Music Memos review – Apple create a songwriter’s notepad in an app

Download from iTunes App Storemusic memos logo 1Some time ago here on the Music App Blog, I published a post looking at a compact ‘ever ready’ toolkit of iOS music apps that were ideal for an iPhone and primarily intended to allow the user to ‘capture’ a song idea as and when the muse decided to strike.

When I put that post together, one key element of that app collection was a simple audio recording app…. not perhaps a multitrack recorder, but something that could be fired up with the minimum of fuss, switched into record mode, and capture a quick idea strummed on a guitar (or played on a piano) and perhaps while I hummed a tune or sung a few lyric ideas.

Got a new song idea? You need Music Memos....

Got a new song idea? You need Music Memos….

At the time of the original post (May 2014), I picked Apple’s own Voice Memos app, although there were/are a bunch of similar apps that you might have chosen for this particular spot in the overall collection. Well, as I mentioned last week when posting about the recent GarageBand for iOS update, at the same time Apple released a new iOS music app – Music Memos – and, given the specification of the app, it is an obvious contender to replace Voice Memos in my ‘ever ready’ toolkit.

That’s a good idea….

Any songwriter worth their salt will have ‘lost’ plenty of chart-toppers in their time. You know, you strum the chords, have a fragment of a lyric….   and it’s great…. so great that the fact that you don’t have a way to record the idea (written or audio) is not a problem because there is no way you are going to forget it…. except, of course, you do…. another one bites the dust.

This was, of course, the whole reason for building my ‘ever ready’ iOS music app collection in the first place as, 99% of the time, I have my iPhone within arm’s length of me and, with the right app (and a little bit of self-discipline), I should never miss another tune (even if I delete it later when I realise it’s actually c**p).

Now, while Voice Memos is still a neat tool, Music Memos is a tool designed for exactly this job and it isn’t just an ‘instant on’ audio recorder…. it also comes with a small number of simple – but very effective – additional features aimed specifically at the songwriter. Perhaps the easiest way to introduce these is to explain the typical Music Memos workflow….

Captured! Never miss a song idea when it presents itself....

Captured! Never miss a song idea when it presents itself….

However, before that, just note that the app requires iOS9.1 or later, is universal (a full list of supported devices is shown on iTunes), is a 146MB download and is free of charge….

Press record

In terms of a quick start-up, Music Memos is one tap to launch and one tap to initiate a new recording/project. Recording can be started manually or, if you take an extra second to toggle on the ‘Auto’ option, the app will sit there are wait for a suitable signal level to appear before starting to record. This is useful as it allows you to set yourself up correctly (guitar on knee, etc.) without having to actually touch your iPhone (or iPad) when you want to start recording.

Recordings can be made via the internal mic or, if you have a better mic connected in some way, that’s also fine…. but, essentially, what you get here is a single audio track to record on (I’ll come back to this later) and you can strum, tinkle and sing away to your heart’s content until you have enough audio to capture the basic idea of your new song. Recording can be stopped manually or, if in ‘auto’ mode, as soon as the audio level fades away.

Clever Apple

So far, so Voice Memos, but it’s what happens next that is actually rather clever. The app will analyse your recording and, if it contains recognisable chords, it will produce what is essentially a chord chart – and superimpose this upon the waveform of your recording – so you can follow what’s been generated. No more scribbling chord sequences down in a notebook…. Music Memos does it automatically for you.

Once you finish recording, Music memos will attempt to identify the chord sequence played.... and it does a pretty decent job with basic chord types.

Once you finish recording, Music memos will attempt to identify the chord sequence played…. and it does a pretty decent job with basic chord types.

Well, it does it most of the time and if your audio has a strong chord sequence within it (as opposed to some more esoteric drone sounds (like my singing) which the app might struggle to deal with). However, even if Music Memos does get a few of the chords wrong, you can go in and edit the chord chart and pick from a range of chord types to replace those generated automatically. OK, the options here might not satisfy a jazz composer but for most pop/rock singer/songwriters, there is more than enough options here to be going on with. Indeed, there is even an option for specifying ‘slash’ chords with a different bass note to the main chord….

You can edit the chord suggestions made by the app if required.

You can edit the chord suggestions made by the app if required.

Let’s jam

…. which is actually kind of useful because the other very clever feature of the app is that is contains both a virtual drummer and virtual bass player and the latter will automatically follow the chord sequence including any bass notes specified for individual chords, while the drummer matches your tempo, even if that varies a little.

Add a drum track and give the performance a tweak.....

Add a drum track and give the performance a tweak…..

These are rather like slimmed down versions of a couple of the ‘smart’ instruments found in Garageband for iOS. You can toggle them on/off individually and adjust the volume and complexity of the accompaniment they provide. What’s particularly impressive is just how well they follow the tempo of what you played (timing imperfections included) and the only bit that really causes any issues is if you shift the tempo dramatically or slow the tempo down at the end of your performance. Given this is really just an ‘idea capture’ tool, this isn’t such a big deal.

.... and then add a bass track. Very neat.

…. and then add a bass track. Very neat.

However, as a way of fleshing out your budding song idea, adding instant drums and bass is really rather satisfying. OK, so the style of playing is pretty vanilla; it would suit a pop/rock context fine but not perhaps be convincing beyond that. You could easily see Apple offering additional ’styles’ at some stage though….

Spread the love….

And there is still more ‘clever’…. You can share your finished track in the usual iOS ways – SoundCloud, Mail, etc. – but, rather wonderfully, you can also ‘share’ it with GarageBand for iOS if you happen to have that installed alongside Music Memos.

The clever thing is that your song idea then opens up within GarageBand as a new project with your single audio track and two of GarageBand’s own virtual instruments taking over the drums and bass duties. This does mean that you can access the somewhat more extensive range of musical styles supported by GarageBand’s virtual musicians….

Ta-dah! You Music Memos project can be imported straight into Garageband for iOS for further development.

Ta-dah! You Music Memos project can be imported straight into Garageband for iOS for further development.

And, you can, of course, take it from there and add some further tracks within GarageBand to develop your new idea further.

More please….

This integration between the two apps is pretty seamless and, while the recent update to GarageBand has certainly moved it forward as a composition/recording tool, seeing it work with Music Memos is good enough to make me want to see GarageBand get that fully-blown mixer environment it so obviously needs to become a more serious (Logic ‘lite’) offering. OK, so you could go from GarageBand for iOS to Logic Pro X if you are running on a Mac but it’s a shame that the iOS version of GarageBand is so close to being great…. but not quite there yet.

Coming back to Music Memos, the obvious additional feature for a future update would be the option for recording one more audio track. I’d be fine with the first audio track being the ‘master’ track that provides the material for chord recognition and the drum/bass inspiration…. but the option to then lay down a second audio track to run alongside the other three sound sources would be brilliant. With guitar or piano on my first track, and drums and bass auto generated by the app, a second audio track would be idea for experimenting with a few melody/lyric ideas. Go on Apple…. give us what we want.

Music Memos also includes a simple tuner for guitar users.

Music Memos also includes a simple tuner for guitar users.

Incidentally, when I did both strum and sing while recording my audio track, Music Memos still did a pretty decent job of identifying the chords in the guitar part. Yes, I’d still prefer two separate audio tracks and, yes, it does get some things wrong so chord editing can be required, but this is still impressive stuff in what is actually a free bit of software.

In summary

That little bit of personal greed aside, Music Memos is a very cool little app. If you happen to be a singer/songwriter type, this is as much of a no-brainer as you will have ever encountered… and as it is also free, there is nothing to stop any iOS musician giving it a try.

Bye, bye Voice Memos…. hello Music Memos…. my ‘every ready’ iOS music app collection for my iPhone just got a serious upgrade; Music Memos is brilliant right out the gate…. Let’s just hope Apple don’t stop there because this app has lots of potential. Highly recommended.

Music Memos

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    1. I agree that the option of a second audio track could be a useful feature-addition, even though I’d be more likely to transfer the project into Garageband for further work.

      For me personally, the one feature I’d like to see added to Music Memos, would be some kind of metronome, even if it were only a “visual” one (some kind of “flashing” on the screen?) to avoid the sound getting onto the audio track.

      I think MM will probably stay on my iPhone – most likely for (a) the kind of quick-and-dirty demo-recorder duties you had in mind, but also (b) as a bass-and-drums rhythm-track generator for Garageband, when I can’t be bothered even with GB’s own (very capable) virtual instruments, or I’m REALLY strapped for time. Like… er, when I’m doing the FAWM songwriting challenge from next week, perhaps? ;-)

    2. Really useful app! Thanks for,your great work writing these reviews.

      Is there any way to go from music memos on one iOS device to GarageBand on another easily?

      Could I put a request in? I’d like to know what workflows people use for GarageBand on iOS -> logic X on Mac, especially with the new iCloud sharing.

      • Robert Goldberg says:

        Two step, but you could drop it into Garage Band, then share that GB session to the Cloud or Dropbox and import into the other device from there.

    3. Luis Donato says:

      Great review! I would like to see implemented the ability to use Force Touch to go directly to record. Or tuner.

    4. eustressor says:

      Thanks for the run-through, John – I was unaware you could designate different bass notes from the chord root – although I did notice some tasty Geddy Lee Lite bass licks centered around the root chord when you crank the complexity of the bass line. Good to know there’s even more goodness tucked into this beautiful black box of an app.

      Just as you mention GarageBand is THIS close to being a true, blue DAW now (those drummers are nice, aren’t they, like less random versions of Rock Drum Machine – less sample variety, certainly, but the fills match the intensity of the beat, my one quibble with RDM), so also I’d add Music Memos is just THIS shy of magic. When I made my first demo and then opened it in GarageBand it was like a glimpse into the future – not the future desktop DAWs have been painting for years, but something more organic to the art of song and much less technical.

      My lone feature request would be to allow the half and double time drum variations, as well as hats vs ride vs toms, to be saved with the track – loop through playback a few times until you get it right and hit “save drum variations.” Then open in GB. Beauty!

      Free magic. I’m down!

    5. My wish would certainly be for Audiobus compatibility so I can easily lay down a track from my iPad synths and (more importantly) from my massive collection of gritty grinding guitar apps!

      AU and/or inter-app audio would be most welcome as well…

    6. Michael Scourfield says:

      Wow I wasn’t expecting these features. Great stuff.

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