In the world of computer-based recording – whether that computer is a desktop, laptop or tablet – software emulations of audio effects are a key element in the overall software toolkit. Most of the popular iOS recording apps – Cubasis, Auria, Garageband and the like – include a selection of such audio effects but, as on the desktop, you can also add other – often better and/or more powerful – from 3rd party developers. These can, of course, be used via Audiobus but, equally, if IAA support is also offered, then they can be used in a very similar way to a desktop VST or AU plugin.
While it is a somewhat arbitrary classification, you can divide these audio effects into two broad groups. First, we can identify what we might call ‘standard’ or ‘bread and butter’ audio effects. These are the kinds of basic processing tools that everyone needs in a conventional recording project and examples might include EQ, compression, reverb or delay. Second, we might identify a selection of more ‘creative’ effects types. These might actually be based on some of the same processing options found in conventional effects but they are presented in a different way, over more extreme options, and often produce more obvious (‘notice me!’) results.
Under iOS, we are fortunate to have an excellent selection of apps that fall into both of these groups. Indeed, there are so many very good audio effects apps that there are really too many to do justice to in a single blog post. So, in doing a ‘round up’ of the best iOS audio effects apps, I’m going to split the content into two parts based upon these two groups. In this part – part 1 – I’ll cover the more conventional audio effects while, in part 2, which I hope to post within a few days (now done!), I’ll look at the more creative or unconventional audio effect apps.
Of course, there are a few apps that sit in the area of overlap between these two groups. I’ve no intention of getting into some (mostly pointless) discussion about which app belongs in which group… I’ll just make mention when I think a particular app might have a role in either group and, as long as the ground gets covered, then these two posts will have done their job.
So, without any further chatter, lets get going and consider my own personal selection of the best conventional audio effects apps available for iOS musicians. I’ve reviewed the vast majority of these apps on the blog at some stage so, if you want more details on a specific app, then just follow the links to the full reviews.
Given that most audio recordings for music projects take place in a huge variety of different room environments and that, more often than not, audio sources are close-mic’ed, one of the most common requirements once the recordings have been made and the mixing stage begins, is the need to apply some sense of ‘space’ to the audio. Reverb is one of the ways in which that is most commonly achieved.
While some projects might benefit from having all the instruments sound like they were recorded in the same space – and hence you might use the same artificial reverb effect applied to all elements of the mix – in modern music production, this ‘make it sound real’ approach is not always (almost never?) adhered to. As such, you might easily find more than one reverb effect used in many mixing situations and, if you have the resources (hardware, software and CPU) to do it, there is a good case for having access to several different reverb effects.
Fortunately, under iOS there are several very good candidates and all are – compared to their desktop counterparts – very modestly priced.
The AUFX:Space music app was the first dedicated iOS reverb effect app I reviewed for the blog. Developed by Jonatan Liljedahl under his Kymatica brand, AUFX: Space offers a no-fuss interface that manages to combine enough options for tweaking the reverb characteristics but without drowning the user in complex controls or multiple pages of controls.
However, given the pocket-money price of UK£2.49, what is really remarkable is just how good this reverb sounds. The app has Audiobus and IAA support and also supports MIDI input so you can control or automate the reverb’s key controls. At this price, AUFX:Space is about as no-brainer as it gets and, even if you only pulled it out for occasional use, this is an app well worth owning.
VirSyn are well established as a music technology software developer for the desktop and they have bought that expertise over to iOS with a number of very notable music apps. One such app is AudioReverb and I reviewed AudioReverb when it was originally released. It provides an excellent range of reverb treatments and, at the current price of UK£5.49, it is very modestly priced considering the results that can be obtained.
The interface is perhaps a little more like a desktop reverb plugin than AUFX:Space but it is far from complex and the presets are organised into some useful groups covering chambers, halls, rooms, plates, etc… all types of reverb that will be very familiar to users with experience of hardware or desktop plugin reverbs. Again, Audiobus and IAA support are included and this is a very solid, and smooth sounding, reverb app.
In the world of high quality studio digital reverb effects, Lexicon are something of a legend and Fiedler Audio’s AD 480 Reverb app obviously makes a nod towards the classic Lexicon 480L. While nobody is going to expect an app costing UK£10.49 (for the full ‘pro’ version; there are free and basic versions also) to match a hardware reverb costing several thousand US$, that doesn’t mean AD 480 doesn’t sound very good indeed; it does.
With Audiobus, IAA and MIDI input support for automation, plus a set of very good presets covering all sorts of treatments, this is yet another great workhorse reverb for iOS music producers. I particularly like the plate and ambience options offered by this app and the ability to EQ the reverb to change its character is nicely implemented. There is also a very clever ‘Dynamic Upgrade’ feature that actually allows you to use more than one instance of the app at the same time that, under iOS, is quite a trick.
AD 480 Pro
All three of the reverbs mentioned so far are what are called algorithmic reverbs. This means that they use a mathematic algorithm to simulate the ‘virtual’ space. This is a generally a fairly efficient process but it also has a fairly characteristic sound and, if the algorithm cuts too many corners, then those with sensitive ears can often detect the workings of those algorithms, particularly as the reverb decays.
Igor Vassilev’s AltiSpace uses an alternative approach; this is what’s knows as a convolution reverb. While this still includes a lot of very clever number crunching to create the virtual space, the initial building block is an impulse response (essentially a sample) of real space (although you can also create an impulse based upon another reverb processor such as a very expensive Lexicon). The processing then uses that impulse to recreate the same space and applies that reverb to your audio.
The end result of all this is often a very realistic and natural sounding reverb effect but at the cost of somewhat greater processing load. AltiSpace is, to my ears at least, the best quality stand-alone reverb app we currently have under iOS (there are IAP options in Auria that are perhaps as good) and, considering it costs UK£4.99, it is, frankly, staggering what quality you get for such a modest price. Yes, it perhaps does add a little extra CPU load compared to other reverb apps but, when you need a touch of extra quality for a key instrument such as your lead vocal, it is well worth the CPU overhead. Again, a no-brainer and could find a good home in any iOS music app collection.
AltiSpace – Convolution Reverb
The other ‘virtual space’ effect that is very commonly used in recording/mixing contexts is echo or delay. Essentially, this is the same effect as reverb but, where reverb is heard at multiple repeats all arriving very quickly at the listener (and, in a real space, often associated with have lots of reflective surfaces quite close by), delay/echo is heard as discreet ‘repeats’ separate from the original audio signal.
In the real world, this is created by having reflective surfaces at a greater distance from the sound source/listener and is therefore associated with bigger spaces. However, in a studio context with an echo/delay effect, you can, of course, dial in almost any settings you might like, whether it creates a realistic result or not. You can, in essence, create virtual spaces that simply don’t exist in the reality if you wish to providing they do the job you are after in your mix.
In terms of a standard delay effect, perhaps the best of the current bunch is Kymatica’s AUFX:Dub (UK£2.49). The interface is similar to that of AUFX:Space – simple but efficient – although it obvious contains a modified control set suitable for setting up delay/echo style effects rather than reverbs. There is a nice set of presets to get you started but the control set is very easy to get your head around so it is also easy to create your own custom settings. As well as stereo delay, the app can also offer detuning and ping-pong (side to side) delay options and has tape emulation to get an old-school analog vibe into the effect.
The controls include a very useful bypass switch, a mute in button and, if you want to sync your delays to either a specific tempo or tap them in by hand, they you can do that also. As with AUFX:Space, AUFX:Dub has support for IAA and is also compatible with Audiobus so, if you want to use the effect within a recording context, this is easy to do. MIDI support is also provided if you want to control and/or automate the effect via some hardware MIDI controller knobs. In short, this is an excellent app that gets the job done with a minimum of fuss and at a bargain price.
VanDelay is most definitely an app that could easily fall into both the ‘conventional’ and the ‘creative’ categories. This iOS audio effect app is priced at UK£1.99 and is billed as a multi-band echo device. The multi-band bit simply means that you can apply echo to three separate frequency bands and, if that’s what you do, then you can definitely get into the more creative territory that the app can dish out. However, as you can also simply focus on a single band, Van Delay can also to a very good tune as a more conventional echo/delay effect.
The interface is very graphical and, while there is a very minor hump of a learning curve to negotiate, the basic operation of the app is actually very straightforward. It also sounds great and, with Audiobus, IAA and iOS7/iOS8 support, it is an app that is very easy to use in a wider music production context. Oh, and don’t forget those three bands… I’ll come back to that feature in ‘part’ of this round up. This is, however, a very cool app and well worth the price of entry.
One of the effects that most musicians think they understand is EQ because, after all, we are familiar with the concept from things like our hi-fi system or our guitar amp. However, when it comes to a recording context, things are (well, can be) somewhat more complex. So, you get different types of EQ – shelves, low pass, high pass and parametric, for example – each with a different function and a different set of controls.
The reason for this flexibility is that, when it comes to mixing, EQ is often used in a more precise fashion for corrective applications that when you are just dialling in a guitar tone or adding a bit more bottom end to your stereo system. While you often do use EQ to sweeten the tone of an individual sound source within a mix, one of the other key roles is to actually carve away at individual sounds (so that in isolation they can actually sound pretty feeble) so that, when heard within the mix, the various instruments (a) don’t tread on each others frequency tones and (b) the mix has a nice overall EQ balance without a host of instruments all competing for the same frequency range.
This is actually one the the most challenging aspects in learning how to construct a mix and, the more complex the arrangement (the more tracks you have), the more difficult it is to get right. And, of course, you need some decent tools to do the job….
Most iOS DAWs include some EQ options so, for routine needs, this is not a particular issue. However, when you need more precise control then some additional options might be required.
There are some other EQ options I’ll come to in a minute but, as a stand-alone dedicated EQ app, then AUFX:PeakQ is a very good bet. You get a four-band EQ with both low and high shelf bands and two fully parametric bands with gain, frequency and bandwidth controls. The control set is easy to use and includes a simple, but easy to read, real-time spectrum display so that you can see (as well as hear) exactly what your EQ settings are doing to the sound.
As with all the AUFX series of apps, PeakQ is Audiobus, IAA and MIDI compatible (for external control if required) so you can easily work it into a wider music production workflow. And, once again, at UK£2.49, it is an absolute, stone-wall bargain.
In both hardware formats in a traditional studio environment and also on a desktop-based music production system, multi-effects units – a single piece of equipment or software that combines several different effects – are quite common. As yet, it’s perhaps a less common sight under iOS but there are a few good examples and these can be useful to have around whether you need a jack-of-all-trades app of simply because it’s easier than chaining several separate apps together.
Igor Vasiliev’s Master FX is a great example of this approach. Within a single app, Igor has combined a 3-band EQ, chorus, flanger, pitch modulation, delay, reverb, compressor and limiter and you can use up to six effects at once. At UK£7.99, this represents excellent value for money.
The user interface is straightforward to use and there is a good preset system. While the effects themselves don’t always offer quite as many control options as you might see in a dedicated single effect app, there are still plenty of options. The app includes Audiobus and IAA support so can be used in recording products with most DAWs by one route or another. Yet another example of a no-fuss effects app that is well worth adding to your app toolkit.
This doesn’t cover quite as much ground as Master FX but, with a real-time spectrum display, EQ, compression and limiting, Elephant Candy’s Level.24 is still a multi-effects processor worth exploring. The compressor and EQ are both very well featured and offer quite detailed control over the effects. Indeed, you get up to 12 EQ bands in the EQ so you can really focus in on detailed tweaks if your monitoring (and ears) are up to it.
The interface is clean and uncluttered. You get some great presets to get you started and, yet again, Audiobus and IAA are supported making the app easy to use alongside your other iOS music apps.
Modulation effects such as chorus, flanger and phaser, are essentially based on taking an audio signal and mixing the original with a slightly detuned copy. Depending upon the way this is done, you can create a range of different effects and, used to extreme, this would also cross over into the more ‘creative’ category. However, keep things more subtle and what you get is a thickening of the sound (particularly if the detuned copies are panned across the stereo field) and a tonal ‘movement’ that can give an otherwise fairly bland sound a bit of extra life.
There are perhaps more modulation effects for iOS that fit into the ‘creative’ category but, if you want an app that has a (slightly) more serious face, then Elephant Candy’s UltraPhaser is worth a look. Given the modest UK£3.99 asking price, there really are a lot of options provided here. The control set is comprehensive and, while you can do ‘in your face’ and obvious, you can also do subtle.
The display provides the user with good feedback on levels, the degree of phase shift and the stereo imaging so it is easy to see – as well as hear – what you are doing. You also get Audiobus and IAA support so the very good sounds that UltraPhaser can create are easy to accommodate within other iOS music apps.
If your music production involves songs with vocals as opposed to just instrumental music, then it’s important that what is the most significant element of your overall production sounds at its best. In a hardware studio or on the desktop, there are a whole range of different vocal processing options available. Yes, you can combine many of the various processing options already mentioned above to create the perfect vocal sound but, equally, there are also dedicate tools for vocals that provide a one-stop solution.
iOS isn’t – yet anyway – blessed with the same level of vocal processing tools. There are a few examples but, if there was one area of audio processing under iOS that I’d suggest was still waiting to be fully stocked, then this is it. Watch this space because I’m sure it will come…
iOS is still waiting for a really killer pitch correction app. I’m sure it will come but, until then, AutoTune Mobile is well worth acquiring. Yes, it is based on technology found in Antares’ brilliant AutoTune desktop software but you don’t get the same level of control here. Essentially, this offers an automatic pitch correction engine where you can pick the notes that are ‘in key’ (including a good selection of preset scales, although you can also define your own note combinations) and the speed at which any correction is applied. The app does a decent job and, if your vocal is at least half decent to start with, it can help just tidy up any lose ends.
And while the app isn’t in the same class as the desktop software, it also doesn’t have the same price tag either; UK£2.99 is a bargain given what Auto-Tune Mobile can do. Oh, and with Audiobus and IAA supported, it will work well with other iOS music apps.
As the name suggests, VocaLive is actually designed for use in live performance and, given the very intuitive interface (it looks a little like a virtual guitar pedal board, with each of the individual effects available as a separate pedal that can be placed within the four available effects slots), positioned within reach of a vocalist (perhaps attached to their mic stand using IK Multimedia’s iKilp), it would make a great tool for that in a small gig context.
However, given that the quality of the effects is actually very good, it can also do duties in a recording context. The app includes five ‘vocal’ effects and a further seven ‘studio’ effects. Under the vocal group we have Choir, Double, De-esser, Morph and Pitch Fix, while the studio group includes Reverb, Delay, EQ, Compression, Chorus, Phaser and Envelope Filter. While there are some minor restrictions on which effects can be combined with which others (presumably to keep the total processing load and/or time within certain sensible limits), in the main, you have plenty of options for chaining these processors together in the four effect slots.
Particularly interesting are the vocal effects. For example, Choir and Double allow you to create automatic harmony parts, while the Pitch Fix (within limits) can be used to do a little pitch correction or as a special effect. While there are perhaps better examples of all of these processing options available to desktop musicians (at a much higher price and using more CPU resources), used with care, VocaLive can produce some excellent results. If you want to just give your vocal performances a bit of an edge, this is currently the best way to do it under iOS.
At the time of writing, VocaLive is on sale and available at UK£6.99. We are, however, still waiting for IK Multimedia to update VocaLive for iOS8. It ought to come soon though as the company have updated other iOS apps in their product range. Watch this space.
VocaLive for iPad
Harmony Voice produces vocal harmonies based upon your audio input and the pitch of these four-part harmonies can be produced either automatically by the app or triggered via MIDI. And while the app doesn’t perhaps compete with the very best that is on offer on the desktop (Antares’ Harmony Engine or iZotope’s Nectar, for example), with its pocket money price tag, it does a pretty good job. Indeed, given the current asking price of UK£2.99 (the app is on sale at present), it does a remarkably good job…
The interface is easy to use and, like VirSyn’s other iOS apps, things are generally easy to find your way around. There is Audiobus, IAA and iOS8 support included as well as some complementary effects including chorus, delay and reverb so you can thicken up your harmony vocals even further. Used with a little care and placed at a suitable level in your overall mix, the results can be pretty good. Equally, if you want a robot vocal effect (more in the creative category), then a little more extreme abuse of the controls and it is easy to obtain.
Distortion is an interesting effect within a music/audio context. Some forms of distortion we most certainly don’t want and can sound very unpleasant to the ear. However, there are other forms of distortion – particularly those used in a guitar tone context and generated by old-school analog hardware such as tape machines – that actually produces some great sounds and can add character and warmth to a sound. So, aside from turning to a guitar amp sim app, what does iOS have to offer in this area?
Christopher Rice’s Caramel app could easily slot into the ‘creative’ category of audio effects but, used with a little restraint, it can also do a very good turn at just adding a touch of distortion to an audio source. Indeed, it allows you to do that with a number of different ‘flavours’ – overdrive, crunch, distortion – depending upon exactly what sort of effect you are after. And, like all the Holderness Media apps, it features a very intuitive user interface that is great for real-time control of the effect.
Indeed, given the current asking price (UK£2.99), and the fact that 3.1MB is hardly likely to cause anyone’s iPad to tip over its storage capacity, this is also a very good candidate for the ‘no brainer’ purchase decision. There is Audiobus, IAA and iOS7/8 support so the effect is easy to apply to either a live source or to pre-recorded parts within your DAW of choice.
Caramel Crunch and Crusher Effects Processor
SquashIt is another app from Klevgränd Produktion – the developer behind VanDelay and, like that app, you also get three separate frequency bands across which you can apply the effect. In this case, however, the effect is distortion. While the app is ultra-simple to use, because you can vary the amount of distortion applied and the cut-off frequencies between the three bands, it is actually possible to coax quite a wide range of sounds from the app.
Again, we have Audiobus and IAA support and the app will work with iOS7 or iOS8. At UK£1.99, it is also great value for money even if distortion is an effect that you might only turn to on the odd occasion to add a touch of spice, warmth or bite to a track.
Igor Vasiliev’s MasterRecord is a different type of distortion effect. Unlike the two previous apps that are perhaps closest to the ethos of a guitar stomp box distortion (albeit one with lots of control options), MasterRecord is perhaps more of an ‘analog tape’ emulation. Indeed, you actually get five modules; an input/gain/limiter, 2-band EQ, tape flutter (simulates the slight variations in tape speed on tape-based recorders), tape saturation (a compression-meets-distortion-like effect achieved when tape is overdriven in terms of levels; subtle but sonically attractive unlike digital distortion which sounds horrible) and noise type (adds subtle noise to the audio which is part of that analog charm).
MasterRecord is an excellent tool to have at your disposal and, while it’s processing might not be as dramatic as some other effect-type apps, that’s exactly what’s intended; a subtle – but highly flexible – dose of analog-style warmth in an very easy-to-use format. And whether it’s for use with existing files or to process live recording via Audiobus on its way into your DAW, or as a post-recording processor via IAA, the results are very good indeed. At UK£3.99, it is also very good value for money.
Audio mastering is the process where – in a commercial context at least – the final mixes of a music project are passed to a ‘mastering’ engineer who, with access to some very esoteric and high quality audio equipment and a pair of ‘golden ears’ developed by years of experience, will fine-tune the audio to (hopefully) make it sound even better.
Back in the real world (that is, the world of no budget or low budget), most recording musicians have a stab at DIY mastering. Mastering tools are built into a number of the popular desktop DAWs and you can also buy stand-alone applications such as iZotope’s excellent Ozone.
Under iOS, aside from some of the excellent IAP plugins you can buy in Auria, there are two stand-alone apps that stand out for this application; Audio Mastering and Final Touch.
Audio Mastering (UK£8.99) by Igor Vasiliev provides a combination of tools that can best be split into two types; those that allow you to change the audio format and those that change the sound. In the former, you can convert between WAV, AIF and MP3 and change bit depth or sample rate (with dithering included to improve noise performance). In the latter, there are a number of components; a 10 band graphic EQ, three-band stereo width processing, multi-band compression, harmonic saturation for adding a little warmth or sparkle and a loudness maximiser.
The interface, like Master FX from the same developer, is fairly clean and uncluttered. Equally, you are given enough control to get the job don but not overloaded with options that you might only use on rare occasions. Mastering itself is a skill that takes some time to learn but Audio Mastering will not add to that burden.
Audiobus, IAA, iOS7 and iOS8 support are all included so this is an app ready to work in a wider music production workflow in any configuration to prefer.
Final Touch (UK£13.99) by Positive Grid (the team that gave us JamUp Pro and BIAS) is perhaps slightly slicker in appearance and, when you dig in, perhaps also give you a finer resolution of control. In that sense, it is maybe a little bit closer in nature to the desktop software like iZotope’s Ozone that was mentioned earlier.
As with Audio Mastering, Final Touch provides you with a number of processing ‘modules’ that you can switch in/out of your signal chain. This includes two comprehensive EQ modules, a master reverb, dynamics, stereo imaging and a loudness maximizer. Given the flexibility and depth provided, Final Touch has a slightly steeper initial learning curve than Audio Mastering but there is no doubting that it is a powerful tool in the right hands.
Again, Audiobus and IAA support are provided but, while the app is happy with both these technologies under iOS7 – and it will work quite happily as a stand-alone app under iOS8 – full iOS8 ready status is still awaited. I’m pretty sure it will come though as Positive Grid’s other apps have already been updated with support for the new OS.
There are bound to be some other ‘conventional’ audio effects apps that are perhaps some of your favourites and that I haven’t mentioned here (and, if so, then feel free to drop me a like or leave a comment below). However, what I find remarkable about this particular list is that, with perhaps one or two exceptions, iOS does have ‘an app for that’ in almost all the major effects types. Yes, I would like to see something just a touch more ‘top-end’ in terms of pitch correction but, otherwise, this is a very impressive selection.
It is equally impressive – and somewhat baffling – that you can buy effects processors as good as these at what are, compared to buying the equivalent software in a desktop environment, trivial prices. There are all sorts of things about music production under iOS that are not as slick or as powerful as what’s possible on a high-spec desktop computer but, in terms of bang-for-buck, iOS is a brilliant platform to build a music production system around. For the musician on a budget, the audio effects apps listed here are all great value.