The implications of an iPad dock synth.

Most people performing with a synth today have two options: use a dedicated synthesizer, or use a controller paired with a laptop computer.

Most people who choose the latter pair their keyboard controller (usually a USB device that doesn’t make sounds on its own) with a full featured program on the computer. There is a big problem with this as these apps are designed for music editing, mixing, and other decidedly “non-performance” tasks. Apps like Mainstage attempt to give performers a setup that makes more sense, but in my experience Mainstage has a somewhat steep learning curve for what it does, and is still only available as a component of a DAW program. In short, it still does not bridge the gap between a proper performance keyboard and a computer editing-style setup that’s been tricked into performing.

The Akai Synthstation 49 is a great attempt at bridging this gap through the use of the iPad. It is basically an MPK49 but with an iPad dock built in. There’s some software that is bundled with it but you can use it with any app that supports MIDI over the camera connector.

The device really doesn’t bridge the gap on its own. The iPad itself does. Why would an underpowered gadget like the iPad outclass a full computer, especially when a keyboard is obviating the touch interface?

Answer: less is more.

The perfect app isn’t here yet. But there are lots of apps that have the right idea. Take a look at stuff like Thumbjam, Bebot, NLog Pro, and the Korg iMS-20. Some of these apps have some light recording and sequencing features, but they’re really all instrument. They are the natural extension of the advanced knobs and settings you’d normally find on a really expensive synth like a Nord Lead or a Fantom, but they are cheap apps on a moderately powerful mobile computer.

It’s really the limitations of the app store approval process and the hardware itself that makes these types of apps the default, and I’m of the opinion that this isn’t a bad thing. There are a lot of musicians who could care less about plugins, return tracks, and arming tracks and just want to make some interesting sounds to play live. These apps bring that idea to the mainstream.

With the inclusion of coreMIDI in iOS 4.2 and the ability of the camera connector kit to accept MIDI messages to any USB keyboard, the iPad is very much able to perform in a live environment in place of a standalone synthesizer.

My dream looking at the year ahead:
a big music software company releasing a plugin-style version of features from their full app on ipad. Picture the Simpler and Impulse instruments from Ableton or Subtractor from Reason in app form and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s very much possible that Apple will pass over doing a clone of GarageBand in favor of doing something more MainStage-like for the iPad. Imagine an EXS24 sampler on an iPad. The possibilities are very exciting.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.

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