iPhone Gems: The Best Music Creation Apps
iPods and iPhones have for years allowed you to carry around and play back music, but creating music with these devices has been at best difficult, requiring expensive accessories. Recently, the App Store opened up a new world for iPhone and iPod touch users: now you can create music directly from your device, using affordable and versatile new software.
Today, iPhone Gems looks at some of the best applications available for making music with your iPhone or iPod touch, from sophisticated semi-professional applications to fun apps for the casual users. We also have an section at the end for a number of notable but simple “novelty” music creation apps that can be found on the App Store, with a few comments on each.
BeatMaker ($20) stands out from the rest of the music creation applications we’ve looked at in that it’s designed for a serious amateur or semi-professional user, rather than just being fun to play around with. It is actually a portable Music Production Center (MPC) right on your iPhone, with drum machine, sampler and sequencer features that you would normally only expect to find in a desktop application or custom MPC platform. While powerful and relatively easy to use by MPC standards, BeatMaker’s 31-page user manual hints at the sort of learning curve it offers; this isn’t a beat creation tool for casual users.
BeatMaker provides several very good sample sound banks from featured artists to get you started, or you can create your own sample banks and transfer them onto the iPhone using the free BeatPack desktop application, available for both Mac OS X and Windows XP/Vista. Sample banks are loaded directly in the application, and can be played on a 16-pad screen layout. Most notably, the iPhone’s multi-touch is used to full advantage here, allowing up to five pads to be triggered simultaneously.
The samples can be further customized in the pad view, with the ability to adjust pitch, volume, output channel and even start and stop points for each sample. Further, a graphical waveform is provided to assist with with adjusting the start and stop points. Samples can also be chopped, scaled, muted or set to be played back in reverse. New samples can also be loaded from individual WAV files either included with BeatMaker or transferred from your computer using the BeatPack companion application.
From the pad screen, you can either simply play your sound bank live in real time, or record a pattern directly from the pad screen by selecting the record option and tapping on the iPhone screen to play back samples from each pad. BeatMaker also provides a song sequencer screen to lay out and place your triggering patterns along a graphical timeline, and a step sequencer to graphically adjust and the triggers for each sample track. It supports 16 samples per pattern, and an unlimited number of patterns within the song sequencer.
Within the step sequencer, screens are also provided for adjusting the velocity (or volume) of each pattern on a per-step basis, as well as a groove editor to allow more “humanization” of the patterns by setting earlier or delayed pattern triggers for each step.
BeatMaker also provides the ability to assign each pad to an effects channel. Channels include a main (“dry”) channel which has no effects, and two independent FX channels that both include Bit-Crusher, 3-Band EQ and Synchronized Delay effects.
Your sequences and sound bank settings can be saved and retrieved, or even transferred to your desktop computer using the free companion BeatPack application. Further, once you have finished laying out your tracks, you can export them to either WAV format for playback or export to MIDI for further processing in a desktop music production application such as GarageBand or Logic Express/Pro. As an aside, it should be noted that BeatMaker will take up about 150MB on your iPhone even before you start saving new samples and tracks. This makes it one of the largest iPhone applications we’ve reviewed, rivalling some of the largest game applications we’ve seen.
It’s not just a big app: BeatMaker is easily among the most sophisticated iPhone applications that we have reviewed, offering a full-featured electronic music creation platform while providing a great indication of what the iPhone OS is actually capable of. Although we normally consider the $10 price point to be an appropriate high-end for most iPhone applications, this is the first application that we’ve reviewed that actually justifies a higher $20 price tag; it is a desktop-caliber piece of software, running on a pocket-sized device. If you enjoy making music, it’s highly recommended. iLounge Rating: A.
Band ($2) by MooCowMusic is a considerably more straightforward entry among iPhone music creation applications, targeted more at the casual user who simply wants to quickly and easily compose some basic music on the iPhone. As the name implies, Band offers you a collection of virtual instruments, including a Rock Kit, Funky Drummer kit, Bass Guitar, Grand Piano, 12-Bar Blues synthesizer and even an “audience” instrument to provide applause and other audience sound effects.
Depending on the instrument selected, complex chords can be created through the use of the iPhone’s multi-touch interface, allowing up to five notes to be triggered simultaneously. Visual feedback is also provided as each instrument is played.
Band provides multi-track recording capabilities, with instruments recordable individually or even overdubbed multiple times. Recordings can be saved and retrieved for later playback, although no export capability is currently available—tracks are simply played back through Band itself. A few sample tracks are also included, and when viewing the appropriate instrument, Band will even animate the playback on-screen as well, so you can for example watch the appropriate piano keys light up as you listen to a piece with a piano track.
A configurable metronome is also provided to assist with keeping a steady beat during recording.
Band provides a very polished, easy-to-use app that the average user will be able to get up and running with very quickly, yet still provides good music creation capabilities in a simple package. With a $2 price tag, this application provides outstanding value; the ability to export is really all that it’s missing. iLounge Rating: A-.
Guitarist ($3) is another application by MooCowMusic; it’s very similar in concept to Band, yet focused specifically on the Guitar. Rather than merely being a stripped-down version of Band, several guitar-specific features and effects are present in this application, including a choice of using a traditional manual fret guitar style or working with virtual guitar styles such as hammer-on, tab and scale to allow focus on certain aspects of guitar play.
Guitarist goes a bit beyond Band by acting as more of a “Guitar Simulator” that actual guitar players can benefit from by working out tabs and chord progressions.
It also provides support for effects channels such as delay and fuzz effects, as well as a patch screen to adjust volume and sustain, plus the ability to choose the guitar’s style.
Guitarist allows you to play back two guitars together, and each guitar is processed by a separate effects chain and patch settings.
The only major limitations of the current version of Guitarist are that it does not provide any kind of tuning or other options for left-handed players, which may be a serious limitation for experienced left-handed guitar players, and doesn’t offer export functionality. Despite these limitations, however, Guitarist offers an excellent guitar simulation and recording experience for both novice and experienced guitar players alike, providing a fun app that can also serve as a very useful resource and practice tool at a very reasonable $3 price tag. iLounge Rating: A-.
Pianist ($2) is MooCowMusic’s third offering, with a very similar interface and design to the Band application. As the name implies, however, it is focused on piano playback, and provides only a basic piano instrument with adjustments for soft and sustain pedals.
Like Band, Pianist offers the ability to play up to five notes at a time using the multi-touch iPhone interface, and the ability to record multiple tracks and save them for later playback. Export functionality is once again left out of this app. As a full 88-key keyboard is obviously too large to fit on the iPhone screen, a keyboard index is provided as the top to allow the user to select any portion of the iPhone keyboard fairly quickly, and a configurable metronome is also provided.
Although Pianist provides more advanced piano-related features, it generally feels like a slightly scaled-down version of Band. Users interested in focusing specifically on the piano will likely appreciate it, but the average user would probably be better off picking up the Band application for the same price. That having been said, Pianist is a well-done application with good quality sound—each piano note has been independently sampled from a real piano—and a very reasonable $2 price tag. We’d like to see an export feature added, though. iLounge Rating: B+.
Guitar ($4) is a virtual guitar for your iPhone that allows for easy configuration and selection of different chord progressions, fret positions and scales from a built-in library of over 1500 chords and scales.
With Guitar, you play by strumming the notes on the iPhone screen as you normally would on a guitar, but selecting fret configurations from a ten-button fret board panel at the top of the screen rather than using a traditional fret board layout. These buttons can be customized to represent any chord, scales or even a fixed fret position. An option in the preferences panel allows control over whether the fret board buttons require simply a single tap for one-handed play, or need to be held down while playing for simpler two-handed play.
Chord string labels appear immediately below the fret board panel and these labels can be customized to display either the fret number, scale degree or note name for each string. Although Guitar does not actually record your playback, it provides the ability to save your chord/scale/fret configuration so that you can retrieve it later when you want to practice or play that particular configuration such as for a specific song. Guitar also includes about a dozen saved configurations for commonly played songs.
Guitar supports both finger-plucked and picked sound modes, with very realistic sounding samples and an infinite sustain feature so notes play realistically rather than being constrained by sample length. Tuning can also be adjusted up or down by two semitones for transposition or playing along with other instruments. Left-handed support is also included and can be enabled in the application’s preferences screen.
Guitar is designed as a virtual instrument rather than an application for composing and saving music, but for a guitar player looking for a virtual guitar application simply for the purpose of performing/playing music, this is worth the $4 asking price. iLounge Rating: B+.
Beat Loop ($3) is basically a virtual drum set for your iPhone that provides the ability to record and save your own drum patterns from a set of nine drum styles. Upon launch, the app simply provides a screen with nine buttons to represent the different drum styles, and you tap on the drums to play back the appropriate sounds.
Up to five different drum buttons can be hit simultaneously to play them in unison. Buttons located at the bottom of the screen allow you to record, play, load or save your work. One interesting feature offered by Beat Loop is velocity simulation, which allows you to control the strength of the drum hit by tapping in different places on the drum icon—a tap at the top will play a soft hit, while a tap at the bottom of the icon will play a harder hit. This setting is enabled by default, but can be turned off in the application’s “Options” menu.
The ability to record and save your work, as well as the velocity simulation feature make Beat Loop one of the better drum kit applications that we’ve seen. With a $3 price tag, it’s a reasonable option for somebody looking for a drum simulator for the iPhone. iLounge Rating: B.
Bedrum ($4) is billed as a classic drum machine for the iPhone. It sports a fairly simple and intuitive interface, plus support for multiple patterns, channels, and drum sets.
Patterns are laid down by selecting the appropriate drum instrument and then tapping on the keys at the bottom of the screen to indicate where beats should occur. Each instrument has its own beat pattern and four pattern banks are also available. One of four drum sets can be selected from the panel at the top of the screen, and the tempo can also be adjusted from here as well.
Although Bedrum will save your current settings across application launches, there is no separate feature for saving your drum pattern configuration, which may limit the usefulness of this app somewhat. However, the four pattern banks can be used to store individual rhythmic patterns, effectively giving you four “save” slots. iLounge Rating: B-.
BtBx ($4) is a music sequencing application that provides eight drum and two instrument sounds that can be laid out across up to 16 patterns. This application is similar in basic concept to BeatMaker, but is much more limited.
BtBx supports adjustable tempo settings as well as delay and distortion effects, a low-pass filter and the ability to cut and paste patterns. Patterns may also be played in reverse and a keyboard view is provided so you can “jam” while your sequenced song is being played back.
While BtBx is a fun application to play with, its most serious limitation is the lack of any ability to save your work. While your work-in-progress will be preserved when you quit the application, no other save feature is provided. iLounge Rating: B-.
iDrum is essentially a sequencer/drum kit application with an interesting graphical interface. Rather than providing a traditional sequencer or pad view, iDrum instead displays a 4x4 grid representation of 16 patterns, each of which includes 16 possible sample tracks.
Tapping on a pattern will “zoom in” to display the individual tracks within that pattern as another 4x4 grid. Tapping on a track will zoom in to display the triggers within that particular track as yet another 4x4 grid, and individual triggers can then be toggled by tapping, or adjusted in velocity by holding and dragging over the trigger.
One interesting feature of iDrum is the ability to create ringtones directly from your compositions. However, this ability is hampered by the fact that you need to download a Ringtone Sync software for your computer to sync the ringtone back over Wi-Fi, load it into iTunes, and then re-sync it onto your iPhone. This is no doubt a limitation of the iPhone SDK, but at the same time makes this feature more cumbersome than the average user would expect. It’s also worth noting that the iDrum Ringtone Sync software for Mac uses an installer package that requires administrator privileges, an uncommon trait among Mac apps of this nature.
While we have no reason to believe that this application contains anything malicious, this behavior does imply that it may “dig” into the system in a way that is not easily uninstalled. Notably, this is certainly something that we have not seen before in any other iPhone sync-related applications or any other ringtone creation applications that we’ve tested or reviewed. Further, this ringtone creation feature is the only method of saving your sequences outside of the iPhone itself, which is limited to a forty-second track length to fit within the ringtone requirements. With the developer already providing a desktop app for ringtone sync, it’s quite surprising that no means is provided to actually transfer the full tracks from the iPhone back to your computer.
iDrum is interesting in its interface design and ringtone creation feature, but not so compelling in its price tag: at $5 each, the two different versions force users to either buy both or make a choice as to what particular sound banks they want. iLounge Rating: C+.
Tingalin ($3) is described as “a virtual lute application based on the Albanian musical instrument called Çifteli,” and is one of the more unique musical applications we’ve seen. Not only is it based upon a rather eclectic musical instrument, but it also provides a different sort of playback experience.
Tingalin uses a fourteen-note fret board with eight notes displayed at a time—the fret board can be scrolled by dragging up and down on its right side. You tap the fret board to play single notes and add them to your current composition which is then played back by shaking the iPhone “as if you were strumming the real instrument.” A playlist of two sample songs is included and you can also save your own compositions for later playback.
With a $5 price tag, Tingalin is a bit on the expensive side for what it offers compared to other options, but it is a reasonably well-done application and may be of some interest for those users who are looking for something a bit unique in an iPhone music app. iLounge Rating: C+.
miniSynth ($2) is a representation of an old-school transistor synthesizer intended to produce electronic sounds by directly manipulating oscillator, wave-form and filter controls, and the generated sounds it produces are quite realistic for those familiar with early synthesizers.
miniSynth is basically just an adaptation of a configurable synthesizer with no other features beyond the ability to produce a variety of different sounds. There are no features for saving or loading configuration settings or recording your work. While this may be of interest to vintage synthesizer enthusiasts or those interested in tweaking around with configurable sound generation, it offers little else. iLounge Rating: C.
From the developer of miniSynth also comes Thereminator ($3), which provides a virtual representation of a theremin, one of the earliest electronic music instruments. Unlike a real theremin, however, you have to actually touch the iPhone to play this one, but the eerie sounds that it produces are realistic and typical of the thremin-generated soundtracks used in classic horror and sci-fi films.
Thereminator provides controls for adjusting wave form, pitch range, echo, delay, and tremolo effects. The current playback frequency is also displayed on a digital readout at the bottom-left corner of the screen. Thereminator is interesting in its representation of an eclectic musical instrument, and fans of non-traditional music and sound effects will probably get a fair bit of enjoyment out of this app. Beyond this, however, it’s essentially just a virtual instrument that offers little beyond the ability to produce interesting sound effects. iLounge rating: C
PaklSound1 ($1) is a very basic step-sequencer application with support for three different sound layers—melody, drums and bass. No further sound configuration is available beyond these three fixed sounds which produce basic and relatively uninteresting electronic tones. The application presents a screen of dots with a sweeping bar running from left to right. Dots are toggled on and off by tapping on them to indicate where notes and sounds should be played. Each layer also supports two parts that you can alternate between during playback.
Controls at the top of the screen allow switching between the three layers, which are color-coded as blue for melody, red for percussion and green for the bass line. PaklSound1 also offers an “advanced” mode that can be toggled on within the iPhone’s main “Settings” section, providing the ability to pause and resume playback, hear notes in real-time as you tap them, automatically alternate between the A and B parts during playback, use chromatic notes and export your songs to XML format via e-mail. Songs may also be imported from web site links specifically encoded for PaklSound1 via the iPhone’s Safari browser.
At the $1 asking price, PaklSound1 may be worth a look for the curious, but the app is somewhat confusing with no built-in help system. iPhone applications that are supposed to be simple should generally not require the user to visit a web site and download a 12-page PDF manual just to figure out the basics; a more intuitive design would really help here. iLounge Rating: C-.
Synthesizer ($3) is a simple sound-generation app that uses the iPhone’s touchscreen interface to generate sounds based on a set of harmonic and effects sliders. Five presets are also included. As one would expect, this application generates electronic synthesizer-style sounds that can create interesting effects but generally fall short of what one might call “music.”
Sliding your finger along the grid generates a sound based on these settings, and that’s pretty much all there is to it.
It should be noted that Synthesizer was previously available for $1, at which price it was a reasonable enough application for users looking for a basic synth/sound generating application. At its current price of $3, however, it offers absolutely nothing of significance over much better and less expensive applications. iLounge Rating: D.
Searching through the list of music applications on the App Store will turn up a couple of dozen other single-purpose programs: present one instrument and let you play it on your iPhone. The most common of these are for percussion instruments, since they fit naturally with the iPhone’s touch screen and motion sensor, although there are a few other instrument types included as well. These apps may provide alternative selections of instruments, but they generally provide no capabilities beyond tapping, sliding or shaking your iPhone to cause it to emit sounds appropriate for that instrument. Most do not even offer any form of configuration or help screens—they just show you a picture and expect you to tap at it.
Some of these apps are free, most of them are in the $1-$2 range, and other than the novelty factor most are not in any way worthwhile. Beyond mentioning them here and providing some sample screenshots, we will not be specifically assigning ratings to these apps, although suffice it to say that we consider most of them to be way overpriced for what they offer unless you’re simply looking for a way to amuse small children with your $200 iPhone or $230 iPod touch.
First, there is the expected series of traditional drum and percussion applications. DigiDrummer ($1) from the same developer as Bedrum provides a simple eight-drum set with the same selection of four different drum sets that can be found in Bedrum.
Drum Kit ($1) presents a simple top-down view of a drum kit that you tap on to make noise. There’s really nothing more to it than this.
Drummer (Kentaro Matsume) ($1) on the other hand, doesn’t even get quite that fancy, simply displaying a picture of two cymbals, a tambourine and a snare drum that you can tap on. Note that this app used to be free and the minimal labor it took to download made it feel overpriced even at that point.
On the other hand, the similarly-named Drummer (iFRizzo.com) ($2) at least provides more than the basic drum set. In this case, your $2 scores a turntable that you can make DJ-style scratching noises, and an entire percussion section, including a set of bongo drums, a triangle, a whistle, a cowbell, a set of conga drums, a pair of timpani and even a gong for reliving 1970’s game show nostalgia.
MagicDrum ($1) presents a cartoonish drum set and at least provides some additional options for customizing your drum kit, with four different sound and graphic styles.
Air Drummer ($2) provides a slightly more interesting—and potentially destructive—twist in that it simply presents a series of buttons for various percussion instruments which you hold down and shake your iPhone like a drumstick to play. Air Drummer’s initial startup screens contain disclaimers advising you to put a case on your iPhone before using this app, however simply not using the app at all sounds like a much better idea to us.
For those who can’t get enough Cowbell in their lives, the App Store also offers More Cowbell (Sean Follmer) ($1), Have More Cowbell ($1), and More Cowbell (Maverick Software) (Free). These three apps all do the same thing: they display a cowbell on the screen and you either tap or shake your iPhone to make cowbell noises. With all due respect to Bruce Dickinson, these apps may make you question whether the world really needs more cowbell.
On the other hand, Cowbell Plus ($2) at least offers a selection of different percussion instruments for when you tire of throttling the cowbell all day. The collection is actually quite extensive, ranging from claves, egg shakers and sleigh bells to various cymbals, drums, and other percussion instruments.
In the second category comes the next most natural fit—shaker-related apps. Air Shaker ($1) and iMaracas (Free) present virtual shaker-style percussion instruments that you simply move your iPhone to make sounds out of. iMaracas, as the name implies, includes only the maracas, while Air Shaker includes instruments ranging from the castanets to the tambourine and, yes, even a cowbell.
Sounds ($1) takes the shaker concept a little bit further by providing a series of actual recorded or synthesized sound sequences that are played back when you shake the iPhone.
Virtual Xylophone applications are another popular—or easy-to-make—option, with XyPhone ($1), MagicXylo ($1), Xylophone ($1) and Zxilophone ($1). These apps all simply present various styles of Xylophones that you then tap on to make the appropriate sounds. MagicXylo stands out a bit in that you can choose different sounds such as marimba, wood block and the ever-popular “Orchestra Hit.”
A variation on the xylophone concept is Gx: Glass Xylophone ($1), an app that instead of a traditional Xylophone presents a set of crystal glasses that you tap on. Notable with this application: you can actually “tune” individual glasses by adjusting the level of liquid in them.
Two additional guitar applications, PocketGuitar ($1) and GuitarApp ($3), basically provide virtual guitars without any of the useful bells and whistles that are offered by Guitarist or Guitar. These two applications simply allow direct playback with options for tuning and some basic guitar effects.
Under the heading of stringed instruments also comes the more eclectic iKoto ($1), which replicates the Koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument. Basic single-track recording capabilities are provided, however only one recording can be stored at a time and there is no option to export recordings.
Some simple wind instruments are also included in the list, specifically the Harmonica ($2), the Kazoo (Free) and even a Crazy Panpipe ($1). Blowing on the iPhone is, of course, not necessary to enjoy them.
Finally, for something completely different, there are a few apps that attempt to create whole new instruments out of the iPhone simply by generating sounds from either the touch screen, the motion sensor, or both. Among these, Cosmovox ($2) is by far the most interesting, as it uses the various orientations and movements of the iPhone to generate notes up and down a user-selected scale. An absolutely staggering variety of scales are available to work with from the traditional major and minor scales to Byzantine diatonic scales and Japanese Okinawa scales.
Other choices in this category are somewhat more mundane by comparison. FingerSound ($1), Sound-Pad ($1), and FMScreen ($2) all simply present a blank screen upon which you move your finger to generate various sounds with absolutely no other configurable options. In fact, FMScreen presents a completely black screen with no instructions, buttons or really much of anything at all on it, leading us to initially believe the iPhone was completely frozen until we actually touched the screen and heard it making noise. It’s amazing how much of a difference there is between the professionally and semi-professionally developed applications for the iPhone OS and some of the others.
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