Tablets and smartphones are making music more fun for musicians and nonmusicians alike. These devices--mainly iPhones and iPads at the moment--have brought about a wave of innovation in tuneful apps. Here are some of the coolest ones out there.
The iPhone 4 contains a very good gyroscope, which senses the exact position you're holding the phone in. GyroSynth is a tone generator that alters its tone as the user moves the phone around--a little like the way a classic theremin works. And the app creates a unique sound, not one that mimics an already existing synth sound. I could easily see someone playing one of these things in a live setting.
iShred, Guitar, Pocket StompBox, Homegrown Apps
Speaking of shredding, the man in the video below has cobbled together the ultimate DIY digital guitar. His guitar consists of two Android phones, two Windows phones, and an iPod Touch. Two of the devices are running homegrown keyboard and drum sequencers, one is running Pocket StompBox for the real-time effects, and the others are running the iShred and Guitar apps from Frontierdesign. All of the devices are taped together on a wooden “fretboard” connnected to a cheap speaker. The results are impressive.
Some of the best synth apps for phones and tablets come from the companies that have made synths for years. A case in point is Akai, which became huge in the hip hop community for its samplers. Akai’s SynthStation for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch gives you a simple synth with all the basic parameters (LFO envelopes, an arpeggiator, and the like), a sequencer, a drum machine, and a mixer. Best of all, the app makes it easy to create some classic analog synth sounds--complete compositions, in fact--that actually sound good.
I happened upon this video of “The iPad Orchestra,” and began to listen carefully to the instruments (apps) they were playing. Turns out, it's a program called Seline HD (Amidio), and the sounds this thing makes are beautiful. The sounds seem to be based on cellos, oboes, and flutes, but they aren't trying to mimic those instruments exactly. They have their own sound, a unique take on the sounds of classical instruments. Here's "Sweet Dream" performed live for an audience on August 20, 2010, by "The iPad Orchestra" on four iPads running Seline HD.
Rock Band 3 Fender Squier Strat Pro Guitar and Controller
The problem with Rock Band is that the first-generation guitar and drum instruments were nothing like the real thing. So for anybody remotely familiar with playing a real instrument, the video game was kind of an empty experience--little more than an exercise in hand-eye coordination. Fender fixed that by crafting a real guitar that can work with Rock Band, as well as play though an amp for real. Let's hope that other hybrid gaming/gigging instruments like this are on the way.Misa Digital Kitara Guitar
Guitar apps for tablets are pretty commonplace now, but the Kitara Touchscreen Guitar (Misa Digital) takes the concept a step further by building a guitar around a tablet-size touchscreen computer. Just as on a real guitar, you select the notes you want to play on the fretboard, and then strum the six glowing strings on the display. The Kitara contains a synth to create various sounds, and some of them don’t sound like a guitar at all. But it isn't cheap--the device is selling for $1100 at Sweetwater today.
AmpliTube iRig and AmpliTube App for iPad
I know more than a few guitarists who are salivating over this product. AmpliTube comprises a simple cable interface that lets you plug your electric guitar into your iPhone or iPad, plus an app that replicates the sounds of a bunch of classic amps and guitar effects. You can monitor it with headphones, or run it into your Marshall stacks for live shredding. You can also record your performances. I'm not sure about the sound quality of these emulations, but I can see a day when one iPad (and perhaps a foot-pedal controller) might replace a whole rack of guitar pedals.
Korg Electribe R Synth
Dance-music producers have used Korg's Electribe percussion synth and sequencer for a decade. The people at Korg decided to make an iPad app based on the device. Actually, “based on” is probably not the right term--the app interface looks just like the real hardware, and works the same way too. The sounds the app makes are also very true to the sounds that the original produces, although probably not close to the same quality. Still, its a cool marriage of the tablet PC with an instrument that seems well suited for an app.
This one is a little silly, but I included it just to demonstrate the lengths people are going to in their efforts to make phones and tablets emulate real instruments. Plus, with this app, you get to put your phone in your mouth, something people around the globe yearn to do.
Piano Accordio Pro
Another sort of silly one. But wait: Piano Accordio Pro actually sounds kind of good, and the little buttons look like they work pretty well. And yes, here’s a video of somebody playing this thing at a live gig.
GarageBand for iPad
People have written about this app extensively, but it's my personal fave. Apple's digital audio recording program GarageBand lends itself to the the tablet platform astonishingly well. GarageBand started out on the desktop, and since its debut it has stayed very simple to use, while adding more and more loops, virtual instruments, and advanced music processing chops. The introduction of all that tech to the tablet app, of course, makes the app that much more portable, and the touchscreen is awesome for playing GarageBand’s wide array of virtual instruments. For musicians--beginner to expert--this single app justifies the purchase of an iPad.