iPhone Music Apps

Please excuse me for changing the song's lyrics but, "What a difference a year makes." Since my article in the second edition of iPhone Life, the App Store continues to grow with a wide range of offerings that could be useful to musicians of all stripes. During a recent music education and technology conference hosted by TI:ME (ti-me.org), I presented a session on mobile music making. When I saw another session being offered by music teacher, Matthew Harrington, focusing on iPhone/iPod touch music apps, I was concerned that we'd be covering the same titles. Surprisingly, we only overlapped on one app! For me, it illustrated the sheer number of apps available and the great work being done in the development community.

This review looks at 11 apps (and hardware) for the professional, hobbyist, or student musician. These are all from the Music category, and all can be installed on either an iPhone or iPod Touch with OS 3.0. 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


$2.99 (limited time offer); app2.me/2365

Rectools08ProI wrote about the app 4Track in the first print issue of iPhone Life. It's an excellent, easy to use, multi-track recorder with each track having volume, mute, and solo controls. Audio files can be uploaded to your computer through Wi-Fi.

Rectools08Pro "kicks it up a notch," as Emeril Lagasse would say. This feature rich app includes a mixing console with volume faders, panning, and a 3-band equalizer for each of the 8 available tracks. What's really cool is a waveform editor that allows you to cut, copy, and paste, as well as split regions, and set both the in and out points.

While these features are excellent, the app does have a few drawbacks. First of all, there are many features in the app requiring the user to navigate to different screens, and many of the controls are very small. Secondly, in order to download your song, it must be mixed into a 2-track stereo file. This prevents you from downloading the individual tracks and importing them into your favorite DAW application for further editing.

The developer, Yodu, also lists a few third-party microphones that work with the app, including the Alesis ProTrack, Logitec LIC-iREC01, and Tunewear's stereo microphone. A quick Internet search found reviews about the Logitec device, but no vendors selling it (at least here in the U.S.). The Alexis ProTrack will set you back $399 ($199 street) but includes both built-in stereo mics and two XLR inputs with phantom power.

Aside from that, this is a great new addition to the iPhone/iPod touch musician's recording toolkit.

Leaf Trombone: World Stage

$0.99 (free Lite version also available); app2.me/301

LeafTromboneOne of the featured apps in Apple's iPhone 3.0 release announcement in 2009 was Smule's Leaf Trombone, their second music app (see my review of Ocarina in the Spring 2009 issue of iPhone Life) that leverages both the iPhone's touchscreen and "peer to peer" capabilities. It's very cool.

The interface for playing is simple and straightforward. There's a "slide" in the shape of a leaf that's very responsive and fully chromatic, with two arrow buttons for transposing up or down in octaves. To help achieve pitch accuracy, diatonic pitches are marked and animate when the slide is directly aligned. You can either blow into the iPhone's microphone (or with an add-on mic for the iPod touch) or set it to play on touch alone. There are settings for the key and sensitivity too. Finally, Smule has created an on-line song Composer that allows you to create your own song. You can share it instantly with other Leaf Trombone owners.

Again Smule goes beyond simply playing a cool instrument by leveraging two social networking capabilities of the iPhone. You can play duets by pairing two phones in close proximity of each other or use their World Stage feature that allows you to play either the role of performer or judge. As I understand it, to be a performer requires spending "leaves" that you earn by judging others. This seems like an equitable way to fill the need for judges and give performers opportunities to play for others.

Bebot-Robot Synth

$1.99; app2.me/302

RoboSynthYou may be familiar with the name Jordan Rudess , a well-known master keyboard player and electronic musician. He's been posting some great video demonstrations on YouTube, including the iPhone/iPod touch app called Bebot-Robot Synth, an incredibly expressive synthesizer and performance controller.

Bebot is not a toy but a highly stylized X/Y pad controller that's popular with the house or electronica crowd (think Korg Kaossilator). Moving your finger across the screen horizontally controls pitch, while moving vertically can control timbre or volume. It's also highly customizable, allowing the player to define the tonal characteristics of the synthesizer, apply effects, and define the scale and note grid that you play. An extra cool feature of this app is its ability to play a track from your iTunes library while performing in Bebot.

Pianofly Pro Synth

$2.99; app2.me/2366

iRealBookPianofly Pro Synth is a powerful musical instrument with a very interesting user interface. It features a different kind of scrolling keyboard. You simply flick your finger in the same manner that you do when scrolling a list. You can even scroll on the fly, while you're playing.

Pianofly also includes some novel controls of the synthesizer's parameters, as seen in the screenshot of the app. With the ability to control each waveform in a graphical fashion and the instant audio feedback, it really feels like I'm molding and shaping the sound in real-time. There is also a performance mode where the keyboard fills the entire screen. It's a powerful learning tool for any age student.

Music Utilities

Midi Player 2.0

$6.99; app2.me/2367

iRealBookFor me, one of the newest and coolest music apps is Midi Player 2.0 by Garren Langford. It appears to be the first useful app that can load and play Standard MIDI Files (.mid) with a sound set that aligns with the General MIDI specifications. Files can be loaded from a variety of sources, including uploading from your computer via Wi-Fi. Features include key change by half steps (tracks can be easily transposed by octave too), tempo change, patch change, reverb control, mixer with mute and solo, and piano roll view.

While there are audio quality issues and some missing and half-developed features, this is a great first step for the platform, and I applaud Mr. Langford for the work he has done so far. I'm looking forward to the updates!

iReal Book

$7.99; app2.me/2368

If you play music and use a fake book, iReal Book may be of interest. Its name is based on the fake book many jazz musicians use called, The Real Book. This app displays chord symbols without melody so it's very similar to another fake book called, Pocket Changes. You can browse or search the song list (900 as of this writing) and create your own custom playlists. Songs are regularly being added by other users and you can create your own and submit it to the developer for consideration to include in the next revision release.

What makes this app useful beyond the hard copy version is its ability to change keys. So, if the singer you're accompanying is having an off night and wants to sing "All of Me" in the key of A, you can quickly alter the chord changes. It also can display in the reverse type style of black background and white text, making it ideal for use in low light settings.

There's also an editing program for desktop computers (so far Mac-only) that makes creating your own chord charts much easier. From the editor you can e-mail the chart to yourself or others who have the app or upload to the forums that the developer hosts. All in all this is an excellent addition to my iPhone and one I'm sure many musicians can put to good use.

iTM DJ and other iTM apps

$5.99 each

iTouchMidiLabLast year I wrote about iTM Keys (app2.me/2369), a great MIDI keyboard app that connected with your computer via Wi-Fi and controlled any MIDI capable program. The developer of iTM Keys has other great controllers that also work with your favorite music production program. All of these apps connect via Wi-Fi to a computer equipped with a free program called iTouchMidi (itouchmidi.com), which is available for both Mac OSX and Windows.

  • iTM DJ (app2.me/2370) is set up to control digital DJ software like Traktor. It has two track controllers with volume faders, EQ and FX assignments, and track controls.

  • iTM Matrix (app2.me/2371) gives you a customizable matrix button layout (from 1x1 to 8x8) with user configurable colors and labels. Great for triggering samples.

  • iTM Pad (app2.me/2372) is an X/Y pad with five different assignment pages, each containing three mappable functions per page.

  • iTM Tilt (app2.me/2372) is an accelerometer-driven MIDI controller with five different assignment pages.

The explosion of synthesizer apps for the platform (e.g. see PianoFly earlier in the article) is just begging for solutions that will allow us to connect an external MIDI device (keyboard, guitar, or wind controller, etc) to our iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad and use the mobile devices as a sound module and recorder. MIDI Mobilizer by Line6 and Akai's Synthstation 25 are products that take a first step forward in this area. These are not just apps but hardware/software packages that allow you to record MIDI data directly to your device.

MIDI Mobilizer

$99.99; line6.com

MidiMobilizerThe MIDI Mobilizer hardware is a break-out box that connects to the doc connector with cables that appear to have proprietary connectors at one end and standard 5-pin plugs at the other. MIDI Memo (free; app2.me/2389) is the app that allows the user to record and play back music from within the app. Files can be saved as Standard MIDI Files (.mid) and transferred to your computer and favorite DAW program.

SynthStation 25

$199.00; akaipro.com

MidiMobilizerAkai's Synthstation25 provides a doc connector built into a 25 key MIDI controller. The controller has both pitch bend and modulation wheels and a few buttons for navigating parameters of the controller. Akai's SynthStation (not yet available) app is similar to many of the music production apps out now. It includes a programmable synthesizer, drum machine, sequencer, and mixer.

Music learning

Amazing Slow Downer

$14.99; app2.me/2372 (free "Lite" version also available)

SlowDownerI've been using Roni Music's Amazing Slow Downer (ASD) on my Mac for some time now. It's an excellent program for controlling the playback speed of an audio file when doing transcriptions as pitch, and speed can be controlled independently. Now they've released a version for the iPhone/iPod touch.

The iPhone app version is very similar to their computer-based version. Aside from the pitch and speed controls, ASD also allows you to set loop points, enabling the automatic repeat of a selected track. There are other controls for setting the audio quality and an equalizer for processing.

One major downside to the iPhone version is ASD's inability to play and control audio files that reside in the Music app. According to Roni Music, this is because Apple does not allow access to the raw samples needed for their processing so you'll need to import the audio files from your computer within ASD via Wi-Fi.

Scales & Modes

$1.99; app2.me/2390

Scales & ModesPardon my understatement, but just about every performing musician uses scales at some point. They form the basis of most organized music. What makes Scales & Modes so useful is that it provides an interactive reference library of scales and modes. The app comes with over 20 different scales and modes, enabling you to select any root note to start. You can then view the scale on a staff, see fingerings for both piano and guitar, and listen to an example.

Smappsoft also has a free version called Scales and Modes: The Quiz (free; app2.me/2391). A great feature of this app is its ability to play a scale and test your ability to recognize it purely by its sound.

Music to 
my ears

The explosion of the number of apps available for the platform continues to astound me. In the early years of the Mac (my first was 1986), there were only a handful of music software titles available, so making a decision was relatively easy. With the iPhone, iPod touch, and now the iPad, the choices are numerous, and the apps are varied and relatively inexpensive. With a few apps and some supporting hardware, I can do just about whatever I want without emptying my wallet. That's music to my ears!

A variety of inexpensive apps for the professional, hobyist, or student musician
Summer 2010
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