how to make music

Woman wearing headphones and tapping at an iPhone
sergey causelove/

You don’t need to be able to sing, play an instrument, or read sheet music to make music. With an iPhone or iPad you’ve got a mobile production suite, recording studio, and mixing desk all in one.

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Make Music with the Right Apps

iPhone and iPad users have access to some of the best apps, particularly when it comes to making music. Not only is the platform relatively straightforward to develop for, but Apple’s low-latency implementation of audio technologies has also helped iOS become the platform of choice for mobile producers.

One of the most accessible apps is Apple’s own GarageBand. This first-party digital audio workstation (DAW) allows you to play, record, and program music for free. It’s perfect for messing around with virtual instruments but can also function as a mobile recording studio, virtual guitar amplifier, and drum machine for practice sessions. If you come up with something special, you can export and work on it with GarageBand for Mac (also free).

GarageBand Running on an iPad

For producing electronic music, hip hop, and more technical genres, Auxy perfectly treads the fine line between ease of use and raw power. It’s free to use with an optional monthly subscription of $4.99 that provides access to hundreds of samples, additional instruments, and regular updates. It’s really simple to get started with Auxy, plus there’s a vibrant community of artists who share tracks and support each other over at the Auxy Disco forum.

KORG Gadget 2 is another highly-capable production environment. KORG has a long history of creating professional instruments, synthesizers, sequencers, and more. Gadget harnesses many of those signature sounds and, unlike Auxy, provides full support for MIDI controllers. Gadget is probably most at home on an iPad, owing to the “mixing desk” UI approach taken by its developers.

KORG Gadget Running on an iPad Pro

Making music doesn’t have to be a serious exercise in creative expression. It can also be a fun way to burn five minutes, as is the case with Figure. This app allows you to tap and drag your fingers across pads to manipulate pitch and sound. You can create drum loops, lay down bass lines, and improvise catchy melodies in mere minutes. It’s tough not to have fun with Figure.

This is a small sample of the most accessible production environments, but the App Store is also chock-full of virtual instruments, synthesizers and drum machines. Standout apps include:

  • Animoog — a standalone touch-friendly synthesizer from the analog legends at Moog.
  • iSEM — a faithful recreation of the 1974 Oberheim SEM.
  • Model 15 — Moog’s first modular synth for iOS, a stunning recreation of the original Model 15.
  • KORG iKaossilator — a software version of KORG’s innovative Kaossilator XY pad.
  • Fingerlab DM-1 — a dedicated drum machine and beat sequencer that fits in your pocket.

Some of these apps are free, while others can be pricey. Almost all of them will go into sale at some point, so it’s worth keeping one eye on the App Store using a service like AppShopper to find the best deals.

Using Instruments and Microphones with iOS

Many iOS synthesizers and digital audio workstations (DAWs) are compatible with real instruments. These include keyboards, guitars, microphones, and audio interfaces.

MIDI Keyboards

Many USB MIDI keyboards will work with iOS out of the box, but for best results always purchase a keyboard that advertises its compatibility. Some good examples of iOS-ready keyboards include the ultra-compact KORG MicroKEY 25, the battery-powered Akai LPK 25, and the full-sized M-Audio Keystation 88.

KORG Microkey MIDI Keyboard

If you already have a keyboard with MIDI capability, you can buy an inexpensive MIDI interface like the iConnectMIDI1 Lightning or iRig MIDI 2 and use it with your iPhone or iPad. These interfaces also almost always work with Windows, macOS, and in some instances, Android too.

Guitar Interfaces

If you want to record or use your guitar with iOS music apps, you’ll need a suitable interface. Basic analog interfaces like the iRig 2 are cheap enough. They provide a raw analog signal that’s perfect for jamming or demo work.

But if you’re more concerned about sound quality, you’ll want to opt for something like the iRig HD2. The big difference here is the sound quality since the HD2 converts the analog signal to a 24-bit  digital signal at 96kHz. You also get a few extra inputs and controls.

Guitar Connected to iRig HD2 and an iPad

If you want your guitar to sound the best it can spend the extra money on a digital interface.

Microphones and Audio Interfaces

There are all sorts of microphones available, from clip-on lavalier microphones for recording interviews to condenser microphones that are more suited to vocals. Some of these are designed with iOS compatibility in mind, like the high-quality Shure Motiv MV51.

Many other USB microphones work out of the box with iOS, provided you have the Lightning-to-USB camera connection kit. Some USB microphones draw more power and thus won’t work out of the box. The solution is to put a powered USB hub between your microphone and Lightning-to-USB adapter.

The best microphones usually use an XLR or 1/4″ connector, and for those, you’ll need an iOS-compatible audio interface. A good starting point is the iRig Pro I/O, which acts as both an audio interface (for microphones and instruments) and a MIDI interface (for controlling a synth). For a similar battery-powered portable interface that forgoes MIDI, check out the Zoom U-22.

Focusrite iTrack Solo with iPad

The Focusrite iTrack Solo is another solid option. It’s a two-channel interface with both XLR and 1/4″ input. It comes with gain control for both channels and a 1/4″ headphone out for monitoring purposes. If your budget can stretch, the Apogee Duet is worth a look too.

Picking the Right App for Live Recording

So you’ve got an interface, and you want to start recording audio. You can start with GarageBand, which provides a ton of useful functions. You can record via a virtual guitar amplifier, add effects to your vocals, and even access Apple’s rich library of royalty-free sounds.

Cubasis 2 by Steinberg is one of the most accomplished DAWs available for the platform. Record an unlimited number of tracks at 24-bit 96kHz quality. Use time-stretching and pitch-shifting to manipulate your recordings. Also included are virtual instruments, a mini sample, 17 effect processors, and more than 500 ready-to-use loops.

Another popular third party DAW is Auria and its more expensive sibling Auria Pro. It’s a professional-grade recording, mixing, and mastering suite for iOS. The main difference between the two versions is that Auria Pro comes with MIDI support, virtual instruments, quantizing, and more. Check out the full list of differences on the Auria website.

For a budget DAW, look no further than Multitrack DAW. This app lets you record up to 24 audio tracks with non-destructive, non-linear editing. There’s no MIDI support, and the feature set is decidedly barebones, but that makes it relatively simple to use compared with an app like Auria. For solo jamming and messing around, you may only need loop-based recording app Loopy.

Most iOS DAWs include support for AudioUnits, plugins that run inside other apps. As opposed to linking apps together and running multiple apps at once, AudioUnits let you run everything inside a single app for a better user experience.

Turn Your iPhone Into a Virtual Guitar Amp

If you can’t crank your amp because you live in an apartment, your second best bet is to use a virtual guitar amplifier. These allow you to experiment with a whole range of different sounds without having to spend thousands of dollars on cabinets and pedals.

GarageBand has a selection of amplifiers to get you started. You can recreate classic sounds by tweaking knobs and adding pedals to your setup. You can then record directly into GarageBand, add vocals, drums, and share your creation.

GarageBand Effect Pedal Chain Running on iPhone

But there are dedicated guitar amp simulators too. These generally offer far more customization than GarageBand, allowing you to do things like adjusting the “microphone” used, add virtual pre-amps, and create elaborate feedback loops with some creative routing.

Some of the best virtual guitar amps include:

  • STARK — modular amp virtualization with 12 amps, 10 cabinets, six rooms, and 14 pedals.
  • JamUp — a multi-effects processor for guitar and bass with an online community for sharing presets.
  • BIAS AMP 2 and BIAS FX — featuring hundreds of amps, effects, and pedals.
  • ToneStack — with support for up to 64 amps and effects in a single chain.
  • iShred LIVE — free to begin (with in-app purchases) so you can get shredding right away.
  • Amplitube — pricey yet established virtual amp modeling from the developers of the iRig range.

Using More Complex Tools to Improve Your Music

With so many iOS music apps available, you’ll probably want some way of connecting them. This allows you to record the output of one app (like a synth) into another (like a DAW). You can even process one input (like your guitar) through one app (a virtual amp) and record the results in your favorite DAW.

Apple’s previous standard for this, Inter-App Audio (IAA) is being retired in favor of Audio Units v3. Audio Units allow you to run elements of one app inside another, like a traditional VST or AU on a Mac or PC. There is one app that remains a strong contender where AUv3 support is absent, though: AudioBus.

AudioBus lets you pass audio and MIDI from one app into another. You can build chains of apps, adjust levels, and even bind controls to your MIDI controller with the right in-app purchase. There’s also a neat little overlay that allows you to start and stop playback or enable and disable effect processing regardless of which app you are using.

There are over a thousand AudioBus compatible apps (check out the full list). You can download AudioBus 3 from the App Store for $9.99, and grab the separate AudioBus Remote for controlling your setup from a separate iOS device.

One alternative to AudioBus is an app called AudioCopy. Often AudioCopy functionality is built right into compatible apps, and it works just like regular copy and paste. The difference here is that you’re not building a chain of apps for recording. Instead, you’re creating small files that you can paste into other apps—like a loop from a drum machine—for processing or using in a larger composition.

The Results Speak for Themselves

Gorillaz produced their 2010 album The Fall on an iPad. Steve Lacy produced the backing track for PRIDE by Kendrick Lamar using iPhone apps and having his guitar plugged into an old iRig. You only need to listen to talented Auxy producers like aUstin haga, phluze, Kayasho, and Mr. Anderson to see the potential for yourself.

Rather create music in your browser instead? Check out the best websites for creating music—no additional software necessary!

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