If you’d have told us ten years ago that we’d one day be able to carry an entire recording studio in our pockets we wouldn’t have believed you. Thanks to technology we now pretty much take for granted, however, the future is here and we are big fans. iPhones and iPads now grant mere mortals like us access to recording and performance tools anywhere, at any time. Inspiration can now never catch us unawares.
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Even better is the fact that, as the genre has grown, so too has support from our favourite music technology brands. Everything from audio interfaces to microphones, MIDI pad controllers and keyboards are now compatible with our portable devices, giving us access to amazing tools to make music wherever we find ourselves. Let’s look at some of the best options out there today for making music on iPhones and iPads.
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Whatever your need, it’s safe to say there is an iOS device-equipped tool to suit you. None of the gear we looked at for this guide felt like an afterthought designed to cash in on the popularity of iPhone and iPads. The microphones sound great, the keyboards work superbly and the audio interfaces are no different to what you may use in a ‘proper’ studio.
A couple of items really stood out. The IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio, for example, delivers superb sound quality which is equally at home recording vocals and voiceovers as it is picking up the nuances of our acoustic guitars. We also love the new Roland Go Mixer Pro, and could see it finding its way into the rehearsal rooms of bands and artists everywhere.
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We’re at a stage now with music technology that whatever style of music you make, record or perform, there are tools available to bring your iOS device along for the ride. It’s a great time to be a musician or producer. For performers, there is a growing number of keyboards offering largely the same functionality as more established studio equipment. Everything from drums pads to assignable knobs and faders bring a level of utility that ensures recording on a small-scale doesn’t feel like a compromise.
Interestingly, many USB MIDI controllers now offer iOS compatibility as standard so you can use the same gear that you use in your home studio with your iPhone or iPad. Smaller 25-key controllers are often portable enough so they can be thrown in a backpack and taken anywhere too, making them perfect practice tools.
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Getting high quality audio into the iPhone or iPad was, until fairly recently, more of an issue. Now, there are plenty of iOS-capable audio interfaces from the biggest names in recording tech. You do have to cut your cloth accordingly though. While recording into your phone or tablet is great, it’s never going to replace full multi-track audio studios. As powerful as they are, portable devices simply aren’t built with the processing power required to manage multiple tracks of high definition audio at the same time. That said, as a way of sketching out ideas they are a great tool to complement a larger studio.
The range of microphones available to iOS users is perhaps the most interesting growth area. With the spec of cameras on modern smartphones now enabling the capture of 4K footage at high frame rates, the need for higher quality audio has driven great advances in technology. For many YouTubers, streamers and videographers, iPhones are the go-to devices for quick filming sessions and there are some superb options out there for ensuring the audio you record is up to the same levels as the video footage.
Described by IK Multimedia as its “all-in-one music production station”, the iRig Keys I/O combines a MIDI controller keyboard (a smaller 25-key version is also available) and audio interface in a single unit. It’s designed to be as compact as possible without compromising on playability. It’s built with iOS in mind but also works very well with desktop systems.
The IK iRig Keys I/O 49 is small enough to find a space on even the most hectic of studio desks, and is equipped to handle basic recording duties and general purpose MIDI control on stage and in the studio. As a package, it’s comparatively good value, too, particularly taking into account the impressive bundle of desktop software that comes free with it. This includes T-RackS effects, SampleTank 3, Syntronik Pro-V and more.
Read the full IK Multimedia iRig Keys I/O 49 review
English brand ROLI has made a name for itself with its Seaboard range of ‘multidimensional polyphonic expression’ (MPE) controllers. In a nutshell, these allow for expressive playing and modulation of sounds on a note-by-note basis, providing an experience more akin to an orchestral instrument than a standard MIDI controller.
The Blocks range brings this technology to a more affordable line of Bluetooth controllers, which are designed to work with both a growing array of desktop plugins and ROLI’s own Noise app for iOS. This second generation version of the company’s square Lightpad controller is a unique, expressive and approachable controller that allows for a whole assortment of playing and control gestures from its simple silicone interface.
Noise itself is great as a sound player, although it’s still a little lacking in pro-level sequencing and editing features. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more creative controller for your iOS device.
Read the full ROLI Lightpad Block M review
Recording multiple instruments at once has long been one of the areas a smartphone couldn’t compete with a dedicated studio. The Roland Go Mixer Pro aims to solve this issue by offering a total of nine inputs, including ¼” jacks for guitars and line-level sound sources and an XLR for microphones. This brings it very much into the realms of demo or rehearsal recording tool, and we can see a lot of bands finding it very useful indeed.
Portability is key here, so the Go Mixer Pro is quite lightweight, but as a tool for capturing impromptu practice sessions or filming solo performances it’s well worth a look.
IK Multimedia has been one of the most proactive brands in the realm of iPad and iPhone music peripherals, and its iRig range now spans a wide variety of interfaces and controllers to suit a multitude of needs. The iRig Pro I/O is a solid ‘workhorse’ iOS accessory, offering an audio input that’s suitable for both instruments and mics (with phantom power available) as well as MIDI In and Out for sending and receiving control messages.
There’s a headphones port, too, which means you can monitor your input even on newer iPhones that lack their own output. The iRig Pro I/O comes with a generous bundle of desktop and iOS software as well, including several effects and instruments for IK’s range of plugins and apps. In short, it's an excellent choice if you want an audio and MIDI interface for iPad or iPhone.
Find out more: iRig Pro I/O
Korg’s compact MIDI and audio interface is an incredibly handy device for anyone who regularly uses iOS synths and instruments. With a MIDI input and stereo jack outs, it effectively turns those digital synth apps into studio-compatible instruments, enabling you to easily hook them up in the same way you would any other piece of MIDI-equipped hardware.
It also features a separate headphones output and micro USB input, allowing users to charge their iOS device at the same time as taking an audio output – something which isn’t usually possible with headphones port-free iPhones.
If you’re looking for a simple way to expand the capabilities of your favourite instrument apps, PlugKEY is certainly worth checking out.
Find out more: Korg plugKEY
Focusrite’s iTrack One Pre does exactly what its name would suggest – offers up a single preamp-equipped input for recording into your iOS device.
Its combination jack/XLR input is ideal for either a guitar/bass or microphone, and it will even supply phantom power for use with condenser mics. A large central gain knob lets users adjust the input level, and also uses a light ‘halo’ to indicate level clipping.
The main downside to the One Pre is its lack of a headphones output. This isn’t a problem for users of iPads and older iPhones, which have their own dedicated headphones output on the device. It does mean, however, that when used with a newer iPhone there’s no way to directly monitor the input.
Find out more: Focusrite iTrack One Pre
Pitched as a bridge between the iOS and desktop realms, the iConnectAudio4+ allows for simultaneous connection to two devices, in any combination of Mac, PC or iOS product, with the latter supported via a supplied Lightning connector cable.
It packs impressive I/O capabilities, too, with four inputs, four outs, a separate headphones out and MIDI In and Out. It also has a neat touch-sensitive control surface for adjusting levels and settings.
With impressive MIDI and audio capabilities running hand-in-hand, this is a box to underestimate at your peril. It represents perhaps the most joined-up solution for bridging iOS and studio needs to date.
Read the full iConnectAudio4+ review
IK Multimedia has been a friend to the iOS user ever since the Amplitube apps and original iRig devices started appearing in 2010. A decade later it boasts a great collection of tools designed to help musicians incorporate iPhones and iPads into their recording ecosystem.
The iRig Mic Studio, a large diaphragm condenser, is its flagship iOS microphone, offering great quality recording capabilities for a variety of situations. We found it equally at home recording acoustic instruments, vocals and speech, with the recorded audio matching up to more expensive bus-powered microphone options from the likes of Rode and Blue.
Find out more: IK Multimedia iRig Mic Studio
The Rode iXY Lightning is an extremely compact stereo microphone for recording to Apple mobile devices, offering a 'locked' X-Y recording configuration at sample rates up to 96kHz and a resolution of 24-bit.
The condenser microphones are matched 1⁄2-inch cardioid capsules, borrowing from Rode's long experience in microphone design.
The recorded results are rich, high-quality and hugely impressive. Once clipped to your phone, recordings are easily made to one of Rode's own Rode Rec apps, which are available either in full (paid) or basic 'LE' forms.
While it might seem like a lot for an iPhone accessory, the iXY is more than capable of delivering pro studio-style results.
Read the full Rode iXY review
NI’s Z1 is the same size and shape as its popular F1 and X1 controllers, but the layout is that of a traditional two-channel DJ mixer, complete with a built-in audio interface for monitoring. The main difference from other Traktor controllers is that the Z1 is designed for use with the brand’s Traktor DJ app for iOS as well as the main desktop version.
A Z1 paired with an iPad or laptop makes for a powerful but extremely portable combination. Advanced DJs may want to add other devices for extra control, but could still use the Z1 when traveling light. While more controls would be nice, it would add to the cost and size of the unit. Overall, the Z1 does what it does very well.
Read the full Traktor Kontrol Z1 review
The most basic and straightforward peripheral on this list, but arguably the most useful, Apple’s Camera Adapter simply enables users to connect USB accessories via their device’s Lightning port.
The reason this is useful is down to the fact that a growing range of general studio products – including lots of interfaces and MIDI controllers – now offer class-compliant compatibility with iOS, meaning that you may be able to use some of your existing gear with your favourite apps.
Useful as it is, it’s certainly not cheap for a straightforward converter. It’s possible to pick up unofficial versions for considerably cheaper, although it’s worth bearing in mind that we’ve experienced compatibility and reliability problems with some non-brand iOS adapters in the past, so these don’t come risk-free.
Find out more: Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter