Best Music Apps for iPhone and iPad (2020)
The Apple iOS ecosystem continues to be a powerhouse when it comes to the wealth of musical and creative possibilities. Some of them are just for fun or to pass the time with something musically distracting but there are a few that offer genuine music production possibilities on your iPad or iPhone without the need for any other computer or equipment. Although if you want to get sound into your device at a decent level of quality then some kind of audio interface is going to be essential. Check out our other article on audio interfaces for iOS to find the best option.
I’ve pulled together a collection of what I believe are the best music production apps available for iOS today. Some have been around a while and others are very new. All of them will let you build up tracks on your iOS device using different sounds and methods, from beat-making to synth noises to full-on band recording.
Our picks for the 2020’s best music apps for iPhone/iPad include:
- Blip Interactive NanoStudio 2
- Roland Zenbeats
- Korg Gadget 2
- Apple GarageBand
- WoodStepper 3.0
- Steinberg Cubasis 3
- Native Instruments iMaschine 2
Blip Interactive NanoStudio 2
NanoStudio 2 is a combination of expansive sequencing, an extraordinary virtual synthesizer, sampling, loop launching, and mixing. It has unlimited sequencer tracks and a very clear arranging interface to edit, align and rearrange your tracks. You can edit, move, automate, drop in samples and bring it all together with a tempo track or external sync with Ableton Link.
The internal synthesizer is called Obsidian and it’s a powerhouse all of its own. 3 oscillators, 16 voices and 7 different forms of synthesis including analog, wavetable, FM, multi-saw and phase distortion. It has 18 different filter types, 5 envelopes, 5 LFOs, and 10 macro controllers to get you right into the sound design and manipulation. With 300 presets you’ll always find a place to start and it’ll take you wherever you need to go.
Slate is the sampler and performance pad where you can beat up a storm of rhythms, one-shots, loops, and effects. Browse through the 50 included drum kits or import your own samples for custom kits and instruments.
NanoStudio 2 has an exceptional mixer for getting your levels right and injecting your tracks with the right effects and processing.
It supports AU instruments and effects for expanding your creative possibilities. The only place lacking at the moment is the lack of audio track recording. You can record and arrange samples but proper audio tracking won’t be along until the next version. But for virtual instruments, sampling and mixing this is unbeatable.
Zenbeats is a fully-fledged DAW and performance platform where you can record both MIDI and audio tracks, mix, add effects, dig into the included virtual instruments or start working with the endless supply of loops. The pattern creator page for the drum machine is excellent and works just like a classic drum machine interface. Roland has included sample sets taken from the original TR-808, TR-909 and TR-707 machines for that fully vintage vibe. Other loops and kits are available from the inbuilt store.
It comes with a decent roster of virtual instruments, covering synths, strings, guitars and electric pianos. But the big synth comes in the shape of the SampleVerse. You can build entire synthesizers and samplers within SampleVerse that combines different oscillators and sound sources to generate a vast array of sounds.
On the performance side, Zenbeats offers a page of loop blocks that you can arrange into scenes that launch together or independently on a tap. So you can perform with loops, MIDI or audio, add effects and play along all on-the-fly.
Zenbeats works on multiple platforms and you have the ability to save your project to the Cloud and open it up again on another computer or device and keep working. Looking forward to seeing where Roland takes it next.
Korg Gadget 2
Gadget 2 is an extraordinary collection of synthesizers, samplers and drum machines that’ll keep you in that making music zone indefinitely. There are over 40 of these little Gadgets inside, mixing styles and forms of synthesis in fun and creative ways.
All of the Gadgets look and sound fantastic. They are immediately engaging and it takes no time to start getting cool sounds out of them. The loop and pattern-based sequencer is simple, powerful and lets you put down as many tracks as your iOS can handle. And be warned, you will run out of processing power because you can’t help but want to keep on adding track after track, synth after synth until it all grinds to a halt.
It’s been around a while now but version 2 upgraded everything to bring it back to the front of iOS music-making. The sound engine is better, the look has been enhanced and streamlined and they added a bunch more gadgets. They’ve grouped the Gadgets and sounds into categories, making it easier to find the sort of sound that matches your feel whether that’s rock, pop, jazz or electronic. There are new effects to give you a more polished finish.
You can lose yourself for days exploring the gadgets and putting tunes and beats together. Whether you’re serious about music or just want some fun It’s one of the best apps in the store.
GarageBand is annoyingly good. No inbuilt, giveaway, freebie software has any right to be this versatile and enjoyable to use. But GarageBand continues to be a really decent home recording studio with some remarkable features, software instruments and effects.
In GarageBand, it’s dead easy to create drum patterns, write instrument tracks, sample and record audio, mix, add effects and bring it all together into a finished product. You can just play with loops like a DJ triggering one-shots, scenes, clips, and loops and remix them with effects without having to have written a note of music. Or you can pull up a perfectly sampled acoustic instrument and write music the old fashioned way. Plug in a guitar (via a suitable interface) and use the amp modeling effects to dial in a perfect tone. Create beats with electronic patterns or get tapping on drum kits and percussion instruments.
GarageBand is the studio in your pocket you’ve always wanted and you can record up to 32 tracks of audio or MIDI including third party virtual instruments, loops, and samples. It’s really difficult to fault it.
WoodStepper version 3.0 has packed synthesis and sampling into its already impressive feature set. So rather than sequencing other sounds in other apps, it can now sequence itself using its internal VCOs or samples and loops. You can also add automation to the sequencer to move parameters around per step. The polyphony can go up to 12 voices while routing through the same filter and amp section. But WoodStepper can also layer up to 4 complete voices for full 4-voice polyphony by sticking to 8 notes each.
You don’t have to use the internal sequencer; you can address the synth and sampling engine directly from your DAW or MIDI keyboard. You can also split the 4 layers across different keyboard ranges.
It has a big and bright interface that works brilliantly with fingers. The sequencer is always present on the main part of the screen while other parameters of the synth and sampler engines appear on the right.
Version 3 makes WoodStepper into a more complete music-making platform with lots of depth and potential for people who want to dig down into it.
Steinberg Cubasis 3
Cubasis is recording, editing and mixing on an iPad. From a simple tune to a full production Cubasis 3 is capable of getting the job done in a serious and dedicated manner. This is a professional DAW realized in a smaller and touch accessible way for iPad musicians.
You can record as many audio and MIDI tracks as your iOS device can handle. With external hardware, you can connect up to 24 inputs and outputs and record straight in. The audio resolution goes up to professional levels of 24bit and 96kHz and it supports real-time time and pitch stretching. The mixer comes with studio-grade channel strip plug-ins and 17 effect processors. And it’s all fully automatable.
New in version 3: they have increased how many effects you can run on a channel, they have boosted the number of effect presets and instrument sounds. The interface has had an overhaul with better formatting and zooming in on what you need to see. Universal App Support means you can move from iPhone to iPad and keep working with all the same tools. The mixer can now go full screen and you can create groups for combined mixing.
Amongst the included virtual instruments is the Micrologue analog synth, the MicroSonic instrument, and the MiniSampler to build your own instruments from your own samples. You can edit samples, edit MIDI and access over 550 MIDI and audio loops.
Where GarageBand is surprisingly good, Cubasis 3 is seriously competent. It just costs a lot more.
Native Instruments iMaschine 2
Getting back to the fun side of music-making iMaschine 2 offers an easy way to start pulling musical ideas together. Get busy on the pads, work up layers and arrangements and get sampling and recording. You also have access to an enormous library of production-ready loops for producing in any style you can imagine.
Build your beats in the Step Mode where you can place your sounds exactly where you want them without having to master the art of finger drumming – or you can record live if you prefer. Then take your loops and scenes and use the Arranger to pull them into tracks. It’s easy to rearrange patterns, scenes, and loops to find the groove you’re looking for. For chords, basslines, and melodies the Smart Play keyboard maps to your chosen scale so you’ll never hit a bum note.
You can also record directly into iMaschine via your device’s microphone input. No need for additional hardware, just record a clip and it becomes a playable sample.
iMaschine is fun and groovy with a lot of potential for production that’s fast and engaging. It lacks the seriousness of some of the other apps in this list but it sure is a lot of fun to play with.
Endlesss (with an extra S – that’s no typo!) is not actually available yet (it’s launching in Spring 2020) but it’s so good that it has to be on this list in anticipation of when it becomes available. And if you sign up on their website you should be able to try out the beta version. Endlesss is a social jamming app that lets you come up with layer upon layer of sounds, recordings, samples, tunes, basslines, and drum patterns and kick them about between friends and collaborators who can add their own layers in real-time.
In the App, you create and remix what they call “Rifffs” by playing notes or percussion samples that are then captured into a loop. You can add to that loop, effect it, process it or build on it with more lines of performance. It’s a lot like using a looper pedal. Once you’ve recorded a Rifff it then becomes available to anyone else connected to your jam. So you could throw down a drum loop and someone else layers a bassline over the top, another person puts in a pad and then yet another bit crushes it to death and generates a new rhythm. It’s very instant, very transformational. Ideas come and go, get remixed, and new ones emerge. All the time Endlesss is generating a new loop every time something changes and so you have a history of Rifffs going back to where you started.
It’s not all about internal sounds; you can also use the inbuilt microphone to add live vocals and instruments. And this opens it up to be about anything at all. If you don’t like the included sounds then add Rifffs from your own hardware synths or just sing and see where it leads you.
It’s really easy to use and has already created a community of Endlesss jammers constantly creating and remixing each other’s music. There are a lot more features to implement but I hope to see a full release soon.
Link to Website: endlesss.fm
Image via Native Instruments iMaschine 2.
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