review

Your Guide to the Best Music Apps: for iPhone, iPad and Android

This review was published on: October 30th 2015
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Review first published in Clarinet & Saxophone magazine, summer 2015. All information accurate at the time of writing.

The best camera, so the saying goes, is the one that’s in your pocket when you need it. For musicians, the same might be said for metronomes and tuners, which along with the time-honoured pencil, your instrument and a good reed, constitute the indispensable tools of the trade. One way of making sure you’re never caught short is to scrap the hardware and replace your ancillary devices with smartphone apps.

Unfortunately, key ‘metronome app’ into iTunes and you get 504 results, ranging in price from ‘free’ to upwards of £10. Some of these barely fulfil the basic needs of the beginner, while many of them have functions for things you never knew you needed, providing solutions for problems you didn’t know you had. In this article we review the apps we’ve found most useful. Almost all were tested on an iPhone 5s, but many are also available for both iPad and Android phones and tablets.

One word of caution: many of these apps are ideal for working with and inspiring children, gamifying lessons and practice sessions. But be aware of the implications of using a device in lessons that has the capacity to take pictures and record videos. Many schools and music services won’t allow you to use a smartphone or tablet in lessons.

Tuners

Cleartune – Chromatic Tuner

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £2.99; Android, £2.39

Cleartune is the gold standard, no-thrills tuning app. The interface is simple but elegant, with a chromatic tuning wheel and a needle display, the latter for precision playing within the 25 cents either side of ‘in tune’. The needle display doesn’t take any prisoners - small fluctuations in pitch will send it flying - and really forces you to focus on consistency of sound.

Despite the app’s simplicity, it does come with plenty of extra features. There are 24 tuning systems to choose from, and you can select the key within any early music temperament. You can save presets, which makes jumping between systems in rehearsal less of a hassle, and you can even programme in your own temperaments, although you are limited to 12 notes. It has a pitch generator that functions across 10 octaves, and if your students are having trouble understanding why an F# on an alto saxophone is actually an A, it also works in transposition. If you’re working with pitched percussion tuned to something other than 440, you can calibrate it with a reference note.

Tunable

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £2.29; Android, £0.61

Tunable is another intuitive app, with a stylish graphical interface displaying pitch through time. This is perfect for analysing the shape of your vibrato, and the screen gradually turns green when you’re ‘in tune’. You can change the parameters of ‘in tune’ from within 10 to two cents of the defined value, and programme it to account for the width of your vibrato. The app includes 21 different temperaments, and again, you can set the key of each temperament, and set the transposition. Another great feature is the nicely laid out tone generator, which can play sustained chords. It also comes with a simple metronome.

Pitchlab Guitar Tuner

iOS (iPhone and iPad), free (full version £2.29); Android, free (full version £2.29)

Don’t be put off by the name – this is a sophisticated chromatic tuner. The free version comes with an excellent strobe interface. For those of you who haven’t come across a strobe tuner before, this is a way of visualising pitch. It looks and behaves a bit like when in an old film the spokes of a spinning wheel gradually appear to stand still, when the frame rate equals the speed of rotation. Similarly, with a strobe tuner, horizontal bars flash across the screen when you’re out of tune, and gradually slow down as the pitch improves. Children will love this compelling visual metaphor, and it will really encourage them to produce a stable sound.

The free version also comes with 47 temperaments, instrument transposition, and the ability to programme reference notes. The full version comes with a whole range of extra functionality, but two features in particular stand out. Firstly, like Tunable, Pitchlab visualises your pitch in time, but the interface – with 12 individual ‘ribbons’ – makes it easier to see how quickly your pitch settles when you change note. Secondly, Pitchlab has a display for tuning multiple notes simultaneously, although the necessarily small size of the 12 dials, all crammed onto one screen, does make this rather inexact.

Tonal Energy

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £2.99

Tonal Energy is an app for the analytically inclined, with some great graphical displays for scrutinising your sound. Again, if all you want is a tuner, this is still a great choice. It has a distinctive, dartboard-come-heat-map tuning display, and one of its best features is that when you’re in tune it lights up with a green smiley face. You can choose between 15 pre-set temperaments, and it’s easy to program your own; it has a great pitch generator, capable of playing sustained chords; and it even has a decent metronome, with a good range of time signatures, and options for subdivision, grouping, and for muting beats.

This app’s real selling point is its range of analytical tools. For example, it can chart the strength of the upper partials in a sustained note, and you can compare any one reading against another. These upper partials make your sound what it is, and it is interesting to see how they vary when you play at different volumes, change registers, alter your embouchure, or try different mouthpieces. There’s also a display that, simply put, plots how loud you are over time – this is great for practising crescendos and diminuendos, the challenge being to maintain a steady sound. You can also record yourself, and watch the analysis when you play it back. Of course, the size of the screen means these graphical displays have their limitations, and for more accurate results the developers suggest plugging in a decent external microphone.

Metronomes

Prometronome

iOS (iPhone and iPad), free (full version, £2.29); Android, free (full version, £2.29)

This is a powerful piece of software, although the sheer number of functions crammed into one app does mean that it is not entirely intuitive. Even the free version of this metronome is more powerful than most standalone pieces of kit. It includes a huge range of time signatures, a wheel for selecting BPM and the ability to tap in a tempo, and it will run in the background while you use other apps. It offers 13 different beat sound effects (including voice), a wide range of visual representations of the beat, and you can vary the strength of each beat within a bar.

The ‘full’ version introduces a whole range of interesting features. There is a wide range of subdivisions; the polyrhythm/tuplet mode is excellent, with clever visual representations of each combination; the ‘practice mode’ allows you to set it to start at one speed and get faster by increments every set number of bars; in the rhythm trainer you can programme it to drop out at regular intervals for a set number of bars; and you can save your presets. Overall, once you get the hang of this app, there’s a lot you can do with it.

Tempo

iOS (iPhone and iPad), free (full version £2.29); Android, free (full version £0.79)

If Prometronome does more than you need from a metronome, this intuitive app is probably for you. Again, you can vary the strength of the beats, and the full version offers 35 time signatures to choose from including the typical subdivisions for 5/8 and 7/8 (the free version has only eight time signatures). You can tap in the tempo, and it includes a simple tool for basic metric modulations. The full version includes 17 sound effect options, along with a range of options for displaying the beat. You can also save your favourite configurations.

This is a good choice if Prometronome is too fussy for you, but offers none of the latter's rehearsal or cross rhythm features.

Metron

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £3.99

If you’re often faced with scores featuring challenging changes in time signature, you will definitely want to try Metron. Its basic metronome function is nice and simple, with a range of preset time signatures, the capacity to tap in the tempo, and some useful features for increasing or decreasing the speed with every beat or bar. It really comes into its own, however, when you make use of its sequencer, which allows you to program multi-bar excerpts, inputting custom rhythms onto a stave. A ‘sequence’ could be as simple as a bar of 6/8 followed by a bar of 3/4, or it could be an entire piece, complete with metronome markings and accelerandos and ritardandos. Within any one bar you can programme it to play whatever rhythms you can think of, making use of a wide range of sounds, and you can set it to steadily increase in tempo with every repetition of a sequence.

Pro Time Metronome

Android only, £1.59

Like Metron, Pro Time Metronome allows you to build custom clicktracks for extended pieces of music with multiple time signatures. It offers a huge range of time signatures (including more unusual ones such as 2/6, 5/12 and 4/20) and grouping permutations (for example, 7/8 can be grouped into 2-2-3, 2-3-2, 2-5, 3-2-2, 3-4, 4-3, and 5-2). The user-friendly design makes it possible to build up lengthy sequences with ease, and save them to your phone’s memory. One niggle is that at the time of reviewing you are unable to go back and edit bars, so if you make a mistake you have to start again.

Education/Self-development

iReal Pro

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £9.99; Android, £10.50

Although comparatively expensive, this electronic real book is the best app we’ve come across, and could revolutionise your practice. The first thing you will want to do when you get this app is to go onto the iReal Pro forum and download their pre-set ‘book’ of 1,300 jazz tunes. Due to legal issues, these are just chord sheets, without melodies or lyrics, but the clever thing is that iReal Pro parses them and generates backing tracks for you to play along to. These tracks are built from ‘sampled’ instruments, rather than Synthetic-sounding midi, and at a pinch sound good enough to use when you are asked to provide background music. You can change the style in which each track is played, along with the instrumentation, tempo and transposition. The instruments sound idiomatic, so the jazz guitar actually plays like a comping jazz guitarist, rather than a piano with a guitar sound. If you want to play All of Me with a finger-picking bluegrass accompaniment in 7/8 and Gb major, you can. Additionally, you can export the audio in a range of formats.

If you’re having trouble with a set of changes, you can loop them and set them to increase in tempo and/or transpose by a set interval with each repetition. It can tell you the most common scale for each chord as you play through a chart, and it includes a scale library, showing you a range of scales to play over any one chord.

You can edit the charts, and create your own from scratch. The input system supports codas, some unusual time signatures, first and second time bars, and section markers, is compatible with Sibelius and Finale, and can export to PDF.

There are some things that still need work. For example, transposing can result in some odd enharmonics, you can’t place chords on off beats, and swing in 3/4 elicits some strange spread chords in the piano accompaniment.

iReal Pro won’t turn you into Charlie Parker, and like any play-along book, it doesn’t teach you anything about interacting with a rhythm section, but it has obviously been developed by some serious musicians, and should prove a hugely effective tool to incorporate into your playing and teaching.

Scale Helper

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £4.99; Android, £4.99

Scale Helper gamifies scales practice, and helps beginner students assess their own playing without the presence of a teacher. We all know how difficult it is to get students to practise scales, and even if they do practise, they might not be able to tell if they are making the right noises. Scale Helper records you playing a scale and then marks you on your notes, intonation, rhythm and speed. The analysis page then shows you which wrong notes you played, which were sharp or flat, and how evenly you played them. It keeps track of your score for each scale, and shows you which scales you need to be working on. You can ask it to challenge you with random scales, you can choose which scale you want to practise, or you can just play, and ask it to recognise the scale.

This app does have its faults. The scoring is a bit too generous, it is generally a bit clunky in terms of usability, and if you want to download pre-set syllabuses, you have to pay extra, although you can program your own fairly easily. However, it seems an ideal tool for beginners.

Scale Box

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £2.29; Android, £1.99

Scale Box is a really simple way of keeping track of your progress with scales in ABRSM grades 1-5. In contrast to Scale Helper, Scale Box doesn’t use any recording functionality, and requires you to mark your own performance. It has two modes – ‘Practice’ and ‘Exam’ and uses an attractive flash card system to ask you scales, keeping track of your overall performance. The spaced repetition system it uses for ‘Practice’ means you spend more time working on the scales you’re weak at. For teachers, it is worth noting that you can only have up to four saved ‘users’.

Note Hitter

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £1.49

Note Hitter is a fun, simple sight-reading resource for helping students in the early stages of learning to associate fingerings with notes on the page. It uses the microphone to assess you in real time. It has three modes – Flashcards, where you play whatever note appears on the flashcard; Note Hitter, which is like Space Invaders, where you play notes to eliminate them before they get to the edge of the page; and Don’t Go Back, which is similar to Note Hitter, but you can only eliminate a note as it passes through your ‘sights’. Be advised that you can either ‘unlock’ further difficulty levels by playing the game or by paying an extra fee.

ABRSM Aural Trainer Grades 1-5

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £5.99

Getting students interested in the aural component of the ABRSM exams can be just as difficult as motivating them to practise their scales. The ABRSM Aural Trainer is a great way of engaging them with something that feels like more of a game. The app features targeted preparatory exercises, breaking down each element of the exams, along with exercises for practising the tests, and specimen tests to listen to. It might not be completely self-explanatory from the point of view of a student, but should be a very useful tool in the hands of a good teacher. The supplementary interval trainer is particularly good, with tools for varying the amount of time between the two notes (from a second apart to simultaneous) and for varying the range of intervals encountered. It would however be useful if the tonic varied automatically when in the ‘test’ setting.

Elements of this app need work. For example, the Grade 1 ‘Rhythm or Pulse’ exercises lack sympathy, expecting you to somehow be able to tap the rhythm or pulse from the very first note. However, if you can persuade students to use the app in their own time, it could be invaluable for getting the format of the exam into their heads.

ABRSM Speedshifter

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £3.99; Android, £2.99

Speedshifter is a simple, well-designed app for altering the speed of audio files without changing their pitch. This is useful for students who need to play along with a slower accompaniment, or for playing along with real recordings, and for helping students to listen to tricky rhythmic passages. It integrates seamlessly with iTunes, has a useful loop function, and you can transpose any track up or down by up to a minor third.

Tenuto

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £2.99

Tenuto is a completely intuitive theory and aural skills app, designed so that anyone can dive straight in. It consists of a range of exercises, for identifying notes, intervals, chords and key signatures on a stave; and for identifying intervals, scales and chords by ear. All of the exercises are customisable, allowing you to vary the format and the level of difficulty. It also includes calculators for intervals, chords and roman numeral chord analysis, not to mention an excellent tone row matrix. This is a great app for helping to prepare for the basics in both theory and aural exams.

Auralia Interval Recognition/Auralia Scales/Auralia Jazz Scales/Musition Rhythm Tapping

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £1.49 each

Auralia is a music education software company with a huge range of apps and computer programmes. The concept behind the Interval Recognition app is simple, but has been brilliantly executed. It offers 23 mini ‘lessons’, covering the basic theory of intervals, and providing examples of each interval type taken from well-known pieces of music. There are 17 practice levels, which range in difficulty from identifying ascending perfect 4ths, 5ths and octaves played melodically, to identifying all simple and compound intervals played harmonically, via identifying the interval between the first two notes of a melody. The only complaint is that it seems a shame to use a midi piano, rather than recording a real one, or even using a sequenced instrument, as in iReal book.

Auralia offers similar apps for identifying scale types by ear, and for reading rhythms. The rhythm app, where you tap a sight-read rhythm onto the screen of your phone, accompanied by a metronome, is particularly fun, and would be a great way to get students away from candy crush and thinking about music outside their lessons.

Others

SPLnFFT noise meter

iOS (iPhone and iPad), £2.99

If during a rehearsal you find yourself thinking ‘should i be wearing earplugs?’ the answer is probably yes, but with the help of a good sound meter app you can know for sure. There are a number of free apps available that would probably do the job just as well as SPLnFFT, and unless you have a physics degree, the chances are some of the displays here will be meaningless, but it is one of the most reliable sound meter apps available.

ForScore

iOS (iPad), £7.99

ForScore is a page-turner app for PDF sheet music, and although it is only for ipad, it’s so useful and well designed that we couldn’t leave it out. It is incredibly easy to add music to it remotely from your PC, it can connect directly to Dropbox and other cloud storage drives, it supports indexing and set lists, and you can set it so that when you get to the bottom half of one page it shows the top half of the next. You can programme repeats and codas into pieces of music, and annotating is easy. If you are fed up with lugging around a big, disorganised pad of music, this is the app for you.

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The Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain is a company limited by guarantee registered in England No. 3010228, whose registered office is at 48 Henniker Point, Leytonstone Road, London, E15 1LQ. Email: finance (@) cassgb.org. Tel: 0845 644 0187

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