it’s best to think of it as a sketchpad for getting ideas down. If you’re willing to spend the time leaning how to switch between apps and get them connected though, you might find that it’s preferable to a studio full of wires or buying costly plug-ins for a laptop. Once you’ve figured out how to navigate app-switching, you’ll find it’s a tool you can do a lot with.
One of the most exciting things to happen to mobile music making in recent years is Ableton’s Link. It’s software that’s been written into both Ableton Live and selected iPad apps, and allows everything on a wireless network to stay in time with each other. Put more simply, it lets a group of people get together with iPads in a room and jam with each other, cable-free.
Link is also very easy to use: you and a friend load up some Link-compatible apps and that’s it. If you’re on the same network, the apps will know instinctively to stay at the same tempo. If you’re on your own, it also means you can use an app like Patterning with Ableton Live without a cable, and simply plug the audio output into your mixer or sound card.
“For me, Ableton Link has been a huge deal,” says Kamen. It essentially turns my iPad into an extension of Live, and because I was already a Live user it fits really well into my workflow.” It’s also much easier for novices who don’t want to learn the complications of the archaic MIDI technology. “It’s incredibly easy to set up and the idea of each device or app being able to start and stop as they like makes more sense to my musical sensibilities than the MIDI ‘send/receive’ relationship,” he adds.
Apple’s GarageBand is seen by some as entry-level music software, but as far as the iPad goes, it’s one of the tablet’s deepest music apps. You can record and sequence multiple built-in instruments and use it to host compatible apps with Apple’s inter-app audio technology. Not all apps support it, but those that do can be hosted like a standard plug-in and switched between with ease.
Even if you’re a seasoned desktop producer, you’ll be surprised at what it can do: you can plug a guitar in and put it through an amp, as well as pick from acoustic and electronic drums, acoustic string samples and even Chinese instruments. There’s a sampler and you can add effects too. It’s quite basic compared to something such as Logic or Live, but you could make a whole track with it if you have the patience to sequence drums, bass, melodies and vocals.
A slightly more straightforward way to get apps running together with needing to go into GarageBand is Audiobus. It’s an app that functions as a virtual audio cable, running one or more apps through an optional effects channel. If the apps are compatible with Ableton Link, they’ll run at the same tempo without the need for any menu diving. Once the apps are connected to Audiobus, a tab lets you switch between apps on the fly and pause other ones from another app. It’s a little tricky to get your head around the app switching, but it’s the best way to work with different music apps on iPad.
AUM is a more fully-featured take on the Audiobus concept. It allows you to load different music apps from left to right, and includes built-in effects you can add to each channel, such as filters, saturation, stereo processing and parametric EQ. If that doesn’t mean much to you, it allows you to tweak the audio from each app and separate the final mix into left and right channels. It’s like a very easy to use mixing desk for iPad, and also has clever MIDI routing options as well. “It’s a wonderful IAA host app that has really changed my feelings about Inter-App Audio,” Kamen says. “It’s streamlined, clean, and stable.”
If you don’t want to be constantly switching apps while using Audiobus or AUM, Korg Gadget is the next best thing. It’s a mobile music studio that comes with 20 different instruments based on classic Korg gear and other vintage equipment, with a built-in sequencer and support for different audio tracks. For example, there’s a TB-303 clone for making acid basslines called “Chicago”, and a “London” drum machine designed specifically for dance music. The main drawback is that it’s something of a closed system: it doesn’t function as a host over Inter-App Audio so you’re limited to the instruments Korg provides. However, if you’re an Ableton user, this app comes pretty close to the Live experience.
Using an iPad as a sequencer for external hardware
Even if you’re an analog purist or a producer that prefers the hands-on approach of a physical synth, the iPad still has its place. For Randon, the iPad is part of a larger live setup together with hardware synths and drum machines, a brain that sends messages using MIDI. It’s a more portable and in some case practical alternative to bringing a computer on stage, and the touchscreen adds an element of control you don’t get with a laptop.
To connect you iPad over MIDI, you need an accessory cable. The iRig MIDI 2 is Kamen’s go-to solution, and plugs into the iPad’s Lightning port and adds MIDI in, out and thru. It’s simple and affordable, but you won’t be able to charge your iPad while you use it. One option that does allow you to charge your tablet but doesn’t have MIDI sockets is Apple’s Lightning to USB 3 adapter, which Randon uses with the iConnectivity Mio to connect the rest of his gear.
If you don’t have any old gear with MIDI ports, but newer gear that sends MIDI over USB (such as Roland’s AIRA gear), then the Lightning to USB 3 adapter is fine for connecting a single piece of hardware. It’s also ideal if you have a basic MIDI controller with a USB connection, such as Novation’s keyboards.
If you want to connect an iPad to a larger setup so it can be used like a standalone plug-in synth, Kamen recommends the iConnectMIDI4+, though he says it’s probably overkill unless you want to connect multiple devices. “If you have an existing MIDI interface that uses USB, just go buy the Camera Connection Kit (CCK) and you can use whatever you’ve already got. Most people don’t realize that any class-compliant USB audio or MIDI device should work on iOS if you have this adapter.”
Once you’ve got the hardware and the cables you need, it’s time to buy a sequencer or controller app. Whether you want to create unusual patterns or you just need an arpeggiator, there are plenty or options. It’s also worth noting that most apps send MIDI data regardless of their function. One top tip for drum machine fun: use Patterning to control Roland’s TR-8 drum machine.
A quirkier option is Randon’s Fugue Machine. This app allows you to sequence a melody then play multiple variations of it simultaneously, at different speeds and in different directions. It turns simple four-note melodies into complex harmonic sequences with no in-depth knowledge of musical theory required. It’s one of Kamen’s favourite apps, and he plugs it into his modular synth’s MIDI to CV converter to create unusual melodic patterns.
More apps in this category:
Spectre – A sequencer that patches together like a modular synth
Replacing the laptop entirely
If you’re an experienced producer that’s already cut your teeth on FL Studio, Ableton Live or Cubase, you might be itching to skip to the last stage. Well, the truth is there isn’t much out there that will do what these pieces of software do – apart from one app that could potentially replace your laptop in the studio.
If you want an app that does absolutely everything, Modstep is it. It’s the closest you’ll get to having Ableton on your iPad, featuring a synth that’s as good as Operator, a sampler packed with classic drum machine sounds and a grid layout that will be easy for Live veterans to pick up. Even if you’re not already a DAW wizard, Modstep is a lot more user-friendly than Apple’s GarageBand.
While you can host Inter-App Audio apps in different tracks like AUM, Modstep stands out because it’s also a sequencer. You can write melodies, rhythms and chords and trigger them all on the fly. If you’ve already got a studio full of synths, Modstep will control those over MIDI as well. Considering how much functionality it packs in, Modstep is incredibly stable: it even works on a first generation iPad from 2010. If you’ve ever dreamed of a touchscreen brain for your studio, this is it.
Scott Wilson is on Twitter.