Hmmm. This looks like just hours of fun.

Assuming you’ve survived hours of waiting on line or weathered various technical problems, Apple’s app store is online. Anyone with iTunes can have a look; it’s right inside the iTunes Store (formerly the iTunes Music Store). But while Apple’s development platform is impressive, early in the game a lot of the actual music apps seem to me to be, frankly, underwhelming. (Some of the non-musical apps look far better, like the lovely free client for awesome note-taking service Evernote.)

Click through to App Store > Music, and you may feel like you’ve entered a time warp to simplistic handheld music apps from the Palm and Windows Mobile platforms, only dressed up with shiny new eye candy – and $5 and $10 prices. You’ve got your choice of several guitar tuners and metronomes, and various sound toys that mimic instruments. Also, I find the iTunes interface rather annoying. You get a bunch of shiny icons but it’s hard to find specific tools. So, after all these years, are we still struggling to catch up to late 90s Palm apps? Really?

There is one potential standout: Karajan is a polished-looking handheld music theory tool for quizzes on intervals, chords, scales, and pitch. Then again, Karajan will cost you US$15. For free, you could head to Ricci Adams’ and get more detailed lessons and trainers in your browser. (It’s even Creative Commons-licensed, so if Flash ever runs on iPhone, we could see a port.)

Don’t get me wrong. The platform’s new, and I expect we’ll see better offerings over time. In fact, I think it’s natural that early offerings would be on the simple side. The problem is, the hype from the iPhone loving crowd is amped up so high, you begin to feel like we’ve left reality entirely. I wonder if the press will overlook real handheld music apps, like the powerful offerings available for PSP and Nintendo DS. And I feel obligated to point out that, bizarrely, you can get a heck of a lot more power for handheld music by hacking a game system and download free games than you can by paying hundreds of dollars on hardware, potentially many hundreds on service, and (in many cases) spending money on apps for Apple’s official mobile platform. (Maybe some of the talented developers are more drawn to the hacked platforms, anyway, contrary to conventional wisdom – partly because so many interesting mobile apps are labors of love, done outside their day job.)

To have a really good time, I’d be tempted to fire up a used Palm or PocketPC for the wealth of music apps available on those platforms – real sequencers, notation software, and unusual instruments. And that’s to say nothing of the PSP and DS. Sure, the iPhone may have powerful hardware, but as we’ve seen with Nintendo (ahem) that doesn’t necessarily yield great game design. I’m not crazy, right? Doesn’t this look like more fun to you, too? And without the hassle of a big mobile carrier. (The iPod Touch, at least, fares better, and it’s not as though there are many cool apps for the Zune.)

Then again, maybe all of this is a good thing. Old hardware is notoriously hard to recycle, hard on the environment, and loses its value quickly. Musicians, after all, form affectionate relationships with old instruments. Maybe it’s best to leave the disposable gadget culture to the tech freaks, and go find tools that’ll really give us a musical experience. Someone’s got to pick up those cheap eBay PDAs.

Updated: See comments for some insight from Chad, who’s written some awesome PalmOS apps at He talks a bit about some of the specific hurdles facing developers for writing mature music apps — which, by definition, are tougher to develop and more demanding of the platform.

Given the iPhone/iPod Touch OS’ audio features and horsepower, there are clearly some interesting apps down the road. But then, that’s part of why I point out that this generation is a bit lacking — it’s because I think it’s a shadow of what’s possible and what we should see. We’ll be watching.

  • The app I'm most excited about for music is Evernote. You can record voice notes, text notes, and it even recognizes the text in iPhone pictures. So next time you write a killer hook on a bar napkin, snap a picture and sync it. Cool.

  • Yeah, Evernote is great — and you're right, the photos rock. We're more or less left out on Blackberry at the moment, but they have done nice things on iPhone and also Windows Mobile. Other clients should be coming soon. I think you can still use the Web interface, which also works nicely.

    And totally, some of the actual productivity things wind up being more important to music than music apps per se.

  • john

    My favorite (free) music app so far is MixMeister. A simple scratching app that feels pretty good and offers a variety of samples to scratch with. You can't choose your own samples, though.

  • We missed the cutoff for launch, but not by much. 🙂

  • Hmmm. I realize that my headline could be read as "Early Music" apps are disappointing.

    Yes, to all of you looking for a just intonation utility, we've been foiled again. And they call it a "smart phone." Damn you, Apppplllllle!!!


  • Kim

    Just wait until someone makes a 303/Rebirth type app… (evil grin)


  • Yes disappointing. I've downloaded and tried a few apps:

    – Band – a novelty that lacks any flexibility in sound or tempo. But it's an amusing diversion. And it does polyphony with multitouch.

    – Tapstereo – a music generator with an interesting interface that uses some of the platform's potential, but it's just a monophonic sinewave. Ack! Make my ears bleed why don't you!

    – Mixmeister Scratch – I guess it's fine, if that's what you're into.

    There will be interesting music apps for the iPhone. Just not yet. For now I suggest Sudoku. You're well covered. There are 15 different versions of Sudoku on the Apple App Store.

  • There are some hurdles developing useful music apps for the iPhone… primarily not being able to move audio files on and off of the phone (or accessing anything in the "iPod" library) because of app sandboxing. But we will find ways around the problems and you'll see much more in the near future. Just… need… little… more… time.


  • Virtuoso

    What about the Pianist app? An 88 key piano on your iPhone, with each note multi-sampled and a recording facility? That app is definitely no "toy".

  • poorsod

    $15? Karajan was free on the jailbreaked 1.1.4 phone.

  • I wonder when Masayuki Akamats releases some of his more exciting iPhone Apps, like aka.iPhone (OSC Controller) on the App Store. He allready has some of his more simple Apps like Yes/No and some "Tap the Beat" App on it for free. With a little adapter-App on your Mac/PC this could also be used as a MIDI Controller.

    I hope it happens soon!

  • @ patrick:

    the helper app for masayuki's aka.iphone is already a reality since october of last year in the freeware app called i3L. You can download it at

    and has been covered extensively on cdm:

    i3L resides on your computer and translates the udp messages sent by masa's app into configureable midi messages that you can pick up by any midi app.

    Just do an i3L search on youtube, and you will find many videos of the app combo of aka.iphone and i3L in action with ableton, etc…

  • Someone needs to port Steinberg's Neon to the iPhone to get the ball rolling.

    Neon at KVR

  • RichardL

    I've run into significant probs with Evernote on my Touch. The top line in notes gets clipped and I can't sync my notes to my account on their server. Maybe they've been overloaded, but that's a problem. It seems like it needs more testing and debugging.

  • James Katt

    Karajan was free on the jailbreaked iPhone, but then it was to a limited audience and there is no easy way to pay for it.

    Now, the developer of Karajan – who is the one to set the $15 price – wants to make money for his work in creating Karajan.

    I don't blame him. I applaud him. The iPhone 3G finally allows him to make a living creating products like Karajan.

    If you complain, you are just cheap and may be a deadbeat.

  • I don't get the complaining about the prices of apps, All these apps are less than the price of a cable. Apps like Karajan are selling to a significantly smaller market than Sudoku.

    Complain about quality. Complain about lack of depth or breadth of features.

    But developers usually need to be able to make some money for their efforts. If we want to see this platform develop for more specialized applications such a creative music making we will need to put up with prices that will allow developers to see a reasonable return from sales of only a modest number of units.

    As a point of reference many of the more serious music apps on other mobile platforms are much more than any app on the iPhone. Bhajis Loops is $27. Audio Box Micro Composer is $45. Griff is $81!. Phoenix Studio is $30.

  • ericdano

    Bitch, moan, bitch.

    As a former Palm owner/user, I never found any good music apps. The iPhone platform is just beginning. "The problem is, the hype from the iPhone loving crowd is amped up so high, you begin to feel like we’ve left reality entirely." So? Did they promise full blown music applications? No…..

    Man, I'd like to have seen what your review of Windows XP or Mac OS X 10.0 when they came out……..

  • Lee

    A simple 16 bit 4-track audio recorder would do for me, with a little compression and reverb tossed in for good measure.

    Invariably its when I'm out and about when I feel most creative. Plug in some V-Moda iPhone compatible headphones and discreetly capture your next masterpiece.

    Garageband from Apple is a no brainer, but I can't wait that long. The future is almost here!

  • Well, let's talk about hype. Here's PC Magazine reviewing the iPhone 3G. The first line: "The iPhone 3G is the beginning of a new computing platform."

    That's copied, word for word, from Apple's keynote and press release. Maybe it's true, but you think they'd find a way of wording it that's not straight from PR. I don't think anyone said with a straight face "the WOW starts now" with Vista, for instance. Back in the day when Apple was saying "it's like getting a whole new Mac for $129," most in the Mac community made fun of that line. And a recent editorial by the PC Mag Editor-in-Chief made the argument that mobile platforms would eclipse computers as we now know them — even though people have been saying that for coming up on two decades now and it's been wrong.

    I actually am excited about the developments will see soon. But isn't that the reason to say, hey, look, it's not there yet? If you kind of jump up and down because a couple of $5 or $10 metronomes are available, you kind of blow all people's interest on hype and miss out on the real story. And I think the real story will be when mature apps from someone like miniMusic get finished. (See Chad's comment above — and, incidentally, their work on the Palm I thought was great, so I don't agree the Palm was a barren platform.)

    For the record, I absolutely think developers should be able to charge for their work. We see on CDM talented software developers doing work for free as a labor of love, and we see great open source stuff. But we also see commercial products we care about that we're willing to pay for. And, frankly, I'd rather spend more ($30 or $50) and get something that's meaningful than something that's $5 but a toy.

    Oh, yeah, and @ericdano, you can read what I was saying about OS X and music in November 2001 for O'Grady's PowerPage right here:….

    Here's what I said, albeit in my, ahem, embarassingly more youthful voice when I wasn't doing as much writing.

    "Eight months after its release, Mac OS X still lacks software for one key Apple market sector: music and audio creation. However, finally there are some indications that, once the wait is over, OS X will make musicians from beginners to pros wonder how we ever lived with anything else."

    Sounds about correct. (The wait actually proved to be longer than I expected — doh.) It wasn't mature then, and as an early adopter of 10.0, it, well, was fairly useless. (I got SoundHack running and spent all my time running convolution, so that worked well.) But because of the architecture, a lot more of course was eventually possible. The iPhone really *is* the same platform, not a new platform, but I expect that means we should see some interesting things. I'm concerned about some of these sandboxing restrictions; I could see some developers continuing to go the jailbroken route for that reason, but I'm sure as above, some of the more committed developers will find a way to make it all work. And I hope Apple will fully support them, because they did put music apps up onstage with them in the keynote.

    Then again, if you want really unique music-making tools on a mobile device, right now I'd still go with the PSP and DS. And there's something to be said for what's available right now. Hopefully what we get in the long run is very differentiated choices on each of these platforms; that's more fun.

  • Ugh. I will say I was probably wildly forgiving of problems with OS 9 versus Windows, which was reasonably stable for music in 2001.

    Mea culpa.

  • "The iPhone really *is* the same platform, not a new platform"

    I don't agree with this. Just because iPhone leverages a lot of the technology of Mac OS X it is not the same platform. WinMo is not the same platform as Windows. iPhone requires a whole different way of thinking about software design compared to the Mac.

    The problem of the SDK cited above is not that difficult. The iPhone/iPT is connect via TCP/IP to the internet or your LAN. Sure Apple doesn't at this point provide any exposed file syncing services for the developer. But moving files back and forth to and from the phone is just not that difficult a problem. FTP or a WebDAV server will solve the problem.

    Anyway. Be patient. It'll happen.

  • @exiledsurfer

    Thx for the link, but i prefer OSC over MIDI most of the time, so i don't need i3l (and if i would i would probably hack some quick n dirty thing in SuperCollider).

    i was more concerned about the app on the iPhone itself. It is still available for jailbreaked iphones, but not available in the official app store.

  • @RichardL: Actually, I'd say the real strength is that it is the same fundamental software/OS platform, adapted to a (genuinely) new hardware platform. That's the same push of the new mobile Linux platforms, as well. It's not as simple as just running the whole OS and identical APIs on a new hardware. But the ability to leverage the important bits of those on a new hardware platform I'd say is really important.

    And iPhone I think is at its strongest when it's most like a Mac — witness Safari. New user interface, yes, maybe, and as you say, new way of thinking about design. But Safari is the ideal blend, which is to think through the new form factor but retain the functionality of the desktop app.

    I'd also say design approaches in general are not as task-based as they should be — for instance, in our field despite isolated attempts by things like Rax and Apple's MainStage, and arguably Ableton Live, people don't think through live performance as a different problem from the studio. It's not only different when you have different hardware (which is true even with the Mac), but different tasks, as well.

  • Has anybody tried the AKAI mpc app for the Iphone? I heard it was supposed to be pretty good.

    Has anybody tried any of the guitar tunning apps?

  • RichardL said: "The problem of the SDK cited above is not that difficult."

    Not difficult or impossible, but a hurdle that has slowed down development. Instead of just summoning a file browser using standard API we have to create a file mover, deal with network code, user interface and support on Mac and Windows desktops… It will be awkward for a common user; every app will be different (remember early bluetooth pairing? It could be worse than that). Check out FileMagnet to see one developer's solution (Mac only!).

    Not a win. We need a standardized import/export solution from Apple before you will see a lot of large powerful sequencers/editors/etc.


  • @miniMusic: Would you say this situation is worse/better/same compared to other platforms? (Palm, JavaME, Windows Mobile, the non-shipping Android, etc.)

  • @miniMusic

    I agree. File transfer services should be a standardized part of the iPhone OSX. The current situation will inevitably result in a mushrooming of special utility apps and servers. This is not in the users' interests. Mac-only solutions are not going to cut it for many products.

    I was just checking out at an eBook reader on App Store called BookShelf. The developer provides a download for his users of a pretty comprehensive Java-based multiplatform file transfer solution for his app.

    Lacking a solution from Apple, it seems like a developer could do well marketing a reasonable and easily implemented solution like that for other developers to use. i.e. in the middle of a gold rush, sell shovels.

  • Good point, RichardL… and other apps have done this with music instruments, etc., for sample loading. Of course, having it all happen OTA from the phone would be nice. It's kind of frustrating to me that Apple doesn't even support most of the usual Bluetooth functions.

  • @Peter Kirn: Better or worse? For file types that are syncable now (photos, contacts, etc.), it is better, for other file types it is worse; although iPhone is young — Palm was pretty bad early on until they added VFS and memory card slots. Conduits were a pain.

    Our first app, "No.2", is a drawing app specifically because Apple HAS provided a way to sync graphics. I hope this suggests that other types of files will be syncable over time.


  • I think the reason there aren't more top-tier music apps for the iPhone at launch are pretty obvious:

    * Limited number of developers admitted to program.

    * SDK only available for three months before launch, and low-level audio examples only in the last month or so… before that we were all figuring out how to use the RemoteIO interface by poking it with a stick. "I bet it works like AUHAL, let's try… nope, how about… nope" I'm pretty sure that dropping down to sub-1024 frame buffers only became possible in the last few weeks (beta 7, iirc)

    * I think 'three friggin' months' deserves another bullet.

    There's a deeper technical issue, too: there's no FPU on the iPhone, which means any developer's library of finely-tuned floating-point desktop dsp is pretty much useless for realtime processing and has to be rewritten for fixed-point. Not the end of the world, but not trivial, either.

    I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of very cool and innovative things in the months to come as people get to spend more time with the SDK (and more people are granted access to it) I know for a fact there's a very capable drum machine coming next week. 🙂

  • the best thing i have found on pre-v2.0 software has been IR-909:

    It's limited to 8 sounds at once but its a sample player based on a 16step x0x drum seq. i have even reached out to the maker, made a bunch of kits specific to it and sent them over to him — super cool guy.

    he also made iPhone synth.

    am def waiting for BeatMaker and see what thats like.

  • velocipede

    Art+Very Capable Drum Machine+iPod Touch=Ubiquitous Beatmaking

    I look forward to this and the other music-making applications that should trickle out in the following months. The best is surely yet to come.

  • @Art: That makes sense, absolutely. The floating point capability is pretty significant to at least some people I know — and might explain why people are going to the trouble of developing for more challenging mobile platforms in general, because they can make use of FP.

    I certainly don't fault developers for not having something out, though generally I'd still say the short-term outlook may be better for the jailbroken platform than the official platform, because of various reasons.

    I'm very excited to see what you're up to, for sure. 🙂

    @quone: IR-909 looks great, I agree. I like that it uses tilt, as well.

    Anyway, diversity is wonderful… and I expect you'll see lots of people out with mobile gadgets from PSPs to Windows Mobile to DS to GamePark things, etc., etc., and not just iPhone. And that's a good thing. (I'm serious about rescuing the PDAs other people don't want!)

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  • Gentlemen,

    I give you… the Beat Maker!!!!

    Takes care of the content syncing

    really looks to be a full fledged audio creation app.


    Now if i can just get LSDJ running on it hehehAH

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