Desktop DAW Vs. iOS: Where Is The Best Place To Write Your Music?

by chip on January 9, 2013

A recent article on Music Radar caught my attention, mostly due to the thought provoking title – “Is Your DAW The Wrong Place To Write Your Music?”  In reality, that proposition was really a way to frame the introduction of two new pieces of software – Jamdeck and Ignite.  Along the way, the developers gave some interesting ideas about the downfalls of taking a new song from start to finish in a standalone DAW.  They cited the feeling of overwhelm that can come with so many options, the distractions that come with choices in front of you, and the complexity of the platform that might just prevent you from moving forward in a fluid fashion.   Some of this may depend on your experience level – there’s no doubt that modern desktop DAWs require a serious learning curve; if you’ve done this work, you’ll be able to work more efficiently in this environment.  At the same time, even the most experience musicians sitting behind a DAW can fall victim to distraction and overwhelm; I can’t help but think that there might be some truth to their points.

Issues In The Process
Some of the issues surrounding music creation on a DAW come from the process around the platform.  Think back to the analog age of creating music in a studio – musicians came into the studio with their physical instruments, recorded their performance, and the engineers took care of the production after the fact.  When we’re faced with electronic instruments, studio tools, effects, and more all in one package, our brains start thinking about production alongside musical creation, if not before we write a single note.  This is a distraction that will extend the writing process, if not dilute the quality of our music.  There are compromises depending on the style of music that you’re creating – for example, if you’re writing electronic music, then the creation of synth patches might be an essential part of the creative process.  When we start forgetting about music in favor of production value though, it’s time to question our intentions and revise our process.

Changing The Equation With iOS
While we could certainly debate the blame of the DAW in these issues, there’s no doubt that they are things that musicians face and in many ways, iOS apps have changed that equation.  As music became a viable platform on iOS, a number of folks cited the benefits of taking music creation in your pocket. The mobile element is certainly an advantage, but as the world of iOS music has evolved, it’s not the only thing making this platform a great place to take a song from start to finish.  There are distinct factors that iOS music brings to the table that we won’t find elsewhere, and these are things that keep people thinking musically.  In several ways, iOS has gotten past some of the troublesome elements that prevent folks from going from start to finish on a desktop DAW.

iOS Music Apps As Stand Alone Instruments
Without a doubt, an iPad or iPhone is a perfect place to start a project; in many ways, it harkens back to the days of physical instruments in an analog studio.  Just like an instrumentalist might sit down with a guitar or piano, each app is an individual instrument where someone can develop a musical idea.  You’re not necessarily worrying about how that instrument will fit into the mix, you’re coming up with riffs, chords changes, and patterns.  When you open a synth app like Animoog, Sunrizer Synth, or Magellan, you may be creating patches, but it’s going to be in support of the music that you’re writing.  While you may be dealing with a piece of technology – just like on the desktop – you’re not programming, you’re actually playing music on the app.  That’s a key difference between the two experiences that pushes individuals away from production and back into the act of making music.

Fortunately, the diversity that keeps growing on the App Store leaves you with a wealth of options that stay firmly focused on music creation.  On the one hand, this certainly relates to your choice of iOS instruments – these days, you’ve got everything from drums to synths, virtual guitars, and more that you can use.  As you install more of these apps onto your iPad or iPhone, your device starts looking like a huge room full of instruments free for jamming.  It also relates to the different ways that you can make music on your iOS device; in many ways, all type of musicians can jam along.  If you’re looking to make some drums, you can sequence something on a drum machine like FunkBox, you can loop audio recordings on something like DrumJam, or you can play your beat on iMPC.  The bottom line is that all these options focus on the act of making music, not production.

More Focus Within iOS
One of the issue around working from start to finish within a DAW is a lack of focus, something that you’re not going to experience on an iOS device.  Your focus is not split between a million different options – you’ve only got one app open at a time.  When you’re coming up with with a series of chords in an app like SoundPrism, you’re not presented with options to pan the sound, automate the levels, or add a filter – you’re simply figuring out which chords sound good one after another.  Coming up with a bass part in an app like BassLine doesn’t require you to try out any number of plug-ins or flip through a million different patches, you simply decide which notes give you the best foundation.  When many of us hit an iPad for the first time, the lack of multiple window can be a bit disconcerting, but that forced focus has some distinct musical benefits.  

This isn’t to say that an iOS music app won’t leave you without any technical choices – any significant iOS music app is going to give you a host of options within the app.  You’re just less likely to face the same sort of distractions and loose your ability to think about the music.  All the decisions that you make will get you to one end though; you’ll be making changes that will result in the development of a single musical idea.  While you’re working in a DAW, you’ve got an overwhelming amount of options that you can apply to any number of tracks.  It’s very easy to be thinking about the reverb that you’d like to place on the drums while you’re trying to create a great lead line.  The more that you think about that reverb, the weaker your lead line becomes.  When you’re creating a melody in an app like SampleTank, you might have the option to put a little reverb on your lead instrument, but you won’t even have the drum track in your sight.  Once again, you’ll be presented with less distraction in the iOS world, giving you the opportunity to set your sight firmly upon the music.

iOS DAW Solely As A Production Space
When you’re not doing all of your creation within your DAW, its purpose becomes much more focused – your DAW becomes your production space.  This is the point where you can take all of the musical pieces and think about the mix, worry about automation, apply effects, and more.  You may end up returning to another iOS app to create more musical material, a natural step once you start putting the pieces together.  The purposes of these apps remain separate though – you DAW app is about production and your iOS instruments remain focused upon musical creation. Of course, you could always send your iOS creations out to a desktop DAW for production, which is probably an ideal combination – you get the focus of using your desktop DAW for just a production space along with the power it holds.  The nice thing about starting an idea on an iPad or iPhone is that you always have the option to finish it on the same device using a DAW app.

There are some iOS DAWs that attempt to recreate the desktop experience, diluting the advantage of treating each app as an individual instrument.  When you work in NanoStudio, GarageBand, BeatMaker 2, and similar apps, you’ve got virtual instruments embedded in the DAW, so once again, you run the risk of dealing with distraction and overwhelm.  You still have a limited number of instruments and effects that can be applied though; some may see this lack of options as a disadvantage, but it certainly hacks the overwhelm.  As we move into the Audiobus age and beyond, this will most certainly change and at least some iOS DAWs will start to resemble the desktop even more closely.  This may be a different discussion at that put, but for the time, we certainly have the advantage of simplicity on our side.

Where Is The Right Place To Make Your Music?
This all leads us back to the original question – is a DAW the wrong place to write music?  The answer largely comes down to personal choice and your musical needs.  A DAW such as Ableton Live, Reason, or Logic may be the perfect spot for some artists to create their music, but the bottom line is that it’s just not for everyone.  Using an iPad or an iPhone may provide the focus, clarity, and vast musical possibilities that an artist craves, but users looking for a more comprehensive experience might be disappointed.  A combination of both platforms might even be the smartest choice, bringing the best of both tools into one creative endeavor. In the long run, it’s probably best for a musician to weigh the pros and cons of each environment and make that decision for themselves.

With that being said, I do think that the iOS environment holds some distinct advantages over desktop DAWs that will only get better with time.  The arguments against iOS music production, like a lack of power and a convoluted workflow are quickly becoming things of the past; in the coming years, it’s pretty likely that we’ll see an iPad comparable to a laptop as a music creation tool.  The additional benefits of focus, less overwhelm, and a music centered process give iOS devices a huge advantage that many people can use.  If you’ve got a tremendous amount of discipline and a sturdy work ethic, then maybe you can force yourself to stay focused upon musical creation on a desktop DAW.  More than likely though, a desktop DAW will draw our attention to the shiny things sparkling in the background, while an iOS device will keep us thinking about music, and isn’t that why we do this in the first place?

It’s a pretty big question that will most likely result in some very personal and distinctly different answers . . . so what’s the right place for you to make music? Are you sticking to your desktop production studio until the end of time? Have you adopted the brave new world of iOS music, choosing to make your music on the go? Maybe you prefer a combination of the both, starting ideas in one venue and then taking them over to the other platform to finish the song? Let us know where you stand on the issue – LEAVE A COMMENT and let us know what the best place is for you to make music.

The Blurry Line Between Professional And Amateur Music Production On The iPhone And iPad
iPhone As Studio: The Future Or Overblown Hype?
10 Answers To The Question Why Bother Making Music On An iPad Or iPhone
6 Reasons Why Writing Music On An iPad Or iPhone Is A Bag Of Potential


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

T.A. Walker January 9, 2013 at 6:26 am

Interesting article, and one I can relate to. I’m a home-recording musician, who uses both Logic and an iOS device (currently, an iPod Touch with TASCAM iU2 I/O) for recording demos, and I don’t see the two platforms as an “either/or” proposition – for me, they complement each other.

When I’m working on song-based material (think “guitars-meet-electronica” – David Kitt, David Gray, etc.), I often start demos on the iPT, either in Garageband (if I want to mix MIDI and audio parts), Multitrack DAW (multitrack audio) or TASCAM PCM Recorder (basic acoustic demos with an iM2 mike). With the iPT, I can work on songs wherever I have a few minutes to sit down – I’ve prepared parts/recordings on the bus, in my car at lunchtime, in a holiday chalet, you name it – and this frees up our home studio setup for my wife (also a composer) to work.

Once I want to add more to a song than the iPT is capable of, I simply import the material into Logic (which unsurprisingly deals with Garageband projects particularly smoothly) for further recording, mixing, mastering, etc. To me, it’s the ideal solution – I don’t have to wait for access to Logic, and can do a fair amount of demo work wherever and whenever I get time and space to do it.

I’m just happy to have the choice


chip January 9, 2013 at 9:43 pm

That’s a good point T.A., I don’t think that we have to talk about iOS and Desktop DAW as an either/or proposition; we just need to find the tools that best support our most natural workflow. It sounds like that’s exactly what you’ve done here – getting your musical ideas together on your iPod Touch and then doing some of the further production work on Logic. That really makes a lot of sense considering you don’t need all of the extra power that Logic provides to get your musical ideas together; you simply need to think about music. It’s funny too, we do tend to be musical at different points throughout the day, and they’re not always when we sit down at our desktop computers. With iOS, its totally possible to grab those ideas when they strike us, develop them, and prepare them for transition to something like Logic.

It’s interesting to hear about your iPod Touch becoming a bit of a “second computer” as well. Even if the main workstation is occupied, you can still make music – that’s a pretty cool proposition for an electronic musician. As someone who spent a fair amount of time using 4-track recorders to get music onto cassette tapes (to questionable results), it never ceases to amaze we at what power that we carry around in our pockets these days. The fact that they can draw such powerful music out of us is awesome. The fact that they can give us a valid choice is really pretty invigorating.

Thanks for your thoughts!


Gunn Rouche January 9, 2013 at 7:36 am

As a part time producer (i.e. not my day job) – I often struggle to find time to sit in front of my MAC and lay a song out start to finish. Even when I did have the time – I would often get overwhelmed with the vast options available (VSTs, synths, guitars etc) which I woul have to learn how to use before laying down 15 – 20 different, non-workable ‘sounds’ then get fed up that nothing worked together, either start yet another track or watch a movie.

The second downfall of a complete desktop based workflow, again as a part timer, is I would have to remember a tune or beat, if I thought of something throughout the day, until I get home and quickly lay it down – unless I hum it all day, I will no doubt forget it by the time I get home.

The ipad, as this post nails, enables me to focus my thoughts for short periods of times (on a train, at my desk, on the toilet – anywhere except a starbucks coffee shop – I am not that poetic). The iPad has enabled me to pick up a single app – learn it relatively quickly on the go (to a degree I am comfortable with what the majority of things on it do) and focus more on how sounds, instruments and patterns fit together (rather than just making a cool sound / riff) .

Recently, I have come to the conclusion that my iPad is my audio sketch pad (for want of better words) – I use it to quickly put down ideas, create patches, sample the world around me etc and when I have something workable – sounds / patterns / layers that all seem to fit roughly together I will then re-record / export the song into Logic to build on and clean (using logics powerful synths and tools).

I have taken this approach with a new track I am working on (not published yet). The song started out very different to where it is today and the iterations have happend in all the places I mentioned above (yes, the toilet being one of them). One of the key reasons I use a combination of iPad and desktop based DAW is to squirt my proverbial creative juices onto my iPad quickly – whenever and whereever AND then spend a bit more time on the cleaning up of of the track (I find midi sequencing alot easier in Logic too – this might change if/when MidiBus comes out – wishful thinking) – making sure the whole thing truly works togther.


EcentC January 9, 2013 at 6:30 pm

The toilet?! I wouldn’t go that far.


chip January 9, 2013 at 10:06 pm

You make some really good points here Gunn. A desktop DAW – especially something complex like Logic – really takes a good deal of time to master, which gets in the way of the creative process. When I first started working with Reason, it really took quite a long time to get to a point where I could fluently make music. It was a process of trial and error which took a long time; while that process paid off over the long haul, that’s not what you want to encounter when you’ve got a great musical idea. It’s funny too, in a program like Ableton Live that has so many options, I even find myself forgetting the ins and outs of some features; when I need them, I just back into the learning curve again. It’s OK, I enjoy learning . . . but when I’ve got a good idea, I don’t want to loose it while I learn something new.

The mobile factor is, of course, a big part of this equation. Being able to be creative on the go is amazingly liberating, and for me, such a better use of my dead time than playing a game or flipping through Facebook. As you say, the fact that we are presented with one app at a time really does force us to learn it and think about music. When you boot up a synth app, there’s not much more you can do with it than work with your patches and make music. I like that – I do tend to get distracted and I sometimes like the fact that I just think about music when I’m staring at Magellan. It really has helped me in much the way that you mention here.

The combination that you mention makes a lot of sense, using your iPad as an audio sketch pad and putting it all together in Logic. When you’re getting the main ideas together, do it on the iPad where you’re going to be solely focused on music. When you want to fill things out and bring production to a close, Logic makes more sense.

Looking forward to hearing the new song, enjoy the music that you create!

Thanks for your inspiring thoughts!


T.A. Walker January 11, 2013 at 11:00 am

chip, that’s a really good point you made about desktop DAWs (Logic, in my case): they are often very powerful and full-featured, but sometimes that can be a weakness, especially at the songwriting/demo’ing stage.

Normally, I’d find Garageband too limiting – I never use the Mac version of GB for this reason – but on iOS it’s perfect, as I find it doesn’t “get in my way” when I’m out and about and inspiration strikes. If I don’t have a guitar to hand, I often program a loop in FunkBox (my other “must-have” app for iOS demoing), load it into GB on the iPod Touch, and bash out an electric piano track using the “smart keyboard” instrument (one-touch chords – I LOVE that feature). Even if I don’t retain either part, I’ve got the skeleton of a backing track – I can do this on the bus if I want to.

Last year, I participated in the 50/90 Challenge (50 songs, 90 days!), and wrote quite a few of my entries that way – I’ll be doing the same for FAWM (February Album Writing Month) in a few weeks’ time. Most, if not all, of my FAWM songs will at least begin with the iPT, and if I think there’s an album there, I can rework and remix them in Logic later.

It’s a fun time to be a recording songwriter :-)


marlow77 January 9, 2013 at 11:25 am

Well stated overall… there does seem to be a pattern of thought or theme emerging from many ios musicians that you have interviewed which lead to a similar conclusion — limitations can force creativity. It reminds me of the quote, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Maybe we’d modify that to be something closer to, “Limitation is the mother of focus.”


chip January 9, 2013 at 10:13 pm

It’s so true Marlow, limiting your options forces you to get the job done. This is coming from someone who spent years trying to multi-task on just about every possible opportunity. I had fooled myself that by doing 5 things at once, I was actually getting more done. Well, I did complete about half of 5 things, and I executed those things fairly poorly. When I just sat down and focused on one thing at a time, I knocked out 5 quality products . . . it didn’t take an insane amount of time either. I think that the same idea applies to music creation – there are several steps in the process and they can’t all be done at once. That hasn’t stopped me from trying though. The iOS ecosystem really reminds me to focus on one thing at a time, and that generally brings me back to the thing that is really important – music. It’s not that I want to skip any piece of the process or avoid any options, I just want to take them one thing at a time. I really do believe that iOS makes that happen, at least for me.

Thanks for your comment, good thoughts!


Clif January 10, 2013 at 2:38 am

I attended a guitar clinic with Laurence Juber several years ago. In discussing the benefits of writing on an acoustic guitar, he brought up a term that has stuck with me all of these years: option anxiety. Option anxiety boils down to having too many choices; for a guitarist that might be pedals, amps, which guitar to use, standard or drop-D tuning, etc. With an acoustic guitar, almost all of your focus is on the music, not technical considerations or getting the right sound. I think that, paired with the portability of acoustic guitars makes for a clear analogy to the topic at hand.

Personally, I’m a bit of a romantic and I fell in love with the idea of making music solely on the iPad. I’ve recorded 9 albums in Acid Pro, but I’ve barely opened it since getting my first iPad. I’ve had to unlearn a lot of my old habits, but I’ve found it to be a rewarding exercise.

Finally, there’s the practical financial aspect of music making. When I was working in Acid Pro, I might drop hundreds of dollars a month on VST synths, loop packs, samples, etc. I suffer much less buyer’s remorse dropping $5 on a useless app vs. $30 on a loop disk I never use. I can have everything Ampkit+ has to offer for $75 and carry it around in my pocket, which is a much more attractive proposition than the $300 I dropped on Guitar Rig which chains me to the desk.

All-in-all, I feel iOS is the right answer for me through the entire workflow. :)


Nathan Jon Tillett January 10, 2013 at 3:14 am

Great article Chip ! For me, there’ s no way I could actually write music on a desktop daw, like you said there’s simply too much distraction and technical frustration for someone like me to get anything creative done . I tried for years with PC apps like Cakewalk and Cubase but never got anywhere, just spent the whole time fighting the PC to get midi working and compatibility issues with my soundcard. I also wasted sooooooo much time hunting for soundfonts and trying out sounds but never actually recording anything. No ones fault but my own though, I cant blame the tech, I just lacked the know-how and determination to get past the difficulties and start making music.
It was only years later after giving up that I won an iPod touch in a photography competition. One of the first apps I bought was iShred by Frontier Design and suddenly I was creating chord progressions and getting ideas for songs. I naturally progressed to the iPad and iOS Garageband and from there I was off, never looked back.
Presently, I make all of the music and vocals with Ipad apps during short spare moments, then export to Garageband on the Mac for mixing and mastering. Auria is too scary-looking for me but I recently bought Studio HD with a view to mixing/mastering on the pad using its real-time effects automation.
One thing is for sure, iOS apps have for many of us, rekindled a long lost desire to make music and helped us focus on creativity and expression, free from technical setup difficulties, wires, mice, virus scanning, Windows updates etc.
What a liberation !


Craig January 21, 2013 at 8:05 am

My primary daw is Ableton. I would love to use the plethora of ipad apps I have to to sketch out compositions, then transfer them to Ableton for completion. But, the processes i’ve seen involving audio copy are too restrictive and time consuming.

In a perfect world, Ableton would build an ios app for scratchpad use. When it’s completed a simple export/import and track assignment.

I see Cubase is moving in this direction, but i’ve gone all in (for now) with Live.


Joe February 15, 2013 at 12:32 pm

I personally am finding it hard to step back into using my desktop DAW to write music on, or at least begin a track.

The whole touch screen hands on approach is just too much fun as you are more inclined like a real instrument, and this is what clicking a mouse doesn’t have.

But iOS is still not ready to be used from start to finish 100% in most cases. But it’s not too far off.
I think the best of both worlds is the answer.


Sergey February 18, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Here’s my 5cents on the current state of desktop music production:


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