Welcome To Thumbderdome!
- By Jake Wood
- Originally Published in DRUM! Magazine's September 2009 Issue
iPhone users are annoying. Look at them with their shiny black status symbols, absent-mindedly ignoring the world around them (pay attention to us normals!). As they smugly text a witty line that only those of privileged pedigree would enjoy, one begins to wonder if the user is in fact the biggest flaw of the iPhone. So momentarily suspend any anti iPhone hang-ups (pun intended) and check out the practicality of the vast array of iPhone music applications before Apple trademarks the letter “i” and takes over the world.
Not surprisingly, the tides of iPhonia are turning, and the iPhone is becoming a legitimate tool for music making. Along with the hoopla of pointless yet adorably stupid games (see: Babyshaker), there are also intelligent music-making applications (apps) being released regularly, amazing even the most cynical of musicians (me) with their usefulness and accuracy. Various apps include tuners, metronomes, drum machines, synthesizers, MIDI controllers, and 4-track recorders. Unfortunately, there is an overabundance of apps performing essentially the same function (there are currently more than 34 tuners available from the app store), and it can be overwhelming trying to purchase the right app. Sifted with a painstakingly arduous testing regimen (thumb fatigue, anyone?), here is a presentation of the best music apps the iPhone has to offer.
Beatmaker, $19.99 (intua.net). The call of duty is lost on the dedicated worker bees at Intua, for they have triumphantly surpassed all yardsticks with a first-class drum machine that blastbeats the competition out of the water. Along with the 16-trigger-pad drum machine, Beatmaker also sports a sampler, a sequencer, and an effects rack. Unlike the other toys out there, this is one of those rare apps that really elevates the iPhone to a class of professional musical gear. It’s effortless beat making and programming is fun (the provided sample library is exquisite), but it’s the sampling and wave-editing functions of recorded audio with seamless integration that deserve the award. It’s incredibly easy to quickly record a snippet of sound straight into the program, crop any unwanted audio, and assign it to a pad for instant triggering. To top it off, Intua has also developed free software (Beatpack) that supports drag-and-drop kit creation. This means it’s possible to create a kit of homegrown samples on the computer and download it to the iPhone. Finally, I can put my drum kit in my pocket!
While it certainly isn’t a drum machine’s job, Beatmaker’s absence of a synth really leaves much to be desired. One other missing detail is the inability to change the screen-locking preferences within the app.
Visual Metronome, $1.99 (onemoremuse.com). Some feel that metronomes are the bland bloodletters of beats. For those who feel otherwise (engineered time-keeping perfection makes me all warm and fuzzy on the inside), consider downloading Visual Metronome and turning that iPhone into the most glorified metronome ever. But don’t be fooled by its business crass (sic) appearance. It is meant for the working musician. No pretty colors, just an interface that works. It’s far cheaper than a real metronome and it comes with tap-tempo, visual cues, handy dandy subdivisions of eighth-notes and triplets, and even a pitch pipe.
ZMetronome, $3.99 (zmetronome.bzhtec.com). An overlooked aspect of metronomes is the tone — is it piercing enough to cut through the sounds of the drums yet pleasant enough to listen to for extended periods without driving you batty? Companies rarely get that part right (cowbells and claves are the way to go). Thankfully, the folks over at BZH Tec spent a little time cultivating solid, clean, loud samples. While this metronome isn’t exactly the best tool out there (it’s a bit more limited than the Visual Metronome), two of its five options for tones are excellent. It sounds much clearer and more pleasant than all the other metronomes out there, and that alone deserves an honorable mention.
Cleartune, $3.99 (bitcount.com/cleartune). Why buy a tuner app when there are free apps that do the same thing? Because Cleartune is more accurate, and accuracy is paramount for tuning. But go ahead, download a freebie, become unsatisfied, and then please sign the “I told you so” form. Meanwhile, consider Cleartune because the features on this program go above and beyond most other tuners. Its response to frequency change, with needle-dampening options, has a fast-acting response time that is far superior to almost every other tuner out there. It also has a chromatic pitch pipe, various transposition modes (for instruments like saxophones and trumpets), and alternate tunings (like Pythagorean). The only slight drawback is that switching between the pitch pipe and tuner is a little annoying. Otherwise, it’s an excellent tool that even a drummer needs (because your guitar player forgot his tuner … again).
When it comes to audio recording, it’s hard to be happy with any of the current apps. Although there is a plethora of voice recorders that function well, there are no apps that have gain control at the preamp level. This means that no matter what program is used, loud noises will distort. Try recording a rehearsal or drum session and the end result will be an unbearable garble of distortion. It’s incredibly frustrating as there is so much untapped potential here! According to certain app makers, preamp gain control is unavailable because of proprietary reasons, which makes it impossible for the average-Joe developer to code. Pointless roadblocks aside, there are still some good audio-recording apps to check out for those situations under 110dB. (Note: For all iPod touch second-gen users, an additional microphone is needed for these programs to work.)
iTalk Recorder, free or $4.99 for the premium version (griffintechnology.com/products/italk). iTalk is a quick-and-easy plug-and-play app. There aren’t many options, but its ease of use and intuitive design make for an expedited experience when fumbling to record that can’t-be-missed-once-in-a-lifetime sound bite. Everything needed in a voice recorder is right there on the front page, including a big ol’ Rudolphesque recording button, a fidelity selector, and a file labeler. Data storage is primitive (only one directory, and probably better for it), and transferring files to the computer is fairly painless. It’s perfect for on-the-go recording.
RecTools 02, $14.99 (yudo.jp/music/rectools/r02). RecTools 02 is the most advanced audio recorder and wav editor out there. The tutorial video alone is impressive enough to eliminate all buyer hesitation. Particularly slick features include the “Silent Kill Recording Mode” (why they didn’t throw “ninja” in there is a glaring and unforgivable error), which initiates recording only when triggered by noise, and the advanced copy-and-paste options for wav editing. The iPhone-to-computer file transfer is probably the easiest and most painless of all the apps out there (no additional program necessary). Just press the PC Sync button, enter the given address into a web browser, and voila! The files are ready for download. Unfortunately, every Sesame Street has its grouch, and in this case the major flaws include the deceptive iTunes description of input gain control (again, no preamp control so drums will distort, even with their built-in limiter) and a completely non-existent support center.
Gigbaby, Free or 99¢ (iometics.net). Remember the PortaStudio? Well, oddly enough, 4-track recorders are making a comeback, but now as reincarnated apps. Functioning similarly to the old cassette eaters, Gigbaby offers a platform for multi-track layering. While only one track can be recorded at a time, a total of four tracks can be played back simultaneously. Again, the issue of preamp gain control is a huge limiting factor, but for multi-instrumentalist drummers, this app can be a haven for culturing song ideas. It’s hard to rationalize complaining when an app is free, but nonetheless, when previewing the rhythmic library, be aware that there is an annoying count-off before each playback that prevents quick browsing. The other major flaw is its fussy file-transferring software.
Audio Spectrum Analyzer
FFT Analyzer, $19.99 (studiosixdigital.com). Studio Six Digital pretty much has the acoustical analysis app world cornered with an arsenal that any audio engineer will find both useful and accurate. The company’s gem, the FFT Analyzer, is a graphical representation of volume and frequency. This app is useful for more than just the acoustician. For instance, ever been at a sound check with an engineer who has no idea how to tame some crazy feedback? Turn on the FFT Analyzer, find the problem area, and tell the otherwise clueless engineer to turn down the 4kHz. It also has potential to aid in acoustically treating rooms. Howeve, trusting the iPhone’s internal microphone for any major construction might be a bit of a gamble (Studio Six took this into consideration and added a calibrated filter, which can be turned off for an external microphone). Planned for a summer release, Studio Six Digital is working on the iAudioInterface — an audio interface with a built-in microphone and a 0.25" TRS input and output.
MIDI Controller For DAWs
ProRemote, $99.99; ProTransport, $7.99; ProRemote Light, $35.99 (folabs.com). For those who still feel the guilt of buying a $300 phone, Far Out Labs’ app series can quickly set the reckless buyer’s soul at ease by instantly converting an overpriced phone into an under-priced control surface. Designed primarily as a controller for Pro Tools operations, the ProRemote family also works with Logic and Ableton (parameters are already set and ready to rock), and even sports a few extra skins in the mixer view for each program. With an incredibly easy setup (runs just like any other MIDI controller in Pro Tools) and a low latency response, ProRemote is an incredibly handy app for when an engineer needs to reference a part while working the floor. The most frustrating flaw, aside from the fact that the iPhone is such a small workspace, is the inability to create new playlists (which isn’t a reason to slight Far Out Labs, as Digidesign has yet to make it a shortcut). To compensate, there is an all-to-readily pressed “undo” button.
To test the waters before sinking a paycheck, check out ProTransport, which is just the transport feature of ProRemote, or try ProRemote Light, an 8-channel version of ProRemote (the full version controls up to 32 tracks).
Accelerometer-Based MIDI Controller
MIDI Motion Machine, free (cmsoftwaredesigns.com). Although this app is not perfect, it has so much potential, we’re rooting for it anyway. Once this app gets its act together (or when other companies follow their lead and make improvements) and it starts running flawlessly, iPhones will be making their way to the stage on a more regular basis.
MIDI Motion Machine is an app that controls computer-based instruments like Ableton via Wi-Fi while utilizing the built-in accelerometer (accelerometers are the devices that detect when an iPhone is tilted or shaken). While there are already a handful of accelerometer-based MIDI controllers, MIDI Motion Machine is the only app that also has buttons on display to trigger notes, thereby allowing synths to be controlled and played with the iPhone while moving it to alter assigned parameters.
Unfortunately, this app, as awesome as it can be, still has some bugs. For one, the buttons are incredibly latent, and in many cases simply don’t trigger a response (non-responsive to about ten percent of triggering = not ready for star time). Regardless, CM Software Designs is on the right track. Perhaps the company’s next step, as user demand increases, will be to include instructions on how to set up the app for various DAWs.
While the iPhone will never replace a guitar, it is very much a playable and versatile instrument (just don’t expect the note articulation that comes from an acoustic instrument). Virtually all the instrument-simulator apps are plagued with latency, but here’s a brief list of the few that are actually enjoyable to play.
Pianist, $3.99 (moocowmusic.com). There are lots of piano apps out there, but MooCow’s Pianist shines through the murk with realistic samples that would give even Reason a run for its money.
Shruti, 99¢ (shruti.itabla.com). Want to get transcendental with the iPhone? Turn on Shruti, a drone machine that creates atmosphere for soloists, and let the music get you high.
Noise.io Pro Synth, $8.99; Noise.io LE, free (noise.io). This is quite possibly the best, most comprehensive synth available for the iPhone. It comes with both a manual and a Kaoss pad playing surface, and the amount of available tweaking is exhausting. With lots of cool preprogrammed delay patterns, it’s geared primarily for those about to get their üntz on.
More Cowbell!, 99¢ (mavericksoftwaregames.com). This wouldn’t be a proper percussion publication if there were no mention of the lovably stupid More Cowbell! app. For the horse that’s already dead, now there’s an app to help beat it some more.
For The Touring Musician
Along with being a musical tool, the iPhone is also incredibly useful for musicians on the road. The touring lifestyle, especially of the lower budgeted operations, is a constant test of abilities, and the iPhone can help a musician or band stay afloat amid the delightful chaos of road life.
Google Maps, Free. The iPhone comes equipped with a fairly accurate GPS system and a Google Maps save-yer-ass app. For those embarking on tours without a professional driver, in a foreign area, and with absent-minded navigators, this GPS system will quickly earn its keep as an incredibly valuable tool to help shepherd a band to the next gig. Unlike stand-alone designated GPS navigation systems, the iPhone has yet to support a navigation app with vocalized instructions, which means that drivers flying solo have to take their eyes off the road to read directions. (Note: The Google Maps app works anywhere there is reception for the iPhone, but the iPod touch will only work when connected to a Wi-Fi network.)
Flashlight, free (johnhaney.com/flashlight). For those who haven’t experienced the cave that is a gear trailer (U-haul doesn’t exactly pull out the fine china when it comes to its trailers, thus carelessly renting them out sans lighting), loading gear or finding a sleeping bag in the middle of the night can be a prolonged tactile experience (nerdy headlamps are the way to go!). Thankfully, the iPhone’s illumination is quite strong (on par with many small flashlights, and brighter than most cell phones). By turning the screen into a blank white glow, it’s easy to eliminate that hands-and-knees post-gig ritual of feeling around for the long lost wing nut.
Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Wordpress. Much to almost every musician’s chagrin, promoting is part of the job. The degree of promotion is up to everyone’s discretion, but hyping shows, staying connected with fans, and updating web sites are all necessary tasks to ensure a successful tour. The reality of touring, however, is a lot of time in the car, with no Internet access. Thankfully, the heavy hitters of online social networking — MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter — all have free apps that function just like their parent browser pages (the Wordpress app works great for Wordpress-based web sites). Upload photos from last night’s show, post bulletins about upcoming shows, respond to profile comments, and watch that cross-country car ride fly by — the entire thrilling 32 hours of it.