Software Reviews: Music-making apps
The new generation of tablet device heralded by Apple's iPad has major implications for creating music on the move. Here's our pick of the apps.
GarageBand for iPad
Platform: iOS (iPad only)
Launched in 2004, Apple's GarageBand application redefined the entry-level music making software market, putting a selection of essential features (audio and MIDI recording, software-powered instruments and effects) into a friendly and easy-to-use interface. GarageBand for iPad arguably marries the revolutionary software to its perfect piece of hardware.
The mobile application certainly has its roots in the desktop one, but also adds a few next-gen features of its own. Most notably, you have 'Touch Instruments': keyboards (pianos, organs, synths etc), guitars (acoustic and electric) and drums ('real' and electronic). These can be strummed or hit via the iPad's multi-touch interface, with the audio results impressive, and the whole experience great fun. If your keyboard, guitar or drum playing skills aren't up to scratch, you can fall back on 'Smart Instruments'. These help you to create competent-sounding parts by auto-generating grooves and riffs.
The Touch Instruments are certainly GarageBand for iPad's most eye-catching element, but they're not all that the app has to offer. There is a simple sampler, and you can also record audio tracks via the internal microphone or one of the many dedicated third-party interfaces. These recordings can be customised with effects and guitar amp emulations. You can also plug in a MIDI controller keyboard and access the Smart/Touch Instruments.
Arrangement and mixing of your recorded tracks is done in GarageBand's timeline. This enables you to build up songs section by section, though you can record everything in one long take if you're a live-performance purist. A small selection of audio loops is included, with more available to import, and it's even possible to paste audio from other music making apps that support this feature. Finished tracks can be exported to your computer via iTunes, and GarageBand project files are compatible with the Mac version if you want to transfer between hardware optiond.
GarageBand for iPad isn't perfect; whilst you can quantise Touch Instrument recordings there's no way to correct sloppy playing by editing individual notes, for example. However, it is extremely elegant, hugely inspiring and enormous fun. What's more, it costs just £2.99; if you've got an iPad and have any interest whatsoever in making music on it, it's an essential purchase.
Platform: iOS (iPhone, iPod touch, iPad)
With GarageBand for iPad grabbing so many headlines, it's easy to forget that when it comes to producing complete pieces of music on your iOS device the Apple product is far from the only game in town. In fact, many other apps covered similar ground far earlier, and Music Studio was one of them.
Recently updated to version 2, Xewton's offering is a very capable mobile recording solution that actually trumps GarageBand in some respects. It lets you edit your software instrument recordings on a piano roll grid, giving you the option to tidy up your performances if they're not up to scratch. You get a good selection of instruments to play and record with, too: keyboards (pianos, organs, synths), guitars, basses, orchestral sounds (strings, brass, woodwind) and a variety of acoustic and electronic drum kits.
If these aren't sufficient, you can buy additional sound packs as in-app purchases. The instruments can be played via either the onscreen keyboard or pads; if you switch to the latter option when you have a melodic instrument selected, you can automatically play various different chords.
Audio tracks are a new addition to version 2, and enable you to record external sounds or import compatible files. You can edit these in the waveform display or in the main arrange window.
The 'tracks' display, in which you can flick between the various screens via tabs at the top of the interface, makes it easy to build and mix. Various icons at the bottom of the interface enable you to accomplish simple editing and arranging tasks, with available effects including reverb, delay, EQ, amplifier and filter.
Music Studio supports a wide range of audio and MIDI interfaces, and is flexible when it comes to import/export options. MIDI files can come both in and out, and your finished projects can be exported in WAV, AAC or MIDI formats and via email, SoundCloud, Wi-Fi or iTunes file sharing.
Although not as slick as GarageBand for iPad, its look and feel are slightly more serious, and it also benefits from being a universal app that will work not just on the iPad, but the iPhone/iPod touch, too.
Single Cell Software
Android, frankly, is not the equal of iOS when it comes to music making. Whilst iOS has standards that make it relatively easy to create software that enables you to record and play back audio and MIDI data at low latencies, Android simply isn't geared up to the same level. Developers have struggled to make the hardware and operating system work together efficiently enough to produce useable music-making apps.
All is not lost, however, because we do have Caustic. This is designed with electronic musicians in mind – you can trigger sounds that are in the application itself but there's no facility to record audio tracks.
The concept is similar to that of Propellerhead's Reason, a Mac and PC application that gives you a virtual 'rack' of devices that you can use in combination to create music.
First up, there's the Beatbox, which comes with a range of drum kits and has the feel of a classic hardware drum machine. Patterns can be programmed in a step sequencer for use in your songs. The Bassline synths are also inspired by old-school hardware (Roland's TB-303, to be precise) and again come with step sequencers that enable you to construct patterns.
Next up there are two PCMsynths, rudimentary devices that are based on a pitched WAV file (some come included and you can import your own), and there's also a more complex and 'tweakable' instrument known as Subsynth.
That's the noise-making devices covered: to bring them all together you have a simple mixer with EQ and effects (reverb and delay are offered 'globally' and other effects can be inserted on each track individually) and a sequencer. Here, you can arrange the patterns from the Beatbox and Bassline synths and program parts on a piano roll grid for the PCMsynths and Subsynth.
Caustic might look primitive compared to the best of its iOS rivals and it won't record your band, but it will let you create complete tracks on your Android phone (assuming it has the specs to run it) and is also a fun musical sketchpad. *
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