What we're buying: Elf Audio's Koala Sampler

An easy and affordable way to sample music and create beats.

This week, Senior Editor Billy Steele indulges his inner DJ with a $4 app.

Billy Steele

Billy Steele
Senior News Editor

When it comes to synth, drum machine and other useful audio apps, they can be pricey. The Minimoog Model D app is $15, and there are several similar options in the $30 range. Those are certainly well-built pieces of software, but asking a novice to spend that much on an app is a tough sell. Thankfully, Elf Audio has created an easy to use, but still highly capable sampler app that only costs $4.

I'm no music producer, but I do enjoy tinkering with synths, drum machines and other noise makers. I also hate spending money, so Elf Audio's Koala sampler app was perfect for me. Getting started is easy: you just use your iPhone or iPad microphone to record your voice or other noise. There are eight mic effects so you can alter those sounds from the jump. Once you have a bank of noises you like, swipe over to the sequencer and tap out a loop. From there, a set of DJ effects allows you to tweak the sound further while your clips play.

Even though I'm no pro, features like MIDI control and the ability to export to Ableton Live Sets or WAV files cater to those at higher skill levels. You can also jam with other people over WiFi via Ableton Link. The only real downside to Koala is it's iOS-only, but other than that, it's crazy fun to use. I typically use it to make tunes with my five-year-old son. He loves things that make noise, including this app that lets him make insane sounds and turn them into something (somewhat) useful. Even if you have no experience with a sampler (I didn't), you'll be making clips in minutes.

Eventually, I want to introduce my son to things like the Korg Volca line and other more advanced instruments. For now, something that's easy to use, doesn't take up space and costs less than a kid's meal is the ideal scenario for us. It didn't take him long to record samples on his own, master the DJ effects or use multiple fingers to tap out a beat. You have to start somewhere, and there are much worse places to do so than a cheap app. Especially if it's one inspired by J Dilla's use of the Boss SP-303.

Of course, the now discontinued SP-303 is much more robust than Koala. It offers 26 on-board effects alongside a real-time pattern sequencer, memory card (SmartMedia) compatibility, 8-note polyphony and a lot more. It was designed for professional DJs to do their sampling without (completely) breaking the bank. The SP-303 has been replaced by the SP-404A at this point, but you can still find them used for around $350-$400. Indeed, that's a sizeable investment for a novice DJ or aspiring producer.

Koala can help you get a handle on the basics, and its more advanced tools will give you new challenges once you get going. Even if you have some beat-making experience, this app is still really fun to use, especially since you can create samples with any noise you make or hear around you. And for $3.99, that one heck of a deal.

"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.