Apple's Garage Band for the iPad and iPhone includes virtual instruments, such as piano and drums, you can play like the real thing.
The answer to this week's question depends on how much you know about playing music and what you want to make or record. With some apps you don't need to know a single thing about reading music notation or playing an instrument. Other apps have a learning curve beyond comprehension.
All Songs Considered co-host Bob Boilen and I, who both make music in addition to listening to it, have taken a lot of these music-making apps out for test drives and have narrowed our favorites down to the three we think best capture the best of all worlds.
The Best Apps For Making Music
This one, from Fingerlab, is pretty idiot-proof. You basically drag and drop little shapes onto the screen, and as they fall, they bang around and generate musical tones. You can draw lines and mazes. The shapes bounce and tumble around the lines and spaces, knock into each other. It can get pretty chaotic.
Bob and I think this one is a bit of a mind-blower. Technically you don't really need to be able to read music or play an instrument, but it'd help if you at least had a sense of rhythm and a feel for melody and harmony. Figure, made by Propellerhead, has three grids, for lack of a better word: one for bass, one for drums, and one for melody. As you touch the different grids, the app generates beats and bass lines and various synth melodies. Drag your finger around on the grids to alter the tones and add various effects. It seems most suited for playing techno or dance music. But that doesn't mean it's too limiting. This guy claims to have made an entire album using only Figure.
This app, from Apple, offers the best of both worlds. It's loaded with what Apple calls "Smart Instruments" that play notes, chords and patterns for you with the push of a button. But it also has a set of virtual instruments you can play like the real thing, if you know how. There's piano, drums, guitar and strings. You can record multiple tracks of your music, add fades and effects. You can also record your own voice, if singing's your thing, or plug in an actual guitar or bass. I wouldn't call it high art, but the band Ultramods recorded its entire album, Underwear Party, using the mobile version of Garage Band.
But wait ...
Of course there are many more apps out there we love. Bloom and Scape, from Brian Eno, are very easy to use and can be transfixing. Pitch Painter, from electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnik, is a great one for kids. Audio Palette morphs together ambient sounds and effects to create very cinematic soundscapes. If you're up for learning a whole new (and I think fairly complicated) way of making music, check out Reactable. Amazing sounds, but a lot harder than the other apps to master.
Got a music making app you love? Tell us about it in the comments or tweet us @allsongs.