iOS music apps – toys or tools?

shutterstock_89438536I’d like to start with a question and, while I admit the link to iOS music apps might not be obvious to start with, bear with and I’ll do my best to convince you that I can join the dots…

So, my question…. has anyone here ever played Guitar Hero? For a while a few years ago it was all the rage on consoles such as the PS3 and the Wii. Indeed, my own sons (then aged about 10 and 3) were both hooked and we had the full setup for the family Wii; two guitars, a drum kit and a mic. The kids played, I played, my wife played… heck, even Grandma played on one memorable occasion (drums on an Ozzy track if I recall correctly).

Of course, while there will still be a hard core of fans who enjoy strutting their virtual stuff on a Friday evening (quite possibly after a few drinks), our controllers have long since been dispatched to the dustier reaches of the attic, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted.

One of the debates at the height of Guitar Hero’s popularity was whether the game had a positive or negative impact on player’s engagement with music and, in particular, their desire to learn a ‘real’ musical instrument. Could engaging with a ‘toy’ guitar give someone the ambition to master a real guitar? I’ve no idea about the general consensus on that question but it certainly got my eldest boy into banging out a few riffs on one of my guitars and picking up the basics of drumming; I reckon that’s a good thing even if he doesn’t turn into the next Slash or Matt Sorum.

So, what’s the connection to all this with iOS music making? There are some folks (musicians included) who see iDevices and the music apps that run on them as ‘toys’ and perhaps think that they are not a platform of serious music creation. Like Guitar Hero, iOS music apps will have their day in the sun and then disappear.

Figure logoI can see where that opinion might come from but I’m sure I’m not the only one who would choose to disagree. While ‘traditional’ musical skills – being able to play an instrument or sing – can certainly help when you get around to crafting your next iPad-based hit, one of the things I find most exciting about iOS music apps is when they exploit the potential of the touch-screen interface and present us with non-traditional ways of ‘playing’ a virtual instrument. Apps such as Thumbjam and Figure are good examples but there are plenty of others. In many cases, these provide note entry via a touch pad of some design that is programmed to apply some musical intelligence constraining the notes generated to the required key/scale. Very neat and, for both musicians and non-musicians, means less bum notes and more harmonically pleasing tunes.

Does this dumb-down the music making process in some way? Maybe it does… but perhaps you could also see this as widening its access… perhaps even ‘democratizing’ music creation. Toys or not, what is hard to deny is that, in the right hands, iOS music apps are perfectly capable of producing some fabulous, beautiful, exciting, compelling and adventurous music. It’s just that not all those ‘right hands’ have to belong to individuals with traditional music skills. Personally, I think that’s a good thing….


Thumbjam provides an unconventional way to 'play' a musical instrument - but it is both intuitive and expressive.

Thumbjam provides an unconventional way to ‘play’ a musical instrument – but it is both intuitive and expressive.

Unconventional musicians (that is, people who make music but not with traditional instruments) have always existed and, with the increasing popularity of beat-boxers and DJs, are perhaps now more mainstream that at anytime previously. However, whatever your take on software that enables touchscreen music creation, the recent advances in this technology mean that ‘unconventional’ musicians are getting an increasingly powerful and accessible palette of tools with which to practice their trade. These musical apps are not toys; they are engaging and powerful musical instruments in their own right and, like a Guitar Hero controller, ‘playable’ even without traditional musical skills.

I’m happy to debate that playing Guitar Hero has not actually resulted in any great revolution in the number of people who can now knock out a few chords on a real guitar; the toy was, in the end, just a toy (although do see my PS below).

However, in terms of touchscreen musicians – with traditional instrument skills or without – I think the outcome will be (already is?) a different one. A music making revolution is already happening and it’s happening because of pocket money priced music apps running on hand-held, consumer-level, touchscreen computers. I, for one, can’t wait to see where it might lead….

So, iOS music apps – toys or tools? Perhaps the answer is both; powerful tools for music creation but as easy to use as a Guitar Hero-style toy.



As a personal footnote, I’m currently working on a library music project that requires lots of acoustic guitars. While I’m a guitar player, I’ll often mix and match my real acoustic with sample-based acoustic guitar sounds; the combination gives a nice blend of human touch with sample-based consistency. I’ve used Musiclab’s Real Guitar on my desktop-based system in the past but, having never got around to upgrading from v.2 to v.3, I decided to do that in preparing for this particular project.

Real Guitar is a brilliant virtual instrument and can produce some very realistic performances if you pay enough attention to the MIDI details required to fully exploit the features of the plugin. Equally, the sound quality is consistently high. However, as a guitar player, my keyboard skills are perhaps best described as ‘average’ so adding the MIDI details required has always been a bit of a chore.

After installing the v.3 upgrade, I was, therefore, quite interested in one of the new options; the ability to play the virtual instrument with – go on, guess – yep, a Guitar Hero controller. Unfortunately, this needed to be a PS3 version (with its wireless USB connectivity) rather than the dusty Wii (bluetooth-based) examples still in my attic but, two days later, after a quick eBay session, I was the proud owner of a secondhand PS3 Guitar Hero unit.

And you know what?  It’s brilliant….  with various modes of operation in Real Guitar 3, you can produce strummed or picked chords using the controllers strum bar, change chords using the five coloured buttons on the neck, change the MIDI velocity (and hence the sample dynamics) by tilting the device, play muted chords and add details such as harmonics. And I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible….

On the day it arrived, my wife came home from work and heard the sounds of an acoustic guitar being strummed coming from my studio. Assuming I was in there working, she came to find me only to discover our 8-year old – controller in hand – knocking out a very decent version of The House Of The Rising Sun. While he does play the piano a bit, he has no ‘real’ guitar skills but he ‘got’ this technology within 5 minutes.

So, are there are any developers working on how to get the PS3 Guitar Hero controller working with some iOS apps? It would be great with things like Guitarism or Futulele :-) Vive la revolution!


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    1. Awesome article, thanks John!

      I wrote something related a while back: The TLDR version: It’d be awesome to have a virtual instrument that’s as easy to play as Guitar Hero but as expressive and powerful as a real instrument. This is the reason I founded Rhism. guitarism is heading in that direction but is still a few steps away from achieving it, on the “easy to play” side as well as the “expressive and powerful” side.

      The “music creation” space on the App Store is mostly split into two camps – the casual / consumer apps (Magic Piano, Ocarina) and the high-end pro apps (Nave, Thor, Turnado). I think there are only three successful apps that bridge the gap between these two sides: Figure, ThumbJam and of course GarageBand. I hope for guitarism to eventually join that list, because bridging this divide is something I’m very passionate about.

      Will definitely look into Guitar Hero controller support for guitarism when I work on MIDI In.

      • Looking forward to seeing (hearing/playing) the next generations of Guitarism – such a cool app :-) Keep me posted.

    2. Hi John, great article. I can understand why some trained musicians chafe at the notion of non-musicians making beautiful music with apps. I think you’re right, though – it is a good thing in the aggregate, and music apps have given everyone tons of new sounds and techniques to add to our palettes. It is an exciting time, and anyone who uses technology to discover new sounds should get on board with iOS music-making in particular.

      • Thanks for the feedback. One interesting thing about this technology is that, while you don’t always needs traditional instrument skills to make music with iOS, it does, of course, still require a sense of musicality…. a musical ‘ear’ if you like…. It will be interesting to see where this technology takes us….

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