We’re past the point where recording music on a mobile device is a novelty. True: 90% of all music apps are still more like toys than equipment, but there are now a great deal of applications that can legitimately be used – productively – for creativity. And as far as music production goes, the app market itself has matured to the point where some of these applications are very powerful indeed.
Nobody’s suggesting that your entire studio can now fit on a phone. That’s not it at all. So why use a mobile device?
Maybe you’re on the run.
Maybe you’re not at your studio.
Maybe you just have a thought and want to jot it down before you forget it – similar to a notetaking app like Evernote (which itself is not a word processor or coding app… but can be used for that if it’s all you’ve got handy or even just open.)
There might have been a time that these were the sorts of things that the cool kids laughed at from behind their $10,000 home studio, but not anymore. While you’ll probably still want an audio interface for any of these if you plan to use them seriously, there is a dedicated niche for them, and it’s growing.
Here are three that we took on a test run and fit the bill both in price and capability for tablet or phone musical creativity:
Auria & Auria Pro
The first app that many felt was prime-time and ready to use for real music production. Made by WaveMachine, which also made the Drumagog plugin, Auria Pro has a supremely hardcore userbase who absolutely swear by it.
Auria was one of the first DAWs for mobile devices that provided something beyond a crippled version of the “real” application, and it easily surpassed its early competitors. While apps like Cubasis have come on strong, Auria has stayed neck-and-neck with the competition thanks to some significant upgrades to their MIDI handling. The last stumbling block for some users was the user interface, which received a much-needed facelift with Auria’s recent upgrade.
Auria boasts a unique multi-format sampler (Lyra), plus a version of Drumagog, midi sequencing, tempo and time signature tracks. Auria supports SFZ, EXS and SF2 formats so you can add your own sound, but is also renown for its quality instruments. The reason for Auria’s diehard userbase is that word again: “quality.” From day one, Auria has used as many tricks as they could dream up to streamline rather than cripple features that a user expects to find in a DAW.
After a recent rebuild, there are now two versions of Auria: “basic” for $29.99 or “pro” for $49.99. If you wanted to start making music today, this might be the first app you buy, and it might last a surprisingly long time before you decide you need something more.
Cubasis is the awkward title of Steinberg’s sequencer for iPad. The best part about it is implied in its name. “Cubasis” used to refer to crippled, introductory versions of Cubase. Now applied to its iPad product, if you use Cubase on your desktop, you can seamlessly copy projects from Cubasis in a usable, native format.
Cubasis uses much of the UI, textures and unique features from Cubase – if you’re a fan of Cubase for the desktop, you’ll know what to do almost right away. You’ll also have some of Cubase’s quirks, like its inspector or the “handles” on parts.
In the four years since release, things have changed a lot but Cubasis has expanded rather than bloated its app. Boasting full Core MIDI support, Cubasis supports the use of both MIDI and audio tracks. The latest version also takes advantage of iOS 9’s Audio Unit function, so any apps you own that also support inter-app audio can work with Cubasis (but the main hook here is Cubasis’ support for the bane of mobile apps today – dozens of FX packs via in-app purchases.)
Gadget is the end product of close to a decade of Korg’s continual refinement. The “synth studio in a box” (or slab of plastic & glass), Gadget boasts superb editing functions, cable patching and automation.
For ease of use, Gadget uses an elaborate sort of metaphor for music production. Instead of multiple synths, Gadget uses, uh, “Gadgets” – digital “instruments” used for a theme of sounds named after cities, e.g. Chicago is for acid/303. The knobs have distinct names too, rather than a series of numbers – the knobs can be tweaked to add more “bite” or “gnaw” in the case of “Chicago.” (One notable flaw: you can only use one effect from a gadget at a time.)
Anyway, the metaphor goes like this: “Gadgets” play “Notes”; these “Notes” are organized into “Clips”; these “Clips” are in turn organized into “Scenes” and these “Scenes” finally are organized into “Songs.”
Gadget has built-in Dropbox and Soundcloud integration, meaning that one can use it to jot down some notes or ideas and then export them as a WAV for more serious work on a home studio. The main problem with a lot of serious music production apps however is one which Gadget shares: how to cram enough knobs and switches onto a fairly limited screen to make legitimate work while still being clean and usable by normal-sized fingers.