iOS music production; how’s your workflow?

finger press app buttonAs many regular visitors to the Music App Blog will already know, I’ve been running an email newsletter for a few months now. For subscribers, this serves a number of purposes (for example, a ‘news’ summary every week and guaranteed entry into all the app giveaways). However, I also get a huge benefit from it as I will regularly throw in a question or two. The responses I then get can be both interesting and helpful in terms of steering some content for the blog.

One area I’ve asked about on a couple of occasions revolves around questions along the lines of ‘what does iOS music making currently need to push it forward?’ These kinds of questions generate all sorts of interesting – and very varied – responses (the blog seems to have a pretty diverse bunch of music-making readers). However, aside from some recurring app suggestions such as ‘I need a better drum app’ or ‘where is the killer audio editor?’ or ‘why has nobody produced a zither app?’ (er….  I’ve no idea…..), there are also other issues that regularly get raised.

Easy does it

And by far the most common of these ‘other’ issues, in one way or another, concern workflow. Or, more specifically, aspects of music production under iOS where the overall workflow could be smoother or more seamless. Although not exclusively so, in the main, these comments tend to come from the more experienced music technology types and I suspect that’s because they have had some exposure to music production in other contexts such as a hardware-based multitrack studio or a desktop computer based music production system.

Workflow is a very personal thing and, whatever the task, with something as creative a making music, and as flexible as modern music technology, there are always multiple options.

Workflow is a very personal thing and, whatever the task, with something as creative a making music, and as flexible as modern music technology, there are always multiple options.

Both hardware recording and desktop computer based recording are now pretty mature technologies. Yes, they are still evolving and improving, but the key elements in the workflow process are well established and the technology has been around long enough for the integration of the various components to be part of the overall fabric of the system. Perfect? No, but generally both very slick and highly customisable to an individual user’s needs.

Teenage kicks

In contrast, of course, iOS is still a relatively new platform for music production. It has come a long way in a short space of time though so we are perhaps talking about a grumpy, rather awkward, teenager rather than something still being its infancy. However, the hardware is maturing and becoming more powerful with each iteration so the potential is most certainly there; hopefully, mature, well-adjusted adulthood awaits…..  :-)

There are some truly remarkable individual iOS music apps already available; synths, MIDI performance tools, drum and rhythm apps, high-quality audio effects, top-notch guitar amp modelling apps….  etc., etc.  I could obviously go on…..  but you get the message. Individually, many of these apps are undeniably great but, and it is a ‘but’ of some considerable size (if you will pardon the expression), putting these individually brilliant apps together into a coherent workflow on an iOS device is, in general, not as slick an experience as in the desktop environment.

Workflow woes?

Given that we are all different, we work in different ways, and we make our own types of music, there is not going to be a ‘one size fits all’ workflow for music creation, whether that’s under iOS or one some other platform. However, I think two quotes I’ve received recently from the email subscribers sum up a couple of the key issues quite well.

For example, from Mike Simons:

“During the 1970’s, a book came out by Alvin Tofler called “Future Shock.”  The premise of the book is that, in the future, we will have so many choices to make that we’ll NEVER get anything done to the point of being crippled! I’d say that I’m experiencing “Future Shock” with iOS music.  One can get so caught up in music tech that the last thing one does is actually play the guitar!”

Or from Christian Gräsberg:

“Producing music in iOS is a very fragmented experience. There are lots of great effect units, synthesizers, samplers, romplers and DAWs. But nothing that ties it all together in a way you’d find if working in a desktop DAW environment. On your desktop DAW you just fire up it up, load the project, and everything (effect units, sound sources etc) loads up with it, with all the proper parameters, presets and whatnot along with it all. 

On iOS we have Audiobus and IAA. The next version of Audiobus will remedy this a bit with its new preset system but it’s still a “patch” solution to a fundamental problem with iOS. Apple needs to take IAA (and whatever else needs changing along with it) all the way.”

Mike’s point has two elements to it. First, there is the self-discipline required of the musician not to get sucked in to just playing with the technology rather than focusing on being productive. This is something I’ve discussed previously in another post. Second, however, it is also a comment on the efforts developers make to ensure that their apps are accessible to new users and easy to use.

I'd like to RTFM...  but there is no F'ing manual!

I’d like to RTFM… but there is no f****** manual!

This accessibility/ease of use requires great design in terms of the user interface but also attention given to documenting and explaining that interface, no matter how complex or deep it might be. Reference manuals and video tutorials may not be the most exciting phase of product development but they make a heck of a difference to the ease with which a new user can grasp the basic concepts behind an app and discover how they can make best use of it. Some developers get this spot on (for example, take a look at all the video tutorials available for Caustic). Others, sadly, pretty much put the app out there and somehow expect the user to work it out for themselves.

I suspect Chris’ point is one that also resonates with a lot of iOS musicians and particularly those with experience of desktop music production (it is perhaps one of my own pet frustrations). Here’s hoping that Audiobus 2 does take us a step or two closer to that feeling of integration created by opening up a project in your desktop DAW and everything – audio tracks, MIDI tracks, effects, virtual instruments – is right where you left it. How well Audiobus 2 will be able to achieve that may not, of course, just be down to Audiobus itself; there will undoubtedly be limitations imposed at an OS level that might mean this can’t (yet) be as seamless as we might all like.

And therein, I suspect, lies the nub of the problem. As an OS, iOS is currently pretty good as an environment for stand-alone apps (which is why apps like NanoStudio, Caustic and Gadget can provide such a great user experience) but, when it comes to passing multiple streams of data between apps in real-time, well, maybe it’s not quite where we would really like it to be. In that context, the music app developers can only do so much and, until Apple decide to move technologies such as IAA and Core Audio/MIDI forward under iOS, we users are going to have to work within those limitations.

Workflow workaround

There is, of course, a workflow link between these two comments. We could choose to simply let the limitations of the technology, and the learning curves required to master these various apps, get to us. As a result, we play with the tools (and can have lots of fun doing so) but don’t actually get very far in terms of being productive.

Or, and this is what individuals such as Mike, Chris and many other of the blog’s readers do, we can find workflows that allow us to negotiate those limitations in some way. Nope, these ‘workflow workarounds’ might not be as efficient as we might like, but if they get the job done then surely that’s got to be better than just wringing our hands and complaining?

That ****** app just ate my best shred guitar take.....  *!?*

That ****** app just ate my best shred guitar take….. *!?*

And we must keep the positives in mind also. Given the choice between the 4-track cassette-based portastudio I cut my recording teeth on and my current iPad and its palette of amazing music apps…  well, it isn’t a choice. The iPad is light years ahead in terms of what can be achieved.

What’s your workflow hurdle?

Your own specific workflow – and any hurdles you think exist within it – will depend upon the types of music you make and the various apps you bring together in order to make that music. It will, therefore, be a very individual thing and it is therefore difficult (read ‘impossible’) for me (or anyone else) to offer a magic solution (well, not in a single blog post anyway) that’s going suddenly make the workflow easier for every iOS musician.

However, I can suggest two things that might help, even if they only help some of the people some of the time (to badly paraphrase).

First, if you have a particular workflow issue that you are struggling with, then let the blog’s readers know about it by leaving a comment below. And if another reader has already solved that problem and can offer a potential solution, maybe they will share that also?

Second, you could pick the brains of other iOS musicians and ask them about their workflows. We can all learn from one another in this regard and whether they make music you like or not isn’t really the point here; if the workflow they use to make that music offers you something you can bring to your own process then that’s got to be good.

Workflow school

And, on this second point (and as the email subscribers will already be aware), in the next week or so, I hope to launch a new section on the website where your fellow iOS musicians will do just that; share the workflow they used to produce a particular track, explaining what apps they used, how they linked them together and highlighting any problems they had to overcome. Hopefully, this might give readers a few new ideas to try and, for newbie iOS musicians in particular, provide you with some examples of what can be done using this amazing – if not yet perfect – music technology.

I’m going to start this new section of the site with a few brave volunteers (and a big thank you to those individuals for taking on the role as ‘testers’) but, if the format seems to work OK, then I’ll expand the number of contributions. Fingers crossed this will (a) work and (b) be helpful…   I’ll keep you posted with progress.

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    1. Thanks for the friendly reminder to Apple to take the next small step(s) toward making the kind of seamless audio work flow we dream about that much more real in our day to day experiences. I don’t think ANY community of artists, thinkers, scientists are as obsessively networked and communicative in the whole iOS world at large as the musicians and developers who have pushed this musical revolution to where it is now: on the brink of being openly accepted and integrated into the fold of the entire music production process.

      Huge article. Nice timing, as always…

      “Sector”, “Sliver”, “Effectrix”, “Gadget”, “Thor”, “Nave”, “Auria”, “Animoog”…I get excited just hearing those words now, lol! An Iconic Musical Wonderland evolving out of a bunch of seemingly misfit toys…

      • Hi Chris, thanks for this…. I’m really looking forward to how far the folks at Audiobus might take us forward with Audiobus 2. I think they will be doing their very best to deliver the maximum potential they can given the constraints that iOS (brilliant though it is in many respects) places upon them…. And, as with the original Audiobus – the success of which I think must have influenced Apple’s development policy for audio under iOS – let’s hope Audiobus 2 then generates a further step forward from Apple’s end…. Best wishes, John

    2. “And, as with the original Audiobus – the success of which I think must have influenced Apple’s development policy for audio under iOS – let’s hope Audiobus 2 then generates a further step forward from Apple’s end”

      / John

      This. I think Audiobus probably took Apple a bit by surprise. Both the success rate, and how it was done/implemented. I do hope though that they are not waiting and watching how Audiobus will evolve this year, just to then move along with the IAA development.

      I mean, when they released the 128 GB version of iPad 4, they did reach out to various musicians/devs for a statement on how useful this larger capacity would be for musicans. I can’t find the Apple press release right now, but I know that Rim, CEO of Wavemachine Labs which are developing Auria for iPad, was one of the dudes Apple reached out to.

      So Apple are definitely showing a big commitment to making iOS a great platform for musicians with all that. But it’s a waiting game for sure. And it is an operating system that needs to please millions and millions of people out there, so perhaps I’m just a bit too impatient here. :)

      Anyway, as for my workflow, I’m quoted in the article so that’s basically it. I don’t really have a workflow yet, unless I’m in a self contained environment like caustic or gadget. But still, thank god for Audiobus. I use it a lot (hey, everything don’t HAVE to end up a finished piece of music;), and iOS would be so much more boring/tedious without it, especially pre-IAA.

    3. I think its funny that there are complaints about fragmentation and mentions of difficulty with the sophistication of Apps. Anyone who has had to read through the manual for a decent hardware synth / sampler, then tried to cable the audio and midi together in a real studio… And integrate into desktop daw…will tell you how refreshingly simple ios is to use.

      • Well I’m personally only speaking about software, all the way. Adding hardware into the mix obviously changes things, but I don’t know how/where that entered the picture here.

        • My apologies… I think I may have come across wrong.
          I suppose I missed the “software” as context aspect of what was written.
          Myopic of me :)
          I think I may have also been coming (a bit heavily) from my own experience… Which was primarily with hardware and studio vision as daw. So I guess the context from which I speak is
          Broadly electronic music instrements and effects and not particularly software.

    4. Baddcr - SynthPatcher says:

      Interesting article John,

      I’ve thought about this a lot recently and one of the things I like most about making music on iOS is the variety of workflows. Some parts of it could be easier sure, but on the whole I can quite happily throw audio around and do whatever I like with it. Looking forward to AB2 of course and IAA does have plenty of room to grow, but no rush, happy as I am, happy to wait. Mostly because I have more than enough to be figuring out with all these amazing new apps.

      If the workflow bothers you a lot, hooking your iPad up to your regular desktop DAW via iCM2+ helps a lot :)

    5. I wonder if this is a case of ” be careful what you wish for it might come true ” I think the fact that music on the iOS platform is underdeveloped and in a state of flux might be what makes it so interesting….I wonder if it encourages a more experimental uses of the various apps amongst users and more idiosyncratic work by developers, simply because it’s not really clear to anyone what they’re supposed to be doing.

    6. Get site and articles I must say as the last few days I have been delving into to the vast iOS music creation Matrix and trying numerous home remedies to deal with GAS . As far as workflow goes, I’m from the cassette era as well and still have my MkIII and a Vestax MR66 6-track cassette machine, that being said, the current workflow with iOS apps is like bouncing and editing tracks on the cassette beasts of old … Just Sayin’

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