I’m not only a musician and teacher; I’ve been a PDA enthusiast for many years. It all started in the mid 90s, when I got my first handheld, Apple’s short-lived Newton. I moved on to the Palm Pilot and a great piece of software called ittyMIDI, which allowed me to play back MIDI files, change tempo, set volume levels, and mute individual tracks. When my Palm Pilot died, I moved on to a Windows Mobile Pocket PC, which had more multimedia capabilities and a variety of third-party programs that turned the Pocket PC into a musician’s helper. It was functional, but primitive—I dreamed of more.
Apple’s initial release of the iPhone was promising—it had great sound, an innovative user interface, and a gorgeous screen—but without the ability to install third-party apps it’s usefulness as a musician’s helper was pretty limited. Fortunately, they fixed that with the release of the iPhone 2.0 software, which allows you to install apps on the iPhone (and iPod Touch). In addition, Apple’s new iTunes App Store offers thousands of third-party apps, including over 400 in the Music category.
This review looks at 11 of my favorite apps for the professional, hobbyist, or student musician. (I do not include novelty apps like More Cowbell). These are all from the Music category, and all can be installed on either an iPhone or iPod Touch with the 2.0 software upgrade. For convenience sake I’ve divided them into three sub-categories:
- Music production (recording, composing, and performance),
- Music Utilities (controllers, tuners, and reference materials),
- Music learning (theory, ear training drills, etc).
- • Music Production
SynthPond provides an interesting and engaging interface with which to compose music. Think of it as a sequencer that repeatedly loops a musical phrase. Based on a visual metaphor of nodes placed in a virtual pond; pitch, tempo, and speed are controlled by each node’s placement in relation to the others.
That’s right—this app turns your iPhone into an ocarina flute! It displays four “holes” on the screen, which you “cover” with your fingers. The tones are created by blowing into the iPhones microphone, which is located on the bottom of the device. The tone is similar to the sound made by a recorder, but getting short articulations is very difficult. Still it is a great hi-tech addition to your collection of flutes.
If that’s not cool enough, you can record your performances and upload them to the Smule Web site, then send a link of the recording to others via e-mail. You can also give your ocarina a name (mine is “marcarina”) and share your music with other Ocarina players around the world. The global interface is very cool with glowing dots representing all connected Ocarina players.
Yonac Software’s miniSynth is a software-based synthesizer based on the subtractive synthesis model used in classic 70’s era keyboards like the Moog or ARP Axxe. This app has two oscillators (four different waveforms each) with rough tuning and gain controls, filter with frequency and cutoff, a simple envelope generator, and an echo module. The controls are nicely laid out on two screens but sliders are sometimes sluggish when making fine parameter changes. A step sequencer would be a nice addition. As with many synths from the 70’s, it is monophonic and only plays one note at a time.
Most arrangers who use music notation programs such as Finale and Sibelius input their music with a keyboard controller of some sort, and many carry a small 25-key controller with them when traveling. Silicon Studios’ iTMKeys turns the iPhone or iPod Touch into a MIDI keyboard controller program. The keyboard is short, one octave with up and down arrows to shift octaves and a pitch bend wheel. It’s even able to send velocity data depending on where you press along a key. iTMKeys uses a Wi-Fi connection to tie it to your computer and requires “server” software running on your computer. That component is freely available on the itouchmidi.com Web site. This one’s a killer app for me.
Why carry around a separate tuner, always worrying about having fresh batteries for it, when you can turn your iPhone into a chromatic tuner? Mauvila Software advertises OmniTuner as suitable for all types of instruments, including woodwinds and brass, but it contains special tools and features that make it especially attractive to players of stringed instruments.
ProRemote Light Edition
Both this light version and the $149.99 full version of ProRemote by Far Out Labs are designed to be remote controls for two commercial Digital Audio Workstation programs: ProTools and Logic. Both versions of ProRemote come with two UIs that accurately mimic the software on your computer. Features include transport controls, most channel strip controls including volume and pan, and meter readouts.
If you’re looking for a more affordable way to control aspects of ProTools and Logic, consider ProTransport (also by Far Out Labs, $7.99). This app provides transport controls including scrubbing and location readout.
Sing-in Tuna by HotPaw Productions accesses the power of the iPhones DSP tools to display the microphone input’s pitch in relation to the grand staff. It has a four octave range and will display green when within 20 cents of a pitch and red or blue when sharp or flat respectively. It also displays the note name, frequency in hertz, and the degree with which your input compares in cents.
Karajan & Karajan Beginner: Karajan
$14.99; Karajan Beginner Free karajan-eartrainer.com
Holger Meyer’s Karajan and Karajan Beginner is a music theory app that also helps you train your ear. This type of “drill and skill” app is really the high-tech equivalent of flash cards. Karajan contains modules for intervals, scales, and chords. It even has one to practice recognizing specific tempo.
RoGame Software’s ScaleMaster provides you with an encyclopedia of scales at your fingertips. It includes visual presentations of a guitar fretboard or piano keys and notation. The program has over 100 scales in its database (including octatonic and bebop jazz scales) and other tunings (like the microtonal found in some of the world’s music). Best of all, it plays them for you. RoGame has two other apps worth mentioning in the education area, Almond ($5.99), a dictionary of musical terms, and Mozart ($9.99), pitch notation recognition drill for guitar or pianos.
Animated Circle of Fifths
Animated Circle of Fifths by Greg Fisch doesn’t contain any guided study or drill aids but is a useful tool in learning chord functionality within a key. Its interface presents two rings; the outer is a Circle of 5ths and the inner chord qualities in Roman numerals (e.g. I, II, III, etc.). Want to know what the IV chord is in the key of A flat? Simply rotate the outer or inner wheel so that the inner wheel’s “I” is aligned with the outer’s A flat. Presto, D flat! For learning your II-V-I’s in all keys, it’s an engaging way to practice. Plus, you can do this with any of the seven modes of the major scale.
So where do we go from here?
The iTunes App store is still relatively young and we’re still in the platform’s infancy with regard to sophisticated third-party software. What is exciting is the sheer number of apps already available, as well as the creativity embodied in them. Developers are making excellent use of the core features of the iPhone and iPod Touch, including great sound, innovative user interface, and networking capabilities.
I can’t wait to see what becomes available in the next few months on the iTunes App Store.
FourTrack by Sonoma Wire Works could be just the right app for a singer/songwriter who’s working on the demo of his or her breakout hit. The app lets you capture musical ideas anywhere using the iPhone’s built-in mic or the headset mic. You can also install it on the iPhone Touch and capture music via a third-party mic. As the name implies, you can record four separate tracks with independent volume and pan controls. The app stores multiple song files, and allows you to upload the files to your computer using the iPhone’s browser and a Wi-Fi connection to your computer. Each track of a song is its own file, so once you upload it to your computer, you’ll need to rebuild the song in your favorite audio editor (like Audacity). This is an early foray into multi-track iPhone recording. We can only expect it to get better.