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18 top iPad apps for music-making: the best synths, DAWs and effects for iPad

korg gadget
(Image credit: Korg gadget)

With the addition of the new M1 chip, iPads have become even more powerful, edging ever closer to rivalling laptops and desktop computers in their capability as music-making machines. 

Yesterday, we showed you how to put together a mobile studio with an iPad at its heart and rounded up 10 of the best hardware devices to complete the set-up. Today, we’re running through 18 of the best music-making apps, giving you a comprehensive rundown of the most creatively stimulating software for your iPad-based studio. 

Just like desktop and laptop DAWs, iOS DAWs can run external instruments and effects within the software. However there are a number of formats that you need to know about when buying apps as well as others that allow your iPad to talk to other hardware and software - here are the main ones.

Audio Units v3 (AUv3)

Audio Units v3 is probably now the main iOS plugin format. Think of it as being just like the desktop Audio Units or VST plugin formats, so an AUv3 DAW will run AUv3 plugins – simple! AU iOS DAWs include Steinberg’s Cubasis, Apple’s GarageBand and n-Track Studio Pro.   

Audio Bus (AB)

Audio Bus allows you to route compatible apps together within the umbrella AB app. As it runs as a separate app, you seemingly do the routing outside of your DAW. It therefore might not seem as intuitive to those DAW users used to doing everything within their chosen sequencer, but using AB is straightforward and gives you more of an overview feel. 

Inter App Audio (IAA)

This was one of the first linking formats built into the iOS operating system. It is still supported by various apps but Audio Units v3 has the backing of Apple now so IAA support looks like it’s dwindling. That said, most iOS DAWs support all the main formats but do check the specs of your chosen DAW. 

Not a plugin format as such, Ableton Link is more of a communication format, allowing hardware and software to sync when connected wirelessly. Link is supported in everything from Akai hardware to Reason and Bitwig software and various apps.

Synths

Audiokit Synth One

Audiokit synth one

(Image credit: Audiokit)

PRICE FREE | OVERVIEW AUv3/AB/AL/IAA, 300 presets, hybrid analogue/FM, 6-voice, sequencer

They say “completely free, fully functional, and ad-free – the ultimate free iPad music instrument app”… And we’re not going to argue. Synth One is an open source tool to develop but is actually one of the best synths out there. A unique tone, brilliantly flexible UI and of course it’s free! No brainer.

Beep Street Sunrizer

Beepstreet sunriser

(Image credit: BeepStreet)

PRICE $9.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3/MIDI/IAA/AudioBus 2.0, 380+ presets, 6-20 voice adjustable polyphony, phrase sequencer

This VA synth features ‘True SuperSaw sound emulation’ – the kind of fat trance lead sounds made ubiquitous by the Roland JP-8000 and used on many dance and trance tunes. Add in flexible effects, modulation and an arpeggiator, and this could well be seen as the Massive of mobile in years to come.

Icegear Instruments Laplace

IceGear Laplace

(Image credit: IceGear)

PRICE $7.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3/AB/AL/IAA, 24-voice, physical modelling, arpeggiator

Laplace employs physical modelling to create sounds like strings, plucked instruments and metallic sounds although IceGear suggest, “it is designed not to reproduce real acoustic instruments but to create new synthesizer sounds in different new ways”. Basically, if you want something a little different this is it! 

Synthmaster One

Synthmaster

(Image credit: Synthmaster One)

PRICE FREE | OVERVIEW AUv3, 950 presets, arpeggiator, sequencer

KV331 have ported the multi-award-winning Synthmaster – in its feature-packed entirety – to the iPad. Brimming with sonic potential, this is a fantastically creative tool for sound design on the move as well as a go-to for quick idea generation. One of the most fully-featured iPad synth experiences you can have.

miRack

miRack

(Image credit: miRack)

PRICE $9.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3/AL/AB/IAA, 500+ modules, various voices, sequencer

If you are interested in modular synths but hate the idea of all those boxes and leads, this could be your future: an entire modular system on your iPad. miRack has 500 modules and will even integrate with hardware Eurorack gear, although if you can do it all from an iPad, why would you want to?

Moog Animoog

Moog Animoog

(Image credit: Moog)

PRICE $19.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3/AL, 100s of presets, varied polyphony, anisotrophic synth engine 

Animoog is not a standard synth emulator but contains the best parts of the classic Moog sound behind new UI sensibilities. It allows you to create sounds with loads of movement and control them all in real time, all with that Moog quality as its sonic bedrock. It was free at one point but still comes highly recommended. 

Synth emulations

Arturia iSEM

Arturia iSEM

(Image credit: Arturia)

PRICE ​​£9.99 | OVERVIEW AU/IAA/AB, 500+ presets, 4 or 8-voice polyphony, arpeggiator

Three absolute classic synths for you now, starting with the Oberheim SEM, a much-loved 1974 synth. iSEM sounds magnificent, has loads of modern twists including effects and chord modes, and is one of the best emulations that you’ll find on the iPad. iSuperb.

Korg Odyssei

korg odyssei

(Image credit: Korg)

PRICE $29.99 | OVERVIEW AB/IAA, 100 presets, 2-voice, classic analogue architecture 

Odyssei is a faithful recreation of the ARP Odyssey made famous by the likes of Ultravox’s Billy Currie. It’s expensive but sounds incredible. You also get effects and optional sounds. Get it and the Moog for the most popular synth combo ever! 

Minimoog Model D

Moog model d app

(Image credit: Moog)

PRICE $14.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3/AB/IAA/AL, 160+ presets, 4-voice, arpeggiator

Last but not least, the best synth of all time and one of the best iPad apps. The 1970 Moog Minimoog Model D, gets a fantastic emulation by the company that made it in the first place. All with added presets, polyphony, the ability to run it in any iOS DAW and effects. 

DAWs

Intua Beatmaker

Intua Beatmaker

(Image credit: Intua)

PRICE $27.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3/AL/IAA, unlimited instruments, audio and effects tracks, 32-note polyphony, 14 effects

Beatmaker includes an in-depth sequencer with automation, full mixer, audio and instrument tracks and the ability to produce songs with top-line DAW detail. There’s an emphasis on sampling and audio editing plus AUv3 instrument handling, and overall the experience is top-notch touch DAW play. 

Korg Gadget

korg gadget

(Image credit: Korg gadget)

PRICE £34.99 | OVERVIEW AL/AB/IAA, 18 Gadgets, unlimited tracks, 14 insert effects  

With 18 Gadgets (synths, drum machines, samplers) plus more to buy, this is a complete DAW ecosystem. There’s brilliant touch editing, fast song creation, connectivity to your other instruments plus brilliant effects, mixing and great export. We’ve made more tunes on Gadget than any other mobile DAW.

Steinberg Cubasis

Steinberg Cubasis

(Image credit: Steinberg)

PRICE $49.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3/IAA/AB, unlimited audio/MIDI tracks, 3 instruments, 2 effects

One of the ultimate desktop DAWs comes to iPad. Expensive, but the touch experience is amazing, you can run AUv3 plugins just like a proper DAW, and the whole thing points to a great future of mobile music production. Overall it’s a totally intuitive and immersive production environment.   

Grooveboxes

Ampify Groovebox

Ampify Groovebox

(Image credit: Ampify Groovebox)

PRICE FREE | OVERVIEW AL/AB/IAA, 5 instruments, 8-20 presets/grooves per instrument

A free tool that lets you quickly create melodies and beats. You get five free touchable instruments – four synths and a drum machine – and while they could be seen as teasers for the IAPs, there’s certainly plenty you can do with them and the free patterns without spending a penny.  

Grooverider GR-16

Grooverider GR16

(Image credit: Grooverider)

PRICE $18.99 | OVERVIEW AL/AB/IAA, up to 256 patterns, 32-voice polyphony

GR-16 has two oscillators, five waveforms, the ability to import wavetables, loads of drum sounds, masses of effects and an arpeggiator; no wonder it’s one of the highest-rated music production apps. Well worth a download if you want to create big dance music and one of the best grooveboxes for the iPad. 

Ruismaker Noir

Ruismaker Noir

(Image credit: Ruismaker)

PRICE $7.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3, monophonic synth engine, sequencer, 4000 loops

Noir is a fantastic beat creator, producing breaks and loops from scratch and is packed with drum synthesis options. The layout will be familiar to any synth user with oscs, filters and amp sections but it’s all about sequencing, morphing and fluid sounds with superb implementation and a great UI.  

Effects

Eventide Shimmerverb

Eventide Shimmerverb

(Image credit: Eventide)

PRICE $14.99 I OVERVIEW AA/AUv3, pitch shift functionality 

Shimmerverb ‘combines a massively lustrous reverb with parallel pitch shifters’ and has a hands-on ribbon controller to morph between settings. With fx experts Eventide behind it, you are assured a great sound and it’s fab for guitars, keys and vox. Lovely.  

Fabfilter Pro-Q 3

Fabfilter Pro Q3

(Image credit: Fabfilter)

PRICE $29.99 | OVERVIEW AUv3, 24 EQ bands, filters 

The desktop version of this EQ is a firm favourite in many a top producer’s effects arsenal, and now it – along with most of FabFilter’s effects – can be bought in AUv3 format... for a price. Yes, it is expensive for iOS but to have this running in a DAW like Cubasis adds a real pro sheen to everything.  

Positive Grid Bias FX 2

Positive Grid Bias FX 2

(Image credit: Positive Grid)

PRICE FREE | OVERVIEW IAA, 77 factory presets, amps and pedals

One for guitarists, FX2 includes a range of vintage pedal emulations and high-end rack effects that you can combine for custom sounds of all types. You get four amps and eight effects pedals free and there are plenty more available as IAPs (up to $99). One of the best ways to turn your amp into an effects box.

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