Music making has changed a lot over the past few years. No longer is someone chained to their bedroom desk bouncing tracks on a 4-track cassette recorder, or chained to a variety of books, pedals, cables, and other devices for practicing or playing. We sometimes forget that all of this information overload today can be used for more than looking at kitten pictures or guitar spin fail GIFs. The explosion of apps on our mobile devices can either allow us to pass the time crushing candies, or write our masterpiece. Both are fun, but here I will focus on apps that inspire, help us learn, and twist our guitar sound into almost anything we can imagine. This collection is not strictly guitar-based either, since composition requires at least a passing literacy on a few different instruments. I focused on iOS apps in the last App Attack article, so this one leans more towards the Android platform.
The Androids We Are Looking For
The Android platform is very popular these days, but it poses some problems for developers. Apps originally written for iOS have to be re-written from the ground up to work with Android devices. Up until recently, Android had not been fast enough to process real-time audio, but this is changing. Now we are seeing more and more Android apps dedicated to audio and guitar processing, and it will only get better for us mobile composers. I have either used the apps presented here or have a friend who does. Some are free, and some are not (check the Play Store for current prices). Always check that the app will run on your OS version, and with more of the processor-intensive ones, it is a good idea to close out any running apps in the background. I have an Android phone, but also use an iPad, so I use whatever device I have closest me at the moment.
PitchLab Guitar Tuner
PitchLab has one job, and that is to keep you in tune. There is a free version and a paid version, but both work equally well. You can tune one or more strings at a time, and you can choose among many different tunings or customize your own. Like any good tuner, you can choose temperment, recalibrate to a specific frequency. It even has a strobe mode. Now there is no excuse not to be in tune, although I might refrain from taking out my phone to tune the guitar at a gig- people might think you are one of those rude people who looks at their phone every 30 seconds.
One thing a computer in your pocket is good for, and that is keeping good time. Those old metronomes that you wind up would drift as they wound down, and small electronic ones would beep like a car alarm, usually at a pitch that could give small rodents seizures. Classic Metronome might look like those old-timey timekeepers in grandma’s piano parlor, but it keeps great time with visual cues to keep you right on the beat. You can add subdivisions or time signatures, and choose the sounds that you can hear but won’t interfere with your playing. You can save tempo setups for future practicing, and it will run in the background if you are reading music on another screen.
Guitar Pro is the mobile version of the famous desktop program which can be used for learning, transcribing (notation and tab), playing Guitar Pro files and making multitrack compositions. You can loop sections of a downloaded file to learn it, and even loop a difficult section. I use the desktop version of Guitar Pro for transcribing, and it is a fast way to get those ideas out on (virtual) paper. It will notate chord boxes, and allow you to play on a virtual fretboard while it transcribes what you play. It plays back your compositions using midi sounds which is good enough to see if the ideas you have will work before you bring it to the band room.
Looping has been a fixture in the guitar world for a few years now (for me, over 25), and LoopStack is a simple looper that allows 4 tracks of up to 32 second loops. You can combine and export loops too, so it is perfect for getting quick ideas out and stockpiling song sections for later use. Like most mobile OS-based loopers though, LoopStack works best with headphones. This way, the internal microphone doesn’t pick up the track you are playing (or singing) along to. It includes a basic metronome, reverb for each track, and separate volume controls too, so you can mix your end composition however you want. Each track allows unlimited overdubs too, so you can build up sections very quickly.
Ultimate Guitar Tabs & Chords
An app that is an extension of the internet site, Ultimate Guitar Tabs & Chords taps into the almost million-strong database of songs stored at Ultimate-Guitar.com. Every internet-savvy guitarist has ended up there at one time or another, trying to figure out exactly how to play the intro to Yngwie’s Overture or the chords to Rocky Mountain High (don’t deny it). This app auto-scrolls through the songs, allows printing, updates daily, and allows you to transpose the chords to any key. Song transcriptions vary in quality though (just like the internet site), so be sure to use your ears: if it doesn’t sound like the song when you play it, try another version. You can rate the accuracy of each song, and it even includes a tuner and a metronome.
iOS Didn’t Forget About You
I couldn’t help throwing in a few iOS-only apps in this list. The Apple platform is really great for music creation, and here are a few apps that have caught my ear recently.
Designed in conjunction with guitarist and master sound-mangler Adrian Belew, FLUX:FX is a processor unlike any pedal or multi-effects out there. It contains 30 different effects with hundreds of parameters so you can use them in ways you never thought of before. It uses the screen like an X-Y controller too, so you can manipulate your sounds in real time. Sounds can be sequenced, chopped, bit-crushed, and turned inside out, all while a note or chord is sustaining. For less than the price of even a cheap multi-effects pedal, it can do things no pedal has been able to do. Probably not for the traditional crowd, FLUX:FX is for the ones that like to make a lot of noise with one guitar.
For the guitarists that also play keys or guitar synth, SampleTank should be a familiar name. Essentially, it is a sound bank of samples to be triggered by an outside source. Hook up a USB keyboard (or guitar synth) with a USB-to-Lightning adapter, and you have great strings, choirs, basses, drums, and classic keyboard sounds for your compositions. The sounds here are good enough that I have seen pro players show up at a gig with their keyboard controller connected to an iPad, with the output of the iPad going to an amp. It is a great addition to any mobile studio, and for people like me who don’t know any cello players that want to come to the beach and record, it allows me to get those sounds in my songs quickly. It contains a 4-track sequencer, but you can also patch the output into another recording app.
Do you use your mobile device for music practice or creation? Any favorite apps you’d like to share with the rest of us?