The 100 Greatest Mobile Music App
Computer Music|December 2020
Mobile music making is big business, with iOS and Android devices easily capable of producing as pro-sounding tunes as desktop counterparts. Over the following pages we round up 100 essential apps for all aspects of music production…

When it first became apparent that music production would be a happy side effect of the smartphone and the mobile tech explosion, both traditional music equipment firms and startup developers were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Almost in an instant, the NAMM show in California – the start-of-year-extravaganza of all new gear releases – became a mobile phone convention. The promise of both music making by touch and ability to do it on often pocket-sized devices drew us all in. But it wasn’t all plain sailing from there, and we didn’t all jump ship.

One of the initial problems was compatibility between all of the apps – DAW apps working with synth or instrument apps, for example. Another was that the touch experience didn’t always match the promise; it wasn’t always as tactile as using a MIDI controller with a laptop, for example. Then of course there was the power… or lack of it. Early mobile phones and tablets just didn’t have the oomph to run much of the number crunching required for sophisticated music processing. Early apps were therefore restricted in audio processing, track counts and effect usage.

Happily, many of these initial teething problems have now been overcome. We have standards like Audio Units3 and Inter App Audio – see p18 for more – where apps effectively run within other apps and you can, if you put your mind to it, almost mirror your desktop studio in your mobile device. And perhaps this ability to imitate your desktop setup is what excites us most here at Computer Music. We still don’t think that mobile music making offers all the flexibility of a decent, hardware and software hybrid studio based around a powerful computer, but mobile apps, DAWs, instruments and accessories have come on in leaps and bounds to provide a great extension of your studio; a fantastic reason to get out in the fresh air and enjoy this most wondrous of music production pastimes. And these apps and their hosts do allow you to touch those notes in ways that most desktop machines and DAWs still rarely succeed in (Bitwig and other touch DAW fans, yes we know!).

To celebrate the, if you like, coming of age of the mobile studio, over the next 18 pages we’ll look at several aspects of iOS and Android music-making and reveal the jewels within them, from synths to drum machiness, full DAWs to frankly out-there apps. So come with us and enter a world that might just get you out there too, making grooves on the move.

Key guide

MAIN FORMAT iPHONE/iPAD/AN

Some iOS apps are only available on the iPhone or iPad, plus we list the ones (sadly less) available on Google Play/Android.

AUDIO UNITS V3 AUV3

Audio Units v3 is the format – rather like desktop Audio Units or VST – which allows compatible iOS plugins to run within iOS DAWs just like (almost) your desktop instrument and synth plugins run in your desktop DAW. AU iOS DAWs include Steinberg’s Cubasis (above), WaveMachine Labs Auria Pro, Apple’s GarageBand and many more – check our Top 12 DAW roundup on p36 for more.

ABLETON LINK AL

Ableton Link allows various pieces of hardware and software to stay in time playing together when connected wirelessly. It includes Akai hardware, Reason and Bitwig desktop software and various apps. Launch a melody clip in your desktop Live project and play beats in time with an app, for example.

AUDIO BUS AB

Now at v3, Audio Bus allows you to route various compatible apps together within the umbrella AB app so you can route MIDI, for example to trigger different apps and then record that data in your DAW. You can combine apps, chain effects, record performances and sequence anything. The thinking is that you can set entire projects up as an AB project and it’s also compatible with Audio Unit apps too. You might also see apps that are Tabletop compatible which is similar, although AB is more popular.

INTER APP AUDIO IAA

This was one of the first linking formats used to allow apps in iOS to communicate with one another. It is still supported by various apps but Audio Units v3 has the backing of Apple now so IAA support looks like it’s dwindling.

PRESETS & POLYPHONY

NUMBER OF PRESETS AND VOICES

For many of the instruments listed in our top apps we also list the number of preset sounds (either stated or counted by us) found on it and the polyphony of the app ie how many notes can be played at the same time. A monophonic synth can play only one note; a four-voice synth can play four notes and so on. Sometimes a synth might not be based around the idea of having presets in which case we list them as ‘N/S’ (not stated); similarly the polyphony might also not be obvious or in the specs of an app so will be listed as ‘N/S’.

OTHER BIG FEATURES AND PRICE

SEQUENCER, ARPEGGIATOR ETC

Finally, we also list other major features of an app so with a synth, for example, we will list whether it has a sequencer or arpeggiator. You can usually find a detailed breakdown of all the features in an app under the main description in the App Store. App prices might also vary but we’ve generally listed those found at the App Store at the time of writing.

The 13 greatest mobile synths

The synths are often the stars of any show, especially so a mobile one. Here we have several categories including emulations, oddities and these, the 13 most powerful mobile synths out there. Load ’em up, take ’em out…

01 AUDIOKIT SYNTH ONE £FREE

AUV3 (COMING)/AB/AL/IAA | iPAD/iPHONE | 300+PRESETS, 6-VOICE, SEQUENCER

This synth is, as they say “completely free, fully functional, and ad-free – the ultimate free iPad music instrument app”. Synth One was designed as an open source tool for users to take and develop how they please but actually stands up as not only one of the best freebies out there but one of the best synths full stop. It has a character all of its own, a unique and flexible UI and a great overall sound. Of all the apps in our 100, download this one now! audiokitpro.com

02 BEEP STREET SUNRIZER $9.99

AUV3/AB | iPAD/iPHONE | 380+PRESETS, 6-20-VOICE, PHRASE SEQUENCER

Virtual analogue synths are becoming as common to mobile music making as they are on your desktop but if you were to ask for just one, this could well be it. It features ‘True SuperSaw sound emulation’ – that’s the kind of fat trance lead capability as made ubiquitous by the Roland JP-8000 and used on dozens (hundreds!) of dance and trance tunes over the years – so you know this synth wears its EDM credentials without any embarrassment. Add in flexible effects, modulation and an arpeggiator, and this could well be seen as the Massive of mobile in years to come. beepstreet.com

03 ICEGEAR INSTRUMENTS LAPLACE $7.99

AUV3/ AB/AL/IAA | iPAD/iPHONE 64 | PRESETS, 24-VOICE, ARPEGGIATOR

This is a little different to most other synth offerings here as it uses physical modelling to create sounds which could imitate strings, plucked instruments, metallic sounds and the like. As with classic hardware like Yamaha’s VL1, physical modelling is best explored when you push its parameters into other sonic realms and that is the case here. Indeed IceGear suggest “it is designed not to reproduce real acoustic instruments but to create new synthesizer sounds in different new ways”. And in that sense will offer completely new sonic journeys, so if you want something a little different this could be eight bucks very well spent. icegear.net

04 GREEN OAK CRYSTAL $4.99

AB/IAA | iPAD | N/S PRESETS, N/SVOICES, SEQUENCER

The original Crystal synth is one of the legends of the freeware world, an instrument that will not die and has many thousands of users worldwide. It is looking a bit clunky these days (although still sounds great) and thankfully this iOS update not only refreshes the UI but does the original justice in terms of its sound and ease of use. You can get some lovely evolving sounds, dreamy pads and analogue classics and the touch control really does add a new dimension in playing and programming. And at just $499, why not do a favour back to the developer that has given us such a great freebie over the last couple of decades? greenoak.com

05 MIRACK $9.99

AUV3/AL/AB/IAA | iPAD/iPHONE | 500+ MODULES, SEQ AND OTHER MODULES

Thought you wouldn’t be able to get a full mobile modular synth experience? Think again. miRack has 500 modules created by modular experts like Mutable Instruments. It also features multichannel audio and will support interfaces by the likes of Expert Sleepers so will integrate with hardware Eurorack gear. mifki.com

06 KLEVGRAND ENKL $5.99

AUV3/IAA,/AB | iPAD | 93 PRESETS, MONOPHONIC, CHIPTUNE-STYLE ARPEGGIATOR

Klevgrand have scored some major successes over the years with a variety of desktop plugins and this maintains their ethos of producing great quality plugins at very attractive prices. It might well be a monophonic synth, but don’t think that it’s in any way ‘just’ intended for bass, as it does a great job of creating huge leads, glitched-up noise, percussive hits and chiptune effects. There’s a flexible oscillator section, EQ and delay and a welcoming interface that makes the synth look and feel a lot simpler and easier to use than it sounds (a good thing!). A proper bargain too… klevgrand.se

07 KV331 AUDIO SYNTHMASTER ONE IOS $19.99

AUV3/IAA,/AB/AL | iPAD/iPHONE | i650+PRESETS, 16-VOICE, SEQUENCER

KV331 Audio’s synths are regular end-of-year gear winners and this brings some of their glamour and rich sound to iOS. Featuring a semi-modular architecture, 11 effects and wavetable synthesis, this is about as fullyfeatured as most desktop synths get. It’s expensive compared to some others but a) there are often deals to be had, b) the iPhoneonly version costs a penny, and c) it’s about the richest synth experience you can get. A beaut! kv331audio.com

08 MOOG ANIMOOG £9.99

AUV3/AL | iPAD/iPHONE (£4.99) | 100S OF PRESETS IN FREE PACKS, VARIED POLYPHONY

As opposed to some other Moog mobiles – see the emulation section on page 24 for more on those – Animoog combines the best of the classic Moog way with new UI sensibilities. It’s been around a while but still delivers, thanks largely to its Anisotropic Synth Engine (ASE) that enables you to create sounds with loads of movement and control them all in real time. The iPad version also has several in-app sound options not available in the cut-down iPhone version. Both deliver great quality sound from your device. moogmusic.com

09 POISON-202 $9.99

AUV3/AB/IAA | iPAD | 592 PRESETS, 24-VOICE, ARPEGGIATOR

We are big fans of Dmitrij ‘Jim’ Pavlov apps here and aren’t alone as this is one of the best-rated synths about. Think big leads, huge basses and tearing Prodigy/Chemical Brothers sounds that tear from your speakers. It’s easy to get to grips with, with several modes to scroll through and exceptional modulation and big supersaw options. The more recent addition of AU3 support brings this up to date and makes it one of the best synths out there. jimaudio.pro

10 SUGAR BYTES CYCLOP $24.99

AUV3/AL | iPAD | 595 PRESETS, MONOPHONIC, SEQUENCER

It might only be available for iPad and monophonic but that’s not so much a limitation because Cyclop’s raison d’etre is bass, and huge bass at that, though it’s just as capable of delivering tearing leads and huge evolving stabs. It features 6x2 synth engines and 10x2 filter engines and even a Wobble generator for more dynamic low-end sounds. There are some classic Sugar Bytes effects (Effectrix and Turnado) plus an FX Sequencer and even a Cyclop shooting game. The UI almost feels like a classic piece of Bakelite hardware designed in the 50s and only discovered yesterday. It is ideal for huge dubstep and drum & bass backbones, and while it may be one of the most expensive synths in this top 12, if big, bold bass and dynamic and wobbling sounds are your thing Cyclop is a must. sugar-bytes.de

11 VIRSYN TERA $11.99

AUV3/AB/AL/IAA | iPAD | 25 MODULES, ARPEGGIATOR

VirSyn produce a lot of different apps and desktop plugins; indeed microTera is also worth a download, but with 25 modules to choose from you can get a lot more flexibility by spending a few more bucks on Tera. It looks a little basic compared to miRack above but that can be a good thing in modular synthesis and creating patches is fun and relatively easy. Lots to play with, plenty of effects and a useful arpeggiator section make this very worthwhile. virsyn.net

12 WALDORF NAVE $19.99

AUV3/ AB/AL/IAA | iPAD/iPHONE | 500+PRESETS, N/S-VOICE, ARP, RECORDER

Nave has quite a pedigree including synth design maestro Axel Hartmann. It is based around wavetable synthesis with waves from Waldorf’s well-regarded Microwave, Wave and Blofeld synths plus a number of its own, and even includes a speech synthesiser “enabling Nave to talk and sing”. This and its ability to analyse audio files to create new wavetables give it an edge over other synths here, and while it might be on the pricier side (how dare we say that, when its price pales into comparison with desktop synths!), its rich presets, created by some big industry hitters, demand attention. waldorfmusic.com

13 YONAC MAGELLAN SYNTHESIZER 2 $14.99

AUV3/ AB/IAA | iPAD | 300+PRESETS, 20-VOICE, ARPEGGIATOR, SEQUENCER

We were big fans of the original Magellan synth – can it really be 10 years old – and this latest version maintains the great UI and fabulous sound. It combines two synth engines in one to create (if you so wish) one mighty synth with six oscillators, four filters and LFOs. With loads of effects and modulation options it’s simply one of the biggest-sounding synths out there. yonac.com

> Step by step

A tour of quite possibly the best synth app… and it’s free.

1 There’s no doubting that Audiokit Synth One represents a hell of a lot of synth for your money, especially as that money is zero. It would be a great paid-for synth but the developers are insisting this is a synth for everyone so download it now and we’ll give you a tour.

2 For the top half of the screen for the next few grabs, we’re keeping the Main synth screen with oscillators and filters shown from left to right. For the bottom half we’ve selected the sequencer which can be up to 16 steps, each step highlighted if on and here the faders adjust the pitch of each one.

3 Again, the top half of the screen has the Main synth with oscillators and filters. At the bottom this time, we’ve now selected the two Filter and Amp Envelope screens which have draggable envelopes and dials under each for more fine adjustments to each.

4 Now for the bottom half we’ve selected the Tuning screen which allows you to select from a vast number of tunings from three different banks – we’ve never seen so many – and all of which can be selected if you have a sequence cycling so you can hear the effect of each. A great way of learning…

5 Now the bottom half is made up of the Effects and LFO section. The two LFOs can be both (or individually) easily assigned to up to 12 parameters including FM Mod, File Env, Cutoff Freq and effects. It’s very easy to use. Likewise, effects on the right are just as easy to control and can be dialled in over four sections.

6 Finally you get two X-Y pads which can be used to perform by changing four parameters on the fly using your fingers. You can hold the cursor in a certain position using the Snap button and there are also fancy space graphics that seem to tie in with the tempo. Very nice.

Five of the best ‘out there’ synths

Taika Systems Photophore $4.99

AB/IAA | iPAD | N/S PRESETS, 6-VOICE, ARPEGGIATOR

This ‘Flock Synthesiser’ uses animal modelling behaviour, as you do, to create sounds. They take the form of 100 oscillators that move through a virtual three-dimensional environment with you controlling sonic properties to shape the results. taikasystems.com

Yonac RoxSyn $19.99 AU/IAA/AB/AL | iPAD/iPHONE | 500 PRESETS, N/S-VOICE, ARPEGGIATOR If you fancy plugging a guitar into an iPad and using it as a springboard for metamorphic synthesis – and we did when we got up this morning – look no further. Convert vibrato, slides, bends and dynamics into polyphonic synth sounds via a powerful engine. yonac.com

iMusicAlbum SynthScaper $14.99

AB/IAA | iPAD/iPHONE | 130 PRESETS, N/S-VOICE

Here’s something a little off the-wall in terms of sound design. SynthScaper creates atmospheric ambience, drones, melodic pads or atonal soundscapes with lots of morphing and hands-on control for stunning results. motion-soundscape. blogspot.com

BorderLands Granular $19.99

AB/AL | iPAD | N/S PRESETS, N/S-VOICE

With support from artists like Arovane and Cristian Vogel, this is one of the best experimental music apps out there. It includes gestural interaction and, get this, the ability to ‘sculpt sound with gravity’. “I’m just sculpting sound with gravity dear.” “OK Hun, you carry on…” borderlands-granular.com

BitShape TC-11 $29.99

AB | iPAD/iPHONE, 160 PRESETS, 8-VOICE

This is a programmable modular synth with multitouch and iPad Device motion control. Plenty of presets demo a diverse set of sounds: from pads and synth through huge basses and bells, but really experimentation is key with a huge number of parameters to shape. bitshapesoftware.com

The 11 best (mostly) synth emulation apps

The emulation of classic synths might be dominated by some key developers, but these companies have brilliantly brought back the vintage sounds of yesteryear so you can experience some amazing keyboard history…

01 MINIMOOG MODEL D $7.99

AU3/AB/IAA/AL | iPAD/iPHONE | 160+PRESETS, 4-VOICE, ARPEGGIATOR

One of the very first hardware synths of all time, the 1970 Moog Minimoog Model D, gets a fantastic emulation by the very company that made it in the first place. The wonders of tech add presets, polyphony, the ability to run it in any iOS DAWs (thanks to AU3 support, which the more expensive Arturia version lacks) and effects, plus you can add more presets via IAPs. A classic synth and future classic iOS app. moogmusic.com

02 ARTURIA IPROPHET £9.99

IAA/AB | iPAD/iPHONE | 380+PRESETS, N/S-VOICE

Arturia’s i-emulations have been out for a while but still do a great job of bringing back some classic sounds. Alongside the Minimoog and ARP Odyssey, the Prophet V is probably the other must-have – but hugely pricey – synth of days gone by. iProphet includes modern flourishes like a vector screen for mixing parameters, effects and a flexible and detailed modulation matrix area. It could do with AU3 support in the next update but at less than a tenner for some incredible vintage Prophet sounds, it’s well worth a punt. arturia.com

03 ARTURIA iSEM £9.99

AU/IAA/AB | iPAD | 500+PRESETS, 4- OR 8-VOICE, ARPEGGIATOR

Arturia’s second i-emulation in this roundup is of the classic Oberheim SEM, a much-loved 1974 synth as used by Jan Hammer, 808 State, Vince Clarke and Depeche Mode. iSEm is notable among all of Arturia’s iOS apps as being AU3-compatible so scores much higher than the rest on the Apple Store, reviewswise. But that’s not its only plus point. It sounds magnificent, has loads of modern twists including effects and chord modes, and is one of the best emulations that you’ll find on the iPad, simple as that. arturia.com

04 OMENIE MELLOTRONICS STREETLYTRON PRO $14.99

AB/IAA | iPAD/iPHONE | 90 TAPES, POLYPHONEY NOT STATED

OK, it’s not a synth but the Mellotron is still a legendary keyboard and this is “the most authentic Mellotronics experience”. It was developed with Streetly Electronics, the inventors of the original, and 65 of its 90 ‘tapes’ (presets if you like) come from the original machine. omenie.com

05 APESOFT iVCS3 $14.99A

UV3/ IAA | iPAD/iPHONE | N/S PRESETS, N/S POLYPHONY

iVCS3 is described as “the official EMS VCS3 emulator”, the original synth being a 1969 legend featuring a Battleship-style patch matrix with plug ‘n’ route pins. It was used by luminaries like Brian Eno (in Roxy Music), Pete Townshend, Pink Floyd and Delia Derbyshire (not to mention being present and correct in our studio at college). This is a completely faithful recreation with three oscs (including an LFO), a noise generator, ring mod, and switchable lowpass filter. There’s little in the way of modern additions although the iOS feel adds zoom and ease of use. Authentically analogue. apesoft.it

06 KORG ODYSSEi $29.99

AB/IAA | iPAD/iPHONE | 100 PRESETS, 2-VOICE

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