Building an iPad recording studio; Part 6 – All about apps; key apps required for your iPad studio

finger on a tablet computer screenThe list of additional hardware described in the earlier parts of this series on building an iPad recording studio – an audio/MIDI interface, a MIDI keyboard, a mic/mic stand/pop shield combination and some form of monitoring – is far from exhaustive, but it does perhaps represent the bare bones of what’s required to get you started.

There is one other element of ‘equipment’ we also need to consider however; the software. What set of iOS music apps do we need to assemble to make a recording studio out of the various bits of hardware already discussed? And that’s what we will focus on in this part (Part 6) and the next (Part 7) of this series.

An app list summary

iOS is not short of music making apps. There is a huge range of choice in almost every music-making category you can think of. However, there is no single list of apps that is going to meet everyone’s recording needs because those needs will vary depending upon the type of music you want to produce. Perhaps the best way to handle this section of this guide then is to consider the different roles that these apps have to fill. These could be broken down as follows:-

  • Multitrack audio and/or MIDI recording
  • Utility apps that help make the iOS recording workflow more streamlined.
  • Instrument sounds sources such as synths, pianos and drums
  • Guitar amp/cab/effects simulators
  • Apps for recording and processing vocals
  • Effects apps such as reverb, delay or other creative audio mangling
  • Processing tools for mastering your finished mixes

I’ve covered some of these areas before in articles on the Music App Blog website (for example, for performing guitar players and performing keyboard players) and the site also contains detailed reviews of many of the obvious contenders in all these categories. The vast majority – at least in terms of those available at the time of writing – also appear in the ‘Best Apps’ list on the site, while the very best are featured in the ’25 iOS music apps to get you started’ guide that, if you sign-up for the website’s email newsletter, you can download for free.

So, just how many app do we need for this iPad-based recording studio? Well, being a confirmed app addict, obviously, we need at least one more than we have already got....

So, just how many app do we need for this iPad-based recording studio? Well, being a confirmed app addict, obviously, we need at least one more than we have already got….

Given that you can dip into this information elsewhere on the Music App Blog website, I’ll keep the details light here but it is worth listing some of the most likely candidates for completeness.

iOS recording apps

As this is a recording studio we are assembling then, obviously, we are going to need an iPad app that lets us record things. In the world of desktop music production, there are quite a number of software products to choose between that perform this function. Software such as Cubase, Logic Pro, Reason, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Sonar, Reaper and Tracktion (amongst a few others) all recreate in software many of the key elements found in a traditional recording studio.

Under iOS, there isn’t (yet, at least) quite the same level of choice and, in the main, iOS recording apps are perhaps a little less feature-packed than their desktop equivalents. However, there are still some very good choices but it is probably true to say that, unlike on the desktop, where all these products have matured over many years and so all pretty much have all the core features covered, under iOS there is a much greater differentiation between the feature sets of the key contenders. Picking the app that most closely matches your own needs – rather than just closing your eyes, sticking a virtual pin in the App Store list and expecting all the apps to do the same things – will therefore take a bit of thought and research.

Clearly, the app we choose here is an important decision as this is perhaps the one piece of software that will sit at the heart of what we can (and can not) do in terms of recording. Given its significance, I’m actually going to dedicate a separate post – Part 7 of this series – entirely to this topic. Here – in Part 6 – I’ll focus on all the other apps that might sit alongside our recording app.

Sophisticated desktop recording software such as Steinberg's Cubase recreates a whole studio full of recording equipment in a virtual format.

Sophisticated desktop recording software such as Steinberg’s Cubase recreates a whole studio full of recording equipment in a virtual format.

However, before moving on, I will return us to the first of those three questions I posed in Part 1 of the series; are you happy to work with just a few key synths and create instrumental music or do you need/want to add audio tracks such as guitars or vocals?

As we saw in Part 2, the answer to this question will influence your decision about whether you need an audio interface, a MIDI interface, both or a combined audio+MIDI interface. Equally, however, the answer to the question may also influence your choice of iOS recording app. Does it need to just record MIDI data, just audio data, or do you need it to do both? Keep that in mind when we get to Part 7….

Top iOS music utility apps

There is a category of iOS music apps that are perhaps rather unglamorous. They don’t necessarily make any sound themselves but they do serve essential functions, making the overall music production workflow go a whole lot smoother.

And while there are a number of very useful candidates we could discuss here, in recording terms, there is only one of these apps that I would consider essential; Audiobus

Audiobus; 'app glue' for all your iOS music apps and a smoother workflow.

Audiobus; ‘app glue’ for all your iOS music apps and a smoother workflow.

So what is Audiobus? I’ve reviewed Audiobus on the Music App Blog website and mentioned it many times in the context of other app reviews or tutorials. Essentially, it provides a way of linking the audio in one iOS music app to the audio in another app. For example, it can allow you to pass your synth app’s audio output into your recording app and, if required, allow you to process that audio through an effects app en-route to your recording app.

Without Audiobus (and prior to iOS7 and Inter-App Audio (IAA); more on this in Part 7 also), these basic tasks required a rather long-winded copy/paste process. Yes, they could still be done, but the Audiobus workflow is just way more elegant and streamlined as a solution. Even now we have IAA (which does a similar job but in a somewhat different fashion), Audiobus (UK£2.99, plus a very useful in-app purchase for a further UK£2.99) is an essential purchase.

In terms of other utility apps, MIDI Bridge (UK£5.99) is another very useful tool. In some ways, this is a bit like a MIDI version of Audiobus in that it allows you to link MIDI input and outputs of your various iOS music apps together if there is no other obvious way of doing it. Improved support for Core MIDI under iOS is perhaps making these sorts of between app MIDI communication issues less common but, when problems do crop up, MIDI Bridge is a useful tool to have around and may offer a solution.

Audeonic's MidiBridge is a very useful utility app.

Audeonic’s MidiBridge is a very useful utility app.

The other apps I’d put in my own ‘best buy’ utility app category are completely different beasts to either Audiobus or MIDI Bridge in that they are more about the creation of MIDI data and MIDI performances than inter-app linkages. They would be Chordion, SoundPrism Pro+, Synthecaster, Gestrument and ChordPolyPad and, again, I’ve reviewed all of these in some detail previously on the Music App Blog.

While all of these apps have their own internal sound sources, their most powerful feature is the MIDI performance interfaces they offer. Via some brilliant use of the iPad’s touchscreen, each provides a novel take on how you can create a MIDI performance.

As it’s name suggests, Chordion (UK£2.49) focusing on playing chord sequences (although it does melodic phrases also) and, compared to entering complex chord sequences via a virtual piano keyboard, it is way more user friendly. ChordPolyPad (UK£8.99) does a similar job but trades a more feature-packed specification for a somewhat steeper learning curve. It is, however, a brilliant piece of software.

Chordion can offer you up to 24 different chords in a single screen.

Chordion can offer you up to 24 different chords in a single screen.

Gestrument (UK£5.49) is perhaps a bit more experimental but again, as a tool for getting MIDI data into a suitable recording app, it has a lot to offer. SoundPrism Pro+ (UK£2.99) provides a brilliant ‘bass+chords’ interface for generating MIDI performances and, whether you have any traditional musical skills or not, it is actually quite difficult not to produce something that sounds harmonically correct using this app. Finally, Synthecaster (UK£0.69) provides a way of generating a MIDI performance that will feel instantly familiar to any guitar player. It is perhaps not quite so easy to play chords on but for melody lines it works very well.

I’m not suggesting you need all of these apps but, as a starting point for your shopping list, a close look at one or two of these would be a good idea.

Top iOS instrument apps

Before I launch into this section, it is worth noting that some recording apps – and apps such as Steinberg’s Cubasis and Apple’s Garageband are good examples of this – include a very respectable collection of virtual instruments right out of the box. For those just starting out, this is a perfectly good place to start and it might take you a while to feel you have outgrown these sounds and want to explore what else is out there on the iTunes App Store.

For electric piano sounds, iLectric is pretty hard to beat at present.

For electric piano sounds, iLectric is pretty hard to beat at present.

That said, the iTunes App Store is very well stocked in this category and there is a bewildering range of possibilities and some truly wonderful apps to tempt you. I’ve reviewed a number of the main contenders on the Music App Blog website so, if you want more details on a specific app mentioned here, that would be a good place to look. And given the very strong field in some areas – virtual synths being the most obvious one – in this discussion, I’ll try to focus on just those that make great starting points.

For basic piano sounds, I don’t think you can go far from with IK Multimedia’s iGrand and iLectric. Between them, they cover a good range of acoustic and electric piano sounds and, whether you want to use them for recording or for live performance, the actual audio quality is as good as it currently gets under iOS. Both are priced at UK£13.99 but the sound quality means they are still very good value and, as they include MIDI and Audiobus support (although, at the time of writing, not IAA), they are easy to integrate into a recording workflow.

For drums it depends upon the types of drum sounds and the styles of music production you are interested in. In terms of drum machine emulations – classic beat boxes in an app format – then I’m a fan of both DM1 (UK£2.99) and Funkbox (UK£3.99). Both provide a good range of classic drum machine sample-based drum kits and good pattern programming options. In addition, DM1 has a number of rather good acoustic drum kits included.

DM1 patterns can be up to 32 steps in length but tapping on the step LED strip at the top of the grid allows you to adjust as required.

DM1 patterns can be up to 32 steps in length but tapping on the step LED strip at the top of the grid allows you to adjust as required.

For a fun-to-play but also sounds-good playable acoustic drum instrument, you might also try either Drums (by Asrodot at UK£0.69) or DrumKick (UK£2.99). However, perhaps the best sample-based acoustic drum app is DrumPerfect (UK£10.49). This is not quite the complete deal yet (I’d love to see some genre-specific preset drum patterns supplied as IAPs, for example) but, as a source of ‘real’ sounding drum performances, it is currently as good as it gets under iOS. It supports both Audiobus and IAA.

DrumPerfect can do a great job of emulating a 'real' drummer.

DrumPerfect can do a great job of emulating a ‘real’ drummer.

There are plenty of other possibilities you could look at here though. For example, both MoDrum (UK£2.49) and Impaktor (UK£2.99) provide some very interesting drum synthesis options if you like electronic drum sounds. And if you like to mangle drum or rhythmic loops into new forms, then the brilliant Sector (UK£5.49) is an absolute must. If this existed as a desktop plug-in, I’d buy it in a heatbeat.

Sector provides a fabulous tool for reworking drum or rhythmic loops into almost countless variations.

Sector provides a fabulous tool for reworking drum or rhythmic loops into almost countless variations.

The synths category is where the choices are widest and, while I may have my own favourites to recommend, this is most certainly an area where everyone will have their own preferences. Top of my own ‘must have’ list would be Thor (UK£10.49,and partial IAA support has now been added), Nave (UK£13.99), Z3TA+ (13.99), Tera Synth (usually UK£13.99), Mitosynth (UK£10.49) and Arctic ProSynth (UK£6.99). No, you don’t need all of these (although ‘want’ might be another matter) but one or two will give you an excellent palette of modern and classic synth sounds.

Cakewalk's Z3TA+ synth for iOS....  Do you need it?

Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ synth for iOS…. Do you need it?

There are, of course, plenty of others. How about a selection or two from Animoog (UK£20.99), Sunrizer (£6.99), Alchemy (the app is free but there are IAPs to add extra content), iSEM (UK£6.99) or iMS-20 (UK£20.99)?

While some of these synth apps are at the more expensive end of the usual iOS app price range, do bear in mind that there are some seriously good virtual synths here. They will sound great in almost any context; iOS recording (all of these support Audiobus and the majority now also offer IAA support), desktop recording or played live.

What about other instrument types? There are, for example, some excellent guitar performance apps available (Guitarism (UK£1.99) is my favourite of these) and the iFretless series from Hans Andreson’s Blue Mango  – and that covers bass, guitar and sax versions, each for UK£6.99 – are all worth a look. All these apps include Audiobus and IAA support.

SampleTank; a broad palette of sounds and MIDI performances in the paid version with more available via IAPs.

SampleTank; a broad palette of sounds and MIDI performances in the paid version with more available via IAPs.

Finally, if you want a broad collection of virtual instruments all within a single app, you might consider either Bismark’s bs-16i (UK£5.49), SoundFont Pro (UK£6.99) or IK Multimedia’s SampleTank (UK£13.99). All provide collections of sounds covering drums, bass, synths, guitars, orchestral sounds, etc. and both allow you to expand those collections in various ways (in SampleTank through some very good IAPs). All also support Audiobus and IAA.

Top iOS guitar amp/cab/effects simulators

Garageband itself includes some very respectable guitar amp modelling and, if you use Auria as your main recording app, the excellent THM Overloud is available as an IAP. However, if you want a dedicated stand-alone app, when it comes to guitar amp simulators, there are five (actually, five and a half) main contenders that lead the market; Amplitube (UK£13.99), AmpKit+ (UK£13.99), JamUp Pro XT (UK£13.99), ToneStack (still at an ‘intro’ price of UK£2.99 at the time of writing) and Mobile POD (free, but requires the Line 6 Sonic Port hardware to work) and, Mobile POD aside, all offer further possibilities through IAPs. All of these are very capable.

I love the sound of Mobile POD - I just wish Line 6 would release a paid version that could be used with any audio hardware.

I love the sound of Mobile POD – I just wish Line 6 would release a paid version that could be used with any audio hardware.

The ‘half’ is BIAS. This app is made by Positive Grid who also produce JamUp Pro. BIAS (usually UK£13.99) is different from the other apps mentioned as it is not really a ‘full guitar rig in a single app’ (which JamUp Pro is). Instead it is more of a ‘design your own amplifier/speaker combination’ app. If you are even slightly nerdy about your guitar tones, BIAS is an absolute joy to use. You can tweak individual components within the amp (for example, selecting different types of valves) until you get exactly the sound you want. And while you can then play your custom amp design using just BIAS (and, boy, does it sound good), the really neat trick is that these custom amp models can then be moved over to JamUp Pro and used within that environment where you can add virtual stomp box effects, etc. to the signal chain. BIAS is some of the best digital amp modelling around – iOS or otherwise – and, at UK£13.99, is excellent value for money for guitar tone hounds.

BIAS allows you to dig right into your amp's design; it's a great companion to JamUp Pro.

BIAS allows you to dig right into your amp’s design; it’s a great companion to JamUp Pro.

Used with a suitable audio interface to ensure a high-quality signal gets to these apps from your guitar, the quality of the modelling is really very high and, given the modest asking price, you get an awful lot of excellent guitar tone for your money with any of these. They are all good choices and all offer Audiobus and IAA support. Most of them (bar Mobile POD) can also be used in the Audiobus Effects slot so you can run your favourite synth app through a virtual Marshall stack if that’s what cranks your sonic handle :-)

Since buying a Sonic Port for myself, the Mobile POD became my own personal favourite (I’m a big Line 6 fan anyway) but I’ll happily use any of the others and, since the arrival of BIAS, that would be my other ‘go to’ choice. It’s a shame that Line 6 have not (yet at least) introduced a paid version of the Mobile POD app that allows it to be used with other audio hardware (which I’d like to do if using a more recording-orientated audio interface with my iPad); I’m sure it would sell by the bucket load.

Top iOS apps for recording and processing vocals

Here we are probably getting into more specialist territory and, as a consequence, there are fewer possibilities to consider. There is most certainly a gap in the market here for a dedicated, stand-alone, Audiobus–friendly, iOS pitch correction app and perhaps two apps come closest to offering that.

VocaLive for iPad (UK£13.99) is an excellent purchase. This provides pitch correction (which works well enough but lacks the level of control really needed for recording use), some excellent audio processing options for vocals (reverb, delay, compression, de-essing, etc.) but also offers some rather good auto-harmony generation tools. The latter offer plenty of creative possibilities for doubling vocals or creating backing vocal parts from a single lead vocal; again, perhaps not up to the standard of the best desktop software for this task, but still very good. The app is also Audiobus compatible and, hopefully, IAA support will be forthcoming. VirSyn’s Harmony Voice (UK£6.99) provides an alternative for auto harmony generation and is also Audiobus compatible.

VocaLive provides a very neat collection of vocal-specific audio processing options.

VocaLive provides a very neat collection of vocal-specific audio processing options.

The other pitch correction option is AutoTune iOS. This is developed under license from Antares – the makers of AutoTune software that is used in thousands of desktop studios around the world – and, the ReTune IAP available within WaveMachineLab’s excellent Auria recording app (Auria is discussed in more detail in Part 7) aside, is probably as good as it gets for iOS pitch correction. AutoTune iOS does a decent job but don’t expect miracles. That said, at UK£2.99, and with Audiobus support (although not IAA as yet) it is well worth having around.

Top iOS effect processor apps

Of course, you can also process vocals through effects such as reverb or delay and iOS now has a number of rather nice possibilities here. Equally, there are other creative audio mangling tools that can be fun to have around.

All the leading recording apps do, of course, include their own effects options that cover reverb and delay type processing. Indeed, WaveMachine Labs’ Auria includes a two rather good reverbs and a delay from the off, with a number of additional IAPs also available. These aside, however, there are some excellent stand-alone iOS effect apps now available and, with Audiobus and IAA support, can be used in conjunction with any suitable recording app.

AltiSpace; high quality convolution reverb for iOS.

AltiSpace; high quality convolution reverb for iOS.

For reverb, AltiSpace (UK£4.99) would be my current first choice, although it does perhaps use a little more CPU resource than the other obvious candidates; AudioReverb (UK£6.99), AD 480 Reverb (UK£10.49 for the ‘Pro’ version) or AUFX:Space (UK£2.49). All of these apps provide plenty of control and very good results. For delay effects, AUFX:Dub (UK£2.49) is also very good. All of these are, considering what they offer, ridiculously cheap.

AUFX:Dub's main screen - a simple and very intuitive interface.

AUFX:Dub’s main screen – a simple and very intuitive interface.

If you want an all-round ‘does a bit of everything’ effects app, then Igor Vasiliev’s Master FX (UK£7.99) is a pretty good bet. It includes, delay, reverb, EQ, compression and modulation effects and the user can define the order in which there effects appear within the signal chain. Equally, Master FX also includes some interesting audio routing options that means that it can actually be used to process the left and right audio channels through different effects combinations. Audiobus and IAA support is included.

If you want something a little more left-field (OK, a lot more left-field!) for a more creative take on effects processing then Turnado (UK£13.99) is hard to beat. While this app does fairly conventional reverb or delay-type processing (although perhaps not to quite the same audio quality as the apps listed above), what it actually offers is a smorgasbord of effects options that you can apply in any combination you like and with real-time control options that are brilliantly executed using the touchscreen interface. Put Turnado in the Audiobus Effects slot and you can creatively mangle any audio signal to within an inch of its life; a brilliant app if you have a more experimental streak.

Turnado's main display - plenty going on but very easy to use for real-time processing.

Turnado’s main display – plenty going on but very easy to use for real-time processing.

The other apps that fit into the ‘more experimental’ category would be things like Echo Pad (UK£2.99), Swooptser (UK£2.99), Effectrix (UK£12.99), birdStepper (UK£6.99) and WOW Filterbox (UK£10.49). There is lots of fun to be had with any of these and the effects are generally of a ‘notice me’ type rather than subtle. For audio ear candy, they are just the trick.

Other effects apps worth a mention? Well, Stereo Designer (UK£2.99 – another app I’d buy in an instant if it was available as a desktop plugin), Crystalline (UK£2.99), Caramel (UK£2.99), LiveFX (UK£5.99) and Level.24 (UK£6.99) are all worth checking out….

All of the effects apps mentioned here have been reviewed on the Music App Blog if you want to find out more.

Caramel's 'Perform' mode is ideal for some hands-on distortion control :-)

Caramel’s ‘Perform’ mode is ideal for some hands-on distortion control :-)

Top iOS processing tools for mastering your finished mixes

Once you have recorded and mixed your tracks, the next step in the process is ‘mastering’; that final stage where you add a little fairy dust to your final stereo mix such as tweaking the EQ, stereo imaging and some volume maximising. While some of this could be done within a decent recording app, there are two really good dedicated ‘mastering’ apps available for iOS; Audio Mastering (UK£8.99) and Final Touch (usually UK£13.99).

Igor Vasiliev’s Audio Mastering app (UK£6.99) provides a stand-alone solution that contains all the key elements required to have a DIY stab at mastering. The app provides EQ, harmonic saturator, stereo imaging and loudness maximiser, all in a fairly easy to use format and with some useful presets to get you started. Mastering is a process that it is very easy to abuse but this app does at least give you a shot at it. Used with due care and attention, it produces good results.

Igor Vasiliev's Audio Mastering

Igor Vasiliev’s Audio Mastering

If you hanker after the warmth and punchiness of records made on analog tape, another of Igor Vasiliev’s apps – MasterRecord (UK£6.99) – is also worth considering. This can be used to process individual elements of your mix if you wish, but applied in a subtle fashion, it is also very effective when used on a full stereo mix.

Positive Grid’s Final Touch perhaps has a somewhat slicker, more modern look than Audio Mastering but it covers similar ground in terms of the processing options. This is a powerful tool and probably offers a more detailed level of control than Audio Mastering. The flip side is that it is perhaps comes with a somewhat steeper learning curve. The results can be top-notch however and, in the right hands (ears?) either Audio Mastering or Final Touch will get the job done. These are powerful tool at pocket money prices.

In the desktop world, mastering is often done within the context of an audio editing application. iOS still doesn’t have a really ‘knock ‘em’ dead’ audio editor app though and it would be great if – perhaps via Audiobus – both Audio Mastering and Final Touch could be integrated into the editing capabilities of such an app.

Positive Grid's Final Touch

Positive Grid’s Final Touch

It is also worth stating here that the art and science of mastering audio is a skill set that takes some learning. It is just as easy to make a mix sound worse rather than better if mastering processors are not used with care. If you want to learn more about this stage of the recording and production process, then Bob Katz’s classic book (search Amazon)  is a very good place to start.

App add up

Now I know I’ve listed a lot of different apps here and I’m certainly not suggesting that every one of those mentioned above is a ‘must have’ purchase. However, the iTunes App Store pricing model does mean that, individually, each of these apps is actually pretty affordable… compared to the world of desktop music software, this is pocket-money pricing for some seriously good software.

That said, it is very easy to fall foul of app addiction so, in later parts of the series – Parts 8 and 9 – I’ll start to do a bit of maths and work up a budget for this iPad recording studio including a set of suitable apps. So, if you want a guide for how much this is all going to cost, then stay tuned….

However, our shopping list for our iPad recording studio is starting to take shape and, before we get to the stage of actually working out how much this is all going to cost, as outlined earlier, we need to consider the main contenders for that final ‘app spot’; the all-important recording app…  and that’s the topic coming up in Part 7.

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    Comments

    1. This series is a great groundfloor-up breakdown of the many considerations for iOS recording. With one or two exceptions I have all the apps listed here, although my go to synth is definitely Alchemy, which at least got honorable mention ;)

      Looking forward to chapter 7 … I wonder, where does the most excellent Korg Gadget fit in? Is it fair to consider it a DAW? More to the point of your series, is it essential?

      Au revoir por maintenant,

      ~Sean

    2. Robert Goldberg says:

      Brilliant article! Thanks so much.

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