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John, Paul, George and Ringo would like these apps for musicians

by Lou Carlozo

While Beatles' Rock Band will no doubt be a hit with fans, iPhone apps for musicians are also inspiring a creative revolution.

If you’re lucky enough to score a used Roland TR-808 drum machine—the gold standard of house and techno musicians—prepare to shell out $1,000. Or, download Blackout Labs’ ultra-cool i808 Drum Machine app for the same price as large fries and savor the vintage drum machine deliciousness.

As a recording studio owner and studio musician, I’m constantly hunting for new sounds and instruments. That’s one reason I love my iPhone; with apps, I can now pack an arsenal of horns, keys and drum kits in my shirt pocket.

Here’s a roundup of my favorite iPhone music makers … and those apps that, like some rock stars, deliver more hype than hits.

Shazam (free) identifies songs by pointing your iPhone toward the sound source, but Shazam doesn’t always work. You’ll need audio free of excess ambient noise, and mostly no-brainer tunes. Shazam easily tags pop hits like the Knack’s “My Sharona,” but strikes out on jazz standards like “I’m Just a Lucky So and So.”

My five-year-old daughter can program i808 Drum Machine ($1.99), honest. This outstanding version of the 808 drum machine looks and sounds like the real thing. You can spread 12 instruments over 16 beats and save up to 6 patterns. Only flaw: Volume defaults to near zero when you start the app. 

Wivi Band 15-in-1 ($4.99) offers 15 wind instruments—including trumpets, trombones, tubas and French horns—that sound like high-end live samples to me. What’s more, you can control note decay and dynamics by blowing into the iPhone’s mic or by simply playing notes via the on-screen keyboard. Who needs a $3,000 Kurzweil when you have this?

iProRecorder ($1.99): There are many recording apps, and the iPhone 3Gs even comes standard with its own, Voice Memos. But Bias makes the popular Peak software, so they know pro audio really well. And iProRecorder has the bells and whistles musicians will love, including editing functions, a jog wheel to rewind and fast-forward audio, and variable speeds (oddly, these are in two presets, fast and slow, and not a pitch control wheel). It also supports stereo recording, though you’ll need peripherals.

Virtuoso Piano ($1.99) offers some enticing features, including master tuning (above and below A 440) and up to four octaves of keyboard on the screen (which results in very tiny keys, I might add). Sound is clear, but the black keys seem less responsive and polyphony only accommodates five notes, no match for good digital pianos. Plus, you get only one keyboard to choose, though it is regal-sounding.

GigBaby! (99 cents). In 1967, The Beatles recorded “Sgt. Pepper” on four-track tape machines. In 2009, you can download a four-track recorder that supports CD-quality audio onto your iPhone. Absolutely fab! So is GigBaby! perfect? No. You can’t “bounce” (or recombine) tracks you’ve already recorded, so far as I can tell. But GigBaby! lets you select backing rhythms and has a set list manager to organize your ideas.