Here are some of our favourite free music-making apps for mobile devices. Each one has a slightly different approach to creating tracks, so have a look through and see which one will best suit your needs.
You’ll notice that quite a few of these great apps are only available on iOS – which is more than annoying for the Android users among us! There are a few reasons for this though; namely that Android lacks a standard protocol for MIDI and it’s difficult to create apps that are compatible with the hundreds, possibly thousands of phones that are running Android.
Don’t worry though, some of the apps available on Android will keep you busy for hours.
Olympia Noise Co Patterning (iOS)
This drum-machine app has a unique approach to sequencing and a quirky circular interface. Patterning is an iPhone companion to Patterning 2, its iPad equivalent, which has a few extra features. Patterning for iPhone boasts creative qualities such as randomisation, coarse tuning and more, with automation possibilities for each. You can hook up other devices via Ableton Link and use Patterning in other apps as an AUv3 plug-in. The catch with Patterning is that all export options are disabled until you pay a $5.99 fee. It’s also iOS only. Sorry, Android users.
After purchasing Stagelight, Roland rebranded the mini music-making station to Zenbeats and packed plenty of genuine vintage Roland synth and drum machine sounds into it. You can create multi-track projects and export them to your DAW, and use it alongside other apps with AUv3 support. Unfortunately, despite its great intentions, it can be fiddly and almost has too many features. You’ll need to make a few in-app purchases to get the best sounds, though there’s an offer at the moment that gives you Zenbeats Unlock for free. Those with limited storage will have to be careful not to overload on sounds as well, as they take up a lot of space.
Arturia iSpark (iOS)
Arturia’s iSpark features 40 drum kits and 640 instruments to play and sequence with. Its sounds are based on some of the most well-loved drum machines and acoustic kits combined with Arturia’s first-class sound design. Shuffle and shift modes can be used to humanise patterns that might otherwise sound robotic, and performance effects cater for experimental grooves. It boasts a 16-track mixer with effects that include a multiband compressor, EQ, chorus, reverb, delay and distortion. You can also hook it up to a SparkLE controller and integrate it with Ableton Link. This is an iOS-only application, though we hope Arturia brings it to Android, as we were quite pleased with SparkLE when we reviewed it in 2013.
Designed by Tim Exile, the mind behind Native Instruments’ The Finger and The Mouth, Endlesss encourages users to create short loops called rifffs, which they then offer up to the community. There’s never any pressure to create a full track. It’s all about building on the ideas of the community. Its creator even describes it as WhatsApp for music, the idea being that it’s a conversation. The low buy-in is a massive plus and makes this an app you’ll want to keep coming back to.
Another plus point is the talent on the platform. Imogen Heap, Flux Pavilion and Exile are on Endlesss. You can play on their rifffs, and there’s even a chance they’ll build on yours. Making music is easy once you figure out the looper and metronome controls too. If you want full functionality, including new soundpacks, more effects, the powerful sampler and infinite rifff history, it’ll cost $5.50 per month. As with all open music-making communities, the quality varies but the product is a lot of fun.
For more info on Endless, visit its website here.
Reason Compact (iOS)
Reason’s powerful synth and drum engines in the palm of your hand, for free? Surely it’s too good to be true? For Android users, it is. Still, Reason Compact is a nifty app that integrates with the desktop version of Reason, and has the ability to export sounds as WAVs for use in other DAWs. It sports a unique and user-friendly interface, with tempo-sync via Ableton Link, Inter-App Audio and Audiobus support. The downside is that you’re limited to three tracks, and most of the creation tools are locked behind a paywall.
Read our guide on how to use it, here.
KORG iKaossilator (limited time only free on iOS)
This enjoyable mobile music-making app has been around for some time. You’re given a bank of sounds with five tracks to play them on, and selectable pattern lengths and scales to perform with. The central XY pad is where you’ll start playing your sounds, with the sound manipulated according to the position you play it on the axis. iKaossilator shows its age, sporting an interface akin to outmoded iOS systems. There’s no way to add new sounds either. It’s only free on iOS, despite having been free on the Play Store for a short time. The XY axes can be difficult to play musical phrases on due to the steps being too close together.
Moog Model D (limited time iOS)
There’s not much to fault Moog’s now-free iOS synth ob, other than it being iOS only. It’s a direct emulation of a vintage icon, the Minimoog, except this modern rejig offers four-voice polyphony, MIDI CC mapping to hook up to MIDI and MPE controllers, the ability to save and load user presets, plus AUv3 compatibility. You’ll also get a built-in arpeggiator, delay bender and looper. If you get just one app from this list, this should be the first you try out. It usually costs $20, so getting it for free is a no-brainer.
KV331 SynthMaster One (iOS)
This app is essentially the revered SynthMaster One DAW plug-in in mobile format. Until 15 April, you can get your hands on this semi-modular wavetable beast that boasts two oscillators with two subs, two filters, four ADSR envelopes, three LFOs, a 16-step arpeggiator/sequencer and 16 voices of polyphony. You’ll have access to 650 presets, 11 different onboard effects with distortion, LoFi, ensemble, phaser, 6-band EQ, compressor, vocoder, delay, chorus, tremolo and reverb. You can incorporate the iOS synth into your workflow as an AUv3 plug-in in other iOS hosts, plus support for Inter-App Audio, Audiobus and Ableton Link.
It’s great that there are no in-app purchases here. The only thing you might miss if you use SynthMaster One on your desktop is a smaller amount of presets but there’s more than enough to take inspiration from already.
Read our full review here.
Ampify Groovebox (iOS only)
Made by Focusrite Novation sister brand Ampify, Groovebox is a clean and intuitive app with more control than you might expect. It features three synths and a drum machine, each with exceptionally playable presets. Without making any in-app purchases, you get just a handful of sound presets and sound-sculpting tools but the real juicy parameters (envelopes, filters, oscillators, etc) and those other presets come at a premium. There is an elegance in its simplicity though, and there’s easily enough to spark inspiration here. The playable experience is also fabulous on both iPad and iPhone.
What makes this app stand out, even before you’ve spent a penny, is Ableton Export for MIDI and WAV audio. You can build a track on your sofa with an inspirationally limited number of sounds then take it to your computer to build out the production.
With no in-app purchases, cross-platform compatibility and a free download, BandLab is an ideal solution for getting your musical ideas down and collaborating with your peers. With an extensive library of built-in instruments, free loops and samples (including packs created by established artists), you can create compositions up to six minutes long, with 12 instrument channels.
BandLab doubles as a social platform, so you can share your tracks instantly, participate in competitions, explore new music and connect with other users. Collaboration is achieved via ‘forking’, in which other users dive into your project with your permission and add their own ideas. With more than 16 million users, worldwide competitions and an ever-increasing roster of contributing artists, BandLab should be on your radar regardless of your skill level. Just make sure you have a stable internet connection or you could run into latency issues.
For more information on BandLab, check here.
Available for Android , iOS and desktop browsers, Soundtrap isn’t too dissimilar from BandLab. It gives you a DAW approach to mobile music-making with MIDI instruments, sample and loop libraries (albeit not as vast as BandLab’s), and the ability to record in your own audio and import MIDI data. You’ll get tutorials as soon as you create an account so won’t need to spend ages getting to grips with it, and even if you skip the tutorials it’s fairly user-friendly.
Unfortunately, to unlock some of the more advanced features like automation, Auto-Tune and Time Restore, you’ll need a subscription of £6.49 per month. There’s also some issue with audio buffering, and as it requires a constant internet connection, you’ll need reliable speeds. We also found that the app has issues when using AirPods, which isn’t that helpful if you don’t have a Lightning to Aux adapter. For a quick jam or getting ideas down, this could easily be a go-to application, though.
For more information on Soundtrap, check here.
Apple GarageBand (iOS only)
Don’t underestimate the power of Garageband iOS – many pros have made hit records using this app. Apple’s iOS DAW integrates into its big brother, Logic Pro X, and includes a loop feature for quick jamming, and a library of comfortable touch instruments. You’ll also get an array of built-in pedals to run your signal through. It’s ridiculously capable, with the ability to load AUv3 instruments and effects such as the Minimoog Model D, or Fabfilter’s iOS plug-ins. The only downside is that it isn’t available on Android devices.
For more information on GarageBand, check here.
Music Maker Jam
Music Maker Jam is a loop-based production app laid out like an 8-track mixer. It comes preloaded with 2,000 loops, and its online store hosts a whopping 500,000, so it’s unlikely that you’ll be short of inspiration here, even with the free version. There are real-time effects to perform with, and the option to record in your own sounds and use them alongside the loops. A built-in social platform lets you share your music with other users. As this is completely loop-based, there are no virtual instruments to write your own notes with, and the advanced musical effects are only accessible through in-app purchase.
For more information on Music Maker Jam, check here.
[Editor’s note: BandLab is owned by BandLab Technologies, which also owns MusicTech.net.]