Whether you want to quickly get down a guitar riff or map out some infectious beats, there’s an iPhone app for you
If you’ve ever fancied yourself as a bit of a pop star, the iPhone — odd as it may seem — is an ideal tool. Its blank-slate nature (in terms of the screen) and sheer power (in terms of its innards) have led to hundreds of virtual instruments appearing on the App Store. You can get everything from high-end digital takes on vintage synths to simple guitar tuners.
For this round-up, we’re looking at apps that enable you to write songs — fast. This is all about intuition and fun rather than complexity. Such apps are perfect for people who like the idea of making music but have never tried, but also cater to songwriters and seasoned musicians who want to get tunes down on the go.
In all cases, we strongly recommend using a decent pair of headphones with these apps. Your iPhone’s speaker can’t really cut it when you’re trying out for your first hit.
Size: 627 MB
It should probably come as no surprise to see GarageBand on our list. Ever since its launch, Apple’s app has become a kind of yardstick for audio on the platform, and its capabilities have continued to grow.
For the beginner, you get a bunch of smart instruments, meaning you can cobble together songs from automated drums, guitars, bass and keyboards. Well, we say ‘beginners’, but these tools are great for everyone — if you just want to ensure a quick idea that’s come to mind isn’t lost, you can get a beat and some chords down in seconds.
More seasoned musicians will find plenty to love, too, including guitar amps, MIDI note editing, basic sampling, and a mixer. The app’s rather weighty and some of the synths sound a bit naff, but otherwise this is an excellent tool for creating a diverse range of songs, wherever — and whoever — you happen to be.
– Hugely versatile
– Great for beginners and pros alike
– Some iffy synth sounds
– Massive download/install size
Size: 39.5 MB
Developer: Propellerhead Software AB
Swedish developer Propellerhead Software has been making music apps for over 20 years, and is well-known on PCs for the likes of ReBirth and Reason. These apps harked back to classic electronic kit that by the 1990s had become hugely popular in dance and electronic music.
Figure is in fact a mobile sibling of Reason, with drums and instruments based, respectively, on the PC app’s Kong drum machine and Thor synth. What you don’t get with Figure, though, is Reason’s complexity. Instead, there’s an intuitive, beautiful touch instrument surface, which enables you to rapidly build up some bangin’ loops.
No previous experience with music is really necessary. You can define rhythm, range and scale by turning virtual dials, and then tap or drag across the surface to play notes or adjust instrument effects. You can hit REC to record at any time, and solid sharing support makes it easy to send your file to friends and upload it to the likes of SoundCloud, even if the Share sheet’s oddly hidden behind a login.
– Really easy to use
– Fantastic interface
– Sounds are a bit samey
– Sharing requires sign-up
3. Novation Launchpad
Price: Free + IAP
Size: 270 MB
Of all the apps in this round-up, Novation Launchpad requires the least amount of effort to get something great-sounding out of it — but it might even be the most fun. On launch, you pick a genre and are then faced with eight sets of three-by-two button grids. Each button is labelled with an instrument and an indication of how many bars it will last; tap a button and its loop starts playing at the next opportune moment.
You can have eight loops running simultaneously, and can trigger (or disable) multiple buttons at once using multitouch. Regardless of what you select, the music always sounds great, thanks to some very obvious hard work on the part of the developers. To add a little extra character, there are several dynamic effects, such as button-based gaters, stutters and delays, and a filter surface you drag your finger around on to radically change how your tune sounds.
Your performance can be recorded and shared, and further sound sets can be bought via IAP. And if you get really into Novation Launchpad, there’s an ‘audio import’ IAP for loading in your own loops and sounds.
– Insanely fun to use
– Fun effects and filters
– Effects controls (when open) cover half the screen
– Really only for electronic music fans
Price: Free + IAP
Size: 98.6 MB
Beatwave owes a lot to mid–2000s Yamaha instrument Tenori-on. That curious device eschewed standard inputs for a grid of tiny buttons. Pressed-down buttons were ‘on’, whereupon samples would be triggered when the looping playback head hit the relevant positions.
Although an iOS Tenori-on exists (oddly named TNR-i), it’s a little complex, whereas Beatwave strips the grid-synth concept right back. You simply tap or drag on the grid to add or remove notes, and the result is always in key. To add complexity to your song, up to four layers can be used, each with a different instrument.
The app bundles a number of sounds, but plenty of extras are available via IAP, such as synths, bass and effects. Also, while Beatwave is suitable for figuring out song ideas or just playing around, its loop-based nature makes it ideal for ringtones — and, indeed, a $1.99/£1.49 ringtone IAP is one of the available options.
– Beautiful visuals and audio
– Easy to be creative with
– Can sound a bit plinky-plonky
– Tab-based UI is a touch muddled
Size: 14.3 MB
Developer: joerg piringer
The idea with RealBeat is to utilize the world around you, making music with whatever comes to hand. This is done by using your iPhone’s built-in microphone to record tiny samples of audio, which can then be manipulated inside the app. For each sample you add, RealBeat attempts to crop the best bit, although you can fiddle with the results, along with adding reverb and other effects.
Once you have a bunch of samples, a simple sequencer enables you to fashion them into beats and rhythms, and bars can then be strung together into a full song. During live playback, a large pad provides the means to add and manipulate effects in real-time.
From a visual standpoint, RealBeat isn’t exactly a looker, and it can be a touch opaque to use. But perseverance reaps rewards, and we can’t think of too many other iOS apps that can turn five minutes of frantic action with a spoon, a saucepan and a cooker into a funky head-bobbing hit.
– Fast-paced sampling
– Encourages creativity
– Somewhat opaque interface
– Sample start/end point tool isn’t great
Price: $4.99/£2.99 + IAP
Size: 195 MB
Developer: NATIVE INSTRUMENTS GmbH
In a sense, iMaschine feels a bit like a mash-up of some of the other apps in this feature. It’s primarily a tool for building loops, rather like Figure, although the interface is rather less streamlined. It also encourages you to use microphone input, like RealBeat, but it also includes a load of synth and drum voices for you to add to your compositions. Like both of those apps, however, it’s a lot of fun.
Each of the four tracks can be defined as Pads, Keys or Recorder. Pads gives you a four-by-four grid, for tapping out a rhythm using one of the built-in kits. Keys is for adding synth riffs and bass, using slightly fiddly on-screen keyboards. Recorder is designed for microphone input, although you can alternatively record samples into Pads sets too.
Although iMaschine is perhaps less immediate than some of the other apps tested, videos on the developer’s website show how once you master the app, you can in very little time build great grooves that can be uploaded or used as the basis for a larger composition elsewhere.
– Great mix of synths and live sounds
– Lots of opportunity to experiment
– Not terribly immediate
– On-screen keyboard is fiddly
The best of the rest
$1.99/£1.49 • 41.8 MB • v1.2.2 • Uwe Oestermeier
Noodly looping ambient music plaything. Rotate your device for different sounds, and tap the water’s surface to play. Recording is included.
$4.99/£2.99 • 12.1 MB • v2.15 • Contrasonic AB
Chord-based songwriting tool. You add chords and choose from a backing style. Handy for getting ideas down or creating backing tracks.
DM1 for iPhone
$1.99/£1.49 • 80.5 MB • v2.2 • Fingerlab
99 drum kits squeezed into a surprisingly small app. Great for bashing out rhythms, but the sequencer and song composer add scope.
$13.99/£9.99 • 72.9 MB • v1.44 • Blip Interactive Ltd
More or less ‘GarageBand pro for iOS’ minus the guitars. Includes tons of fantastic synth presets, a smart sequencer, and a sample editor.
Take Creative Vocal Recorder
Free • 67.0 MB • v1.3 • Propellerhead Software AB
Attempts to do for vocals what Figure does for electronic music. Some clever ideas, but a touch lacking in usability.
$0.99/69p • 0.9 MB • v1.6.4 • Rodrigo Yanez
Teeny-tiny but surprisingly versatile mono drum machine/chip-tune maker. 16 sounds. Eight bars. Endless fun.