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The best iPhone apps 2020

The best music and audio apps for iPhone

Our favorite iPhone apps for making music, listening to podcasts and being a DJ.

SongOwl

(Image credit: Mike Clay)

SongOwl

  • $1.99/£1.99/AU$3.99

SongOwl reimagines your iPhone’s music collection. Unlike Apple Music, which is geared towards the streaming service, latest releases, and even radio, SongOwl is about getting to your favorites - fast.

The app provides tabs for your library, playlists, favorites, and a search. But also, you can define and save filtered views, for example to group tracks alphabetically by album, or list them by least recently played, to surface songs you’ve not heard in a while.

The app is fast, easy to use, and enables you to list or omit files stored in iCloud. And if you like the idea of an alternate way to view and play your music, but would prefer something more traditional in nature, SongOwl’s creator also offers C’s Classic Music Player, which is like going back in time to Apple’s Music app years ago - but in a good way.

AudioKit Hey Metronome

(Image credit: TechRadar)

AudioKit Hey Metronome

  • $1.99/£1.99/AU$2.99

AudioKit Hey Metronome deals with the thorny problem of resetting your metronome when jamming away on an instrument. That might not sound like a major concern; but when you’re in the zone, you don’t want to be putting down your guitar or violin, messing about with a time-keeper, and then kicking things off again.

With AudioKit Hey Metronome, you get something seemingly imbued with a bit of Siri, in that you can use your voice to have the app adjust the tempo, time signature, and appearance that the metronome uses. All of this works offline.

There are multiple sound-sets, too, if you don’t fancy playing along to bleeps. In fact, Hey Metronome provides a range of canned drum sounds and beats for having a crack at some popular hits; and you can craft your own playlists as well, to ready yourself for that upcoming gig.

AudioKit L7 – Live Looper

(Image credit: Coda Labs Incorporated)

AudioKit L7 – Live Looper

  • $19.99/£19.99/AU$30.99

AudioKit L7 – Live Looper brings pro-grade live looping functionality  to iPhone in a way that’s easy for anyone to use. Inspired by the Roland Boss RC-505 Loop Station, the app lets you use your device’s mic to gradually build a composition from loops of audio you record live.

The app is designed primarily for use with your voice. Even if you can’t hold a tune, you can beatbox a rhythm, and when you do want to try your hand at bass or melody, autotune and other effects are on hand to help.

For other instruments, the app is less immediate and a touch fiddly, but nonetheless usable when working on layered ideas for guitars. We suspect the cost may be off-putting for the merely curious, but if you’ve ever wanted your iPhone to be a portable looper, this is the app you’ve been waiting for.

Cs Music Player

(Image credit: Mike Clay)

Cs Music Player

  • $1.99/£1.99/AU$3.99

Cs Music Player transports you back to a halcyon age before Apple’s own Music app became weighed down with the cruft of the Apple Music service. So rather than giving you tabs for Library, For You, Browse, and Radio, you get a set of customizable options that provide fast access to artists, songs, albums, and playlists.

Tracks you’ve synced with your iPhone are listed, along with your Apple Music library if you choose to sync that with your Apple ID. Other benefits over Apple’s app include faster sorting, and a more efficient way to get tracks/albums to a playlist, or your play queue.

Given the low price tag, along with the app’s smart design and usable, focused nature, Cs is an excellent install if you want to get at your music – without Apple Music getting in the way.

NanoStudio 2

(Image credit: Blip Interactive Ltd)

NanoStudio 2

  • $19.99/£19.99/AU$30.99

NanoStudio 2 is the follow-up to indie darling NanoStudio, a critically acclaimed iPhone app that let musicians crank out ear-fizzing electronic tunes on an iPhone before GarageBand for iOS was a twinkle in Apple’s eye. However, whereas NanoStudio felt like a silo (albeit an impressive one), NanoStudio 2 is more like a hub. 

The app comes with two hugely impressive instruments. Obsidian is a synth with loads of filters and parameters, enabling a wide range of sounds. 300 presets are built in. Slate is a performance pad, designed for samples and drums. But you can also load Audio Units to further expand your audio soundscape. 

All these noises are twinned with a full suite of arrangement, sequencing and export functionality. On iPhone, the smaller screen perhaps limits the scope for live play and speedy working, but NanoStudio 2 nevertheless remains a first-rate option for making a chart topper on the go.

Miximum

(Image credit: Mike Clay)

Miximum

  • Free + $1.99/£1.99/AU$2.99

Miximum brings to your iPhone a playlist power-user feature from iTunes. Rather than laboriously dragging and dropping tracks from Apple Music, or relying on Apple’s curated lists, you can define collections based on your own criteria – dynamic playlists that update as you adjust their rules.

For example, you could create a playlist based on tracks you’ve flagged as ‘loved’, but that haven’t been played over the past month. Or you could get up to date with your listening by having a playlist based on recently added tracks you’ve not yet heard, and that have been downloaded to your phone for offline use.

Despite the inherent power in this app, Miximum is extremely easy to use. This iPhone app is therefore beneficial to Apple Music users who want more control over their playlists, in a manner that recognizes collections often change over time.

Songbirds

Songbirds

  • $1.99/£1.99/AU$2.99

Songbirds is a set of three artistic vignettes that are part meditative aid, part musical instrument. Each of them finds you crafting melodies by directing digital birds across vibrant, minimal scenes.

The best of them is called The Sky. It has you draw pathways akin to constellations, each ‘star’ playing a note when a bird moves over it. With support for up to four simultaneous melodies, you can craft surprisingly intricate sounds, and if you make something you love, tap record to output a video.

The other two options are The Lake, where you control the timing of birds diving into water, and The Flock, in which you use square ‘moons’ to record compositions played out on abstract keyboards. Neither quite matches the intoxicating joy of The Sky, but together, this collection is calming, engaging, and beautiful.

Fugue Machine

Fugue Machine

  • $9.99/£9.99/AU$14.99

Fugue Machine is a tool for making music based on compositional techniques used by Bach. That perhaps sounds dry, but stick with us, because Fugue Machine makes it astonishingly easy to create beautiful audio.

You tap out notes on a piano roll, much like in GarageBand. The twist is that in this app, there’s only ever a single loop, but with up to four playheads moving over it. Each playhead is controlled independently, and this means you can play your loop at different speeds and pitches simultaneously, and in different directions.

The interplay of several variations of a melody quickly becomes hypnotic. For beginners, it’s a great way to start making music. For professionals, it’s also a must – not least given that Fugue Machine ships with comprehensive MIDI, AUv3, Ableton Link, IAA, and Audiobus support.

djay

djay

  • Free + $4.99/£4.49/AU$7.49 monthly

djay is a hugely powerful DJ app for iOS. Formerly released in various flavors, it’s now universal and a free download. On install, you get a basic two-deck system with crossfader, looping, and some effects. Go pro, though, and a world of high-end DJ power opens up.

At that point, you can run up to four decks, and dabble in video mixing. You get over 1GB of samples, loops, and visuals to trigger. There’s a ton of integration with a range of hardware solutions. Automix is available too, for when you can’t be bothered doing the DJ work yourself.

On iPhone, it’s naturally a bit fiddly compared to the iPad’s relative acres – but it’s also a very portable way to always have the app on you for experimenting with – and useful for hooking up to physical controllers.

SquareSynth 2

SquareSynth 2

  • $4.99/£4.99/AU$7.99

SquareSynth 2 seems to have two reasons to exist. The first is to make you grin on selecting a preset, tapping a key, and having some retro audio blaze forth from your iPhone. The built-in sounds are reminiscent of noise you’d once have heard blasting from a Commodore 64 or NES; this in itself is all rather good fun.

But for musicians, this is a full-fledged synth. You can delve into each sound and muck about with its parameters – the results of which can be ear-thumpingly terrific. AudioUnit support also means this isn’t an isolated box – the entire thing can essentially be squirted into GarageBand. Only the slightly awkward interface on iPhone when editing lets it down a touch – but the great sounds more than make up for that.

Samplebot

Samplebot

  • $3.99/£3.99/AU$5.99

Samplebot is a colorful grid of buttons that you use to capture sounds. Press a pad, make a noise, and it’s then played by tapping the pad again. Fun stuff – but it turns out Samplebot has more layers than an onion.

Recorded sounds can be trimmed, and arranged in a sequencer. Pre-defined drum patterns are included, but you can also tap out your own. Beyond that, you can import audio from cloud services, Music, Files, or the clipboard, and manage sounds in-app. Tracks can be exported, and Samplebot can even be synced to other music apps.

In short, then, Samplebot is ideal for anyone wanting to make some noise, whether you fancy recording and playing back pots and pans being whacked, or creating entire songs.

GarageBand

GarageBand

  • Free

GarageBand is a music creation app and recording studio. Ambitiously, it aims to suit newcomers and pro musicians alike – and it succeeds.

For newcomers, there are smart instruments that automate chords and riffs, and a grid pad for triggering samples and loops. Gain in confidence and you can plug in a guitar and use GarageBand’s excellent range of amps, experiment with the timeline, and create drum patterns in the Beat Sequencer.

For pros, though, this app connects to other apps via Inter-App Audio and Audiobus, can ‘import’ entire third-party apps as Audio Units, and enables you to record, arrange and mix up to 32 tracks.

The app’s a stunning achievement, and we suspect many long-time musicians can’t believe such a thing exists on a phone.

Brian Eno: Reflection

Brian Eno: Reflection

  • $30.99/£29.99/AU$47.99

In a sense, featuring Brian Eno : Reflection in this round-up is a bit weird. Unlike other collaborations between musician Eno and software designer/musician Peter Chilvers, Reflection is broadly devoid of interaction. Instead, it effectively just plays Eno’s ambient Reflection album, but with some clever twists.

Unlike the standard album, which is the same every time you listen, the audio here has phrases and patterns within that continually interact in different ways, and subtly change as the day progresses, creating an endlessly changing version of the music. Likewise, the painterly visual on the screen slowly morphs before your eyes.

It’s pricey, but ultimately gives you endless Eno and is an intoxicating experience for anyone that likes their ambient fare. The man himself describes the app like sitting by a river: it’s the same river, but always changing. By contrast, the standard Reflections album initially sounds similar, but it’s a recording frozen in time, never changing.

Korg Gadget

Korg Gadget

  • $39.99/£38.99/AU$62.99

Let's immediately get one thing out of the way: Korg Gadget isn't cheap. It's not the sort of app you're going to download for some larks, use for a few minutes, and then casually toss aside. However, if you've any interest in making music — whether as a relative newcomer or jobbing musician — it is quite simply the best app available for iPhone.

Purely as a tool for live performance, Korg's app is first-rate. You get a bunch of miniature synths, referred to as 'gadgets'; they're geared towards electronic music, but still have plenty of range.

There are drum machines, a gorgeous bell synth, some ear-smashing bass instruments, and plenty of other options, whether you want to be the Human League for a bit or go all clubby.

Each synth comes with a slew of presets, but you can fiddle with dials and levers to make your own, which can be saved for later use.

When it comes to writing music, you can record live, tapping out notes on a tiny on-screen keyboard or by using a connected piece of hardware. Alternatively, there's a piano roll for tapping out notes on a grid as you do in GarageBand, creating loops to then combine into a song in the mixing-desk view.

Korg Gadget is one of the most flexible and intuitive music-making apps we've seen on any platform, and the deepest on iOS. It was superb on the iPad, but that it actually works — and is very usable — on iPhone is nothing short of astonishing.