Music making with iOS; the pros and cons; no. 5; iOS KISS vs iOS KISS

This short series of short(ish) articles is taking a lighthearted – but hopefully thought provoking – look at the pros and cons of iOS as a music technology platform. It is intended to provide a balanced view of the merits (or otherwise) so that those considering what iOS might have to offer them are better placed whether it forms a good match to their particular needs.

The topic of this post – part 5 in the series – is all about KISS. The ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ phrase is, of course, a bit of a cliché, but it is also a useful inflatable hammer to hit yourself over the head with when you are perhaps trying rather too hard to do something super-cool with fifty apps (and it’s not working) as opposed to actually making some music with one.

iOS does KISS; the pros of keeping things simple

Whether it’s my desktop-based music production setup, or my iOS-based one, I have way more ‘stuff’ than I actually need. I don’t feel bad about that in particular – music technology is both how I pay my bills and my hobby, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that I’m a bit of a gear geek – but I’m not convinced that ‘more is always better’ when it comes to the creative process of making music.

For me, the key way this can manifest itself is having too much choice. Whether that’s too many sounds to pick between, too many effects options that can be explored, too many parameters I can edit on a synth, too many guitar tones I can create or too many tracks in my latest music project, all these choices can, at best, be a distraction and, at worst, be a barrier because I simply can’t decide on the most appropriate way forward.

Now, iOS doesn’t force you to adopt a KISS approach to music creation but, compared to the desktop, I think there are a number of reasons why it might make that a little more likely. First, given the combination of somewhat less CPU grunt than the average desktop or laptop computer, and the smaller screen real-estate (well, unless you compare a small laptop to the large format iPad Pro), running really (REALLY) heavy-weight software under iOS is not always going to be the smoothest of experiences.

iOS is full of brilliant music apps that offer just the right amount of depth to be interesting )such as Ripplemaker shown here)…. but without feature overkill that can make some software a real challenge to master.

Software developers are obviously aware of this and, in the main, they cut their software cloth to suit. This is perhaps less problematic with something like an individual virtual instrument (e.g. synth) app or an audio effects (e.g. a convolution reverb); a reasonably up-to-date iPad or iPhone will handle that without too much fuss. Where it perhaps becomes more problematic is when you are running something like a DAW/sequencer, or something like Audiobus or AUM, where the ‘host’ places an overhead on your iOS system and then you add to that by running multiple other instruments or effects apps at the same time. Eventually, even with some ‘track freezing’, the pips will begin to squeak and your iPhone or iPad will bail out.

This might seem like a limitation (and, in some respects, it is). However, when it comes to keeping KISS close to your heart, it also has an upside; users, from experience, know that the best approach is to run just a few apps concurrently if they want to keep things working smoothly. This encourages a somewhat different workflow, perhaps built in stages, and with each stage focused on the few apps required to complete that specific stage of the project. On the whole – and especially when you are just finding your feet with music technology – this can be a good thing.

The second KISS ‘pro’ that iOS offers stems from Apple’s original design ethos for software on the iPhone and iPad, and it is an ethos that many developers have embraced; software (apps) that are streamlined and just do ‘one thing well’.

This manifests itself in all sorts of ways in many iOS music apps. Yes, we do have some ‘all singing, all dancing’ iOS music software (Auria Pro would be an obvious example), but we also have lots of apps where the developers deliver the same audio quality as the desktop can (e.g. in a software synth) but perhaps scale back on the number of controls. There are all sorts of examples here and, while there is not a hard and fast way to classify apps in this fashion (it’s all personal taste after all), it is easy to pick some examples to illustrate the point.

Gadget – slick and powerful ‘all-in-one’ electronic music production app for iOS.

For example, when it comes to ‘all-in-one EDM production’ apps, while Gadget might be in the ‘all singing’ category (although, even then, I think Korg have done an excellent job of keeping the feature set sensibly constrained), apps such as Figure, Oscilab or, more recently, Groovebox, deliver the same kind of music making experience, but in a much more streamlined format. This makes then accessible and, given that we are talking about a mobile computing platform, great choices for some musical creative while on the move.

We could, of course, think of examples from other music app groups that would follow broadly the same pattern…. and there is more than a bit of the 80:20 concept here. Streamlined feature sets (the core 20%), focused on just the key options required to do the specific task in hand and that allow us to do those things that make up maybe 80% (or more) of what we need…. but without all the software ‘fluff’ (that makes up 80% of the bloat) that we might only use 20% of the time (or less).

That iOS encourages both developers (in their design decisions) and users (in the more modest hardware resources) to simplify their approach compared to a desktop-based system is not always a bad thing. KISS means less to ‘tech’ to distract you from the really important part of your musical hobby; creating your music.

iOS does KISS; the cons of keeping things simple

There is, of course, a flip side to this coin. However, how much it might impact upon your personal music making efforts is, I think, a very individual thing and depends upon just how iOS sits in your overall music workflow and ambitions. For those that are just musically curious – where their iOS music tech is simply a causal creative outlet – I’m not sure there is an issue; an iPhone or iPad and a modest collection of apps will be a wondrous playground. However, for those with their sights set a little higher, things might be different. Let’s illustrate this with a couple of examples.

How about the ambitious, but (for whatever reason) iOS-only music producer, keen to take their tracks/songs out into the wider world and hoping to attract an audience? Well, KISS certainly can be a ‘pro’ in keeping your workflow streamlined and you might well set some personal limits (for example, focusing on just a ‘core set’ of apps for a specific project and only dipping outside if absolutely necessary). However, if you really do like to pay attention to the very finest of details…. or if your tracks can get super-complex as you chase that ‘sound’ you are hearing in the music of commercial artists sitting in the playlists you want to be part of…. can iOS deliver?

My own current ‘core set’ of iOS music apps…. although it is, of course, subject to change :-)

That’s a tricky question. I (and I suspect you also) have heard some great tracks/albums that were recorded entirely under iOS but, when it comes to commercially successful music (although I appreciate that might not be something you are concerned about), iOS-only projects are probably few and far between in any of the mainstream (or even niche) musical charts, even when we are talking about new artists just making a break through (i.e. artists without a shed-load of money who can afford to record in well-specified studios and employ experienced producers and engineers to help guide them).

Do I think it can’t be done? No, that’s not what I’m saying…. but I do think that the limitations (both software and hardware) that iOS has when compared to a top-end desktop-based music production system (and that’s what many of those high-selling commercial projects will have been recorded on) means that you have to work much harder in order to have a chance of it happening. Or, of course, you have to be plain brilliant musically so that any ‘rough around the edges’ technical elements of the production simply become part of the ‘character’ and something that most listeners see (hear) beyond because the music itself is top-notch.

Perhaps a second example is the musician who uses iOS as a musical ‘ideas station’. I suspect this is quite a common situation (it certainly reflects my own use of the platform); iOS gets used to start ideas, whether that’s while on the move (away from any ‘home’ music tech some of which might not be iOS) or not. And those ideas might then be developed further just using iOS or, at some stage in the creative process, passed to and fro between iOS and ‘other’ platforms (most obviously, a desktop-based music production system).

Apps such as Groovebox are great of ‘idea generation’ even if you draw on other resources to develop and complete those ideas….

This context does, I think, play to the strengths of iOS and, for those fortunate enough to also run a decent desktop-based system, reduce the possible limitations; those limitations are simple side-stepped by wielding out the desktop ‘big guns’ at whatever point it proves to be necessary. And, if you want to ask ‘well why bother with iOS in the first place?’, I think the answer(s) are obvious; it is mobile (I can use it anywhere) and some of the apps can be, frankly, simply ‘better’ than their desktop equivalents when it comes to getting ideas started in double quick time while the creative urge strikes.

KISS everything?

So, there are all sorts of ‘pros’ that the (somewhat enforced) iOS KISS approach brings and, while there are other arguments that could be made here, in short, the ‘cons’ of the (somewhat enforced) iOS KISS approach are, to a large extent, dependent upon the role iOS plays in your workflow and the ambitions you have for that workflow.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere in this series so far, there are a range of factors that might influence a purchase decision for someone looking to set up their first music making technology system. Personally, I think the KISS issue is perhaps just as important to consider as any of the more obvious (e.g. cost) factors. If, before you leap in and start flexing your credit card, you give some detailed thought to how you think you might like to work (‘home’ or ‘away’ or both) and just where you hope this music tech investment might take you, then I think you will be better placed to make a suitable choice.

For some, iOS is the ideal choice…. while for others, it may not be. Here’s hoping this brief discussion might have got you thinking… :-)


Be Sociable; share this post....


    1. I’m definitely in the “ideas station” camp myself, especially as my primary iDevice for recording and music-production is my iPhone. (I should mention that my musical area is generally “singer-songwriter”, blending guitars/ukulele with lo-fi and electronica – think David Kitt, Darren Hayman, “Jack Johnson if he recorded a duo album at his beach home with Brian Eno”, etc. :-) )

      My “workflow” is pretty well-settled by now: I almost always begin songs (and often progress them quite far) on the iDevice, then transfer the material to our home Mac/Logic Pro X-based project studio setup for any overdubs (usually synth plugins available on the Mac but not iOS) and mixing. Especially on the iPhone, I feel my DAW apps of choice (MTDAW and Garageband) have pretty poor mixing options, and as long as I have the option of access to Logic and some decent monitors, I don’t feel at all “traitorous” about this “split workflow” method…

      In the end, I think it’s “each to their own” – if a musician likes to work end-to-end entirely on an iPad/iPhone and it works for them, then I’m good with that. Maybe I should try it myself one day, and see what I can come up with – thinking about it, I have that Audiomaster Pro subscription to start using ;-)

      • Hi Tim….. thanks for sharing your thoughts. Workflows are, of course, a very personal thing…. but I’m with you all the way that, in the end, it is the final result that matters, not the route my which you get to it. Your listeners don’t hear the equipment list used to make the music…. they hear the music. Best wishes, John

    2. Paulinko says:

      I think the biggest strength of iOS music making is the ability to focus on playing music. The origins of music arose in its universal appeal and its integration into cultures throughout the world and over time. In the last several decades, music has come to be treated as a product to be processed and distributed in much the way we would oil. The strength of iOS is that the barrier to entry both financial and in terms of time are very low for people who can afford an iPhone or iPad. There are a wide variety of musical genres and approaches to creating music represented in apps as well as ways to connect them together such as Audiobus, IAA, AU, MIDI, Link, Bluetooth, wi-fi, USB interfaces, and DAWs.

      If people new to music focus on pursuing their musical interest, they can try various apps and setups to discover what works or doesn’t work for them. They can learn new approaches by trying different workflows.

      If they should ever decide to record their efforts for distribution to the public, then they’ll need to start addressing the issues raised in the article. The limiting factor will be having music that is compelling enough to warrant the effort needed to record, mix, master, and distribute. Without sufficient quality, it seems there’d be no amount of technical manipulations that would be able to overcome GIGO– garbage in, garbage out. Too often artists focus on the benefits or needs they hope to get met by achieving high levels of public recognition rather than developing their art.

      The process of exploring, learning, and exploring one’s musical expression is a journey with its own merits even if it never reaches the level of professional musician.

      Nevertheless, a plethora of inexpensive apps can be a challenge for those struggling with anxiety and fear who focus on trying out too many apps and workflows because it’s a way to put off having to evaluate the quality of their own work. While evaluating ourselves and getting feedback from others can be very helpful, it can also derail us if our expectations are not grounded in the realities of what it takes to develop our musical skills and knowledge at each level rather than being too focused on what accomplished musicians have done without having any insights into how they got there.

      In a creative endeavors there are multiple ways to accomplish our goals though I’m dubious of short cuts nor will it be without its ups and downs. Flexibility, perseverance, and a willingness to challenge our own limitations and comfort levels seems essential to making progress. A tool like iOS can certainly facilitate a musician’s development, yet it’s no substitute for developing our own abilities which depends upon how we choose and use our instruments.

    3. Charles Telerant says:

      I think the upcoming BM3 just may be THE “All singing” app.

      • Hi Charles…. it certainly looks interesting and just a few weeks to wait now….. Best wishes, John

    4. Great post John.

      I am at the point where a new app has to be REALLY special to get me to buy. I just have too many apps to ever use a lot.

      I’ve got the same problem with a wardrobe full of navy blue suits…

      • Having to decide which suit to wear everyday can mess with the mind! :-) Yep, iOS ‘old timers’ (or app addicts) can easily start to get a bit worn out by their choices. Fortunately, there are still some great new releases amongst the regular crop of arrivals…. Best wishes, John

    5. SumSoma says:

      I’ve been making music on the iPad for six months. When I started I kind of knew what kind of music I wanted to make. I read your blog as a respectful pupil and following your reviews and also from chance encounters elsewhere I purchased the apps, of varying expense or free and tried them out. Some work and some don’t. It’s a very personal thing. The experience of using the app. What I may love working with someone else may not. I can’t stand BlocWaves for example…, but find Samplr essential.
      So I’ve tried a few things out. There is a lot of choice available for iOS users.
      Right now I have a very workable collection of apps/instruments/tools.
      Modstep, Aum, AudioShare, the Klevgr suite of effects, Ruismaker and Phasemaker, Samplr, Mood and Duplicat (which is a wonderful simple delay tool).
      Of course if I knew when I started what I know now I’d have saved a few ££’s.

    Speak Your Mind