I suppose every blogger with a smartphone or tablet has this idea that it might be good idea to share a list of their favorite apps. You’d the think the world would have had enough of these articles, yet I constantly get questions from people, especially with regard to my iPad – “what do you really use that thing for?”
I’m going to try to keep my list reasonably focused: the apps that actually help me in my day to day activities as a professional jazz musician and educator. Some, of course, will be very specific to music. Others are more general, but I’ll try to describe how they can be of use to musicians and educators specifically.
You’ll note there is relatively little in the way of hardcore “content creation” apps here. I’m still usually more comfortable using my PC for music notation (MuseScore), audio editing (Audacity), and so forth. These are things I do not generally need to deal with when away from my computer, and the range and power of applications available for Windows or Mac is still quite a bit ahead of what is available for mobile devices. Even the free applications for Windows and Mac (MuseScore and Audacity are both open source) are as good as or better than the high end apps for iOS.
But even a laptop is more hardware than I want to carry around most of the time. My iPhone and iPad, on the other hand, go with me to the classes and lessons I teach, the ensembles I direct, and the gigs I play. The apps I list here save me from needing my computer or stacks of papers and books in order to get my job done on a day to day basis.
Some apps I tend to use more on my iPhone, others I tend to use more on my iPad, and others still I use on both equally. I’ll talk about this more as we go. BTW, while I am an iOS user, I should mention that most of these apps have Android versions as well. And even when there is no Android version of a specific app, there is usually something pretty comparable you might look into.
Finally, I should mention that as a professional musician, I am as sensitive to price as anyone. A lot of these apps are free. But for the ones that aren’t, I think they are well worth what they cost, as they really help me do my job.
These are the apps that you wont read about on general lists of recommended apps, because they are mostly useful only to musicians and educators.
Set List Maker
This gets top billing because it was really the game changer for me – the app that transformed my iPad from an interesting novelty to an indispensible tool. Set List Maker does what the name suggests – it helps me put set lists together for gigs. And it does this very well – much better than trying to do so with paper and pencil, constantly erasing or crossing out titles as I experiment with different ideas, etc. But Set List Maker also does so much more than just manage set lists. As a performer, I lead a few different groups, each with its own repertoire. As an educator, I also direct several others, again each with its own repertoire. Set List Maker manages separate databases for each of these ensembles, letting me track which songs I do with each. For each song in the database, I can keep notes on arrangement and solo order, attach recordings and PDF charts, list the tempo, and more. I have a special set list for each ensemble I use to track what tunes to work on in rehearsal, and of course a list for each gig. During performance, I can consult my notes, read the chart, use the built in metronome to count off, etc. Being able to track what we’ve performed on which concert is another benefit.
Anyone who leads/directs bands – especially multiple bands – will be likely to appreciate this app. I use it primarily on my iPad as I much prefer typing on the larger keyboard, also reading charts on the larger screen. But it also runs on iPhone and easily shares data between them via the cloud. Entering data on the iPad but then running from the iPhone on the actual gig would make a lot of sense, if you weren’t needing to actually read charts from the screen.
This is a very popular app whose main function is to provide automatic playalong accompaniment (piano, bass, drums) for practice, and it does a great job of this. I’ve long been a fan, if not actually a regular user, of Band-in-a-Box for Windows/Mac. But iReal b presents a rather nicer user interface, not to mention a much more portable package. iReal b does almost as well as Band-in-Box in terms of the actual quality of the accompaniment, and it costs only around a tenth as much. Entering your own chord progressions is possible if a bit awkward, but the real value for most people will be the 1000+ songs (and that’s just in the jazz category) you can download from the company’s web site in a matter of seconds. Being able to provide this kind of accompaniment to my students during lessons – and of course the fact they they can get this at home too – is having an unbelievable impact. It is literally transforming the musical experience for many of my students.
This app runs equally well on iPhone and iPad. I tend to use it on the iPhone more for playback, but I like the iPad for entering my own songs (and these can be shared as well).
I know hundreds of songs, and when I do a gig as a sideman doing jazz standards, I really don’t need to consult fakebooks very often. So I’ve gotten out of the habit of taking any with me at all. But I own quite a few, legally produced and legally purchased, and I have PDF versions of many of these loaded onto my iPad. unrealBook is the app I use to access these. It comes with no PDF files itself, but allows you to load any PDF files you already have. And if you create a specially formatted index file along with the PDF, unrealBook provides a very handy facility that makes it easy to find any given tune regardless of what book it lives in. Again, you need to provide the PDF and index files, but unrealBook takes it from. So from the point someone calls some onscure tune I don’t remember to the point where I have the chart in front of me on the screen is a matter of seconds, and I don’t need to carry around a stack of fakebooks to have access to them on the gig.
Because the main point of this app is presenting charts to read on a gig, it really only makes sense on iPad.
I assume everyone reading this knows what a metronome is. This app is not terribly fancy, but the free version does everything I would expect and then some. It’s easy to dial in a tempo and easy to select a time signature so you can hear a “special” sound to mark the downbeat – that much is the bare minimum I expect from the windup pendulum metronome I used as a child. This app also lets you tap in a tempo, so you can easily figure out what tempo you want. And in addition to selecting a time signature, you can even customize the sound used for each beat individually. So you can choose 7/4 and set it up to play a strong accent on 1 and then secondary accents on 4 and 6 if you wish. All with a simple and nice looking interface, for free (a paid version unlocks more features).
This app runs on both iPad and iPhone, but somehow the size of the iPhone seems a more natural fit.
GarageBand can do quite a few things, but to be honest, I only use it for one feature: the virtual keyboard. If I’m directing a band in rehearsal and need to demonstrate some musical concept but can’t be bothered to walk over to the piano, I can play the GarageBand keyboard and the students can hear. And if we are rehearsing without a bassist – which happens all too often – I can hook up my iPad to an amp amd play bass lines using the GarageBand keyboard. There are other apps that do this at least as well, I’m sure, but I suspect most musicians will need no prodding to check out GarageBand for its other music creation features. So that is why I list it here rather than any of the simpler apps that exist to just provide a virtual keyboard.
Because I use this mostly for the live keyboard, the larger screen of the iPad makes it the more natural choice.
Photographers have Flickr, videographers have YouTube, and musicians have SoundCloud. That should give you an idea of what this is about: a sharing site for audio recordings. You don’t need the SoundCloud app to participate, but I find it useful just for its recording feature (the iPhone is a fair-to-middling audio recorder) and the ability to instantly upload recordings. If I didn’t wish to access the SoundCloud sharing service, an app like Pocket WavePad might also be a good choice just for recording and editing on the iPad or iPhone. It’s a much more full-featured audio program, but a bit clumsy to get music into and out of.
The extreme portability of the iPhone makes it the natural choice for live recording applications. Plus I imagine most iPhone models have better audio specs than most iPad models, although I could easily be wrong about that.
There are quite a few apps out there to help one learn music from recordings – marking a section to loop, slowing down the audio to make it easier to hear what is goong on in complex passages, etc. But for my money, the most valuable feature a transcribing app can offer is easy to use basic transport controls. In particular, a simple way to mark a spot and start playback there, or to back up just a few seconds to hear a given phrase again. iLift is easily my favorite of the apps I’ve tried for transcription precisely because of how well it handles the basic transport controls. Displaying the waveform on the screen is an especially nice touch. I don’t actually use the slowing down feature as much as some might, and I will confess that the quality of slowed down playback in iLift is not quite up to the standard of the very best apps. But I just find it so much easier to use than anything else I’ve tried that I am very willing to settle for a slight (and it is slight) degradation in audio quality when slowing down. Oh, by the way, it also has a function to adjust the overall tuning of a track to better match whatever instrument you might be using, and also to actually change the ley of the recording. It isn’t unique in providing these functions either, but again, it’s the ease of use that really shines here.
The iPad version is easier to use on some ways – the bigger screen makes it easier to take advantage of the waveform display to help you set the song markers. But it definitely looks good and works well on iPhone too.
If you teach a class that meets regularly, you’ve probably made up, or thought about making up, lesson plans. There are plenty of calendar and to-do-list apps out there, but most are not optimized for the specifics of teaching a class. They won’t show Thursday as being the next lesson after Tuesday if you teach that type of schedule, they won’t have an easy way to move all lessons back a day to accomodate a snow day, they won’t have an easy way to attach assignments or other files to a given day’s plan, or otherwise model much about teaching classes actually works. This is what Planbook does. To be honest, I don’t really “love” this app – the interface seems very clunky to me – but I haven’t found anything I like better. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this!
Planbook runs on iPad only, but even if it was available for iPhone, I’d prefer using it on iPad for the larger screen.
In my teaching, I often want to play a recording of a song for a student, so I want access to a large library of recordings. There is an awful lot of music available on YouTube for free, and I do take advantage of this, but I find it is worth it to me to pay for a subscription to Spotify. This gives me a much more useful search engine for music, better organizational facilities, and an easy way to download music to use offline. On the other hand, music from Spotify can’t be loaded onto iLift or other apps, so I do also purchase music on iTunes.
I tend to prefer to use my iPhone for music playback, but I like how Spotify runs on both iPhone and iPad as well as on my PC, and I appreciate that it synchronizes data (like playlists) automatically.
These are the apps that are of equal interest to people who are not musicians or educators. But again, I will focus on how I use these apps in my work.
This is a basic note-taking app, but its main claim to fame is how well it synchronizes notes between devices. It does a lot more in terms of letting you attach pictures, web links, and more, but I mostly just type. And like any typing-heavy app, I use it mostly on my iPad.
TeamViewer / TeamViewer HD
Splashtop has been my ace in the hole that allows me to feel completely comfortable leaving my laptop at home. The app gives me full access to my PC from my iPad – or even my iPhone. A server program runs in the background on the PC, and I connect to it over the Internet from my iPad. The result is that everything on my PC at home is displayed on my iPad screen, and the iPad on-screen keyboard (or a Bluetooth keyboard connected to my iPad) controls the PC. It’s like my iPad is a monitor and keyboard attached to my computer at home via an impossiby long cable (that also happens to be invisible). My computer doesn’t run quite as fast when accessed remotely as when using my PC normally at home, but playing audio and video is actually quite feasible.
Since I originally posted this article, I became aware that Splashtop has become more expensive for new users. Rather than selling the app outright, it is now offered for free, but they charge a (very low) monthly fee to access your computer from anywhere but while actually at home. As a long time user who paid for the app originally, I am grandfathered in and don’t have to pay the monthly fee. For what you get, I think many may still decide it is worth the price. But since I know there are other remote access apps out there, I decided to look into them for you. Two years ago when I initially compared, I found that Splashtop was really the only good choice if you wanted to work with audio, and it also handled video much better than other apps. But the others have made great strides since, and I’m happy to report that TeamViewer – which is free for “personal” (as opposed to corporate) use – works reasonably well for audio now and does provide a viable alternative. It still doesn’t seem to do as good a job with video as Splashtop, but that’s probably not an issue for most musicians considering this type of app. Other apps also offer free versions but don’t handle audio or video at all; others still handle audio and video but charge monthly fees higher than Splashtop’s. So the choice really comes down to Splashtop versus TeamViewer, I think.
Anyhow, no matter which remote access app you use, you will find that taking a program designed for a PC (with mouse and keyboard) and running it via a tablet (with touchscreen only) is an interesting exeperience. Some applications are pretty awkward to use this way, as you might imagine. Others – like Audacity for editing audio – actually work so well you might easily forget you aren’t running them locally on your iPad. It’s a real “wow” experience, technologically speaking.
Obviously, the iPad is easier to use for viewing your PC display, but the iPhone does work better than one might expect.
There are a number of “cloud” services out there to choose from, and of course, we don’t really have to choose at all. I have free accounts with several of them, and use different services for different purposes. But the one I use the most is Google Drive. Compared to Dropbox – and of course, it is always compared to Dropbox – it offers several features I especially value. One is being able to easily share entire folders (as opposed to just individual files) with my bandmates or students without requiring them to sign up for accounts. The other killer feature is “Google Docs” – the office apps (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation) built on to Google Drive. I use Google Docs for my class rosters, grade books, syllabi, course notes and handouts, and so forth. I can use my computer to create these documents – as well as scores using MuseScore, or other files – and save them to my Google Drive folder. Then they are instantly available on my iPad and iPhone, where I can view them, edit them, and – very importanly to someone like me to who is to cheap to pay for unlimited data on my mobile plan – I can make files available for offline access. If I save the files in a folder that I have shared, then the files are also immediately available to others. This makes it incredibly simple to share files with my students or bandmates – I simply send them a link to the shared folder and they can always access the latest versions of the files I save there. I can also access my Google Drive files on any other computer. This allows me to create school-related documents at home, save them to my Google Drive, and access them on a school computer to print them. So this has also replaced my flash drives.
Documents in Google Drive are of course easier to edit on my iPad, but the convenience of being able to access files on my iPhone is nice too.
I think of Google Drive as a service where my files primarily live in the cloud but where I can have a local copy of them on my PC and can also view them on my iPad and iPhone. SugarSync is kind of the other way around – I think of the files as primarily living on my PC but a copy is kept in the cloud. Google Drive presents itself as a “special” location my PC, and I don’t feel inclined all my files there. SugarSync allows me to designate any folders I want for cloud storage.
With this in mind, I use Google Drive to store files that I know in advance I will want to access remotely or share with others – like my teaching materials or ensemble charts – but I use SugarSync to back up my entire Documents folder from my PC to the cloud. These are files I may never need to share or access remotely, but that I want to have backed up offsite. And if that were all SugarSync did – cloud backup for PC – I would find it valuable but of course not relevant in a list of iOS apps. But the fact that all of my PC documents also live in the cloud means that SugarSync can also provide an app to allow me to access these any of these files can from my iPad or iPhone should the need arise – so naturally, they do just that! Of course, many of the files on my PC are in formats I can’t open on my iPad, but many of the files I am most likely to want to view remotely (eg, PDF) will open on my iPad just fine. And sometimes, I don’t actually need to open a file from my PC – I just need to email it to someone. This is accomplished very easily – much more so than logging in to my PC via Splashtop and doing it that way. SugarSync does a great job of giving me quick remote access to all of the documents on my PC.
As with Google Drive, actually working with my documents is something I am more likely to do with my iPad, but having access to them – such as to just email to someone – is very valuable from my iPhone as well.
This app allows you to take a picture of document (or use an existing picture) and automaitcally turn it into a PDF. It make it easy to build a multi-page file by taking pictures of each page, it provides cropping controls, and it does some effective automatic contrast adjustment and B&W conversion to turn a color photo into a readable document. I find this handy to create PDF copies of sheet music, but it has plenty of other uses, too. Once you have created the PDF, you can send it to any other app, including email or a cloud service to make the document available to others.
The app runs native on iPhone, and since my iPhone has a much better and easier to use camera than my iPad anyhow, I use the app on my iPhone exclusively. But for sheet music in particular, I would be likely to then transfer the file to my iPad (via email or a cloud service) to actually use the document.
Listing this app is a bit of an indulgence. It has nothing to do with music, and it’s not really the sort of general productivity app I can honestly claim that most people would benefit from. But I love Paper and want to give it some props here anyhow. It’s a drawing app, and it appeals to me primarily because I am also an artist. Paper is not the most full-featured drawing app in the store – on the contrary, it is pretty limited. But it really feels very natural and produces great results. And it does have one useful application for music educators: I use it as a portable whiteboard to demonstrate things for my students. I can easily draw in some staff lines and a few notes, big enough for a small roomful of students to see. It also has a clever “rewind” feature that lets me erase the notes and leave the staff lines so I can keep reusing the same page, which is rather nice.
Paper is iPad only. And for the type of use I am talking about, I can’t see wanting to use it on anything smaller.