Beautiful music apps, high-performance music apps, both possible on Android. Now, if Google could only turn “possible” into “practical.”

Owners of Android phones and (if you’re out there) Android tablets have had a rough time of it as far as music apps. A lackluster market combined with inconsistent-to-awful audio performance have kept the bulk of mobile development on iOS. But if you do have an Android phone or tablet, we’ve got a beautiful app you can enjoy. And if you’re lucky enough to have one of a handful of specific Nexus devices, you can use the very-powerful SPC Sketchpad with low-latency support.

In fact, these two apps represent a microcosm of what’s possible. Creative apps that aren’t latency-dependent can run on a wide variety of devices. And the apps that do need better performance can at last run perfectly nicely on a Nexus that supports low latency operation. The problem remains that the latter category is way too small a target audience.

Let’s talk about the app for everyone first.

SphereTones is a beautiful, animated artwork, a “visual instrument” that is its developers say were inspired by perpetual-motion machines. It’s great fun to use, and it runs on phones, too. I love the crisp black-on-white graphics. It’s got a lot in common with other sound toys, including Web apps and iOS creations, but it’s very nicely executed.

SphereTones @ Google Play

It’s all built in the cross-platform, free software library OpenFrameworks. These sorts of libraries – and the popularity of portable code generally – mean that musicians and artists working with mobile platforms are creating works of art that they can easily move to new platforms as they become available.

SphereTones really doesn’t need low latency; because it’s visual, in fact, it really only needs to keep up with framerate. But for those apps that do, Google at last this year announced a solution, in their low latency support. You just need a very specific device: for now, only the Galaxy Nexus handset, new Nexus 4 phone, or Nexus 10 tablet is supported, under Android 4.2. Those are, not coincidentally, the only Android-running devices I would currently recommend, both for their audio performance and the fact that the Google backing means you’ll get the latest OS. (The Nexus 7 has struggled with poor audio – and it’s worth spending the extra to get a vastly-superior iPad mini.)

If you do have one of those three gadgets, though, you should try out mikrosonic’s SPC – Music Sketchpad 2 right now. SPC doesn’t feel like a consolation prize for iOS-jealous Android die-hards. It’s a brilliant all-in-one workstation on any platform, with a clean interface and balanced features. You get multitrack recording, a sampler, step sequencing, effects, looped recording, and more.

And now, the whole package supports low latency operation for smoother performance on supported devices.

It’s just the “on supported devices” that isn’t progressing very quickly.

I’ll talk more about this situation soon; we have an updated version of libpd that will take advantage of the low latency profile. But I think it’s worth complaining now: Google made the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 a part of their pitch to developers, but right now, it’s hard to even purchase those devices. At the same time, if Google and their OEMs can ship devices with this support, they could begin to have a fighting chance to attract the sort of creative apps that have fed the appeal of iOS.

That said, this is a perfect opportunity to find out if you have an app – and find out, in the real world, if this performance makes a difference to you.

We’d love to hear from you.

  • Sebastian Herrmann

    Just checked out SphereTones. It’s very simple but it’s a beginning! I do very much hope that there will be more soon, I don’t want to depend on the old iPod touch anymore.

    But on the developers’ perspective, it’s just like with the desktop operating systems: Being on iOS means having a reliable and conform plattform to build on while Android offers many different devices and configurations which make it hard to adapt your software to, let alone the horrible distribution of current Android versions.

    • Peter Kirn

      That’s true, though there are techniques for dealing with things like different screen resolutions. Where you run into trouble is not being able to count on things like reliable audio implementation.

      In other words, I don’t think having a large variety of different devices is a deal-breaker. Having a variety of *bugs* is. That’s some of what we saw on audio – and why it’s frustrating that things like a better low-latency audio standard aren’t making it to more devices. Or that OEMs aren’t pushing out the latest OS.

  • Jason R. Weaver

    Bought an earlier version of SPC on my Kindle Fire. Then one day GONE. No explanation, no refund. Mikrosonic can kiss my ass.

    • David

      Have you contacted them? Sounds like a market glitch. They don’t run the market and unless you contact them they have no way of knowing there’s a problem.

  • David

    You’re mixing two topics here: Low latency audio in android and very nice little musical playground app.

    On the former: Now that the hype has worn off, how many people really, truly make music live (as in live audio output) through their tablets? I mean, I like fooling around with music apps as much as the next guy, but take it on stage instead of my laptop? I can’t think of anything a tablet does that my laptop doesn’t do better (it doesn’t even stay upright nearly as safely), and to sketch out beats in the train I don’t need ultra low latency, and when I do, my 4yo Linux netbook with Renoise and Qjackctl still stomps the crap out of any tablet setup I’ve seen (“You can route audio between (some) apps now. That’s just a-MAZING.”).

    There are very, very few audio-out apps on iOS that really do something that is both unique and something that you would want to use live. And mostly the uniqueness is due to the unique control through the touchscreen they offer, not necessarily the output itself. I feel this controller aspect is where tablets have an edge over other hardware (and one that they may be able to maintain in the mid term even), and that is where devs should focus their energy. And low latency audio is rather secondary there.

    I for one miss the controllerism on Android, not the low latency audio. But then DAWosc has picked up a lot of slack now so maybe I just miss that Alchemy app and a few others. All the ‘playgrounds’ would run fine even with lousy latency.

  • androidphoneuser

    dont forget that there is also the problem of piracy on android. all the guys i work with have nexus tablets and whenever i stumble on an app and tell them about it, 10mins later they have downloaded it for free and are using it.
    ios is at least reasonably secure and give developers a better chance to actually make some money for their program 😉

  • Ted Kusio

    I SO love the flexibility of Android. Just being able to make an app and load it on my phone w/ no approval process, no strings, no review board…
    Yet I also don’t enjoy the limitations on SO many levels. Hell, just transferring files from an Android phone and a Mac is now a pain.

    Maybe I should just get a piano and some staff paper…

    • David

      Transferring files is a pain?! Then it must be the Mac, because with my Windows and Linux computers as well as my linux NAS I just open up ES File explorer, scan a second or two for the computer I want and copy paste them over.
      If I want autosync I set up a folder pair in foldersync and automate the whole thing with tasker. I’d actually call the overall ease and freedom of file transfer one of android’s strong points.

    • Ted Kusio

      Yep, Mac/ICS Android file transfer is not as easy as pre-ICS.

  • Eric Morello

    SphereTones doesn’t do anything on my phone except display some instructions and a white background…and I have a Nexus 4! Am I missing something? Did some one actually try it?

  • Swarmboy

    Seems like this comment thread perfectly sums up what’s wrong with android as a music platform. Everyone is having different experiences, is frustrated by whichever one of the multiple stores they’re buying it from, it’s just not working for some, but for others it’s great, seeminlgly regardless of whether theyve got the best hardware or not. Spc looks cool, but from wher I’m sitting it seems like android musicians a have this and caustic – which are approximately where iOS music was about 3 years ago, and that’s basically it.

    I’ve said it before. Android is to iOS what windows 95/98 was to Mac OS 7-9. Everyone and there dog used windows (except, interestingly, musicians, graphics and video people), and if you could be bothered / had the time, it was a perfectly usable platform. But why should you have to know anything about computers to make music? Most guitar players aren’t luthiers, after all……

  • Songbird Ocarina

    I am researching porting my iPhone wind instrument to Android. The latency issue is critical. Any advice is welcome. The app is called Songbird, currently only for iOS. I would love to port it to Android, but it seems like a lot of differences between devices regarding 4 point multi touch, mic input levels, and latency is seriously complicating issues.

  • Andre Brown

    I’m primarily an Android OS user but I also have an iPad, I use a Nexus 7 running the very latest version, 4.2.2.

    The music making apps I use, work excellent for me and many others judging by the the number of downloads, star ratings, and comments in our app store. Unhappy iOS users that comment negatively in the App Store are just as common in the Play Store.

    Android/Google may not have the sweet heart deals with the top tier software developers that Apple has secured but we have a dedicated rag tag group of indie developers (without millions to spend on design and R&D).

    I would recommend looking (deeper) past Caustic and SPC as the so called standard bearers for the Android music app ecosystem. Look into Heat Synthesizer or ADJ Pro. Try SunVox, Nanoloop, LoopStack, or SuPreme MPA. I’m not the only nerd with an Android device who’s happy with these apps.