How to use the iPad effectively as a singer and vocal coach

I am not shy to admit it:

My vocal coaching sessions have become so much easier since I own an iPad!

My teaching philosophy and content have not really changed (they are always evolving and dependent on the student anyway) – this has really nothing to do with the technology that is available to us these days. I can still remember the “good old days” of having to source sheet music in a library or music store though. What a nightmare! You could either never find what you were looking for, someone else had already borrowed it and you had to wait for at least 4 weeks, or you had to order stuff – and again sometimes wait a considerable amount of time.

The iPad doesn’t just offer great possibilities to source sheet music though, so I thought I would give you an insight into how I use my iPad, both as a singer and singing teacher.

iPad 2 with Smart Cover running iMovie.
iPad 2 (Photo credit: By Robert Scoble, via Wikimedia Commons)

Additional Hardware

I didn’t purchase much additional hardware since I don’t really need it as a singer/vocal coach. If you are an instrumentalist of some sort, you might want to purchase a bit of additional equipment (like MIDI connector kits etc), but for me, the following items do:

1. Good Headphones

We are musicians after all, and the built-in iPad speakers are not great to listen to music or your own recordings in my opinion. Pick whatever floats your boat, or you already have – the more musically sophisticated your usage of the iPad, the more you should of course invest in decent quality. I won’t recommend specific headphones for that very reason – all you should obviously look out for is that they fit into the 3.5mm headphone jack (I am not a big fan of adapters in that case).

2. A good quality speaker set

The choice is really big – I use a SONY SRS BT-100 wireless speaker, for the very reason that it runs via Bluetooth and therefore doesn’t occupy the 3.5mm jack, so you still have that one free for other purposes. You just need to make sure that you don’t need to charge your iPad at the same time. It only has 30W, but it is powerful enough for what I use it for in my home studio: To listen to music or to play back accompaniments (either streamed via Internet, or files I already have in iTunes). They don’t make these particular speakers anymore, but there are newer models that work in the same way. The great thing about them is that the sound quality is really superb for their output – and that they are portable, so you can carry them with you wherever you need them, and you don’t need to worry about sufficient cable length.

3. Some additional cables/adapters

This will especially be interesting if you don’t just want to connect a speaker, but let’s say your amp, or other hardware.
First of all: It is the very fact that the iPad doesn’t have a USB connector that makes some people shy away from it (because Apple in a way makes you pay through your nose for equipment you already have, but feel you need to purchase again just to be able to connect it to an iPad or iPhone). And whilst this sometimes IS true, you can work your way around it. Get:

a) Camera connector kit/USB adapter

I would really invest into the original Apple product, because the cheaper ones I’ve tried are very flimsy and don’t seem to work that well. The camera connector kit in a way doubles up as a USB connector, so in theory, you can connect any USB device through it. Be warned though: It is a bit hit and miss – especially devices that need a bit of power won’t always work. Don’t be taken aback by error messages though – you can usually just ignore them with one tap, and the device often works perfectly well.

b) Audio cables that connect to the 3.5mm jack

What connector you have on the other side obviously depends on what you need to connect it to – it could be a 6.35mm for your guitar, or a stereo 3.5mm, or…
Don’t scrimp on the quality of these cables – the cheap ones are awful and can create hissing, humming and all sorts of other unpleasant noises, so really invest in a decent set.
I, for instance, connect my P.A. through its auxiliary stereo channel – ta dah, and you have a lightweight, more portable and fully functional mixing and effects deck (more about that later)!

c) Microphone

The built-in iPad mic is okay for using Skype etc, but if you want to record vocals whilst e.g. rehearsing, or to capture ideas, it just won’t do in my opinion. I already have a wide selection of both dynamic and condenser microphones. I use them through my P.A. system, so usually, I don’t need to think about compatibility with the iPad. If you want to use your microphones: IK Multimedia brings out the iRig PRE soon, which will connect XLR microphones of any kind. If you use USB microphones with your desktop studio, you can try to connect them via the camera connector kit – some work, some won’t. I invested in an iRig microphone. It is a very decent condenser mic for the price, and more than enough for brainstorming, or recording coaching sessions/songs. It has the added advantage of a dual 3.5mm jack connector, so you can still use e.g. your headphones whilst the mic is plugged in.

Software/Apps

This is where it gets really interesting. Your iPad comes alive with the apps you put on it – some very good ones are even free, or you can get them for a very small price of often under £5. I will tell you a few of my favourite ones (apart from the built-in ones).

1. Books

I use iBooks and Kindle. Both are amazing for purchasing reference books/material you might need (and they free up significant floorspace in your flat ;)). They also double up as PDF readers, so you can keep a significant library on a virtual bookshelf.

2. Office

Be it for taking notes or simplifying payments – “there’s an app for that”!

I use the PayPal app for students who wish to pay via credit card. There are more sophisticated, card-reader-type apps out there, but I find PayPal does the trick, and it’s not like I have to use it all the time.
For sketching ideas, there is the free Documents app – it does text, spreadsheets and paint. If you have to type a lot, I would recommend to either connect a wireless/Bluetooth keyboard, or simply use your PC/Mac though.
Another great app is Skitch – it lets you brainstorm by drawing, recolour/edit existing photos or pictures, take photos and screenshots of webpages etc, and then save everything to e.g. Evernote.

I won’t go into too much detail about some of the apps that already come with your iPad, just so much: Having your contacts, diary and reminders handy is a godsend sometimes.

As for web-browsing: I find that Safari usually does, but there is no possibility to use Flash with it, so some webpages/applications won’t work. I found a nifty little app called iSwifter, which can be used for these “emergencies”. It can sometimes be a bit laggy since it runs through a remote server, but it does the trick if you absolutely have to use a Flash site on your iPad. You can try it for free first, and then upgrade to the full version for £2.99.

3. Sheetmusic/Lyrics/Tabs

This is of course more interesting for a musician/singer. Especially if you are a music teacher of some sort, you will find downloading sheet music to your iPad very handy. It saves you from purchasing whole books if you only want one song, and it also (again) frees up shelf space in your home. Last but not least, it makes sheet music so much more portable than schlepping around a trolley.

I will just give you a very short overview of the sheet music apps I use, I am sure there are more out there. The apps are mostly free, you just pay for the in-app purchase of your sheet music download (and prices vary considerably across platforms, so always cross check).

  • Etude by Steinway – rather a piano music app, but also very helpful for singers (quite a bit of vocal music for all styles in it as well).
  • MusicPad – you will need an account with MusicOnline.com for this. I just got it because I used to buy music through Freehandmusic in the past, and everything I had already purchased was also available to transfer to my iPad. I feel though this app is not quite as advanced as some of the others out there (it also crashes every now and again).
  • Musicnotes – same idea as the MusicPad, so you will need an account with Musicnotes.com. A far better working app though.
  • NoteStar – this works like Etude and is essentially a Keyboard app by Yamaha. Again, a lot of material for singers on it as well, even with demonstrations of the melody line.
  • Perform – this is actually just a sophisticated PDF sheet music reader. It lets you load all your sheet music, provided you have it as a PDF (it even has a built-in Google search). The great thing about it is that you can switch from swiping to scrolling mode if you need to change pages, the latter meaning you don’t need to manually turn pages anymore. Scroll speed is fully adjustable. You can try it for free, the full version costs £2.99.
  • SheetMusDirect – in my opinion the best (and most cost-effective) sheet music app out there at the moment. Very intuitive, great selection, transposing etc is really easy.
  • TabToolkit – for everything you cannot find sheet music for. It is basically a guitar tab / chords reader, the latter also being very handy for musicians other than guitarists – chord progressions at the push of a button (okay, sometimes you need to tweak them a bit)! Virtually nothing you cannot find on there. The app costs £6.99, but I think it’s well worth it.

4. Singing/Voice

Finally, I would like to introduce you to some apps which are specifically designed for singers, or come in very handy in a voice studio. The built-in Music app is of course the first one that springs to mind (for both just listening and playing back during rehearsal/coaching sessions). Another app that comes pre-installed is YouTube – if you ever need reference, you will probably find most of it on there. Always bear in mind though that not everything you might find is necessarily legitimate in terms of copyright.

Other apps I find very helpful/interesting are:

  • improVox – if you like playing around with vocal ideas, this might be one for you to try. It is essentially a vocal effects app (contains all the “traditional” ones like reverb and echo) and gives you the opportunity to create harmonies in different musical styles. It is only £2.49, so you hardly take a risk just trying it.
  • VocaLive – an app that comes with the already mentioned iRig microphone. You can get the free version even if you don’t have this particular microphone though. The full version is essentially a real-time vocal processor (£13.99). If you also want to record more than one track, you need to make another in-app purchase, which I find a bit over the top. Still, it is a very powerful app, and I sometimes connect it to my amp. For this, you plug in the iRig microphone, and then connect the whole iPad to your amp via the headphone jack (see comments about hardware/audio cables). This way, it provides you with different effects chains without having the need for an additional vocal processor or mixing desk.
  • SpectrumView and Do Re Mi Voice Training – I mention these apps together because I use them together. Maybe you have heard of a program called “Sing and See“? It is used to help voice students (especially those who react well on visual stimuli) with pitch control, the ominous “resonance” etc. In a way, you can build your own “Sing and See” with apps like those mentioned. Both apps are obviously not clinical voice software, so their use is limited. However, they can be very helpful to a certain type of student  – the visual learner. I had very good results with students who struggle with pitch control, so much that people who could barely pitch the right note are now always spot on. It is all about combining what the student sees, hears and feels, so they can then rely on their kinesthetic awareness alone at some point. It is not for everyone, and doesn’t work with every type of student, but it might be worth a try.
  • VoiceJam by TC Helicon – basically a looper, so if you like this type of vocal music, you might want to give it a try (very affordable at £4.99).
  • GarageBand – I don’t think any iPad should be without GarageBand (£2.99). It turns your iPad into a portable recording studio, you have virtual instruments at your free disposal, so it is great for sketching/recording ideas. It can also be used to record lessons and mail them to students straightway.
  • Tune TransFormer – a really great little app to change pitch and speed of any given sound file/playback in real-time. No more practising to tunes in the wrong key!
  • SoundCloud – if you want to share your recordings, probably the app to go for.

There are of course other things you could use your iPad for in a teaching context: You could even use it for Skype/Facetime sessions (although I prefer my Mac in that case), or record your lessons with the built-in video camera for later reference.

My list is by no means all-inclusive (albeit long enough), so please feel free to leave your own ideas in the comments section. I would be really interested to learn of other great ways to use it.

© Petra Raspel 2012

13 thoughts on “How to use the iPad effectively as a singer and vocal coach

  1. Thanks for this list! I also use iClassicalScores, an app which is connected to the IMSLP/Petrucci library and provides thousands of free classical scores, from simple etudes to full blown operas. All classical…..
    I also use Analyzer Pro, a spectrogram viewer, to analyse my sound and check harmonics and formants.

    Thanks again!
    Nande

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  2. Hi Petra! I run my whole studio off of my iPad!
    FiRe app for recording – extremely intuitive, allows editing if necessary, can record with two mics (student/teacher, requires a USB pre amp – I use PreSonus’s, with a powered USB hub, which allows you to uise the camera connector to connect ANYTHING). Then xfer files to computer or email them to student.
    Dropbox – easy way to share recording files
    AVID’s Sibelius Scorch app just like SheetMusic Direct. Allows you (through a download on a host computer) to play songs bought on their site, or songs bought in Scorch format on Musicnotes.com
    Docs To Go – a full office suite for lists, spreadsheets, etc.

    IPad is an amazing tool, only complaint is that I’m running out of space!
    Have a great day!

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  3. Great list Petra, and thanks for the additional tips Mark and Nande. I’m an iPad girl too 🙂 I have one only for a couple of months now but am finding it extremely useful. I like using it when I give presentations and lectures too (Keynote or project PDF presentations etc) – it’s so much lighter to carry around than the laptop. The iRig PRE sounds interesting, look forward to the release so thanks for the tip! And Mark, thanks for the tip on the FiRe app, I’ll check that one out too. Have a nice day!

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  4. Thanks for your article that I find very useful
    I come back to it now and then
    If I may ask 2 questions:
    How would you compare improvox and vocalive?
    I am not sure I understand when you say you use spectrum view and do re mi… Together? How do you do it?

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    1. Thanks for your comment!
      You can use Spectrum View and Do Re Mi together, but not at once – if that’s what you want to do, you would need a decent voice software, preferably on a desktop PC/Mac. You can however decide which aspect you want to focus on first: Pitching or certain harmonics, and then work accordingly.
      VocaLive is, imho, a more powerful app if you want to record and/or combine your iPad with an amp/P.A. – you can basically use it like either an effects rack or a recording studio.
      ImproVox is better suited for playing around with vocal improvisations and adding effects to your voice, but it only works well if you are mainly interested in acapella singing in my opinion. You can of course use it with playbacks/instruments live (or add them later), but if it’s mainly vocal effects for recording you’re after, it’s probably not the app to go for. It’s really more a tool for vocal improisation – hence the name 😉
      Hope this helps!

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  5. I use ForScore for keeping sheet music PDFs organised. The bookmarks system allows you to find songs easily in large books, and you can make annotations easily on the scores. It also has a half-page mode if you need the music larger.

    Box is a handy way of sharing recordings with students and I have used video recording a few times. Tenuto is also great for teaching theory.

    I’m going to look up some spectrum apps now. Sounds interesting…

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  6. Hi Petra, thanks for your really informative article. I have garageband and have also purchased a condenser mic which I connect through a cam connection kit. My only problem is, how can I hear music and sing at the same time on my ipad when recording a song? I have looked all over the Internet for an answer, with no luck 😦 if you have any tips I would love to hear from you. All I want to do is sing over a backing track. Thank you!

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    1. Hi, and thanks for your feedback!

      I never had the problem that I cannot hear the backing track, even with Garageband.

      A couple of ideas, no guarantees of course:
      If you connect your mic through a camera connector kit, the 3.5 headphone-jack should still work, and you should be able to hear your backing track through headphones and record at the same time. You would need to have at least two tracks in your Garageband recording: One for the backing, which you need to import IMPORT BEFOREHAND into GB (it doesn’t work if you play back through iTunes and then try to record for example), and a separate one for your vocals.
      I do this quite often to quickly record students during lessons, and they can always hear themselves and the backing track.

      Another idea is to invest in an iRig microphone. You connect it to the headphone jack, but it has an inbuilt headphone jack you can use for monitoring. Works with both Garageband or VocaLive – again, at least two separate tracks are required, one of which needs to be the imported backing track.

      Hope this helps – let me know how you get on 🙂

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