In 2002, I bought my first Tascam Portastudio—a clunky, navy-blue four-track cassette recorder—for around $150. It was a time when Digital Audio Workstations like Protools and Cubase were becoming recording mainstays, which not only made small, physical devices like the Portastudio affordable, but immediately marked them as outdated. And although the Portastudio’s restrictions were clear in its modest display (and the fact that I was producing music on a cassette), the bare-bones tool was all my friends and I needed to break into home recording.
Fast-forward 10 years later, and there’s no arguing that technology has helped make things easier (and much cheaper) on aspiring musicians. A simple, $5 iPad app now easily takes the place of my old Portastudio—only now, recordings can be sent straight to the masses via Soundcloud or Facebook instead of through hand-copied cassettes. Virtual instruments let you fill out the mix, and digital audio can be edited in a much more forgiving manner than on tape.
Really, for about any musical task you might have, there’s something in Apple’s app store that can help. Whether you’re an engineer taming a unkempt set of drums or a guitarist looking for a new tone, there are some great apps for creating music. Here are eight of our favorites:
For iPad or iPhone users, Digital Audio Workstation-based recording doesn’t get much better than the native Garageband app. For many musicians, this app might act as home base, a do-it-all hub for multitrack recording that not only features basic features like reverb, panning and echo but plenty more outside-the-box goodies, especially considering its relatively low price tag. You can have a “jam session” with friends via wifi, create custom guitar rigs with digital setups and play with digital instruments. The best (or worst, for some) part—Anything you create is up for immediate sharing on Facebook and Soundcloud so you can bring your tunes to the masses.
Like its in-the-box predecessor on the iMac, Garageband is an app that’s simple enough for beginners to pick up right away, but with enough features to keep seasoned pros at least entertained with loops, software-based instruments and more. And when you’re ready, Garageband’s big brother, Logic, is waiting.
2. Studiomini XL Recording Studio
If it’s good enough for Gorillaz, it’s good enough for us. Although the band made headlines in 2011 by crafting an LP on an iPad, here was the software that made The Fall’s multitracking possible. It’s a more straightforward app than Garageband, including only loops and no soft-instrument options, but for musicians on the go, a no-frills recording interface can be just what your engineer ordered.
One massive frustration for those recording on mobile devices is having so many tools at your fingertips, but the ability to use only one at a time. You might be recording a track to a DAW, but that doesn’t mean you can apply an effect through another app. This is where Audiobus steps in, a relatively inexpensive app ($4.99 in the app store) that will link your apps and get rid of your music-related headaches. And if you’re using Garageband as your go-to DAW, the app now ensures complete compatibility.
Although Garageband boasts some fairly impressive guitar features, no program gets it totally right for guitar players like IK Multimedia’s Amplitube. The app has an impressive 11 stomp boxes that come standard, four more are included in the “iRig HD” section, which all pair with five different amp selections. It’s basically a spread that will get you any tone (or wacky sound) you could want from a digital guitar interface. Although an adapter can appear to be pricier than you’d hope (around $40 at most retailers), you can’t beat the savings on multiple effects pedals and amp models if you’re on a budget.
5. Clear Tune Chromatic Tuner
You can play an instrument as fast and precisely as you like, but there’s nothing like a sour-tuned string that will turn a listener off more quickly. Luckily, ClearTune provides a quick, efficient and clean way to get your instrument whipped into shape in time for your recording session. It’s snappy, mostly spot on from my tests and a true tool that has knocked digital tuners out of the effects chain for many short-on-cash guitarists with iPhones.
6. AniMoog Synthesizer
Price: $29.99 (iPad)
If you don’t have a grand to drop on a true Bob Moog design, the AniMoog is the next best thing. And it’s undeniably fun to fiddle around with for hours. Whether you’re on a plane (You’ll get looks on a plane, trust me) or in your home studio, the AniMoog succeeds in its attempt to bring real analog voice in a compact, digital package. Although iPad users might find the AniMoog’s pricetag a little hefty, it’s well worth the price. After all, it’s modeled after some of the greatest analog, monophonic synthesizers this world has to offer.
7. Akai iMPC Sampling App
Akai’s hardware version of the MPC sampler used to knock out many, many paychecks for young musicians, but this software version provides many relatable features at a much nicer $6.99 price tag. Even from the get-go, the app’s opening screen looks nearly identical to MPC samplers of the past, and with touch-sensitive pads, it works just about the same as you’d expect from its physical counterpart. The app is also stacked with over 1,200 samples, and you can start creating (and warping) your own sounds immediately from the iPad’s built-in microphone.
8. iDrumTech Drum Tuner
My least favorite instrument in the world to record is a drum set, and for good reason. Best-case scenario, you’ve got a pristinely tuned set of skins and a drummer who understands how to play just right in the room. But unless you’ve got a nice studio and seasoned drummer pals, this will almost never be the case. The iDrumTech will at least remedy some of those problems. This app allows many options in tuning, whether it’s easy guides on how to tune your lugs or getting your ratty, old snare to sound as close as it can to that pre-determined tone you select from an app. Recording drums might not be easy, but it doesn’t have to be painful, either.