So far in this series on building an iPad recording studio, we have looked at the key pieces of additional hardware you will need to consider (an audio and/or MIDI interface, a MIDI keyboard and/or controller, a microphone plus accessories and a monitoring system – all covered in Parts 2 to 5) and at some of the software you might wish to add (apps from the iTunes App Store – that was covered in Part 6).
However, I’ve left the discussion of one app – the most important one – until now; the app that actually does the recording. If the iPad is the hardware hub of your prospective recording studio, then the recording app is the software environment that capitalises on what that iOS hardware makes possible.
As I outlined in Part 1, different musicians with different musical interests will have different needs from their recording software. You wouldn’t expect the recording needs of a singer-songwriter to be met by the same studio equipment as that of a Hip Hop producer…. they might be but, there again, they might not; this is not an issue with a ‘one size fits all’ solution.
So, given that context, what should we be thinking about in order to identify the best fit for our own needs from the range of recording apps currently available on the iTunes App Store?
Back to question 1….
The main consideration here brings us back to the very first question I posed at the end of Part 1:-
- 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 I discussed in Part 2, the answer to this question influences whether you need to invest in just an audio interface, just a MIDI interface or whether you need both (either as separate devices or a combined audio+MIDI interface).
However, the answer also might help narrow down the range of possible recording apps that are available to you. Some of these apps are designed to work just with audio recording, others with MIDI-based recording, while others again will work with both. Clearly, if you pick an app that can deal with both, it might offer you more flexibility – the option to work with either or both audio and MIDI as required – but, equally, if you are sure you only need one or the other, a dedicated app for that type of recording might offer you a more specific feature set tailored to that function.
However, before we get into a discussion of the recording apps themselves, indulge me while I introduce a technical concept that relates to getting audio to/from/through some of the apps discussed in Part 6 and the recording apps I’ll describe below here in Part 7; Apple’s inter-app audio (IAA) technology.
As I mentioned in Part 6 of this series, Audiobus is an essential purchase if you are using iOS for any amount of music making. Any music apps that are Audiobus compatible (and the vast majority now are simply because users now expect it; the Audiobus team make the development kit available to other developers so they can integrate the technology) can be used within the Audiobus framework and this allows audio to be passed from one app to another.
For example, you might have a synth or guitar amp sim app, pass that audio output from that through an effects app (for example, a reverb app) and then pass it on again to a recording app. Audiobus does all of that ‘audio routing’ for you plus, incidentally, some other clever things but that’s a topic for a different post.
I think it is fair to say that the original introduction of Audiobus back in September 2012 was one of the biggest steps forward for iOS musicians. It helped turn a collection of separate, stand-alone, music apps that were often quite difficult to use together, into a more coherent, mutually compatible, assemblage of software that, with a bit of care, could be used together in an overall music production workflow.
The adoption of Audiobus by iOS musicians has been pretty much universal and, equally, the vast majority of iOS music app developers have gladly got their apps on board the ‘bus (there are still a few exceptions but it is, I suspect, becoming a hard position to maintain in commercial terms).
The reason Audiobus was so successful is that it overcame a significant (from a musician’s perspective) failing in iOS; the inability to send audio from one app to another. Indeed, Audiobus was so successful as a protocol – and generated such a degree of interest from the iOS musician community – that Apple actually woke up and took notice. And the consequence of that was that they introduced their own technology for audio communication between apps into iOS7; inter-app audio (IAA).
IAA and Audiobus do overlap in some respects in terms of what they allow you to do and, when IAA was first announced, some musicians did wonder whether it would mean Audiobus itself might become redundant. That has not happened and, in fact, Audiobus 2 – released in April 2014 – has, if anything, strengthened the position of the app as it provides certain functions that IAA can not match and that are very useful in terms of overall workflow.
However, IAA also has its advantages and, from a recording perspective, one of those is that it allows an IAA compatible app to be used within another app if that app is designed as an IAA host. The significance of this is perhaps easier to grasp with an example….
Let’s imagine we have a recording app that has this IAA host capability and also works with Audiobus. Let’s also imagine that we have a reverb effect app that is both Audiobus and IAA compatible. Finally, let’s imagine a very common application of reverb in a recording context; for adding a little ambience to a vocal track.
This is easy to do with Audiobus. You run your audio input from your vocal mic into the Audiobus Input slot, place the reverb app in the Effects slot, dial in the reverb effect you want and then record the resulting processed vocal into your recording app within the Audiobus Output slot. This works a treat but has one downside; the vocal has been recorded with the reverb effect as part of the audio track and is now fixed. If, when you come to a later stage of the recording process and decide that there is too much reverb, too little reverb or you want a different type of reverb, then you can’t change what you have already recorded. Instead, you would have to re-record the track.
IAA provides a route around this. Providing your recording software has the option to use IAA effects apps as what are called ‘insert’ or ‘send’ effects, with the IAA route, you can record your vocal and then apply the effect afterwards. Indeed, you can adjust the effect settings as often as you like until you are totally happy and even come back to the same recording project months later and adjust them again if you wish.
This kind of flexibility is very useful and is perhaps much more like the audio routing options you get in a hardware-based recording studio with a suitable mixing console and lots of hardware-based effects devices. It is another step towards making our ‘virtual’ iPad recording studios more like the experience you would have got (and can still get) if you recorded your music in a commercial/professional studio environment (except you would be paying by the hour!)
Incidentally, this flexible audio routing – where you can use one (or more) apps within another app – has been part of desktop music production software for many years. Steinberg (the makers of Cubase and Cubasis) cracked this particular issue with their Virtual Studio Technology (VST) protocol. Software such as virtual instruments or effects are, therefore, now often available as what are termed ‘plugins’ in that they are designed to be used within a host recording application (they can be ‘plugged in’ to that recording application and used as if they were part of it).
The combination of Audiobus and IAA is still not quite as flexible as the desktop VST plugin system (or the similar AU plugin format) but they are a big step in the right direction….
Ok, with that bit of important context, now on to the recording apps themselves…..
Take a bite….
If you are completely new to multitrack recording in any form and your iPad is the first platform you are experiencing recording on, then my first bit of advice would be quite simple; download Garageband for iPad and spend UK£2.99 on the in-app purchase of the additional instruments.
Yes, Garageband has its limitations and, if your recording hobby gets serious, you may hit those limitations fairly quickly and want to move on. However, as a platform for getting started with both audio and MIDI-based recording, the combination of the ultra-slick interface, easy learning curve and some powerful features makes this hard to beat. Even if you know that you want to stretch yourself a little further from the off, at this price (for those extra instruments) Garageband for iPad is such a no brainer it is worth having anyway.
It offers enough tracks to make some pretty sophisticated recordings, it includes some basic effects, a rather nice guitar amp sim, a decent collection of virtual instruments (synths, pianos, guitars, drums, etc.), some very clever ‘smart’ instruments, allows you to use other synths and effects via inter-app audio (although Garageband is not as flexible IAA host as some other recording apps) and basic MIDI editing and track mixing. In short, there is enough here to get an absolute beginner started without too much pain but, in the right hands, could easily be used to catch a gem of a musical idea for your next indie release.
What can’t it do? Well, there are a number of things but perhaps the most serious limitation is actually the features for mixing and applying audio effects. Actually, in reality, both of these things are linked. Garageband for iPad doesn’t currently include a fully-blown ‘virtual’ mixer (a recreation in software of the large mixing consoles you see in many commercial recording studios).
This means that in terms of mixing, all Garageband lets you do is set levels and pan and apply a few global effects. There is no way to automate your mix (that is, record level changes so tracks can get louder/quieter for different sections of the project) and, because applying effects to tracks is intimately bound up with just how feature-packed your mixer is, there are only limited options for applying effects such as compression, EQ, or other, more creative effects types.
This is still a decent place to start though…. so, if you have never used recording software before, do give Garageband a go….
MIDI only options
I’ll come to app that can do both audio and MIDI a little later (so keep tis in mind as these apps still might be the right choice for you even if you have little use for their audio facilities). However, for the moment, let’s just take a quick look at those apps that are primarily aimed at the MIDI-based recording musician making (perhaps with the exception of the occasional audio sample?), instrumental music based upon virtual instruments.
On the desktop, perhaps the ‘classic’ example of this sort of recording software would be Propellerhead’s Reason and, while Reason now does include audio recording, for the first years of its life, it was a MIDI-only recording environment based around a series of excellent sample and synth-based virtual instruments.
Under iOS, while there are lots of apps that might be described as Reason-esq in that they are designed primarily for electronic music production, I think there are three stand-out candidates; NanoStudio, Caustic and Gadget.
As with Reason on the desktop, under iOS, NanoStudio (UK£9.99) by Blip Interactive is something of a long-standing classic. First released in July 2010, it allows the user to use multiple instances of its built-in synth – Eden – and drum machine – TRG-16 – to create complete instrument tracks. You also get a mixer and, if you opt for the UK£2.99 IAP, you can expand up to 16 of these instruments from the default of five plus the mixer.
You also get a MIDI sequencing/editing environment, built-in effects, the ability to record your own samples, MIDI input so you can use an external keyboard, plenty of export options and the option to port your projects over to the Mac/PC version of NanoStudio. NanoStudio is also a universal app so, if you want to whip out your iPhone for 5 minutes of music creation wherever you are, NanoStudio makes that possible.
NanoStudio has built a very loyal following and, because the basics of the app are very easy to learn, it is an attractive proposition for new iOS musicians. In the early days of iOS, it is probably fair to say NanoStudio ruled the roost. However, it now has been joined by some other serious contenders in this category.
One of NanoStudio’s more recent challengers is Single Cell Software’s Caustic (UK£6.99). This app is a bit of an exception to the bulk of those listed in the article. There is a version for Windows based PCs (free) but the mobile version started life on Android and, given that that platform had (and still has) some underlying issues that make it less attractive for music production, Caustic became something of a hit amongst Android users. However, late 2013 saw Caustic’s first appearance under iOS and it was great to see it arrive.
Caustic provides a collection of virtual instruments – synths, beatboxes, mono synths, a modular synth, a vocoder – plus a mixer, effects, mastering section and a sequencing environment. Up to 14 of these can be combined to create a full project. The principle is much like NanoStudio but, in fact, Caustic, with its ‘virtual rack’ and rather retro graphical format, actually feels a bit more like an early version of Reason from the desktop computer environment.
Caustic isn’t on the same scale as Reason (it’s more like using an early ‘lite’ version perhaps?) but it is a powerful platform and, because of the range of different virtual instruments, perhaps offers the user a little more creative variety than NanoStudio. Again, it runs on both iPhone and iPad and, as an all-in-one production environment, provides a complete solution for electronic music production.
The most recent contender in this category is Gadget (UK£27.49) by Korg. Launched early in 2014, Gadget caused quite a stir on release. The basic format is not dissimilar to Caustic; a number of different virtual instruments (‘gadgets’ in Korg speak) that can be combined to create your finished production. However, the interface is ultra-modern and the MIDI sequencing environment with its ‘scene’ concept is slick and, in iOS terms, quite powerful.
The instruments cover a range of synth types and drum machines and are all easy to use. While there is plenty of choice, and some great sounds to be had, there are still a couple of ‘gadgets’ it would be nice to see (for example, a ‘sampler’ gadget). However, Korg have made plenty of noise about future developments for Gadget including the possibility of introducing audio tracks. That would help the app cross over into the digital audio workstation (DAW) market and would open it up to a wider range of potential users. Even so, this is a powerful and brilliantly conceived piece of software. Note, however, that it only runs on the iPad at present.
Of these three, from a personal perspective, I’d pick Gadget as I love the workflow it provides. It is, however, considerably more expensive than Caustic or NanoStudio and both of the latter also run on the iPhone. If cost and/or portability are an issue, these two make great alternatives.
Audio only options
If you think you just need an audio-only based multi-track recording app then I think I would start with two recommendations; one simpler and relatively low cost, while the other is very comprehensive and more expensive; Harmonic Dog’s Multitrack DAW and WaveMachine Lab’s Auria.
Multitrack DAW (UK£6.99) is an audio-only application and, in that sense, is comparable to the portable hardware digital multi-track recorders you can buy from the likes of Tascam and Zoom, although because of the touchscreen interface, you generally get a more flexible working/editing environment on the iPad than with the small(ish) LCD screens built into budget hardware recorders.
Multitrack DAW starts with a maximum of eight mono/stereo tracks but this can be expanded to 24 tracks via an in-app-purchase (IAP). You also get a range of audio effects such as compression, EQ, reverb and delay.
The app is happy to work with most external audio interfaces (for example, via the docking connecter or USB interfaces compatible with Apple’s Camera Connection Kit (CCK)) and some USB mics (also via the CCK). Equally, it now has Audiobus support so, if you want to record the audio output of your other music apps (providing they work with Audiobus), then that is now pretty straightforward to do.
What I like about this app is the lack of fuss. It has enough features to make solid multi-track recordings but it is not so complex that a beginner would find the learning curve too much of a challenge. The on-screen editing and mixing options are fairly intuitive and, in short, Multitrack DAW gets the job done with a minimum of distractions. If you are happy to just work with audio, want a decent track count (with that IAP) and want a no-frills starting point for your recording journey, Multitrack DAW is a decent bet.
If you want to stay with an audio-only environment, but want to go to the top of the pile, then look no further than Auria (UK£34.99). The app is available in two versions that, track counts aside (the LE version (UK£17.49) only offers 24 tracks as opposed to 48 in the full version but there is a simple IAP to upgrade if you wish), provide identical features. And while Auria doesn’t (at the time of writing at least) support MIDI tracks, it does accept MIDI data. This can be used to provide automation of things like channel levels and effects parameters, etc. and means that certain mixing tasks can be automated.
On the audio side, however, Auria is the real deal. It offers features that would not disgrace a top-flight DAW on the desktop. It offers a very comprehensive selection of effects (both insert and send effects) including an excellent channel strip with a compressor, EQ and expander available on each audio channel and very respectable reverb and delay options as send effects. Remarkably, there is even a pretty effective pitch correction tool available as an IAP; not Autotune or Melodyne in standard (perhaps the two best pitch correction tools available to desktop musicians), but it does a decent job.
Auria is also expandable in that there is a whole range of additional options available via further IAPs. These include Overloud’s THM and Postive Grid’s JamUp Pro guitar amp sims that are both excellent. While the inclusion of pitch correction is remarkable enough, a video playback window is also available as an IAP; if you wanted to, you could use Auria to score to picture. Auria offers both Audiobus and IAA support so it is easy to get audio from other iOS music apps into the Auria recording environment.
Auria is perhaps quite a step for beginners but there is some excellent PDF documentation available to help you through the initial learning curve. As a fully-featured audio-track only recording environment, it is currently as good as it gets under iOS. On its initial release, it was a complete game changer for recording under iOS and this is a lot of DAW for a very modest price. If WaveMachine Labs do ever add a full MIDI track support to Auria then it would be very difficult to ignore.
Audio and MIDI recording apps
If you need an app capable of recoding both audio and MIDI (and, frankly, almost all the major recording software applications available on the desktop – Cubase, Logic, Reason, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Sonar, Reaper – now do this; it is the ‘norm’), then I think there are currently three iOS music apps that are the most obvious candidates; 4Pocket’s Meteor, Intua’s BeatMaker 2 and Steinberg’s Cubasis.
In 4Pocket’s Meteor (UK£13.99), by default, you get a maximum of 16 tracks, but you can increase that up to 32 with an IAP if required. For anyone who has used any mainstream recording software on a desktop computer system, the basic layout of Meteor will seem reasonably familiar; a track-based system where you can mix and match audio and MIDI-based tracks as required as well as a virtual mixer. While the broad layout is fairly conventional, there is a slightly quirky (individual?) feel to the graphical design.
As well as the main screens for arranging and mixing, the app includes options for basic audio and MIDI editing (although the latter has to be added as an IAP). These are perhaps best described as functional rather than fully-featured but they get the job done. In truth, this kind of editing is one area where the desktop mouse shows its strength compared to the touchscreen; often your fingers just get in the way of seeing what you are editing. This is an issue for all iOS recording software though, not just Meteor.
In terms of effects, you get both insert and send effects as well as ‘master’ effects (essentially insert effects but placed on the main stereo output channel). The effects themselves are solid enough and cover the usual bread and butter processing options. They also offer plenty of controls to tweak although, to my ears at least, in terms of audio quality, I think those offered by something like Auria perhaps have an edge.
There is a range of additional options that can be added as IAPs and this includes other effects but also the aforementioned MIDI Editor. This can be purchased individually or with a virtual instrument bundle (UK£10.49 for the bundle). If you want to get the best our of Meteor’s MIDI functionality, this bundle would be a pretty much an essential purchase. The instruments include a sampler, virtual synth and a drum pad instrument. These are respectable enough and, as with the virtual instruments build in to Cubasis, they bring the benefit of having your MIDI instruments all working ‘in house’ within your DAW host. However, if you use apps such as Thor, Nave or one of the other top-notch iOS synths, I suspect you might prefer to stick with these as your sound source. Thankfully, Meteor provides Audiobus and IAA support so it is perfectly possible to integrate it with other iOS music making apps.
Once you dig in to Meteor it is a surprisingly deep app. It does tend to do some things in very much its own way and, once you have added a few of those IAPs, its price gets closer to that of Cubasis or Auria, but it is a capable audio+MIDI DAW that can easily be used to make respectable multi-track recordings.
BeatMaker has been around the iTunes App Store for a long time and v.2 was released back in February 2011. In iOS terms, therefore, this is quite a mature piece of software. Oh, and don’t let the name fool you; this is more than just a ‘beat maker’; like Cubasis and Meteor, BeatMaker 2 is a full MIDI+audio music production environment.
As with the other apps described here, in the main, BeatMaker 2 doesn’t try to reinvent too many DAW wheels. The usual track-based timeline is therefore present and correct and there is a fairly conventional mixer environment that includes some automation features. And while you don’t get a full-on synth engine (as found in Cubasis and in Meteor’s IAPs), you do get a good range of sample-based virtual instruments (with a few synth-like parameters you can edit) and a very nice Drum Machine instrument. You can also create your own sample-based instruments using the rather impressive sample mapping tools. BeatMaker 2 includes MIDI editing from the off in a fairly conventional piano roll editor. This does the job well enough but, as commented above, MIDI editing is still not the greatest of experiences via a touchscreen under iOS.
The app includes a range of effects and these can be used as insert effects or send effects. These include all the usual suspects; various modulation options, reverb, delay, EQ and a filter, for example and each has plenty of controls to allow tweakers to do their thing. The sound quality is respectable enough but, as with Meteor, perhaps not quite in the same class as those effects available in something like Auria or some of the 3rd party iOS effects apps that are available.
One further feature is the Chop Shop. As found in many desktop DAWs, this allows you to slice things like drum loops into individual drum hits and do some pitch/time stretching. You can also use these sliced samples to build your own drum kit within the Drum Machine. This works very nicely and is pretty impressive in the context of iOS DAWs.
The MIDI spec of the BeatMaker 2 allows it to work with other iOS music apps quite happily and as it also provides Audiobus and IAA support, it is easy to use it as the cornerstone of your overall music production workflow. Although the basic features of the app will be familiar to any experienced user of desktop recording software, in use, BeatMaker 2 does do some things in very much its own way but, overall, it is a well-specified and very capable audio+MIDI sequencer.
The final audio+MIDI recording app I’d suggest is Cubasis. Rather like Garageband for iPad can be seen as a baby brother to Apple’s desktop version of Garageband and their flagship Logic Pro music production software, so Cubasis (UK£34.99) can be seen as the iPad-shapped sibling of Steinberg’s desktop Cubase range.
Unlike Auria, which is currently an ‘audio-only’ recording environment, Cubasis supports both audio and MIDI tracks. This means that you can sequence MIDI data within Cubasis and use that with other iOS MIDI apps such as synths like Thor or Nave. And while the iPad is perhaps not the best environment to have multiple virtual instruments all running at the same time (you can quickly run out of CPU resources), having recorded the MIDI, you can then always capture the performance from your synths as audio tracks, only returning to the MIDI parts if you eventually decide you need to edit a performance in some way.
Cubasis is Audiobus compatible and supports IAA so it is easy to use in a wider iOS music production workflow. In addition, via a free-to-download add-on to Cubase, projects from Cubasis can easily be transferred into the desktop version. It is, therefore, easy to use Cubasis as a mobile musical sketch-pad for your song ideas if you then want to transfer them to the full version of Cubase for ‘finishing’.
That said, Cubasis is not just for existing Cubase users as the app is well featured and allows you to get some serious recording work done. There are a range of effects included covering compression, EQ, reverb, delay, chorus, phaser, overdrive, limiter and a basic amp sim. Audio track numbers are only limited by the capability of your iPad’s CPU to keep up.
On the MIDI side, the app includes two virtual instruments. Micro Sonic is a streamlined version of the desktop Halion Sonic and provides a range of virtual instrument sounds covering pianos, guitars, orchestral instruments, synths, etc. The second is Micrologue, a streamlined version of the desktop Retrologue, and that provides a proper synth engine. While this doesn’t perhaps compete with dedicated iOS synth apps such as Thor or Nave, it is capable of a wide range of sounds, is easy to use, and doesn’t blow your iPad’s CPU out the water.
The Cubasis user interface borrows a lot from the Cubase desktop platform. While this means it is instantly familiar to existing Cubase users, it also means it is slick as the desktop software is a mature and well-designed application. As of v.1.8, Steinberg also introduced a comprehensive mix automation system into Cubasis. This really has been well implemented and, while the app has always been an excellent choice for capturing your musical ideas, the automation options now make it an equally good place to produce your final mix.
Stand up and be counted….
I started this part by stating that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of which iOS recording app to pick and I’ll stick by that statement. However, while I do use Gadget and Caustic on a regular basis, the vast majority of my own iOS recording is done via Cubasis. I like to work with a combination of audio and MIDI and, for me, for that task, Cubasis is the top of the current crop.
I’m happy to admit to being a long-term fan of Steinberg and, on the desktop, Cubase has been my recording platform of choice for many years. It therefore would be a bit surprising if I didn’t get on with Cubasis on my iPad. That said, I really do think Steinberg have struck an excellent balance between features, slick design, performance and price.
Is it perfect? Well, no, not yet… there are still a number of features that it would be great to see migrated over from the more powerful desktop version (folders and group channels would be top of my personal wish-list if you must know), but this is a well-designed and very capable app and I’d highly recommend it to anyone serious about their iOS recording.
Again, your needs may differ from mine… but Cubasis has a lot going for it whether you need predominately audio, predominately MIDI or, as I do, a combination of both, for your recording projects. However, I’ve reviewed most of the apps mentioned in this post on the Music App Blog in the past, and covered some of their more significant updates, if you want to read more… just use the ‘search’ box located at the top of the right-hand sidebar and you will find what you need.
Phew… we got there… and now, at the end of Part 7 of this series, we have covered all the core hardware and software that we might (initially at least) require to build our iPad recording studio. The planning is, of course, one thing…. but there is one remaining (and for those without access to a money tree, quite significant) question; how much is this all going to cost?
And that will form the topic for Part 8 when we put together a budget for our iPad recording studio….