By Craig Anderton
Despite the iPhone juggernaut, Android smart phones are not exactly also-rans, and are becoming increasingly popular. Although there may not be as many apps as there are for the iPhone—at least not yet—there are plenty of useful musical programs that are available for free, and often upgradeable to additional functionality for a nominal fee. Your phone can record your riffs, help tune your guitar, and even provide chord patterns to play against.
Unlike the closed iPhone, though, there are many different Androids, and the operating system version is not the same across all Androids—some can’t even support the latest OS versions. As a result, not all apps work on all phones. Luckily, if you read the comments section in the Android market on various programs, users are often considerate enough to mention which phone they’re using when saying that a particular program does or doesn't work.
These programs were all tested on a V1.5 Motorola Backflip, so if a program works with an Android that ancient and quirky, it will almost certainly work with more modern versions; if it doesn’t work, you can always uninstall it. But also note that when updating, sometimes the update will appear to be non-functional. In many cases, simply uninstalling and re-installing the program will solve the problem (sort of like trashing a preferences folder with the Mac).
Now, let's check out the apps. Click on the app name to go to a web site with more information, or the appropriate page in the Android market; except for the first two apps, you can click on the image to enlarge it.
gStrings Since installing this, my acoustic guitar is never out of tune. gStrings is not only a useful and accurate tuner, but also provides a “pitch pipe” function. You can optimize the response for specific instruments, change the bass tuning reference to something other than A=440, select from a number of alternate tunings, tweak precision and responsiveness, and adjust mic sensitivity. Extra credit: There’s an accessibility option that provides audible feedback for blind musicians.
Solo Lite What attracts casual users to this program is that you can choose chords, and “strum” them on the screen’s virtual guitar (switchable to lefty, too). That’s fun, but check out the Chord Library page, which is like having one of those “1001 Chords” theory books sitting in your phone. Can’t remember the fingering for an E9b5? No problem. You can choose a chord, see the fingering on a virtual fretboard, and if you tap the chord, it plays.
Hertz Most Android audio recording apps aren’t really “hi-fi” because they’re designed to record phone conversations, or be more of a memo-taking program, and record to the sonically compromised 3GPP format. But this no-frills app can record 44.1kHz WAV files to a built-in SD card without data compression; the quality is outstanding compared to the usual apps. For electric guitar, I tested this with Peavey’s Ampkit LiNK—it works great as an Android audio interface (although you need to adjust the input level on the guitar itself, and of course, Android can’t use the associated iPhone amp sim app). However, if you want to save memory, you can ratchet the sample rate all the way down to 8kHz.
Mobile Metronome This elegant app offers tap tempo, support for just about any time signature, choice of various metronome sounds, beat division, visual beat counter, first beat accent, and the option to change sounds. The timing is solid, too; it's a great little "practice assistant" to have sitting in your phone.
Chordbot Lite Here’s another stellar practicing tool: Create a chord progression, choose the tempo, then play back the results with various instrument sounds. Each chord change “step” lasts one measure (although you can add steps to lengthen the number of measures), with 60 different chord types and 16 different time signatures, which can be different per step. The full version ($5) lets you randomize progressions, as well as export them as WAV or MIDI files.
Robotic Guitarist Like Solo, this lets you “strum” chords on the touch screen. Seven chords are available, as selected by buttons toward the left; you can choose from 13 different chord types. But go into the options menu, and you can select three different sounds (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and piano), 9 chord presets of 7 chords that work well together, and various preferences (e.g., lefty or righty, whether the chord pattern is superimposed on the strings, etc.). You can also call up a convenient metronome and tuner.
Guitar Chords Lite This is la chord library of over 400 chords, with variations, displayed in standard tab. It resembles the Chord Library page of Solo Lite, but has the limitation of not letting you actually play and hear the chord—only display it. In that respect, it’s more like a book; but the option to see variations is very useful. Think of it as a replacement for a chord book, and you’ll dig it.
Ethereal Dialpad There’s more to life than guitars, so these last two apps are more general, “fun” music-making programs. With Ethereal Dialpad, you drag your finger around the touch screen, which plays melodies using whatever pitch-quantized scale you’ve selected. There are additional options, like delay and flanger effects, and four graphic “looks.” This is your basic “automatic new age noodling” program that can be, among other things, a pretty good stress reliever.
MusicGrid This step sequencer was inspired by ToneMatrix and the Yamaha Tenori-On. It’s simple, but fun and addictive; the developer says more updates are on the way, so it will be interesting to see how this app develops. Meanwhile, when stuck on the tarmac while waiting for a plane to take off, this will keep you occupied for at least a few minutes.
If you like these, consider donating or buying the full versions that offer more features—encourage these people to keep developing cool apps!
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.