Question Of The Week: What Are The Best Apps For Making Music?

Aug 12, 2013
Originally published on August 13, 2013 9:57 am

The answer to this week's question depends on how much you know about playing music and what you want to make or record. With some apps you don't need to know a single thing about reading music notation or playing an instrument. Other apps have a learning curve beyond comprehension.

All Songs Considered co-host Bob Boilen and I, who both make music in addition to listening to it, have taken a lot of these music-making apps out for test drives and have narrowed our favorites down to the three we think best capture the best of all worlds.

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Now for the rest of All Tech, we're going to make some music. And as someone who knows, you know, close to nothing about making music, this morning, I actually made a song on my tablet that, if I say so myself, is a little jazzy.


CORNISH: OK, I mean, it's not exactly jazzy. But I've got Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton of NPR Music here in the studio to talk about the app that I made this song with because they've got a bunch of these music-making apps. Guys, welcome to the studio.

BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: Wasn't too bad.

CORNISH: As you just - you know, well, thank you.


ROBIN HILTON, BYLINE: Had a nice beat.

CORNISH: Oh, I should explain that Bob and Rob, and this is just one of a few music-making apps that you guys sent my way. This one was called Figure, and it was really fun. We'll talk about in a bit. But there was actually a simpler one, right, called Musyc spelled M-U-S-Y-C, right, Robin?

HILTON: Yeah. You really don't need to know how to play an instrument or read music at all in order to use an app like this one. If you look at the screen, it just has a simple horizontal line running across it, and I have a palette of very basic shapes: a circle, square, a triangle. And as I drag these shapes onto the page, they bounce against the line creating a sound.


HILTON: Each shape creates a different sound. That's a circle, here's a square.


HILTON: Here's a triangle.


HILTON: And the rectangle is sort of the rhythm section.


HILTON: Now, the shapes are just bouncing around on their own, bouncing into each other creating new tones.

CORNISH: It actually looks like an animated geometry test.

HILTON: Yeah. It is a little bit like just playing with toy blocks or something that you're dropping on the ground. And as they bounce on the ground, they're making sounds.


HILTON: The thing with an app like this is you're not going to score a symphony or anything like that. You're just going to have some fun and kill some time.

CORNISH: Well, I think the next app, Figure, seems a little more complicated, frankly. I feel like I could make a song, but it - I didn't even know how I did it.


CORNISH: Bob, explain how this app works.

BOILEN: OK. There are three main things to the program Figure: a drum, a bass and some sort of lead-sounding instrument, some sort of melody instrument. I will start with the basic drum. There's four drum sounds: there's a kick drum, there's a snare drum, a high hat and a cowbell sound, right? Here comes the kick.


BOILEN: You know that sound.


BOILEN: Now it's just going to keep repeating. I've placed my finger on a little blue rectangle, and we'll do the same with the snare.


BOILEN: And then the cowbell. There's got to be a cowbell.

CORNISH: More cowbell.


BOILEN: And I'm just playing now, trying to make a melody that sounds right by just moving my finger around the screen, and it remembers that. And it's looping it.


CORNISH: Now, unlike the other app, which is kind of abstract shapes dancing around, this one does mimic in a way what we might think of as in terms of audio equipment. Those circles look like dials...

BOILEN: Right.

CORNISH: ...right, that you might see on a board. It feels like you're sliding a slider up and down when you're playing around with the sounds.

BOILEN: And if you're on a piano - the far left of the piano are the lower notes, the far right are the high notes - well, the same thing on this sort of rectangular grid.


BOILEN: So now I'm going to do what's called the lead instrument.


BOILEN: And again, I'm moving my finger high up to the left. And now, far down to the bottom.


HILTON: It almost sounds like you know what you're doing.


CORNISH: You could go around calling yourself a producer, probably, or a beat maker, right?


BOILEN: That's right. Yes, that's right.


CORNISH: Well, we're going to end on an app that has virtual instruments you can play. And I have to say I find this app incredibly difficult. It's called Garage Band. Robin, talk a little bit about it. I think people who are musicians might be pretty familiar with it.

HILTON: It's an app that can go pretty deep. But you also don't need to know a whole lot about music if you just want to play with it on a very basic level. It has a whole bunch of instruments in it - like piano and guitar, bass, drums - and you can play all those light virtual instruments, or it has a feature called Smart Instruments that all you have to do is touch a button, and it plays patterns for you for each of those instruments.

Bob, if you want to bring up one of the Smart Instruments, like, give me some strings or something in C.

BOILEN: Right. So here we go. I'm simply going to press my finger on a thing that says C.


HILTON: Take it up to F.


HILTON: Then to G, back to C.


CORNISH: Whoa. Holy smokes.

BOILEN: Right?

HILTON: That's using the Smart Instruments.

BOILEN: I'm pretty good, right?

HILTON: And that was the strings. So yeah, Bob's - it's making Bob sound way better than he is.

CORNISH: Yeah. We're a long way from circles and triangles here. I mean, that's pretty impressive.


CORNISH: All right. Now that we've technically mastered these music apps, should we actually try and make a song?

HILTON: We can, and we'll use Garage Band. Bob and Audie, why don't you two use Smart Instruments? All you have to do is hit a button, and it'll play a chord.

CORNISH: And I have this virtual acoustic guitar, so you guys are going to have to be very patient with me.

HILTON: So, Audie, why don't you just start with a C chord and I'll count it off.


HILTON: OK? And then I'm going to call out other chords for you to hit.

CORNISH: All right.

HILTON: So starting out with C - one, two, three, four.


HILTON: We're going to go to F.


HILTON: Now to G.

BOILEN: I'm going to join.

HILTON: Now back to C.


BOILEN: Robin, you join us on piano.





BOILEN: Robin, you're hot on that piano.


BOILEN: It's not Mozart here but...


CORNISH: Yeah, no one is turning in any graves.


BOILEN: Let's do a grand finale.


BOILEN: Oh, solo guitar.


CORNISH: I thought you were going to ask me to sing next. Nobody wants to hear that. All right. So, guys, with all of these apps, are they games, or do they really expect people to make music, people like me, perhaps, who really, you know, don't have a musical bone in their body.

BOILEN: I think they're ways in. This is a way for someone without the craft to have fun with sound and create.

HILTON: I think another way to look at this is that you're playing around with somebody else's imagination. Someone has created this tool that allows you to be creative and find a way into this world of music that you otherwise might not discover.

CORNISH: That's Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton of NPR Music. They host NPR's All Songs Considered podcast. Guys, thank you so much.

BOILEN: Let's rock.


HILTON: Two, three, four...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.