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Your Portable Studio: iPhone Apps for Musicians

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The iPhone really does have some great offerings for musicians that you should know about, and I think it's a platform with huge potential for musicians, especially on the move. We've all experienced the frustration of coming up with a great melody and having no way to get it down, and subsequently forgetting it. Or lost a guitar tuner or forgotten the correct fingering for a chord.

This article was previously published on the AudioJungle blog, which has moved on to a new format in 2010. We'll be bringing you an article from the AudioJungle archives each week. Although this article is fairly old, I thought it might whet your appetite for next week's iPad article.

Since there was a forum thread about this recently, I figure it's a topic of interest, so I'll share what I've learned and found over the past week!


GuitarToolkit

I've recommended this app so many times since I bought it that I wish the App Store had a referral program. The truth is I didn't have a tuner until the day I got my iPhone. I've had half a dozen since I picked up my first guitar, but they've all since died, or were built-in to an effects pedal that stopped pedalling.

So, given my interim solution, I suppose any iPhone tuner is awesome, because I was booting into Logic 8 on an old, barely-Intel Mac mini to use nothing more than the tuner insert.

But GuitarToolkit isn't just a very accurate tuner with more than 40 alternate tunings included. For starters, it goes beyond telling you which direction to tune in; if you like to tune by ear, there's a fretboard with reference samples. Just pluck a string or strum them all.

But what made this app worth the extra money was the chord finder and metronome. I was only looking for a simple tuner and my app budget was running out, so it was a hard decision, but having so many chords at my fingertips and a metronome everywhere basically meant my hand was forced. I had to buy this.

And so far it has worked great, helped me tune faster than any tuner I've had and hasn't crashed at all. Definitely the App Store purchase I'm happiest with. Find out more at GuitarToolkit's Web site.


Evernote

Evernote, believe it or not, makes the list. I'm a big fan of the desktop app, but it hasn't been a huge help for me when it comes to music; there are better ways to capture vocal ideas when I'm at my computer. But on the road or out and about, I haven't come across anything better for capturing a vocal melody that I can transcribe later.

I'm also finding it useful for getting lyrics down in written form, but not being able to edit those notes once they're made is very frustrating. This app shouldn't have been released until it could edit notes, but I guess they were more interested in being one of the early birds. It's conflicting because the in-built Notes obviously allows you to edit your notes, but is way too simple next to Evernote.

Other than the inability to edit, the app is fine, though that's a bit like saying that the ice cream cone tastes good even though there's no ice cream in it. Evernote says editing is coming soon.

I would've tried Jott for the voice notes like everyone keeps suggesting, but I'm not going to recommend something I can't try because the developers had the bright idea to make it available only in the US store.


BeatMaker

BeatMaker is a pretty cool app with a lot of potential. You can sequence beats based on sample packs provided with the app or downloadable from the Internet, and using software the company behind BeatMaker provides, you can put your own sample packs together.

There's a pad section for jamming with your fingers. Once you have an idea you can head over to the sequencer and lay down the patterns, and even add a few effects—including equalization and a bitcrusher distortion unit.

There's no MIDI export yet, so your tunes are ultimately stuck on the iPhone, but the developers claim it'll be there very, very soon. When that happens, combined with a healthy number of sample packs ready to go on your phone, BeatMaker might become a serious sequencer and sampler for the iPhone; for now it's handy, but easier to get a melody down using other software. It is the best option for beats.

If Intua throw in a flexible synthesizer or even full sampled keyboards, BeatMaker will beat out the competition for the ultimate iPhone music machine.


Karajan Beginner

I tested Karajan Beginner because by the time I found out about the main app, Karajan, which costs a bit, I'd already plonked down $50 writing this article and I started feeling cheap ;). Karajan Beginner is the free version of Karajan that's designed to hook people in enough to get you onto the paid version.

But, if you're interested in interval ear training as we discussed here a few weeks back, this app is a good way to get started. Major second, fourth and fifth intervals are all pretty good choices to start honing your ear with. The full range of intervals is available in the Karajan app.

The Chords tab tests your ability to tell the difference between major and minor triads. It's easy as cake, but I suppose if you forgot the difference it'd be pretty embarrassing, so best to keep that skill up, no?

The Scales tab plays the notes of a scale and you must then pick which one was played from a list of scales. There's also an absolute pitch trainer on the Pitch tab, though I don't see much use in this. And finally there's a tempo trainer which plays a series of piano notes and asks you to select the correct BPM from a list.

Ultimately, the trainers for intervals, chords, scales and tempo are all quite useful (chords more so in the paid version). The rotten egg in this basket is on the Pitch tab.


Band

To me, Band is more of a musician's toy, but heck it's a fun toy! That said, it is entirely possible to capture musical ideas using this program using its recording functionality. You can even overdub your tracks.

The first instrument you're presented with is a drum machine, as shown in the picture to your right there. It's pretty fun to play with, and if you're a drummer with a beat stuck in your head it might be useful, but I'm not so I'll leave it at "pretty fun."

The next screen is a drum kit. I thought this was stupid at first and that all the samples were strangely matched to the instruments. Then I realized that you didn't tap the drums: you held you finger down and a loop was played! Duh. Very cool for those who don't drum (me!), so you can record a loop and overdub it.

The third instrument is a bass guitar. This is where the realm of multi-touch instruments gets interesting, and fretting the notes is pretty cool and allows you to experiment with funky bass riffs, but I can see plenty of room for improvement. Starting with proper samples for slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. And bends, too. If you could bend notes with this thing, multi-touch strings would be better than D'Addarios.

The piano offers two octaves worth of keys—stacked on top of each other rather than side-by-side, to make use of limited room—and is, again, handy for recording melodies, but the samples aren't very pleasant at all. The next app, which we'll talk about in a minute, is way better for this, and since it and Band came from the same developer, I'm surprised they'd cripple their flagship product.

The 12 Bar Blues is my favorite part of Band. Hold down the correct chord in the progression and solo over the top of it using the strange surface that is part fretboard, half bar (there's even a bottle of whiskey, get it? 12 Bar Blues? Ha, ha...). There is a beat button to keep the drums going, too.

And last and least (that's a big "up yours" to all those walking cliches who've said last, but not least at some point in there lives) is the Audience screen. It truly is the least desirable part of this app. There are two pushable zones on a picture of an audience. When you push one, the audience cheers. When you push both at once, the audience cheers louder. Um.


Pianist

So far, all these apps have been useful for me or I think they have potential for usefulness and I'll be thankful that I've got them sometime in the next week, as an idea comes to me that I need to capture. If it's a bass riff, I've got Band, for a sequenced drum loop there's BeatMaker, and the rest are all pretty self-explanatory as to why they're useful. But Pianist, despite being the simplest app of the bunch, is the one I'll use the most.

It's an 88-key multi-touch piano. Of course, you can't see all the keys at once, but it's fairly easy to find the ones you need, when you need them. This kind of thing, and the bass guitar in Band, are exactly what I love about multi-touch and why I hope the rumored MacBook Touch is going to become a reality. Musicians and artists are going to be some of the few people who truly get value from one of those over a normal folding laptop. Enough about the future of technology—back to Pianist.

You can record and playback your melodies, and there are soft and sustain buttons so you can more closely model a real keyboard. There are also a few pre-packaged songs you can load up and playback, and watch the indentations in the keyboard as the phone plays the song. But the real beauty of this app is being able to quickly record a melody on a keyboard that actually has pretty decent samples. And samples for all 88 keys, too.

I'm not sure why the developers didn't just include this keyboard in Band. They could've charged a few more dollars for the app without forcing users to install two apps instead of one, the more expensive of which has a pretty shoddy keyboard. Ah, well, that aside, Pianist is very handy.


They're All Handy, But...

As long as these apps all offer free upgrades for the forseeable future after shelling out the initial cash, then they're useful and worth the price. For instance, BeatMaker could be great with a few upgrades, but it's not quite yet worth the AU$24 I paid for it. They can make up for this gap in value by providing a few of those major upgrades for free.

I hope that in the long run Apple allows developers to charge different prices for newcomers and upgraders so fans of an app don't get continuously stung with the full price every time something changes. There's something to be said for rewarding loyalty, and it might be a bit early to be talking about this, but being a musician is expensive enough as it is.

This article is now almost two years old, and a lot has happened on the iPhone since then. Let us know your favorite apps in the comments. And watch out for our new iPad article coming out in the next week.

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