Portability has always been an issue for producers. Looking for a product review on the Internet? Portability will be on the feature list at some point. The reason we care about it is that some of us are inclined to play live acts instead of DJ sets. Some of us love taking our sequencer to the park or to the shoreline and work on some rudimentary sketches that we’ll eventually polish up in the studio.
Well, once plasticky and uncanny, the tablets, iPads, smartphones, and so forth, are slowly populating the music production market that we so much depend on, and not all of us can figure out if that’s a good thing or not.
The main reason why we don’t find them very usable is because we’re used to sequencers, well, at least some of us are. Imagine an old-school AKAI MPC 2000xl user switching to an iPad app to make beats. Weird, eh?
It’s not all that bad, though. Today we’re going to look into a couple of apps that have made a name for themselves and have delivered great usability, user interface design, and technical capabilities.
Producing Music on Mobile vs. Desktop
There is, of course, a great deal of difference between producing music with professional software and with apps for mobile devices. Probably one of the most important aspects that delineate the problematic nuances of mobile music production apps is the user interface and the user experience.
Some of the early apps that have been developed in the field of mobile music production would be Polyplayground — created by quite a prolific LA-based producer Mike Gao that has collaborated with the lights of Project Mooncircle records — and Beatsurfing, developed by Belgian musician Herrmutt Lobby, that is signed to VLEK records.
However, the above-mentioned apps, in my humble opinion, were directed to cognitively aid the production process and shift the artist from boring grids in a DAW, layering drums and shaping frequencies. Thus, they can completely concentrate on their hands and movement by totally distracting them from the screen of the computer, allowing some “beautiful accidents” to take place. This is a valid feature, as we tend to get too bored in our studios.
Whereas music is about expression, and adding more “physical motion” and fun to the process is at times crucial to improve our sound, chromatics, and progressions.
“Yeah, well, there’s no VST support in the mobile DAW’s” is a valid point to make and there’s no way to reconcile that issue. At times, we all depend on VST’s even with high-end production software on our computers. Furthermore, I’d say it’s weird if you don’t use any plugins at all.
Best Mobile DAW's
FL Studio Mobile - FL Studio Mobile is fully customized for most portable devices from phones to iPads and tablets using Android and Windows. Unfortunately, most users have reported very low usability after its recent update. The mobile version of the Fruity Loops is quite clunky and at times slow, but it is fairly usable. In case you’re looking forward to throwing some trivial loops that you’ve got on your mind, it’s a pretty decent app.
Garageband Mobile - The first thing you’ll notice while looking through the portable version of Garageband is its design. Like all Apple products, the app has a look that is pleasant to the eye and has a very engaging interface. As you may have already expected, Garageband is available for Apple products, however, there are ways to adapt it to Android and so forth. But these cracks aren’t very stable and have the tendency to crash.
Stagelight - The people at Openlabs have made a beat-directed product. Its entire design and interface strategy have a strong emphasis on rhythm sections. Stagelight has an interesting and distinguishable feature called “Track Transfer” that allows you to move your projects from phone to tablet and eventually to a Mac. The app, however, isn’t really directed towards a creative process. The app is slightly bland and is not suitable for music that is little more than trivial. It’s available for Apple, Android, Windows and your Chrome browser.
Steinberg Cubasis - The creators of Cubasis market this product as highly usable, which in my personal viewpoint is “the” crucial issue of mobile music making apps. You can easily see Steinberg’s clever design in the app. In general, Cubasis is pleasing to the eye. It is packed with interesting features to play around with in comparison to most apps in the niche. Cubasis is now available for Apple products only. The main reason for it not being adapted for Android may be high latency, which is specific to the platform. Yet, this was the official case 3 or 4 years ago.
NanoStudio - The concept of the NanoStudio lays a strong emphasis on its mixing and mastering capabilities, which is a bit odd. Many producers having gone through sleepless nights, working on their mixes and masters on expensive audio interfaces and monitors, walking around their studios to get the best out of their music, will most probably be baffled, if not offended, at the sight of an app designed for an iPad to do the “mixing and mastering.” You couldn’t say they’d be wrong or anything. However, on the functional side, NanoStudio is not bad. The design isn’t brilliant, but it has a neat sampler and sequencer to experiment with. The app is available for Apple products only.
Music Maker JAM - I don’t know to what extent we’re talking about “making music” when speaking of JAM. It’s an okay option to look into when you’re making your first baby steps into music production. However, I wouldn’t recommend staying there for too long. The issue is that JAM is a loop-based app, which means that you’re not going to really make music; you’re going to assemble loops. Plus, I find the app’s obsession with separating everything into genres truly hindering to a young producer.
On the bright side, the app features a clean design, which is very pleasing to the eye. It is available for Apple-based devices, as well as Android and Windows.
BeatMaker 2 - This is another app that is only hosted on Apple products due to the internal latency errors in the Android core. However, BeatMaker 2 has a great design in comparison to most music production apps, and it delivers what it markets. Beat production is at times a technically simplistic procedure (not to be mistaken with creatively simplistic) which doesn’t require huge technical capacities. And that’s exactly what the app is directed toward.
G-Stomper Studio - This Planet H product is pretty successful and has collected loads of positive reviews. It also delivers a different perspective on music production as its interface lays emphasis on the drum machine module instead of drum rack, which means there is some creative input toward programming your drums and thus giving you a clearer understanding of sound parameters in case you’re a rookie. Available for Android only.
Ninja Jamm - The Ninja Jamm is sort of conceptually similar to the Music Maker JAM. A time killer? Yes. A tool for music production? I doubt it. The important thing is that the app is intended to make remixes, it comes with a few loop and sample packs on board, so you can play around with it. If you’re looking forward to starting producing music and you want a sneak peak in the process, I’d avoid Ninja Jamm. Available for Apple and Android platforms.
Best Mobile Samplers, Synths, and Effects
Native Instruments iMaschine
The Maschine has made a name for itself over the last few years and they’ve invested great effort into releasing a releasing a good mobile product. It’s fairly simplistic, but in a less is more sort-of-manner. There are no unnecessary features and the design is highly intelligible.
Available to Apple users only.
Arturia, the world-famous synth producer, has made a leap towards mobile apps as well. The iMini is a powerful synth, which is a reconstruction of Robert Moog’s 1971 masterpiece. It features a huge gallery of presets, crafted with care, to reproduce the original thing. Works with iPads only.
Figure has a very pleasant interface with a calm color palette and an intuitive design. Yet one of the issues with the app itself is the lack of a grid view, furthermore a keyboard-type view. Although you’d think that emerging from a boring keyboard would enhance a creative approach, Figure’s instruments lock your capabilities when triggering instruments. The app is available for Apple products as well as Windows 10 both mobile and desktop.
Creating a digital replica of the legendary Electribe seems to be a very complicated task to accomplish. The Tribe is known to be a very complex instrument that is complicated to program, but they nailed it. There are some cons, of course, like poor MIDI support and fiddly controls. However, bear in mind that the app can be directly connected to Ableton via Ableton Link, that allows you to record audio clips directly into the DAW. All this goodness at a price of $20, which many users find a bit pricey. Available for Apple products.
Akai iMPC Pro
I find the iMPC Pro the best app in this category. The design is clean, elegant and intuitive. It comes with a huge sample bank, countless effects, and Inter-App audio integration. The layout of the iMPC now allows you to easily have total control over the entire song. It comes at a comparatively modest price of $12.99 and is available for Apple products and is partially adapted for some Android devices.
The Filtatron is an FX engine that is built for iPhones and iPod Touch devices. Its main intention is to recreate the original Moog sound thickness. By uploading a track to the sampler, you can tweak a lot of parameters, among which an envelope follower, an LFO, an oscillator and numerous FX presets.
DM1 – The Drum Machine
The DM1 is an emulation of a drum machine for Apple devices. It features a lot of sound banks that varies from straight up old-school drum machines to percussive elements, and the user can easily shift through banks. The DM1 has full MIDI implementation, Ableton Link and a very comfortable import and export pathway via DropBox, Mail and iTunes folder.
When it comes to purchasing music production apps, I’d recommend spending the extra dollar. But don’t, under any circumstances, let this be your only criteria for selection. DAW’s, mobile apps, synths, MIDI controllers, whatever you’re looking to investing your money in music-wise, you have to let your creative spirit decide first and then think rationally.
Mobile apps are nowhere near a satisfactory quality and/or complexity to ensure a healthy workflow that will last. However, why not perceive this as a chance to look differently at music production, find some new ideas and inspiration in the process?
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