Less is more; part 6 – a compact ‘AU-only’ iOS music app collection for music production

finger on a tablet computer screenWhen I did my usual crystal ball gazing and ‘wish listing’ post to mark the end of 2016 and the start of 2017, I speculated – and hoped – that this year might (finally) see the Audio Units plugin format make a real impact under iOS. This wasn’t a risky prediction, nor an unusual wish, as I’m sure lots of iOS music makers would have shared both thoughts. Indeed, many would also comment ‘about time’ considering AU was first introduced by Apple in iOS9 and we are only a few months away from seeing iOS11 delivered….

Anyway, roughly half way through 2017 and, without wishing to count the proverbial chickens, so far at least, that predicted steady flow of AU-based apps does seem to have happened. So, where are we at? Just how close are we to being able to put an iOS music-making rig together featuring just AU-based software?

Answers of ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ are still all valid here and which applies to you will obviously depend upon exactly what sort of music you make and just how ‘locked in’ you might be to certain features of specific apps. Anyway, I thought it might be fun to consider my own options here and share via the Blog just how much further we have come over the last few months.

KISS – selection of a ‘core set’ of apps

You might recall that, back in February, and as a follow up to a short series of posts looking at the idea of ‘less is more’ in terms of actually being productive under iOS, I put together a personal ‘core set’ of iOS music apps. This wasn’t a ‘do it all’ selection but (somewhat arbitrarily) aimed at the way my own use of my iOS music technology happens to be focused.

16 apps in one iPad folder…. If all I ever did was fully exploit this lot then I could get a lot of music made….

For me, iOS performs two main roles. First, it gets used as an ‘ideas’ platform, where I can compose new musical ideas. Second, it gets used as a recording platform, where those ideas that I think have some creative ‘legs’ might get developed further, sometimes even finished, and sometimes offloaded to my desktop system for further development. Also somewhat arbitrarily, I confined my selection of these ‘core apps’ for these two roles to 16; enough to fill a single page of an iPad folder group. I’m not so masochistic that I’d forbid myself from going elsewhere if the need arose…. but just that these are the 16 apps I lean on mostly and, through regular use, develop a better understanding of in terms of their various features.

I’ve included the screenshot of the selection outlined in that post and, while I have swapped a few apps in and out since then, I’ve actually stayed pretty true to my selection and I do feel the approach means that I know these apps somewhat better and can therefore get creative with them that much quicker when the muse strikes.

AU only?

So, just as a technical exercise, how close can I get to a suitable ‘compose and record’ core set of apps if I confine my choices to just an AU-based selection?

Again, I’ll choose apps with the same kinds of overall musical needs in mind and limit myself to a maximum of 16 apps. How close can I get…..? And are there are obvious gaps that, at present, can’t be filled with a suitable AU-based candidate? Let’s find out…..

(AU) Host with the most

Regulars here will know that Cubasis is my iOS DAW/sequencer of choice and, as the app is also a pretty capable AU-host – and my collection of apps obviously needs a suitable host for all those AU plugins – then I’ve no great reason to change my choice here.

I’m a Cubase user on the desktop so Cubasis is an obvious choice for me. Depending upon exactly how you approached ‘composition and recording’ as processes, other apps might be equally valid for you. My personal options here might have been Auria Pro or, if I was not quite so interested in MIDI sequencing, maybe even AUM? Horses for courses here…. and Cubasis is my personal ‘best fit’.

Cubasis remains – for me at least – the best all round DAW/sequencer for iOS…. and it does, of course, offer AU hosting as seen here for Poison-202.

Plug in the synth (plugin)

Back in February, I picked SynthMaster Player (still a favourite for its sounds), Poison-202 and Troublemaker as my limited (too limited in terms of numbers?) synth collection. The latter two do, of course, already offer AU support…. They therefore make it into my AU-only selection as I know both well and love what they do. Synthmaster is not (yet at least) available as an AU plugin so what about a replacement (or two)?

Troublemaker works nicely within Cubasis via AU.

Fortunately there are some very good alternative synth apps that now include AU support and, while none of them are perhaps a direct replacement for the broad sonic coverage of SynthMaster Player, there are plenty of interesting candidates in their own right.

iSEM – one of the very first iOS virtual synths to make the leap to the AU format.

Indeed, enough that I think I’d like to add three further synth apps to my first attempt at an AU-only core set; iSEM, Redshrike and Ripplemaker. On the positive side, all three of these are, in their own way, great virtual synths. I’ve always loved iSEM for its ‘repro’ ethic of old classic analog synth in an app. Redshrike is also a good, compact, but pretty versatile, synth with just a touch of iceGear’s usual left-field-ness about it. And Ripplemaker, with its brilliant balanced design, is the most friendly introduction to modular synthesis (well, semi-modular synthesis at least) that I’ve ever used….. and the step/pattern sequencer is very cool when you use the app stand-alone (OK, so not strictly an AU feature).

Redshrike – a touch of iceGear’s left-field approach to synthesis but as an AU plugin.

I’ll get to the negative side of why I’ve added three synths to my limited number AU core set in a minute…. but one reason is simply that Synthmaster is a bit of a jack-of-all-synth-trades and I’m not sure we quite have a direct AU replacement (although something like Yonac’s latest release – KASPAR – might make for a decent option; I need to use it more to find out though).

So far then we have a host and five synths….. 6 apps down and 10 to go.

Ripplemaker…. AU-based (semi) modular synth fun :-)

Effective effects

Cubasis does, of course, ship with a good array of audio effects apps. These cover the sorts of routine tasks such as EQ, compression, delay and reverb pretty well. Cubasis also offers two effects pack IAPs and I happen to have both of those. My February ‘core set’ therefore only included two apps here; Igor Vasiliev’s Audio Mastering and Fingerlab’s DFX. The first of these was (surprise, surprise) there to deal with routine mastering duties while the latter was there as a ‘creative effects’ catch all (and very good it is too). Neither of these is available as an AU plugin though so where can I go on this front?

Eos 2 – a great choice for a reverb app and with good AU support.

Well, there are some ‘creative’ options amongst the Cubasis effects collection and, while they don’t really match what DFX (or perhaps Turnado) might offer, this is more for ear candy and occasional use so maybe I’ll forego a full-on selection here for a while (although apeSoft’s iDensity could be a ‘well out there’ possibility for the more adventurous amongst you). Equally, maybe the Cubasis limiting, EQ, compression and stereo enhancement options can be used to provide a little by way of gentle mastering even if it is not really on a par with Igor’s excellent app (or something like Positive Grid’s Final Touch).

So maybe I could use a pick or three here to improve on the bread and butter effects offered by Cubasis? If that’s the case, I think I’d start by looking at four roles; EQ, compression, reverb and delay….. those effects plugins that generally get the most work.

NYCompressor sounds great on drums or, as shown here within Cubasis, on vocals.

This is actually one area where AU support has begun to take off. For example, we could look at Blamsoft’s very modestly priced AU effects apps or the Flora Creative series of apps? Klevgrand’s iOS app offerings also include a number of very good options. However, I think I’ll do for Audio Damage’s Eos 2 as a reverb selection (a significant step up from most iOS algorithmic reverbs), DDMF’s NY Compressor for my compressor choice (smooth and kind of analog-sounding; Korvpressor might be a more ‘modern’ choice here? ), Numercial Audio’s RP-1 for my delay (although Audio Damage’s new Dubstation 2 might be a contender here; at the time of writing I don’t know it well enough yet to judge) and zMors EQ for my more surgical EQ choice (although fuxEQ would also be an option).

RP-1 provides a very solid delay option via AU within Cubasis.

I have to ‘fudge’ my ‘creative’ and ‘mastering’ effects a bit by working harder with those effects I do have in my list (or built-in to Cubasis) but, such is life…. for now, I’ll focus on more routine effects functions.

zMors EQ – a flexible EQ app in an AU plugin format.

So, four effects apps added…. now 6 app ‘slots’ available that are still to be filled.

Slice, dice and beat

My February selection included a number of apps within the virtual drummer, virtual electronic drum machine and electronic music production categories. The selection therefore included, Gadget, Oscilab, Blocs Wave, ReSlice, Drum Session, Patterning and DM2.

This is where we start to run into some difficulties. Of these apps, only ReSlice operates as an AU virtual instrument. That’s fine; it’s a creative app and, because it can do its creative thing with drum loops as well as harmonic/melodic loops, it can also serve as a source or electronic rhythms. It therefore makes into the AU selection.

ReSlice works great as an AU plugin…..

However, in terms of other apps within this collection of related categories, as yet, AU is not so well served. I must admit I find this quite surprising and I think there could well be some significant sales for those developer that get ahead of the AU game with a virtual acoustic drummer, top-end electronic drum instrument and a compact EDM ‘all-in-one’ tool.

There are some contenders though. I could, for example, go for Bram Bos’ Ruismaker or Ruismaker FM as a source of AU-based electronic drum sounds. However, given that Steinberg have just added the Classic Machines IAP to Cubasis, I think I’ll stick with that for now and drop some ReSlice beats in there when needed. The ‘loss’ of Patterning and DM2 are pretty hard to take though; I love both these apps. AU versions…. please?

Equally, I might have to make do with the acoustic drum sounds offered up by Cubasis. This one I’m more bothered about. DrumPerfect Pro or Drum Session (or something similar) as an AU plugin are definitely on the ‘wanted’ list.

I will, however, add another long-term favourite iOS app that can fulfil a few roles in this broad area; BeatHawk. It qualifies as an ‘all-in-one’ EDM production tool, with the right samples it can supply electronic or acoustic drum sounds, and it can, of course, be used as an AU instrument plugin as AU support was added in the recent v.2.0.0 update (and has been fine-tuned further since). Again, no Gadget, no Blocs Wave and no Oscilab…. three apps that I do use a lot for different things. The transition to AU under iOS still has some way to go then….

BeatHawk – a bit of an EDM catchall in my selection and with AU plugin support.

Anyway, ReSlice and BeatHawk fill two more slots leaving four available.

Right said Fred

Cubasis includes a decent collection of sample-based virtual instruments covering pianos, guitars, basses, orchestral instruments and various ethnic sounds. However, my February core set also included IK Multimedia’s SampleTank. There are other sample-based virtual instruments I could have included back then (Korg’s Module for example) but I went with SampleTank because it was (a) a considerable step up from what’s included within Cubasis, (b) with a few IAPs, actually has a broad coverage with some useful orchestral sounds and (c) it is eight-part multi-timbral.

iSymphonic Orchestra brings some very good orchestral sounds via AU.

However, SampleTank is not available as an AU plugin. In fact, there isn’t any decent all-round sample-based virtual instrument that currently offers AU support (although please tell me if I’ve missed something).

However, there are some interesting – if somewhat less ‘general’ – sample-based virtual instruments with AU support and, for a combination of top-end orchestral sounds and top-end piano sounds, I’ll include Crudebyte’s iSymphonic and UVI’s Ravenscroft 275 piano. I don’t get the same breadth of coverage but, in their own niches, these are about as good as iOS can currently offer… and both work as AU plugins.

Ravenscroft 275 includes AU support as shown here within Cubasis.

That’s another two slots filled…. two to go.

Play with me

I might be bending the AU rules here slightly but, in fact, one of my app selections back in February – Chordion – I could happily retain here even though it is not strictly an AU app. In fact, given its purpose and role in my workflow – it is used to generate MIDI data for chords and melodies – to feed to my various virtual instruments and Cubasis, it doesn’t really need to be ‘hosted’ as such…. it’s more like having an ‘external MIDI keyboard’ in software.

The app is a great way to avoid having to use a virtual piano keyboard via the touchscreen. Cubasis does include its own chord pad system but I find Chordion more fun to use and more flexible. It doesn’t have to be a ‘plugin’ because it doesn’t make noise or process audio…. it is a stand-alone app that coughs up MIDI note data. However, if I’m cheating then I’ll stick with the Cubasis tools.

Chordion for easy touchscreen MIDI performance options…. even though it is not really an AU plugin :-)

If not, then that’s another slot filled…. 15 down and one to go.

The guitar is (not) the star

As regular Music App Blog readers will be aware, while I’m an avid user of electronic sounds, my main musical instrument (that is, the one I can actually play) is the guitar… so I’ve saved the worst until last. In my February selection, I included Mobile POD as my guitar rig sim of choice (it was a toss up between that and Positive Grid’s BIAS FX but I went with Line 6 as I’m a long-standing user of their kit).

Guess what? We don’t, at present, seem to have a single decent iOS guitar amp sim that exists as an AU plugin. Again, Cubasis has a built-in amp simulation effect but, frankly, it’s not in the same league as Mobile POD, BIAS FX, AmpliTube or ToneStack.

Therefore, a choice of none (unless you know better)…. The first of these apps past the post as an AU plugin will get the spot…. and that would make 16 apps in total. Until then, I’m a bit stuffed :-(

Is AU 4 U?

Are we there yet? Well, for my combined ‘compose and record’ roles, AU manages to get me close but, as yet, not all the way there. The biggest ‘miss’ is the guitar rig modelling. At present, this is simply something I can’t do and can’t really substitute for without going down the IAA route or perhaps resorting or external hardware (eeekkk…. maybe even a real amp!).

The other obvious area of compromise is drums – both acoustic and electronic. As yet, AU can’t deliver anything in the same class as DrumPerfect Pro, Drum Session, Patterning or DM2. That’s also going to be a big deal for many iOS music makers.

As for the rest? Well, there is some juggling of apps involved in the selections made here, and perhaps some minor compromises forced on my selections in wanting the conveniences that AU most certainly brings. I can live with these as a trade off for those conveniences…. particularly in that my Cubasis projects pop open with all those multiple instances of my chosen apps (mostly!) intact.

Are we there yet? Well, when it comes to an AU-only iOS music app selection, perhaps not quite…. but we should also not ignore the progress that has been made. An AU-only approach is getting closer….

But what about you? Yes, this is, of course, a somewhat artificial exercise simply for the purposes of illustrating how far the AU plugin format has come…. but it’s interesting none-the-less. For me, there are two obvious ‘missing links’….   but what about for your own workflows? If you did want to go AU-only, what might still be the missing ingredients in your core app list?

Answers in a comment are welcome below…. and I’m sure it will be interesting to revisit both this selection and those answers as the 2017 draws to a close and we have seen the initial impact (if any) that iOS11 might bring…..


The Music App Blog ‘AU-only 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 and below 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 App Store download buttons below to check the latest details and current pricing of this particular AU app selection….

cubasis logo 3Cubasis 2 – review

Download from iTunes App Store

Redshrike – review

Download from iTunes App Store

Ripplemaker – review

Download from iTunes App Store

Eos 2 – review

Download from iTunes App Store

iSEM – review

Download from iTunes App Store

NY Compressor – review

Download from iTunes App Store

Poison-202 – review

Download from iTunes App Store

Troublemaker – review

Download from iTunes App Store

RP-1 – review

Download from iTunes App Store

zMors EQ – review

Download from iTunes App Store

BeatHawk – review

Download from iTunes App Store

Ravenscroft 275 Piano – review

Download from iTunes App Store

ReSlice – review

Download from iTunes App Store

iSymphonic Orchestra – review

Download from iTunes App Store

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    1. A great collection and a wonderful music app, i have just downloaded it was awesome

    2. Daniel Ribeiro says:

      To be honest. the main problem with Cubasis is the fact it cannot automate AU at all.
      That alone keeps it off my device for now. AUMstep (Modstep+AUM), Auria Pro and Bm3 are more useful in this regard for an AU only setup.

    3. A virtual acoustic drummer AU – my thoughts exactly! I’m also a Cubasis user and a little bit tired of copying and pasting loops or using the ( quite limited ) kits that come with it.
      Great article.

    4. Sum Soma says:

      Modstep for sequencing a beat/sound, I find Modstep works for me to synth and drum.
      Aum to host and mix and record
      And as my none AU tool – Kluvert!! :))
      Yeah I’m a Klevgrand fan. They just do something magical, in a very Deep KISS way.

      Oh, yes, if you’re counting it’s only fifteen. I’m still waiting for Kymatica to make they’re effects AU, especially Oscillator.

      • Sum Soma says:

        I feel I have to update my listing above, since I’ve finally acquired Enkl.
        What I have found with my discovery of Klevgrand apps is that they maybe simple on the surface but they offer an audio dynamic that suits my needs and wants. I make minimal techno/dub/ambient soundscapes. With Klevgrand they offer one thing per appstrument tool and do it very well and what I find is one of the most essential things in using an instrument be it software or hardware is that you actually enjoy the experience of using the thing, and this is what I love about Klevgrand and now particularly Enkl. The extended keyboard is a finger dancing delight. And of course it sounds wonderful.
        My basic tool kit begins with either Aum or Modstep. Then I add the effects. These are mostly Klevgrand and also the delightful Duplicat.

        This is a wonderful series John. It’s interesting to have your views and your readers.
        Keep it going.

    5. I have really been enjoying the AU format and the ease of use it provides when it comes to recording directly into your chosen DAW. My hope is that it becomes a staple feature with the release of each new music app, and hopefully more of the “old favorites” will eventually follow suit.
      With regards to a guitar amp sim with AU functionality, I would suggest Tonebridge (a free app from UltimateGuitar) as a possible candidate. While not as feature-heavy or in depth as some of the previously mentioned guitar amp sims (guitar is not my primary instrument), it does a great job of providing 100s of guitar tone presets from various genres that sound surprisingly good.. think SynthMaster Player, but for guitar. It works as an AU FX plugin within your chosen DAW so you have to choose an amp sim within your DAW and then apply Tonebridge as a plugin effect and choose your tone preset. This works more accurately if you apply a preset on top of a cleaner tone, however the fact that it works this way does allow for a lot of interesting results. One of my favorite things to do is apply different guitar tones to synth sounds (or any and all sounds.. including symphonic orchestra…yes it’s weird) and jam out some guitar solos on my external midi keyboard.
      I was quite surprised when I did a search on the blog and didn’t find a review of Tonebridge. If you haven’t tried it out I would be interested in hearing your thoughts as I’m no expert when it comes to guitar amps. :)

      • Hi Keenan…. Tonebridge is installed on my iPad but I’ve not really explored what it has to offer as yet…. another one on the ‘to do’ list that just keeps getting longer :-( Best wishes, John

    6. Great post John. I am enjoying the Less Is More series.

    7. Great list! As a developer of Goose EQ, I would love to get feedback on why it isn’t even a mention. We want to become the EQ AU of choice some day.

    8. Laidback Sounds says:

      A very good read. I use cubasis too and Beathawk being my drum machine of choice. I import my samples of choices in it through dropbox, the only small issue is you have to import sound by sound, there is no option to import several sounds at the same time like lets say BM3. Or perhaps i overlooked something.
      Regarding Au units its already fantastic to have all those tools, thanks for the article

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