Apple Music Memos: Capture song ideas, and make quick recordings you can share

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On January 20, Apple delivered updates to GarageBand and Logic Remote for iOS, along with a new app called Music Memos. This immediately triggered some optimism in me, as it signals that Apple is not only working to improve its existing creative apps, but working on brand new ideas as well.

I wonder if this ambition is a reflection of Jimmy Iovine’s words at the re/code conference about wanting to restore “the dream of music.” When Steve Jobs introduced products like GarageBand, he seemed to really value Apple’s role in making products for artists. Perhaps, with someone like Jimmy Iovine at Apple, we’ll see more new products for musicians from Apple in the future.

When I saw what Music Memos was, I got pretty excited – along the lines of “this is the app I’ve been waiting for.” I’ve played music (primarily guitar) for a majority of my life, and my casual interest in songwriting has picked up pace in the last year or so. My current system for recording song ideas involves recording audio in Voice Memos or Just Press Record, recording videos of guitar parts, and importing those files into Notes to accompany lyrics and other notes to myself about the song.

After using Music Memos for awhile, I realize that I was setting my expectations too high and specific, especially for a 1.0 release. With that being said, Music Memos has definitely found its way into my songwriting process over the last few days.

Recording, Editing, and Virtual Instruments

Being a music app, the Music Memos team at Apple probably felt that the app should have something to clearly set it apart from more general apps like Voice Memos. The big feature that sets Music Memos apart is its ability to add bass guitar and drums to recordings. This feature hinges on analyzing the recording to decipher a tempo, time signature, feel (swung or straight eighths), and chord progression.

If you’d like to use Music Memos’ virtual instruments with a recording, it’s probably best to know that ahead of time. While the app tries to do what it can with whatever recording it’s given, it can be pretty difficult to get a good result without providing some clear chords with a sense of rhythm (like with a piano or guitar). Pausing to think about what might come next mid-recording also complicates Music Memos’ tempo and time signature analysis.

Even when Music Memos doesn’t interpret something the way I intended, it can actually bring a new perspective to how a song idea could be interpreted. This is very similar to what can happen when bringing a new song idea to a band, which can be a very cool experience to have with an app. As an extra bonus, if you don’t like what the “band” is doing, you can just turn off their tracks and they won’t complain!

Auto recording

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Auto recording is a really good idea for Music Memos. Ideas can come and go very quickly – especially when they’re accidental or created kind of mindlessly. When I’m just messing around on guitar, I often end up playing something that I wish I had recorded so I could remember it later.

While testing Music Memos, I had my back turned to my iPhone, and I was experimenting with some chords. I kept playing, turned around to hit record, and it had already started. I had forgotten that I had turned auto recording on, and it made my time more efficient since I didn’t have to repeat something to record it.

Music Memos implements auto recording by temporarily recording everything. Once it determines that something should be recorded, it begins to save the recording from a retroactive point that it has determined to be the beginning. When things go quiet for some amount of time, Music Memos saves the recording and continues listening.

While it seems to work most of the time while playing an instrument at a decent volume, I wouldn’t rely on automatic recording to capture moments that absolutely must be recorded. For example, when recording vocal ideas, Music Memos seems to have a harder time noticing that it should start recording.

Time editing

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There can be a bit of a problem with assigning a strict tempo to a recording that used no metronome. Music Memos does its best to slow and speed the tempo throughout a recording to match up with the song. If the app flat out gets the whole thing wrong, you can adjust the placement of the first downbeat by eight notes, and change the time signature. Results may vary.

Chord editing

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Music Memos’ accuracy with chords seems to vary depending on how deliberately the chords are played. Sometimes the app follows right along, and other times it doesn’t, but it doesn’t always matter if the bass part still happens to work. If some chords need to be changed, Music Memos allows for editing down to individual eighth notes, with a good selection of chords.

Having to correct the mistakes of Music Memos’ chord interpretations can become a bigger distraction than it’s worth at times. It isn’t advisable to try to add accompaniment to every single recording.

Trimming

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Like in Voice Memos, Music Memos allows for trimming a recording after it’s complete. Unlike Voice Memos, Music Memos does not allow for more audio to be recorded, amending a preexisting recording. Given the accompaniment features of Music Memos, adding to an existing recording could complicate the process. Perhaps we’ll see this ability in an update, but it isn’t a huge loss for now.

Bass & Drums

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The individually optional accompanying bass and drums take a page from GarageBand’s virtual drummer, each with “simple to complex” and “soft to loud” axes. Based on what Music Memos hears, it uses either swung or straight rhythms. The approach works well for the purpose of the app.

The experience of recording a guitar by myself and then immediately listening back to it with bass and drums felt so effortless. Of course it doesn’t replace the nuances that could be had with real players, but the bass and drums do a great job of filling out a Music Memos recording (when Music Memos understands the chord progression, tempo, feel, and time signature of the recording).

Organization

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Music Memos uses tags and star ratings to organize and search through recordings, which appear in one big list. For me, most songs come from multiple ideas that I have at different times. Tags offer a nice way to narrow down the list to just the recordings for a particular song. I would appreciate the ability to see a list of all tags, to offer a non-search method of navigation through what will inevitably become a list of hundreds of recordings.

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Search will provide results from the tags and titles of recordings. A slider above the search bar will filter search results by their star ratings. As the slider moves left, only higher rated recordings are displayed.

It’s also worth noting that Music Memos utilizes iCloud Drive, so recordings can sync between all of your iOS devices. However, without exporting, the files are hidden on iCloud Drive for Mac.

Tuner

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While Music Memos provides a tuner, it can be slow to react, and there are no customizations or reference pitches available (despite the tuning fork icon, which would indicate a reference pitch if taken literally). It might be convenient while in the app, but most musicians would probably continue to use a different tuner for other situations.

Exporting/Sharing

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Music Memos seems to be made with sharing in mind. Apple makes a point that Music Memos can be shared directly to an Apple Music Connect account. I would probably rather share such new ideas only with bandmates or friends, but it’s nice to have the Apple Music Connect option for those who would like to use it.

For a lot of cases, the share sheet might be too simplified to make good use of Music Memos. This is because Music Memos defaults to sharing a GarageBand file, rather than an audio file.

In certain cases, like when exporting to iCloud Drive, Music Memos gives three formatting options: mix down with virtual instruments, audio file, and GarageBand file. Other times, like when sharing with Facebook Messenger, Messenger will display an error because it is only given a GarageBand file. There isn’t even an option to send any file from Music Memos with iMessage. The overall sharing issues could be the app’s biggest bottleneck at this time.

Welcome Additions

Current iOS features

Music Memos seems to have been created for iOS 8 (aside from requiring iOS 9.1 or later), as key iOS 9 features are left out so far. A 3D Touch home screen menu, Split View, and Spotlight  search support would bring the app into a “modern” state. An Apple Watch app would also be great to have.

.m4a Importing

Like a lot of people who would be interested in Music Memos, I have been using other apps to record song ideas prior to Music Memos’ release. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to import .m4a audio files from Voice Memos, or anywhere else, into Music Memos. My song ideas are now spread between 3 apps. Importing the old files would allow people to keep track of the ideas chronologically, while condensing them all into one app.

AirPlay and Bluetooth support

Music Memos will currently only play audio through the iPhone speaker, headphone jack, and Lightning port. While playing music in another app over AirPlay or Bluetooth, just opening Music Memos will stop the music and revert to non-wireless playback methods. I understand the reluctance toward wireless methods for recording latency issues, but it would be nice to play the recordings with AirPlay and Bluetooth capabilities.

Video support

For Music Memos to be “the ultimate songwriting app” for me, it has to be able to add videos to accompany recordings. If it could apply its audio analysis and auto recording to videos and video capture, that would be even better. My iCloud Photo Library is full of videos of me playing song ideas, so that I can remember how I played the parts later. After a number of lost ideas, I’ve learned that it’s best to record as much detail as possible when recording a song idea, because it can be difficult to remember later on. An audio recording alone is often not enough to make sure I remember what I was doing.

Multitrack support

Having the ability to record another track or two on top of an idea would be nice for recording a harmony, or singing over a complex guitar part for the first time. However, this starts getting really close to GarageBand, and Apple would probably like to keep the two products better distinguished.

Conclusion

So far, Music Memos has succeeded at replacing apps like Voice Memos for me. While I don’t see myself using the virtual instruments very often, they’re fun to play around with. Meanwhile, with the combination of features like iCloud sync, auto recording, and tagging, Music Memos is already much more functional than any other “Memos-style app” that I’ve tried. With the additions that I suggested above, I could see myself moving fully into Music Memos for songwriting ideas. For now, Music Memos is an improved, specialized tool to have as part of my process.

Download Music Memos for iOS for free on the App Store, and you can follow me on Twitter or SoundCloud if you’d like to know when I post a sample Music Memos recording!

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