2014 has certainly been an eventful year of iOS music making. On the one hand, we had the introduction of iOS8 and, while for the the general user I think this iteration of Apple’s mobile OS has some significant new features, its arrival certainly posed a bit of a challenge for iOS musicians (a challenge that we are, to some extent, still dealing with). Eventually, I’m sure iOS8 will bring benefits for us – you know, just before iOS9 gets launched :-) – but, for many iOS music makers, ‘smooth’ would not be the word they would use to describe the transition from iOS7.
However, on the other hand, 2014 has also seen some fabulous developments on the App Store. Some long-standing favourites have seen welcome updates, including the likes of Cubasis, Auria, Thor, Nave, Arctic ProSynth, Mobile POD, BIAS, Audio Mastering, AudioReverb, AUFX:Dub, Turnado and Caustic (many of these were on my ‘top ten for 2013’).
And then, of course, we have had the introduction of a brand new crop of brilliant iOS music apps. It is still possible to identify a few obvious gaps in the iOS music software market that, at some stage, a developer or two will hopefully come along and fill, but we have had some stellar new arrivals during the last 12 months.
So, if Christmas delivered your first iOS device, and you are looking to populate it with some of the best apps of 2014, which apps should you choose? Any ‘top apps’ list is bound to be a bit subjective 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 here goes….. The first app aside – which is most certainly my own personal no. 1 pick – there is no specific order here other than the date of the initial release; they are all, in their own way, brilliant pieces of software.
Incidentally, a number of these apps are, at the time of writing, on sale pricing for the festive holiday period. Not only are they brilliant but, if you are quick, you might also grab them as an even better price than usual.
Launched early in 2014 at the time of the annual winter NAMM show, Gadget caused quite a stir on release. When I reviewed the first release I did suggest this was a contender for ‘iOS music app of the year’ and, 11 months on, I think that is a statement to stand by. Indeed, Gadget would be my own personal ‘app of the year’ by quite a stretch.
Gadget can be used with other apps but, at its heart, it is an all-in-one electronic music production app where a number of different virtual instruments (‘gadgets’ in Korg speak) that can be combined to create your finished production. However, the interface is ultra-modern and the MIDI sequencing environment with its ‘scene’ concept is slick and, in iOS terms, quite powerful.
The instruments cover a range of synth types and drum machines and are all easy to use. However, Korg have made plenty of noise about future developments for Gadget including the possibility of introducing audio tracks. That would help the app cross over into the DAW market and would open it up to a wider range of potential users. However, even so, this is a powerful and brilliantly conceived piece of software.
One point is worth repeating here; the ‘all-in-one’ music production approach, while they are not closed (you can export your productions into other apps such as a DAW for further work and Audiobus and iOS8 support is provided) the advantage is that you only have to learn one app. In terms of actually getting some music made (as opposed to getting distracted by all the possibilities offered by lots of different apps), for those lacking in self-discipline, this can be a good thing.
Gadget – review
There are some brilliant synth apps for iOS and, if there is one category of music app that is overflowing in its abundance, then this is it. Everyone will have their particular favourites depending upon the type of music they make and their personal preference for how complex (or not) they like their synth engines to be but a particular favourite of mine since its initial release back in February has been Cakewalk’s excellent Z3TA+. This has already had a couple of significant updates since it was originally released adding a whole range of very welcome MIDI features.
So, aside from a name that sounds more like a character from Star Wars than a serious software synth, what are Z3TA+’s key features? Cakewalk describe the synthesis engine within Z3TA+ as ‘waveshaping’; you get a large number of basic waveforms to serve as a starting point for the oscillators but you can do all sorts of interesting things to further ‘shape’ those waveforms to create a wider variety of basic tones.
What’s more, you can do this 6 times over as the engine offers six independent oscillators that can be mixed, matched and interlinked and then routed through two filters either in parallel or a dual mode. If fact, there is also a ‘multi mode’ for each oscillator where each single oscillator is stacked into four stereo oscillators that can be detuned. The potential for creating massive sounds is… er…. massive.
The engine also includes six LFOs, 8 envelope generators, a comprehensive modulation matrix where you can define up to 16 modulation sources and have detailed control as to how and where those sources are applied. If all this isn’t enough by way of creativity, add in a well-specified arpeggiator, a number of highly customizable effects options and an assignable X-Y pad and the Z3TA+ is obviously quite a tidy package.
This is a hugely impressive synth app and, with each update, Cakewalk are making it even better. This is a heck of a lot of synth at what is, in reality, a very modest price.
Z3TA+ – review
One of the key elements in electronic music production is the rhythmic groove. There are, of course, all sorts of ways you can approach this element of a production and there are, equally, all sorts of iOS music apps that can be used. However, if you want a recommendation for something at the more creative and experimental end of the spectrum then look no further than Sector (UK£5.99) by Jonatan Liljedahl of Kymatica.
Sector is an audio slicer/re-arranger tool and, while beat slicing is a technology that has been around the desktop for many years, I don’t think it has ever been done quite like this. In Sector speak, these slices are called ‘sectors’ and your loop can be chopped into anything between 2 and 32 of these sectors.
Sector then applies a series of random probability-based rules to control how these slices are then re-assembled. The user can control a range of elements in these probabilities by drawing lines between the sectors (as shown in the screenshot) and giving each connection a relative probability. These probabilities control which sector gets selected after the current one has been played.
In addition, there is also a step-based sequencer where you can override the probabilities and force certain slices to play on certain beats of the pattern. Equally, you can also apply a number of different audio effects (Sector calls these ‘warps’) to a sector on playback.
If this all sound complicated well, in principle, it is but, because the interface is brilliantly designed and, as a new user, you can simply experiment and see what happens while you find your way around, you don’t really get overwhelmed by what is actually a very deep and sophisticated bit of software. Sector is an app that, if it existing in a desktop VST/AU plugin format, I’d buy it in an instant. This is top-quality stuff and endlessly creative.
Sector – review
Final Touch by Positive Grid (the team that gave us JamUp Pro and BIAS) provides iOS musicians with the option for some DIY audio mastering.
As with Igor Vasiliev’s Audio Mastering (which made my 2013 list), Final Touch provides you with a number of processing ‘modules’ that you can switch in/out of your signal chain. This includes two comprehensive EQ modules, a master reverb, dynamics, stereo imaging and a loudness maximizer. Given the flexibility and depth provided, Final Touch perhaps has a slightly steeper initial learning curve than Audio Mastering but there is no doubting that it is a powerful tool in the right hands.
Mastering is both an art and a science and, without some care and common sense, it is just as easy to ruin a mix through DIY mastering as it is to make it sound better. That said, Final Touch provide you with an excellent set of tools to do a decent job so, if you do get it wrong, it’s probably not the fault of the app. These are powerful sets of processing options and, with Audiobus and IAA support, plus plenty of ways to get your audio in and out the app, it is very easy to use with mixes created in other iOS apps.
Final Touch – review
On the desktop, we are well served by some excellent ‘virtual drummer’ software such as BFD3, Superior Drummer 2 and Addictive Drums. As yet, iOS doesn’t really have something that meets these giddy height but the app that gets the closest is DrumPerfect by Marinus Molengraft.
The most important thing to note is that if you want an app that is going to give you the most realistic, programmable, acoustic drum performance you can possibly get on your iPad, then I think that currently, DrumPerfect is it. It sounds great and, with some decent drum samples that make full use of the kit construction features, is sounds very convincing.
Equally, some elements of the pattern creation process are brilliantly conceived – the left/right hand options, the humanize setting, the probability feature – they all allow you to create a performance that feels ‘real’. And as the first major update to the app introduced a grid-based pattern creation environment, building patterns became much easier.
DrumPerfect includes support for MIDI Clock sync, Audiobus and IAA and, while there are still some features of the app that would be great to see pushed a little further (for example, a more comprehensive set of preset patterns to get new users started), for human sounding acoustic drum parts, it is very good indeed.
DrumPerfect – review
Oscilab provides a combination of electronic-style sounds based upon modelled analog synthesis, samples and drum sounds and, as is clear from the interface, the app’s name is derived from the various ‘virtual’ oscilloscope displays you get of the oscillator waveforms and which you can interact with and adjust via the touchscreen.
Essentially, you get six channels of sound with four of these based on the synth/sample engine and two dedicated to drums/percussion. The various preset sounds are very good indeed but the way that you create your own sounds or modify existing sounds makes great use of the oscilloscope-style views and your ability to draw waveforms within them. This is both fun and pretty painless; just tap, drag and pinch to tweak settings for the frequency, filter, amplifier and pan.
There is a fairly conventional (but nicely implemented) drum grid editor for setting up your drum patterns. However, when it comes to sequencing the synths, the approach is somewhat more novel. Pitch variation can be defined by creating a waveform and can either then be controlled by that waveform (essentially continuous pitch variation) or the waveform can then be ‘pitch quantized’ to a scale to produce a more conventional series of notes. Timing and length of notes is then controlled by a strip at the base of the window. This is a really interesting route to creating sequences; intuitive and very quick.
With Audiobus, IAA and MIDI Clock sync now included since the original release, Oscilab is a heck of a lot of fun to work with and offers a very creative use of the touchscreen as an interface for music generation.
Oscilab – launch info
While we have some very good algorithmic reverb apps for iOS, Igor Vassilev’s AltiSpace brings convolution reverb to iOS in a stand-alone format. Not that many years ago, convolution-based processing was something for just top-end desktop computer systems. The initial building block of the reverb effect is an impulse response (essentially a sample) of real space (although you can also create an impulse based upon another reverb processor such as a very expensive Lexicon). The processing then uses that impulse to recreate the same space and applies that reverb to your audio.
The end result of all this is often a very realistic and natural sounding reverb effect but at the cost of somewhat greater processing load. AltiSpace is, to my ears at least, the best quality stand-alone reverb app we currently have under iOS (there are IAP options in Auria that are perhaps as good) and, considering it pocket-money pricing, it is, frankly, staggering what quality you get for such a modest outlay. Yes, it perhaps does add a little extra CPU load compared to other reverb apps but, when you need a touch of extra quality for a key instrument such as your lead vocal, it is well worth the CPU overhead. Again, a app that could find a good home in any iOS music app collection.
AltiSpace – review
There have been lots of new – and very impressive – iOS synths released in the last 12 months but, for whatever reason, iProphet has just sucked me in. Arturia are highly regarded for their virtual makeovers over synth legends and iPhrophet gives us the legend that was Sequential (formally Sequential Curcuits) Prophet VS synth, a hardware classic from the 1980s and that, while failing to save Sequential from its financial difficulties, did help it secure a place in synthesiser history. At UK£6.99, this iPad virtual synth aims to capture the essence of a hardware classic at a fraction of the original price.
Personally, I couldn’t give two hoots whether the iProphet sounds ‘exactly’ like the original (and, frankly, I’d be surprised if it did). What I do care about, however, is that it gives you access to the same style of sounds in a package that I can (a) afford and (b) accommodate. The virtual joystick feature that allows you to transition blend between the four different oscillators works really well and can also be automated.
And no matter how accurately (or not) it actually reproduces that classic sound, if you forget the comparison for a bit, it still just sounds good. As a recreation of a hardware classic, it is perhaps not quite as flexible in sonic terms as something like Thor or Z3TA+ but in terms of features, sound and ease of use, iProphet is spot on. And with iOS8, Audiobus, IAA and good MIDI support, it is also very easy to use within a wider iOS music workflow.
iProphet – review
Sugar Bytes’ Egoist is all about a fast and creative workflow, allowing you to get ideas going quickly. You do this via three sound sources; a loop slicer, a bass synth and a drum machine. In the loop slicer you can slice a loop in a ReCycle-style and and map those slices to MIDI notes. The bass synth is a very simple – but also very effective – virtual instrument and you then get an equally straightforward drum machine – just kick, snare and hihats – with multiple kits to choose from and a diverse set of electronic drum sounds to explore.
On top of the basic sound sources, you also get audio effects. In fact, the effects section is almost a mini-Effectrix with seven different effects – filter, delay, reverb, lo-fi, chorus, tape stop and looper – and you can toggle on/off whether each of the three sound sources pass through this effects chain.
Creating music with these three sound sources and the series of effects is all based around pattern-based, step-sequencing. A project can contain 16 patterns, patterns can be sequenced into one of six Parts and parts can then be sequenced into a Song. So, while you get Audiobus and IAA support within Egoist right from the off, you can also use the app to create a musical foundation that is then easy to develop further via other iOS music apps in your workflow. While the app is supplied with an extensive collection of built-in audio loops covering a range of beats and instrument grooves, you can also import your own audio loops via iTunes file sharing or AudioPaste.
Sugar Bytes always seems to bring a unique take on what might be familiar concepts. With Egioist, they have taken the loop/groove box idea and presented it in a streamlined, efficient, but also great fun, format. Egoist is a joy to use and, as a means of quickly generating some electronic music ideas, is a very cool little tool at a very competitive price. The results can be simple and cool or far enough left-of-centre to create some really off-the-wall music. If you like building your electronic music from loops and grooves, and you like to be able to work quickly, then Egoist is most certainly going to appeal. Highly recommended.
Egoist – review
Last in my personal top ten of 2014, but certainly not least, is Korg Module. This app is intended to provide high-quality, sample-based virtual instruments. The initial release offers five sub-modules featuring acoustic piano, electric piano, organ, clav and ‘multi’ (a range of sounds including strings, bass and synths). The specification includes Audiobus and IAA support – so you can use the app with other iOS music apps – but the modules will also appear as five ‘gadgets’ within Gadget.
Two further modules are available for purchase as IAPs; Ivory Mobile Grand from Synthology and Korg’s own Wurley Electric Piano. Synthogy’s Ivory is one of the better sample-based acoustic piano virtual instruments available on the desktop and is highly respected for its sound quality and realism. To see it offered for an iPad (albeit in a ‘mobile’ edition) is therefore quite impressive.
Korg Module will not be an ‘essential’ purchase for every iOS musician but, if you do crave the very best acoustic and electric piano sounds that iOS can currently offer, then this is the app for you. Korg have also done a brilliant job with the interface; its slick and uncluttered so you can access the high-quality sounds with the greatest of ease.
I think it is fair to say that – just as with Gadget for electronic music production – Korg have raised the bar here for iOS music making using sample-based virtual instruments. Yes, Module is a big application, requires iOS8.1 (or latter) and is perhaps going to like being installed on newer iOS hardware rather than an older iPad but, in testing on my own iPad Air 1 system, it behaved flawlessly.
Given what is on offer, I’ve no hesitation in stating that Korg Module represents excellent value for money. For those that want the best piano sounds available under iOS, and for keen Gadget users, Korg Module comes highly recommended.
Korg Module for iPad – review
Yes, this is a top 10 list and I’ve now used up all of my ten choices…. But it would remiss of me not to mention a few other highlight apps that 2014 has bought for us and that could easily have appeared in the list above. In addition, I asked the regular subscribers to the Music App Blog email newsletter a couple of weeks ago for their own personal favourites of 2014 and I got some excellent suggestions… So, in no particular order, here are a few others worthy of honorable mentions….
I included a couple of synths above but didn’t quite squeeze either Mitosynth or Tera Synth into my top-ten. Both, however, sound great and, in very different ways, offer something just that little bit different in terms of their synth engines to many of the other iOS mega-synths. Both would also make great additions to any iOS synth app collection.
This year has also seen some brilliant iOS effect apps and three that really hit home with me (and obviously a number of you) were Stereo Designer, Effectrix and Vandelay. Stereo Designer is one of the most useful stereo enhancement/treatment applications I’ve ever used (iOS or otherwise), while Vandelay is one of the most interesting ‘creative’ delay apps out there. And, of course, Effectrix is Sugar Bytes well OTT step-sequencer-meets-multi-effects unit; bonkers but great fun.
Other honourable mentions? Well, a few folks mentioned ChordPolyPad – a very powerful MIDI performance app that is deep and highly configurable – and I’d go along with that. Fiddlewax Pro was another app mentioned by a few readers. This also offers a MIDI performance element but also manages to combine that with elements of virtual instrument, MIDI loop-based sequencing and music theory tuition; quite a feat :-)
If you want a ‘free’ suggestion for MIDI pattern-based sequencing, then you might give Auxy a look. This is an app that doesn’t perhaps just yet push all the buttons to make it work in a wider music production context, but it is a cool concept and has lots of potential.
Oh, and let’s also make an honourable mention for what were – in my mind anyway – the updates of the year; Audiobus 2 and Cubasis 1.8. Despite all the issues that have surrounded the launch of iOS8 for those making music, Audiobus 2 bought some brilliant new features. I’m a big fan of IAA also, but the new routing options and the State Saving feature in v.2 of Audiobus, bring all sorts of workflow improvements when trying to work with multiple iOS music apps.
Because I’m a long-standing Cubase user on the desktop, Cubasis has always been my iOSDAW/sequencer of choice since its initial launch. When Steinberg released v.1.8, however, they introduced a very well conceived automation system; not only is the app great for recording audio and MIDI but is is now a pretty capable environment for mixing.
Whatever your thoughts on my particular selections above, it is difficult not to be impressed and excited about some of these individual iOS music apps launched in 2014. Has the year been all positives? Absolutely not…. and if I had to pick a my own personal theme for 2015, it would be to see a consolidation in terms of workflow rather than some further magical new trick for musicians (although I expect we will get a bit of both over the next 12 months). Hopefully progress will be made but I’ll save some thoughts about my New Year’s wishlist for another time.
Indeed, 2015 is almost upon us and there were quite a few ‘late 2014’ arrivals on the app front that I’ll have to consider this time next year. Equally, we are about to start the whole cycle off again with the winter NAMM 2015 show during January. While iOS music products only represent a small part of what goes on at that show, there are bound to be a few interesting announcements… and, as with gadget last year, maybe we will also see a contender or two for ‘app of the year’ launched?
Until then, however, I’d be interested in your own thoughts about your favourite app of 2014. 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…..