Music is incredible. Humans make some sounds, sometimes throw in some melodic words, and suddenly you’re either feeling everything, or ignoring your feelings for three cacophonous minutes.
Modern iPads have transformed music making for me
I’ve always loved music; from beating pots and pans as a toddler, to escaping into noise cancelling headphones as an adult.
Music has always been what’s made me feel the most at home, and I almost always have some playing.
Growing up I tried to play many instruments, but none really stuck until I discovered the drums when I was 12. Whereas I had trouble talking myself into playing the guitar for 45 minutes of practice a week, I would play the drums for up to 8 hours a day (and I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to my neighbours).
But falling in love with instruments from the rhythm section makes it hard to perform alone, or create your own complete songs.
As a teen growing up in the country, I couldn’t exactly walk the 15kms up and over a steep mountain, lugging my kit to jam with friends.
I would have killed to have something like an iPad to remove the barrier that requires talent and dexterity to play another instrument and create an entire track.
I’m so jealous of kids these days and the opportunities they have to make creative masterpieces, no matter which instrument is their main. We’re already seeing so many Gen Z people creating incredible work at home, without a full band.
To be fair, the cost barrier of an iPad (and/or a Mac in the case of some of the below apps) can be huge. But, if you already have one for school, or have the means to treat yourself, here are some of the ways I’ve been using the new iPad Pro to play, make and record music.
And the good news here is that these apps will work on most iPads, so you don’t need the latest model.
GarageBand is really the perfect place to start messing around with digital instruments and loops. It doesn’t cost anything and comes with plenty of free expansions. It’s also ridiculously overpowered for what it is.
When you open the app, you have the option of going into Live Loops or Tracks. In Tracks you’re presented with options like keyboards, drums, amps, audio recorder, strings, bass, guitar, world instruments and drummers.
It also has an interface to plug in external instruments, as well as access to the sounds library.
That sounds like a daunting list of things for a newbie, but it’s presented in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming. You just scroll through the carousel until you find the instrument you most want to dabble in, and go from there.
If you’re brand new to keyboards or guitars, you can choose whether you want to see a key roll/fret board, or just see a selection of chords.
I recommend starting with chords, because it always boosts the confidence when you’re able to play something off the bat, and then you can drill down to see how it works.
My wife and I have been working on a cover of Hozier’s Take Me To Church, which has challenging vocals, but relatively simple accompaniment.
I’ve been able to just plug in my electric drum kit (Roland TD-17KVX) to the iPad using the cable that came with the Rocksmith video game and record that part, then plug in my bass and play that over the top.
I’ve never had proper piano lessons, but I could just google up the chords for the song. From there I opened the chord roll for the Grand Piano, tried the different scales until it was at the right level for my wife’s voice, and then recorded the piano part in about half an hour.
You need to have a bit of a feel for timing, but it’s that easy to just whip up an extra instrument line for any cover, or try something out for an original.
Another option is to just add on Autoplay and select the chords you want to add into your mix. Autoplay will keep playing whichever chord you’ve selected in a variety of playing/strumming patterns and will follow the chords you select in a way that just works.
Over in LiveLoops, you can try dozens of samples to give yourself something to rap over, or provide a soundtrack for a video you’re making.
What’s really great is that all the sounds in GarageBand aren’t rights protected, so if you make a song you think sounds cool, you can release it without having to give Apple a cut of your profits.
One famous example of this is Umbrella by Rhianna — the drum beat is just a sample from the original GarageBand. Similarly, Usher’s Love In This Club used three GarageBand loops called EuroHero.
Really, I could spend this whole article extolling the virtues of GarageBand, there is an insane amount of stuff you can do in there, including plugging in stuff from other apps.
The Mac version even includes free instrument lessons, including some with artists like Sara Bareilles, which you can follow along with using the keyboard on your iPad.
GarageBand runs on the same architecture as Logic Pro, so if you’re messing around with a song and want to send it to someone for a more professional mix, or if you’re recording while out and about, you can just send the file to a Mac running Logic Pro and continue editing it.
Which brings me to…
Logic Pro X: $319.99 (but can be bundled for a cheaper price)
When you feel like you need a bit more than what GarageBand has to offer, the next step is Logic Pro X, which is what a lot of your favourite professional songs are recorded in.
It’s expensive as hell, and requires a Mac, but there are ways to get it more cheaply. And there’s currently a three-month free trial to find out if you’d actually use it.
But is it actually worth paying for?
I’ll never forget the ride home after my first drum lesson in high school. My mum turned on the radio, and suddenly all the familiar music sounded fundamentally different.
It was like the volume had been turned up on the drums, and they became the focus of every song. Suddenly my newfound understanding of this instrument brought an oft-ignored spine to the foreground.
It was a similar, if admittedly less-profound experience, when I first started to understand Logic Pro a bit better. I’d always known and understood how punk and grunge songs came together, but spending more time with the app made me hear and understand pop and electronic music differently.
It was kind of like coming closer to an intricate picture only to discover it’s a jigsaw puzzle with small, well-defined pieces.
There are so many instruments and sounds available in Logic that you can create anything you want. You can start by downloading MIDI files from the internet and messing around with the instruments to see how they work. From there you might even want to start creating your own.
Logic will seem extremely daunting to beginners, because it’s really for advanced users. Expect to spend the first month with a variety of tutorials open in your browser. But the sky is really the limit when it comes to sounds, adjustments, basic autotune, and everything else you might want to create your masterpiece.
Logic is primarily a Mac app, but if you have an iPad you can do all kinds of incredible things with Logic Remote.
You can use it as an external software instrument or as a portable interface if you’re working with an iMac. You can even make it sound like your singer is in a smaller space.
Using Logic with an iPad just opens up so many more options.
There are two amazing ways StaffPad can help you make music, and they are the complete opposite of each other.
The intended way is designed for composers who understand musical theory, and know the notes they want to hear, but don’t know how to play an entire string section.
In StaffPad you can write out the sheet music for your magnum opus and then play it back with the sounds of up to 55 instruments to see if it’s what you were going for before. When you do send it out to musicians, they can make and send you notes via ScoreSync and StaffPad Reader.
It also helps you out a bit by automatically transposing chord symbols, which is handy.
The second, opposite way, is if you don’t really know how to write music.You can play it for the app and it’ll write it out for you with reasonable accuracy, which is basically magic.
That way you can share the sheet music for the songs you write with band members spread all over the world with ease.
Djay: Free ($9.99 a month/$79.99 a year for Pro)
Here’s an embarrassing fact about me. When I was a young teen I got DJ lessons from a neighbour and played a couple of Blue Light Discos in my area under a terrible DJ name.
I was not good.
But back then I used all the traditional DJ equipment and a milk crate filled with vinyl with sticky notes about the BPM. I even had little stickers on the actual records about where the good samples were.
I never got all my own equipment because it was prohibitively expensive and took up so much room, so I couldn’t really practice enough to get good.
That’s why I’m so excited about apps like Djay, because it takes that whole experience and makes it so accessible for anyone with an iPad.
You can load music from places like Apple Music, Tidal, SoundCloud and then sample and mix to your heart’s content.
Syncing the beats of the two tracks is now the touch of a button, as opposed to nervously counting and mixing before dropping the needle and abusing the fader.
This is 100 times easier, which means so many more people will be able to discover and create music and mixes that just weren’t possible even a decade ago.
Then you add in Pro AI, which isolates and picks out instruments and samples from songs so you can make your own remixes.
And this is why I love creating music with an iPad
As much as I loved the days when music was mostly made by bands consisting of a singer, a guitarist, a bass player and a drummer (and that’s still mostly the music I listen to), it’s really never been a better time to be a musician who just wants to create art. Well, as long as you ignore the whole ‘payment’ mess of things.
You can do so much with just an iPad, some imagination, and the courage to be bad at something for a little while.
In the end, no matter which app or instrument you choose to play, you should never feel nervous about starting to play something.
Music is magic, but it’s also a skill, and you’re not supposed to sound perfect right away. Just pick the parts that you love the most as a starting point and dive in from there.