I used to have quite the setup for making music. In the basement of my parents’ house, I had rigged up an array of microphones around a drum kit, guitar amp, and bass amp, all feeding into a multi-track recording interface on a nearby desktop PC. I’d spend hours down there during high school and on break from college, creating my own albums just for fun.
But over the past dozen years, I’ve let that hobby languish. I have a drum kit in my own basement now, but after a full day of work followed by family time, the prospect of setting up an elaborate recording session seems exhausting–and it’d probably wake the kids anyway. So I’ve spent my precious downtime on more relaxing pursuits, such as watching TV and playing video games.
All of that started to change last month when I bought a 10.5-inch iPad Pro. Although Apple’s tablet doesn’t restore the glory of my old setup, its hardware and software turn music creation into a low-key activity. And at this point in my life, that’s the only way it’s going to happen at all.
Ready To Play
Making music on the iPad doesn’t just mean swiping and tapping on a touch screen. You can also connect real, physical instruments through the iPad’s Lightning connector.
For guitar, I use an Apogee Jam ($99), which amplifies and digitizes the signal from any quarter-inch audio cable. It’s compatible with Apple’s GarageBand software and lots of other iOS apps. (Some cheaper products send analog audio through the iPad’s headphone jack, but that introduces a lot of background noise.)
I also picked up a 37-key iRig Keys MIDI keyboard from IK Multimedia. MIDI keyboards don’t any make sound on their own, but instead send instructions to synthesizer apps, telling them which notes to play. Like the Apogee Jam, the iRig Keys also connects through Lightning, and draws power from the iPad.
In theory, I could use these instruments with other devices, like my Windows desktop PC or my Surface Pro 3. And I have dabbled on those machines a bit, mostly using the venerable FL Studio music production software.
But compared to Windows, the iPad does a better job of getting out of the way so I can focus on the music. The battery lasts 10 hours, and playing music doesn’t drain the charge like some Windows applications can, so I can still spend an evening on music even if two-thirds of the battery is already depleted. And because all of the iPad’s apps are optimized for touch screens, I’m never frustrated by tiny menu buttons or arcane keyboard shortcuts. Those factors, along with the iPad’s compact size, mean that I can sit down and start playing pretty much anywhere.
While this was true of older iPads as well–and I had a brief stint with making music on a third-generation iPad several years ago–the iPad Pro feels more like it was made for music creation. Saving and loading songs requires just a split second, and the iPad never hangs when switching between apps. I don’t anticipate running out of space with my iPad Pro’s 256 GB of storage, which is now just a $100 step up from the base $650 model with 64 GB of storage. The built-in stereo speakers are also decent enough for light track editing when headphones are out of reach.
GarageBand Grows Up
Beyond the hardware, the iPad’s music software is more conducive to casual music creation than anything I’ve found on Windows.
When it’s time to record, I use GarageBand, which launched on iPad in 2011 for $5 before eventually becoming a free app. Professional musicians may scoff at Apple’s music software, given its reputation for excess simplicity and canned audio loops, but over the years it’s become deceptively powerful.
Along with ready-made hooks, GarageBand provides a slew of virtual instruments for creating your own beats and melodies–controlled with either a MIDI keyboard or the touch screen–and the selection has expanded over time with more drum kits and a powerful built-in synthesizer. For guitar and bass input, GarageBand provides several amps and effects pedals to chain together.
The best part of GarageBand, however, is its extensibility. In 2013, Apple added a feature called Inter-App Audio, which lets users record audio into a GarageBand track from third-party apps. This allows me to connect an app like ToneStack to get more tones and effects out of my guitar. All I have to do is choose “Inter-App Audio” from GarageBand’s instrument menu, open up ToneStack to choose my amp and effects, then jump back into GarageBand to start recording.
A newer feature called Audio Units goes further, letting you control external instruments and effects within GarageBand itself. The subtractive synthesizer app NS1, for instance, provides all of its controls in a module above the standard GarageBand keyboard, so I never have to leave the app. (Unfortunately, Audio Units has only been around on iOS since January, so fewer apps support it compared to Inter-App Audio.)
With these tools, you can easily fall down a rabbit hole of new sounds and instruments. For a few bucks, I picked up a Nintendo-style chiptune synthesizer called SquareSynth from the App Store, along with a a clone of the classic ARP Odyssey synthesizer from the 1970s. (Re-creations of classic synths abound in the App Store, from the Minimoog to the Prophet VS.) While the cost of these apps—generally between $5 and $30— is higher than most App Store fare, they’re still far cheaper than the musical hardware they emulate. For a hobbyist like me, that means the barriers to experimentation are much lower.
Granted, GarageBand isn’t the only program that can use Inter-App Audio and Audio Units, and other recording apps may offer more flexibility for professionals. What makes GarageBand so alluring is how it includes everything you need to get started on a basic level. When you’re ready to add more sounds through other apps, they’re just a few taps away.
In that sense, GarageBand is a microcosm of the iPad as a whole. On the surface, it’s so simple that practically anyone can use it, but underneath lie a growing number of complexities for users to seek out. In GarageBand, that means more sounds and effects through Inter-App Audio and Audio Units, along with modular connectivity to physical instruments. On the iPad, it means powerful software features like Split View, the app dock, and the Files app, along with connectivity to physical keyboards and other hardware. Just as you can still use an iPad for nothing but Netflix and Facebook, you can build a song full of canned audio loops in GarageBand without ever knowing about the full-blown recording studio beneath the surface.
I didn’t buy an iPad Pro with music creation in mind. My main goal was to use it as a laptop replacement when I was away from my desk, with some lighter activities like Twitter and gaming on the side. But layer by layer, GarageBand pulled me in, and I’ve rediscovered a hobby that I thought I’d lost.