Starting around May of last year, I posted a short series of articles built around the concept of ‘less is more’. The underlying idea here was not a new one but, if you are the kind of person who gets easily distracted by the geeky side of music technology and, as a consequence, sometimes finds it difficult to actually produce any music (which is kind of the point of owning the technology in the first place), then perhaps those articles will have resonated?
Partly because I’m one of those easily distracted geeks, and partly because running the Music App Blog means I get exposed to lots of new iOS music apps on a regular basis, my own app collection is…. well, ‘extensive’ is a polite way of describing it. These apps are all great to own, and fun to dip into on occasions when the need or mood strikes, but I know I own far more apps than I really need… and certainly more than I could ever hope to master in a single lifetime.
So, in order to get productive, is there a case to be made for streamlining your app collection? Are you more likely to be productive if, having tried lots of apps, you can identify those that really are the ‘keepers’ and that, with a modest number of these, build a ‘core set’ of apps that you can (a) get 95% of your music creation done with and (b) because it is a modest number, actually learn how to get the best from each of them without feeling you are just skimming the surface?
The case for the prosecution
I laid out the crux of the argument in the earlier articles linked to above…. but the basic idea bears repeating. There are lots of musical examples where successful artists have made brilliant music using only a limited range of equipment or under some other sort of workflow constraints. The bottom line is that access to shed-loads of ‘gear’ is not what limits musical creativity for most of us; it’s our skill level in using that available gear and, of course, our musical skills themselves (playing, singing, writing, arranging, etc.)….
…. if you want to ‘improve’ your musical results, investing in new gear is a tempting fix but investing in your skills is perhaps more likely to reap results. In other words, for the majority of us, there is no short cut to making better music; you have to work at it…. and a compact tool set (rather than endless choices) means less distractions and a streamlined workflow so you can focus on that skill development.
Personal preference re-visited
In the 2nd part of the original ‘less is more’ series, I built a personal compact list of iOS music apps that, at that time, formed my own ‘core set’ for my iPad-based recording tasks. I went for 16 apps (a single screen within a typical iPad ‘folder’) plus 4 ‘add-ons’, so 20 apps in total; not such a big number given just how many excellent iOS music apps are out there.
As mentioned above, this was a selection built very much with recording in mind. However, what I’ve discovered in coming back to this ‘core set’ over the intervening months is that, while a decent selection for just recording duties, I found myself regularly reaching outside this collection when I was wearing my ‘composing’ hat rather than my ‘recording’ hat.
Actually, what I think this is really reflecting is something about my personal use of iOS music tech; yes, I do plenty of iOS recording but my iPad is also an important musical scratchpad for composition. And, as I also run a desktop music system – and as I’m happy to mix and match between the two platforms (although I appreciate others prefer the iOS-only route) – sometimes ideas get started on the iPad and then developed on the desktop. As such, my ‘core set’ of apps really needs to perform two equally important roles; recording and creating (composing).
Of course, 9 months or so down the line, I’ve realised my ‘core set’ of apps perhaps needs revisiting because they need to do a somewhat different job (or, rather, pair of jobs) than I’d originally envisaged. However, 9 months is also a long time in the world of iOS music apps so there is, of course, a second reason for taking a new look at this kind of toolset collection; all those excellent new apps that have appeared in the meantime :-)
So, with the obvious qualification that this is very much a personal selection based upon my own musical needs, and that I’m thinking of both recording and composing duties, here is a further look at a ‘less is more’ compact iOS music app collection….. and, this time around, I’m going to be super-strict with myself and stick to just those 16 apps that fill a single page of an iPad folder group :-) Some apps remain the same but, equally, given the slight shift in ‘function’ that I’m expecting these apps to perform, and that there are some new apps to pick from, there are also some changes…..
If you are a long-standing reader here at the Music App Blog then no prizes for guessing the first app on my list; my iOS DAW/sequencer of choice, Steinberg’s Cubasis.
I could easily swap in Auria Pro here; it is, in many ways, more powerful than Cubasis and much closer in specification to a desktop DAW/sequencer. However, I’m a Cubase user on the desktop so Steinberg’s iOS take on the Cubase platform feels very much like home to me. Steinberg have continued to move Cubasis forward. It now includes some decent effects options, a channel strip, plenty of useable virtual instrument choices and, of course, now offers AU hosting. Yes, I can think of a few features I’d love to see added (folders and group channels for example) but, on the whole, I actually like the fairly streamlined feature set as I think it suits the iOS format and, in this case, also suits my ‘less is more’ philosophy.
And, in workflow terms, as it’s probably the app I know best of all the iOS music apps I use, it also means I’m already pretty efficient when using it.
My main instrument is the electric guitar so I’m going to want at least one of the many very good iOS guitar rig simulation apps within this collection. I’ve actually gone for Line 6’s Mobile POD here but, as before, it would still be a toss-up between that and Positive Grid’s BIAS FX. In the end, I think heart won over head (I’m a long-standing Line 6 fan and use their modelling hardware in my project studio) and many of the models within the app are familiar to me through their various incarnations in other Line 6 products I’ve used including the latest and greatest of these, the Helix.
Heck, I’m even OK with the rather abstract graphics that Line 6 introduced when updating Mobile POD around 12 months or so ago. I’d seen these coming in their desktop/hardware products so it perhaps wasn’t such a surprise when they appeared in the iOS app. However, the bottom line is, of course, all about sound and I just like what Line 6 do with their modelled guitar tones…. and, with many years of using Line 6 stuff under my belt, familiarity wins here also.
Making my drum kit fit
I’m happy enough to go with a single guitar rig sim but, when it comes to drums and grooves, one app on it’s own wouldn’t quite cut it so, in this area, I’ve actually included three different apps although there are some changes here.
For acoustic drums, I find myself using Drum Session more than anything else at present. It may be that this is simply because the app is new and novel. However, I think it is more a case of it fitting my needs. I play the drums a little (mostly badly) but, whether composing or recording, I want to get my basic drum part together quickly to keep the creative flow going. yes, I might go back to things later and refine, but I like the way Drum Session combines good sounds with easy song construction workflow.
For electronic sounds, I’ve picked a combination of Patterning (for my sample-based electronic grooves and drum sounds) and DM2 (for a synth-based approach to drum sounds). Patterning is a long-standing favourite and I think it is an exception bit of software (the kind of app I’d love to have access on my desktop system and would happily pay a desktop price for it). What makes it stand out is the design of the pattern programming features and the options for different step-lengths for each sound within your ‘kit’. Sample import features work well and the Ableton Link support is great to have. This is simply a very creative tool for drum pattern creation.
I was impressed with DM2 on release but this is also an app that has continued to grow on me. For some users, I’m sure Elastic Drums would their preferred choice here. It is a brilliant app and, in some ways, it is a more sophisticated drum synth with deeper programming options and now includes sample-based sounds also. However, given that I’m no expert sound programmer (give me a break… I’m a guitarist after all!), I find the more streamlined approach adopted by DM2 goes far enough for me most (not all) of the time. The UI is great, the sounds impressive and, with Ableton Link support included, it is easy to sync with Patterning for some genuinely wonderful rhythmic experiments.
Slimline synth selection
I’ve definitely seen some changes in my ‘go to’ synth selections over the last 9 months or so and, while this is perhaps the hardest category to slim down given just how many stellar synths you can find on the App Store, I’ve gone with three pretty modest choices (by synth standards). Again, this perhaps tells you more about me (that guitar player again) rather than those synths I have not included….
I’ve retained SynthMaster Player in my core set. OK, so I know the synth purists amongst you are now spitting your coffee over your touchscreens but, as I’m really a guitar player, then cut me a little slack. In my case, SynthMaster, while it can most certainly be seen as glorified preset machine, also offers a huge range of sounds and, for my needs, just enough programmability to make things interesting but without me getting bogged down. It works nicely via IAA within Cubasis, although AU support would be good to see at some stage. The SynthMaster environment is one I’m also familiar with as I use the desktop version as well and its great for EDM type sounds….
My token ‘proper’ synth this time around is a new selection; Poison-202. This is a new-ish app and, as with a number of my other selections (and I think this is a ‘theme’ running through many of these choices), Poison-202 is ‘just enough’ in terms of depth but not ‘too much’; the interface is simple to follow, the sounds impressive and I think the design strikes exactly the right balance between features and depth to suit the iOS platform down to the ground… at least, it suits the platform for the way I choose to use it. However, the fact that it is also AU compatible was a consideration; with Cubasis now offering AU hosting, this is an app I can call on multiple times within the same project if I need to.
My final ‘synth’ selection is also a new selection and a new app; Troublemaker. Again, this is not a complex or sophisticated synth engine but, at what it does – 303 sounds and more – I think its very good indeed. And I lobe the compact step sequencer feature; it’s a brilliant bit of design. Oh, and yet again, the app offers AU support and works well within Cubasis.
On top of my three synths, I’m also including one other virtual instrument, although this is more of the sample-based variety; SampleTank. SampleTank is a bit of a ‘catch-all’ for everything else that my synths won’t do and that some of the sample-based sounds in Cubasis don’t quite deliver. There are perhaps better sounding apps for all of the sounds it covers but, as a single app that covers a lot of basic sonic ground, it does a great job. The fact that it is also eight-part multi-timbral is an additional plus point.
All in one EDM
My recording experience has been built on using conventional DAWs such as Logic and Cubase. Cubasis is, therefore, a concept that is familiar to me and offers a similar way of working. However, just as the original version of Reason on the desktop was, essentially, a MIDI-only sequencing environment, we have a number of electronic music production environments available under iOS that offer brilliant and creative options for music creation. Given that my ‘core set’ of apps is now aimed at music creation duties as well as recording, I’ve drafted in a couple of selections here also; Gadget and Oscilab… and both are great for getting some electronic ideas started (or even nearly finished) before handing off the results to Cubasis.
I’ve included Gadget simply because I think Korg have created something that just works on the iPad platform so well. The visual design is great and the feature set strikes (for me at least) the perfect balance between ‘enough’ and ‘not too much’. And, with a really interesting set of ‘gadgets’, access to the sounds within Module (a bit of a bonus), and a great MIDI sequencing system, this is hard to beat. It is a hugely creative platform for sketching out ideas and, as it looks like audio recording might be coming to Gadget soon, this might even challenge Cubasis for some recording tasks.
However, for a variety of reasons, I think Oscilab is also a brilliant tool. Oscilab has been around longer than Gadget. It takes a similar concept and shrinks it down to something even more compact. However, where the app really scores is in the interesting way you can create sequences. This is pure touchscreen brilliance…. Oscilab is, in my opinion at least, one of the underrated gems within the iOS music app section of the App Store. I’ve loved it since I first used it and, with development still obviously active, this is an app a keep coming back to; very creative.
Keep me in the loop
I’ve always enjoyed music creation based around pre-recorded audio loops (think Acid on the PC) and, as my new ‘core set’ selection is as much about ideas generation as recoding, I’ve introduced two loop-based apps into the selection; Blocs Wave and ReSlice. Both of these are relatively new apps but both are apps that I’ve grown very attached to very quickly.
Blocs Wave is, operationally, nothing like Acid but is offers a means of music creation that is built upon the same sorts of fundamentals; mixing and matching pre-recorded loops with real-time pitch- and time-stretching. When Novation launched the app it was obviously promising but the rate of development since has been remarkable and the feature set is now both impressive in scope and yet still easy to use/access. This is a great bit of design and, with plenty of additional loop content available, plus the option to record/import your own loops, this is – in function at least – Acid on an iPad (or an iPhone come to that).
ReSlice is very much a new kid on the block. In some ways, it is ‘old’ technology in that it allows you to take an audio file, automatically slice it based upon transient detection and then maps those slices to MIDI notes for playback. However, VirSyn have added a couple of very considerable twists. First, they have given the app a rather brilliant step sequencer/arpeggiator function so you can create all sorts of instant rhythmic effects from even the most bland of original loops. Second, they have then taken that step sequencer concept to another level by giving it multiple playheads each with the option for different playback speeds and step lengths. Polyrhythms anyone? The results can be magical… and the app is a doddle to use once you have got your head around the basic concepts.
Incidentally, the other app I’d consider adding here would be the (also brilliant) Sector. This still remains a favourite but it is perhaps a much deeper app than, for example, ReSlice and takes a little more mastering. It is still an app that I return to on a regular basis but, like many of the other apps that have made it into this modest selection, ReSlice is perhaps a little more immediate and accessible. Maybe there is a bit of ‘novelty value’ in my selection at this stage given that ReSlice is so new? Time will tell but Sector is still awesome.
Cubasis comes with a respectable set of basic effects processing options so, for routine compression, EQ and modulation, I’ll most certainly get by and, as I added the two IAP effects packs some time ago, I’ve got access to most of what I need. That said, iOS does offer a huge number of brilliant audio effects options….
…. but, if I’m going to stick to my ‘less is more’ principles here, I need to constrain my picks within this category. In the end – and given the slight shift in purpose for the overall selections, I’ve included just one dedicated effects apps here. Moved aside are my previous picks of Auto-Tune for iOS, Stereo Designer, AltiSpace and Turnado (all great at what they do) and in comes an app that I thing manages to combine both routine processing tasks and more creative ‘notice me’ options; DFX.
This does reverb, delay, compression, modulation and distortion so if covers all the routine processing tools. Yes, there are better individual apps out there in each of these categories but DFX does a tidy job and its more creative options, while not a match for Turnado (best in class for just a creative multi-effects processor), are perhaps a little easier to get your head around.
OK, so I’m missing one of the better iOS reverb apps and I’ve left out pitch correction. In terms of reverb, Cubasis’ own reverbs and delays are now respectable enough for routine work composing/tracking while DFX adds to those options. I’d be tempting to stray outside this selection for a really critical mix task though…. I’ve said before that I think the App Store is waiting for a really good pitch-correction app to arrive. Auto-Tune for iOS could be that app but it is probably not quite there yet. It’s great for giving something a very gentle nudge for, for now at least, I’m resigned to doing any serious pitch correction on my desktop system.
Incidentally, I could easily be persuaded to tweak this particular selection. The obvious candidates would be (a) a top-notch EQ app and (b) a top-notch compressor app and (c) a high-quality reverb. If I was to add such apps I’d want them to come with AU support. Compression and EQ are perhaps the two most fundamental processing options required when mixing and multiple instances of a 3rd party app within Cubasis via AU would be the route I’d take. There are some obvious candidates…. just not enough space to include them in this ‘core set’ without cheating!
Quite a performance
Cubasis includes a ‘chord pad’ option and, while this is perfectly serviceable, iOS has a number of other MIDI performance apps that do a much better job. I’ve retained Chordion here simply because it is the one I’ve used for the longest and know the best (it’s also a streamlined feature set so, again, suits the ethos of what I seem to be going for in this collection) but I’d have been more than happy to go with alternatives such as ChordPolyPad (more powerful) or Navichord (perhaps more helpful for harmonic guidance?).
Master of the audio
While recording is not the only role this new ‘core set’ of apps is trying to fulfil, I’ve retained a tool for giving my stereo mixes that final bit of polish. I’ll therefore round off this core set of personal choices for recording with a mastering tool.
You could, of course, chain together a number of different apps to make a mastering system, but I’m happy enough to go with a dedicated app for the job. While I do like IKMultimedia’s Lurssen Mastering, given the price for the full app, I think we have two more accessible contenders in this category; Audio Mastering from Igor Vasiliev and Positive Grid’s Final Touch. I’d be happy with either as they both offer more than enough tools to get the job done. I’m a long-standing fan of Igor’s approach to development though so Mastering was my personal pick here but Final Touch is also very good indeed.
One folder, one page
So, as shown in a single screen shot, I’ve managed to confine my selection to 16 apps; rather neatly, this is one page within one iOS folder. It would, of course, be very easy to start adding additional apps into this compact collection but, as I stated earlier, the aim was (somewhat arbitrarily) to stick with a target of 16 or less apps.
I think this selection is an impressive demonstration of just what you can do in terms of music creation and production under iOS. Yes, these specific apps suit my own personal needs – and your needs will vary – but you would have to be a very cynical (or blinkered) non-iOS musician to dip into this lot and remain unimpressed about just what the platform has to offer.
Your ‘less is more’?
Of course, we all make our music in different ways and are interested in making different types of music. My collection of 16 apps, while ideal for me, might not suit you even if your intention is also to build a compact app collection for composing or recording duties….
So, if these couple of posts have got you thinking, then feel free to share your thoughts below by posting a comment… or in an email to me through the Contact Us link…. It will be interesting to see just how diverse our ‘core set’ app collections might be… and, hopefully, to hear something of the reasons why those selections work for different members of the readership. Get commenting :-)
The Music App Blog ‘core apps’ selection for creation/composing and recording duties
I’ve reviewed or posted about major updates for all the apps mentioned above previously here on the Music App Blog and there are links embedded in the text so you can find those reviews/updates easily if you want to discover more about the apps I’ve selected. After that, feel free to hit the icons below to check the latest details and current pricing on the App Store….