Best DAWs for Apple iPad and iOS: Our Pro Picks the Best
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Best DAWs for Apple iPad and iOS: Our Pro Picks the Best

Author: Robin Vincent

Date: March 14, 2018

Reads: 41,119


Robin Vincent is the founder of Molten Music Technology Ltd. His Molten YouTube channel has passed 3.3 million views and gathered 28,000 subscribers. He writes reviews and features for Sound On Sound magazine, the world's premier audio recording technology magazine and is a regular columnist focusing on PreSonus Studio One. He is the synthesizer correspondent for news website Gearnews.com.
FULL BIO

The iPad offers a fair bit of music-making potential in a very portable and intuitive form. For playing sounds, being a synthesizer, working as a controller or making beats and triggering loops it's a versatile platform.

Becoming a recording studio or a digital audio workstation (DAW) is a bit more of a challenge and usually best left to the domain of the desktop computer. In a DAW you need lots of disk space for recording, a fast processor to run multiple instruments and effects and plenty of memory to load large sample libraries — that’s not the iPad’s forte.

However, within certain limitations, using a handful of audio tracks, instruments, and effects, the iPad can hold its own as a decent mobile mini recording studio. And as newer and more powerful versions arrive then the potential grows more impressive.

So here is my pick of the best DAW apps that let you exercise your full music production skills through the iPad’s touchscreen interface. To make it on the list, it must allow for audio recording and mixing, not just firing off loops or making beats.

Apple GarageBand

Apple has no business releasing such a capable recording studio and then giving it away for free. You would usually bypass the freeware, given-away-with-the-device type apps and move onto ones developed by proper music software manufacturers. However, Apple’s Garage Band is an extraordinary piece of work which owes much to the team behind their professional MacOS music software Logic Pro.

From simple beginnings of letting you record a few tracks of audio alongside some cheesy built-in sounds, it has evolved with version 2.2 into a working 32 track recording studio that’s as serious as you want to be. It contains a capable multi-track audio recorder with output level control, monitoring, and multi-effects.

You’ll find presets for vocals that include pitch correction, compression, and reverb plus amp models for guitar and bass. It pulls some effects from Logic Pro like the Visual EQ in a somewhat simplified version. It has a multi-take facility which allows you to loop record multiple takes over the same range in your project and then choose your favorite.

There’s a full MIDI sequencer and editing along with several pretty decent keyboard instruments and a remarkably fun sampler. Version 2.2 brings in the excellent Alchemy synthesizer which, provided you have a recent iPad, can provide some superb synth sounds. Live Loops is another new feature that gives you a page for synchronized loop performance as well as a library of loop sets to buy into. With Remix FX you can go wild with your DJ style sound mangling. Rounding it off is your very own virtual session drummer to add some virtual realism to your beats.

Add to this GarageBand’s support for the AU format which allows you to use third-party effects and instruments directly within the DAW so you are not restricted to the sounds and sculpting Apple provides you with. It’s the whole package, the real deal and it’s free with your iPad.

Steinberg is not messing around with this stuff. The effects are taken from their professional recording software and includes the RoomWorks SE reverb. You can slice up, edit and crossfade audio in the timeline or get into more detail in the sample editor.

Street Price: Free
Website: itunes.apple.com
App Store: itunes.apple.com

Steinberg Cubasis 2

Cubasis 2 is at the other end of the pay scale, asking for an eye-watering $49 for access to Steinberg’s mobile music creation system. Of course, $49 is nothing in terms of desktop music software where Cubase Elements starts at $99 and goes up rapidly from there. But on iOS we are much more comfortable paying a few dollars to get awesome software, so Cubasis should be phenomenal, right? Well, it’s certainly feature-packed and does an excellent job of bringing a desktop style DAW to the iOS platform.

There’s no limit on the number of tracks you can do except for the power and storage space on your iPad. It can handle up to 24 physical inputs and outputs (dependent on a compatible hardware audio interface) and can record at resolutions up to 24bit and 96kHz. There are professional audio features such as time-stretching and pitch shifting.

A full mixing console gives you hands-on control over the mix with a “studio-grade” channel strip for each track with 17 effects processors. Steinberg is not messing around with this stuff. The effects are taken from their professional recording software and include the RoomWorks SE reverb. You can slice up, edit and crossfade audio in the timeline or get into more detail in the sample editor.

Cubasis comes with three virtual instruments, the Micrologue virtual analog synth, the MicroSonic sample-based multi-instrument with over 120 sounds taken from the HALion library, and the MiniSampler for building your own instruments from your own samples. The MIDI editor is intuitive, fast and accurate with auto quantize, automation, MIDI CC, aftertouch and program change support.

There’s support for AU plugins and Inter-App Audio and AudioBus 3 for routing audio through other apps and back again. You can export mixes, export MIDI files and send it all to the desktop version of Cubase. Cubasis is undoubtedly a full attempt at a workable iPad-based DAW and so that $49 isn’t looking so bad after all.

Street Price: $49
Website: www.steinberg.net
App Store: itunes.apple.com

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Image Line FL Studio Mobile

Cubasis 2 is at the other end of the pay scale, asking for an eye-watering $49 for access to Steinberg’s mobile music creation system. Of course, $49 is nothing in terms of desktop music software where Cubase Elements starts at $99 and goes up rapidly from there. But on iOS we are much more comfortable paying a few dollars to get awesome software, so Cubasis should be phenomenal, right? Well, it’s certainly feature-packed and does an excellent job of bringing a desktop style DAW to the iOS platform.

There’s no limit on the number of tracks you can do except for the power and storage space on your iPad. It can handle up to 24 physical inputs and outputs (dependent on a compatible hardware audio interface) and can record at resolutions up to 24bit and 96kHz. There are professional audio features such as time-stretching and pitch shifting. A full mixing console gives you hands-on control over the mix with a “studio-grade” channel strip for each track with 17 effects processors. Steinberg is not messing around with this stuff. The effects are taken from their professional recording software and include the RoomWorks SE reverb. You can slice up, edit and crossfade audio in the timeline or get into more detail in the sample editor.

Cubasis comes with three virtual instruments, the Micrologue virtual analog synth, the MicroSonic sample-based multi-instrument with over 120 sounds taken from the HALion library, and the MiniSampler for building your own instruments from your own samples. The MIDI editor is intuitive, fast and accurate with auto quantize, automation, MIDI CC, aftertouch and program change support.

There’s support for AU plugins and Inter-App Audio and AudioBus 3 for routing audio through other apps and back again. You can export mixes, export MIDI files and send it all to the desktop version of Cubase. Cubasis is undoubtedly a full attempt at a workable iPad-based DAW and so that $49 isn’t looking so bad after all.

Street Price: $49
Website: www.steinberg.net
App Store: itunes.apple.com

Xewton Music Studio

Let’s head away from the big names into the more independent realm of uninspiringly but appropriately named Music Studio. It has a serious feel, leaning towards real rather than synthesized instruments and a focus on writing and recording music rather than messing about with loops and what-not.

Music Studio supports up to 127 tracks of MIDI and/or audio and can handle 8 track multi-track recording at 16bit 44.1kHz. It has a tabbed interface that lets you easily access different parts of the studio. Simply select your audio and tap “Waveform” to get into some rather detailed audio editing. There’s no mixer as the mixing functions are integrated into the Track view, which is perhaps the only thing this app lacks. There is a rich selection of effects including filter, reverb, delay, EQ, compression, bit crushing and phasing.

There are 123 different instruments included with another 60 available from the in-app store. These cover classical, band, electronic and world instruments. One nice feature is you can pull up a dual piano keyboard and assign a different instrument to each. There’s also a chord function to play chords with a single key, which can also be incorporated into the drum pad controller.

Although there’s no support for AU effects, it does handle Inter-App Audio and Audiobus for routing audio into other apps.

Music Studio looks a bit dated but is very capable and comes with some decent instruments and content. At $14 it would be a soberer alternative to FL Studio Mobile. Although, the video above makes it look unexpectedly exciting!

Street Price: $14
Website: www.xewton.com
App Store: itunes.apple.com

WaveMachine Labs Auria Pro - Music Production

Auria first emerged in 2012 but it was the upgraded Auria Pro version that made a splash when it debuted in 2015. Aimed to rival the likes of Cubasis and GarageBand, Auria Pro pretty much nailed it. It’s a comprehensive multi-track recorder, sequencer and mixing environment with a bundle of effects and instruments from some professional developers.

The specs are great: unlimited tracks with up to 24 multi-track recording in 24bit 96kHz. It supports AAF import so you can potentially import audio from Pro Tools sessions, Nuendo projects, and others. It uses similar technology as Cubasis for audio warping and transient detection. It can automatically quantize audio and extract the feel of an audio clip to apply to other clips or MIDI. You could, for instance, pull the feel off a sampled drum loop and apply to your own MIDI drum programming.

The mixer is remarkable and looks like what you’d find in a desktop DAW. It has 6 auxiliary sends for effects and you can create up to 32 busses and 8 subgroups with flexible routing. Within the mixer is a fabulous Channel Strip plug-in from PSP with an extensive EQ section, expansion, compression, and gating.

You can insert up to 4 effects like FabFilter Pro Q2, a convolution reverb, PSP StereoChorus and StereoDelay. You can buy many more through the in-app store from the likes of FabFilter, Overloud, PSP, and Fxpansion. On the end of the audio chain is the superb PSP MasterStrip with EQ, compression and brick-wall limiting.

On the instrument side, they have their own Lyra sample player that supports SFZ, EXS, and SF2 sample formats. FabFilter has provided two instruments in the shape of the Twin 2 and One synthesizers. Along with the piano roll editor, you have real-time control over quantize, velocity shift, velocity compression, random, delay, legato, and transpose.

Auria Pro takes the iPad DAW to another level for the same price as Cubasis. My only slight concern is it has not received any major updates since the original release in 2015, just little improvements and fixes and I wonder what the current development schedule is like.

Street Price: $49
Website: auriaapp.com
App Store: itunes.apple.com

In Conclusion

Provided your iPad is powerful enough, then using it as a bonafide recording studio is a definite possibility. The DAWs shown here may not have all the bells and whistles of their desktop compatriots but they are not far off. As a home studio, they can be rather awesome. For professional use, they can act as a sketch pad or are ideal for quick, impromptu sessions.

For colorful excitement check out FL Studio Mobile, for serious recording Cubasis and Auria Pro have it all wrapped it, but everyone should start with Garage Band because it’s free and pretty darn good.

Don’t forget if you want studio recording quality then you’re going to need an iOS compatible audio interface to plug your guitars, microphones, and keyboards into. You can get started with the onboard microphone, but you’ll quickly discover you need something better. For our top mic picks for home producers, check out this blog.

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