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electronic MUSICIAN

Attack of the Killer Apps

By Mike Levine | December 1, 2010

One of the dilemmas facing music-app developers for the iPhone and iPod touch has been the relatively small screen size; it''s hard to design apps with deep feature sets that don''t, by necessity, have to bury much of their functionality under layers of menus. That and the desire of many developers to create music apps that will appeal to a broad range of users—not just musicians—are two reasons for the relative paucity of serious music-making apps for the iPhone and iPod touch. Don''t get me wrong; there are music apps by the bushelful, but only a tiny portion of them are really useful. The release of the iPad solved one of those problems by offering a lot more screen real estate.

Quality music apps are being developed for the iPad, and more are appearing every day. Many of the better apps from the iPhone are being converted to take advantage of the iPad''s larger-sized multitouch screen. And even those that keep the same design as their iPhone versions (but increase screen resolution for the iPad) are much more usable on the larger screen.

To help you find some of the gems out there without spending the money to try them out, I tested out a bunch of music apps. What I''ve come up with is an admittedly subjective list of noteworthy apps. Because of space constraints, I have focused mainly on the following categories: loop and synth workstation apps, instrument apps, beatbox apps, multitrack recorder apps, and amp-simulator apps. Regrettably, I had to leave out DAW- and MIDI-controller apps and utility apps.

For the most part, I''ll stick to those that are either native to the iPad (listed here with the designation “IPD”) or universal for both iPhone and iPad (U). There will be a few mentioned here that are iPhone native (IPN) and have to be expanded to fit the iPad using its 2x button, which doubles the size of the pixels. On some such apps, this can look pretty blown out, but on others the graphics hold up fairly well.

To avoid repetition, I won''t mention apps that I already reviewed in iPhone form (see the iPhone microsite, available at, unless they''ve changed significantly. That said, I will make an exception by mentioning the following two apps, which though not optimized for the iPad, look fine on it anyway and are worthy of your attention: Intua BeatMaker (winner of EM''s Editors'' Choice Award for best iPhone app this past January) offers a very full and deep set of features for sampling, sequencing, and building tracks, and comes with a ton of great sounds. Way Out Ware iSample is the best sampling app I''ve seen for this platform, featuring front-panel pads, sample editing, sequencing, and more.

FIG. 1: MorphWiz is a very playable instrument that provides visual feedback.

FIG. 1: MorphWiz is a very playable instrument that provides visual feedback.

Unless noted, assume that all the apps that offer sequencing or recording have some sort of Export function, usually via Wi-Fi. For some apps, you may be required to download and install a free software utility on your computer to facilitate file transfer.

One of the more exciting aspects of the music-app phenomenon is that developers are taking advantage of the multitouch screens on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad to design totally new instrument interfaces. While some are more for entertainment than serious music-making, others are real, usable instruments. To me, the most impressive of all of these is MorphWiz (Wizdom Music, v. 1.1.2, U, $9.99; see Fig. 1), which was developed by keyboardist and iPhone/iPad music-app aficionado Jordan Rudess, along with Kevin Chartier (see this month''s “Back Talk” column on p. 66 for an interview with Rudess). Its sound engine mixes wave sync and FM synthesis, and you play it by sliding or tapping your finger on the touchscreen of the iPad. Moving horizontally raises or lowers pitch, and you can get vibrato by wiggling your finger. You can set it to play different scales or modes in any key, and it can round to the nearest note or track all the microtones between notes. Many of the presets have vertical bars to show where the notes are, and there are different visual components that follow certain actions or sound types. MorphWiz is polyphonic, so you can use multiple fingers simultaneously to get chords and drones. It has a recording feature, is programmable, and comes with a ton of presets.

Mugician (Rob Fielding, v. 1.7.5, IPD, free) offers a grid-style interface that looks not unlike a crossword puzzle. You play it by sliding or tapping, and the notes are arranged in fourths ascending vertically and chromatically going horizontally. When you first hit a note, all the notes of that same value over several octaves light up yellow, which is helpful to find your place. Notes on the light-colored squares on the grid have their letter names on them, which also helps. You can alter Mugician''s tones through parameter sliders for distortion, reverb, delay, polyphony, and more. (You''ll need to read the online help to know what''s what as none of the sliders are labeled.) It''s not as easy to jump into playing as MorphWiz, but with practice it''s a very cool instrument.

NLog Synth Pro (Tempo Rubato, v. 3, IPD, $14.99) fits more in the conventional synth paradigm. It''s an analog-modeling synth with 192 presets and great sound. Best of all, it''s compatible with Line 6''s MIDI Mobilizer ($69.99), a MIDI interface that lets you control your iPad or iPhone/iPod touch—if the software is compatible—with an external keyboard, or send MIDI from your device into another MIDI device. (The company expects to add compatibility with the Akai SynthStation 25 keyboard in a future update.) NLog offers deep programmability, with reverb, EQ, distortion, and modulation effects. A Tape feature lets you record a passage or loop with one sound and play over it with another.

Drum-machine emulations work nicely in the iPad environment, and perhaps the most fully featured is iElectribe (Korg, v. 1.1.1 IPD, $19.99). This digital emulation of an analog beatbox is absolutely brimming with knobs and buttons, and not only offers drum sounds, but also monophonic analog synths. It comes with 32 presets in different electronica styles, and it is super-easy to program. It even has a tube-emulation circuit.

FIG. 2: FunkBox offers vintage drum-machine sounds and a retro-looking interface.

FIG. 2: FunkBox offers vintage drum-machine sounds and a retro-looking interface.

FunkBox (Synthetic Bits, v. 1.4, U, $2.99; see Fig. 2) is a cool-sounding, retro-looking, and inexpensive vintage drum-machine app that features programmable emulations of the Roland 808, 909, 606, and CR-78; the Maestro MRK-2; and the Korg Electribe.

Another to check out is bleepBox (White Noise Audio Software, v. 1.3.3, U, $9.99), a feature-rich drum-and-synth box that generates its tones from synthesis, not samples. Its user interface is on the complex side, but it sounds great and has a ton of features.

Just as I was finishing writing this story, Moog released Filtatron (Moog Music, v. 1 IPN, $4.99), a signal-processing/synthesis/sampling app that I had to include here, even though it''s an iPhone app that''s not optimized graphically for the iPad. You can take a sound coming from any combination of Filtatron''s built-in synth oscillator, its sampler (which samples the app''s processed output), and the iPad''s mic input (you can also process line-level sources if you have the appropriate input adapter like an IK Amplitube iRig or Peavey''s AmpKit LiNK), and process the heck out of them with the app''s filter, envelope, LFO, delay, and more. The Pad window lets you really adjust all of the aforementioned parameters on two X/Y-style pads. The output of what you''re working on can be recorded into the sampler and then processed again. You could spend hours bending and warping sounds beyond recognition. A selection of preset settings gives you a head start, but you''ll be doing your own sounds from scratch soon enough.

For singing-robot vocoder effects, iVoxel (VirSyn, v. 1.3, U, $11.99) offers a keyboard to which you can map words or short phrases from its built-in library, or which you can sing in yourself. Then you can map these Voxels on the keyboard and play them. Controls allow you to adjust gender, breath, pitch, and other parameters. A piano-roll-style sequencer lets you place and edit Voxels in a sequence, and you can record and export the results. Its sequencing interface isn''t particularly intuitive, and its online help needs help. Still, it''s very cool.

Apps that manipulate loops are popular on the iPad, and one of my favorites is Looptastic HD (Sound Trends, v. 1.6.1, IPD, $14.99), which, like Looptastic Producer on the iPhone, lets you playback, mix, manipulate, and export loops. Looptastic HD comes with its own loop sets and offers many more that you can download directly to your iPad—many are free, but some are priced between $0.99 and $3.99. You can also import third-party loops if you first download the free SetMaker (Mac) program to your computer. As with other Looptastic apps, playback is initiated by dragging loops into a 3-zone mixer. A DJ-like slider lets you control how much of each zone you''re hearing. You can even sync two iPads together running Looptastic HD, which could be great for performing. The highlight, though, is its amazing arsenal of processing—including three stuttering effects, filters, and more—which are applied with an X/Y pad.

ChipPad (Earsmack Music, v. 1.3, IPD, $2.99) is a low-priced, but high-powered live-performance-oriented app that provides unique ways to glitch up and manipulate loops. It comes with a small set of sample loops, but you''ll want to upload your own, which you can do when synching through iTunes. Up to eight loops can be playing at once, and in addition to controlling volume, you can adjust speed and direction. Best of all, you can subdivide the loop into anywhere from one to 128 steps. Then you can turn on and off steps within the loop to create some serious glitching, among other effects. There is no way to record a performance, however (unless you take a line out of the iPad into another recorder), and there are no DSP-type effects.

GrooveMaker Chris Domingo (IK Multimedia, v. 1.02, IPD/IPN, $9.99) is one of 12 GrooveMaker iPad apps, which all share a common interface. They''re real-time remixing applications that are well-designed and easy to use. The Chris Domingo version contains house loops, while others feature different genres, mostly of the dance-music variety. In a GrooveMaker app, each song contains a variety of loops in eight different variations. You can mix and match the component parts from all four (stems of drums, leads, pads, effects, etc.), adjusting volume, pan, and muting for each. You can also change the global tempo. Grooves can be saved to be later assembled into a sequence.

There are several synth-based workstation apps of note that provide many varieties of synthesis or sample playback and MIDI-like editing environments. SynthStation (Akai, v. 1.21, U; $9.99) gives you up to four programmable parts: a drum machine, a polyphonic synth, and two monophonic synths. You also get a mixer, a choice of four effects (but only one send), and deep programming of the synth parameters. The interface could be better integrated, as you have to keep jumping between screens, but the sounds and features are top-notch.

Another powerful synth workstation is NanoStudio (Blip Interactive, v. 1.11, IPN, $14.99). It''s currently only an iPhone app, but will have a free universal update in early 2011. It offers a sampling drum machine and four polyphonic sampling synths with plenty of editable parameters, and it now supports the MIDI Mobilizer. The sequencer has a linear, DAW-like interface, although you can also loop short sections if you prefer a pattern-based approach. The editing interface is easy to grok. There are two insert effects per synth and two global effects.

Xenon Groove Synthesizer (iceGear, v. 1.5.2, U, $4.99) gives you separate tracks for its three different synths and a rhythm box, and lets you record your parts using an onscreen keyboard, or program them on a piano-roll interface. Presets abound for the various synths, and you can also program your own sounds. The sequencer is pattern-based and not particularly intuitive. Still, for the money, you get a lot.

FIG. 3: Music Studio''s interface has a familiar DAW-like appearance.

FIG. 3: Music Studio''s interface has a familiar DAW-like appearance.

If you''re more into working with sampled instrument sounds, you''ll want to check out Music Studio (Alexander Gross, v. 1.5, U, $14.99; see Fig. 3). It''s a DAW-like MIDI-sequencing environment that features 90 sampled sounds (with more available for purchase) including orchestral, rock, and electronic instruments. Better yet, it''s compatible with the MIDI Mobilizer so you can trigger it from an external keyboard. You can record and edit MIDI, and export your creations as either WAV or Standard MIDI files. The MIDI-editing interface is a bit on the clunky side (why do so many developers feel the need to reinvent the wheel?), but this app is fully featured, and it has extensive help files built in.

Another busy category on the iPad is multitrack recorders, which typically record 16-bit, 44.1kHz WAV files. Even though the iPad''s built-in mic is not bad, it''s hard to record more than demo-quality projects with it; right now, the external mic options are pretty limited. However, there is a workaround: On many apps, you can use a USB mic or even some USB audio interfaces with your iPad if you connect them through the port on Apple''s $29 iPad Camera Connection Kit. Bear in mind that Apple doesn''t officially support audio through the kit, so don''t count on that USB audio functionality surviving future IOS updates.

MultiTrack DAW (Harmonicdog, v. 2.08, U, $9.99) is an app that offers solid value. It supports eight stereo tracks, but is expandable to 24 with an upgrade that costs an additional $15.99. Two features set this app apart from most of the others. First, it has an input level control. The built-in mic on the iPad is very sensitive, and having that level control helps in a big way. It also offers DAW-like waveform editing among many other features. The downside is that it has no built-in effects, although the company reports there will be compressor and EQ effects in an upgrade before the end of 2010.

FIG. 4: Sonoma Wire Works StudioTrack offers both a global reverb and a choice of insert effects.

FIG. 4: Sonoma Wire Works StudioTrack offers both a global reverb and a choice of insert effects.

StudioTrack (Sonoma Wire Works, v. 1.2, IPD, $39.99) is a bit pricey but gives you eight tracks of recording with a well-designed interface and the most robust effects implementation of the multitrack apps I tried. You can send tracks to a global reverb, and each track can have a compressor and 1-band EQ (see Fig. 4), or 4-band EQ or delay as an insert. There''s no waveform display or editing, which would really round this product out. Sonoma Wire Works says that StudioTrack is not compatible with USB audio through the iPad Camera Connection Kit.

StudioMini XL (Fantastocrats, v. 1.3, IPD, $9.99) offers seven tracks of recording. Instead of the eighth track, you get a dedicated drum track with 78 drum grooves in a wide range of styles, which makes this app excellent as a songwriter''s tool. It lacks waveform editing, and has no effects or pan controls.

Studio.HD (Sound Trends, $7.99, v. 1.1, IPD, $7.99) combines a linear, DAW-like approach to loops with a multitrack recorder. You get loop sets in a number of stylistic categories (and the ability to download more right from the app) and waveform editing. One insert effect is available for each track, but by the time you read this, the effects lineup will have been beefed up considerably in version 1.2. Studio HD will have all the same effects, with automation, as in Looptastic HD, and will add a global reverb.

Amp modelers have become an important tool for today''s recording musician and there are several options for the iPad. The one that leads the field when it comes to realistic tone is AmpliTube for iPad (IK Multimedia, v. 1, IPD, $19.99). It gives you five amp models (Fender, Vox, Marshall, Mesa/Boogie, and an Ampeg bass amp), five cabinets, and two mic models. (More will soon be available to purchase directly through the app.) There are four effects slots and 11 available effects. It all sounds great, although the reverb, which seems to be the Achilles heel of modelers on the iPhone and iPad platforms, is not up to the quality of the rest of the sounds. The app has two tuners: a small one that''s always visible and another that you access in the Tools menu along with the metronome. To connect your guitar to the iPad, IK offers its AmpliTube iRig interface ($39.99).

AmpKit+ (Agile Partners Technologies, v. 1, IPN, $19.99) is currently only an iPhone native app, but an upgrade adding full iPad support is imminent. The software gives you two Peavey amp models, a ValveKing and a 3120, along with Marshall and Vox models (but no Fender model) and a selection of cabinets. There are 11 stompbox effects and more for sale (along with amps and cabinets) in the Gear Store, which you can access directly. AmpKit+ offers a recording feature that lets you record what you''re playing through the current amp setup, and then reamp it through a different one. I got the best performance by using Peavey''s AmpKit LiNK interface ($29.99). That interface and IK''s AmpliTube iRig interface work with all the amp-simulator apps mentioned here.

If you''re looking for a low-priced alternative, PocketAmp (PocketLabworks, v. 1.4, U, $2.99) might be enough for you. It doesn''t offer the bells and whistles of its competitors, but gives you reasonable crunchy and distorted tones (the clean sound is less convincing), as well as a choice of modulation effects, a delay, and a reverb.

Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.

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