Some Developers Are Offering Their Music Apps Free During Lockdown, but How Accessible Are They?
To encourage us to stay at home and get creating, several developers are giving away their music creation apps for free Since so many visually impaired people are musicians, it would make sense for these companies to incorporate accessibility into the design of their apps.
Far too often, however, for screen reader users, music software is difficult to use at best. On iOS and iPad OS, developers usually take advantage of the touchscreen to create a visually appealing interface, sometimes with controls that look like what you'd find on an analogue synth, mixer or other gear. If these controls are non-standard, VoiceOver won't be able to interact with them unless they have specifically been made accessible. If you're working with an on screen instrument, you want to touch the instrument and instantly hear it play, but VoiceOver users double-tap where other users tap once, so touching an instrument will announce what you've just touched, but won't play the note. Apple has provided a solution to this problem: developers can designate an area of the screen that VoiceOver users can interact with in the same way as sighted users. If you touch that part of the screen with VoiceOver turned on, it will behave in the same way as if you touched it with VoiceOver turned off. This is called 'direct 'touch. If developers don't use direct touch in their apps, it will be difficult or impossible to play an on screen instrument with voiceover turned on.
That's why, when I found out that several companies are giving away their music apps for a limited time, , I wasn't expecting many of them to be accessible, but since they're free, I decided to give them a try. I tested six apps on my iPad, and most had significant issues for VoiceOver users.
The next three I tried, Synthmaster One, Minimoog Model D Synthesiser and GeoShred Play are better, but still not fully accessible. All three have playable on screen instruments, but none of them use direct touch, so after the app has launched, you'll need to turn VoiceOver off and then touch the bottom of the screen to play. All three have controls that VoiceOver can navigate, but many of them are poorly labelled and can't be adjusted, so as a VoiceOver user, you'll be very limited in which settings you can change.
In my brief testing, I found Minimoog Model D most useable; most buttons are unlabelled, but I managed to select from the list of presets. Once you've selected from bass, classics, effects, keys, lead, pads or percussion, you'll be able to browse through a list of presets of that type. The easiest way to get back to the list of categories is to relaunch the app. In Synthmaster One, it's possible to move to the previous or next preset, using the buttons labelled &< and &>, but I didn't find a way to choose one from a list. In GeoShred Play, Most of the controls have sensible labels, but VoiceOver can't adjust them, so you won't be able to do much more than turn on or off the backing track, turn VoiceOver off and play along.
Finally, Korg is offering its iKaossilator free for a limited time. This app, for producing dance tracks, has VoiceOver accessibility built in. It uses direct touch, so you'll never need to turn VoiceOver off. Its buttons are clearly labelled. Of the six apps I tested, this is the only one I can fully recommend to VoiceOver users.
It's disappointing that so many music creation apps have serious accessibility issues. However, I want to stress that I don't mean to criticise the developers of these apps in particular. Many other music creation apps have similar problems, and these are just the ones I took the opportunity to try while they were free. I'm glad these companies are providing a way for people to keep themselves entertained and do something creative during lockdown, but it would be nice if VoiceOver users could join in.
As always, please keep the discussion going in the comments. Are you aware of more accessible apps offered for free or reduced in price during lockdown? Do you know any workarounds for the apps mentioned in this post? What have been your experiences, good or bad, with music creation apps? Are you using your Apple devices to do something creative? Please let us know.
It is true that many music creation tools are not accessible, but I plan to try Logic, of course. Does anyone like Reaper for Mac or Logic as far as voiceover usability is concerned? I hav garage band on iOS, but I find it a bit odd and I forgot some things, but does Reaper for Mac work with voiceover? I’m on the Reaper mailing list, but most of those guys are windows users. As for that Korg oscilator thing, it might work if I had a Korg keyboard, which I have seen Korgs before, and they’re nice. How much would a Korg mini keyboard cost? And what is the accessibility rating on that? I might have to settle for a complete control from Native Instruments myself to interact with everything on Mac or iOS.
Reaper is by far the most customisable DAW I've heard about. You can create shortcuts for more than 2000 functions. There is a plugin called osara, which creates a keyboard map for a lot of basic stuff you'd want to do. It is really a tom of stuff so I recommend you search for it.
I admit this is shameless plug but...
Synth One is VoiceOver ready.
It seems pretty good. But since my Iphone SE screen is quite small,I won't be able to use it for some time.
Thanks for helping winnow the list of possible music apps to play with. Nothing is quite so wearing as taking the time to download an app and discovering that there is nothing you can do with it because it is so inaccessible. I have a mandolin, the kind made of wood with metal strings, next to my comfy chair and it is 100% accessible. The interface is great, but the music it produces is still way to dependent on talent. Thanks for sharing your observations.
They sound great! I love the light chorus effect of the unison tuned strings.
Staque, thanks for letting us know about Synth One. I’ve downloaded it and played with it a bit, but I’m looking forward to exploring it in more depth.
Morgan, I enjoyed your comment, thanks. They might add some new features to the mandolin, so it automatically corrects mistakes, but they’d probably break the accessibility at the same time.
Being a multi-million dollar company recognized as one of the biggest in the music industry, and deciding you don't have the resources to add some accessibility to your music app so everyone can enjoy it. Kudos to Korg; their app is and always has been great. And thank you for putting together this list. I'm re-downloading iKaossilator and checking out Synth One now.
Hi denverqueen, if RWP is the mailing list you were referring to, questions and discussion about Mac accessibility are always welcome, just in case you were in any doubt. It's true that we currently have more Windows users overall, but a good amount of knowledge is transferable between the two environments, and the Mac contingent is growing slowly.
In case you didn't already know, there's a good series of podcasts that were made by a Mac user called ReaProducer. Searching for ReaProducer in whichever podcast catcher you use would getcha the feed, or if you're not into podcasts, there's a standalone site at www.reaproducer.com.
Hope that helps a bit. Maybe see ya on list in due course :)
Hey Staque, lucky you're not afraid of a shameless plug because somehow this slipped totally under my radar. From a speculative poke around, Synth One seems really good. Do you have any plans for a VSTI version, per chance? I'd love to have another accessible synth in my DAW, because I find myself relying heavily on MIDI editing for most synth parts here. I'm more of a guitar player really, so pointing and jabbing my way through synth parts is about all I'm capable of lol.
One more comment and then I promise I'll stop flooding the thread (seems I don't come on here often enough). Just wanted to say thanks for a great rundown Lysette. It's a big shame that so few of the options you tried were accessible. Have you made any contact with the relevant developers to make them aware of Direct Touch, using standard UI Kit elements etc? I have a lot of those conversations re music-making software for Windows and Mac here, but haven't really scratched the surface of what's possible in that space on iOS yet.
I am trying Synth One with the original iPhone SE. I enjoy trying the different presets. I wonder if Synth One will work with the SE 2.