Top 10 iOS music apps 2013

best 2013 logoUnless you are a bit of a grumpy old s*d, it is difficult to deny that 2013 has been a pretty remarkable year in terms of making music under iOS. While the platform still doesn’t have the power and flexibility of a well-specified desktop music production environment, the introduction of iOS7 (with the benefits of inter-app audio) and the new, more powerful, iPad Air have both contributed to a significant step forward in terms of what is possible using the platform.

However, what is perhaps even more remarkable has been the abundance of new music apps. Yes, there are still a few obvious gaps is the app arsenal that it would be great to see filled, but the range and quality of the musical tools now available on the iTunes App Store is quite amazing. Some of these have been around for a while and, via regular updates, are gradually maturing in to sophisticated and flexible pieces of software (Auria and Cubasis, for example). Others, however, are new for 2013.

So, if Christmas delivered your first iOS device, and you are looking to populate it with some of the best iOS music apps introduced during 2013, which apps should you choose? Any ‘top apps’ list is bound to be a bit subjective (thankfully, we all have our own tastes and individual preferences) but, if you want the Music App Blog (er…. that’s me then) take on the top ten app highlights of the last 12 months, then, in no particular order, here goes…..  Incidentally, most of these apps have been the subject of reviews here on the Music App Blog during the last 12 months and I’ve provided links to those within the text below if you want more details.

Synth you asked…

It’s been a good year for synths, so let’s start with my own personal pick of a fairly substantial crop….

1 Thor

thor logoYes, a total matter of opinion but, for me, Thor is the best (whatever that might actually mean) synth currently available for iOS. It combines deep programmability with a clean and well-thought out interface ported from Propellerhead’s desktop software Reason where Thor has been part of the package for some time. And while it is capable of using a decent chunk of your iDevice’s total processing grunt, the upside is the sound. Big, bold and brilliant. Whether it is in your iOS home studio or used a synth sound source at a gig, Thor on the iPad is not out of its depth.
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2 Nave

Nave logoWaldorf’s Nave is only fractionally second to Thor. What’s interesting here is that this is a very different synth engine built on wavetable synthesis. Like Thor, Nave is very deep and undoubtedly takes a little study in order to master. However, once mastered, the range of sounds available is staggering. This is perhaps a somewhat less conventional synthesiser than Thor but it is intriguing and beguiling in equal measure. If you like to delve deep into your synths, Nave will hit the spot.
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3 Arctic ProSynth

arctic prosynth logoThis synth might be a notch below the mighty Thor and Nave in terms of sheer depth but it lacks little in terms of the character of the sound. Capable of big and bold tones with plenty of attitude and aggression, Arctic ProSynth is still very much a programmer’s joy but is perhaps not quite as daunting as either Thor or Nave. Indeed, if you are looking for a first ’serious’ synth and think Thor or Nave might just make your head explode, then this would be an excellent place to start.
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Guitar hero

This year hasn’t just been about synths though (good job; I’m really a guitar player) and, for me, two new apps stand out. There are some truly excellent guitar amp simulation apps available on the App Store but, in their own ways, I think the following two new arrivals have taken the field forward a significant step.

4 Mobile POD

Mobile POD logoHands up, I’m a self-confessed Line 6 fan – amps, hardware amp modelers, guitars, audio interfaces, desktop software – I’ve used a good chunk of it and the vast majority of the guitar recording I’ve done in my own production work over the last 10 years has been realised through Line 6 tones. Mobile POD brings that same high-quality amp, cab and effects modeling to iOS and it sounds great. The downside (well, it’s sort of a downside) is that you can only access all these wonderful modeling options if you also buy a Line 6 Sonic Port interface. This happens to be a brilliant piece of hardware – and Mobile POD is then a free download – but it is a shame that Line 6 have not thought about releasing a paid version of the app so that owners of other audio interfaces could benefit from the huge selection of versatile virtual amps.
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5 BIAS

bias logoPositive Grid are the developers behind JamUp Pro, another excellent guitar amp sim app. However, this year, they also introduced BIAS. This is a somewhat different beast to the other iOS guitar amp sims; less the complete amp, cabinet, effects chain and more a virtual amp design workshop. In BIAS you get to go inside the amp itself. Here you can tweak the individual components within the preamp, tone stack, power amp and transformer, including changing valve types and various other virtual components. BIAS is like having a workshop where you build your own custom amp…. but there is no soldering iron or possibility of electrocution or explosion.

For geeky, tone-hound guitarists, BIAS is the guitar amp version of a synth-fan’s modular synth (for example, Audulus). The level of control is brilliant but, once you have got over the novelty of this, what really impresses is the quality of the results. The range of high quality tones available is massive and, while BIAS can be used as a standalone app, that you can then take your self-made amp model into JamUp Pro to integrate it into a broader signal chain, is just the icing on a very tasty cake.
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Special effect

Over the last year Audiobus has become pretty much an essential ingredient in the feature list of most apps aimed at musicians and, with the more recent addition of IAA, it is becoming much easier to link audio from different apps together. All of which has led to a flurry or dedicated effects apps that can be patched into your audio signal chain. Some of these have really impressed but my personal ‘best of’ selection would include the following four iOS effects apps.

6 Audio Mastering

audio mastering logoWe are still waiting for a truly top-notch audio editing app under iOS and such an app is really the platform that most people would use in a desktop computer environment for a little bit of DIY mastering. However, even in the absence of the more generic audio editing functions, we do have a pretty good mastering option; Audio Mastering by Igor Vasiliev. Igor is also the developer behind Master Record and Master FX, both of which might well have made this list but Audio Mastering fills a gap in the iOS audio production workflow that, outside some IAP options within Auria, don’t get satisfied elsewhere.

Audio Mastering might not have all the bells and whistles of something like iZotope’s Ozone on the desktop, but for iOS, Audio Mastering is a brilliant balance between ease of use, functionality and very useable results. If you need to add a little punch and sparkle to your final mix, this is a great solution for the iOS-based musician.
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7 AudioReverb

audioreverb logoWhen it comes to mixing song-based material, there are a few effects tools that everyone needs. EQ and compression would be included here but so would reverb and, if you feature vocals in your music productions, you want the best quality reverb you can get your hands on. There are a few choices for dedicated reverb apps under iOS but the one I tend to reach for most often is AudioReverb from VirSyn. It sounds good, includes some excellent presets and offers a nice range of controls for tweaking your reverb to suit. It can’t quite match what’s available on my desktop system in terms of absolute quality but, given the price, it is a remarkable bit of software.
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8 AUFX:Dub

aufxdub logoEcho or delay effects are another commonly used tool in a recording context. Jonatan Liljedahl’s AUFX:Dub is probably the pick of the bunch here. As with all the AUFX series apps (and, incidentally, I also regularly use AUFX:Space as a dedicated reverb), the interface is very clean and straightforward to use while the app itself doesn’t place much of a load on your iPad’s resources. The bottom line, however, is that the app sounds good and is capable of producing some excellent delay treatments. How anyone could have the nerve to complain about AUFX:Dub given the pocket money price is beyond me….  top-notch.
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9 Turnado

turnado logoOf course, effects are not all about everyday and subtle; they can also be about in your face and extreme. And that’s pretty much where apps like Turnado come in. There are some other audio mangling apps out there that are also well worth experimenting with but, for me, the stand-out app in this class during 2013 is Sugar Bytes’ Turnado. I use this in both its desktop and iOS format and both are brilliant. Turnado offers a smorgasbord of multi-effects that you can patch together in all sorts of creative ways and the possibilities are endless. It also includes some excellent control options making it very easy to ‘play’ the effects in real-time.

There is a price to pay however – and no, that’s not the usual UK£13.99, although currently discounted UK£6.99 asking price which, even at the higher level, is still a bargain – but the learning curve. This is a deep app that requires you to put in some serious time if you want to fully exploit what it has to offer. If you want instant effects gratification then look elsewhere but if you are prepared to invest the time required, the rewards will come. Brilliant.

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Get a onesie

I’m not sure if this is a world-wide phenomena but here in the UK at the moment there is a bit of a thing going on for the article of clothing known as the ‘onesie’. This ‘all-in-one’ fashion item is not something I’ve personally invested in (the idea of what is essentially an adult baby-grow outfit doesn’t appeal) but, when it comes to ‘all-in-one’ electronic music production apps, I’m more interested. NanoStudio is perhaps the classic iOS example here but, late in 2013, we saw the arrival of another interesting example….

10 Caustic

caustic logoIn iOS terms, Caustic is pretty much brand new and I have not, as yet, reviewed it on the Music App Blog website (although it is nearly done so I might have published it by the time you read this). However, Caustic has been around on the Android platform for some time but the current release – v.3 – represents Single Cell Software’s first iOS version. I’ve only spent a little time with the app so far (so, to some extent, this is a bit of a wildcard choice on my part) but I have to say that I’m impressed. Like NanoStudio, this is electronic music production system in that you don’t get audio recording facilities (well, only in that you can record audio samples). However, what you do get is a very intriguing and powerful set of virtual instruments covering subtractive, additive, wave-based, 8-bit and FM synthesis plus a beatbox and a Roland 303 clone. Also included is a modular synth, pattern based sequencing, audio effects and automation. Individually, none of the virtual instruments are super-sophisticated but, as a collective, they are most certainly capable of creating some excellent results.

Visually, Caustic is a bit like looking at a version of Propellerhead’s Reason that was designed for Windows 3.1; a rack-based set of virtual instruments, effects and mixing tools with a somewhat retro design. At present, it is very much a stand-alone app as there is no Audiobus or IAA support. That said, it is so well stuffed with features I think a lot of electronic music producers are going to have a lot of fun with Caustic on their iPhones and iPads during 2014….. Very impressive and great to finally see it under iOS.

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Honourable mentions

Yes, this is a top 10 list and I’ve now used up all of my ten choices….   but this is my blog so I guess I’m allowed to bend the rules slightly if I feel like it :-) Anyway, it would also be remiss of me not to mention a few other highlight apps that 2013 has bought for us and that could easily have appeared in the list above. So, also in no particular order, here are a few others worthy of honourable mentions….

Cotracks

cotracks logoIf you have real friends (that is, people you know who are sometimes in the same room as you rather than on the other end of an internet connection) and like the idea of collaborative music composition using a single iPad, then Cotracks is well worth checking out. The interface is brilliantly conceived, allowing you to switch between display modes suitable for a single user, two users or four users. And while it is simply a lot of fun to use, it is also a seriously good tool for electronic music creation.

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Traktor DJ

traktor dj logoI’m not a DJ but my friends that are into this kind of thing and who have occasionally let me embarrass myself by fiddling with their turntable setups tell me that Traktor DJ is a cracker of a DJ app. It is great fun to use and, in the right hands, I suspect would be more than capable of running your DJ gig from (particularly if hooked up to a suitable hardware controller). A genuine challenger to Algoriddim’s also excellent djay 2.

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Thesys

thesys logoI thought my step sequencer days were over but then I discovered Sugar Bytes Thesys for iOS. This has to be the most powerful and sophisticated pattern-based sequencing tool I’ve ever used. Like Turnado (also from Sugar Bytes), Thesys is deep and takes some learning but it is a wonderfully creative tool and, for information, the desktop version is just as good. Particularly interesting is the ability to set different step lengths for different elements of the pattern (notes, controller data, etc.) as this allows you to create some very cool evolving patterns.

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Apollo

apollo logoApollo – or, to give the app its full title, Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth – is still a work in progress (as developer Patrick Madden from Secret Base Design is happy to admit) but the concept is brilliant and much needed. Essentially, Apollo allows you to connect either two iOS devices or an iOS device to a Mac and send MIDI data between them. There are still gremlins to be resolved (not all to do with Apollo; MIDI implementation in some iOS apps is, frankly, a bit on the shaky side) but the potential is obvious. Sharing the musical workload between two iPads has obvious upsides, while the ability to integrate your collection of top-notch iOS synths into your desktop music production system (providing you use a Mac that is) with such ease has clear potential.


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AutoTune iOS

auto-tune ios logoThis selection isn’t here because AutoTune iOS is a nailed-on implementation of Antares desktop plugin AutoTune 7 in an iPad-sized incarnation. In truth, AutoTune iOS is nowhere near that capability. However, there is potential here…. Whether we like it or not – and whether some music producers are happy to admit it or not – pitch correction software is now pretty much ubiquitous in the world of modern music creation. On the desktop, it is slick, powerful and capable of both corrective and creative duties. AutoTune iOS is perhaps the best indication yet that the same level of technology is on its way to iOS. You don’t have to use it obviously….  but everyone else will.

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And 2014?

Whatever your thoughts on my particular selections above, it is difficult not to be impressed and excited about the progress made for iOS-based music production in 2013. Is it the ‘perfect’ music production platform yet? Absolutely not….  but it has moved forward significantly and is heading in the right direction. So what might 2014 bring? Well, hopefully more progress but I’ll save some thoughts about my New Year’s wish list for another time.

Until then, however, I’m more than happy to be told I’ve got it all wrong :-)  I’d therefore be interested in your own thoughts about your favourite app that appeared during 2013. While I’ve been lucky enough to try lots of new music apps over the last 12 months I certainly haven’t been able to try them all so, if you think I’ve missed something special that has become one of your favourite music-making tools, then leave a comment and share it with the rest of us….

Until next time…..  happy music making.

John

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    Comments

    1. I just serendipitously discovered an app that I don’t think you’ve mentioned on your blog. It is called Chordbot, and is absolutely fantastic for laying down practice tracks to jam against, experimenting with chord progressions (including inversions, octave shifts, slash chords, etc), and easily trying out the same progression with a plethora of arrangements and styles. It is really quite stunning and very easy to use, especially considering the sound quality, flexibility, and power. It’s a real home run.

      • Hi Matt, thanks for this suggestion. I must admit that I have Chordbot sat on my iPad but, as yet, I have not really found the time to get to grips with it…. but now you have prompted me I do my best to put that right. There really are so many cool music apps out there that it is often difficult to keep up…. but it’s a good thing they are there :-)

    2. great list.. i’ve taken your advice on a lot of these (sugarbytes has me in their pocket right now..)
      traktor is AWESOME but it’s lack of any sort of midi implementation at all (other than the proprietary NI controller) is super lame… NI did this w/ their launchpad software as well…
      looking forward to trying out bias when i get a suitable guitar interface (as i am as well a guitarist first.)

      • Hi Brandon, thanks for the kind words…. I empathise with your comments about MIDI implementation…. I think MIDI is perhaps the key functionality area for iOS to resolve during 2014…. At present, things are just too variable between different apps. It’s one of the reasons I think MIDIbus is an interesting idea in that it is trying to provide a ‘standard’ for one element of the MIDI communication between apps…. It’s a shame that some apps can’t be fully exploited because the MIDI functions are either restricted or just flaky…. Best, John

      • Oh, and BIAS really is very good indeed…. :-)

    3. Jayson Vein says:

      Awesome list John! Enjoyed reading through it. Even though I probably won’t delve into Turnado, it appears to be a great app. I hope to get Nave soon. As a guitar player, I still am amazed at apps like Sunrizer and Magellan, to name a few(more).

      Bias is a completely insane app. I can’t believe the sounds that are possible with it, and thrown into JamUp, itis beyond incredible.

      I would really like to try out AUdio Mastering too. In your opinion, would Auria plug-ins, would Audio Mastering Suffice for? I don’t have a ton of cash to spend on apps or IAP at the moment. Was hoping to be able to get an app like AUdio Mastering, and maybe do a little of what some of the IAP plug ins in Auria do.

      As always, great blog, excellent post.

      Jayson

      • Hi Jayson… thanks for the kind words. Have to agree with you re BIAS/JamUp as a combination…. brilliant stuff. Re mastering and the Audio Mastering app. The nice thing about this app is that it puts the key processes all together in one app. It gives you a decent level of control but without being too brain melting in terms of the options available. In an iOS context, I think that is a sensible approach… In of Auria, it already has some effects that would be useful as ‘mastering’ tools if used on the main stereo output bus – EQ, compression and limiting, for example…. but the FabFilter Pro-C, Pro-L and Pro-Q and the FXpansion DCAM BusComp would all do a better job than Auria’s own effects in this context; more control offered in all cases. While excellent tools, they are, however, quite expensive once you and them all up and also more complex to use than Audio Mastering’s ‘all-in-one’ solution…. I guess it depends upon how confident you are in using these sorts of tools (and how flexible your credit card is)…. Hope this helps? Best wishes, John

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