If you search “Synth”, “Drum Machine” or “Sequencer” on the app store, you will be presented with gargantuan list of different apps aim to help you create your own music. Many of these are aimed at the average consumer and are fairly simple, allowing you to create a limited range of musical ideas or sounds. However, there are some that enable you to create a wide variety of ideas, offer professional features, and are packed with controls that are easily accessed. After trialing a huge pile of different apps, Perry Callaghan at dBs Music rounded up his favourites...
I have actually been using Figure for quite some time now and of all the apps that I used, Figure is the quickest for actually producing some ideas. It’s fairly simple to use, you can create a 1 to 8-bar sequences, with drums (kick, snare, hats, percussion), bass and lead synths to program. You can set the tempo, key and choose whether to have an arpeggiator or not as well as being able to choose different chords to arpeggiate in the global page. It has a simple mixer section to adjust the levels and the Drums, Bass and Lead along with mute buttons which are great for dropping parts out mid performance.
You can choose from over 20 different drum kits each with slightly different sounds, you can then program the rhythm of each drum which is just how times to will trigger over the course of the bar. You can change the tonality of each drum by moving your finger around the blue space below the drum name, you can then move over to the tweaks page to make some addition changes to the sounds.
Bass & Lead Sections
As with the drums you have the choice of different sounds with 40+ bass sounds and 60+ leads. You can then change the rhythm (how many time the note is played per bar), range (range of notes in the octave you can play) and scale steps (how many notes in the scale that are available to play). Below these controls is the keyboard which is a simple touch controller to play the synth. The tweak page has 2 - 3 options to control which change with each synth setting, some of these include: Vibrato, Delay, Cutoff, Resonance, Envelope and so on. The parameters are controlled in the yellow box which is a grid controller and the parameters here will change depending on the synth parameter you have chosen above.
Overall, Figure is a create app that gives you plenty of options to jam out with while still being simple enough to get to grips with in a matter of minutes. Recording your sequences has been made easy by pressing the record button and then the sequencer won’t begin recording until the first note is pressed. There are no in-app purchases [this is the only app on this list to be like this]. You can save each track with artwork but exporting can only be done through signing up to Allihoopa which is creative sharing platform by the company who make Figure, this app also features Ableton Link. If you aren’t to fussed about exporting your ideas and are just in it for the fun and to kill a bit of time (or loads of time as I found out) then this is a great app to keep those creative juices flowing.
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Out of all the apps I tried out, this was my favourite. It has a very clean professional look to it, you can render your projects to audio and export them to a number of different places (Soundcloud, Google Drive etc), you can add automation to your sounds and add swing to the project. you do have the option to purchase extra sound packs but the default sounds are still really high quality, versatile and you do have a reasonable amount to choose from. Those of you who are Ableton users will find the main sequencer very familiar as it feels similar to Ableton’s clips view.
There are 8 different drum banks to choose from, each with 8 drum sounds inside. These range from dry Hip Hop samples to ambient percussion hits washed in reverb. The sequencer is super easy to use with drum choice going from left to right and the play direction running from top to bottom, you can change the length of the sequence from 1-bar to 8-bars with each bar having 16 steps. You can change the resolution of the sequencer from 16th, 32th, 12th, 24th more precise programming of triplets, you can create rolls by using a more precision grid along with the ‘soft’ function, which is just a lower velocity. There is also a solo option making it easier to hear what you’re doing if you’ve loads of other parts playing.
There are a wide variety of synth sounds to choose from in Auxy, you have phat bass sounds, cutting leads and washed out reverby pads. The synth section has a similar step sequencer as the drums. You have the option to change the resolution, velocity, bar length and solo. When placing notes you are told where the root, 3rd and 5th are in the scale and you can scroll left and right to go between octaves.
There are automation clips below each midi clip, you can draw in quite complex automation graphs for a huge range of parameters including: volume, tone, delay, reverb, shape, low and highpass filters, ducker, pan and pitch. being able to automate all of these parameters enables you to create hugely complex patterns which I was surprised to find in a mobile app.
This was my favourite app out of all the ones that I tried. The ability to write in depth automation on a number of parameters, have multiple drum patterns with different kits and changing the resolution of the sequencer puts this app miles ahead of all the others. It allows you to create different sequences or loops so you can chain them together to create a fully fledged track and not just jam out (which is also really fun to do). If you venture into the settings you have the choice of changing the session tempo, key and scale within that key as well as a couple of other options which makes this app even more impressive.
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Launchpad, along with Blocs Wave work differently to the other apps on the list, while the other apps are mainly based around creating your own drum patterns, basslines and melodies. Launchpad and Blocs give you a range of samples to choose from, these samples can be played as loops, one shots or retrigger. The main screen is laid out into eight 2x3 grids to which you can place any type of sound, for example you can have the top four grids with a variety of drums and bass loops with the others having leads and vocal samples.
The samples that you’re given as standard are of a high standard and do cover a range of genres. You can purchase more sound packs and you can also purchase the ability to load in your own samples which is where this app really stands out. Being able to perform a mini set with your own samples on your phone wherever you go is a great tool to keep your creative juices flowing and also lets you play around with different ideas for remixes.
There are five FX at the bottom of the screen which will affect your entire set when used, these are: High and Lowpass filter, Stutter (which can be set to different intervals), repeat (which again can be set to different intervals), Delay (with 1 to 8 repeats) and a slow down and speed up that mimics vinyl. You can use two effects at a time and then the slow down function on top of that which gives you quite a few options.
I really enjoyed using this app, the stock sounds are good fun to play around with and if you get on well enough with the interface then I would recommend looking into getting the audio import expansion as it opens up a whole new world for performers and producers.
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Blocs Wave is another performance based app as opposed to one being centred around music creation. It is made by the same company who made Launchpad and has a similar feel to it. The operation is quite different and so are some of the features. You have a grid of eight squares at the top of the screen where you can place loops and you have six of these grids to change between. You then have four icons, the first (and main one) is where you can automatically assign and cycle through samples to place on the grid at the top. The second is a directory of all the different samples that are split into genres which you can scroll through and then assign to them to the grids.
The third, and possibly the most interesting, is the audio editor. The audio editor is a rather unique function among music making apps, in this mode you you can choose the start and end point of the loop as well as its length. The volume, panning can also be adjusted. There are a few extra options which can be purchased here including EQ, audio importing and sample slicing. If you were to purchase all of them (which would cost you £13 in total) this would enable you have quite a powerful tool at your disposal. Alternatively, you could chop everything up and apply EQ within your DAW and then just purchase the audio import function (£5.99). Finally, there is the record tab, this lets you record in audio through your phone’s microphone at a length of 1, 4 or 8 bars, or, infinite, you can also change the number of bars you get for your count in which can help you catch the tempo if you’re beatboxing or tapping on a table.
As with Launchpad this is a very well designed app with some excellent features that you can get lost in for hours. The cost of the in app purchases can be a bit high but if you’re getting full use out of this app often enough then they could come in handy. Both Blocs Wave and Launchpad would sound great being plugged into a portable speaker or even a larger speaker at home to let you play small sets at a house party or out with your mates.
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Garageband is easily the most complex app on this list, but it is also the one with the most functionality. I must first add that it is helpful to have some experience with some sort of DAW before using this app as it can be quite difficult to navigate, however, those with the patience to learn this app will be greatly rewarded. There are a bunch of great sounding instruments here that are all taken from Logic and Garageband, and even a couple that aren’t featured in those DAW’s at all! Once you get your head around the interface and start programming some notes you realise that the range of music that you can create in this app is quite broad. The download for this app is about 1.6GB and with that you get a lot of sounds bundled into a variety of instruments and styles.
Sounds and loops
On top of all these instruments you can also import third party instruments and download other instruments, sounds and loops. FOR FREE! There are quite a lot to choose from for every type of track. Those of you who are familiar with the Garageband and Logic will find the interface familiar, you can clearly see the MIDI regions and have the loop over the length of your session or chop them up to come in in different parts of the track. Each instrument has an echo and reverb which works the same as sending to an FX channel.
You also have a compressor and EQ for each channel with numerous controls and can swipe the icons at the left for a mixer. Once you have created your track, whether it’s an 8 bar hip hop instrumental or a 64 ambient soundscape (the max bar length for a project is 640 bars) you have some FX that are applied over the entire track, which allows you to perform your track and have a play around with the structure. The FX include a filter, repeater, wobble, reverb, orbit and delay, these are shown on a grid with different parameters on the X and Y axis. There is also a stutter and bit crusher as well as reverse and vinyl slowdown.
This is a very powerful app with a stack of features and instruments that is practically impossible to cover everything in this feature, if you have a bit more time on your hands then I would recommend getting to grips with this app as you can get some real complex and almost fully fledged ideas down.
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