Missing the point

A lot of people must have just read my headline last week about iOS music production, and missed the larger point I was making. I didn’t say there’s no potential, or that iPads will never be useful. I pointed out flaws with iOS, the operating system. The persistent sandboxing, and lack of ability to share data or audio files between apps. The problem is not with iPads, touchscreens, or lack of ports or anything silly like that.

The problem is that the inherent design of iOS creates the need for weird workflows. I don’t mean new workflows, I mean *weird* workflows. Here’s an example, taken from Chip Boaz’s well written article defending iPad use:

It’s not impossible though; after spending quite a while using audio copy/paste for musical creation, I’ve developed a very productive iOS workflow.

If I’m not mistaken, this workflow is the exact method I outlined in my video – I guess it depends how you define productive. Did it work? Yes. Was it efficient? No. Did it inhibit creativity? Absolutely. Did it hamper production quality? Most likely. A true professional, obsessed with sound quality and production value – might want to use an iPad for production but simply cannot yet do this.

It’s particularly telling that the example video Synthtopia posts in defense of iOS music production is performance driven. Is iOS as a performance system revolutionary? Absolutely! Here’s a short list of gear the iPad basically renders obsolete:

  • MPC samplers
  • Jazzmutant Lemur
  • Video samplers
  • Analog non-MIDI synths
  • Korg Kaosscilator
  • Simple DJ setups (kind of – if you’re ok with mono output)
  • Handheld recorders
  • Drum machines
  • Loop pedals
  • Simple direct-to-CD recorders
…the list could keep going on. Serious musicians can definitely use the iPad as a stage-based performance tool, no question. I never said this wasn’t possible. I also never said the iPad might not be an appropriate tool for beginners. Obviously, it’s good at displaying simplified aspects of production that appear friendly to mainstream audiences.
It, however, is not yet possible to fully mix and master a recording on an iOS device, and obtain the high caliber sound expected of a conventional workstation. I would like very much to be able to use my iPhone or iPad or future iGadget for full-on music production. Until that day comes, I do not recommend teaching audio on them, or using them as the central production device. Honestly, I don’t think anyone else is seriously recommending this either.
[P.S., markLouis is the “winner” of today’s comment thread for this quote gold from Brian Eno]:

My guitar only has five strings ’cause the top one broke and I decided not to put it back on: when I play chords I only play bar chords, and the top one always used to cut me there. — Brian Eno


Beyond a mountain of well-reasoned, passionate arguments – using what “works for you” will always work best.

Author: Will Kuhn

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

5 thoughts on “Missing the point”

  1. Thanks for the mention. FYI, there have been times in my life when I’ve broken a string and couldn’t afford a new set, so I had to make do with five strings. I know it’s possible. And it even encourages you to learn good sets of four-note 7th chords and moveable scales. But, when I can, I try to string up all six strings.

  2. Hey Will –

    Thanks for responding to the article, I’m glad that you got a chance to check it out. I’m glad that this conversation is continuing between various sites; I think it’s an important one – it’s definitely one that a lot of people have strong opinions about!

    I wanted to point out a few things in the conversation. I agree with you completely – the iPad isn’t totally in a place where it can be a centerpiece for studio production just yet. I think that it will get there and I do believe that in the near future, we’ll be using the iPad for some production heavy lifting; I also think that there’s a lot to be gained from using an iPad for musical production today – there’s a lot of fantastic applications.

    I do want to contextualize the quote you pulled from the article a bit; before that piece, I did preface things with this statement:

    I’ll certainly agree that audio copy/paste is not the most ideal way to make music; complete integration makes for a smoother workflow.

    Like you said (and pointed out quite well in the video), it’s a bit of a weird workflow that we’re not quite used to; I was just trying to point out that it does get things done, it just takes some getting used to. At first, it was a bit clunky and awkward, but after really digging into it for a while, I find that it puts me in a pretty creative space. I’d encourage you to check out my SoundCloud page where I’ve got lots of iPad only compositions that I put together through that process. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not for everyone; I just don’t think people should discount it.

    Again, I agree with you, the lack of data sharing and audio file sharing is really a drawback, but I think we’re right around the corner from the next step there. As I said in the article, Virtual MIDI now allows you to share MIDI data between apps, which is really productive. Unfortunately, it’s not a standard just yet, so not all app developers integrate it into their products. Audio sharing is the bit elephant in the room, but a group of developers are putting together an API called Audiobus that allows for that exact process. I think that will take some of the weird out of the workflow and put things on the right track.

    I tend to put music together completely on an iPad, but as I pointed out in the article, I think that’s a bit silly to expect of everyone. It certainly works as one piece of the overall studio environment, and in some cases, it becomes much more effective in that respect. I pointed out a few examples in the article, so I won’t rehash all of that here; I do want to say that overlooking an iPad as part of the overall studio seems a pity at this point.

    I do think that you’re right on the fact that an iPad makes a great live performance tool. As you pointed out, there are plenty of great apps to make that happen – I don’t think that’s the end of the story though. There have been recordings that have been fully composed, mixed, and mastered on iPads – Gorillaz and Smite Matter to name a couple. Just search through SoundCloud and you’ll find tons of music put together on iPads. Yes, there is some poorly mixed and mastered stuff there, but there’s some really good work too. I would certainly encourage people to learn and use iPads for music production, if not for what’s possible now, but to be prepared for the future.

    But you’re right, the bottom line is what works for you will always work best. A desktop DAW is simply a tool and an iPad is simply a tool; I think that people should be aware of what’s possible and then use what works best for them.

    1. Good thoughts.

      I think clunky workflows stand out on iOS much more than they would on a desktop – simply because lots of other workflows are extremely seamless on iOS. Compare desktop iWork apps to their iOS counterparts. The iOS ones have superior file management, iCloud integration, and far smarter ways of presenting complex actions like animating Keynote slides. Clunky workflows feel totally out of place in a computer where other workflows actually benefit from new metaphors.

      In addition, while Virtual MIDI and Audiobus are great ideas, they won’t solve anything without an official solution for audio streaming baked into iOS. Let’s say Audiobus is awesome and every app starts using it. If iOS gets a big update, those apps will all potentially have to deal with system changes and the possibility of not working anymore. If Apple officially supports/publishes an API for audio sharing (or for goodness’ sake a common shared folder all apps can access) then we can consider it a giant leap forward.

      As far as being the center of the studio, never gonna happen. No matter what advances come, certain tasks will still benefit from larger screens. Maybe the iMacs of the future will be overgrown iPads, but the iPad as we know at 10″ diagonal simply isn’t the right tool for this job. It reminds me of an IT professional I know once asking what video editing software runs well on Netbooks – as if the most powerful Netbook in the world would have a chance at being a good editing tool with the tiny screen.

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