2015 has certainly been another eventful year of iOS music making. As ever, we have had to deal with the annual cycle of both hardware and software updates from Apple. Fortunately, the introduction of iOS9 proved to be somewhat less traumatic that the arrival of iOS8 twelve months previously. We have also seen the introduction of new iOS hardware with the obvious highlights being the first sight of 3D Touch on the new iPhones and the larger format iPad Pro.
There are a few things that also have promise but, perhaps as yet, have not quite delivered on the obvious potential. The Audio Unit plugin format within iOS9 is the most obvious item here; we have seen a taste of what it might offer but we need more developers to get on board for the AU format to succeed. The new Ableton Link sync protocol also looks very promising but, as it has only been with us a few weeks, it is still early days. Again, we need more developers to get on board.
We have seen some of our favourite iOS music apps updated – and I’ll perhaps give a few of my personal highlights later – but we have also had the introduction of a brand new crop of brilliant iOS music apps.
So, if Christmas delivered your first iOS device, and you are looking to populate it with some of the best apps of 2015, which apps should you choose? I’ll add the same qualifier here as I’ve done in previous years; any ‘top apps’ list is bound to be a totally subjective selection but, if you want the Music App Blog take on the top ten app highlights of the last 12 months, then here goes…..
Last year, I suggested Korg’s Gadget was my absolute stand-out app of 2014. I’m not sure there is quite such an obvious candidate in 2015 but I’m still happy to identify my personal ‘app of the year’ choice; Olympia Noise Co’s Patterning. If you have not yet read the full Patterning review or tried the app for yourself, then don’t miss out. Patterning is – quite simply – brilliant; beautiful to look at, so very clever in terms of the programming options and, as far as I’m aware, unique as a drum/rhythm programming environment (iOS or desktop).
So what is Patterning? Well, at one level, you could use it as a conventional pattern-based drum machine where you get eight parts (drum sounds; although as the sound sources are sample-based and you can import your own samples, you are not restricted to just conventional drum sounds), can create multiple patterns (each with up to 64 steps but also with variable step duration so there is plenty of scope for break-neck madness or extended, multi-bar, pattern creation) using those eight sounds within a project and then sequence those patterns along a timeline to create a ‘song’ arrangement.
You also get Audiobus support, triggers for Audiobus Remote, IAA support, MIDI sync and MIDI out (so you can capture your Patterning patterns into a DAW/sequencer if you wish) and, added recently, support for Ableton’s Link technology.
So far, so good but also pretty much ‘conventional’ in terms of any sample-based, pattern-based drum machine. However, the really interesting stuff is happening on the Pattern screen. The bulk of this screen is dominated by the larger, circular, pattern editing section. This is filled with eight concentric circles – yes, one circle for each of your eight sounds – and the circles zoom in and out of ‘focus’ as you switch between different sounds. This means you can see the patterns for all the sounds all the time but the pattern for the currently selected sound is ‘zoomed in’ so you can see it in more detail.
The obviously interesting thing here is that you can, if you wish, create a pattern where, for example, the kick and snare patterns use 16 steps but the hihat might be set to 17 steps. And, if the step lengths are set to the same values (for example, 16th notes), as the pattern loops, the first time through, when the snare/kick pattern reaches beat 1, the hihat will still be playing beat 17 of the first time around…. and on the next completion of the 16 step kick/snare, the hihat will have only reached step 15… and so on…. With each repeat through the pattern, the hihat pattern becomes offset to the kick/snare by one beat…. get the idea?
The bottom line here is Patterning is a complete joy. Even if just used as a ‘conventional’ drum machine to create ‘conventional’ drum patterns, it is still an excellent choice simply because the design is easy to use and very easy on the eye. It is far from shabby in terms of the included sounds either…. for electronic drum/rhythm programming, this is a very cool sound set covering a range of musical styles.
And then you can add in all those rhythmic variations – different step numbers for different layers, auto-rotate options and the probability options – create one simple pattern using these features and I suspect you could leave it for quite some time without hearing the same pattern repeat. This is a hugely creative rhythm creation environment.
It is also beautiful to look at and, while functional software can be both great and very effective, there is something very appealing about just looking at Patterning as it does its stuff…. don’t underestimate the positives of being good to look at… it will keep you coming back.
Like Sector (which made my top 10 iOS music apps list for 2014), if Patterning was available in a VST/AU format, I think it would go down a storm… and I’d be first in the queue to buy a copy. Patterning is a brilliant piece of software that just happens (at present anyway) to be iOS only. While the rest of my ‘top ten 2015’ selection are not listed in any particular order, Patterning does come in as my personal no.1.
Patterning – review – currently UK£5.99
There hardly seems to be a week go by and we don’t see a new synth app released. This year has seen some great synth releases but there were two highlights for me and one of those is Korg’s iM1. Korg’s Gadget and Module both made my top 10 iOS music apps for 2014 list so, whether it’s just that I’m a Korg fan-boy or they actually make top-notch iOS music apps… well, I’ll let you decide… but, for my money, iM1 is a belter.
As can be guessed from the name, iM1 is a virtual recreation of Korg’s classic hardware synth from the late 1980s – M1 – and that became an almost instant ‘classic’. If you have listened to any amount of music made since that time then the odds are you are already very familiar with how the M1 sounds. It has been used by almost everyone and his dog and appeared on countless hit recordings.
There are huge range of presets sound available within iM1, both included with the base app and via a couple of very inexpensive IAPs. You get Audiobus, IAA and MIDI support, all well implemented. The synth is also multi-timbral so, if you wish, you can use up to eight different sounds at the same time each assigned to a different MIDI channel. Oh, and if you also own Gadget, then you automatically get access to the iM1 sounds via Gadget once you have iM1 installed.
And while the range of presets means you can always find something close to what you are thinking in your head (and the sounds themselves are generally excellent), this is also an app with some pretty sophisticated programming options if you like to dig in and tweak your own sounds. This is both a comprehensive synth sound source (for the preset fan) and a tweaker’s delight. The interface is as slick as the sounds and Korg’s iM1 comes highly recommended.
Korg iM1 – review – currently UK£10.99
Of course, not everyone who plays a synth aspires to be a synth programmer. Many musicians just want their synths to be a source of top-notch presets that, if required, they can tweak a couple of key parameters on and, otherwise, just get on with the job of creating music. If that’s you, then SynthMaster Player from KV331 has you covered.
On first release, the app sounded great and, while the base app is free, with a huge selection of presets available from some inexpensive IAPs, this could easily become your ‘go to’ synth for electronic dance music styles. It also has the expected Audiobus, IAA and MIDI support. The original version also came with an easy-to-navigate, if rather functional, user interface but, at the start of December, the app received a substantial visual makeover and now feels as slick as it sounds.
There are plenty of control options provided and, despite the ‘player’ tag and the underlying concept that this is primarily a preset machine, there is enough control to tweak your sounds in some key (but very easy to use) ways. But the highlight is most certainly that collection of sounds; while the app might not offer the deep programming fix that some synth-heads require, it sounds great and for ‘users’ rather than ‘programmers’ could easily slot into the role of ‘key synth sound source’. My only other comment is that, having tried the iOS version, I’m now also hooked on the desktop version and it is brilliant in that environment also.
SynthMaster Player – review – base app currently free
There are all sorts of different ways to approach the creation of drum parts in modern music. However, if you are into electronic music styles then a fully-blown drum synth is one of the more obvious options. Technically, Elastic Drums was launched in 2014 but it arrived late in the year and I didn’t actually review it until the first week of 2015…. so, having been deprived of a spot in my 2014 list by a technicality (my bad!), I thought I’d better consider it this year. I didn’t have to consider it for long though; Elastic Drums is a shoe-in for the 2015 top ten iOS music apps list.
Since release, developer Oliver Greschke has continually kept things moving with Elastic Drums and the app provides a combination of powerful pattern creation, song construction, an excellent ‘jam’ mode, all the technical iOS support expected (universal operation, Audiobus, IAA, MIDI and, recently, Ableton Link) alongside a set of drum synth engines, each of which is designed for the creation of specific types of drum sounds.
It’s the last of these features that perhaps lets Elastic Drums stand out from the (somewhat overcrowded) sample-based drum machines available under iOS. Yes, some of these are brilliant in their own right but, in designing the synthesis options available within Elastic Drums, Oliver has struck just the right balance between flexibility, easy of use and impressive sound. OK, there is quite a lot going on when you take the app as a whole (so new users should expect to bit of a learning curve) but the results are most definitely worth it. And, at its usual asking price, Elastic Drums is both brilliant and a bargain.
Elastic Drums – review – currently UK£4.99
There are some great choices when it comes to ‘groove station’ type software under iOS but, for me at least, UVI got the design of BeatHawk pretty much spot on when it was released at the start of the year. BeatHawk includes a 750+MB sound and instrument library and, as well as beats, promises multi-sample instruments, sampling, time and pitch stretch of samples and a 16-track (that is, one ‘track’ for each of the 16 pads), pattern-based sequencer. The initial release included IAA, Audiobus and CoreMIDI support as well as AudioCopy, WIST and import and export of audio. UVI have also offered additional sample packs via IAPs.
The strength of this app is not its ‘do everything’ feature list. Instead, UVI focused on those features that are most likely to be genuinely useful (the app is a classic bit of 80:20 design) and, as a result, the app doesn’t feel cluttered and the workflow, while still powerful, is pretty easy to get your head around. This latter element is made even easier by the very slick graphical design. Here’s hoping UVI keep it moving forward and the obvious ‘most wanted’ feature would be support for the new Ableton Link protocol.
If you ever hankered after a hardware groove workstation but are deterred by the price, if you happen to own an iPad anyway, this is a heck of a lot of software for a very modest price.
BeatHawk – review – currently UK3.99
While the vast majority of iOS music apps perform what might be described as ‘conventional’ music making functions, I’m not sure that’s a label that you could hang on SoundScaper. Indeed, developer Igor Vasiliev’s own tag line for the app as an ‘experimental sound mini lab’ is a bit of a giveaway that this is not your average iOS music app.
In essence, SoundScaper provides you with up to three oscillators that can be combined to create your sound. These are not like a more conventional synthersizer oscillator (they are, frankly, a bit weirder than that). They do, however, use an audio file as their original sound source (which some synths also do) rather than a more standard waveform generator. Once you have picked an audio file (or files), you can then process it via SoundScaper’s various virtual circuits.
You get filtering options, LFOs for dynamic control of various parameters and the ability to ‘place’ the three sound course within a three dimensional space (left/right and near/far). This latter effect is configured by the large X-Y pad – termed the Spatial Mixer panel – that dominates the top-centre of the main display. This spatial position can be put under LFO control so you can automate how your three sounds move within the virtual space.
Tapping the Control button for any of the three oscillators opens up the full Control pane and it’s here that things can start to get (a) seriously weird in terms of sound and (b) rather more experimental in terms of what any of the specific controls are actually doing (or virtually doing as this is a digital model of electronics).
The end result of all this virtual electronics is an audio tool that could easily be used in a professional sound design context. If you needed to make some electronic bleeps and drones for a suitably hi-tech action/horror movie, then this is an app that could provide a toolset to do it. For experimental musicians and sound design fans, SoundScaper is as close to a no-brainer as you can currently get. Perhaps not such an obvious choice for the more conventional musician but, as a virtual lab for weird and wonderful journeys into sound, SoundScaper is a joy and a bargain to boot.
SoundScaper – review – currently UK£3.99
As any regular reader of the Music App Blog will be aware, I’m a bit of a fan of what Sugar Bytes do both under iOS but also on the desktop. There software can, on occasions, divide opinion. I don’t think anyone would deny that is can sound great but, for some users at least, the graphical design is sometimes a case of rather too much stuffed into a space that’s rather too small.
OK, I get that, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to use Cyclop, Sugar Bytes port of their desktop monophonic bass synth to iOS. The main screen of Cyclop is dark, industrial and packed with an abundance of features. On a full-size iPad – and with fairly nimble fingers – it’s not too much of a challenge to use but I’ve certainly been glad of my extra screen space since running the app on my iPad Pro. However, that challenge aside, Cyclop is just an app that keeps sucking me in. It is capable of some huge sounds – and bass is actually only just part of that palette – but the feature set is a heck of a lot of fun and the options for tweaking sounds, adding effects (there is a mini-Effectix-style FX sequencer build in) and real-time control are great.
The sound engine features a number of different modes and, along with the modulation options, this means you can coax quite a range of sounds from the app. Yes, it is quite good for bass – and can do some rather top-notch dubstep bass sounds with ease – but if you want some aggressive mono synth sounds – bass or lead – this is a great choice. Maybe not one for every iOS musician but the more experimental peeps into electronica and EDM will find plenty of ways to put Cyclop to good use.
Cyclop – review – currently UK£18.99
Flux:FX is another app that made it’s debut very late in 2014 but that I didn’t get to review until the first week for 2015. In terms of basic functions, Flux:FX is a multi-effects processor and can be used for both conventional and creative effects applications. You can select up to five individual effects processors from the choice of around 30 and the five effects can be placed in any order within an effects chain.
The effects themselves are very good indeed and feature loopers, dynamics, distortions, EQs/filters, modulations and delays (including reverb). For each of the five effects slots, this includes an individual X-Y control pad and you can easily assign any of the effect’s controls to this via the interface. You then get very easy real-time control of the effects and there is also a ‘sequence’ mode where you can change the parameters of each of your five effects on a step-pattern basis.
Take it as a given that effects themselves sound good and that there is plenty of flexibility in terms or editing each effect. However, what sets Flux:FX apart is the beautiful design of the interface. This is an app that sounds great but is also great to look at and work with.
Audiobus and IAA are included as is MIDI Clock sync (Ableton Link would be good to see added at some stage) and, while the app has not actually been updated since the release of iOS9, it actually seems to work well under the new version of iOS and performs well on my iPad Pro. Developer Noiise added an iPhone version in November (fewer editing features but the same collection of effects) so development is obviously still on-going. Here’s hoping that both versions are given the continuing support they deserve as Flux:FX sounds great, looks great and is a pleasure to use.
Flux: FX – review – currently UK£14.99
My final two selections could perhaps be seen as some as ‘updates’ to existing apps rather than ‘new’ app releases but, as the developers involved launched them as new apps – and because I think both, in their own way, represent significant steps forward in their own categories – I’ve cut them (and myself) a little slack and included them here within my top ten selection. There is, of course, a different discussion to be had about ‘upgrade’ vs ‘update’ vs ‘new app’ but, in neither case here, should that more general discussion be seen as a distraction from what are excellent pieces of software.
For some users, BIAS FX from Positive Grid is JamUp Pro v.2 and, while I think that is an argument with some merit, there is no denying that BIAS FX is a heck of an app. There are plenty of virtual guitar rig modellers available under iOS but, in terms of features and sound – and the novel way BIAS FX links with Positive Grid’s BIAS Amp amp design app – BIAS FX is most certainly one of the best options available.
The app’s underlying modeling algorithms were re-written from that used in JamUp to fully exploit the rapid advances made in iOS hardware and I think that does make for a better – and more believable – sound. The base app includes more than enough virtual guitar kit to keep you busy and, whether you want ultra-clean or ultra-hi-gain, BIAS FX can do it. There are, of course, also lots of additional IAPs you can dip into if you want to expand your choices.
While I’ll add a qualifier that – as with any iOS amp modeling software – you need to make sure you are getting a high-quality audio signal from your guitar into the app, you don’t have to spend long listening to some of the demos of BIAS FX to realize this is capable of some great guitar tones.
BIAS FX – review – currently UK£7.99
Well, we had to wait some time for it but, eventually, just as the year drew to a close, Auria Pro appeared. Yes, this is available as an ‘upgrade’ to Auria but I think WaveMachine Labs have done more than enough here to justify the ‘this is a new app’ status they have given Auria Pro.
Now, as regular readers will know, I’m a Cubasis (and Cubase) user and, just as Steinberg have done with Cubasis, I think there are merits in designing music apps with feature sets that are streamlined to fit the capabilities of the more compact resources mobile music hardware offers. However, in Auria Pro, I’m not sure that’s the design ethos that WaveMachine Labs have gone for. Instead, what we have is something hugely ambitious; a DAW/sequencer spec that would not look out of place on a desktop computer but delivered in an iPad app.
The audio side of Auria has always been top of the class and all that functionality – and more – is retained in the Pro version. However, you also get a pretty powerful MIDI recording/editing environment, a compact selection of virtual instruments and some very interesting bells and whistles such as groove quantizing. Oh, and all this functionality is topped off by a visual redesign that gives Auria Pro a sleek, modern, look.
WaveMachine Labs have already released a couple of technical updates to the app to deal with some initial fixes and, as some users have already reported, to realize the considerable potential the app offers, it’s a good idea to be running a more recent iPad (it works very well on my iPad Pro for example). But, all that said, Auria Pro sets a new standard for an iOS DAW/sequencer. As with the original release of Auria, this is ground-breaking stuff and, whether you buy into it for yourself or not, I think Auria Pro is going to provide plenty of food for thought for other iOS DAW/sequencer developers and, for iOS musicians, raise the bar of expectation as to what is possible under the iOS format.
Auria Pro – review – currently UK£39.99
2015 has, of course, bought us more than ten stellar new apps and, while the list above represents my personal top ten, it would be a shame not to also add a few ‘honourable mentions’. For example, how about the work done by Klevgränd Produktion this year? They have released a number of new iOS music apps, all of which feature innovative designs, a focused feature set and great sounds.
Equally, how about the rather cute – and ridiculously inexpensive – Floral Project apps from Timothy Barraclough and Paul Mathews. These effects apps are easy to use and easy on the CPU. No, they might not have all the features some users might like but for no fuss effects on a budget, they are all well worth a look and the overall ‘floral’ concept is classic ‘iOS indie’ through and through.
Or how about a couple of alternative MIDI sequencing tools like midiSTEPs and Fugue Machine? Both of these offer something just a bit different from a standard ‘desktop style’ MIDI sequencing environment and, as a consequence, both bring something original and very creative to the music making process.
Oh, and how about Music IO, Studiomux and Audreio? In somewhat different ways, all three apps have helped make the integration of your iOS music production system with your desktop Windows/OSX music system that much easier. No, this technology is still not perfect or totally seamless, but to be able to do bi-directional, multi-channel audio/MIDI transfer between iOS and desktop using nothing more expensive that a simple app and your standard Apple USB/charging cable is quite a trick.
And as a couple of final mentions, DFX (as an alternative multi-effects option to Flux:FX mentioned above) and Diode-108 (as a classic sample-based drum machine but given a brilliant modern twist in an iOS app) are both worth a look.
Updates of the year?
We have seen lots of great updates to existing iOS music apps over the last year (indeed, some readers might well place two apps in my top ten list in the update category rather than the new release category). However, before wrapping up, I would like to give three apps a special mention here; Steel Guitar, iSymphonic Orchestra and MultitrackStudio for iPad.
The only instrument upon which I claim any degree of real competence is the guitar. However, despite coming from an old-school, classic rock upbringing, I’m not much of a slide player; I like the style but I’ve never spent enough timing honing my own skills at it. I am also a bit of a fan of country music (am I allowed to say that?) and the pedal steel….
All of which got me champing at the bit to try out Yonac’s massive update for their Steel Guitar app when it was released back in May. I wasn’t disappointed and 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, the bundle IAP is an absolute steal.
There is one other observation worth making. 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 easier 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 subtlety 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…
As someone who’s own music production is mainly in the field of media music, I tend to use a wide palette of sounds and dabble is all sorts of different styles of music (jack of all trades, master of none I’m afraid). I do, on occasions, therefore, make use of orchestral sounds. I’m lucky enough to own some pretty good orchestral sample libraries on my desktop system but, when I’m working on iOS, the choices are more limited.
Fortunately, we do have iSymphonic Orchestra. I was in something of two minds when I first reviewed the app in 2014. The potential was obvious but I think the app’s blurb at the time of the original release rather overstated the case. However, Crudebyte have, much to their credit, over the course of the last 12 months, really upped the ante. The app has seen new features introduced (we now have Audiobus as well as IAA) but the really impressive thing has been the excellent additional sounds made available via IAP. Yes, by the time you have coughed up for a few of these then the app is certainly not in the ‘budget’ category, but in terms of the quality of the sounds, it really is very good.
I think we are still waiting for a ‘Kontakt for iOS’ sample player and, in particular, something that features key-switching between different performance articulations…. but, in iSymphonic Orchestra, Crudebyte have – for orchestral sounds at least – all the raw materials required. It will be interesting to see if they can bring that final technical feature to the app as some point in the near future.
My third ‘best update’ selection is not an app I use regularly but it is one that I think deserves a special mention; MultitrackStudio for iPad. Giel Bremmers iOS DAW/sequencer app does have a hard-core following and, when you dig in, has a sophisticated feature set. However, my own particular tip of the hat toward Giel is for making MultitrackStudio the first app to host the new AU plugin format. That he got in their ahead of Apple themselves (AU support is, apparently, on its way for Garageband for iPad) and blazed the trail is hugely impressive and, again, shows the power of an environment that lets indie developers compete. Another app mentioned above – midiSTEPs – has now also added AU hosting support of AU instrument plugins and, while we are at it, well done to Arturia for creating the first AU virtual instrument in iSEM.
And what of that iOS music making future? What might 2016 bring to the party? Well, I’ll perhaps save some speculative crystal ball gazing for a different post but here’s hoping that, alongside the next ‘top ten’ apps list, we also see some consolidation and workflow refinements. We have some potential technologies here that can bring such benefits – AU and Ableton Link, for example – but we need developers to grasp the nettle (and to be able to see the profit margin in doing so) if these technologies are going to deliver.
Until I dust off the crystal ball in a few days, however, I’d be interested in your own thoughts about your favourite app of 2015. As I mentioned at the start of the post, this is a purely personal selection and, 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, or you simply disagree with my own choices (independent thinking always encouraged), then leave a comment and share it with the rest of us…..
Until next time….. happy music making.