Since the introduction of the iPhone and iPad, there has been much interest in ways to use the touchscreens for musical applications. There are apps which simulate a wide variety of studio gear – synthesizers, drum machines, effects units, whole grooveboxes, entirely new instruments, ‘four track’ recorders. Many of these apps are amazing; I particularly love the Korg IMS-20, a reproduction of an analog synthesizer complete with patch cords, and I’ve spent many a long subway ride cobbling something together with Beatmaker, which incredibly manages to replicate samplers, drum machines, a mixing board and arrangement tools all in one app.
But there was always a pretty high degree of friction in getting the apps to work together. I might have a beat I’ve made with a couple of drum machines in Beatmaker, but want to use the sound from a patch I made with the Animoog synth. Well, iOS apps don’t necessarily communicate all that well – a design decision by Apple for security & usability reasons. The up side of that decision is that you can reliably use your telephone to make notes, write a blog, or fling birds through space at pigs, and pretty rarely have things stop working. The downside is that it was a pain in the ass to get an awesome riff from your simulated 303 bass synth into the multi-track arrangement app you also have on your telephone.
The first pass by a group of software developers to overcome this limitation from Apple resulted in a technology called AudioCopy. This worked much like you expect – in one app, you would create something, you copy it, then switch the other app and paste. It worked pretty well, but obviously isn’t a terribly musical approach; one doesn’t typically associate a lot of app switching and cutting and pasting with a creative flow state. So, while you certainly COULD do some pretty advanced composition and mixing on an iPad, in practice it was never as much fun as it seemed like it should be. Many wonderful tools, all working separately.
In December 2012, apps using a new system to solve that problem started to appear. The technology is called AudioBus; I have no idea how it doesn’t violate a dozen separate rules from Apple, but apparently it doesn’t, and it has made using audio on iOS crazy fun again.
AudioBus is 2 components; the first is the AudioBus app – a hub, or in mixing terms, a bus – that allows you to route audio from one app to another. In fact, you can even route audio from one app, through a second to add a filter or amp simulation, and then to a third for recording. The second component is a library that individual app makers include in their apps. When the Audiobus app is running and you’ve launched other compatible apps via AudioBus, a little floating palette appears in the other apps. Depending on what individual app writers have done, this may give you transport controls for apps in the background, or it may let you start recording in a background app. At a minimum it will let you switch to any of your apps ‘on the bus’ with a single click, and sound from open apps is passed along the bus in the order you designate.
I use this to play the Animoog app via Beatmaker, and to route sound from Rebirth as well. Initially the best app for arranging seemed to be a DAW called Meteor; now there are enough choices that your favorite sound app probably is on the bus. As a matter of fact, and somewhat astonishingly, Apple has even incorporated Audiobus into the GarageBand app for the iPad.
There is still plenty of frustrating fiddlyness with making music on an iPad or iPhone, but it’s way more fun than it used to be. One thing that seems somewhat obvious but hasn’t been implemented yet is a shared timeline….so you can press play and have the foreground and background apps start rolling together. There are some workarounds – you can have some apps send MIDI to others and essentially use the background app as a plugin – but it’s early days, and it will only get better. I find myself moving things back into sync on the arrange screens of whatever I’m using as the multitrack. It’s not ideal, but is workable.
As I write this, there are now over 50 apps that are AudioBus compatible, so there is plenty to explore, from pianos to apps that take strange new approaches to sequencing. And best of all, AudioBus means you can pick and choose the instruments you like, and have them work together, at least to some degree.