Guest blogger Guy Burton shares some points to consider before diving head first into the diverse universe of iPad music apps.
New Form Factor
The iPad was introduced by Apple in 2010, and since day one it has been used for music production. Apple themselves got into the game with GarageBand for iPad in 2011, and regularly push music production and DJ apps on the front page of the app store. For those who don’t already know, there is an app equivalent of nearly every kind of music software available for desktop- from DAWs to plugins, synthesisers, samplers, drum machines, groove boxes, FX processors etc.
With the current generation of iPads, the processing power and RAM available means that the key differentiator to desktop platforms is the form factor- the touchscreen. Apps that embrace this, offering a user experience designed around multitouch, tend to do well, where apps merely aiming to make a desktop app portable tend to fall flat. Usability can be subtle- knobs and sliders are nicer to use on a touch screen than via a mouse especially since they can utilise multi touch. However if screen elements are too small for one’s fingers they are nearly useless. At the other end of the spectrum apps such as TC-11 are designed from the ground up as instruments for the multi-touch interface- utilising not just the screen but the devices gyroscope and accelerometers to detect movement in three dimensions.
The task I most frequently use my iPad for is unglamorous- as a midi controller. It’s not as tactile as a physical controller, but it is wireless, doesn’t take up any desk space, and is extremely versatile. The most obvious and compelling app here is Logic Remote (if, and only if, you use the Logic DAW on desktop). This app allows you to control Logic in one of several full screen modes- a virtual mixer, step sequencer, keyboard and chord pads. Though you can control most instrument or audio plugin parameters using generic sliders, the channel EQ, remix FX, and Alchemy synth have ‘first class’ UI’s and are thus the most useable. Obviously playing keyboard on a screen is not going to win you any performance awards, but it is surprisingly effective for quickly programming synth parts or auditioning presets. Another useful MIDI controller app is midiLFOs which can output up to 4 low frequency modulated CC messages, either via MIDI over bluetooth, WIFI, or via an external interface.
Synths and Samplers
There is a wealth of sound generation apps available to suit all tastes. I will name but a few of my favourites as examples- Koala, a quick and dirty replacement for the Roland SP404, AudioKit SynthOne, an open source two oscillator subtractive synth with some great microtonal options, and Tardigrain, a granular sampler. The issue on iPad isn’t finding apps that sound good, it’s finding apps that are stable and well supported by their developer. Since the asking price for apps is generally low compared to VST/AU plugins, most apps seem to receive fairly minimal support once released. This generally manifests as long standing bugs, or missing features some deem crucial such as MIDI clock sync. I would recommend reading the reviews and looking at how often apps have been released in the last year before spending more than the price of a beer.
Dealing with issues
Whilst there are full DAWs (Cubasis and AUM for example) which can make your iPad work as the brain of your setup, there are also many issues with this workflow. Personally I find using multiple apps and plugins at the same time on a small screen, without a keyboard, to be confusing and laborious. I will share with you my main takeaway from several years of working with the iPad: choose one thing for which you want to use the iPad and focus on that. Think of it like a Swiss army knife with both a knife and a fork attachment- you can’t effectively use both at the same time. In practice this means I don’t try and use it as a sampler capturing the output of another app; when using it as a synth I plug the audio outputs into my mixer to record in Logic; if I want to control the synth with a sequencer I do that via MIDI from Logic rather than some other app, and I don’t try and use Logic Remote to control the session until firmly in the mix down stage.
If you have an iPad and have yet to use it for musical purposes, I highly recommend you have a go, as it can be both entertaining and productive. Don’t just stick to the brands you know (Native Instruments, Moog, Korg etc) nor the top 10 suggestions from the app store itself, but dive in and explore the whole range of what is available, and find some new musical inspiration.
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Guy Burton is an amateur singer-songwriter with a keen interest in music technology and production. Guy is a software developer by trade, though his forays into audio and midi tools rarely graduate beyond experiments.