To that end, we took on the task of selecting ten apps (from the many we like) that fulfill a variety of music production needs by embracing the potential of the iPad. So without further ado, here are our top-ten iPad apps for music production in 2013.
You may be wondering why a utility app is first on this list. The answer is simple: no other app has done more to advance music production on the iPad. What Audiobus does is connect the audio signals of multiple applications together so that the iPad can be used for more than one task at a time. Before Audiobus, there were cumbersome solutions like AudioCopy that allowed you to export audio from one app and import it into another, but the inconvenience of the process prevented it from being widely adopted.
Audiobus provides slots for three different app types: inputs, effects and outputs. You can load instruments or samplers—i.e. things that make sound—into the input slot, effects into the effect slot and apps that record audio into the output slot. The list of apps that support Audiobus is quite large, and it's only growing. For the most part, everything works together without an issue. And being able to control and record multiple instruments at once into a DAW makes for a surprisingly productive and powerful setup.
For the most part, Audiobus is in a league of its own, but recently a new contender called JACK surfaced in the iTunes store for free. Where Audiobus concentrates on routing audio only, JACK also supports the routing of MIDI signals between apps. Not many apps support it at the moment, but this is a one to watch going forward.
The iPad's affordable multitouch interface (when compared to the original Lemur hardware, that is) was the ideal platform to bring the ahead-of-its-time controller software from Jazzmutant to a broader audience. Thankfully the folks at Liine had the good sense to make it happen. Since then they have been hard at work updating and maintaining the codebase—and cultivating a healthy library of user creations. The latest version of Lemur is a big jump forward in convenience, allowing users to edit and create new templates directly on the iPad.
Lemur differs from other controller apps in part due to the immense power provided by its back-end scripting engine. This enables users to program sophisticated templates that can do more than just transmit and receive MIDI and OSC. With some scripting, you can build tempo-synced sequencers or advanced full-DAW control templates like Mu. One template that I'm personally very excited about is LiveControl 2, the upcoming sequel to the excellent Ableton controller from ST8.
Animoog sticks out for what it doesn't do: rather than recreate some vintage monophonic subtractive synth, Moog used the technology of the iPad and created something entirely new. Animoog utilizes what Moog dubbed an "Anisotropic Synth Engine," which allows you to pick eight different timbres from a library of sources culled from some of Moog's most famous real-life synths.
How Animoog utilizes these timbres is what sets it apart from other iPad instruments. Rather than being controlled primarily by an array of knobs, they're manipulated via a grid that takes up the main display. Via touch, you can then design a path for the sound to travel as each note is played. Animoog's GUI incorporates some lovely animated cues that show each voice corkscrewing along the path, the sound evolving as different timbres are reached. With this unique approach to synthesis, plus a host of other features—effects, a score of modulation options, AudioBus compatibility, a built-in four-track recorder, and full MIDI implementation—Animoog has safely secured itself spots on lists like this one.
When a music app wins an Apple Design Award, you know that if nothing else it is going to look great. The French development house Fingerlab garnered that honor last year for DM1, which they developed in conjunction with Jonas Eriksson. DM1 does indeed look great, but it's got brains as well as beauty. In fact, it's the only drum machine to make the cut here.
DM1 is loaded with features hiding under that slick interface. It ships with 86 drum kits ranging from the usual suspects (the Roland TR-series, Linn, MXR) to acoustic and percussion sets. You can also create your own kits easily, pulling samples from your iTunes library, Dropbox or even your iPad's microphone. There's a step sequencer and a 3x3 drum pad, and both are surprisingly functional for an iPad app. The step sequencer, for example, supports multi-touch and drag gestures to easily create fills, and you can mute individual sounds directly from it. On more than one occasion, I have used an iPad running DM1 as a dedicated drum machine to supplement DJ sets. With MIDI synchronization, onboard automatable FX, Audiobus compatibility and an excellent interface, DM1 comes highly recommended.
If you're looking for something a bit more advanced, Audulus is a very interesting audio and MIDI graphical patching environment that was made available for both iOS and OSX recently. Much like Cycling '74 Max and MSP or PD, Audulus works by providing a library of low-level devices like oscillators, noise generators, sequencers, filters, meters, envelopes and more, which are connected to one another by virtual patch cords. This is made easy thanks to Audulus' well-designed touch-based workflow. Getting this geeky may not sound like fun to some people, but with a little bit of study you can create pretty much anything you can think of. In the process, you will learn a lot about how digital audio and synthesis works.
What might be the most intriguing aspect of Audulus is that it also runs on OSX. This means that you could put together a patch on an iPad (while you're travelling, say), bring it into the studio and transfer it to a Mac. Audulus runs either standalone or as an AU plugin in OSX, so you can easily continue tweaking it alongside your recording or production session. If you're concerned about the longevity of Audulus as a platform, fear not. It appears that Taylor Holliday, the app's creator, has taken a long view on this one, with built-in support for both Audiobus (in the current release) and JACK (in an upcoming release).
As the only dedicated effect in this list, Turnado has some big shoes to fill. It does that well by supplying the full gamut of 24 effect types found in the PC/OSX plug-in version. In fact, Turnado for iPad is more or less a direct port with some nice additions, so all of the functionality of Sugar Bytes' highly acclaimed plug-in is available here on the iPad. For more details about the Turnado part of this app, have a look at our review of the original.
What did Sugar Bytes add? The bottom half of the screen now features four XY pads, which control the eight main effect knobs simultaneously (two per XY pad). There is a handy "All Effects Off" button that allows you to regain control when things get crazy, and you can configure the pads to snap back to the zero effect position when you release your finger. Sugar Bytes also includes a loop recorder and player that can be synchronized to incoming MIDI clock. (We'd rather see recordable XY pad automation, but that's just our opinion.) Turnado supports both JACK and AudioBus, so you can easily get it into your iPad recording chain and bring some life to your signal with its lovely studio-grade effects.
When Auria was first released in July 2012, it felt like a revelation: here was the beginning of professional music production on the iPad. More than one professional DAW for iPad has floated to the surface in the past year, but Auria remains at the vanguard of this category. As an audio editor and mixing DAW, it still has the edge over the competitors for a few reasons. First, it can record up to 24 channels simultaneously, which is pretty incredible, and it supports up to 48 channels of audio in total. To take advantage of this power, you're going to need an audio interface (the Auria website has a nice rundown of which ones they've tested). If you have two iPads you can even play and record them in sync with AuriaLink—a proprietary technology that uses Bluetooth—effectively doubling the number of simultaneous record and playback tracks.
The other feature that sets Auria apart from the pack is plug-in support—not just onboard effects, either, but ports of real VST plugins from manufacturers like PSPaudioware, Fabfilter, and Overloud. By default, Auria ships with PSP ChannelStrip and PSP MasterStrip, a handful of reverb plugins and the ReTune pitch correction plug-in. These pro-level mixing plug-ins plus advanced DAW features like delay compensation, subgroups, aux sends and host automation give Auria a clear edge over many of its competitors.
With all of the bells and whistles built into Auria, one of the things it noticeably lacks is support for MIDI. If you're looking for a more well-rounded DAW for the iPad, you might want to check out Cubasis. Much like Turnado, Cubasis is the mobile counterpart of a well-known staple of the desktop music production world—in this case, Steinberg's Cubase. And much like Audulus, Cubasis sessions can be exported from the iPad and loaded into its desktop counterpart. This is a very handy option, and if Cubase is your main DAW it's a good reason to choose Cubasis over the other DAWs out there for the iPad.
Cubasis also supports Audiobus, so you can easily sequence and play a compatible instrument app using the MIDI keyboard in Cubasis and record its output. There are slots for three insert effects per track (including the master) and three global effects busses for send effects. Cubasis comes with 11 built-in effects, including the usual suspects like reverb, chorus, EQ, delay, filter and compressor. Unfortunately, you can't monitor incoming audio through the effects: they are only applied once the audio is recorded. Also, host automation is very limited in Cubasis, with only track volume and clip fades supported in the current release. However, the Cubasis interface and workflow, solid Audiobus integration and low CPU overhead more than make up for these drawbacks.
When a heavyweight like Native Instruments gets into the iOS world, good things are bound to happen. Traktor DJ for the iPad, NI's first DJ offering, is a case in point. With a well-designed and carefully considered interface, it makes the most of the iPad's relatively small screen to deliver a surprisingly satisfying DJ experience. Two decks split the screen in half, with NI's signature multi-colored waveforms providing both visual feedback and touch interaction. Panels for EQ and FX can be activated at the touch of a button to overlay the waveform display while in use, and they're hidden again just as easily.
Traktor DJ still has its share of critics in the DJ world, partly due to the stigma of the iPad itself and the fact that beatmatching essentially has no place within the app. There are no tempo controls here (save for a global tempo wheel), so the workflow clearly favors tracks that have been analyzed for beatgrid and played in sync. To that end, Native Instruments built a very handy screen dedicated to fixing any beatgrid and phase issues that result after analysis. The analysis, which now includes pitch detection, can be automatically synchronized back to Traktor Pro running on PC or Mac via DropBox. So even if you're just using it for set preparation, Traktor DJ is an easy recommendation.
This curiously-named new competitor to Traktor DJ popped up in the App Store earlier this year from Zerodebug, the developers formerly known as AppBC who released TouchAble. It takes the stance that one size does not fit all, and made the entire interface freely configurable by the user. There are of course a handful of pre-built layouts to get you started, and I would wager that the majority of d(--)b users will never venture beyond those. Those who do will find support for up to six decks, each with a set of controls for things like EQ, loops and track waveform. Once you select your controls, you can position them on one of six pages per template and then customize properties like size, border and color.
d(--)b has some of the features that Traktor DJ lacks, namely the ability to manually beatmatch tracks both by pitch fader (two faders exist for 10% and 1% adjustments) and by nudging the waveform itself. Mixing is easily done as well thanks to a straightforward three-band EQ with kill switches for each band, and loop and cue points that can be set fairly easily. There are no effects and there's no crossfader, but if you have a compatible audio interface you can set up separate outputs for each track and utilize an external mixer and effects. While it's not quite as polished as Traktor DJ, d(--)b certainly brings a different set of skills to the table, and it's worth a look for DJs who are considering integrating an iPad into their sets.