These iPhone apps turn your iPhone into a portable studio

Jan 10, 2010
Music

You might dabble at home with GarageBand, but are you prepared for when inspiration strikes when you’re in the bathroom, in a cab, or on the train? The iTunes App Store has your hook-up, as always, with a wide variety of eccentric — yet powerful — composing and instrument iPhone apps. Here are just a few […]

You might dabble at home with GarageBand, but are you prepared for when inspiration strikes when you’re in the bathroom, in a cab, or on the train? The iTunes App Store has your hook-up, as always, with a wide variety of eccentric — yet powerful — composing and instrument iPhone apps. Here are just a few to get you started and pointed in the right direction:

I Am T-Pain ($2.99) claims to give you the pitch-correcting magic of Auto-Tune right in the palm of your hands, but there really should be an asterisk after this iPhone app’s name, because it isn’t really as simple as all that. While the I Am T-Pain iPhone app’s page points you to commercials of real rappers and singers testing it out, it’s virtually impossible to hear your goofy made-up lyrics sounding more dope than it should thanks to pitch correction. You’re really going to need a separate amp or other speaker which can plug into your iPhone, or settle for recording your goofy words and then hearing it played back. There are a lot of variables to tweak as far as what key and scales you want to be corrected in, as well as the ability to email your tracks or share them on your favorite social media network; but from a price perspective, it beats installing studio equipment in your living room.     

For the same price, Manetron ($2.99) gives you the very expensive and hard-to-find Mellotron, an English-invented instrument that looks to be an ordinary keyboard, but its keys actually operate a tape machine inside with pre-recorded notes. It’s spooky and affecting, and most recently has memorably been used by film composer and producer Jon Brion. With the Manetron iPhone app, you too can rub digital elbows with Brion. There are three different sound banks available, and while the keys are noticeably fatter for the purposes of a touch screen, there’s not much else you can do but play on it. Too bad you can’t record or export your compositions, but at least it does have that authentic and eerie tape sound.

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8bitone Micro Composer (99 cents) also recreates instruments from another era: the 8-bit gaming era. That means a lot of primitive bleeps and bloops, but don’t let the low price fool you — this is a pretty powerful musical composition program. You can fiddle with how much noise, in what octave, and what kind of wave you want each instrument to be and layer them on top of each other. The only problem? While there are handy instructions linked to a browser page from the iPhone app itself, it’s entirely in Japanese. 

Thereminator ($2.99) emulates the theremin, one of the earliest electronic instruments — essentially two antennae that emit a different frequency and volume depending on where your hands are placed around them. It’s strange, but its sound is unmistakable, largely used in early sci-fi films and in TV shows to communicate an offsetting or deranged mood. Amusingly, that technology isn’t quite perfected yet on the iPhone, but it still works great in its adaptation here: You can use the accelerometer or the touch screen to pick what frequency you want to make scream out of your device. There’s also an option for a grid of notes, so you cannot just randomly make noises if you don’t want to.

SunVox ($1.99) and Beatmaker ($19.99) represent two of the more astonishing ways the iPhone can help round out musical composition.  SunVox bills itself as “the most powerful music creation tool on the iPhone,” and it’s certainly not an exaggeration. It’s basically an entire electronic-musical studio on your iPhone. There’s a considerable learning curve, though, and most newbies will need to take an hour or two tinkering with the iPhone app before they make a rudimentary beat. But SunVox can do entire songs, so don’t give up easily. Beatmaker, however, is much less coy about making beats. Not only is it the iPhone app’s name, but it’s extremely easy to get going on. There are lots of pre-loaded sample banks and beats included; plus, you can import more kits, stringing together plenty of custom beats made on the fly.

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David Wolinsky

David Wolinsky is the Chicago city editor for The Onion's A.V. Club and is also the  undisputed 1994 Blockbuster store champion at collecting bananas in Donkey Kong Country.

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