Is Ableton Note the Best App for Producing Music on Your Phone?

As an artist, you should never be limited by your environment. Even if you’re out and about and don’t have your studio with you, that doesn’t mean you can’t create music. Apps like Ableton Note make producing music on your phone easier than you think, regardless of whether you’re an experienced producer or just starting out.

Ableton Note currently sits at the top of the Apple App Store “Top Paid” Music Apps. It allows you to capture your initial ideas using Ableton Live’s drum kits, synths and melodic instruments, then send your projects from Note on your phone to Live on your computer thanks to the integration with Ableton Cloud.

Many producers have been creating music on their phones since we’ve had devices capable of doing so. GRAMMY-nominated artist Steve Lacy has been using similar apps on his phone since the beginning of his career, famous for his ‘iPhone beats’ with The Internet and on his debut EP. In his 2017 TEDx Talk, Steve described how he began producing on his phone, a process he calls “The Bare Maximum.”

“I got my hands on an iPod Touch 5th generation and from there I started to explore music apps like IMGC, Beatmaker 2 and GarageBand, exploring this world of sound with this little device in my pocket.”

UK producer Steve Spacek is also at the forefront of creating music on iOS. During his Industry Access session at Studios 301 in 2021, he spoke about situations where the demo he had recorded on his phone “captured the vibe and essence of a song” better than a pristine studio recording.

“It got to a point where I was like, ‘for me this is about the music, so I have to put that scratch vocal or that demo vocal in the final version.’”

Steve Spacek Industry Access, 2021

So how practical is producing music on your phone? How does an app like Ableton Note compare to DAWs? When is the best time to use your phone instead of your laptop? We spoke with trainer and avid producer Ryan Collings about his production process, tips on how to create music on your phone and which apps he prefers to use.

Before we jump into Ableton Note, can you tell us about your creative process?

I don’t have a set process for my production or writing, every song is different. I’ve picked up lots of different techniques that I’ve read or seen other people do that I’ve synthesised into my own. Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll start from a lyrical idea; I’ve done that a lot over the last few years. I’ll start with an a cappella idea and I can hear a beat but I’ll figure out a verse or chorus without any music and build around that. Other times I’ll get my guitar because I come from a singer-songwriter background. I think the process informs the result a lot.

I think one of the strongest skills in production is being able to try an idea and then quickly decide if you are going to use it, or just delete it and move on. It’s really easy to get caught up on something that might not be improving the song. That’s not a technical thing, but a real discipline, because you can be like, “I want to try this crazy effect on this fill” or “I want to change the chords in this section,” and it might be the best part of the track or it might turn out really whack, and you need to delete it and do something else.

Is there anything in your process that always remains the same? your environment, time of day, a piece of gear?

That’s a really good question… I don’t think so. For me, all I need is time and I’m going to record the idea, otherwise it’ll stay in my head and it’s not gonna happen. Whether it’s a voice note or two devices with voice notes so I can sing a harmony over the first, that’s awesome stuff. I don’t think I need anything and I love that about creating music. I could have my OP-1 or my phone in the forest or sitting by the ocean just vibing out.

That being said, starting is different from finishing – for me, and probably a lot of others, starting is really easy, but finishing it is the key. That’s where I think each creator needs to have a process and know what the most important part of this song is. If you only had half an hour to make something and show it to someone, and you gotta pick the best parts and leave out the rest, what would you pick? Would it be the lyrics? Would it be the structure? Will it be the drop? When you force yourself to prioritise that it really sheds light on whether you’re wasting time or whether you’re actually helping this song get finished.

OP-1 Sequencer (Credit: Isaac Henry)

Why do you produce on your phone? when would you opt for a phone over a laptop or going into the studio?

Whenever I have an idea that pops into my head, that’s when I grab the phone over anything else. If you’re anything like me, you will just be in the middle of getting ready to leave the house and you just get an idea. So the quickest way to get that down is a voice note or an app on your phone.

Another thing that I learned from Peking Duk was to write a lot of ideas and then go through them all, pick the best ones and finish them. That was their process because they just wanted to get the idea out as quickly and roughly as possible, and just get energy or the vibe so they can listen back later and see if it really is a vibe or not. They would even record vocals into a phone while playing the track back through the DAW, AirDrop the vocals and drop them into the session as is. Even though they have an audio interface right there, for them that helped not get into the “DAW world” with all its detail and options and recognise that it’s just a scratch vocal for now. It’s kind of like a psychological hack.

This is where Note fits in. They’ve designed it to not give you the depth that you crave that is available inside Ableton Live. Note will let you do a lot of stuff but not everything. So with these enforced limitations, you can sketch out an idea really quickly, and sooner rather than later you’ll get to the point where you need to move to Live. Thankfully with their Cloud integration, you can do that really easily.

So are these apps just for getting ideas down or can you produce entire songs on your phone?

With apps like GarageBand on iOS and others, you can do so much on them now. There’s a whole community of people who make all the music on their iPad because they’re so powerful now, you can go really deep. There’s apps that I really like, for example Samplr, because it’s so tactile but once again it’s limited to what it does well. I think it’s great to find tools that do one thing and not try to make them do everything that you might wish they could.

But it’s totally valid to want to do everything on your phone. At the end of the day, it’s about whatever gets you to the end, gets you to that finished song. Nobody listening to your song, except for audiophiles like myself, cares as long as the song makes you feel something. Whatever you need to create a song that makes people feel something is the right way.

What were your first impressions of Ableton Note? Have they changed since then?

When I found out about it, I was like “Ableton has an app, finally!”. I was super excited, and then I tried it and I didn’t like it. I think that mainly came down to me using Bluetooth headphones and having latency issues, so make sure you use cabled headphones or the phone speaker. Once I got around that and I spoke to some producers who liked it, I started to get excited again.

I love that you can not only sample into it, but you can also do a lo-fi re-sample, which is sampling your sample out of the speaker and into the mic. When I figured out how to chop the sample and record your voice and sample it, put a massive reverb on it… it’s really vibey! Knowing that I can just jam something out and then get that straight into Ableton Live is great.

What are the benefits or Drawbacks of using it?

Without a doubt the biggest benefit is its integration with Ableton Live through Ableton Cloud. I think it’s good that they kept it simple, because even with its simplicity it’s got some cool features. They’ve designed it so that you have to play stuff into the app. You can automate parameters – everything is “inside the racks” so you can’t go into all the parameters, but you can tweak them and it will save the automation.

I can imagine using it when producing for other people, if they’re feeling intimidated in a big studio environment. Having this app let’s you go for a walk, head to the park and pull out your phone and start playing. You can’t click in notes, you have to tap, so it forces you to be playful and get your body into it. Then once you’ve started that idea, you can come back and open it up on Live and now you’re in ‘serious land’ – it’s a different mindset.

The drawback there would be if you want to do deeper stuff on your phone, there are probably different apps that are more appropriate.

Would you recommend Ableton Note for anyone that wants to start producing music on their phone? How does it compare with some of the other apps you’ve used?

I would say Ableton Note is a great app for people who don’t know much about Ableton in general but are interested in getting into it. It’s also great for someone who is an Ableton expert. I say that because it’s doing the same thing; it’s also shielding you from the complexity of Live and allowing you to be playful and get hands-on.

Some other apps I like are Koala Sampler, which is a sampler app that allows you to go way deeper on your phone. The drawback there is the lack of integration with a DAW. Recently I’ve come across Topline by Abbey Road Studios, which is an advanced version of what I’ve been doing with 2 separate devices and voice notes. I like the functionality of recording these two vocal lines in the same app. It’s a bit early to tell if it fits well into my workflow but it’s definitely convenient.

Another app I love is CoSo – an AI generated loop maker. It’s integrated with Splice but it can open up in Ableton Live as well and it suggests and combines loops for you in the same key and BPM (almost like the Tinder of loops!). It’s different to the others because you’re not actually “making anything” but then you can take that and make something in Ableton, which is a good place for people to get started.

Ableton is moving closer to being a one-stop-shop for music production and performance, with so many capabilities in a live setting and in the studio. Ableton Live is one of the three DAWs we focus on in our one-year music production course, and you’ll have the opportunity to use it in Ryan’s remixing class. You can find more details on our curriculum here.