On this page
- Why this guide exists
- Exportability and singleness of purpose
- Microphone adaptors
- iPhone / iPod Touch microphones
- Bluetooth interfaces
- Studio shells
- Tripods and stabilizers
- MIDI inputs
- 1/8in guitar input (i.e. GuitarJack)
- Discussions about input devices
- Want a feature in an app? Ask for it!
- Multitrack recording apps
- Studio and sequencer apps
- Looping apps
- Learning apps
- Single instrument apps
- See also
There are some decent tools for music recording, editing and mastering on the iPhone or iPod Touch, but whether you'll really want to commit to learning the tools and using the specific hardware for the job depends on your ultimate goals. If you want to be able to get working almost instantaneously, the limitations of music tools and instruments inspire creativity in you almost as much as the features, and you value ultra-portability, it might be worth it to explore the iPhone as a real tool. If you want to push the boundaries of what a little touch screen can accomplish musically, you'll also probably have a satisfying experience.
Conversely, if you're looking for an experience and tool set like you'd get with Logic, Ableton Live, Nuendo or Reason, you will soon find yourself frustrated and out hours of research and ramp-up time. If the lack of fade in and out envelopes on tracks in a DAW is a deal breaker for you, then maybe I can save you a bit of heartache and suggest you invest the time in the tools you already like using.
That said, the future is bright. Already, Apple dropped restrictions for third-party support of hardware, meaning that hardware and software can have two different providers. Bluetooth keyboards are now compatible, meaning that DIY pedal banks for hands-free recording and looping can become a reality. There are already a couple of 25-key keyboards available. There are MIDI and direct-line guitar / bass inputs. There are some nice microphones, and ways to use other mics as well. It will take a bit of time for all the software to built support for these hardware tools - for example, I don't think any of the below mentioned apps support keyboard operations - but many of them are talking about it already.
The wide adoption of the iPad is helping drive development for richer iPad apps, and some of that work is getting pushed back to the iPhone and iPod Touch versions. Apps are being actively developed, and the narrowness of focus of some of these apps means that many of them are more polished than their desktop counterparts (if there even are desktop counterparts). Whenever I bumped into something I wanted from an app, a search through the developers forums revealed that other people wanted it to, and the developer had mentioned that it was something they were planning on including in the next version. Most of the popular apps support methods of copying and pasting audio between apps, making it possible to use one app for rhythm, one for guitar emulation and another for vocals, and mix them all together in yet another app.
If you're looking for a robust recording / editing / mastering environment from the iPhone or iPod Touch, you might be disappointed now, but you might very well find one in the next several months.
On my list of priorities, right under being a kick-ass father and husband and mastering the craft of my livelihood, is becoming a competent musician. But because the other priorities along with feeding myself, exercising and a maintaining a minimum of personal hygiene take up the vast majority of my waking hours, there's precious little left to spend on the lesser priorities, even if they're only fourth on the list.
Over the years, I've boiled down my music workstations to a fairly simple set of tools that facilitate relatively rapid set-up. Sometimes that workstation is my Martin acoustic guitar and a notebook, and other times it's a couple of MIDI keyboards and a laptop running Ableton Live and Reason. But, however humble these setups might be, they still require a particular environment (i.e. no one else is around) and in the case of my electronic setup, it takes a 5 to 15 minutes to boot everything up and figure out what I want to work on. It's enough that I can count how many times I've actually sat down and worked on something over the last three years on two hands. At that pace, I'm not going to hit the 10,000 hour mark required for mastery until well into my next life.
So, I began exploring my other options and discovered that with $50 or so of software, I could turn my iPod Touch (generation 4) into a respectable pocketable studio as well as leverage it as a rapid learning tool. And, since I made a permanent space in my pocket for an earbud case, all I need is one free hand to compose a melody, to learn how a tune I want to learn is put together, or lay down a sick beat, and I can do it anywhere. The other night I played with looping while on walk. One night I goofed around with a little electronic piece while laying in bed. Basically, I've found a way to take advantage of the small spaces between my other tackling my bigger priorities and leverage them to make some headway in musicianship.
It took a while to figure out what was out there in terms of hardware and software as well as what the current limitations are. So, I combined my personal experiences and research along with some great reviews and guides out there into a single document that should help other people seeking a pocketable mobile studio get started with a lot less time and effort than it took me.
If you find this guide helpful, I would be grateful if you'd post back about your experiences and anything that you learned along the way.
One thing I had to get used to right off the bat is that most apps do one thing and do it well, and the trick to getting them all working together is support of audio copy and paste. So, where you might use Nano Studio to create a nice synth track, and Beatmaker for the beat, you will be copying the audio from those apps into a multitrack app like Multitrack DAW or Fourtrack to stitch everything together. Luckily, many of the best apps out there support this kind of copy and paste, and many of those that don't have it planned for the next version.
Because you'll be hopping from one app to another, using an iPod Touch or iPhone that supports multitasking adds some additional speed to the process.
My first thought was that it would be perfect to have the right set of adaptors to use any mic with the iPod Touch. I have a cheapy lapel mic with a 3.5mm plug and a Shure 58 with an XLR plug, and would rather be able to use these than have to buy a dedicated iPhone mic. I bought a number of components off of Amazon, some of which worked, some of which didn't.
The first thing I needed was a microphone / headset splitter so that I could monitor the audio while recording. I bought one called the Headset Buddy ($14.65):
There's another, sexier-looking adapter with a right-angle plug here ($24.50), which I did not buy:
The Headset Buddy worked to connect my dinky Cyber Acoustics ACM-1 lapel mic ($1.48 + $5.99 shipping):
As well as my Plantronics .Audio 645 headset ($27.96, which happens to have really good sound, better than about 5 other headsets I tried):
When I tried it with an Olympus ME52W ($15.89), which I bought to use to use my iPod Touch as a wireless mic when I give talks, it didn't work. There was no sound:
When I talked to Olympus support, they suggested that maybe the problem was that the microphone was mono. You can tell it's mono because of the single stripe on the plug, and if you look at the other two mics above that did work, they have two stripes indicating they're stereo, so that might be the issue.
Next I bought a 3.5mm to XLR adapter ($8.50) to try to hook my Shure 58:
Unfortunately, when I plugged this into the Headset Buddy this also produced no sound. The 3.5mm end is stereo, which maybe conflicts with the theory that the mic has to be stereo to work. However, it's also possible that the power the Shure 58 pulls is too much or too little and doesn't trigger the right response in the iPod Touch.
One suggestion I read about was to use a special iPhone to XLR / headphone adaptor ($23.50), so instead of using a separate mic / headphone splitter, you'd plug this guy directly in:
I haven't gotten to try any specifically iPhone / iPod Touch mics besides the built-in mic for the iPod touch G4 (which so far really bites the big one, especially with the terrible interference when wifi is on) and the ones on both the Apple earphones with mic ($29.00) and Apple in-ear headphones with mic ($79.99), both of which appear to have the same quality mic:
However, after readying a dizzying number of reviews, there are a few that seem to rise above the fold. These mics plug into the connector jack, and some of them do so in a way that covers up the headphone jack, so if you use an iPod Touch rather than iPhone, you need a dock extender like the
iExtend ($19.97) (now discontinued, but the Dock Extender product below is still available):
or Dock Extender ($28.95):
The microphone that seems to get the most play is the [Blue Mikey] ($79.99), with the 2.0 version coming out in late October 2010:
I'm really excited to give this one a go, but can't quite justify the cost yet. Reviewers say it has great sound, and Blue is a brand that I've run into when researching respectable podcasting mics.
The Belkin TuneTalk ($49.18) is a stereo microphone recorder that includes a 3.5mm microphone jack and a USB power plug (important for supplying power during longer sessions). The folks at Harmonicdog (makers of Multitrack DAW) thought the included mics had too small of a signal to be practical for studio recording. You would also need a dock extender to use headphones:
Griffin iTalk Pro
The Griffin iTalk Pro ($79.95) also supplies a 3.5mm microphone jack, but has an on-board microphone and speakers (speakers could be fun for live performances using the Guitar app).
The iPhone OS 4 supports Bluetooth keyboards, but as far as I can tell, none of the apps below support keyboard controls. If I'm allowed to dream, I would imagine a keyboard with a rotating connector doc that allows you to work with the iPod Touch or iPhone in landscape or portrait mode. Also, one thing I'd really like is the ability to trigger loops hands-free with pedals, and a Bluetooth interface would be awesome for this. I built one faux-pedal bank from a wireless keyboard once (inspired by this DIY example), and it was workable, though a little clumsy. There's a nice tutorial on creating a real foot pedal bank that uses the keyboard schema here. So, as long as keyboard triggers are supported by an app, there would be some way to get foot pedals involved. So, we're waiting on apps to support Bluetooth.
To really keep this aspect of the gear pocketable, you could use a virtual laser keyboard ($149.99) or a flexible waterproof pocket keyboard ($14.95).
Bluetooth could also be used for external piano keyboards as well.
There are a couple of 'shells' out that add a number of microphones, controls and input jacks as a case around your iPhone / iPod touch. I also haven't gotten to try these out yet. They run a little on the spendy side, and also add some overhead to my goals of rapid execution and portability. They're small, but they won't fit in my pocket.
First off, the Belkin GoStudio ($98.96) adds two mics, 2 combo XLR / 1/4in jacks, a 3.5mm mic jack and controls for gain and volume. The reviews aren't so great and it apparently sucks a lot of power, but it sure looks cool:
The __Alesis ProTrack ($172) looks even cooler, and appears to add the same functionality as the GoStudio, along with phantom power for condenser mics:
Gorilla Mobile tripod
I saw a few examples of ways to hold the iPod Touch when performing, though I haven't tried them myself. The first is the Gorilla Mobile tripod ($25.30), which sucks to the iPhone or iPod Touch with a suction cup. Alternately, you can use adhesive-backed adaptors to attach to a protective shell:
You can also flip the suction cup idea and use a car mount ($12.29) to suction to a table top (for an example, see this video demoing the Everyday Looper app around 6:40:
The photo below shows another neat setup, but I don't know what exactly is being used. You see three iPhones clipped onto a metal bar. The video for this, demoing Beatmaker and Guitar is pretty slick.
Right now, it looks like MIDI is on the verge of becoming real for the iPhone and iPod touch. There are a couple of devices, but since they're not supported by the apps mentioned below, they're not really useful yet for pocket studio.
The MIDI Mobilizer ($69.99) allows you to capture and backup MIDI data with their MIDI Memo app, but it seems like this device wouldn't be practical for music creation until other app developers integrate with their SDK.
The Akai SYNTHSTATION25 ($99) is, as far as I can tell, the first MIDI keyboard controller for the iPhone. Since it's new it looks like only the Akai SynthStation app is supported, but hopefully other apps will add support over time. I would prefer to use the MIDI Mobilizer so I could use any MIDI input, but this seems like a good second choice if apps chose to support it.
The iConnect MIDI is due to come out in January, 2011, and it looks like it might offer an interface similar to the MIDI mobilizer, with a way to route from a MIDI device through an iPhone app. The pic below shows an example of it being used with the iPad, but it will also interface with the iPhone and iPod Touch. See some clarification from the creators below.
The GuitarJack ($199) adapter, which comes from the folks at Sonoma, makers of FourTrack, adds a 1/4in input for a direct guitar in, 1/8in stereo mic input, and a 1/4 headphone jack. Pretty spendy, but slick:
Much of what I learned about the above devices came from a few sources. I found that the forums for music recording apps usually have some good information, including:
Before I leap into the different apps I've tried out, I wanted to say that a lot of the developers of these apps are very responsive to support and feature requests, so I've included links to forums below each of the app descriptions. Also, you can search the forums for keywords around the features you'd like to see if they're already in the works.
There seem to be two leading multitrack recording apps, FourTrack ($9.99) and Multitrack DAW ($9.99). Both support audio copy / paste.
So far, I like Multitrack DAW better for a few reasons:
- You can view the tracks as horizontal sound waves
- You can edit the tracks with precision using cut and paste
- You can have up to 24 tracks
The interface is very simple, and there's not a lot to it.
Click here for the forums on Multitrack DAW
Fourtrack was one of the first apps I've bought, and I still have yet to use it for much. The interface is beautiful, polished and straightforward. It also has some nice effect controllers. But, the 4-track limitation, as well as the lack of a method of editing a wave once it's recorded, makes Multitrack DAW appear far superior.
Click here for the FourTrack forums
One of my favorite music apps so far is NanoStudio ($14.99). It includes a real, flexible synthesizer with 80 or so presets and a drum kit for instruments. It then allows you to record and arrange parts in a sequencer. It includes advanced features like editing or automating the velocity, pan and various controls for each track in the sequencer. You only get 6 tracks (4 synth and 2 drum pad), but apparently you can switch presets partway through a track so you can get a lot more out than meets the eye. The presets are a lot of fun, and the number of controls to work with allow you to make unique sounds.
Click here for the NanoStudio forums
Beatmaker ($9.99) is basically a really nice, flexible drum pad and sequencer. I haven't gotten to play with it much, but the interface is nice, the sounds are solid, and some of the features seem like they could be a lot of fun in live performances, like the ability to reverse or mute pads. Beatmaker supports audio export so you can lay down a rhythm track and load it into one of the multitrack recording apps.
Click here for the Beatmaker forums.
I haven't gotten a chance to play with Music Studio ($14.99) much, but it looks promising. It has the same kind of feel as NanoStudio, but uses samples of real instruments and probably because of this is able to allow 128 simultaneous tracks. The keyboard controller is also really flexible (stretch and slide), and it just seems to have a nice interface all around.
Click here for the Music Studio forums.
I've found looping to be the key to really enjoying a few minutes of music making. You can use your voice or stuff around you to lay down some repeating tracks to riff off. For my laptop, I love Ableton Live, and would really like to see something similar for the iPod Touch / iPhone. There's a couple apps that come close.
One of my favorite finds ever is Loopy ($4.99), and I prefer this to the Everyday Looper only because it allows you to have variable-length tracks. So, one track can be 4 measures, and the next can be 1 or 16. Having this ability is really critical for me to not feel overly constrained (though I have still had fun within that constraint) by the tool. I think the interface is kind of genius, though it can be tricky to work with at times. It's also beautiful and has Imogeen Heap's approval.
Click here for the Loopy forums.
Everyday Looper ($5.99) has one of the starkest interfaces I've seen for the iPhone. It's also very easy to use, and has intuitive controls. Because all the loops have to be the same length, it's a little harder for me to use as a scratchpad, but it's still very cool, and has some great demos on Youtube.
Click here for the Everyday Looper forums
As I started exhuastively researching apps, I finally decided to download TabToolkit ($9.99), an app that really surprised me. What it does is take various versions of tabulature (like basic guitar tabs on speed) and displays the musical notation, the tabs (i.e. where you put your fingers), and then highlights the spots on a guitar fretboard. Then, you can play the thing, and it will play it for you. You can stop at any time and scroll back or forwards as you learn. Some of the formats also include other instruments like vocals, drums and piano, so you can pretty much take apart a complex song, piece by piece, and learn what goes into it.
It also allows you to download tabs from within the app and add them to your library. A few places that have good tabs:
There are no forums for Tab Toolkit, but they do have a blog.
Another app that has been great so far for learning has been Guitar ($3.99). Guitar is a virtual guitar that you can strum, and it feels surprisingly natural. You can set two rows of buttons to any chord you'd like, as well as custom tune the guitar and build custom chords. You can also set a button to display a scale, or a plain fretboard. I've played with it for maybe 3 or 4 hours and have really been enjoying it. Particularly I like the idea of being able to practice or perform a tune with my iPod Touch. You can also record music and audio copy / paste it into a multitrack app.
The learning comes in when you can load other songs, view notes on the fretboard, and explore chords.
Click here for the Guitar forums.
There are a couple of single instrument apps (including Guitar mentioned above) that I think deserve note.
I Am T-Pain
Besides having a lot of fun attempting to sing songs I've never heard before about strippers and donk with friends, the __I Am T-Pain ($2.99) app gives you Autotune, a plugin that costs $199, for 3 bucks! Admittedly, it's a little tricker to use and more limited, but if you use one of the headphone / microphone splitters mentioned above, you can route your headphone as a line-in to your computer, and then sing into the microphone to get an auto-tuned recording, in almost any scale you'd like. Basically, you use your iPhone as an effects device.
Click here for the I Am T-Pain forums.
I've always been a sucker for old school electronic instruments, and I never really thought I'd get a pocketable theremin, but Gyrosynth ($.99) is just that. So far, it's just kind of fun to play with, but once they add some audio copy / paste and backing audio, you could use it as a real instrument in a DAW.
Click here for the Gyrosynth forums.
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