All of these new mobile devices are amazing. Personally, I own an iPhone and an iPad, and have always thought that they were amazing devices. When I started learning about apps that I could use to record and produce music with, I was blown away. The music production apps look cool, and make me feel cool every time I use a touchscreen fader or control knob. However, after using these apps for few years now, I constantly struggle with whether or not it is worth the money to invest in all of these iPad and iPhone apps. Can these apps really do what the professional gear can do? Can any of these recording apps create professional quality audio? In this article I will talk about the good and the bad parts of recording and producing music with mobile devices, as well as try to point out the best ways to incorporate these devices into your workflow.
Let’s face it, mobile apps are fun to play with. And with screen resolutions the way they are today, most apps looks gorgeous on both phones and tablets. This is probably the biggest selling point for mobile music production apps. The ability to adjust a fader or a knob with your finger is really fun, and makes you feel more like you are in control of your recording. For this reason alone, apps that are used to control your DAW (digital audio workstation), or other software on your computer, are amazing and easy to add to your studio.
For instance, AC-7 Core is an app for iPad that is used to control the mixer and faders for Pro Tools. The program will mimic a mixing board, so you don’t have to click and drag with your mouse in order change the volume of your faders. You can also use it as a mobile transport to play, record, and stop your audio. Another app that is fun to use as well as useful is touch-able. Touchable turns your iPad into a control surface for Ableton Live that lets you control all of the main aspects of Live. With touch-able, you can control the volume level of all of your tracks, start and stop all of your clips, as well as use it to record enable all of your tracks and record right from the iPad.
The greatest thing about apps like these is that when you touch something on the iPad, the feature that it controls also adjusts in your program, and vice versa. So when you turn down the master volume on your iPad, the master volume fader on your DAW also turns down. This gives you a greater sense of being in control of your creation, which in turn can help with the overall quality of your song or recording. Also, these apps can easily be integrated into your current studio setup. Most controller apps like these can be hooked up to communicate with your computer and DAW over Wi-Fi, or with a special USB cord that is sold separately. Using mobile apps with the special USB cord is always better because it allows the apps to perform with less latency.
When it comes down to it, I have a lot of problems with mobile music production apps. The bottom line is that these apps will never be as powerful, robust, or as good of quality as their hardware counterparts. The multi track recorders that are available for iPad, iPhone, and Android devices are all great in concept, but when it comes down to it, they will never sound professional. It takes so many extra steps to hook up a decent quality microphone to any mobile device. On top of that, most devices have limited, if any, inputs in them; good luck hooking up USB devices and instruments. So, it will be more annoying than convenient trying to upgrade your mobile studio, besides buying a new device every time the new model comes out. Furthermore, there aren’t many options as to what quality you can record your audio. Most likely, you will be stuck at a 44.1 kHz sample rate, which is fine, but you will also most likely be stuck at 16-bit depth, which professionally, is not fine. Some of the multi track recording apps will allow a better bit-depth recording rate, but not all of them.
Once again, in theory, the mobile instruments that are available in the Apple app store and the android market are amazing. So many samplers and pianos look great, but just do not perform as well as having the hardware in front of you. Midi drum pads, and keyboard controllers seem like a good idea. However, the consistency it takes to hit the keys or pads correctly is insane. You always end up adjusting your velocity settings after every record take, which can get pretty annoying. Also, the inability to feel the instrument is very annoying. I like to be able to play a piano without looking at it. And if you have big fingers, good luck trying to play a piano on the iPad without hitting the wrong keys. It’s almost impossible. After the Christmas-like feeling you get when purchasing a synthesizer app, your joy will soon fade after you realize the learning curve for the app is harder than playing an actual piano keyboard.
As far as the included samples, most of the top end apps have great sounding samples; I will admit that. But you won’t get a much better sample rate than 44.1 kHz. And, once again, you will be lucky to get samples that are at a 24-bit depth. Of course, your average music listener won’t know what the sample rate is, but the lack of options is disturbing and another reason to not invest, or expect, too much.
For the most part, I do not recommend investing much money, or time, into using mobile production apps in your studio. They really become more of a hassle than anything. The purpose of your studio is to make quality-sounding recordings; something that you can be proud of. Apps on your iPad might make your studio look cool, but they won’t help you make great recordings. If you are going to use them, the best thing to do is invest in controller apps. Apps that allow you to record and play your audio can be used anywhere in your studio wirelessly, allowing you to press record in the sound booth when recording yourself. Apps that control the volume faders of your DAW can also be used to set levels anywhere in your studio, also allowing you to set your own mix easily while recording yourself.
Bottom line: you want to make excellent recordings. Mobile devices aren’t quite up to the task for doing that. If you really want to make a great recording, get yourself some real hardware; something that you can feel and play. You’re a professional audio engineer. The iPad is a toy. Leave it for the kids.