How To Make Music Anywhere You Want

If you're a producer and a gear-freak, the world of music production is a pretty exciting place to live, as it gets revolutionised every ten years or so. In the 60's we got stereo and multi-track recording. In the 70's we saw synthesisers make their way into the studio and the home. The 80's saw samplers and the digital revolution, and by the 90's you could control a whole studio with your Atari computer. Right now, having seen studios shrink to the size of a laptop, we're in the middle of another revolution - the studio in your pocket. With a touch-screen interface! But is it of any interest to the serious producer? Read on....

When Apple redefined the telephone five years ago, few people saw that it could one day be part of a new wave of music technology. But since the advent of the App Store, it and the iPad have become exactly that, with dozens of synth, sequencer, and sampling options. (Before anyone accuses the blog of being a big Apple advert, let it be known that this author is a Windows Phone user - who despairs at the lack of good WP music apps and looks jealously at his iOS enabled studio partner's wealth of options in this field).

If we think about what modern smartphones really are, they're basically small computers with touchscreens. So this leads us to one area that they could really excel; as a controller interface. We currently pay hundreds of pounds for controllers that are essentially a slab of assignable buttons and sliders; there's no reason why a smartphone or tablet couldn't do this for a fraction of the price. Big names like Richie Hawtin, James Zabiela and Redshape already use tablet controllers for their live sets, and there are plenty of options.

The Jazzmutant Lemur once retailed for £1,700; its iPad emulation now goes for a mere £35, and gives brings one of the most innovative controllers ever well within reach of the home user. 'Griid' and 'touchAble' are two specialist Ableton controllers, while Novation's new 'Automap for iPhone' allows you to remotely edit and control your synths and mixes. All of these (and plenty more) offer lots of opportunities for performance; you can move around the stage and still control the sound, you can break away from that 'one guy staring at a laptop' problem that afflicts so many electronic musicians, and you can re-assign your controllers in any way that suits you - until you find the optimum arrangement for your own setup. Indeed, the open-ended nature of most touch-screen tablets suggests that in future, these will become dominant in electronic performance - Native have already released an app for their performance tool Maschine.

And what about doing it the other way around - controlling an iPad synth with another device? Alesis have recently released an iPad dock; with audio, USB, MIDI (and even footswitch) connections, you can now record and control your iPad apps with a full keyboard, and send audio into the device.

On the subject of audio inputs, check out the Amplitube iRig. Designed as an amp simulator for guitar players, it can also take any audio signal (obviously) and run it through another app - such as Moog's Filtatron. The Apogee 'AMP' does a similar function. See where this leads? Your very own hardware send/return loop! You can now use any of those great effects, filters and sound-warpers on any of your sounds, and record them back into the computer. Or, if you're talking live, a handy effects unit to plug into the DJ mixer. Cheap and easy.

There's a lot of talk about all the synth apps available; from Korg's Electribes, to the classic Roland emulations on Rebirth, and rightly so - again, they're far cheaper than their hardware alternatives, and sound good to boot. Cheaper still are all the homegrown synths - many of which are completely free. A common reservation is that the interfaces frequently attempt to recreate a physical version, which doesn't translate so well (Rebirth is a real offender here with all those fiddly controls). There's logic in this, and also in the argument that sound-quality can be lost when coming out of the headphone output on a telephone. If the highest quality audio is what you're after, then perhaps the iPhone and iPad don't quite match up to big-studio standards just yet. But the flipside of the coin is that these synths often present attractive options, for getting ideas going, trying things a different way, or just jamming. If you don't mind a bit of grit in your sounds, or you've got a good audio interface, they may become just as useful as your other softsynths (but more fun to use). When you're stuck for inspiration, plugging a phone into your mixing desk and prodding at the screen of a 303-emulator, weird texture generator or sample masher gets you out of the normal loop, away from the computer screen and mouse, and can really jumpstart the creative process once again.

And if you really want to scare yourself, just spend the price of a beer on Garageband for iPad. It's not ideal for writing dance music, but it's so slick, packed with sounds and instruments, and designed to help the novice come up with something listenable, it's almost enough to make you wonder whether we'll all be made redundant soon by means of a 'musician' app. It's a seriously impressive program.

So all in all, portable music production has some way to go before it takes over completely. But if you're looking for a range of useful tools to help with inspiration, new sounds, or jotting down ideas while on the move, smartphones and tablets are now an essential part of a modern producer's arsenal. It's exciting to think what the next couple of years will bring...

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