Create professional sounding electonic music with little technical or musical know-how. Excellent, minimal interface. Fun to use. Lots of stock instruments. Allows multiple effect layers. Free.
Variable transitions only move in one direction. No way to import or record analog tracks.
- Bottom Line
The free Auxy Studio app for iPad removes the barrier to electronic music production, regardless of your musical or studio-tech knowledge.
There are plenty of serious music-making mobile apps out there for legit musicians, just as there are a bevy of casual music- and beat-making apps that emphasize fun visuals and stock sounds over craft. The free Auxy Studio iPad app successfully splits the difference. Users don't need much musical, compositional, or studio-tech experience to use this minimal MIDI sequencer, but it offers enough flexibility that even a novice can craft unique and polished electronic bangers.
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Not for Professionals, Nor for N00bs
I am a musical hobbyist with little in the way of a formal musical or engineering background. However, I do occasionally create electronic music of varying quality on my iPad Air 2 during my morning commute (under my chosen nom de beats, "Evan Awesomeface").
I'm a longtime user of Auxy's more limited sequencing app, Auxy Classic. The newer, beefier Auxy Studio app is a welcome improvement. It's available for iPhone and iPad; I tested it on my aforementioned Apple iPad Air 2. You can listen to a couple tracks I made by clicking on the audio track embedded in this review, or you can just search for my mind-bending track "Awfulitarianism" on Spotify or your favorite online streaming music service.
Auxy Studio rocks the same minimal UI found in its less robust sibling, but has added dozens of new stock instruments, as well as new sound variables that logarithmically expand the potential sonic palette. Auxy Studio also boasts a new composition interface, which lets users craft longer, more structured songs.
Auxy Studio is best suited for creating hip-hop, EDM, or any other variant of electronic loop-based music. In fact, aside from the drums, none of the "instruments" in the suite of stock synth sounds (which have ridiculously synth-y names such as Muffin, Needy, or Freak) even attempt to recreate an accoustic instrument such as a flute or violin.
Users can purchase supplemental sound packs as $4.99-per-pop in-app purchases. As of this writing, there are four sound packs available, with more added on the regular. I didn't load any of them during my test drive, however, so I can't speak to their quality or usefulness. These in-app upgrades appear to be the only way Auxy makes money from this otherwise free app.
A Simple Interface
Even if you've never used a MIDI sequencer before, Auxy Studio's interface shouldn't take long to master. When you first open the app, you encounter a blank screen with a single + Instrument button. Tapping this prompts a pop-up display asking if you'd like to add a drum or melodic track. Choosing one of these randomly assigns an instrument, which you can change at any point by selecting the instrument's name. In fact, you can change the instrument at any time—this feature lets you experiment with how your melodies sound when played by a different instrument. Below your new instrument track, you'll find a thumbnail—this is your initial loop. If it's empty, all you have to do is tap it to zoom into an eight-column grid. This is where you place the notes (or beats, if it's a drum track) that form your loop.
Some sequencing apps provide a virtual beat pad or keyboard interface for users to record and compose on. I've used these interfaces and greatly prefer Auxy's tap-grid UI. I imagine that other budding musicians who have more experience with touch screens than they do with an accoustic instrument will also prefer this interface.
Within the grid, notes can be added or removed by simply tapping on them. Each note is represented by a small colored line that automatically snaps into place. Once a note is added, you can move it up or down along the scale. If you're in a drum track, different parts of the scale correlate to different drum sounds, such as a snare or symbol. Or, you can move an individual note earlier or later within a loop by dragging it to the left or right, respectively. Notes on melodic (non-drum) instruments can be extended (that is, sustained) by dragging the right side of the note horizontally to the desired length.
If you have some formal musical experience, you might be able to lay out a melody on the grid by sight alone. However, I've found it to be just as fun to randomly input a few notes, listen to the resulting melody, and then move the various parts as I see fit. Once you've placed a few notes (remember, you can always change them later—the app is very forgiving), simply hit the floating Play button at the bottom center of the screen and enjoy your first musical loop!
If you have a longer melody in mind and want to extend the loop beyond a single bar, just hit the default One Bar icon at the center-top of the grid to choose a two- or four-bar grid. In a multi-bar grid, you can access different bars by swiping to either side. Once you've got your initial melody to a good place, hit the Done icon in the top-right corner. Now the real fun begins.
Once you return to the thumbnail screen, you can tap on the instrument name on top of the track to prompt a pop-up screen where you can change the instrument or noodle with the track's sonic attributes (things like distortion, delay, and reverb). The choice of attributes varies depending on whether you're using a drum, bass, or lead instrument. As a nonmusician, I can't articulate exactly what the "tone," "ducker," or "filter" options do to your loop, but I can confirm that they're a heck of a lot of fun to experiment with.
In the lower left-hand column of this attribute window is the Transition button. Transitions allow you to program the way the attributes change throughout the course of the instrument loop. For example, you can set your instrument to fade in or fade out, or you can have the reverb rise up as the song's energy builds. This feature is more generally known as automation, and it's usually found in richer recording environments like Apple Logic Pro X and Avid Pro Tools. These more powerful sequencers generally let you use automation to program a setting to move in various directions throughout a loop. The fact that Auxy doesn't is one of its shortcomings.
For example, in a drum loop, I would appreciate the ability to make the distortion suddenly spike up to give a little kick to the hi-hats in the middle, before dropping off toward the end. This is a feature you can find in the EasyBeats 3 app, for example. In Auxy Studio, the transition can only go in one direction within a single-track loop—there's no multidirectional variation. The app is also in desperate need of a pan control that would allow you to place a sound precisely between the left and right speakers.
If you go back to the thumbnail screen, you'll also find the ability to create different loop variations within the same instrument track by pressing the plus sign to the right of the initial loop's thumbnail. This feature gives you the ability to, for example, create an initial nice driving beat loop (thump thump thump thump), but then add hi-hats to come in later in your song (thump-shtee thump-shtee thump-shtee). These loop variations are also good if you want to, say, change up the bass line or add some wacky variant on a synth lead. You can always add new loops to your instrument or delete them if they don't work out—there's a lot of room to experiment here.
Now Make Your Song
Once you've created a few looping melodies that play nicely together, you can begin crafting a song. If you hit the arrow on the right side of the thumbnail screen, it opens a side tray where you can create what the app calls scenes. Auxy plays through the scenes precisely as you've ordered them (more on this later). Within each scene, you can activate instrument tracks just by tapping them on or off in the main window. For example, if you had a song consisting of drums, bass, and a lead, but wanted the lead to only come in later in the song, you would use multiple scenes. First, you'd just create an initial scene with only the drums and bass tracks were activated. Next, you'd create a new scene in which all three were active. From your listener's perspective, the song starts with a nice drum-bass groove, but then a new synth lead comes in over the top to join the party.
You even have the ability to choose variant track loops to be activated within different scenes—using the previously mentioned drum loop variation example, one scene might consist of a driving thump thump drum beat, but then a subsequent scene would activate the thump-shtee loop when you wanted the energy of your song to pick up.
One really cool feature in Auxy Studio is the ability to change attributes within an individual instrument from scene to scene. For example, you could ramp up (or ramp down) a particular instrument's distortion or reverb as the song progresses to give different sections a unique feel. An instrument's variations in one scene don't change it in any other scene. If, say, you crank up the reverb on the drums in one scene, it won't affect the drums in all of the scenes. This feature allows you to create a lot of variation, but it can get confusing and disorganized if you haphazardly tweak as you move along. While it's good to be able to isolate variations by scene, I wish there also was a way to automatically sync the variations on an instrument across all the scenes.
Long-press on any individual scene to control how many loops it plays before moving on to the next scene. This is how a song gets built. For example, you can start with one or two loops with a solo drum beat before you throw in, say, four loops where the bassline slowly fades in, and then another four loops with a different bass variation and the distortion turnt way up. As you build your song, you can rearrange, delete, or duplicate scenes to bring your final composition into focus.
Once you've finalized your song, you can render it to share it with the world. The Export icon at the bottom of the scene panel gives you various ways to share your music. You can export as a MIDI file to use in a different system, or you can send a WAV file out directly to SoundCloud or any other cloud service of your choice. You can also export your track for use with other music apps like FL Studio and Ableton Live.
Is Auxy Studio For You?
There's a lot more you can do with Auxy Studio than I can fit into this review. If you're at all familiar with a tablet interface, you'll be able to pick up the app's nuances and create some fairly robust electronic music in no time.
Auxy Studio is a wonderful tool for a specific type of user: The nonprofessional musician. Auxy Studio gives them the ability to craft unique and polished songs, but it doesn't obscure the process in impenetrable music theory or unnecessary studio-tech jargon. This is an app for the serious hobbyist who aims to create something cool despite not having a formal musical background. As such, it doesn't have everything you might want. For example, you aren't able to import your own sounds or record over your track directly (though once you export a song, you will be able to overlay vocals in a different app). Chances are, however, that hobbyists won't feel those limitations—at least not right away. And if you do begin to feel constrained, there are some beefier options out there for you to jump to when you're ready.
You'll know when it's time to make the jump to full-fledged iPad sequencers and digital audio workstations like Apple's GarageBand, Blip Interactive NanoStudio, or Image Line's Fl Studio Mobile HD; if you're looking for more tracks, audio recording, and larger sound palettes, you'll want to give one of those a whirl.
If you're looking specifically to make beats on the iPad, you might also consider Korg's iPolySix, which gives analog synth fans two copies of the original Polysix synthesizer, plus a six-track drum machine, an eight-track mixer, and a step-sequencer with pattern support.
In the meanwhile, however, Auxy Studio is one of those apps that uses technology to lower the barrier to creation. It's an Editors' Choice app for making music on the iPad, and it provides an excellent example of what an amazing and powerful enabler of creativity Apple's tablet can be. If you are a nonprofessional musician who feels there's some kind of dub step banger inside you yearning to break free, downloading Auxy Studio is a good first step.
By Evan Dashevsky Features Editor
Evan Dashevsky is a features editor with PCMag and host of our live interview series The Convo. He can usually be found listening to blisteringly loud noises on his headphones while exploring the nexus between tech, culture, and politics. Follow his thought sneezes over on the Twitter (@haldash) and slightly more in-depth diatribin' over on the Facebook. More »
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