Tascam Portastudio

iPad Apps

The peer pressure one feels when it comes to gadgets today is pretty bad. Add to that the additional coolness factor and creative potential of various musical gadgets, today’s musician feels additional marketing pressure. Some may even be shocked that I am only a recent convert to the iPad.

I resisted the iPad when the first generation came out. I thought it was a great idea, and I thought Apple would do a great job. I simply didn’t want to jump in too soon. I also just didn’t want another device to backup, maintain and worry about. When iPad2 came out, I was seriously tempted, having seen the technology begin to mature and find acceptance. Still, I couldn’t see the point in an additional device.

Our trip to Ireland in 2011 proved that a tablet might be useful for our next overseas trip. Cafes are far and few between it seems, and Wi-Fi is more accessible, but you need a device and I have no interest in traveling with a laptop, no matter how slim.

The only other reason I could justify an iPad was to run Bjork’s Biophilia app. Bjork is my secret musical mistress (Audra is well aware). I bought the app ($17!) thinking it would run on my iPod touch, but I didn’t have the right version. Alas, it would be a few months before I saw the wonder that was Biophilia. After seeing the live show, in which 4 iPads were networked together in a window-frame like device, I was even more intrigued, and knew it was only a matter of time before I got one.

It was only after my wife’s school adopted an iPad pilot program and got outfitted with 10 devices (including one for the teacher) that I felt the need to catch up with her (a rarity). Other justifications came when I reflected that, at the 2010 and 2011 electro-music festival, there were quite a few people using iPads, and the number seemed to grow each year. Most of the electronic music mags that I read have dedicated mobile app reviews, and I was seeing some exciting things. Since I was diving deeper into generative music, and performing electronic music live, it seemed like the right time to jump in. I was already enamored of Apple’s superior design, and would certainly not buy any other tablet.

Did I justify the purchase enough?!?

Not to be outdone, I opted for the iPad3 this summer, and immediately auditioned as many apps (besides GarageBand) as I could. Sure, GarageBand is cool and all, but there is so much more out there. But auditioning apps is more difficult than one would expect. In the early days of my search, there were over 8000 apps. I could barely get to 4000, mostly because the search function in the app store annoyingly sends you back to the beginning of a search if you make the slightest mistake with the back button (a bug I would like to see fixed). While iTunes on a computer allows marking favorites, I found no way to do that on the iPad’s App Store.

Out of those initial 4000 (most of which were just not of interest), I culled about 25 apps that I think are innovative, or very useful to me as a composer, experimentalist and sound designer. I’m going to do some short reviews here and highlight my favorites. I’ll be looking at things mostly as a musician, but also as a software developer who puts a lot of weight on the user experience.

The other reason I am putting this together… at electro-music 2012, Andrew Koenig led a dedicated workshop on portable music gadgets, and of course iPad apps played a big part in the discussion. There were other times at the festival when it seemed like a whole room full of people were using the apps – some with headphones and some interacting with each other. Mark Mosher from Modulate This! gave a great talk on Alchemy Mobile, an app I was already trying out but didn’t realize was so deep. There’s just no turning back now. So I hope these short reviews are helpful. Here are my basic criteria and heuristics:

Music apps should be fun, easy to use, and should have a save capability or export option. I do not want to be locked into a developer who is gone  next year. Apps should be useful for composition/sound design, but not rely too much on traditional compositional methods (i.e. allow improv).

Free or cheap - I am not against paying for something if it is good. So in the case of apps over $20, I want to know if they are worth it.

I’m looking for stuff that is unusual, organic, melodic, and experimental. I gravitate towards certain types of sounds, and there are certain instruments that I like more than others. So the apps I select will reflect that. There are now well over 9000 apps, and I doubt I’ll ever get to the end of the list. Many are games, silly noise makers, branded artist apps, or utilities that don’t fit into composition. We’ll be ignoring those.

So let’s get started!

iPad App Reviews