10 cheap, quick and easy iPhone apps for making music on the go
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.
If you own an iPhone, then you have everything you need to make music, anywhere. Scott Wilson picks 10 apps that will have novices and experienced producers producing beats wherever you go.
Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone is small, but it’s probably got more power under the hood than your last computer. Its vast library of synths, drum machines and one-of-a-kind apps allow people to produce music easier than at any point in history, but most of us aren’t aware of what it can do to help complete beginners and experienced producers create tracks.
While the iPhone isn’t ever going to replace the desktop computer for making music, its portability means that it can be used wherever creativity strikes. It’s possible to buy synths and instruments for the device you could integrate into a studio, but its strength lies in being a musical sketchpad you can use to quickly use to record ideas or as a tool for generating ideas.
But where do you start? There are a lot of different music-making apps for iPhone on the App Store, and not all of them are that easy for beginners or experienced producers to use. This list picks 10 of the simplest apps for getting ideas down quickly, whether you’re at home, in the studio or on your daily commute.
Auxy is a mobile music studio in the vein of GarageBand, but in an app that’s much closer to the minimalist philosophy underpinning Ableton Live. Tap the grid to activate notes, and as a bar scrolls down the screen, it will trigger each lit square in turn. Activate different tracks for drums and synths, and you can build an entire track out of chords, melodies and basslines. Auxy lacks a lot of the more complex features or GarageBand, but the ability to automate filter, reverb and other effects puts it ahead of many of its iOS rivals. Clean, simple and professional-sounding, Auxy is one of the best music sketchpads you can get for iPhone.
Casio Chordana Composer
If you’re happy to let an algorithm help you to write a song, then Casio’s Chordana Composer is actually pretty useful. Just sing or whistle a two-bar melody into your iPhone’s microphone, select from one of five genres, tweak the settings, and the app works out the correct harmony and turns your input into a full track. Obviously the genres are very limited – they extend only to pop, dance, rock, jazz or the dubiously-named “world” option, but if you wake up with a melody in your head and you’re worried you might lose it to the ether, this could be your saviour.
You can’t get Ableton, Logic or Reason on the iPhone, but GarageBand is the next best thing. It’s not the deepest music-making tool on the market, but it’s genuinely impressive what Apple has managed to fit in: drum machines and synths based on classic models, a sampler that uses the iPhone’s microphone, stringed instruments and a “smart” function that means you’ll always play notes in key whether you have musical training or not. If that sounds overwhelming, the app’s Live Loops mode offers a simple grid and pre-recorded samples from genres such as house, hip-hop and dubstep to build tracks.
Native Instruments’s Maschine hardware is a common sight in studios all over the world, but this app brings the experience of of building grooves to your pocket. As well as a recreation of the instrument’s drum pad for sketching out rhythms, there’s a keyboard mode for creating basslines and melodies (always in key thanks to a smart mode), and you can sample sounds from your iTunes library or from the iPhone’s microphone. The arranger also allows you to build whole tracks, but owners of the Maschine hardware are also able to export their loops to the desktop software – perfect if an idea for a drum loop hits you on the train.
A more high-class version of the irritating soundboard apps clogging up the more pointless corners of the App Store, Keezy is basically a very simple eight-track version of an MPC sampler. Its interface is just eight tiles, each of which holds a different sample; hit a tile once to trigger a one-shot, or hold a tile down to loop the sample. The app comes with 15 soundboards already installed, but the real fun comes in using the iPhone’s in-built microphone to record your own. It’s functionality is pretty limited – there’s no way to export songs – but it’s as simple as it gets if you want to experiment with triggering samples before graduation to an MPC.
There are few things quite as fun as jamming with a drum machine, bass synth and lead. Being restricted to these three crucial elements is a great way to learn the basics of electronic music, something capitalised on by Korg’s Volca series of synths. Allihoopa’s Figure app does much the same as a trio of Volcas with a foolproof interface and with presets handling tonality, key and rhythmic patterns. It makes making a beat or as simple as tapping the screen or swiping your finger, and while the sound crafting options are fairly limited, anyone can make techno in three minutes with this app.
Like its older sibling the Kaoss Pad, Korg’s compact Kaossilator synth feels a little irrelevant now that you can buy an iPad that’ll make a lot more sounds for the same price. However, Korg’s tiny, simple synth makes more sense as an app. It’s much less expensive than its physical counterpart, and the inclusion of multi-touch makes it a more versatile tool. iKaossilator is the music app equivalent of a button-bashing beat ‘em up – just dial in a preset and key, and hit the performance area as frantically as you want. It’s cheesy, yes, but there’s something quite satisfying about playing brostep wobble bass on your phone.
Like the Colonel’s secret recipe, Moog’s ladder filter is the secret ingredient that gives the company’s synths that special flavour. It’s a computer-modelled version of this filter that forms the core of Moog’s Filtatron app, which can be used to mangle sound from the app’s simple on-board oscillator, line input or sampler (which allows you to record direct from your phone’s microphone). The layout is a little tricky to get your head around if you’re not experienced in synths, but with a bit of experimentation it’s like having a set of modular effects in your pocket. If you’ve ever wanted to feed field recordings through an LFO, this is for you.
Price: Free (features in-app purchases)
Branded apps are usually about as high-quality as those flimsy USB sticks companies give away at conferences. Ninja Tune’s Ninja Jamm however – developed with London studio Seeper – provides an experience that’s worthy of the label’s 25 years of history. The app allows you to cheaply purchase music from artists including Machinedrum, Bonobo, Lapaluz and FaltyDL and remix it with the individual instrument stems. We don’t all have the turntable skills of Coldcut, but the app’s loopers and effects make it easy to at least pretend like you do.
Price: Free (offers in-app purchases)
If you want to write a track but the idea of writing a drum loop and arranging it with synths and samples is too perplexing, PlayGround for iOS cuts out all the complication. The app’s interface is more like an abstract painting than a keyboard, allowing you to trace a line through different shapes to trigger chords, notes and percussion. PlayGround’s loose, improvisational interface creates grooves that are more aligned with jazzy, beat scene-style productions than rigid 4/4, but whatever you’re into it’s a perfect app for getting your brain into the music-making zone.
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