If you are a guitar-playing IOS music maker, the odds are you will be familiar with the work of developer Yonac through their rather good ToneStack guitar rig simulator. Yonac do, however, have a number of other iOS music apps available on the App Store including Magellan and Galileo Organ.
One other app – and one that I remember trying in the past and thinking how good it might be with the benefit of being given a little extra TLC – is Steel Guitar. This first made an appearance on the App Store back in 2009 and, before today, the most recent update had been for v.1.2 back in January 2010! In both App Store and iOS music making terms, that is quite some time ago.
However, Yonac have finally got around to giving Steel Guitar that TLC and, as of today, v.2.0 of Steel Guitar is available on the App Store. This is, apparently, a complete rebuild and, while the concept remains the same – what you are getting is a virtual lap/pedal steel guitar that you can play through the touch screen interface – in addition to some obvious additional sound and performance features, the app has also be bought up to date in terms of iOS music technology.
So, if you are fond of the occasional bit of bottleneck or lap steel guitar, is Steel Guitar worth sliding onto your iPhone or iPad?
All steel, but no brass
The first thing to say about Steel Guitar is that giving it a go will not cost you much; the base app is a free download. This gives to a selection of different lap/pedal guitars so you can try out the main performance features. However, if you like what you see (and hear), then you can unlock a range other features through a series of inexpensive IAPs.
There are a number of these adding additional guitars, amps, effects, a taped deck features and some MIDI capabilities. However, while these are available individually, there is also a ‘Whole Enchilada’ bundle. This is currently 50% what will be it’s usual price so, for the launch period, you can pick it up for just UK£3.99…. which is exactly what I did to give the full set of features a run through.
On the practical/technical level, Steel Guitar is a 120MB download, requires iOS7.1 or later, will run on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It is optimised for iPhone 5 or later but I did my own testing on my iPad Air 1 and it worked very smoothly. As with an app such as Guitarism, which actually worked better on the smaller iPhone screen in normal use, Steel Guitar would seem to be very playable on the iPhone format… the upside of the larger iPad screen is that string picking (as opposed to strumming) is perhaps a little easier.
If you but the full bundle – and I think it represents excellent value for money – then you end up with a choice of 10 different guitars covering some classing lap/pedal models as well as a set of acoustic and electric models. The visuals onscreen adjust to reflect the model you are using at any given time and, obviously, the sounds themselves are based upon different samples for each style of guitar.
You also get a kind of ‘mini-ToneStack’ via the signal chain section located at the top of the screen and, from here, you can set up an amp and effects signal chain to process the sounds of the guitar. Given the amp and effect choices provided, you can go from crystal clear clean tones to ranging metal; the choice is yours.
Alternatively, as both Audiobus and IAA support is included, you could ignore the app’s own guitar amp/effects options and simply run the output of Steel Guitar through your favourite guitar rig sim app, be that ToneStack, BIAS FX, Mobile POD or one of the other excellent app available that can fulfil this role.
While the internal recorder is nicely implemented and seems to work well, unless Steel Guitar is your only iOs music app, the odds are you will have your own DAW/audio recording app of choice anyway. However, the MIDI features are interesting and probably worth exploring.
You can’t ‘play’ Steel Guitar from a MIDI keyboard but, along with some performance options provided by various gestures and your iOS device’s accelerometers (you can tilt the app to access these), you can configure MIDI CC numbers (via a MIDI Learn function) to control some of the performance options the app includes from an external controller. Two things are probably obvious targets here; the various settings of your amp/effects and the ‘pedals’ of the pedal steel.
The latter are a key part of a real pedal steel experience and, essentially, provide a series of foot pedals that instantly change the tuning of the guitar. Usually, when playing lap or pedal steel – or most styles of slide guitar – an ‘open’ tuning will be used (tuning the guitar to a chord such as G or D). The pedals allow you to instantly adjust that tuning and hence open up a hence of alternative chord types a voicings. Anyway, you can trigger these via tilting your iOS device or via MIDI. Note that the option to use tilting to do this is why the app’s interface doesn’t auto-rotate when you change the orientation of your iDevice….
The basic interface is pretty easy to navigate your way around and configuring your amp/effects signal chain will be familiar to anyone who has used any of the other iOS amp modelling apps. I suspect the models are taken pretty much from ToneStack… and they sound very good indeed.
Playing Steel Guitar is – in principle – very easy. You use one hand (thumb) to strum across the right end of the strings (over the sound hole or pickup graphic depending upon which guitar model you have selected) and then a finger (or two; there are extra things you can do with the slide with two fingers) to move the slide along the fretboard.
In practice, it does take a little while – and it is only a little while – to get your slide technique sorted. There are some neat options here such as the ability to adjust how the slide ‘snaps’ to the nearest fret position (making it easier to slide into a note and hot the pitch) and the behaviour when you remove your slide finger from the screen (it can either snap back to the open position or just stay in place; both options are useful in their own way). However, having played a lap steel a few times (I’m no expert) and also playing the occasional bit of slide guitar (where I can sometimes get away with it), Steel Guitar is a heck of a lot easier to get to grips with.
This is helped by the fact that the samples actually sound pretty good themselves. As you do slide into a note or chord, there results are, to my ears at least, pretty convincing and very smooth. Getting a good vibrato technique perhaps takes a little longer but, even so, this is a doddle to play compared to a real lap/pedal steel guitar.
The range of sounds the additional guitars in the IAP open up are also very good and I particularly liked both the acoustic model and the humbucker-based electric. If I can spend enough time on my playing technique, these are sounds I could easily imagine dropping into my own music production work.
Less realistic – but most welcome – is the fact that the ‘pedal’ features are available for all the guitar models and not just for the pedal steel models. You don’t have to use them of course, but it is nice to have the option. Of all the elements of the interface, this is the bit that will probably take the longest time to master as you have to continue playing with both hands while also tilting the iOS device or triggering the pedals via MIDI. Equally, if you don’t actually have experience playing a real pedal steel guitar, then it will simply take some time to learn what these features are actually for…. ‘Learn to play lap steel 101’ may be required.
Join the band
The other obvious new addition in Steel Guitar 2.0 is that Yonac have bought the app right up-to-date in terms of the rest of the iOS music making world. We now have both Audiobus and IAA support to sit alongside the new MIDI features. I’ve not had time to do any exhaustive testing as yet but, even so, having run Steel Guitar through a couple of Audiobus configurations and into Cubasis, it seemed to work very well.
Used via IAA, with Cubasis as my IAA host, the app is available as both audio and MIDI versions. Given that you can not actually play the app via MIDI, I’m not sure that inserting Steel Guitar on a Cubasis MIDI track is really that useful but, via an audio track, it worked well and recorded easily into my Cubasis project.
There is very little not to like about Steel Guitar. It sounds great, the technical spec has been bought right up to data and, as the app is free, you can at least try it out before stumping up for any IAP content. That said, at a price of UK£3.99, the bundle IAP is an absolute steal.
There is one other observation worth making. As a guitar player anyway, moving over to do the occasional bit of slide is not a huge stretch (it is a different skill and I’m not great at it but I can get by in a recording context with enough takes!). Pedal steel is perhaps another matter but some of those standard guitar skills to translate to the real thing.
However, Steel Guitar is an example of an app that is, I think, much (very much!) easier to play than the real thing. Rather like all these smart virtual keyboards can make playing iOS synths or piano by limiting you to only scale notes, I suspect the performance interface in Steel Guitar is going to take a novice player a lot less time to master that the real thing would.
Do you get the same vibe or subtlty of performance from an app as you would from a real instrument? Well, no you don’t… but stuffed through a bit of an overdriven amp (model) and blended into the mix of a project. I suspect you will capture the essence of the sound in a way that most listeners (i.e. non pedal steel guitar playing listeners) will be more than happy to accept. Personally, I think that’s rather cool… Right, I’m off to do some work on my (virtual) pedal steel vibrato technique so I can drop a bit of slide into my next iOS project.
Steel Guitar is a free download…. and the bundle IAP is great value while on sale. Highly recommended :-)