One of the things that I love about music production using my iPad is that, if I choose, I can make music using software that doesn’t make my head explode with its complexity. Don’t get me wrong – I think there is most certainly a time and a place for sophisticated, feature-rich, software – but it can be all too easy to get bogged down in the intricacies of the toolset at the expense of getting creative if that toolset is overly complex for the job in hand.
Tangentially, this is a point that came out in the recent ‘less is more’ series of articles; simple software (and a simple selection of software) with a feature set that ‘fits’ how you want to work can make it easier to get ideas out of your head and into sound than a ‘super-app’ (or super-apps) where that initial ‘new idea’ stage gets lost as you wander off down some techie siding…. And, as what ‘fits’ my workflow in terms of app selections might not ‘fit’ your workflow, then it’s great we have such a diverse (and affordable) selection of iOS music apps available on the App Store so we can all make our own set of ‘key apps’ to suit our specific musical needs.
While I do use a few software heavyweights on my iPad (I’d put apps like Auria Pro – which is undoubtedly awesome – and most modular synths in this category, but that’s just my personal selection), when it comes to feature-rich, I much prefer my desktop system for working that way (and I’m fortunate enough to have that choice). When working on my iPad system – which I use very much as an ideas generation platform – I much prefer to work with less complex apps…. Indeed, apps that fit the underlying ethos of what iOS software is generally about; each app does a single job in a streamlined fashion…. as the saying goes, whatever the task, ‘there is an app for that….’
However, like most folks I guess, I most certainly want to have my cake and eat it. And, in app terms, that generally means that I can always think of an extra feature or two that, even with a favourite app (actually, especially with a favourite app), I’d love to see added. And I bet you can too so, as a bit of fun to get folks thinking, maybe get a bit of a discussion going, and perhaps (you never know?) to inspire a few developers to take another look at their ‘to do’ lists, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts in a ‘I want it all’ sort of a way, identify a few candidates that would be top of my own personal ‘feature presentation’ wishlist.
I love my iOS DAW/sequencer but….
As regulars here know, I’m a fan of Steinberg’s Cubasis. One reason for this is both simple and obvious; I’ve used Cubase on my desktop system as my main DAW/sequencer for almost more years than I can recall. Cubasis therefore feels familiar and projects can fairly easily be ported from Cubasis to Cubase should I need to.
The second reason is very much an iOS one; I like the balance that Steinberg have struck in the design of Cubasis between the range of features provided and the somewhat more ‘compact’ user interface (mostly dictated by screen size) of the iPad. The result is a DAW/sequencer with enough features to get good work done but without things feeling cluttered, confused or pushing the available hardware to close to its limits. Even if I wasn’t a Cubase user, I think I’d have ended up with Cubasis on the iPad for this reason alone.
Cubasis is undoubtedly good value for money (it currently lists at UK£39.99/US$49.99) and, aside from a couple of effects packs IAPs, so far at least, every update Steinberg have provided (and they have certainly added a lot of features since it was first launched), has been added for free. AS the app currently stands at v.1.9.9, v.2.0 must be next on the agenda and if that turns out to be a ‘paid upgrade’ in some way, then I certainly won’t complain…. I’ve more than had my personal value for money out of the app having first purchased it on the day of release.
As someone who uses Cubasis pretty much every day (even if only in the course of testing another app), it is all too easy to glance over at the Cubase feature list and think of a few things I’d love to see eventually make their way into the iOS version. No, I don’t expect Steinberg to make Cubasis a Cubase replacement any time soon…. but I’d gladly pay for a few of my personal wishlist features to appear…..
I’d have three things on my own list; Group Channels, Folder Tracks and a Tempo Track/Ableton Link (OK, this last one is actually two things).
Group Channels (mix busses) would open up all sorts of standard mixing tricks and efficiencies (Auria Pro has this capability and you can set up something similar in AUM) but even if it was just to group together all your drum tracks to a buss, all your guitars to another and all your vocal tracks to a third (and so on), it would make mixing a whole lot easier…. and that’s before you get into things like parallel compression busses, etc…..
Folder Tracks add nothing in terms of the music creation process but, as there reason for being is to make large projects easier to manage and navigate, if anything the smaller screen available on the iPad makes then even more useful under iOS than they would be on the desktop. Pop all your guitar tracks into a Folder Track and then ‘close’ the folder to tuck them out the way (out of sight) while you focus on a different selection or tracks in another folder (for example, all your vocal tracks)… and so on…. Projects becomes easier to navigate and (for my OCD) much tidier to look at.
With Ableton Link taking app syncing to a new level under iOS we really do need to see our favourite DAW/sequencers support this technology. However, if we are going to fully exploit the creative options that tempo sync can bring, we also need a way to control tempo and, in a recording context, that needs to be something other than the manual manipulation of a tempo control in one app while others then follow; what we need is a tempo track where we can create a tempo envelope that the project then follows.
Technically, this is actually quite a tricky task to get right (especially if the DAW has to then handle changes made to the tempo track after some audio (as opposed to MIDI) has already been recorded. However, even if initially such a Tempo Track came with a health warning to ‘configure tempo changes before starting audio recording’ it would be a start. On the desktop, Cubase has a sophisticated Tempo Track feature that (generally) works very well. Auria Pro also has a tempo track feature (although I’ve not tested it to destruction to know just how well it copes with use and abuse)….
While lots of EDM style music might require a ‘set and forget’ attitude to tempo, if you work in other styles, or do the occasional bit of music-to-picture work, being able to let tempo breath a bit is just part of the normal ebb and flow of music. Pre- the advent of the sequencer and the click track, tempo fluctuated naturally as the band locked itself together and as the intensity of the music changed through a song (measure the tempo of some of your favourite recordings from the 60s and 70s; not much of it will be 120bpm from start to finish). It’s great to have musical tools for modern recording – such as your DAW/sequencer – that allows that option if you want to use it…. so a tempo Track in Cubasis would be a pretty big deal….
Drum even more ‘perfect’
As someone who comes from a ‘rawk’ background, while I like my electronica, I do make use of a lot of acoustic drums in my own music making. DrumPerfect Pro is my weapon of choice here and, while it is not as powerful a tool as, for example, Toontrack’s Superior Drummer 2 (which is what I tend to use on the desktop), like Cubasis, it has taken a desktop concept and designed it down to work within the iOS context.
When Marinus Molencraft launched the ‘Pro’ version of DrumPerfect at the start of 2016, it certainly upped the ante in terms of what was possible with virtual drummers under iOS and, for ‘human’ sounding acoustic drum parts, DrumPerfect Pro packs a heck of a punch for just UK£13.99/US$18.99. One of the things that the new version introduced was an in-app Store so you could purchase expansion packs – drum sounds and MIDI-based drum patterns – to expand the musical content. This is exactly how desktop software such as Superior Drummer or BFD3 operate; you buy the base software and some ‘content’ and then expand it with genre-specific ‘add-ons’ in the styles you need.
I’ve purchased all the DrumPerfect pro expansion packs and they are uniformly good…. but I’m a novice drummer at best and all these available packs make me want is more of them J So, whether it’s pop, rock, classic rock, funk, progressive rock, punk, indie, folk…. whatever style you can think of that suits an acoustic drummer and kit, then I’d be signed up for more…. especially as each pack (so far at least) has been very modestly priced.
Of course, I’ve no idea if this makes commercial sense for Marinus and it may well be more work than can be justified by the relatively modest returns each pack might bring…. but, for Superior Drummer at least, I think it is a model that has undoubtedly worked for Toontrack. On the desktop, I have a good collection of SD expansion packs (especially the MIDI-only packs) and, if I’m working on something like a library music track, I can literally have a complete drum track put together (and sounding way better than I could ever record a real drum kit) in a matter of minutes. DrumPerfect Pro has all the tools required to do the same job on my iPad… and its pattern programming tools are powerful…. but it would still be great to have some additional content available via IAP so the ‘non-drummers’ amongst us (myself included) could fully exploit it.
Hold a tune
OK, my problem here is that a can’t… well, I can, but not as well as a ‘proper’ singer (that is, someone who actually practices their singing seriously) can. For my sins, therefore, software that can pitch correct vocals is something I’ve become well acquainted with over the years (no, not proud). On the desktop, I think I must have experimented with pretty much every major brand of this including Melodyne, Nectar and, of course, Auto-Tune. They are all powerful tools and, while you can easily go all ‘special effect’ and do the whole T’Pain thing, you can also choose the more subtle route and transparently correct just those few notes that need it… or, of course, create some pretty convincing harmony vocals when you actually can’t sing them yourself.
Under iOS, we have a few apps that offer pitch correction (including IK Multimedia’s VocaLive) but perhaps the one I turn to most often is Antares Auto-Tune Mobile. The app is, of course, based upon the flagship desktop product and, as far as it goes, it does a decent enough job…. it’s just that for me, it doesn’t really go far enough.
OK, so I know Antares don’t want to go the whole hog and sell a fully-featured version of the desktop Auto-Tune for the UK£3.99/US$4.99 App Store asking price…. but I’d gladly pay more than that (for example, via an IAP that unlocked additional features) if there was more on offer. I’m not sure I’d really want to do the whole ‘manual mode’ pitch correction process that both Auto-Tune and Melodyne offer on the desktop via an iPad screen but I would love to see a few more features of Auto-Tune’s ‘automatic’ mode creep into the iOS version.
And I suspect I’m not the only one. Whether we ‘like’ it or not, pitch correction is a fact of life in very many commercial recordings. Your aim may not be to compete in that commercial marketplace but, if it is, the option to do some sophisticated (but subtle) tightening of your vocal pitch is just another one of those many building blocks required to get closer to that radio-ready sound.
So, a more feature-rich Auto-Tune Mobile – even if it comes at a much higher price – would certainly be on my wishlist.
Please for my POD?
OK, one final quick one to finish with (I don’t want to spoil all the options for your own input)…. I’d like to have MIDI support for Line 6’s Mobile POD guitar rig sim app. OK, other POD users might also want to quiz Line 6 about the CustomTone features…. but, personally, MIDI support would be my own priority.
I have a number of guitar rig sim apps that I use on my iPad and they can all sound great (providing, of course, that you use a decent audio interface to get a good quality audio signal in and out). They all work well enough in a ‘studio’ context but, if you need to quickly move between different sounds – and you happen to have both hands on your guitar – then the option for MIDI control is obviously useful. That is particularly useful if you use one of these amp rig sims in a ‘live performance’ context.
As with Cubase/Cubasis, as I’m a long-standing Line 6 user, I have a bit of a soft spot for their Mobile POD app. It’s not all sentiment though; the modelling just sounds good to my ears and, as I’ve used their models in other contexts (various hardware PODs and now the new Helix), I know which models to go to for sounds that I’m going to like.
However, while Line 6’s desktop and hardware products are very MIDI-friendly, as yet, Mobile POD is a MIDI-less environment. I don’t want much… just an option to either change patches or to toggle stomp boxes in a patch on/off… and maybe the option to drive a virtual volume or wah pedal from an hardware expression pedal. What’s more, there are already hardware options out there that I’d be happy to use (I’m not asking Line 6 for a dedicated MIDI hardware controller); all I want is MIDI support within the app and a suitable MIDI Learn feature….. Please?
Oh, maybe that’s not all I’m asking….. because I’d add to my Mobile POD wishing in that I’d also love to see AU support. I regularly use multiple guitar parts in my iOS recording projects so the option for multiple instances of Mobile POD (OK, any guitar rig sim) would be most welcome.
What’s on your wishlist?
OK, so you can see what I’m getting at here…. Reasonably modest (in most cases I think) additional features to existing apps that would, for me at least, make a big difference to their usability. And, while free’ would be great, in every case, if it requires and ‘upgrade’ IAP or three, then I’d gladly provide said developer with a financial return if it means that, when I obviously think of the next ‘must have’ feature I’d like to add, they still have the financial resources available to employ coders to implement it :-)
So, what would be top of your own wishlist for one or two of your personal favourite iOS music apps?
I’d be genuinely interested to hear your suggestions….. When I’ve had these kinds of conversations with individual readers of the blog (for example, via email), I’m often surprised by the very diverse range of suggests that come forth.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised but, often times, I am… and that’s a good thing because those answers that would never have occurred to me come from the very different ways in which we all approach our iOS music making. What’s a workflow bottleneck to me is a non-issue to someone else…. and their ‘wishlist feature’ for a specific app can often offer some really interesting insights into their workflow and their approach to music creation. And that, in turn, helps me shape the content I might provide for the blog itself….
So, if you have a few minutes, and you want to offer a feature or two that you would love to see in a personal favourite music app then feel free to share. Whether it’s via the Comments section below… of via dropping me an email, get in touch and get your wishlist off your chest. You never know…. we might help a developer spot their next update proprieties and a wishlist item or two could become reality :-) Fingers crossed.