iPhoning It In - EMusician

iPhoning It In

MUSIC APPS ARE PLENTIFUL FOR THE IPHONE AND IPOD TOUCH—BUT WHICH ONES ARE WORTH BUYING?
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Image placeholder title

Software developers are taking advantage of the audio, visual, and touch-sensor capabilities of the Apple iPhone and iPod touch to crank out a steady stream of music applications for those devices. The apps, which are distributed through Apple's iTunes Store, are compatible with both units' operating systems, and are typically quite inexpensive; most cost less than $10, and many are less than $5.

Although the majority of these apps are designed primarily for fun rather than music production, there are some serious musical tools available, including recording, beat-programming, controller, and utility programs. Many of these apps offer relatively frequent free updates (as compared to conventional computer software), which can be downloaded easily right into your phone.

The number of music apps is constantly expanding. When I started researching this story, there were 35 pages of 20 apps each in the music category on the iTunes Store. As I write this four weeks later, there are now 41 pages. By the time you read this, there will surely be many more.

One of the dilemmas you face when contemplating purchasing one of these apps is that there's often no way to know for sure before buying it how useful it will be. So my aim here was to scout through this jumble of applications, looking for ones EM readers might find beneficial. I mainly focused on apps that have at least some practical utility, although I couldn't resist including a few of the purely fun ones, as well.

Hitting Record

There are plenty of mono audio-recorder apps, and all the ones I've tried record uncompressed WAV or AIFF files at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz quality. Many also have lower-fidelity settings to save disk space. Note that while the recording apps are compatible with both the original and 3G iPhones, they only work with second-generation iPod touches, not the first-generation models.

You can record directly into the iPhone through its built-in mono mic, and it provides serviceable sound for voice recordings or for capturing song ideas or rehearsals. You could also use the mic on the Apple headset that comes with your iPhone, although the sound quality is not as good. The iPod touch has no built-in mic, so you'll need a third-party model such as the Alesis ProTrack or the Blue Mikey to get audio into your device. These mics, which can also be used with the iPhone (see sidebar “Take Two” for more information), plug into the dock connector and support stereo recording, assuming you're using recording software that does, as well.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 1: The BIAS iProRecorder provides a wide range of features including stereo support (when used with a compatible stereo mic).

Most of the recording applications offer Wi-Fi synching to transfer files to and from the computer, which is typically an easy process. A number of the programs require that you install a Helper application on your computer for file transfer. Some let you email files up to a certain size. As this story was going to press, Apple announced Version 3 of its OS for iPhone/iPod touch, and one of the features is built-in voice memos with file-trimming and emailing capabilities. Version 3 is scheduled to be released sometime this summer.

Probably the most feature-rich recording app is iProRecorder (V. 1.3, BIAS; $4.99; see Fig. 1). Not only does it support stereo recording (when used with compatible hardware), it offers location stamping, a scroll wheel, and the ability to append to an existing recording. It also lets you attach photos to recordings, organize your files into categories, email files up to 100 MB, sync using Wi-Fi, and send files directly to BIAS' Peak audio editor (Mac). It also has a record timer, accurate stereo meters, variable playback speed, and more.

If you just need a simple recorder for mono voice recordings and to use as a musical sketch pad, Recorder (V. 7, Retronyms; $0.99), which also offers Wi-Fi sync and emailing of files, is both inexpensive and easy to use. Just hit the big, red Record button and go. A good free option is iTalk Recorder (V. 1.04, Griffin), which also is designed for fast-and-easy recording. It gives you three quality settings, offers an Append feature, and transfers files using Griffin's free iTalk Sync app for Mac or Windows.

Multitrack Recorders

A number of 4-track recorder apps are now available. All let you record four separate mono tracks (stereo recording isn't supported) and offer Wi-Fi export of the individual files to your computer. Although you wouldn't want to track your new CD on one of these apps, they're useful as scratch pads for songwriters on the go.

My favorite of the bunch is FourTrack (V. 1.2, Sonoma Wire Works; $9.99; see Fig. 2, next page), which provides solid functionality and is the only one of the 4-track apps with pan controls. It also lets you upload tracks to your computer as WAV files (or directly to the company's RiffWorks software for Mac and Windows) using Wi-Fi sync. FourTrack has no internal bounce-to-disk function (none of the 4-track apps I found do), but Sonoma Wire Works is planning one for a future update. I really like the simplicity and responsiveness of FourTrack's controls. It has meters that seem fairly accurate, which is important because the iPhone's built-in mic has no gain control so it's easy to overload it. FourTrack even lets you do manual punch-ins. Right now, it doesn't have a metronome, so you'll have to do a spoken count-off if one is needed, but a click-track feature is planned for an upcoming release.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 2: Sonoma Wire Works'' FourTrack gives you multitrack recording capabilities.

A low-priced newcomer to the multitrack space is GigBaby! (V. 1.3, ioMetics LLC; $0.99), which has a surprisingly robust feature set considering its price. You get four tracks of recording (no punch-in, though) and a metronome that can be used with the recorder or as a stand-alone, and also features some nice graphical indicators. A small library of drum loops is provided, which could be useful for songwriting inspiration, and a setlist manager for gigs is also included.

Instrumental to Success

There's no shortage of instrument apps for the iPhone/iPod touch. However, many suffer from fairly substantial latency delay between when you hit the touchscreen with your finger and when a note actually sounds. Instrument apps with high levels of latency can be very frustrating to use if you're trying to play in time with a beat. One way to lessen latency is to restart your iPhone or iPod touch before launching an app. Restarting your device is a good first step if your app is giving you problems of any type. Some apps prompt you to restart, but many don't.

Some of the most responsive instrument emulations come from Moo Cow Music, whose entries include Bassist (V. 1, $2.99), which lets you trigger electric-bass sounds from a virtual fretboard with a variety of articulations; and Guitarist ($3.99), which offers several different ways to play a virtual electric guitar, and includes delay, wah, and fuzz effects. The company also makes piano, organ, and full-band emulations. On the percussion side, I really liked Frontier Design Group's percussion app Cowbell Plus (V. 1.2, $1.99) and DigiDrummer (V. 2.7, Magnus Larsson; $1.99), which gives you eight drum pads and a range of kit sounds.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 3: One of the many edit screens in Amidio''s Noise.io.

On the synth side, perhaps the most fully featured app is Noise.io (V. 1.2.2, Amidio Inc.; $9.99; see Fig. 3), which is both a synthesizer and a sequencer. It has a cool “kaos”-style controller in addition to a virtual keyboard (which is small and limited). It allows you to record and overdub parts (it has three types of sequencers), and has a snap-to-grid feature. Noise.io sounds quite good, and its synthesis and editing capabilities are surprisingly deep. It has three tone generators, three LFOs, six effects, and WAV export. Its biggest drawback is a cryptic and complex user interface. That said, if you're willing to spend the time to learn it, you'll be impressed.

Get With the Programming

Apps that allow you to program instrument parts, rather than play them, are more successful because latency isn't an issue. There are many such apps, but here are my favorites.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 4: The Pad screen and a pad''s volume control from Intua''s BeatMaker.

BeatMaker (V. 1.3.2, Intua; $19.99; see Fig. 4) gets my vote as the most comprehensive music-production app on this platform. It turns your iPhone or iPod touch into a full-featured, loop-based, trigger pad-equipped production environment. It even works as a sampler and lets you edit the start and end points and place your samples — or imported WAV files — onto trigger pads. (File import/export is supported through the free BeatPack software for Mac and Windows.) It has two effects buses, a pattern-based sequencer and step sequencer, and a passel of included content kits from such artists as Richard Devine. It too requires some time to learn its UI, but it's surprisingly intuitive and powerful (see Web Clip 1).

A fresh approach to step sequencing is offered in the cube-like interface of iDrum (V. 1.0.2, iZotope; $4.99). It comes in several editions, which offer genre-specific sample sets for rock, hip-hop, house, and more. You can edit its existing song collections or program your own beats. In addition to drum sounds, you get one-shot bass, guitar, synth, and effects samples. When you're finished, you can send your creations to your computer, but only as M4a-format ringtone files. However, if you own iZotope's iDrum app for Mac or PC, you can export your patterns directly into that. If not, you could, as a workaround, export your pattern as a ringtone, open it in a waveform editor on your computer, and convert it to a WAV or AIFF for use in your DAW.

The next five apps sound good and offer a variety of programming options. The one thing they don't offer, though, is a way to transfer files to your computer, other than patching a cable from your device's headphone output into a line input of your computer audio interface.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 5: The Sequencer window in iSyn offers intutitive operation and flashy graphics.

iSyn (V. 1; $4.99) is an impressive new app that arrived on the market just as I was finishing this story. It gives you two monophonic synth tracks and a drum track that can be programmed into patterns on a grid-style sequencer with a slick-looking interface (see Fig. 5). You can store up to 32 patterns per Project, and up to 32 Projects all told. There are eight drum kits (mostly electronic) and 32 synth patches available, and you can tweak, program, and save your own sounds. Each synth has three oscillators, a lowpass filter, and an amp/distortion module. Either phaser, flanger, chorus, or delay can be added to each track. Other features include an X/Y controller that provides you with additional real-time control options and Live mode, which gives you either a keyboard to play the synth sound or a swirly looking, 8-pad drum controller. The drum pads have a bit too much latency to be really useful, however.

If you're looking for a programmable app that emulates the classic Roland TR-808 and 909 drum machines, and the TB-303 bass synth, you'll love TechnoBox (V. 1.9, AudioRealism; $9.99). It does a good job of emulation and has a deep programming interface.

BtBx (V. 1.1, Pure Profit; $3.99) is a very flexible app with a step-sequencer interface that gives a sampled electronic drum kit, synth basses, trumpet, percussion, and keyboard. Each sound can be reversed on any sequence step and can have its volume, cut-off frequency, and resonance adjusted. There are also simple distortion and delay effects available for each sound. You can store up to 16 patterns.

For a nice array of good-sounding electronic drum samples, try IR-909 (V. 1, roventskij; $4.99). It has a Roland-style step-sequencer through which you can trigger sampled kits from the TR-909, 808, 707, and 606 drum machines, among others. You can edit several sound parameters and store up to four patterns.

Randgrid Synthesizer and Drum Machine (Retrolink HB; $7.99) provides another take on pattern programming for electronic drums and bass synth. It's feature-rich, but its user interface is vexing.

Control Freaks

If your computer has wireless connectivity or is hardwired onto a wireless network, there are a number of apps that allow you to control your DAW or MIDI plug-in.

Image placeholder title

FIG. 6: Far Out Labs'' ProTransport lets you turn your iPhone or iPod touch into a remote DAW-transport controller.

ProTransport (V. 1.0.3, Far Out Labs; $7.99; see Fig. 6) handles a variety of transport functions for Ableton Live, Digidesign Pro Tools, and Apple Logic and Soundtrack Pro. To make it work, you must first download and install the free ProRemote Control application for your Mac (Windows is not supported). In Pro Tools, you can you control transport features including scrub and shuttle, and you can also zoom the timeline and jump to and add markers. In the rest of the supported DAWs, the transport functions work fine, but, depending on the DAW, some of the other features don't work. Still, for $7.99, you get remote transport control, which is a heck of a deal. If you want to get even more serious, Far Out Labs also makes ProRemote (V. 1.0.3, $99.99) and ProRemote Light Edition (V. 1.0.3, $35.99), which combine transport functions with channel-strip control of 32 and eight channels, respectively, for the same supported DAWs.

Another controller solution is ITM MCU (V. 1.0.7, Silicon Studios; $5.99), which gives you eight channel strips with volume, mute, solo, and record-enable, as well as transport controls. It supports Ableton Live and Mackie Tracktion, officially, but also works with Apple Logic and MOTU Digital Performer. Additional functionality for Live users includes separate Clip and Scene launching and navigation controls. You need to run the iTouchMidi MCU software (a free download) on your Mac or Windows machine to make it work. The virtual buttons respond very nicely, but the faders can be difficult to engage. According to the developers, this problem was introduced on a recent OS update and will be addressed on the next update of ITM MCU (which should be out by the time you read this).

Image placeholder title

FIG. 7: SPL from Studio Six Digital turns your iPhone (or iPod touch with an external mic) into a fully featured decibel meter.

Silicon Studios also makes remote MIDI-control apps that run with its iTouchMidi OSX or iTouchMidi Win software (which are free downloads). There are several available, but my favorite is ITM Keys (V. 1.2.1, $5.99), which gives you a MIDI keyboard that, although not velocity sensitive in the conventional sense, does output different velocities depending on how high (vertically) your finger strikes a particular key. Interestingly, latency is not a major problem with ITM's MIDI controllers, especially compared to many iPhone instrument apps.

Feed the Meter

While many iPhone software developers try to balance utility and entertainment value, Studio Six Digital has taken a decidedly more serious approach with apps that cater to the engineering side of music production. One that's very handy is SPL (V. 1.4, $5.99; see Fig. 7), which is a full-featured decibel meter that uses the iPhone's built-in mic or an external one. Studio Six Digital also makes the lower-priced SPL Meter (V. 1, $0.99), which is designed to emulate a familiar, budget-priced, analog decibel meter from a popular electronics-store chain.

Another Studio Six Digital product is RTA (V. 1.2, $9.99), a real-time analyzer that has calibration settings for either the iPhone's built-in mic or an external measurement mic. (It plans to release its own iPhone measurement mic soon.) The company's other apps include Generator (V. 1.3, $5.99) signal generator and FFT (V. 1.3, $19.99), an audio-analysis tool.

Reference and Learning

For those who are learning jazz standards or just like to play them, iReal Book (V. 1.2, Massimo Biolclati; $7.99) gives you chord changes for 550 tunes. Due to copyright restrictions, no melodies or lyrics are included. It's probably just as well, because they'd be very tough to read, considering the size of the screen. One big advantage this electronic version has over its paper predecessors: a Transpose button.

There are several music education apps in the iTunes store, but my favorite is called Karajan (V. 1.2.1, Holger Meyer; $14.99). It's a little pricey (relatively speaking), but it takes advantage of the iPhone/iPod touch's audio capabilities to present a series of interactive ear-training and theory exercises with four levels of difficulty.

Fun, Fun, Fun

Finally, here are some music apps that don't necessarily have serious utility but are fun to use.

Probably the most enjoyable iPhone app I've tried so far (and I've tried a lot) is RjDj (V. 0.6.5, Reality Jockey; $2.99 for each of its two editions, with a limited free version also available). Put on your headphones and select a “Scene,” which is actually a preprogrammed chain of effects that sometimes includes music tracks. When the sounds in the room or the sounds you're creating musically come through the microphone, they interact with the processing to create all sorts of interesting and unusual soundscapes with a wide stereo image (see Web Clip 2). The developers call it a “reactive” process. You can also record your RjDj session for later playback. The version I tested had no export feature, but Reality Jockey is planning one for its next update (which will also allow users to download additional Scenes). I experimented with playing instruments into RjDj and got some pretty cool results. It could be a useful tool for sound designing.

Guitarists and non-guitarists alike will love iShred (V. 1.41, Frontier Design Group; $4.99). It turns your iPhone or iPod touch into a cool-sounding virtual electric guitar that you play somewhat like an autoharp. Buttons on the top let you choose chords or scales from a collection of classic songs (e.g., “Highway to Hell,” “Godzilla”), and you strum or tap the virtual guitar strings and play away. Depending on the song you've loaded, you get either a clean or distorted sound. You can add a bunch of nifty virtual stompbox effects, too. Frontier also makes Guitar (V. 1.4.1, $3.99), which has a similar interface but with acoustic guitar samples.

The samples in Harmonica (V. 1.1, Benjamin McDowell; $0.99) sound quite realistic. Like a real harmonica, this instrument is designed to be played by mouth. (You can also play it with your fingers, if you'd rather.) Put your mouth up to the harmonica on the screen and inhale and you get a “drawn” note; exhale and you get a “blown” note. Its biggest drawback is that you can't bend notes. Still, it's a remarkably accurate simulation. Just don't drool on your iPhone while playing it.

The Looptastic Series of apps from Sound Trends LLC offers a cool and intuitive remixing environment, featuring a grid-like interface where different instrument and vocal loops — represented as cubes — can be dragged into the mix, raised and lowered in level, and crossfaded. A touchpad-controlled resonant filter lets you do global, real-time filter effects. There are seven different versions of Looptasic, most of which are tailored to specific dance-music genres. The Producer edition (V. 1.1) lets you import your own loops wirelessly from your computer and the program time-stretches them so they work together. Most of the apps come with ten songs and 100 loops, and cost $4.99 each. A 1-song Electro Lite edition is free and is a good way to check out the interface.

Bebot (V. 1.4, Normalware; $1.99) is one of my favorite apps. It comprises an animated robot that responds to movement on the touchscreen and belts out robotic notes. It's even polyphonic, responding to multiple finger touches at the same time with “harmonized” notes. Amaze yourself and others (although you might annoy them after a while) with this wild app.

Download Here

It seems clear that music software for the iPhone/iPod touch platform will become more and more sophisticated as time goes on. As the iPhone/iPod touch operating system advances, such as with the imminent release of V. 3, there are sure to be additional ways for music app developers to take advantage of it. Also, you can be that there will be more microphones and other peripherals released that will be capable of interacting with the apps. So keep your eye on the iTunes Application Store; things are changing every day.

(SeeOnline Bonus Materialfor a list of URLs to contact the various app developers mentioned in this story.)

When he's not messing around with iPhone apps, Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer. He hosts the monthly Podcast, EM Cast(www.emusician.com/podcasts).

Take Two

At the time of this writing, the Alesis ProTrack ($199.97, see Fig. A, next page) and Blue Microphone's Mikey ($79) are the only two stereo-mic options for the iPod touch and iPhone. Both will give you stereo results when used with an app that supports stereo recording, such as BIAS' iProRecorder.

Image placeholder title

FIG. A: The Alesis ProTrack can be used with an iPod touch or iPhone, and provides X/Y stereo miking.

The ProTrack and the Mikey both use the iPhone/iPod touch's dock connector (unlike the iPhone's headset mic, which plugs in through the headphone jack), but have a different physical approach. The ProTrack, which is more full-featured, surrounds your iPod touch or iPhone like an extended case, and has a pair of built-in condenser mics in an X/Y configuration, as well as XLR/¼-inch combo jacks for connecting your own mics.

The less-expensive Mikey, which is aimed primarily at the consumer space, has stereo mics that are located inside of its case. It swivels for optimal positioning, and has a sensitivity control for adjusting incoming volume, and a speaker for playback (which is designed for conventional iPods, which don't have speakers).

Owners of the iPhone should note that neither mic is officially approved by Apple for the iPhone. However, that's more of a formality than an issue of compatibility. Although I didn't get a chance to test them out for this story, industry sources have confirmed to me that both will work just fine, as long as you put your iPhone into Airplane mode. Doing so shuts off the phone operation, which otherwise could interfere with the audio stream.

Tuning Up and Keeping Time

How would you like to carry around a tuner and metronome in your pocket at all times? Apps for the iPhone and iPod touch make that a reality, and there are plenty of options from which to choose. Because the tuners need a mic, iPod touch owners will need an external microphone to use the tuning applications.

Image placeholder title

FIG. B: Bitcount''s Cleartune gives you excellent performance and support for tempered tunings.

Of all the tuner apps, my two favorites are Cleartune (V. 1.3.2, Bitcount; $3.99; see Fig. B) and OmniTuner (V. 1.55, Mauvilla Software; $5.99). Cleartune offers excellent pitch detection, support for tempered tunings, and a pitch pipe mode. OmniTuner also has outstanding pitch detection, and offers several types of tuning displays, including Fretboard mode, which lets you choose presets for a variety of guitar open tunings, as well as for other stringed instruments (including mandolin, banjo, violin, viola, and cello).

My top metronome pick, which combines both features and accuracy, is Metronome TS (V. 1.31, Thezi Studios; $3.99). It provides visual (a virtual baton) and aural reference (with a choice of tones), multiple selectable rhythms, tap-tempo, and more. A free alternative is Metronome-iTick (V. 1.3, Music Motion), which has a digital-style visual display, adjustable time signatures, and user-changeable sounds.

Although not a metronome per se, BPM Tap Tempo (V. 1, Audiodog; $0.99) is very handy. It allows you to tap in the tempo of a song you're listening to and get the associated delay times for that tempo, along with the corresponding LFO frequencies for synching up with a synth patch.

[Online Bonus Material]

Manufacturer Contacts

Amidio, Inc. (Noise.io);

Audiodog (BPM Tap Tempo),

AudioRealism (Technobox);

Benjamin McDowell (Harmonica);

BIAS (iPRoRecorder);

Bitcount (Cleartune)

Far Out Labs (ProTransport and ProRemote)

Frontier Design Group (iShred, Guitar, Cowbell Plus);

Griffin Technology (iTalk Recorder);

Holger Meyer (Karajan);

Intua (BeatMaker);

ioMetics (GigBaby!);

iZotope (iDrum);

Massimo Biolcati (iReal Book);

Mauvilla Software (OmniTuner);

Music Motion (Metronome-iTick);

Normalware (Bebot);

Pure Profit (BtBx);

Reality Jockey (RJDJ); site will be changing

Retrolink HB (Randgrid Synthesizer and Drum Machine)

Retronyms (Recorder)

Roventskij (IR-909);

Silicon Studios (ITM MCU, ITM Keys);

Sonoma Wire Works (Four Track);

Sound Trends (Looptastic Electro Edition, Looptastic Progressive Edition);

Studio Six Digital, (SPL, SPL Meter, RTA, FFT, Generator)

Thezi Studios (Metronome TS); URL Not available