Making Music On My iPad – My Top 3 Favorite iPad Music Apps

A colleague of mind asked me the other day, “What are your top 3 favorite iPad music apps?”  I don’t remember exactly what I said but I’m sure I ran down a list of the some of the music apps I’ve been using lately.  For some reason, the question stuck with me.

I’ll confess that I was an early adopter.  From the moment I bought it, I’ve been intrigued by the music-making possibilities offered by my iPad.  Because of the touch-screen interface, it instantly felt more like an instrument than my computer.

As I continued to ponder my colleague’s question I realized that my iPad has become an integral part of my music-making process.  Of course, I figured you, my fellow “SoundSavants”, are probably doing the same and would be interested in hearing what I use.  So, here is a list of 3 of my favorite iPad music apps.

1 – Beatwave

Screenshot of a Beatwave sessionBeatwave was the very first iPad app I actually used to make music and I’m pretty sure it’s design was based on the very influential Tenori-on electronic music instrument by Yamaha.

Basically it’s a 16-step sequencer with built-in sounds.  The horizontal axis defines time and the vertical axis defines pitch.  You can see it in action here.

My favorite feature in Beatwave is the Grid Morpher.  This allows you to add a certain amount of randomization to your sequences.  I’ve found that if you use the Grid Morpher the right way it turns Beatwave into an algorhythmic composition tool.

In fact, this is what I use Beatwave for now.  I type in a simple sequence, turn on the Grid Morpher, hit record and just let the app percolate away.  Invariably, I end up with something I can use in a future piece.  In other words, Beatwave is my secret composition starter.

Beatwave is a free app, with an upgrade to BeatwavePro available as an in-app purchase.  The upgrade give you some new sounds.

You can hear some loops that I’ve created with Beatwave here.

2 – Stochastik Drum Machine

Obviously, this is a drum machine app, but it takes the concept of a drum machine a step further by allowing you to set the probability that a note will trigger for each step in your sequence.  Sounds complicated but it’s not. Take a look.

I use Stochatik to give me a bunch of variations on the same drum loop.  Basically, I program a 1-bar loop and “seed” it with some variables.  Then I just have Stochastik export 8 or 16 variations of that loop.

I can then use those variations to add excitement and variety to my music because there’s nothing as boring as a 1-bar drum loop that repeats through an entire song.

Stochastik comes with a bunch of very useful drum sounds.  It will also allow you to import your own samples.

I’m trying to give you an honest explanation of what Stochastik does but it’s very hard to curb my enthusiasm.  Since buying Stochastik, I really haven’t used any other program or app for my drum programming.  It’s that good.  You owe it to yourself to try it out.

3 – Animoog

Animoog isn’t just a cool iPad synth.  It’s a flat-out monster sound design machine!  It’s also difficult to describe with words so take a look at this demo video:

As you watch the video, pay attention to how the use of touch gestures allow you to instantly create sounds that are far more organic than most keyboard-based synths. That’s the thing that struck me as soon as I started messing around with this synth.

I still haven’t touched 10% of what this thing can do.  I’m just amazed at how they were able to create such a sophisticated and expressive synth for the iPad.

Here’s one  example of how I’ve been using Animoog in my musical productions.  The first synth part you hear is the Echopluck preset from Animoog.

What Are Your Top 3 iPad Music Apps?

So those were my top 3 favorite iPad music apps of the moment.  I say, “of the moment” because I just bought the Thor app by Propellerheads last night and I expect to be enjoying messing with that for a very long time.

What are you using to make music with your iPad?  I’d love to hear about it.  Just let me know right here.

Tension-Filled Hits – Using Musical Sound Design to Write Suspenseful Music

I’ve talked previously about writing “suspenseful music“.  I want to revisit this idea because it’s not an easy thing to pull off and I have another example I’d like to share with you.

One of the biggest problems I have when writing suspenseful music is trying not to sound too cliched.

Things like dissonant chord progressions or the “Psycho” strings work great at building suspense but, in my opinion, they are way over-used.  We hear that stuff every night on network TV.

I want my music to stand out from everything else so I like to use other techniques to build tension and suspense.  One of the best ways I’ve found to achieve this is through incorporating elements of Sound Design into my music.

Take a listen to this short piece I wrote titled, “Tension-Filled Hits”:

Sound Design As Music

This piece is a good example of what I call “Musical Sound Design”.  What I mean is that, as a whole, this is a piece of music, but within it there are elements that are much more sound design in nature than musical.  The two obvious examples being the metallic hits and the automation of the reverb on the piano.

Build The Tension, Then Release…Or Not

At its most basic, most music can be described as a series of tensions and releases.  This short piece is no different.

It starts off with a very simple ostinato played on the piano.  By themselves, ostinati are very effective at creating a hypnotic effect in the listener.  Repeating something over and over again lulls our brain into thinking it knows what to expect.  I deliberately counteract that effect in this piece by automating the amount of reverb on the piano.

Go back and listen again.  Do you notice how the amount of reverb on the piano part gradually lessens?  This creates a sense in the listener of being drawn into the scene.  If we visualize the music it isn’t hard to image that we are walking towards the piano.  The closer we get, the less reverb there is in the room.

All of this “movement” adds to the tension of the piece.  As a listener, we feel like we are on a journey and we are anxious to find out what the destination is.

Sound designers have understood for decades that automating effects levels is a great way to add character, excitement and suspense to an otherwise static or “run-of-the-mill” sound.  If you need an example go check out Ben Burtt’s work in any of the Star Wars movies.

Things That Go Bang In The Night

The second element of sound design that pops up in this piece is the metallic bangs and clangs.  I can’t tell you why but I am just drawn to metallic sounds, and I don’t mean cymbals.  I’m talking about dirty, nasty, organic bangs, scrapes and smashes.

I love collecting them on my Zoom H4n when I go off on my Sound Harvesting journeys.  In fact, some of the sounds you hear in that video made it into this piece of music.

In this particular piece, I’m using the metallic hits to jar the listener.  They’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by the piano ostinato so I wanted to wake them up.

Sure, I could have just banged on a couple of cymbals and probably achieved the same type of effect.  That would have been the most efficient, easy way to do things.  However, as I mentioned earlier, I want my music to stand out so I like to go the extra mile and create some of my own sounds.  This instantly separates my music from everyone else’s because I’m using “one-of-a-kind” sounds.

Go Make Some Noise

So, how can you incorporate some unique sound design into your music?  Really think about it.

Don’t know where to start?  Take a walk around your neighborhood and record some random sounds on your phone.  Import those sounds into your DAW and see what inspires you.

I think you’ll be surprised how easy it is to add unique elements of sound design to your music and how doing so instantly makes your music stand out from everything else out there.

Random Thoughts About Releasing New Music in 2013

What does it mean to release new music here in 2013?  I’ve been asking myself this recently because I just released a new CD of  electronic music.  As it turns out, it’s a much more complicated question than I initially thought.

I normally talk about music business-related things on one of my podcasts here, but as I was knee-deep in my research on this topic it occurred to me that readers here at probably ask themselves these same questions.  I mean, like me, you’re all in the business of making cool music/sound design and you probably release that music on occasion.

So it just made sense to share my research and random thoughts on this topic here.  I’ve also provided you with a whole bunch of links, probably more than I should have, so that you can see what other people are saying on this topic.

Is The CD Dead?

Is anyone still buying CD’s?  I haven’t released any music commercially since 2009 so this was my first question.  The answer seems to depend on who you talk to.

As far as the major record labels are concerned, the CD is dead.  Consider this, every year I ask the incoming freshman in my Intro to Recording class whether they have ever bought a CD.  As you can imagine, the number gets smaller and smaller each year (less than 10% for this year’s class). And these are students that want to learn how to record music!!!  This article is a great insight into their mindset.

Ask an independent artist if they sell any CD’s and you might get a different answer.  Go see just about any band in any city and I can pretty much guarantee that they’ll be offering CD’s at their merch table.  CDBaby, which is the largest seller of independent music on the planet, sells millions of dollars of CD’s each month so obviously people are still buying CD’s.

Two conflicting positions that lead you to the next question:

Should You Release Singles or Complete Albums?

People have been debating this one since at least 2007.  This article from last year does a great job of arguing why it makes smart business sense to forget about albums and only release singles.  Here’s another article that looks at it from a few other angles.  They both have compelling arguments.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing but there are still a few things I appreciate about albums, and when I say album I mean a collection of music in one package like a CD or vinyl record:

  • I still appreciate owning something tangible.  The simple act of unwrapping and opening a CD does something to my brain.  It puts me in the mood to listen.
  • I still enjoy liner notes.  I want to know the story behind the music I’m listening to.  Granted, I can probably get this same info on the artist’s website but I enjoy having it available to me on the actual product packaging.
  • If a group of songs or music are intended to go together, like one piece that is made up of three movements, releasing them as an album is really the only way to guarantee that the listener will hear them together, in that specific order.

Can You Still Make Money From Your Music Release?

What’s the point of releasing music if you can’t make any money from it, right?  This is another one that I hear quite a bit.  Well, I’m not even going to debate this question because the answer is a big fat, “YES, you can!” I’ve already provided you with evidence to this effect but anyone that would care to disagree with me can do so here.

Some of the ways that you can make money directly from your music are:

Sales of Physical CD’s

No explanation needed here.  As I’ve already touched on, you get some copies of your CD made up and sell them at your gigs.  You’ll also be able to sell them online through services like:

Sales of Digital Downloads

Again, you can accomplish this with many different services:

Performance Royalties

Not only should you be making money when your music is bought and sold, you should also be making money when your music is performed in public and/or on the radio, as well as when it is streamed on the internet.  This is known as performance royalties.

The concept of performance royalties, and how to collect them, can be difficult for many musicians to understand.  Rather than spend the time to get into it here I would encourage you to check out these two very good resources:

  • This video from CDBaby, which explains the basics
  • Episode’s #9-12 of my Music Biz Podcast, which give a very comprehensive explanation of Music Publishing

Traditional PRO’s

In the US, there are three main organizations that collect and distribute performance royalties.  You will need to belong to one of them in order to collect any royalties due to you from the performance of your music:

Digital PRO’s

You’ll also want to make sure that you register your music with SoundExchange, the organization that collects statutory royalties from satellite radio (such as SIRIUS XM), internet radio, cable TV music channels and similar platforms for streaming sound recordings.

Sync Licensing

Again, many musicians are confused by this income source but basically anytime your music is paired with any visual media (film, tv, commerical, video game, etc…) you are owed money.  This money is a one-time payment for something called a sync license.

While there have always been many “stars” making significant money through sync licensing (my favorite being Moby’s success with his album, Play) this is also an area where the “average Joe’s” like you and I can compete.

One of the many reasons I’ve decided to focus on this income source quite a bit this year is because it’s becoming easier and easier to get your music in front of the right people using tools like this from SoundCloud.

You can read further about the basics of sync licensing here:

The DIY Musician’s Complete Guide to Sync Licensing

How Can People Buy My Music If They’ve Never Heard It?

This final question is always running through my mind.  But the real question is, “How do I promote my music on the cheap?”  The answer seems to be:

Giving It Away For Free

I know some of you may have a problem with this but I don’t.  Ultimately, I want my music to be heard.  I know that if enough people hear my music, a few of them will buy it.

So how do we get our music in front of as many people as possible?  That’s probably a topic for another day but here are a few ideas off the top of my head:

  • SoundCloud
  • ReverbNation
  • MySpace
  • YouTube
  • Social Media
  • Music Podcasts
  • Internet Radio

So, what do you think?  How many of you are releasing music on a regular basis?  How many of you are making money from your music?  I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this.  Just write me here.

Faking the Sound of a Real Band In Under An Hour – Where the Studio Becomes the Instrument


The tagline for is, “where the studio becomes the instrument”. This post is a perfect example of what I mean by that. I laid down a challenge for myself to write and record a new song all by myself and make it sound as though it had been recorded by an actual band playing together in the same room.

In order to pull off this challenge the studio really did need to become my instrument because I was forcing myself to play and/or program instruments that I didn’t really play. Essentially, I had to “play” all of the tools in my studio in order to create the impression of a live band performance.  Where the studio becomes the instrument…

That’s the back-story.  Here’s how things went down:

It All Starts at the Beginning

One of the biggest perks of being a college professor are the vacations.  There’s Thanksgiving Break, Christmas Break, Spring Break, not to mention the three-month break we get during the summer.

Mostly, I use this time to do a little traveling.  Other times I use it to catch up on some much needed sleep 🙂  This year, during my Spring Break week, I decided to do something a little different.

For the past few months I’ve been working really hard to finish an upcoming album release of Drones and Soundscapes.  I love this stuff but I’ve been so deep into it recently that I needed a creative “change of pace”, something to cleanse my “sonic palette”.

Usually that means picking up my guitar and pretending I’m Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck or Jack White.  So that’s what I did.  As I was mindlessly rocking out I came up with a catchy riff.  I decided, “This is pretty cool.  I better record it before I lose it”.

The Challenge

So, I opened up Pro Tools, because that’s what I use for most of my music production work, and started laying down some scratch guitar and bass tracks.  All of a sudden I had the beginnings of a nice track. The problem was that it was clearly turning into the kind of song that sounds best when it’s played by a live band in a nice room, kinda the same vibe as “Level” by The Raconteurs.

I don’t have a band at my disposal to record whenever I need it.  So what was I going to do?  Well, I decided to take it as a challenge and see if I could fake the sound of a real band all by myself.  To make it even more interesting, I added an arbitrary time limit of 1 hour to get it done.  Here’s how I did it:

Faking the Sound of a Real Drummer

Addictive Drums Preset Small Screenshot - SoundSavant.comLike many music producers, I’ve always struggled with trying to program realistic-sounding acoustic drum tracks.  Electronic drums are no problem for me but try and program an actual acoustic drum groove and I’m lost.

There are just too many variables because the best drummers are constantly pushing and pulling the tempo and adding all kinds of extra stuff like ghost notes and flams.  Luckily, I’ve found a secret weapon that solved this problem.

My favorite tool for getting realistic acoustic drum tracks right now is Addictive Drums.  Basically, Addictive Drums is a plug-in that gives you sampled drum kits and MIDI files to play those drum kits.  Seriously, I can’t say enough great things about Addictive Drum.  You can see it in action here.

The drum kits in Addictive Drums are sampled (recorded) in high-end studios with all of the coolest gear so they sound incredible.  The MIDI files are actually real performances by professional drummers so they are spot-on as well.  Put these together and it isn’t very difficult to achieve something that sounds like a real drummer playing in a nice-sounding room.

All I needed to do was make some minor edits to one of the stock Rock MIDI files and my rhythm track was starting to take shape.

Elapsed time: 5 minutes

Don’t Fake What You Can Actually Do

Rhythm Guitar Track GuitarRig Preset Small Screenshot - SoundSavant.comI’m a guitarist so I didn’t need to fake that.  I just needed to concentrate on getting some good rhythm guitar and lead guitar tracks recorded.

I didn’t have any of my amps mic’d up and I didn’t want to lose that initial flow of inspiration so I just plugged into my audio interface (a Mackie Onyx BlackBird) and inserted Guitar Rig (part of Native Instruments Komplete software package) on an audio track.

For the rhythm guitar I chose the “Almost Clean” preset, made a few adjustments to give it a touch of grit and laid down the track in one take. We’re off to a great start!

Elapsed time: 8 minutes

Next Up, Bass

SansAmp Bass Preset Small Screenshot - SoundSavant.comNobody would ever mistake me for a bass player but I figured, since I own a nice-sounding bass and in keeping with the challenge of this experiment, I had to give it a try.  I added another audio track to my session and inserted the SansAmp PSA-1 plug-in that comes bundled with Pro Tools.

This is another one of those “secret weapons” I use all of the time to get realistic tones on guitar and bass.  It also works great for adding dirt and distortion to drum loops.

I knew I wanted something a little beyond a normal bass tone so I pulled up the “Bass on 9” preset and dialed in the perfect amount of distortion.  Now I had something to work with.

As I said, I’m not a bass player so I figured I might need a few takes before I’d be able to come up with a good bass part.  Not to worry.  I turned on Loop Recording in Pro Tools (command-shift-L on a Mac) and just played.  After about the fourth time through I decided I had enough good stuff recorded.  A couple short minutes of editing and my bass track is done.

Elapsed time: 10 minutes

Last But Not Least, Lead Guitar

SansAmp Lead Guitar Preset Small Screenshot - SoundSavant.comNow this is what all of the fun has been leading up to.  Like most guitarists, I’ll solo for days if you let me, but I wanted to actually finish this song so I decided to limit myself to only 4 takes, just like the bass track.

In order to have some tonal differences in my guitar parts I used the SansAmp plug-in for this lead track instead of GuitarRig, choosing the “Vintage” preset.  Five more minutes of editing and combining takes and all of my instrument tracks are finished.

Elapsed time: 10 minutes

Building Up My Mix in a Room

I have 27 minutes left for my mix.  I’m feeling good at this point.  Remember, my goal is to fake the sound of  a real band.  That image brought two things to mind for this mix:

  • Amp buzz
  • The sound of a band playing in a garage. Don’t ask me why, that’s just what I heard in my head for this song.

I had some nice amp buzz from my two guitar tracks so I just copied and pasted it anywhere the two guitars weren’t playing.  This helped get things closer to a more authentic live vibe.

My two guitar tracks had individual spring reverb plug-ins on them to mimic the type of reverb you might find on a typical amp and my drum kit already had some space to it but in order to tie everything together I needed a way to place all of my instruments into the same room.

To accomplish this I added an Auxiliary Track to my session in Pro Tools and pulled-up one of the AIR Reverbs that comes bundled with Pro Tools.  Amazingly enough, I chose the “Garage” preset and sent a little bit of each track to it.  Now all of my instruments were sounding like they were playing together in the same space.

All that was left was to bounce the mix down as a stereo .wav file and I finished that with 7 minutes to spare!

Elapsed time: 20 minutes

The Finished Product

So what do you think?  Did I pass the challenge?  Did I fake it, make it or fail it?  I’ll let you decide.  Let me know right here.  It’d be really cool to hear what you think.