So Many Apps, So Little Time: How To Make Music On Your Smartphone
Updated: Feb 8
*this is a blog for educational purposes, with no endorsement of any of the platforms explained therein*
Changing times require changing solutions.
Music is, at its core, a social activity. We go to shows together, sit in jams, or dance to the radio with friends. With physical distancing in place, we’ve got to change the way we make music, finding connection in the comment sections of livestreams, or swapping demos back and forth with our fellow musicians.
Most people don’t have home studios- microphones and instruments are expensive and take up a lot of space, not to mention the issues with noise pollution (either coming into or out of the space). But fortunately, digital music creation is more accessible than ever! I’ve been using free mobile apps to record with clients- they send me their sound files, and I mix it all together on my full-size Digital Audio Workstation. While it’s hard for us to play at the same time over the internet, we can still share ideas and express our creativity.
Digital music making has also opened doors and removed barriers for disabled musicians- accessibility features in smartphones and computers make it easier than ever to translate ideas into a digital workspace.
Why Even Bother With All This?
It can seem like a lot of effort at first to learn to record your own music, and it’s great to work with engineers when you have the chance (pressing buttons is one less thing to worry about when you’re trying to deliver a good performance). But learning to work with loops, digital instruments, and knowing how to get a good audio recording from a less-than-perfect source (your phone microphone) can unlock a world of creativity you never knew existed!
other due to your operating system (GarageBand is iOS or Mac Computers only, Soundtrap and BandLab are
available on Android and iOS, and Soundtrap and BandLab both have web-based applications), or a esthetics. BandLab and Soundtrap are more socially oriented, with users collaborating and posting tracks for others to hear. And, Soundtrap is owned by Spotify, which may color your opinion one way or another. No platform obligates you to share your music, but if privacy is a concern, you might opt for Garageband or Audacity, which don't have the "feed" features.
(Personally, I’m drawn to Garageband because I work in Logic, the “grown up” version, when I do more intensive recording projects. But I plan to dig into BandLab so I can collaborate with friends who use different hardware!)
Basic Recording Concepts
So you’ve picked your program, and you’re ready to start making music! Sometimes learning through experimentation can be really fun, but it can also lead to frustration. If you aren’t a trained musician, starting with Loops is probably the easiest way to create a song.
Loops are repeating musical ideas (usually 4-8 measures) that can be stretched out as long as you want (usually by pulling the end of the loop to the right in your DAW). Each of the programs I’ve linked has hundreds of different loops of different instruments available, which you can stack on top of each other to create different musical textures and ideas.
Pros of loops:
Everything is in the right tempo
Easy to align measures/phrases, things “sound good” with little work
No music knowledge necessary to use
Lots of ways to experiment
You can use headphones and create music without any noise being made around you
Cons of loops:
Musical ideas are predetermined
Might lead to monotonous sounds
Sometimes making musical transitions is frustrating
The second easiest way to create music that sounds good (ie, not distorted or of bad sound quality) is to use a virtual instrument. Similar to using a synthesizer, or a different “voice” setting on an electronic keyboard, software instruments basically tell the recording software what sound should be coded into the track. This is different than recording an actual audio source, because you can do things like modulate the pitch, change the instrument that sounds for the notes you played, or slow down or speed up the audio without any modulation to the sound.
Most apps have a visual representation of a piano keyboard when you’re playing a melodic instrument (piano, horns, woodwinds, strings, etc.), so it helps to have some knowledge of which notes on a keyboard play which pitches, although you could probably experiment here and still have fun.
There’s also a virtual drumkit available, wherein you can tap the different drums with your finger, and the corresponding sound will play. This is different than an automated drummer or drum machine, in that you can create more variety in the patterns, and the sound is not automatically looped.
Pros of virtual instruments:
Lots of instrument sounds available, with the press of a button
More control over the notes/musical ideas than loops, not quite as difficult as tracking lots of different instruments live
Cons of virtual instruments:
Need more musical knowledge to play keyboard
Might sound “fake”
Capturing Live Sound is the most temperamental, but least “robotic” way to record. You press the red button, sing or play into your microphone (or your phone), and the software records whatever sounds you make until you hit “stop.” Modern phone microphones are much better than they used to be, but if you’re invested in a very sharp mobile sound there are microphones that work with phones, and you can even plug in electric guitars/basses/keyboards with devices like this adapter. If you have a guitar you really like, are striving for a “natural” sound, or are a vocalist, it’s worth learning some of the basics of getting good source audio, which I’ll explain below. Remember, if you record yourself singing and playing guitar at the same time, anything you do to the track will affect both sounds. If you plan to do a lot of mixing or editing, it’s best to do a separate track for each instrument, tedious as that may be. Using a click track, or guide, may be annoying, but it makes editing a lot easier (and if you plan to use loops as well as live sound, playing your instruments at the same tempo is a must).
Pros of live sound capture:
You record exactly what you play
More freedom to change tempos, dynamics without lots of computer editing
Great for capturing ideas in the moment
Cons of live sound capture:
You record… exactly what you play
Playing to a click track can be difficult… or your tempos can suffer
You have to make external noise for it to be captured- hard to do if your environment necessitates quiet
Recording and Mixing Basics
So, now that you know the basics of each method of tracking on your recording app, maybe you have an idea of how you want to start your song. I often use a mix of all three methods when creating- maybe a virtual drummer (since I don’t have a kit at home), some software instruments like synthesizers (because an organ is way out of my budget, and live sound capture of vocals or trumpet (because trying a take over and over is good for developing patience).
There’s no worse feeling than doing a perfect take and listening back to find it’s distorted, or putting all these musical ideas together only to find the end result is muddy and confusing. There are a lot of great resources out there if you want to really get into DIY recording-(there are great free guides on lots of topics on Musician on a Mission, Women’s Audio Mission, and Behind the Speakers), but assuming we’re all working with our phones and stock headphones, I’ll offer a few simple tips to make sure your songs sound as good as possible!
“Gain Staging” just means making sure your mic is set up so that the sound isn’t too loud or too soft. If you’re too loud, the audio will clip, which leads to a distorted sound. Lowering the volume in the track afterward won’t help- the damage is done. A too-soft track is easier to fix (you can add gain or just move the volume slider up), but your best bet is to aim for between -12db and -6db on the fader (0 db is the very top, where things sound distorted and bad, for lack of a better word). You can make your input softer by changing the level on your app, or just moving farther away from the mic or changing your playing level. Experiment to see what distance from your mic gives you the clearest capture.
EQ, or Equalization, refers to manipulating the frequencies which appear in any soundsource to highlight certain aspects of the sound, or balance them with other tracks in the mix. It can be really daunting to approach for the first time, but if you notice that your song sounds muddled, a little EQ can clean things up nicely.
Basically, low pitches have a low frequency, high pitches have a high frequency, and most sounds have several different frequencies present, with one or two more dominant than the others (you might have heard the word “overtones” in band class). If two instruments take up the same frequency range, they compete for space in a way that can be confusing for the ear. A common example is guitar and voice- both tend to live in the middle frequency range, around 200hz. I might cut that mid frequency from the guitar and emphasize the bass aspect, or accentuate the high frequencies on the vocal track to get an airy or sparkly quality.
A good rule of thumb for EQ is a little goes a long way, but trust your ears and don’t be afraid to fiddle with EQ if you think all your tracks sound good individually but muddy together.
Pan refers to the Left/Right balance of a sound. You may see this represented as a knob that rotates left to right or a slider that moves from side to side. If your track is all the way to the right, you might only hear it in your right ear bud, and vice versa. Spacing tracks out this way is another way to add clarity and distinction, and accentuate different tracks in the mix. Something panned dead center is going to take up more space than something way off to the side- I like to think of it like a stage- the most important stuff happens front and center. If you want the effect of being in a room with lots of different sounds coming at you from different directions, panning your tracks to different locations while give you more of a surround sound effect.
There are wayyyyy more audio effects available on your recording app than I could ever fully get into here- guitar amp simulators, reverb, chorus, noise gates, flanger, autotune… Effects are really fun to play with- there’s a reason so many electric guitarists have giant pedalboards (no matter how old we get, we all love toys). If you’re trying to make a professional sounding recording, I would suggest starting with a light touch on effects, and when in doubt, do without.
If you’re bored at home and want to make something weird and out-of-this-world sounding? Go all out! Put a distortion pedal on a ukulele. Put so much reverb on your vocals it sounds like you’re in the world’s biggest cave. Route a flute track through a tube amp simulator. There are no rules!!
Go Forth and Make Music!
I hope I’ve explained enough that you feel confident to start creating music on your smart phone (if not, I always welcome recording questions- I think fear of messing up keeps a lot of us from creating really beautiful art). Even if you can’t sing, don’t own or play an instrument, or don’t even know the first thing about theory, you have the tools to create sounds and songs no one has ever heard before! HOW COOL IS THAT?
Technology has leveled the playing field so that anyone can record- you don’t need studio time, or professional musicians, or anything more than an idea and inspiration.
I can’t wait to see what you create!
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