Why You Should Use Your iPad or iPhone to Record Music

By Ryan C. Williams, Mike Levine

There are so many possibilities to explore! The iOS operating system provides the most robust option for musicians wishing to create music on a mobile device. Because Apple made iOS specifically for a limited set of devices, the company can better handle issues like touch response and interactions with external hardware (such as keyboards or other MIDI controllers).

The App Store provides the largest marketplace for mobile-device music apps, a great many of which are available for free. Although buying an iPhone or iPad may be expensive, the cost of making that device a music workstation is relatively low. Let’s take a look at a broad overview of everything you can accomplish with your iPhone or iPad.

Playing music anywhere

Obviously, Apple designed the iPhone and iPad to go along with you wherever you go. With powerful onboard memory and Wi-Fi/wireless data connections, your devices travel easily and provide near-instantaneous access to your data, allowing you to carry the following devices in your pocket:

  • Piano

  • Modular synthesizer

  • Sampler

  • Drum machine/sequencer

  • Guitar/bass amp

  • Effects pedals

  • DJ equipment

  • Strange and wonderful sound generation devices

  • Your entire sheet music collection

This list is only a sample. Your only limitation is the size of your device’s storage, your screen size (especially if you’re older and need a screen larger than an iPhone’s for reading music), and your data connection. It’s all so convenient: Carrying these items on your phone certainly beats carting them around in a generously sized motor vehicle!

Apps that use a lot of small controls (such as knobs or switches) will benefit from the larger screen size of a full-sized iPad versus an iPad Mini. For example, large virtual mixers or synthesizers with a lot of controls may need a larger screen size so you can better access these controls (especially if you’re performing live and don’t get a shot at fixing any mistakes).

Buy a sturdy case to go along with your iPhone or iPad. Musicians don’t often work in sterile or clean environments, so protect your investment! Be sure that any case you buy also allows you to connect the hardware you need to make your music.

Be careful when connecting external devices to your iOS device if you put that device in a large or bulky case. And definitely take your iPhone or iPad out of any case you normally put on it before you try to insert it in a dock. Not only will some cases block usage of external connections, but you could also damage the data connector by trying to force that connection.

Storing your sounds

There’s no shortage of opinions among musicians and audiophiles, but keep in mind that opinions are always subjective. The iPhone and iPad may not have the “mojo” factor of vintage tube amps or studio-quality recording consoles, but you can still get great audio sounds out of them.

For music playback, the iPhone and iPad can handle mp3, AAC, ALAC, WAV, and AIFF files at different levels of audio quality. Apple recommends sticking with AAC and ALAC files, probably because Apple itself created the formats, but also because you get better audio quality at the same file size over other formats. You’ll fill up your phone quickly with high resolution audio files (especially in ALAC, WAV, and AIFF formats), but the choice is yours.

Connect a good pair of headphones (not the earbuds that come with the phone, please — it’s worth investing in a better pair after you initially buy the device) and you’re set. And keep the earbuds in a safe place as a backup. Just in case.

Lossy vs. lossless

The AAC vs. ALAC file formats belong to Apple, and thus work really well on an iPhone or iPad. But the main difference between these files is lossy vs. lossless data compression. When you convert an audio file to an AAC format, you retain most of the data but lose a little here and there to keep the file size down. The iTunes Store sells music files at 256 Mbps, which most listeners agree is an acceptable resolution for everyday listening.

The standard before 256 Mbps was 128 Mbps, regarded by many experts as the minimum listenable size (although some will turn their nose up at that). Anything lower than that rate and things start to get ugly: You’ll hear a distorted high end (think cymbals and other high-pitched noises), and the music just won’t sound . . . good. ALAC files, on the other hand, use lossless compression.

Although ALAC files are larger than AAC files, they don’t lose data, and they’re smaller than the uncompressed audio of AIFF or WAV files. Again, your only limitation is the size of your device’s storage and how much music you want to carry around with you at any time.

What about recording?

The iPhone and iPad can already record audio up at 32-bit and 192-kHz, depending on the audio hardware you connect to your device. For those who started home recording on an analog cassette portable studio, this jump is mind-blowing. However, this level of fidelity requires a good deal of outboard gear and the proper recording environment.