AudioKit Synth One on an iPad

Getting Started with iOS Musicking: Some Free Apps

I’m not really into listicles and this isn’t meant to be a list of “the top five best free apps to get started with music production on iOS”. But a friend just asked me for recommendations which prompted for this blogpost.

So, let’s start with “the top five best free apps to get started with music production on iOS”:

  1. AudioKit Synth One
  3. Herrmutt Lobby PlayGround
  4. Ampify/Novation Launchpad
  5. Syntorial Primer

I don’t always do listicles but when I do, it’s not really about the list or the -icles

AudioKit Synth One

Now available on both iPhone and iPad, AudioKit Synth One (AKS1) is an Open Source project (MIT License) from the team behind the no-less Open Source AudioKit platform/framework for the Swift programming language.

As a softsynth, AKS1 has all sorts of neat features allowing musickers to play a huge range of sounds which would fit in a large number of musical contexts. Much of the inspiration for that synth comes from the East Coast vintage analog synths from the 1960s and 1970s. AKS1 primarily uses a subtractive synthesis model (create a rich sound like a sawtooth, sculpt it with filters). That makes it similar to Virtual Analog synthesizers. But AKS1 isn’t limited to emulating old synths à la Moog. AKS1 affords producing sounds which fit really well in contemporary musicking. One of my favourite features is an elaborate set of tuning systems, which focuses on the experimental side of tuning geekness (“Wilson Hexanies” and other goodies from the Wilsonic app). At the same time, it also supports traditional scales and tuning systems which are dominant in the World’s many musics.

Unlike many Free/Libre Open Source Software projects, AKS1 is maintained in such a way that it’s remarkably easy to install and use (though the synth is really deep). In this sense, the app is not only “Free as in ‘Free Beer’” but pretty close to “Free as in ‘Free Speech’” without being “Free as in ‘Free Puppy’”: you can easily use it as though it were merely freeware without needing to maintain it, yet you can also appropriate it fully, making it your own and making it appropriate to your contexts.

Speaking of appropriate contexts, AKS1 is one of very few musicking apps to push accessibility features for people visual impairments. It’s also featured in Apple Retail Stores in the United States. Nothing can truly be ubiquitous but AudioKit Synth One comes close to iOS ubiquity.

The AudioKit team has also released Digital D1, a great-sounding synth reminiscent of the Roland D50 and other digital synths of the 1980s and 1990s. While it’s not “Free as in ‘Free Beer’”, it’s quite inexpensive and it helps fund the AudioKit project as a whole. Development of AKDD1 is quite remarkable for its pace and transparency. Music app maker Matthew Fecher is not only a very enthusiastic proponent of iOS musicking and an active member of the community but he really sounds like a genuine nice guy. Analog Matthew has also been interviewing other app developers, generating goodwill among colleagues and raising the profile of this scene. (I just wish there could be a better gender balance in this scene, but that’s a systemic problem which might require a lot more of that kind of inclusive work to eventually get resolved.)


Most of the no-cost iOS musicking apps are freemium or “free with in-app purchases (IAPs)”. The NOISE softsynth from ROLI uses such a business model You can get the app for free, on an iPhone or iPad, and you can use its included sounds as much as you want with no restriction. The company then sells soundpacks, many of which are branded through well-known artists. So, the app is “Free as in ‘The First Beer Is On The House’”.

Those packs use three separate sound engines: a player version of the Equator synth, an unnamed engine for drumkits, and the SWAM Engine from Audio Modeling. Considering their quality, some of the soundpacks are remarkably inexpensive.

The app is also one of the very few iOS apps which support MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE).

I’m a big fan of MPE, a standard meant to make the old MIDI protocol as expressive as it can be (I tend to label it #ExpressiveMIDI). MPE became an official standard fairly recently, but a version of MPE had been a de facto standard for a few years. Simply put, MPE allows musickers to change multiple sounds in multiple ways, all at the same time. For instance, with the fingers of one hand, you can (all at the same time) have some sounds becoming brighter while others are becoming darker, control different rates of vibrato for each note, change the volume for each voice, and modify the pitch of each part. It may sound a bit complicated but, in practice, it’s a lot of fun and it sure does make electronic music much more expressive than just triggering some prerecorded sounds according to a strict grid.

ROLI has been instrumental (!) in making MPE work for as many people as possible. The company is most associated with its Seaboard line which “reimagines the piano keyboard as a smooth, continuous, touch-responsive surface where any kind of sound is possible”. The original Seaboard was widely perceived as a futuristic instrument, the stuff of movies. It’s also been something close to the flagship instrument in the MPE world (though there are other MPE instruments like the LinnStrument and Eigenharp).

For those of us who aren’t pianocentric and don’t need a keyboard to orient ourselves, ROLI also sells a tiny controller called the Lightpad Block M. The original version of the Lightpad wasn’t very responsive and many people panned it. But the Lightpad M was a huge improvement and causing a change of heart for some people. Some of us find that the Lightpad M has important advantages over the Seaboard. Despite my predilection for wind controllers, my Lightpad M has become my go-to controller and might become something close to my main instrument (though I need to practice more before using it in performance, unlike my trusty old saxophone).

There’s nothing like musicking my heart out while hanging out in a café with my Lightpad M, iPad Pro running NOISE in AUM, and Sony MDR-7506 headphones.

One thing to note is that installing NOISE on an iPhone or iPad gives you both a standalone app with some MPE controls and two Audio Unit plugins: one for “Melody” (virtual instruments from the Equator engine) and one for “Drums” (drumkits with some autoplay and expressive features). However, the SWAM Engine sounds are only available in the standalone version (unsurprising given their low cost).

Speaking of Audio Unit plugins (AUv3), they’re used throughout the iOS musicking ecosystem and are giving the scene its own groove. Apple’s free GarageBand app can host AUv3 plugins (and could have been a pretty good answer for my friend’s question about ways to get into music production on iOS). But there are several other ways to host AUv3 plugins including AUM, apeMatrix, and Audiobus 3 (AB3). (All three apps are paid, but well worth the money.) Something to note about Audiobus is that the site for the plugin host is itself the host of the most active forum about iOS musicking. Despite being managed by Audiobus, that forum is a place to discuss many iOS apps and plugins, whether or not they’re supported by AB3.

Herrmutt Lobby Playground

Another “free with IAP” app is Playground (PG), from Herrmutt Lobby (HLO SA).

It’s one of the funnest musicking apps for iPhone and iPad out there. It’s basically a musicking toy, in the most positive use of the term.

My frequent (and longstanding) use of the term “musicking” might puzzle some people while it annoys others. Though it’s just the present participle of the verb music, I mostly mean musicking as:

Any activity involving or related to music performance, such as performing, listening, rehearsing, or composing.

One of my main reasons for using the term is that music isn’t just the product of professional performance. It’s also a fun activity in which pretty much anyone can participate (yes, including people with severe hearing impairments, thanks to the properties of low sounds). Many people think of music as a “spectator sport” and will claim that they “don’t know music”. With an app like Playground, just about anyone can be playful with music, regardless of expertise level. I haven’t tried it with a toddler but it feels like it could work pretty well. Given my own expertise level, I feel it’s an efficient way to gain inspiration, especially in an approach of music production which focuses on samples and remixing.

As it gets you to use a control surface to play with recorded sounds, Playground is aptly named. You load a “map” for that surface and you move your fingers around, playing with animations which trigger recorded sounds or apply some effects. What makes the app so pleasurable is that pretty much everything you do in the app will sound good yet the sounds are relatively diverse. It’s a “constrained universe”, but it feels freeing. It’s quite a bit like the sandbox mode in some videogames. Some PG maps also allow for a synced “multiplayer” mode, making for a very fun experience with friends or relatives.

There are multiple other apps like this, some of which allow for wider musical control or much more elaborate music production. What pleases me so much with PG is its degree of visceral fun. It’s quite easy to really “get into it” and make your musicking into something quite physical. Also fascinating to me (as a technopedagogue) is the app’s onboarding experience and its whole “learning curve”. You can learn the app in seconds, in a slightly gamified way. But, in its own informal ways, PG also brings you through learning journeys along diverse learning pathways.

Ampify/Novation Launchpad

My friend had mentioned Ableton Live, the Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) which is still dominating the laptop-based world of electronic musicking. While iOS does have several DAWs, prompting prominent Youtubers to share their lists of favourites and comparisons, nothing on iOS really compares to Live 10.

Ampify, an iOS software shop which is part of Focusrite, developed its Launchpad app as a clip-launcher for iPhone and iPad with some similarities to Live’s Session mode. Launchpad can export projects in the DAW’s format and they work in Live 10 Lite, the restricted version of Ableton’s flagship DAW. (If memory serves, the app used to come with a free license for Ableton Live 9 Lite.)

So, as a way to get into the Ableton approach to clip launching, Ampify Launchpad is quite neat. It’s yet another of those “free with IAP” apps which sells soundpacks (many, though not all, of which are royalty-free). Some important features like audio import also require payments. But soundpacks are inexpensive and they frequently come at a 50% discount. In the end, it’s quite possible to have a lot of fun with the app without investing too much in the extra features and soundpacks.

So a pretty solid app for iOS musicking on the cheap.

(To make matters slightly more confusing, the app was originally branded “Novation Launchpad”, like the Launchpad line of hardware controllers for Ableton Live, widely sold through Focusrite’s Novation brand. Unlike the hardware of the same name, Ampify’s Launchpad can’t be used as a controller for Ableton Live or other DAWs.)

Syntorial Primer

Though my friend has quite a bit of expertise in musicking outside of iOS, learning was part of my focus in creating this list (because, technopedagogy). Not that I perceive iOS apps to be the software musicking equivalent to “training wheels”. There’s plenty of professional music performance (and soundtracks) which can happen through iOS. It’s just that this list is meant as a low-risk introduction to the platform. So, learning. And cost-free.

Syntorial is a freemium app for iPad (and demoware for the desktop) which helps people learn the basics of analog-style subtractive synthesis and some other aspects of sound design. It comes from an author whose approach to synthesis programming is quite solid and whose synth selection advice is quite useful. Thing is, though, the full version of Syntorial is quite expensive, the free lessons are quite limited (though fairly useful as an introduction to synth programming), and there’s no way to purchase a lesson at a time. So, I wasn’t going to make Syntorial itself part of my introductory list.

Thankfully, the same developer has released Primer, a standalone synth and AUv3 plugin which integrates the modules taught by Syntorial. It doesn’t necessarily have very unique features, but it’s one of the simpler softsynths out there. So, a pretty decent pick for “getting started with iOS musicking”.

Primer is the only app on my list which is iPad-only. Interestingly enough, despite the scale of the iPhone market compared to iPad, most developers of mobile music making apps tend to focus on the iPad (or iPad Pro), excluding smaller devices. As one such dev has told me, it’s just too much of an effort to convert an iPad app to a smaller screen for the percentage of sales these devs get on iPhone. I still think it could make sense to start with a smaller screen and then expand into the iPad format. Plus I wonder if some other musicking apps have healthy markets on iPhone. But it’s difficult to argue with people’s experiences unless you can bring up some convincing alternatives.

Musicking with AUv3: A Non-List List

Besides NOISE, Primer is the only app from this list which is currently available as AUv3. As of yet. In the now. (AudioKit Synth One is supposed to add AUv3 support Real Soon Now. Not that there’s any pressure for the AK team to release that plugin version, of course. But the sooner the better. Like, maybe now? How about now?)

AUv3 is a pretty big deal, for me.

Because my own iOS musicking focuses almost exclusively on AUv3 plugins and hosts, these days, I end up not using AudioKit Synth One, PlayGround, or Launchpad that frequently. Nor am I spending much time in the Korg Gadget world despite owning most of its parts (including the macOS version).

If I were to list my favourite iOS musicking apps, I’d probably start with the apps and plugins developed by Bram Bos, who does more for iOS musicking in his spare time than a well-funded corporation. Among other things, Bos has provided important information and shared valuable insight on the development of AUv3 MIDI plugins (and there’s now a growing selection of plugins which produce or process notes and controls through MIDI in DAWs like Cubasis and AUv3 hosts like apeMatrix, though not in GarageBand).

Another important player in the AUv3 scene is Audio Damage, which consistently prices iOS versions of its plugins at 10% of the price of the desktop versions. Not only is AD creating high-quality plugins for any platform, but its devs are valued members of the iOS musicking scene. At this point, most AD plugins and standalone apps are available for iPhone, iPad, macOS, and Windows. (Two of AD’s effects plugins, Rough Rider and FuzzPlus, are available as free downloads, crossplatform.)

Rather unique in this scene, Numerical Audio produces Eurorack modules as well as desktop and iOS apps/plugins. Recently, NA’s Kai Aras has started to sound like an advocate of the aforementioned MPE standard (Expressive MIDI). After releasing Volt, one of very few iOS softsynths which already support MPE input, NA has crafted and tweaked KB-1, its “Expressive MIDI Keyboard” available as both a plugin and a standalone app. There are a few apps which can work as controllers on iOS, including GeoShred and Ribbons which both work in MPE mode. But KB-1 is quite unique in its modularity and support for diverse controls. You can use the same plugin to control almost any aspect of another plugin, whether it’s an instrument or an effect. KB-1 recently came to the iPhone with support for the underrated 3D Touch feature of recent smartphones. So you can press into the screen the way you press into an electronic keyboard (an effect known as “polyphonic aftertouch” or “channel pressure”).

Sugar Bytes would also deserve a special mention in my list of AUv3 plugins and developers. Like AD, Sugar Bytes might be a familiar name for desktop users since the company has released a number of products which are compatible with Windows or macOS. There are several SB apps for iPad (and one app for iPhone), and they tend to be quite unique, if not a bit crazy. Their recently-released Aparillo for iPad app uses an intriguing “free with IAP” model: the app itself is free with limited features, but you can pay to get the AUv3 version.

The abovelinked apeMatrix comes from Alessandro Petrolati’s apeSoft, which provides a series of idiosyncratic synths and effects for iPhone and iPad. A few apps are only available as standalone (not as AUv3 plugins) but Petrolati was able to create an impressive emulation of the famed EMS VCS 3 “Putney” synth, available as both a standalone app and an AUv3 plugin (instrument or effects). (Petrolati has also created a few Max for Live devices which are available as standalone apps on Windows and macOS.)

Elephants in the Room

There are many other devs which are making iOS musicking their specialty. Several of them can be found on the AB forum I mentioned earlier.

Some of the bigger names in the industry do have some kind of iOS presence. I’d claim that Korg is the most prominent of the bunch, if only based on the number of comments about their iOS products (especially the Gadget DAW and series of synth/effects modules). Several of the others have dipped their toes into the iOS side of things but have basically abandoned their efforts.

Yamaha’s Steinberg does deserve a special mention because its Cubasis DAW is a well-maintained iPad version of its mainstream DAW. Conversely, Propellerhead has attracted some strongly negative reactions when it released its Europa synth on iPhone and iPad calling it “Reason Compact” (as though it were a mobile version of its skeuomorphic DAW). “Props” had also created two apps (Figure and Take) which made their way to the Allihoopa brand and service which itself became a spinoff and recently closed shop. So, iOS has yet to become a success story for the Swedish DAWmaker.

I’ve occasionally discussed Germany’s Native Instruments (sic) in the context of the iOS musicking market. After receiving significant VC funding, the company has begun something of a transition to a more consumer-friendly lineup. That move was fairly easy to observe in the company’s NAMM 2019 announcements. As has been the case with Apple, some pro users have been complaining that NI has stopped catering to them. Thing is, though, it sounds to me like the move to a consumer market could have been accompanied by some carefully-marketed iOS offerings. It didn’t work for Propellerhead but there’s obviously a way to play it well when you have cool software and hardware (including audio interfaces). My favourite NI product, by far, is Reaktor 6, a modular system for softsynths and effects. My dream scenario is if NI could make its impressive Reaktor User Library into a source of AUv3 plugins. Extremely unlikely, but it’d radically change iOS musicking in a way that only Apple could.

As part of the (in)famous inMusic Brands conglomerate, Akai Pro is notable for having released mobile versions of its MPC music production system. Including on Android…

Ha! Finally! Something about The Dominant Platform for Mobile Devices!

Yes, there are some musicking apps on Android. Thing is, the Android musicking scene is nowhere near as extensive nor as dynamic as the iOS one.

One reason for this is simply fragmentation, since it’s near impossible to cover the audio capabilities of all the Android devices out there. But the key problem is actually that very few of the Android devices sold in significant numbers are able to deliver proper results in terms of audio quality and latency. (Latency is “a delay or lag affecting digital audio playback”.)

ROLI’s JUCE is one of the most important systems to develop multiplatform audio applications, including mobile devices. Which means that its devs obviously care a whole lot about such things as latency and audio quality on mobile devices. JUCE’s Mobile Audio Quality index (MAQ) is very likely to be one of the most serious measurements of audio performance on iOS and Android devices.

All of the close to 30 iOS devices in the MAQ list (from the 2013 iPad Air to the 2017 iPhone 8 Plus) receive a full three-star rating. The four Android devices which come close (though with a lot more “glitchiness”) are three Google Pixel models and the HTC Nexus 9. Out of these, the Pixel 2 is the only one with a lower latency than the 2015 iPod touch (6th generation). The MAQ list has been updated today (as of my timezone), but there’s no indication that the situation has improved recently.

Having said this, there are musical applications for which latency matters a whole lot less than usual. Such is the case with clip-launching, so it’s not too surprising that the Remixlive app from Mixvibes would be available for Android (as well as iPhone and iPad). It shares some similarities with Ampify Launchpad from my list, including the fact that it’s “free with IAP”. Unlike Launchpad, it’s also sold on macOS and Windows (for 50USD). So it might actually be a pretty good answer to the question of “which app should I download to get started with mobile musicking?”. I’ve played with it a bit and I’ve enjoyed a demo using the app. But it doesn’t support AUv3 so it didn’t spend much time on my devices.

Speaking of AUv3 and Android apps, there’s some hope that 2019 will bring us more musicking apps for Android. The “Oboe” C++ Library promises to decrease latency. And Audioroute from n-Track might allow for more apps to be developed. Yet, as things stand, Android is pretty much in the state iOS was before the first version of Audiobus came along.

Sure, even before AB was released, there were some very cool apps on iOS (Thumbjam remains among my favourite musicking apps; alas, it’s yet to jump into AUv3). But there wasn’t really a way to put things together in a coherent workflow. Since 2012, iOS has not only been getting a boost from Audiobus but Apple implemented IAA (Inter-App Audio) in 2013 and AUv3 in 2015.

Lesser known than these iOS workflow announcements (and, unlike those other features, useful for any iOS app which produces sound) is IDAM, Inter-Device Audio & MIDI (first introduced in 2015 as the nearly-unusable “Inter-Device Audio Mode” as part of OS X 10.11 El Capitan; since made more than merely usable; it remains stable in the current macOS 10.14 Mojave). As some people say, it “solves everything” by allowing owners of both macOS and iOS devices to seamlessly route sound and musical information between mobile and desktop apps. So, you can use an iPhone or iPad as though it were a plugin, controller, or hardware synthesizer. That feature alone is one of the secret weapons of macOS musicking, along with Apple’s MainStage and Logic Pro X.

Listicles Are Supposed to Be Short

I’m really not one to write listicles in large part because I like to elaborate on a number of things. So this post has purposefully gone in different directions and wasn’t meant to be a mere list of a few neat apps. There are plenty of those already, especially on Youtube.

In fact, some of the links in this post could lead you to discover cool dudes who cover the iOS musicking scene, including Ashley Elsdon (who used to cover PalmOS musicking!), Tim Webb, Jakob Haq, and Doug Woods.

(As is the case with the AudioKit scene, I wish there were more women covering the overall iOS musicking scene, but I won’t resort to tokenism just to find a couple of names. There are many awesome women all around the World who are using iOS devices to make really cool music, but I honestly can’t think of any who’s been producing this kind of coverage through blogs, videos, or podcasts. That’s really too bad.)

My hope with a post like this is that it can be the beginning of something. Maybe you’ll start exploring music in new ways, even if it’s not on an iOS device (the Raspberry Pi tends to be among my favourite platforms, anyway; especially with the Pisound HAT, which greatly enhances the Pi’s audio and music capabilities). Or you’ll be tempted to start a conversation about business models behind app development. Or you’ll think about the diversity of musics in the World, an important phenomenon for me as an ethnomusicologist. Maybe you’ll notice ways people appropriate technology by making it their own and making it appropriate to their contexts.

If you made it this far, feel free to comment on this post or connect with me in other ways.

I’m easy to find.

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