Updated: Feb 23
In this article we will have a look at the best guitar effects apps for iPad and iPhone available. In this category we will consider exclusively apps dedicated to tone shaping of guitars connected to the iOS devices, such as amp simulators and multi-effects simulators.
Guitar players quite often travel and go mobile with their guitars. While portable and compact amp modellers with multi-effects are becoming more popular - read about Compact Amp Modeller with Effects for Guitar: HX Stomp and Gigboard here - with a simple interface such as the Apogee Jam Plus allow the player to utilise an iOS device and an app for tone shaping.
It is unlikely that these apps will achieve the same performance as a dedicated piece of hardware, as they are build around the limitations imposed by an iOS device: processing power, memory, operational system rules, latency. They can however sound impressive and enable a solution where all you need is the guitar, the interface and the iOS device with the app.
To be able to use these apps you will need a guitar interface for mobile such as the iRig.
The main features and characteristics to look for when searching for these apps are:
• Look and feel. Most are designed to look like a real guitar rig, with graphical representations of their amps and pedals and even the cables and controls. This gives the user the ability to interact with the rig on the fly like they would with a physical rig. In turn they can focus in there music. So usability is key here.
• Reputation or brand. Some developers have a reputation as they develop hardware counterpart or plugin versions of the app, so they are renowned in the professional audio industry. This will allow you to share presets with other versions of their software or allow for a simple learning curve if you are already familiar with them.
• Availability of amps and effects. While this will vary according to your needs and musical style, only few selected ones can use the original names of the amps (such as Marshall, Orange or Fender) and effects (like an Ibanez TubeScreamer) due to copyright. Most however will feature the classic amps under different names. An example is the classic Marshall JCM800 being called 'British Lead 800' in some of the apps.
• Price and pricing model. Some of these apps look cheap or are even free, but the trick is on what are the amps, cabinets, microphones and effects included. A significant number of them include the basics and then sell 'packages' with multiple effects and amps per style of music or something similar. It's worth checking the in-app purchases section under the app store and also the vendor website to see exactly what you get and what is the total cost of ownership for your dream effects package.
• Cloud back up system. Ideally aim for the ones which can save the patches in the cloud in case you have to alternate between the iPhone and iPad version of the app, or for backup purposes. Sometimes it takes a lot of tweaking to get to the ideal tone, and not being able to share that or move to a new device is a no-no. Bonus: some will feature online tone communities where you can download tones and patches already tweaked and shared by other users. These will normally already aim the musical style, band, album or even song that you want.
• Digital Signal Processing features, such as sound quality, latency and ability to run in the background. This is quite essential. Some apps will explicitly advertise latency and allow the user to change that if experiencing glitches or other undesirable audio artefacts. Most will allow you to switch to a background mode where which allows you to play with other apps (such as a youtube video for example).
• Guitar interfaces supported. Of course you want to pick an app that supports the interface you have or are about to purchase. As explained in this article the most popular interfaces like Apogee Jam, IRig or Sonic Port should work fine with most apps. The app description in the app store or their website should have that information. If you can't find it look for a youtube video with both as keywords, or drop me a line below.
• Interoperability with recording apps. This will allow you to use your app as an input to a recording app such as Garage Band. While third party options exist - AudioBus is a very popular one - iOS introduced a few years ago the Inter-App feature and most of these apps support that. If this feature is listed it then means you can add a track in garage band with audio coming straight from the app you're using, and the processed guitar sound coming from your app will be recorded. While Garage Band itself has some amp modelling and effects, this allows for a wider selection and quality as the dedicated apps we are covering in this article are generally better.
• Fringe benefits. Some apps will come with fringe benefits such as recording inside the app, loops, and so on. The only I found useful are tuner and metronome, but most of the others are not as rich as what you get if you use a dedicated app.
The Popular Ones
We will have a look at the most popular apps first, the ones that have been going on for years and have thousands of downloads and users.
Agile Partners AmpKit
This is one of the first I've used and I still think it's one of the best. It's simple, effective, and comes with lots of cool tones out of the box. Let's have a look at the main features:
• Look and Feel: cool app with realistic look and feel, with graphics depicting amps, cabinets, microphones and pedals. You can shuffle pedals around and before and after the amp like you would in a real rig, only using your finger or stylus, readjusting the signal path in a matter of seconds.
• Reputation and brand: the app is backed up by Peavey so it features classic Peavey amp selection. The amp is made by Agile Partners who have been around for a while and feature thousands of downloads. Not a fly by night success.
• Availability of amps and effects: Apart from Peavey it does include models for amps from other brands but you will have to search online or second guess what they are by their name, looks or sound.
• Price and pricing model: there are free and paid versions of the app. The free version comes with a basic set of amplifier and effects, whereas the paid one will give you a bundle that would allegedly cost you more if purchased separately. And of course you can buy gear as needed from within the app. Every now and then they launch promotions where you can buy ALL effects and amps for a reasonable price, so keep an eye out for that.
• Cloud back up system: it's not in your face but you can export your presets to share online and download to your other devices via a web server interface. There is also a community of musicians online who use this app and you can get some cool patches from there. Note: this app comes loaded with lots of presets (156) with cool names, but some will push you to buy the gear you don't have.
• Digital Signal Processing features: sounds absolutely great. I was gobsmacked when I heard it for the first time as it was my first iPad guitar app ever. Latency can be adjusted and it's quite low, and it runs fine in the background against all apps I've tried. The few glitches I've experienced were just after major iOS releases, but the developers were quick to fix them.
• Guitar interfaces supported: the vendor claims 'virtually all headset and dock guitar interfaces' for iPhone and iPad; I've tested with various flavours of iRig and Apogee Jam without an issue. I would definitely recommend tweaking the settings individually as noise floor and gain can vary quite a bit from one device to the next.
• Interoperability with recording apps: this app works well with inter-app audio and Audiobus so no major problems there, you can use this with Garage Band or similar and rock out to your recordings on the road. Again tweaking settings and making sure the recording app is not colouring the guitar tone as well is highly recommended.
• Fringe benefits: built-in recording capabilities, metronome and tuner. Companion apps for tabs (Tab Toolkit) and Scales and Chord diagrams (Guitar Toolkit). Sometimes they offer discounts for the 3 apps in a bundle.
For more information be sure to check their website, from where you can link to the app store and get the app:
IK Multimedia Amplitube
A very popular choice as the vendor also makes the popular iRig interface. Not as simple as the others, but with a lot of eye candy. Let's have a peek:
• Look and Feel: number one for eye candy ! Cool looking design that looks like a real guitar rig on your screen. You will be able to tweak your amp and pedal settings as you would in a real rig, and moving them around is just a matter of dragging and dropping. They've certainly put the time and effort to make this look cool.
• Reputation and brand: the brand is well known for its popular and pioneering iRig interface. And it has partnerships with Fender, Orange, Soldano, MESA/Boogie and Engl, besides a line of Marshall looking amps designed by Slash. So the amps have their real names rather than aliases which makes it easy to identify them. And you can impress your friends with a cool looking virtual rig with a household name amp.
• Availability of amps and effects: as mentioned above, lots of household names in amps, plus some designed by Amplitube themselves. The pedals and effects are generally branded by Amplitube but there's nothing to say there won't be another partnership with a well known pedal brand in the future.
• Price and Pricing model: I found this to be particularly confusing. They have an Amplitube CS 'free' version that apparently comes bundled with and iRig purchase (you get a license key inside the box) and a paid version for those who don't own an iRig but want the app anyway. They seem to have similar offerings in terms of effects and amps, but they are different apps in the app store. In any case, from within the app you can buy individual amps or effects, or bundles that will get you going.
• Cloud back up system: none at the time of writing but you can export presets to your computer. There is no online store for sharing presets or downloading presets but you may find some in forums. And the out of the box presets are installed as you buy the bundles of amps and effects. I found this a good feature as at least you know they will work with the gear you have.
• Digital Signal Processing features: latency can also be adjusted and playing in the background is no issue. For some reason, I never managed to make this sound as good as the other ones I've tried, which is surprising considering the stack of well known brands behind the amps. It may have evolved so I believe I will give it another try in the near future. You can tweak some presets favourably, but the out of the box presets didn't make it for me.
• Guitar interfaces supported: no problems here, works fine with their own iRigs and with Apogee Jam and others.
• Interoperability with recording apps: supports inter-app audio and Audiobus so again you can use this with Garage Band or similar recording apps.
• Fringe benefits: a stack of them I should say. This app has an option to purchase a DAW looking recorder that will live inside the app, eliminating the need for multiple apps for recording. This will also add drum loops and looper features, as well as the ability to slow things down or remove vocals for practice. Tuner and metronome come with the app. The same app exists in a plugin format for your DAW, so you can have the same sounds, look and feel on your DAW and your iOS device. Finally, you can buy a bluetooth controller with 4 switches (called the Blueboard) that allows you to switch presets and effects as you would in a real rig. Recently the vendor also launched a guitar pedalboard where you can attach your iPad and use the app as an in-line effects processor in your guitar rig.
For more information head to the link below, from where you can link to the app store and get the app:
Positive Grid Bias FX Mobile
Another behemoth when it comes to digital effects and amp simulation for mobile devices, as this developer is making ripples in the guitar community with their physical devices for your guitar rig. Lots of cool features so lets have a look:
• Look and feel: lots of eye candy as well as the amps and pedals look very realistic. You can re-shuffle them as you would in a real rig by just dragging them around. There is a signal chain option and a pedalboard option which makes it look like a real rig with the pedals connected. Bonus: you can swipe from the pedal board into the rack in case you added some virtual rack mount effects. Amazing job on this one.
• Reputation and brand: These guys have built quite a reputation for their professional gear so there is no doubt there. All amp and effects names are 'generic' but quite easy to identify. Worth checking their Bias Mini Guitar head in case you need a modelling amp in your rig. They have some heavyweight artists in their featured artists list.
• Availability of amps and effects: amp and effects brands are generic but the selection out of the box is quite good. Most decent tones and presets will require separate purchases of gear, so worth checking out the available gear against your needs before pulling the trigger. But the bonus feature are the Bias Amp and the Bias Pedal apps. While they are separate purchases, they allow you to actually edit and make your own amps and pedals! Definitely worth checking out if you are an aficionado.
• Price and Pricing model: like with others you can get 'free' or 'cheap' versions straight from the store but then you have to buy additional amps and effects separately. Lots of bundles including genre-specific ones, and the ocasional all-in offer to look out for.
• Cloud back up system: very neat and effective. You can create an account on ToneCloud, push presets into the cloud and share, and get presets from other users. Easy to search by genre, artist or even songs. I was not a fan of the out of the box presets so all my current presets were built upon the ones I downloaded from the cloud.
• Digital Signal Processing features. While latency adjustments and background mode are expected features like on the other apps, I found sound quality to be head and shoulders above the others on this one. Really excellent job considering the limitations of an iOS environment.
• Guitar interfaces supported: also works well with all interfaces I've tried. Again vendor claims 'virtually all interfaces' so go for your iRig or Jam and you shouldn't have any problems. Tweaking of the input settings is allowed and recommended.
• Interoperability with recording apps: like the others, it supports inter-app audio and Audiobus so again you can use this with Garage Band or similar recording apps.
• Fringe benefits: ...galore.... not only the typical metronome and tuner, but also the ability to customise amps and pedals via separate apps, play with a drummer, make it look like a real rig. This vendor also had a physical bluetooth set of pedals but it was discontinued. They also sell plugin counterparts of this app for the same experience when using your DAW.
Want more info on their products ? Follow the link below:
The Other Ones
Many other options exists and it's virtually impossible to cover them all, but here are a few others worth of note:
• Mobile Pod from Line 6. It's neat and quite simple to use, but quite outdated in terms of technology, presets or cloud access. It stems from the Line 6 POD days and it certainly deserves an update or to be replaced with a Helix like amp. Fingers crossed !
• JamUp Pro from Positive Grid. The predecessor to Bias FX but with options to get lessons and learn songs as well.
• PocketAmp. Simple but claims iTunes integration.
Just type Guitar Amp or Guitar Effects in the iOS app store and heaps more will appear, but I believe the main ones are covered in this article. Some are integrated with lessons, sell their own gear, claim to decode original songs into chords you can play and all sorts of gimmicks.
My current app for mobile practice on my iPad is the Positive Grid Bias FX. I liked the compromise between features, sound quality, editing flexibility and cloud based store and preset sharing. I found Amplitube to be a bit below what I expected, and Ampkit didn't have all the bells and whistles the others did.
It's a matter of personal choice, however. As most of them have free versions with limited amps and effects, you can download them and try them out before purchasing further gear. Since they are generally inexpensive you can even hold many at the same time and use them in different situations.
One thing I did try: the idea of going virtual and running your guitar rig from an iPad with an app like this instead of owning a pedalboard or a dedicated multi-effects. Here are a few notes on that experience:
• You would have to turn everything off on your iPad and let it handle the app only when playing. It's ok to have a glitch or two while practicing because your friends tagged you in their latest facebook post or because you want to check out some cat photos on instagram, but band practice or live gig is a different ball game.
• No matter what you do, an app running on multi-purpose hardware and OS like the iPad is unlikely to beat the power of dedicated hardware, DSP and memory found in a Helix or a Fractal Audio for example.
• I hardly find the iPad to be ruggedised enough for on stage use unless it's sitting on your mike stand which then makes wiring and control more complicated.
Having said that, I read cases online of players doing small gigs out of an iPad running Amplitube with the BlueBoard switch for pedal control, so it is possible if you want to give it a shot.
The apps can be found in the iOS app store.