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.