The Best Apps for Making Music with iPad

Miller Puckette, creator of Max and Pure Data platforms and music professor at UC San Diego, spoke at NYU about his work with computer music back in 2013. In his opening, he wondered aloud at why these devices that are primarily designed to do office work continue to enchant musicians.

Rather than attempt an answer, Puckette simply shared his hope that these machines’ current implementation in art is still in its infancy.

But if computers have the potential to be considered a new class of instrument, what is the best way to actually "play" them?

Some might say that it’s not about the computers themselves, but rather the applications and programs we use with the computers to create music. After all, the app is what determines how inputs are turned into outputs in the same way that instruments determine how our breath, finger and arm movements translate into sound.

But music creation is also physical, dependent on some connective tissue from soul to fingers to device – tactile surface matters as much as code. So the better question to ask is what provides the best nexus of playing surface and selection of music-making apps? With computer-created music, unique and accessible UX/UI is as integral as a guitar’s neck width.

We can't, in good confidence, declare the best nexus of control surface and app just yet, but we do know that the Apple iPad provides an incredibly versatile and tactile interface for music-making. Let’s use that as a window into where computer-based music-making can go. Here, then, are the apps that explore the edges and many faces of the iPad’s ability as a music-maker.

The iPad as Instrument

For truly revolutionary sampling and audio manipulation, Marcos Alonso’s Samplr cannot be beat. Record audio directly into the app through your device's built-in mic or an interface and use Samplr's different modes to “play” your waveform.

Samplr

Everything from a traditional 16-bar chop to granular synthesis is available, pushed through Samplr's built-in (and manipulatable) compressor, reverb, delay, LFO, and filters. Touching your sounds has huge advantages over pad and knob interfaces, closing the gap between producer and musician.

Borderlands, a beautifully playable app from Stanford’s Chris Carlson, demystifies granular synthesis by allowing the musician to place “grain clouds” on recorded or imported waveforms, which can be stretched and morphed.

Borderlands

By removing the keyboard interface that other granular plugins like Robert Hencke's Granulator II rely on, the artist is freed to find new layers and levels of expression with unprecedented immediacy.

For traditional songwriters looking to explore new arrangements and rhythms, SoundPrism and ThumbJam offer intuitive playable interfaces that break habits without diving into aural experimentation.

SoundPrism

These apps can limit the playable notes to match any scale and key, giving the musician a safe yet exciting playground of "all right notes." XYZ-axis parameters can be assigned to trigger expression like modulation and pitch bending.

The iPad as Effects Processor

To add something unique to your digital arsenal without navigating Max/MSP, you can easily create a mobile pedalboard from an expansive world of custom iOS effects.

For a basic studio setup, check out Klevgränd’s suite. For $8 each, you can get a dynamic compressor, an incredibly transparent de-esser, and even loop-able envelope filters. In the spirit of Swedish design, the visuals are minimal, keeping these apps easy to use and understand.

Kelvgrand ROVerb

Guitarists and synth addicts love the Holderness FX Bundle, a powerhouse of shimmering reverb, warbly tremolos and warm fuzz. By relying on simple XY pads, these apps let you tweak simultaneous parameters without having to fiddle with knobs.

Ableton Live users who don’t have Suite can still access Amazing Noises’s Max4Live devices at a comfortable $7 each. DubFilter and Dedalus Delay are essential for any electronic producer.

Amazing Noises Dedalus Delay

Interested in Ableton Live but haven't gotten into it yet? Reverb is offering an limited time offer on an incredible starter pack.

To chain signals together, Audiobus is indispensable. Using a simple flow of INPUT —> EFFECTS —> OUTPUT, Audiobus uses iOS’s Inter-App Audio (IAA) to route audio throughout an iPad. AUM is a brilliant heavy-hitting alternative, complete with mixing board and on-board effects.

AUM

The iPad as Mobile Studio

There’s a wide range of interfaces for a mobile rig, some of which you might already be using with your DAW. Nearly every manufacturer will list if their interface is compatible with your device (either natively or through the assistance of a dongle), but here are some good starting points:

Focusrite iTrack Solo: Quick and dirty. One-input, RCA and headphone monitor output. Great for capturing ideas quickly.

iConnectAUDIO4+: 4-in/6-out simultaneous, internal routing completely flexible through an included iOS/Mac/PC application. High quality 24-bit/96khz. Includes USB MIDI and traditional 5-pin in/out.

RME Babyface Pro: Incredible fidelity through two preamps, rock solid clocking and low latency, complete with insane live audio routing options with RME’s TotalMix software.

The iPad as MIDI generator and sequencer

For hardware purists, there's no beating mobile devices as sequencers. With iOS, you can make use of Apple's CoreMIDI to route MIDI between apps and out to external analog gear.

Most new synthesizers have onboard USB MIDI, which can plug directly into your device (for iOS, use Apple’s Lightning to USB adapter).

For instruments without USB MIDI, Roland’s UM-ONE is an incredible USB to MIDI interface that features a "tablet" setting for easy integration.

Instrument apps, like the aforementioned SoundPrism and ThumbJam, can route MIDI inter-app or out to hardware.

For fully fledged sequencing, modstep is a Swiss Army knife. Borrowing Ableton’s clip view UI, modstep features MIDI templates for nearly every major manufacturer (including KORG’s portable Volca series), offering deep control on a single touch interface.

modstep

In the "Woah, cool!" file, Fugue Machine is a unique multi-playhead sequencer that uses fugue composition to unlock beautiful melodies. Each of its four playheads can be routed to a different destination, breaking through composer’s block like a wrecking ball.

Fugue Machine

In its initial release, fluXpad is an excellent embodiment of how gestural interfaces can make for new instruments. Based on XY coordinates, fluXpad lets the producer draw in their MIDI without grids or quantization, triggering included sample banks or imported files. Excellent for stumbling upon new patterns.

CoreMIDI will reliably sync the apps on your iOS device, but it can get tricky syncing your device with your computer's DAW. Ableton Live 9.6+ has a built-in solution, LINK, which wirelessly syncs with most apps to keep your machines in time.

For other DAWs, midimux and Midiflow use your charge cable or ad-hoc networking to help your PC/Mac see your iOS apps as individual MIDI sources and destinations.

The iPad as Flexible Control Surface

Nearly every MIDI controller suffers the paradigm of unidirectional knob and slider readings. If you switch sets or change projects, the slightest tweak to a knob will send a huge jump in CC, rending careful mapping irrelevant.

Here, iPad is a lifesaver. touchAble and Logic Remote read your DAW's values and accurately reflect these on your screen. Mira by Cycling 74 is the perfect controller companion to any Max patch. iPad also speaks OSC through TouchOSC, cracking open a whole world of customizable interfaces built to meet your changing needs.

Cycling 74 Mira

The iPad as Synth Powerhouse

Though mobile devices can be a class of instruments all on their own without relying on skeuomorphism (making digital manifestations of things adhere to the way they look/function in the analog world), the synth modeling power of this hardware shouldn't be overlooked.

Moog's Animoog and Model 15 compete well against many of their (20x more expensive) analog peers, while Arturia's iMini and apeSoft's iVCS3 open access to rare gear for new generations of musicians.

Moog Model 15

Budding modular enthusiasts can test new patches on the go with apps like zMors Modular and Audulus, which co-opt the patch cord approach of visual languages like Max/MSP and Pure Data.

Moving Forward

This is merely a starting point for integrating your mobile devices into your workflow. Each of these topics would be worth an article of their own, so if there are any areas you’d like explored more deeply, please let us know in the comments.

Other great resources:

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