Sunday, September 11, 2011

Songwriting Tools for iOS

I've been playing around with a bunch of songwriting and recording apps on my iPod Touch. I feel like a new songwriting and recording phase is brewing, and until I get a new recording PC to replace my broken old desktop, all I really have to work with is my iPod. Fortunately iOS apps for music have really improved, and many of them now support audio copy/paste or WAV file import/export, so it is possible to chain together the results from several apps.

My "work flow" for songwriting depends on where I am and what tools are available. At home I have a few guitars, a MIDI keyboard, and until recently, a PC with various recording software and hardware. I write songs in various ways - sometimes lyrics first, sometimes melody or rhythm first. But my usual methods are
  1. Guitar/voice - Play around with chord progressions on a guitar (sometimes keyboard) while singing melody ideas (with lyrics or "la la" placeholders or some combination). Record fragments for later review, record a simple demo when more or less complete, usually guitar/voice on SONAR.
  2. BIAB - Play around with chord progressions, styles, keys, tempo in the PC program Band in a Box, tweaking and singing to that track. Import MIDI from BIAB to record demo in SONAR. I documented an example of a song written and recorded with BIAB in early 2009.
  3. Rhythm based - Like (1), except using a drum machine or drum loops in SONAR to drive the song away from habitual strumming or finger picking patterns.
SONAR is a big plus in all of this - it easily integrates audio and MIDI recording with any number of tracks, including various looping and synthesized sound possibilities.

Now with the iPod Touch (third generation, which is important since many of the music apps won't work well on earlier generation Touches and iPhones), I have most of these methods available, including some guitar and keyboard substitutes for when the real things aren't available (clunky but helpful). There is nothing yet as powerful as SONAR or Band in a Box, but audio copy/paste allow combining multiple apps to accomplish similar things. The small screen can be a problem (helped by clever UI design), and input options are limited mainly to an external microphone. I bought some simple interface hardware to allow line-level inputs (keyboard, electric guitar, microphone pre-amp) which helps when I'm home. Here are the apps I'm using now (I won't bother with links - search in YouTube for demos or in the iTunes app store to buy):

ChordBot - Similar to BIAB in that it is based on progressions defined by chord names with your choice of key, tempo, and playing style, but with many fewer styles. It has both WAV and MIDI file export.

Multitrack DAW - I recently wrote about this app. I've upgraded to 24 tracks (total cost about $25). It's no SONAR (no MIDI or looping support and very limited audio effects), but it does the job for basic multitrack audio recording.

Guitar and iShred - These guitar simulation apps (acoustic and electric) use programmable chord buttons with strummable/pickable virtual strings (picture above). Good sounds, good UI, decent copy/paste. Expressive strumming or picking is pretty hard but possible with practice. I also have the PianoStudio app from the same company. Same idea, but you can program complex patterns (or chords) onto buttons with the phrase editor (similar to the piano roll interface in many MIDI-based applications). I'm just figuring out how to use this app. Could be useful for adding piano parts to some recordings since it supports audio copy/paste. It replaces the burden of accurate performance on a tiny screen with the burden of breaking the piece down into parts and assigning them to buttons which you then press in sequence to perform the piece.

ThumbJam - Brilliant UI and great sampled sounds as I have written about before. Recording & looping work well but with very limited editing capability.The wide range of scales could lead to some innovative melodies and song ideas once I stop fiddling with it. Pretty good copy/paste support. There are some odd tempo and looping issues that I'm still trying to overcome, but it really is the most "musical" app I've yet seen for iOS. It uses the touch screen and the accelerometer (tilt and shake) to support truly fluid instrumental performance (just add talent!).

SSW - Simple Songwriter uses button-driven piano block chords that you can play and record. Limited time options (3/4 or 4/4 with controllable tempo), clunky sound on playback (overly time quantized?), and no copy/paste or export, though it might have a song or two in it, at least for a chord progression idea I can write down and use in another app like Chordbot. Key word is "simple."

Loopy - I just got this "beat box" app, and it has an impressively easy interface. Not sure yet if this is really a useful tool for my 70's style songwriting, but it sure is cool.

BeatStudio and DrumTracks - Two of many drum machine type apps that I'm still trying to figure out. Some copy/paste and other transfer options for moving rhythm tracks into Multitrack DAW or ThumbJam. I'm not a very good drummer, but I can come up with some decent sounding things for demo purposes.

I'm still mostly experimenting with UI, copy/paste, and available sounds and rhythms using short examples. I have some promising fragments. I haven't really written a full song or recorded a full demo yet, but I'm getting close. Songwriting isn't all or even mostly about technology - I've written songs with nothing but my voice and paper on a plane (singing the result into my voice mail at the airport after landing - this was before I carried a voice recorder or equivalent device like a smart phone or iPod Touch). I've also written dozens of songs with just a guitar and my voice. But new technologies can inspire new ideas and approaches, and I think these iPod tools will yield some cool results before too long.

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