Browser-Based Music-Making Apps Are Pretty Great Now

But they won’t replace your hardware groovebox just yet

Key Takeaways

  • Panic’s in-browser Playdate game developing suite has an amazing audio app. 
  • Web apps are still limited compared to local, on-computer apps. 
  • Browser-based music apps are getting more powerful every year.
playdate pulp development tools used to make music in a browser

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

The Playdate is the hot handheld console of this year, and even its music-making tools are fun. 

Panic, the software developer behind the Playdate, is known for its polished-yet-fun apps for Mac and iOS. It just released a web-based tool, called Pulp (signup required), to build games for the Playdate. The standout might be the music-making app, which is like Ableton Live from the Game Boy age. Browser-based musical tools have become good enough for regular use, but will they take over like Google Docs or remain a niche for experimental types?

"I've worked with the WebAudio API extensively (among others, made a quite elaborate modular synth in it) and can confidently say that it's very exhaustive and the specification has also become pretty stable recently," musician and audio software developer SevenSystems told Lifewire via forum message.

Not Just For Web Browsing

The web browser is one of the most demanding apps on your computer or phone. Just think about the web apps that run inside it, from complex suites like Slack to a zillion twitch-speed browser games to surprisingly deep Photoshop alternatives. So why not music apps? The WebAudio API, a framework that lets developers make music apps for the browser, is easily powerful enough to build complex, full-featured apps. 

The standout might be the music-making app, which is like Ableton Live from the Game Boy age.

"You can technically create an entire, sophisticated DAW with it, including complex synths, audio tracks, pretty much any kind of effects, spectrum analyzers, oscilloscopes, LFOs, envelopes, etc... all with sample-accurate timing," says SevenSystems. 

It's also fun.

"That said, the web audio API is really fun to program for. I did a free course on building synths using it a few years back and really enjoyed it. I've built a web drum machine, too (not actually useful, more a demo/learning toy). It's amazing how powerful that tech is and how easy it is to get going," electronic musician Octagonist told Lifewire via forum message.

Panic's Pulp tools are one great example of the modern browser's capabilities. The Sound tool is a quirky throwback to olden times, just like the monochrome Playdate console, and even though its music sequencer is sophisticated, its bleeps and bloops hardly tax the browser. 

Tahti music sequencing app for the web

Lifewire / Charlie Sorrel

Tahti is an even more impressive music app for the web—a full-featured sequencer that acts a lot like Elektron’s $800 Digitakt. It even lets you load your own samples. In fact, Tahti is so good that it really should be turned into a proper app for the iPad or iPhone. 

But why? Why do we prefer local apps over web apps?

Speed and Safety

The most obvious downside of a web app is that you need an internet connection to use it—although some apps can cache their resources and operate offline. Another historical barrier has been safety. If you ever wrote a long forum reply or blog post in the browser and lost it when the page reloaded or crashed, it’s likely you gave up on web apps right then.

But that’s also old news. Google Docs, for instance, never seems to lose anything, no matter how bad your connection or how crashy your browser is. 

Even speed isn’t a problem anymore. Browser apps are connected to the internet, but many of their resources are stored locally, loaded when you open the page. That means your audio files don’t necessarily have to be streamed from the web every time you play them. 

It’s amazing how powerful that tech is and how easy it is to get going.

But there are still problems with web apps when compared to local apps. One issue is still the transfer of files. If you want to edit a video, large photo, or audio clip, getting it in and out of a web app requires uploading at some point. That’s always going to be slower than working with files on your local disks. 

The other barrier is connectivity. For a music app to be useful, it has to connect to your existing apps. In Ableton Live and Logic, third-party apps exist as plug-ins. On iOS, apps can easily send their audio to each other modularly. But without using clunky routing workarounds, it’s hard to include the web browser in these setups. And even if you can, there may be problems getting things synced up—syncing is still a problem with regular music software.

For most people, a web app works great, but once you need more performance or deeper features, a professional will use a regular app every time. And that’s fine because each approach has its advantages.

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