Music making with iOS; the pros and cons; no. 3; its price vs its price

So far, in this short series of short(ish) articles looking at the pros and cons of iOS as a music technology platform – and intended to provide a balanced view so that those considering what iOS might have to offer them are better placed to judge – we have considered the issues of storage format (part 1) and size (physical footprint; part 2). In part 3, let’s tackle what is perhaps a critical theme when for anyone making a purchase decision; costs.

Premium product, premium price; it’s a con

When it comes to the hardware, one of the biggest downsides of iOS is the rather premium price Apple charge for their stuff; it undoubtedly looks expensive compared to the majority of the obvious competition. Apple market their products as a premium brand and, as with any top end ‘label’, there is perhaps an element of the price that you are paying that is down to the badge. Personally, I’ve no problem with that and, providing you go into the purchase with your eyes firmly open, then I think we just have to accept that’s how this market (and many other) works.

Ouch! Comparing the price of an iPad to a laptop can make for some interesting discussions about their relative merits for music making…..

That’s not to say that Apple’s hardware is not very good though. They have built their top-end reputation by designing innovative products (and the iPad certainly was innovative) but also because, on the whole, they build those products to a very high specification and with more than a passing nod to making the products environmentally friendly (although that’s quite a challenge in any sphere of consumer electronics). The consequence is that the hardware does work very well and, if treated with due care and attention, ought to have a long and useful lifespan; Apple’s stuff tends to last.

All of which is all very well if your pockets are deep enough, and your disposable income large enough, to pay that premium price. If you want that iconic brand, and can afford the extra outlay to buy into it over and above that of a less high profile competitor, then that’s a nice position to be in. Nobody is, of course, forced to buy an iPhone or iPad….

An iPhone or iPad is, however, just a piece of consumer electronics. Yes, it might be high-end consumer electronics but, however good it might be, it’s a smart phone or a tablet computer. Unlike something like a hardware mixer, or studio monitors, or high-end microphone, it’s not designed as a dedicated piece of music technology. As a computing device, it can perform a role within a high-tech music making system but, equally, you might also buy it for email, web browsing or photo editing, etc.

And, as a generic computing device – albeit one with a number of distinctive features – it’s not just other smart phones or tablet computers that the iPhone or iPad is competing with when a musician is considering which computing device (or devices) they want to build their high-tech music making system around. Indeed, given that other mobile OS systems have really not challenged iOS in terms of the music software base that is available, the choice a musician might have to make is not between an iPad and a.n.other tablet computer but between an iPad and a laptop or desktop computer running (most likely) Windows or OSX.

iPad or laptop? The choice is yours….

That is, I think, where the biggest price ‘con’ for iOS comes very clearly home to roost. For the price of a top-end iPad, you can buy a mid-spec (by today’s standards) laptop or desktop computer that would, quite frankly, easily out-gun the CPU power, RAM and storage capacity/speed of Apple’s best iOS device. When it comes to the raw power of the hardware, you quite simply get better bang-for-buck with a laptop or desktop computer than with an iPad or iPhone.

So, the price of iOS hardware might be seen as a bit of a con (doh!, not that sort of ‘con’)…. although those ‘distinctive features’ mentioned above, and that include the touchscreen interaction and compact format, might be significant factors for some musicians in terms of the type of system they are looking to build.

Premium product, bargain price; it’s a pro

Building a high-tech music production system around a computing device is not all about the hardware though; there is also the software to consider. And here, however mad it might appear, Apple’s App Store pricing model – where apps are sold at pocket-money prices – is a very attractive part of the iOS equation.

No, I’ve no idea either how most app developers actually make any money out of the apps they produce. While Angry Birds might have made a mint, it has also sold by the many millions. For the majority of developers – and including music app developers – I’m not sure those numbers add up so easily. Music apps are a niche product mostly aimed at a niche audience and, while I’m sure the number of iOS using musicians has increased quite significantly over the last few years, I suspect the returns on the vast majority of music apps (even some very good ones) can be borderline in terms of profitability.

However, for users, this pocket-money pricing model is (with the exception that apps that don’t make a significant return will eventually disappear) full of positives. A well-specified DAW/sequencer of under UK£50/US$50? Easily done. A fully blown guitar rig sim for UK£15/US$15? Well, actually, you can pick from several and pay less (or more if you want more features). A brilliant analog synth in emulated in software? Well, whether it’s UK£5/US$5 or UK£15/US$15, there is an almost limitless choice. And, yes, there are drum machines and effects processors and all sorts of other interesting utility type apps you can explore, all priced in a similar fashion.

Go on…. check out the prices on these Sugar Bytes iOS apps…. and then compare to the same desktop products….

Compare these prices to desktop software and the difference is stark. Yes, if you hunt around, you can find some real bargains even on the desktop, especially when it comes to DAW/sequencers or virtual instruments…. but perhaps not from some of the bigger brands and not always fully featured.

And if you still want convincing that the App Store has some musical software bargains, why not compare the prices of lots of products that are available for both Windows/OSX and iOS. For example, the brilliant (if slightly bonkers) software from Sugar Bytes, where identical software instruments are around 80% cheaper under iOS than on the desktop. Or what about those excellent virtual recreations of classic synths by Arturia or Korg or Moog? The desktop versions capture the essence of the original hardware at a fraction of the price…. and then the iOS versions take that fraction and give them to you at a further fraction of that. This is, essentially, the same code built upon the same algorithms. Why the price difference? Because Apple have created the App Store and have, I suspect, ‘encouraged’ this low price model approach. It is difficult for developers to now challenge the (perhaps unreasonable?) expectations of the App Store user base and charge a desktop-level price for an iOS piece of software.

…. and the same applies to other brands such as Arturia….

For us users, this cheap-as-chips pricing model brings two obvious pros. First, providing you know what software (apps) you need, you can compile a compact collection of music apps – a core set – for the kind of price you might pay for a single big brand virtual instrument on the desktop. Second, if you have an experimental streak, the individual pricing of apps makes it incredibly easy to just take a punt on a new app. If it works out, then great, but if not….. well, you have perhaps only been burned by a few £/$. That’s not an ‘experiment’ you are going to want to try too often on the desktop with software prices well north of UK£100/US$100 a pop. Well, not unless money is in abundant supply.

Apple taketh away, Apple giveth

So, if you are considering going down the iOS route for your music technology needs (or some of them at least), when it comes to price, Apple can first make you squeak (buying the hardware) and then do you multiple good turns (buying the software). That iPad might seem pretty expensive compared to even a decent laptop but populating the iPad with some music software can provide some genuine bargains.

Of course, that software ‘price pro’ is only a pro if the software is up to the task…. It is…. or perhaps I should say, it can be…. because it very much depends on exactly which iOS music apps you assemble for your system and the kinds of duties your iOS-based music tech is required to fulfil. That software suitability is another ‘pros and cons’ issue…. and one that I’ll come back to later in the series.

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    1. A cost-related issue which might be counterintuitive: having access to a large array of low-cost apps means that some of us end up spending more money on apps.
      To this day, my most expensive music-related piece of desktop software is Apple’s MainStage (30USD). On my Mac and PC, got a bunch of no-cost stuff including Free Software and “Lite” versions of commercial offerings. On iOS, probably spent way too much money on apps which don’t really stick with me. Altogether, may have spent more money on iOS musicking apps than on one of my iOS devices.

      Part of the issue is the lack of trial/demo versions. It’s much easier to avoid impulse purchases when you can try before you buy. Spending 5USD on an app “just to try it” doesn’t sound like such a rational thing to do. And several of the more interesting apps are 20USD and up. With the current CAD-USD exchange rate, it really adds up very quickly.

      Another aspect is just plain Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It’s become something of a trope that iOS musickers probably have too many synths, already. We laugh about it and point out to how inexpensive the softsynth-buying habit remains, when compared to hardware purchases. But those of us who’d never really think of buying more hardware synths will buy any softsynth on a whim, without even listening to demos. Easier to break an expensive habit when it’s all up front cost.

      And then, there’s the paucity of Free Software on iOS. On the desktop, environments like Sonic Pi, SuperCollider, PureData, ChucK, and Processing all make for very powerful musicking experiences. Very easy to not spend a dime on commercial software when you can have so much fun with these. Completely different situation on iOS. Sure, one could work something out with libPd apps like MobMuPlat and PdParty. But the convenience of inexpensive apps makes it less likely that an iOS musicker would focus on this. Besides, even with Audiobus 3, the whole process of routing MIDI and audio on iOS is such a pain that workflows built on Free Software may not work properly.

      Not to mention the peer pressure from fellow iOS users and all of these sites which review neat software. Sure, those exist for desktop platforms as well. But the iOS musicking community is so welcoming (at least to people in my demographic intersection) that it’s easy to get sucked in.

      In the abstract, one could imagine a very cost-effective iOS-based musicking setup. Some Audiobus forum members have gone through that exercise. In practice, a lot of iOS musickers keep expanding their setups beyond their needs.

      To me, iOS musicking is a bit like homebrewing. Many people start brewing beer to save money. But almost without fail, homebrewers end up spending way more money on beer than they were as beer consumers.

      • Hi Alex…. I love the home brew comparison :-) Yes, it is easy to get sucked into an app addiction when each is – relatively speaking – an inexpensive purchase. This is kind of why I’d written at times about the ‘less is more’ approach. The problem for those new to iOS for music tech, however, is knowing which apps to select for their ‘less’ (small compact app collection). I hope the site’s reviews help in some way in that regard, even if only to give readers a better sense of what each app excels at and who it might best suit…. Anyway, best of luck with your own GAS issues…. and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts…. Best wishes, John

    2. I think the hardest thing for me on iOS is the difficulty in integration and workflow when compared to a laptop. The other really limiting factor for me is screen size. An affordable iPad with a 9″ screen is just too small to comfortably work at speed or with anything of complexity. If you step up to a 12″ ipad you are already into MacBook price territory. A lower end MacBook paired with Logic Pro @ $200 I think is a much better price/performance equation than an iPad Pro 12″ with a plethora of inexpensive apps. The real thing you lose with the MacBook is the ability to use the screen as a control surface. Note that I have done full songs realized with iOS (, but it is definitely not preferred mode of working. I do however appreciate some of the softsynths and the use of iOS as an adjunct to making music on a laptop.

    3. Paulinko says:

      I don’t think the con of low prices has been adequately addressed here as many music app developers have come and gone over the years because it no longer became worth their while. In general, the more complex an app is, the more time and effort it will take to develop and update it. In addition free updates versus user resistance to new releases of older apps with upgraded features or subscription based approaches means developers often receive little support from the people who use their apps.

      Further complicating iOS are Apple’s approaches. The update of iOS is very much a ratcheting process where you can only go forward and never back. This means users have to evaluate the pros and cons of updating their iOS which means their existing setups may not work as expected. It also means developers, given the marginal economics of the App Store, will focus on a few versions of iOS and the newer devices they’re optimized for. In practice this means iOS setups can be a constantly evolving environment where users are having to respond to changes which isn’t conducive to mastering their setups which is a form of iOS overhead which detracts from music creation.

      These issues are further compounded by Apple not providing sufficient investment in core music tools like IAA and AU standards to provide the more seamless functionality of laptop or desktop setups which results in more inconsistencies and workarounds which detract from music creation.

      I don’t put much credence in app addiction as a reason why iOS is a poor choice for music creation as I believe the issues behind it will simply express themselves in a different yet dysfunctional way in other music creation environments. When an individual is able to manage and cope wth the issues driving their app addiction, I think they’ll make more progress rather than switching to a setup where app addiction isn’t possible in the hopes they’ll be more productive.

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