Friday, July 6, 2012

10 iPad Apps for Creative, Musical, and Somewhat Weird People

Kat surprised me with a new iPad a couple weeks ago (you know, the iPad that I swore up and down that I never wanted and would have no use for), and I've found it to be fantastic. The first mistake you can make with your iPad is thinking it's a smaller substitute for your desktop/laptop experience. Instead, you should look at it for its unique coolness in how you interact with the software it runs.

That software, of course, is collectively known as "apps", and at last count there were something like 75 trillion of them to choose from. I made that up, but there are way too many to just spend weeks browsing through the nearly endless halls of Apple's App Store. You also probably don't want to limit yourself to whatever crap-ass apps that are popular at the moment when you go app shopping. Also, if -- like most creative people -- you have little or no money, you'll be happy to note that many items I chose are cheap or free (though you will probably succumb to in-app upgrades and add-ons, as I have).

So, here are ten apps in alphabetical order that I think are pretty damn cool, useful, or both (as is true in almost all cases).

Alchemy (Camel Audio)

I certainly didn't have high expectations for a free downloadable synthesizer, but I'll be damned if Camel Audio's Alchemy isn't a really cool creative music tool with some very usable and tweakable presets. You can buy expansion sound packs, but it comes with a good selection to get you started (and you get 25 more free for registering). Two more things of note: first, it's a smart app in that it allows you to use the iPad itself as a controller so that tilting it will alter the sonic parameters in real time. Second, the Pro Upgrade (still cheap at $14.99) turns it into a full-fledged synth module with load/save capabilities, Virtual MIDI (so you can control it from other apps), sound layering, and much more.

iStroboSoft-HD (Peterson Tuners)

My experience with the original Peterson Strobe Tuner goes back to my days -- few and far between -- where I got to record in high-end professional recording studios. A few years back, while working on my album, my friend/audio engineer Phil O'Keefe pulled out his iPhone when it was time to tune my acoustic guitar. I wondered about the wisdom about using a cell phone for the essential act of tuning for a recording session, but it blew me away with its accuracy. While the iPad version of the iStroboSoft tuner is the most expensive app on this list at $9.99, the hardware version of the Peterson 490 tuner lists for $925.00... and as far as I can tell, the iPad version works just as well. Incredible!

Paper (FiftyThree)
FREE; In-App "Essential" Tools $6.99

Nothing could be more simple than an app that lets your tablet computer behave like a pad of art paper, with a nice little set of tools for sketching, coloring, writing, and so on. Well, the feel and vibe of FiftyThree's Paper is as good as any computer-based experience I've ever had at mimicking the analog vibe of a notepad. I bought the full "essentials" pack pretty quickly... you'll likely also want to access the different pen, marker, and brush tools, and the palette of colors. Would I like more colors and more tools? You betcha, and I'll probably be standing by when the issue the inevitable expansion pack.

Penultimate (EverNote)

You've already got Paper; why bother with Penultimate? Well, the strength here is pure note-taking. If you need to jot something down in a meeting, you probably don't want the subtle nuances of a paster watercolor. Instead, Penultimate (recently acquired by another well-known app company, EverNote) is great at tracking your handwriting in a fast and concise manner, especially if -- like me -- you get a nice stylus for it. I bought the Wacom Bamboo, which has a decent heft to it and so far seems to work very well with Penultimate. I also like the way that one can very easily copy/paste a photo into a note. All useful stuff in many situations.

Photoshop Express (Adobe)
FREE; In-App Filter Pack: $2.99

I've been a customer -- sometimes happily, sometimes less so -- of Adobe products for a long time. My professional use of Photoshop goes back to the early '90s; I'm so old that I remember when getting layers in version 3.0 was reason to bust out the champagne. I thought it would be useful to have a miniature version of Photoshop for very basic image editing when I'm out and about with my iPad. While Adobe makes a number of tools for iOS, Photoshop Express is the cheapest way to screw around with some images on your iPad, with zero expertise required to make fun and interesting images. I bought the filter pack ($2.99) to spruce things up a bit. People who need a little more of the full Photoshop vibe might want to step up to Adobe's new Photoshop Touch ($9.99).

Remote (Apple)

This one is a serious no-brainer. Remote turns your iPad into the biggest, baddest remote control for your Mac's iTunes (or Apple TV) you can possibly imagine. A side note: this also uses iTunes' "Home Sharing" feature, which not only lets you control your Mac's iTunes from your iOS device, but also allows you to access your entire iTunes library via your iPad. It's super handy.

SoundHound (SoundHound)
FREE w/ads

I'm giving this a top 10 award with some reservations. Let's start with the bad: SoundHound may be free, but it has a cluttered interface that seems more intent on selling you stuff than serving its one purpose. But that purpose, relegated to a small corner of the screen, is simply awesome: it will listen to any song and tell you the song's name and performer. It's just nuts in that it really works. I've sung some pretty esoteric stuff into the iPad and had SoundHound tell me precisely who did the original. It also got some points via my ego since it recognized every tune from the Zak Claxton album I played at it.

SoundPrism (Audanika)

I've been a musician for close to 40 years, and I'll tell you a secret: it's possible to grow bored with the interface of any instrument after awhile. That's one reason there are so many multi-instrumentalists out there; after a couple of decades playing keyboards, maybe bass would be nice for a change. That's one reason I really enjoy the vibe of SoundPrism, which doesn't rely on a traditional keyboard or fretboard interface. Much like Alchemy, SoundPrism has Pro upgrade ($15.99), but this one lets you use it as a very new controller for existing VSTis, synthesizers and sound modules. Wow!

Swords & Sworcery EP (Superbrothers)

I have to admit; I'm not a huge gamer these days, and I certainly wasn't expecting to have one of my favorite apps for my iPad be a game, but it is. When I was a kid about the same age as my son now, I spent hours immersed in the simple yet mind-expanding world of the original Adventure game for Atari 2600. Superbrothers' Swords & Sworcery EP is the first game I've played since then that brings back that same creativity-inspiring quality. I won't -- and honestly can't -- attempt to describe it, other than to say the art is amazing, the music by Jim Guthrie is fantastic, and there's a reason why most critics named it as one of the best games of 2011. Just get it.

Ustream (Ustream)

For a musician like me who enjoys doing weird stuff like broadcasting live audio and video from an impromptu show at a local coffee house to my friends/fans around the world, it's very cool that my iPad can now be my microphone and camera all in one little slab. I've been using Ustream for live video performances for years, so having an even more portable version for free isn't too shabby at all.

I am still finding cool apps every day; I'm sure there will be many updates to this post as time goes by. Also, some honorable mention goes out to some less fun/exciting but still useful apps I'm using: Apple's iWork (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, $9.99 each), Gusto code editor/FTP client ($9.99), and Dropbox (Free) all add some excellent functionality to my iPad, especially when I have to use it for the very last thing I wanted it for.

You know. Work.


papa roux said...

Great list! Let me also recommend Moog's AniMoog synthesizer, which uses the touchscreen capabilities on some very interesting ways. Another interesting synth is Geo Synth, which uses a string-like layout but has way more up its sleeve. It has a companion app, SampleWiz, which lets you sample & edit, then load the sounds into Geo. (Both of these apps are from Wizdom Music, founded by Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater fame.)

GarageBand for iPad is surprisingly useful - I have sketched out several things while riding on the train for later re-working. There's also Notion, which is a full-featured (albeit slightly buggy, but still quite useable) notation editor. Not the cheapest app out there, but if you want to channel your inner Mozart this is the way to go.

For guitarists, TC Electronics' PolyTune app is another excellent tuner for guitar and bass - incredibly fast to use! Of course, there's IK Multimedia's AmpliTube if you like guitar sims.

Finally, Napkin Sketch Stage is great for making up a quick (and amusing) stage plot for your band, and is only 99 cents.

Zak Claxton said...

These are all great suggestions!

I wanted to add that I've also been using Evernote, which is a pretty neat cloud-based note-taking tool (it actually captures more than notes... voice memos, web site clips/pages, and more). The nice thing about it is the seamless synchronization between your Mac and iOS devices; you update on one and it's already there on the rest (since you're modifying the notebook in the cloud, of course).

And it's free if kept under 60MB/month. Good times!