Writing music on iOS is still a bag of hurt

Scenario 1: Writing music on a “real” computer (circa 2012)
– Fire up [DAW of choice]
– Lots of instruments are available
– Load “plugins” (little programs within a program) to compensate for shortcomings of DAW software.
– Write your parts
– Mix in context – correct mistakes as you go
– Upload to SoundCloud
– Go on with life (e.g. create dummy SoundCloud accounts and give yourself positive comments, etc.)

Scenario 2: Writing music on a non-iPad tablet
– *cricket*

Scenario 3: Writing music on an iPad
– Fire up GarageBand (or a different DAW, but probably not)
– Think of an idea for a part; realize the GB instruments don’t do all the tricks you need
– Fire up $5.99 synth app; learn how to use it
– Maybe it works. Maybe fire up another $5.99 synth app; learn how to use it
– Switch back to GarageBand and check what tempo your song is
– Switch back to Synth app – switch that tempo to the right one
– Record an out-of-context loop, but try to envision the drum part
– Audio copy the loop
– Switch back to GarageBand
– Audio paste
– Whoops, wrong Audio paste method – use the other one (repeat last 3 steps)
– OK great synth part! That sounds so warm.
– Next idea…

Here’s a quick video illustrating the problem:

So. Despite this cumbersome process, writing music on an iPad is indeed the best music writing experience we can get on a tablet today, and it has gotten much better than when it started. (The days before Audio copy involved having to bounce loops back to the computer and then re-importing them into a DAW program).

But this is supposed the be the future of general purpose computing! What good are all of those 1000’s of $5.99 Synth apps when you can’t load them inside of the app you’re actually using to write the song?

My humble suggestion: allow a new kind of app. This solution could take a couple very different paths:

There is kind of a precedent for plugins in iOS5. Newspaper and magazine apps are a good example – they “live” inside of Newsstand as a kind of sub-app app. They can exist as full apps, but are by nature relegated to be managed by Newsstand. Why can’t audio apps allow a similar scenario? Imagine the possibilities if something like Figure could run inside of GarageBand as an instrument plugin!

On the desktop, many “big” plugin packages have AU,VST,RTAS versions as well as a standalone launch-able version – Celemony’s Melodyne is a good example of this way of doing things. When Melodyne is launched, whether as a plugin or as the standalone editor, it looks and acts the same – the only difference is that the output is either fed straight to the system audio out, or to the DAW’s output track.

This could possibly be a model to allow plugins on iOS – allow “instrument” apps to exist normally on the home screen, but also be accessible within certain programs (in the same way that Audio copy is enabled per app). How cool would it be to have an “external” option in iOS GarageBand to allow using another instrument app as a track? It would be a cleaner experience than ReWire, and really expand the utility of all iPad music apps. Apple would be the ones to lead the charge in this department, and if they allowed this with minimal changes needed on the developer’s end it would instantly make the world a better place.

Another model might be more like Propellerhead’s recently announced Rack Extensions. This model would actually work with current iOS policies (which is maybe why they designed it this way). The hurdle would be convincing app developers to submit racks rather than apps straight to Apple. If enough developers jumped on the bandwagon, it would make the world a better place as well.

Imagine a big boy DAW like Reason having an In-App purchase “store” to buy addon instruments. Possibly very cool, and would redirect a lot of the smaller developers to rally around a standard rather than releasing good sounding apps that are unfortunately hard to actually use in songs.

As far as I can tell, Apple doesn’t like plugins. They have halfheartedly accommodated audio sharing, but who knows? Maybe they’ll tackle this. If they did, it would signal the coming of age of iOS, and would probably be accompanied with a big release like Logic Express Express or something like that.

But let’s say instead that one of the AAA app developers comes in and nails this problem their way. I’m not a Reason user, but judging by Figure, they *get* mobile apps better than all but one other developer. Propellerhead is well positioned to lead the first wave of true pro audio apps on iOS if they want it.

One thing I think everyone will agree on: iOS is close, but it needs a way to marry the instruments with the method. Right now it’s the shiniest, most impressive toy for music writing…and it’s so close to really being useful for this it hurts.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.

11 thoughts on “Writing music on iOS is still a bag of hurt”

    1. Sounds like a cool idea. I feel the real knockout would be an official “iAudioUnits” or something like that. They started adding image units with ios4 so maybe this is in the works.

  1. It still sucks but you can find ways to make music in iOS as you articulately explain in this blog. I got into iOS on the iPad manly because I really liked the Moog Filtatron app and it’s simple yet effective offerings as a processor mainly but can also be a drone synth instrument. Being a big Korg user I also think that the ims-20i app is quite useful though I hardly use it for different reasons but when I do it is fully capable for the job as a dedicated synth which is where I find the strongest appeal for music making currently on iOS. Just two, now old, example of how and why I use iOS when I have a monster workstation synth as well as both flavors of a DAW to make music. Most of my music is created still on a dedicated synthesizer workstation. iOS for me is used in addition either a standalone synth or track(s) created in an app then audio exported/pasted etc. Even when it catches up and I am sure it will, I will most likely hold onto my legacy roots in favor of the tablet but I will join in for sure 🙂

    I haven’t found a multitrack app I can get into on iOS. Admittedly I haven’t gotten past a few tracks and certainly as you wrote in the blog there is nothing that can live up to a DAW standard on the computer. Which I often wonder why it has to be that we must flock to the iOS or Android. Minaturize everything beyond it’s best purposes when we have and have had big guns that got the job done well. Portability? I suppose. Giving full control of all our music and music methods over to Apple is risking a lot as well as benefiting. It seems that it set us all up for homogenization of the boring-est kind. Everything will sound the same or be done the same. People talk about one World this and that…lock stepping your music methods to one way is almost the same thing and boring…wait I have meandered way off the map but seeing that not a lot of people have replied to this post and I wonder why(?) maybe I can meander a little. I think that the rack thing is a good idea too and is helpful when you are already inside a manufacturer’s app working/creating.


  2. Plugins are programs-within-programs, giving you UIs-within-UIs. The UIs are still wildly different; the fact that I don’t have to double-click the home button on my iOS device to switch between them doesn’t really make it any less clunky.

    But if I were going the plugin route, I’d want the outer program to be Ableton Live, for sure (which has the most intimidating-looking UI of all, go figure :). In the meantime, when I make music on iOS, I reach for Nanostudio. It has tons of good-sounding and tweakable instruments.

    1. The problem is in editing. Right now there’s not good way to use a common set of notes to play external synths. This process is central to how lots of people work. In addition, there isn’t a good shared silo for samples and things either. Once there are, however we could have a really good solution – the OS is what’s holding these products back, not the hardware.

  3. Just a couple of thoughts…

    You should really check the following response to your post out at Synthtopia, especially the comments.


    this comment in particular mirrors my sentiments…


    Also, IMO, DAWs in general aren’t for the “average user” either. What average user wants to learn Reaper, or Ableton Live? lol

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