It's not hard to find instrument apps in the iTunes App Store for the iPhone and iPad. Actually finding a use for most of them is a different story. However, a few simple hacks and an understanding of touch-screen capabilities and limitations can produce some great musical results. Here's how to do it.
Generally, when people think about music on the iPhone, they notice how apps like Garageband emulate real instruments. Just picture someone awkwardly air-strumming a fake guitar on an iPad and you'll get an idea of how these work.
These are fun gimmicks, but they're not really practical. However, a few solid instrument replacements exist, as do a handful of complex (and awesome) effects pedals. We'll take a look at how these work in the first section before moving on to how to actually implement them in your music.
The Cheap Software That Emulates $1000 Equipment
You're not going to get real instrument quality out of an iPad or iPhone. Typically, the best apps are the ones that are either completely new instruments or are emulating a digital (or at least synthesising) instrument. This is where iOS really excels. Instead of dropping $1,000 on a synthesiser, you can get a digital version for around $20. Here are a few examples of some of the stuff that is emulated really well on iOS (plus approximate pricing for the real-world equivalents):
- Yamaha TNR-i ($20.99 for the app, $1000 for physical instrument).
- Korg iElectribe ($19.99 for the app, $499 for the physical instrument).
- Korg iMS-20 ($34.99 for the app, $1,500-$2,000 for a used one on eBay).
- Animoog ($31.99 for the app, no physical version).
Thousands of other options exist, but the above are a taste of what the iPhone and iPad have to offer. Obviously, if you have the real thing it's going to sound and look a lot better, but if you're just running emulators off a laptop, the iPhone can be a great addition to any musician's toolkit.
The big problem is how to actually make them work with your setup. If you're using just the iPhone and nothing else, you can run it out to a mixer with a standard headphone cable. But if you're looking to do a little more, there are a few tricks you can use to sync the software with everything else you're doing and even send audio in and back out.
How To Use Apps To Control Other Instruments
Having great software isn't much use if you can't implement it. One of the biggest problems with the iPad and iPhone is the fact they don't have separate inputs and outputs, which means it's difficult to find a use for these instruments in the real world. Thankfully, you can hack together old technology to create a number of different applications for the device. Here are a few ideas. Photo by Christian Jensen.
The iPhone As An Effects Pedal
One of the handiest things you can do with an iPhone is turn it into an effects pedal. While you probably don't want to set it on the floor and step on it, the iPhone can serve up some pretty good effects for both instruments and vocals. The catch is figuring out how to wire everything together so that you can actually run your instrument in and back out of the single headphone jack.
You can pick up a commercial solution like the iRig, which allows you to run an instrument through the iPhone so you can use it as to alter the sound before sending it off to the amp. Better yet, you can hack together your own from a few RCA cables you probably already have lying around. Both of these solutions utilise the iPhone's built-in microphone port so you can plug an audio input in and then send it back to an amp. Want a cheap delay pedal for your guitar? Check out AmpKit. Want to sound like a robot with a vocoder? the iVoxel app might be just what you're looking for. The point is that once you can send audio both in and out, the apps become significantly more useful.
Using The iPhone With MIDI
One of the most interesting things you can do with an iPad is to use the above software (or any music software, really) in conjunction with a real instrument. To do this, you'll need either Apple's Camera Connection Kit or something like the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer.
What exactly is a MIDI controller? It allows you to use your physical music keyboard to control the software keyboard. This means one cheap physical keyboard can sound like anything you want.
Both the camera connection kit and the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer can be used to allow your iPhone to talk with real hardware dating all the way back to the '80s. This means you can use an app like the above mentioned iMS-20 with a real keyboard — giving you tactile control over the software (you can find a huge list of compatible hardware over at iOS MIDI). Run a compatible keyboard through the MIDI port on the Line 6 or the USB on the Camera Connection Kit and suddenly your iPhone has all the capabilities of your laptop. As a practical solution, it works brilliantly. It's portable, easy to use, takes up little space, and with the right software is just as powerful as a laptop.
Let Your iPhone And iPad Talk To Each Other
Happen to own an iPhone and an iPad you want to use together? The other option you have is to use the built-in Wireless Sync Start Technology. A lot of the music software comes with this built in, and it allows you to sync two devices together so they start and stop at the same time. They can also help maintain the same tempo, which means if you're using say, a drum machine on your iPad and a synthesiser on your iPhone, they can stay in sync. It's essentially a form of Bluetooth MIDI. You can find a list of compatible software here.
Hopefully the above software and hardware tips give you a starting point for creating something interesting. You'll find more gimmicky software for the iPhone than you'll find useful stuff, but that doesn't mean your iPhone can't be a powerful tool. Be sure to share your own methods for using an iOS device in your music making in the comments.