You may already be aware of Apple's latest free app targeted at musicians. If not… well… it’s pretty awesome.
You record yourself playing a chord progression—ideally on an acoustic guitar or piano. The app detects the tempo and pitch and instantly adds in a drum part and a bass part to accompany the chords.
In seconds you can go from fresh idea to a near finished song.
Of course, this is purely for demo purposes. The idea is to record the instrument with an iPod or iPhone using the built in microphone. It will never be high quality.
But if you’ve ever struggled to notate and remember music that you’ve written, or find it difficult to imagine how it would sound with a full band—this is the app for you. It’s also a highly efficient way to share song ideas with your band mates using the app’s sharing options.
After you’ve written a chord progression, it often helps to record it and play it back on loop to come up with ideas for melodies. Music Memos is perfect for this purpose too.
By exporting to GarageBand or Logic Pro you can take your demo even further, and quite easily produce a finished song.
I had six new song ideas within 30 minutes of opening app for the first time. That inspiration alone was worth the download.
Here’s one of them and it took under two minutes to produce from a blank slate:
In this tutorial I’ll illustrate every step of the songwriting process using Music Memos. I’ll give you some technical tips to ensure that your demos will impress everyone who hears them.
How to Write a Song in Music Memos
Download the app to an iPhone or iPod, grab a guitar or take a seat at a piano. That’s everything you need.
If you’re recording an acoustic guitar, I’d recommend sitting at a desk so that you have a good surface to rest the device.
I found the best recording location for acoustic guitar was pointing the bottom of the iPhone or iPod at the 12th fret. A good balance of tight low end and clean highs.
I also found that the sound was best with the guitar only 2-3 inches away from the microphone. Get as close as you can to the desk without it interfering with your playing.
As for piano, the main challenge is capturing all of the notes equally. Place the iDevice somewhere in the middle of the piano, perhaps on the music stand if the top is open.
2. Tune the Guitar
If you’re recording a guitar, tune it using the app.
3. Write a Chord Progression
Or quickly rehearse an idea you already have. Before you start recording, make sure you’ve had a few practice runs and are confident with the song.
Arpeggios work, but full chords sound best.
Here’s how an arpeggiated chord progression sounds:
And here’s a progression using full strummed chords:
Single note riffs don’t work as well. The drums still sound great and in time, but the bass can’t calculate the root notes as accurately. Here’s an example:
If you're stuck for a good chord progression, start off with the good old I-V-vi-IV chord progression that pretty much every great pop song has used throughout history.
In the key of C this would be C Major, G major, A Minor, F Major. Transpose that into any key and you could be onto a winner.
Before you record, there’s something else you need to know. The quieter you play, the more noise there will be on the recording. This is one major downside to using the built in microphone for recording.
The noise in this loudly strummed recording isn’t as noticeable (but still pretty bad):
Whereas the high pitched electrical noise in this lightly finger-picked recording is much worse:
Find a compromise between comfortable playing volume and noise. Don’t forget that this is just a demo, so don’t worry too much. You’ll get used to the noise after a while.
4. Start Recording
Press the record button—the big blue circle—to start recording.
You can also use the Auto Record feature to save a bit of time on editing.
If the take doesn’t go well, delete it straight away and record again.
5. Add Information to the Song
This part might seem a bit boring but is actually very important.
If you record lots of ideas it quickly becomes difficult to sort through all of the different recordings. Change the name, add some tags, add a rating and add any relevant notes—such as capo position or tuning.
6. Fine Tuning
Enable the bass and drums and have a listen. The app doesn’t always get it one exactly right the first time, and it may require some tweaking.
Trim the song to cut out any silences. I’d recommend leaving a slight gap at the beginning, otherwise the app will cut off some of the first note. If you want to loop the recording, though, trim right up to the first hit.
Open up the tempo window and adjust the tempo and downbeat.
Open up the chord window and change any incorrect chords.
The app doesn’t pick up well on irregular chords, such as seventh chords. But it will still get the root notes right. Here’s an example of a piece with only seventh chords:
Check there are no strange overlaps between bars. You can add custom bass notes if you want to change the tonality of the chord.
Try adding sections where the bass and drums drop out by selecting No Band, or just drop the bass out with No Chord. This adds more variation and interest to your recording.
Listen to how the band comes in on this recording:
Now you can tailor the sound, dynamics and complexity of the drum and bass parts. Hold down one of the icons to open up these windows.
7. Sharing and Exporting
Share the recording via Mail, SoundCloud or YouTube if desired.
You can export the recording to the GarageBand app. Further, you can do the following with GarageBand:
- Edit the drum and bass parts
- Add effects like reverb and compression
- Record extra guitar or piano parts
- Record backing vocals
- Loop certain parts
- Add extra virtual instruments
- Record a lead vocal part
Here’s a song that I produced in under a minute using Music Memos and GarageBand. First I recorded the chord progression in Music Memos:
I then imported the track into GarageBand, added reverb and compression to the guitar, corrected a couple of mistakes in the bass and drum parts, and recorded a looping vocal part ...excuse my singing, I’m no vocalist:
After this it’s easy to sync the song to GarageBand on an Apple Mac computer via iTunes and then work on the song on the full version of GarageBand or in Logic Pro.
The transition from recording on-the-go song ideas to producing full tracks in Logic Pro or GarageBand has never been so seamless.
Using this app as a standalone device for recording song ideas is efficient and fun.
Combined with GarageBand, Apple has created an entirely new workflow for any songwriter. It’s never been easier to move from a fresh idea to a finished demo, and potentially a full production.
If you’ve read this far, this is obviously something you’re into. So I have a request—download the app immediately. Go to the beginning of this tutorial and follow it step-by-step.
Give it a go. You might just create something great.
If you found this tutorial useful, please share it on social media or forward the URL to a musical friend.