Even if you're not an aspiring professional musician, there are a lot of excellent apps available to help you express your creativity. For the most part, you can avoid the very inexpensive or free apps—useful tools will cost you $7 and up. Whether you're interested in recording and mixing live music, or creating performances with only your iPhone, there's an app to meet your needs. Here are some of the best ways to unlock your musical creativity.
ThumbJam takes performance and sound synthesizing to a new level. This app turns your iOS device into a real-time performance instrument with X/Y axis controls. It also leverages the accelerometer so that tilts and shakes can add an entirely new level of expressiveness to your performance. It lets you create high quality sounds from a wide variety of stringed, wind, and keyboard instrument. You can even record a sample of a sound with the built-in or an external microphone and use it to create your own custom instruments. ThumbJam will be adding new instrument sounds for purchase through an in-app store. The app can also record and playback loops, and broadcast key, tempo, and scale choices through Bluetooth sharing. Finally, you can also use it via Wi-Fi as a MIDI performance device. All this makes ThumbJam a powerful and professional-grade performance device.
Music Studio is a feature packed app that goes a long way towards making the iOS platform a media-creation alternative to a laptop. It's organized into five main sections.
The Keyboard section is the sole performance interface. It has a good "feel" to it and uses the accelerometer to bend the pitch and control expression. Range and zoom controls are accessed through a combination of finger swipes and pinch gestures.
The Instrument section does not have a search feature, but it's well organized, making it relatively easy to find the instrument you're looking for. If you can't find it, tap on the "Shop" button to connect to Music Studio's in-app store where more instruments (either singly or in packages) can be purchased.
The Track section provides a "piano roll" editor familiar to anyone who's used GarageBand or similar MIDI editing program. It lets you edit everything from whole tracks all the way down to individual notes.
The Effects section applies effects globally, but they can be enabled or disabled on each track.
The Projects section lets you import/export standard MIDI Files (.MID) to and from your computer and provides other organizational tools.
MultiTrack DAW is a feature-packed "Digital Audio Workstation" with eight mono or stereo tracks. (Sixteen additional tracks can be purchased through an in-app store.) Each track has separate volume, pan, and mute/solo controls. Tracks can be moved, trimmed, and regions looped with ease. Punching in can be automated and in and out points can be precisely set. Pop-up controls are a plus—when you touch a control (such as panning) a larger control pops up making it much easier to make fine adjustments. While it may not seem so important on an iPad, it's a real help on smaller screens. "Hotboxes" are another great feature—when you hold your finger on an audio region or track, a context sensitive group of buttons are displayed. This helps give the app a clean look but still have easy access to editing features.
Audio files (individual tracks or mixdowns) can be transferred via e-mail, SoundCloud, or through your iTunes File Sharing. Files can be in three formats; uncompressed WAV, compressed OGG, or AAC. MultiTrack works with the internal microphones and third-party mics. With the iPad's Camera Connection Kit you can even use some USB audio interfaces.
Two big features are missing (as of this writing)—track automation and effects. Otherwise this is a first class app.
iTM MidiLab (free, app2.me/2911, add-on controllers: $5.99 each): The folks from iTM still have some of the best controllers that work with your favorite music production program. All apps can interface with your desktop/laptop computer via Wi-Fi using a free MacOSX / Windows program (itouchmidi.com).
Morph Wiz ($9.99, app2.me/2869) is a performance app based on Jordan Rudess' experience playing non-keyboard synthesizers. Very cool.
SetList HD (Free, app2.me/2870) is a free iPad app that helps manage live shows by tracking sets, songs, lyrics, song length, and more.
Planet Waves Guitar Tools ($8.99, app2.me/2871) is the "Swiss Army Knife" of apps for guitarists, providing them with a chord finder and display, fretboard guitar simulator, scales, tuner, and metronome. Mobase ($ varies, mobbase.com) is an app development service for performing bands. You provide them with audio clips, videos, tour dates, and other info and they create an app for your band that you can distribute through the App Store.
Etude sheet music on steroids ($4.99, app2.me/2872) lets you download and display sheet music.
This app lets you create music in "loops" or blocks of sound. Start with a drum groove, lay down a bass pattern, add bursts of sound and other elements—all loops are assembled and controlled by you. The loops that make up the track are all playing at the same time, but you can control the relative volume of each of the three sections with the white slider: slide it to the left and the volume of the loops in the left section increases and the right-section loops decrease; slide it to the right and the opposite occurs. The volume of the center section loops remains constant. The blocks' height placement also controls their relative volume with a section. Timbre or other effects are controlled with the green x/y pad (see screen shot).
The app comes with a good selection of prepared loop sets, but you can buy more through an in-app store. You can also make your own loops by creating them in another app and importing them, or by recording them directly into Looptastic (accessory needed; see next section).
Neither of the two solutions described in this section had shipped as of late August, but they are expected to be released sometime Q3 or Q4 of this year. Both are app/hardware combos designed to act as your amplifier and effects devices for your "amplifiable" instrument.
IK Multimedia's AmpliTube app and iRig interface (AmpliTube app: $19.99, Free version available, app2.me/2868; other versions of the app are available, iRig hardware interface: $39.99, ikmultimedia.com)
Peavy's AmpKit app and AmpKit LiNK interface (AmpKit app: $n.a. (approval pending); AmKit LiNK interface, $29.99, peavey.com/ampkitlink)
The iRig and AmpKit LiNK are the hardware interfaces between your electric instrument's output and the headphone/microphone jack on your iPhone/iPad/iPod touch. Both claim to have good sound and low latency. AmpliTube is already in the app store and AmpKit was pending approval in late August. They provide the simulators for amplifiers, effects devices, and even microphone positioning. The potential of theses app/accessory combos is tremendous, but interacting with the app while your hands are busy playing an instrument is problematic. Hopefully, someone will come out with an alternate control system (stomp pedals?) that would connect to the iPhone's sync interface using the Camera Connection Kit.
Professional tools for musicians
Thanks to third-party apps and accessories, the iOS platform is developing into a relatively robust creative environment for musicians. We can record and edit live music, create music with instrument simulations, and use the iPhone/iPad/iPod touch as a performance device with capabilities not found on traditional electronic instruments. Whether you're a professional musician or not, Apple's iOS devices are becoming real "pro tools."