iOS generative music apps roundup – apps that make music for you

PrintPretty much since the early days of music software for computers, developers have been making software that, in one way or another, attempts to write its own music. In some cases this might be just one element of he application while in others it is its reason for being. And in some cases the results have been quite successful while in others…. well, let’s just say that flesh and blood composers are not in danger of becoming extinct just jet.

Software with a ‘generative’ element is, however, an attractive proposition on a number of grounds. First, even for an experienced and accomplished musician, it can often help throw up a new idea. If you need a bit of musical inspiration to get you started, having a bit of software to act as a writing buddy can be a useful thing. Second, for music producers without traditional musical instrument skills, or, for novice musicians looking for new ways to learn about or get inspired by composition, these kinds of tools can be genuinely useful, providing a source of musical ideas that they can then seek ways to develop.

Music that writes itself...  that could be useful when you are stuck for a new idea or two....

Music that writes itself… that could be useful when you are stuck for a new idea or two….

And while ‘generative’ music software has been around on the desktop in a whole variety of forms for a long time, with lots of musicians now discovering iOS music apps, it is hardly surprising that these kinds of tools are also available under iOS. Indeed, it is easy to argue that touchscreens bring a whole new dimension to this kind of software because one of way it allows developers to design user interfaces that are not based upon traditional instrument skill sets. There is really no need for a virtual piano keyboard or set of guitar strings when some other sort of performance interface is more suitable for the task.

So, if you are interested in apps that can make their own music (or, perhaps more accurately, allow you trigger them to make music), what does iOS have to offer? Well, to a certain extent, the answer to that question depends upon how you define a ‘generative’ music app.

Unless you want to get super picky about that (and feel free if you do), then there are actually quite a number of iOS music apps that offer an element of musical support to the user. I’ve no intention of being restrictive here and it would be an ever longer post if I tried to be comprehensive so what follows is a brief personal selection. I’ll adopt a fairly liberal approach with my definition of apps with a ‘generative’ element and that allows me to group together a number of apps that – because of the innovative way in which they use the touchscreen – perhaps cross the rather grey boundary between being a more traditional music making tool and providing some element of auto-composition.

Let’s get started…..

Get the gen….

… and the best place to do that is with a selection of apps that fall pretty firmly into the ‘generative’ class. Yes, you can direct and adapt what most of these apps do to push the music creation process in a certain direction, but all of these apps will, if required, do the bulk of the heavy lifting for you.

dot melody logodot Melody

The Olympia Noise Co development team will be familiar to many iOS musicians through their excellent Chordion MIDI performance app that can be used to trigger other iOS synths. dot Melody (currently UK£1.99) can also be used to create MIDI performance data to trigger other synths or record in a MIDI sequencer. However the app also brings a compositional element in that you can create pattern-based parts for three instruments (dot Melody calls these three parts lead, bass and drums).

Music is created by tapping and dragging different coloured dots around onto the X-Y area of the main screen. The pitch of the note is controlled by the left-right (horizontal) axis, with higher notes to the right. The vertical axis controls the length of the note, with longer notes towards the bottom and shorter notes at the top.

Join the dots? dot Melody will give you spots before your eyes while you make music :-)

Join the dots? dot Melody will give you spots before your eyes while you make music :-)

This is deceptively simple as an interface but, because of the chord options (on the left-edge of the main display) that allow you to transpose your patterns, in practice, it is both deep and quite beguiling. Don’t expect to get instant results but practice and experimentation does pay off. Equally, a few random taps and swipes can be a super-easy way to start a musical idea even if you then take that idea elsewhere to develop it further.

The internal sounds are fine for some experimentation but, as you can route the MIDI data created out to other iOS synths (or beyond with a suitable MIDI connection), you can then realise your dot Melody ideas using a more sophisticated and varied sound palette. MIDI out used to be provided via an IAP but that feature can now be added for free. iOS8 and Audiobus support are included.

As an idea generator for ambient or abstract styles, dot Melody is top notch and for those working in those genres, this is a brilliant concept at a pocket money price.

dot Melody


NodeBeat HD logoNodeBeat HD

Like dot Melody, NodeBeat HD allows the user to create music by placing object on the touchscreen. The app then applies a number of underlying ‘rules’ to generate music. As the user, you can tweak those rules (for example, setting the rhythm or the key/scale combination) and then also influence just how those rules are applied by creating ‘Nodes’; you simply arrange the various Nodes on the screen and NodeBeat HD will apply its rules and create some music.

These nodes come in two types; Generators and Notes. Generators themselves also come in two types; Drum and Octave, with the former allowing rhythmic sounds to be creates while the latter use the internal synth engine to play melodic parts. You can drag and drop these onto the display from the sidebar selection panel. You can then add Notes nodes and these link to the Generator Nodes to create either rhythmic or melodic patterns. Notes play in sequence based upon the distance they are from their connected Generator. You can also ‘play’ the screen with your own fingers to add notes to the pattern manually with pitch running from low to high along the left-right axis of the display.

NodeBeat HD - generative music creation and inspiration for the ambient musician in a beautiful and engaging interface.

NodeBeat HD – generative music creation and inspiration for the ambient musician in a beautiful and engaging interface.

As with all generative music apps, you can use NodeBeat HD to create music even if you have no traditional musical skills. That said, in the hands of someone with just a tiny dollop of musical know-how, it is quite an interesting journey to steer NodeBeat HD in the direction you think you would like to go and see what appears. As is also common with many generative music apps, the style of music created perhaps tends to favour the more ambient, texture-based musician; NodeBeat is great for hypnotic ambient loops and you can make those loops evolve in real time by adjusting the pattern and position of the Nodes as the app works.

At the time of writing, NodeBeat HD available at a sale price of UK£1.99. With iOS8, Audiobus and IAA support, the app is easy to integrate into a wider music production workflow. Stylistically, it is going to suit those who like their music chilled and relaxing rather than your in your face and aggressive but it is a very inexpensive way to kick start an idea or two while you wait from the muse to come home from the pub half cut and unwilling to co-operate :-)

NodeBeat HD


noatikl logoNoatikl

If ambient, soundscape-style music is your thing, then another generative music app option is Noatikl from developer Intermorphic. Noatikl actually runs on iOS, Windows and OSX. The iOS version is free – so you can get an idea of what the app is capable of – but there is then an IAP (UK£5.99) that unlocks the full feature set including the ability to save, export, use MIDI out, enable background audio and (thankfully) turn off the occasional ad that pops up.

As with NodeBeat HD and dot Melody, Noatikl applies a set of musical ‘rules’ to create its music. The user can select a series of internal sounds and these can be told to ‘play’ in various ways based upon style templates. There are over 350 of these included in the app. You can adjust the rules controlling the time signature, tempo, scale, harmony and key in various ways.

Noatikl; lots of options for the generative music maker.

Noatikl; lots of options for the generative music maker.

If you cough up for the IAP, Noatikl really is a pretty deep app. With the MIDI out option, you can’t just to send MIDI note data to other iOS synth but you can also create automation data to control synth parameters. In terms of defining how a particular sound creates music, there are all sorts of tweaks and settings to make that define what might result – patterns, chords, whether one instrument follows another and, if so, how closely – so that, while the music created most naturally falls into the ambient soundscape category, there is plenty of variety on offer.

The app supports iOS8, Audiobus and IAA so, once you have coaxed Noatikl into creating some beautiful music for you, it is very easy to take that idea and develop it further with other iOS music apps.

Noatikl


quincy logo 2Quincy

Quincy (UK£3.99) from RoGame Software is perhaps a little more abstract than some of the other apps mentioned so far. As with lots of true generative music apps, the music created tends to be more Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells than Motorhead’s Overkill and Quincy only allows you to generate music from a single internal sound at one time. However, it is very easy to use, comes with a number of sample projects that you can explore to find your way around, does support MIDI out if you want to drive another synth (iOS or otherwise) and can get you creating music very quickly.

The underlying algorithm is based upon the Game of Life pattern generation process. You ‘seed’ the musical idea with a graphical pattern of cells and a set of rules are then applied that dictate which cells remain alive, which die and which new cells are ‘born’. And, as the pattern changes on the screen so the music created also changes. You can change the rules that are applied and also draw new sets of cells on the screen as the composition unfolds. Sonically, it’s fascinating but, equally, it is quite hypnotic to watch as the patterns change with time.

Quincy; generative music and hypnotic graphics.

Quincy; generative music and hypnotic graphics.

The app includes a range of internal sounds you can select from based upon a General MIDI style soundset. There are also three sound ‘modes’ to chose from – Chroma, Gregorian and Pentrix (this one provides numerous variations on a pentatonic scale) – each of which will create a different style of musical output. Quincy is easy to get started with but, if you do need some help, there is a detailed manual available online.

The app is not (yet at least) iOS8 ready although it does have Audiobus and IAA support if you are still working with iOS7. That said, it does work quite happily as a standalone app under iOS8. I suspect this app would probably suit non-musicians (or, more accurately, those with non-traditional instrument skills) looking to get into music making rather than those with a lot of musical theory simply because you get less obvious control over the shape the music might take but, even so, as a source of new melodic ideas, Quincy is a lot of fun and great to watch also.

Quincy


Get some help….

While the above apps probably fit pretty squarely in the ‘generative music’ category, there are a number of other iOS music apps that, while perhaps not strictly ‘generative’, offer the user some sort of help in that direction. Depending on just how far you push this definition of ‘includes a bit generative’ is entirely up to you but, for this roundup piece, I’ll just make three obvious suggestions…

Before doing that, however, it is probably worth noting that these are apps that are more likely to appeal to someone with a bit of music-making experience in that, as the user, other aspect of the apps allow you a little bit more control over the direction the music might go it. Perhaps the distinction, therefore, is that these are apps where you make the music you want but the app includes some generative elements that can chuck in some inspiration when you might need it….

Figure logoFigure

Figure is one of my favourite iOS music apps of al time. Not because it is uber-sophisticated (its not) or that you might create a complete album project using it (well, you might, but that’s not really the point) but because it demonstrated just what a touchscreen interface could be to the music making process. Non-musicians can use it… but equally a musician with some music production background can also get great mileage out of it.

The app’s name is derived from one of the key design elements of the instrument’s user interface. The app’s instruments are ‘played’ via a touch pad zone in the bottom half of the screen – and the user is encouraged to draw ‘figures’ with their fingers to generate sound. This drawing is done within a sort of X-Y pad and allows you to both play notes and vary the tone of the sound as you tap and drag. And as the notes are constrained to the chosen key/ scale, it is almost impossible to create something that contains duff notes.

Figure - insanely fun but brilliant user interface and sounds great.

Figure – insanely fun but brilliant user interface and sounds great.

With three tracks available – drums, bass synth and lead synth – you can build up compositions of a few bars in length, record them and then improvise to tweak them in real time during playback. The experience is just brilliant and, while Figure is easy to learn, given that your mini-compositions can be easily exported and the fact that the app has Audiobus and iOS8 support, means that you compositions can easily be developed further elsewhere.

The novel interface – with scale confined XY pitch pads, rhythm assisted drum part creation and some simple, but very cool, effects options that can be automated – is both a pleasure to use and easy to learn. If you have a musical bone in your body (OK, a musical bone that likes electronic styles) and you have not yet stumped up for Figure then you are missing a treat. Simple, cheap (UK£0.69) but brilliant.

Figure


Xynthesizr logoXynthesizr

In essence, Xynthesizr – by developer Yuro Turov – offers a streamlined 32-step-based pattern sequencer and synthesizer engine. You can program in your pattern and then play it back via what is actually a pretty impressive internal synth engine. The latter includes some excellent preset sounds and some great modulation options so you can get some nice movement going on via the filter section. Pattern creation uses a step-based grid but this isn’t conventional in nature as it is constrained by scale and will adjust to the selected chord if you use the chord/transposition options while the pattern is in playback. This makes it very easy to create new musical ideas that are harmonically correct.

You can, however, also output your sequences for playback on other iOS synths (or record the MIDI data into another sequencer/DAW). While the interface is generally uncluttered, when you start to explore, there are actually quite a lot of features tucked away under the hood. This includes a rather excellent scale/key transpose feature that allows you to adjust your pattern on the fly and ‘play’ a chord sequence.

The sequencing environment is beautifully simple and, while the app can drive other synths, the internal synth engine has some pretty good sounds of its own.

The sequencing environment is beautifully simple and, while the app can drive other synths, the internal synth engine has some pretty good sounds of its own.

The other really interesting feature – and the reason the app is sitting in this roundup – is the probability-based ‘morphing’ of patterns where the app generates variations on your pattern on each iteration through. The user can control the ‘rules’ applied here and, very usefully, limit the morphing to just a section of the pattern if preferred. This is great as you can, for example, leave the bass notes untouched while getting the upper ‘melody’ notes to be created ‘generatively’ based upon the rule choices applied. These rules also use Conway’s Game of Life as one of their options.

This whole features is great to getting new musical possibilities going from a basic idea and Xynthesizr really is a lot of fun. The internal sounds are very good in their own right but, hooked up to a synth like Thor or Z3TA+, there are plenty of further creative options to be explored. The app includes support for iOS8, Audiobus and IAA. If you are a step-sequencer fan, at its current price of UK£3.99, Xynthesizr is a bit of an app-shaped bargain and adds just enough generative elements to also act as a source of musical inspiration when required.

Xynthesizr


oscilab logoOscilab

Oscilab – from developer 2beat – crosses the ground between an electronic music production environment, a groove box and a generative music app. The interface is very slick and super-cool looking and makes creating new musical ideas very intuitive whether you have traditional musical skills or not. However it also has plenty of depth if you do want to dig in.

Essentially, you get six channels of sound with four of these based on the synth/sample engine and two dedicated to drums/percussion. The various preset sounds are very good indeed but the way that you create your own sounds or modify existing sounds makes great use of the oscilloscope-style views and your ability to draw waveforms within them. This is both fun and pretty painless; just tap, drag and pinch to tweak settings for the frequency, filter, amplifier and pan.

Oscilab; super-cool electronic music making under iOS.

Oscilab; super-cool electronic music making under iOS.

There is a fairly conventional (but nicely implemented) drum grid editor for setting up your drum patterns. However, when it comes to sequencing the synths, the approach is somewhat more novel. Pitch variation can be defined by creating a waveform and can either then be controlled by that waveform (essentially continuous pitch variation) or the waveform can then be ‘pitch quantized’ to a scale to produce a more conventional series of notes. Timing and length of notes is then controlled by a strip at the base of the window. This is a really interesting route to creating sequences – intuitive and very quick – and it means you can create harmonically correct music without even thinking; Oscilab does that musical thinking for you.

Oscilab is such a cool app and the internal sounds have enough flexibility to create some great electronic music. There are also some very cool FX options. The app includes iOS, Audiobus and IAA support and, a fairly recent addition, MIDI sync. This works very well and means you can sync Oscilab to your other iOs music apps such as your DAW of choice (for example, Cubasis).

Oscilab is a great electronic music production environment that musicians can get a lot out of but even non-musicians (perhaps looking to move beyond something like the brilliant Figure?) can also dig in any enjoy. At UK£6.99 it is also very good value for money.

Oscilab


Playtime….

As someone who has some (limited!) music skills, I’m perhaps more at home with the second groups of apps described above than the first but much of this is really down to the musical styles I’m interested in – I spend more time with electronica and EDM than with ambient – rather than the fact that I want to let an app do all the musical work for me :-)

However, before finishing, I really ought to mention one further app that is definitely in the ‘generative’ category… although it could also fit into the ‘physics game’ category at a push I expect….

musyc logoMusyc Pro

Musyc Pro (UK£2.49) is made by Fingerlab – the developers behind one of my very favourite iOS drum machines (and one I also use under OSX); DM1 – so we know it is coming with some pedigree. As with some of the other generative music apps described above, the interface is all about music creation though touchscreen control and creating patterns/objects on the touchscreen that, in some way, cause music to be generated.

So far, so normal(ish)… the novel element is that those objects seem to use some physics-based rules to control how they move around the screen and how they interact (bounce off) other objects. You can create a range of object shapes, each of which can be associated with a different sound and the app is supplied with a collection of preset sounds to choose from. You can link objects together, add lines for them to bounce off, adjust the speed, gravity, ‘song’ tempo and use the accelerometer to control how your objects move around the screen.

Musyc Pro; it might look like a game but it is a generative music app in disguise :-)

Musyc Pro; it might look like a game but it is a generative music app in disguise :-)

The app includes some basic effects with XY pads and real time recording. There is also a mixer for the different sounds in use. You can also import your own sounds for use within the engine. iOS8, Audiobus and IAA are now supported and, apparently, MIDI support is on its way.

At first glace, Musyc Pro does look as much like a physics game as a music app and, I have to admit that my first encounter with it left me scratching my head a little. However, it wasn’t until I saw my 9 year old son exploring it and creating a rather clever construction that generated all sorts of interesting rhythmic effects, that I began to twig what the app was about. Yep, it might be a bit baffling initially but don’t be completely fooled by the game-style graphics; there is some considerable generative music potential in Musyc Pro if you are prepared to spend some time exploring… oh, and your kids might like it also :-)

Musyc Pro



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    Comments

    1. Some others in the generative category include: Poly, HarmonyWiz, and MINT.io. Brian Eno has put out a whole slew of generative apps (Scape being the highlight) that rarely get updated and have never had Audiobus, or any real recording features, but can put out pleasing results.

      • Hi Andrew, thanks for the alternative suggestions… always welcome. Anyone else want to chip in with other possibilities? Best wishes, John

        • Sure, I’ll chime in. Just want to say that when there’s a highly gifted musician providing the sounds that then are sent out by the generative machine, the result can’t help but be superior. That’s how I view the Eno (granddad of generative music) /Chilvers apps. No other generative apps I’ve tried have come close to Scape, which is a real wonder to my ears. When necessary t’s not too time consuming to connect an av cable and record the output the old school way.

    2. Toz Bourne says:

      I’ve not used any true generative apps, but I have heard results (Ambient style) and some were quite pleasing to the ear. Could Gestrument be considered with some of these as well? I recently acquired it and haven’t dug in very deep but it certainly does a lot of “heavy lifting” as John aptly puts it.

      And John, Figure is one of my all time favorite ios music apps too, though it seems I use it in a slightly different way. I specifically play the bass and leads rather than make figures (I turn the auto beats settings to 0) and with the drums I will both play them manually and sometimes use the automation (especially if I want a highhat with like 12 or 16 hits in a measure…saving much frustration and much finger effort).

      A related but slightly different category are sequencer apps…of which I have a couple but haven’t used much (DM-1 as example). Though a lot of effort can go into these, still one doesn’t play these apps to make music, rather one constructs patterns. I think those would be a great subject for another “round up” article as there are many sequencer type apps and I am probably missing out on many benefits of using such.

    3. Really, there are endless ways to look at this question. A “generative” app could be something as simple as a step sequencer that arranges a grid by scale or other random notes. Or a MIDI sequencer that sorts things by intervals/octaves and has a “randomize” feature.

      Beatwave 2 is an app that tends to come up with interesting patterns for me. Similar to Xynthesizr, but sample based. Since I’m bad at coming up with drum patterns, it actually has a drum generator feature that is surprisingly good.

      Which reminds me…DrumJam. Yes, it’s a world beats oriented, but you can get it pretty close to pop/rock with the right instruments, and by telling it how “busy” you want the individual instruments to be, I’m still amazed at the variety of patterns it comes up with within those parameters.

      Though I don’t know how to use it well yet, Sector is another generative app, but it creates now patterns and sounds by slicing loops in rearranging them in interesting ways. Different Drummer does this also (from scratch, actually) using waveforms for pitch, gate length, etc. but I am totally clueless when it comes to that app.

    4. Toz Bourne says:

      Jeff H — excellent comments which also helped me to realize that I forgot about Diff Drummer, I hadn’t launched it in a while, but I should count that. It seems like generative then is a very broad category and it’s quite eye opening to discover what some of the apps can accomplish.

      It was probably an apptronica article that introduced me to the concept of using a randomize feature found in some apps to aid in composition. Given that and all of the above — I now have a much better idea of how these tools can be utilized — as John stated, like a writing buddy. For me this is another layer of iOS music making, providing for more discovery and more creation. I’m loving it!

    5. I’m quite fond of Yellofier: http://www.yellofier.com/

      Made by Boris Blank of Yello!

    6. xynthesizer is really quite amazing – especially as a midi controller to some high quality pad sounds.

      I’m wondering if Alchemy qualifies here. Pick some arps, morph them around, pick a lead, pad or synth, choose a scale and run your figure around and with the IAP for the pro upgrade you can record 4 tracks.
      It’s not generative in the sense that it can bounce balls or squares around to produce a melody but you really don’t need to know much at all to create something that sounds darn good.

    7. Caelestis is rather lovely: https://appsto.re/nl/MmVRI.i

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