A 25-key MIDI keyboard? Really? You’re telling me you did that before making a nice Accordion Dock? Missed opportunity, if you ask me.

Apple added the ability to connect custom hardware to its iPhone and iPod touch platform last year, so it was only a matter of time before someone made a music hardware interface. Ion Audio, the budget brand of Numark/Alesis/Akai, gets there first, with the Ion iDISCOVER Keyboard. It docks your Apple mobile into a case with a 25-key MIDI keyboard, pitch and mod wheels, and preset buttons for patch and octave changes.

It’s just what many of us wondered when we first saw Apple’s hardware SDK; David Battino even suggested this very idea.

Of course, there is a slight problem. Part of the whole advantage of the iPhone is its mobility, which a huge honking dock tends to kill. (For less money, you could just plug a keyboard into your Mac, or buy a low-end CASIO or Yamaha keyboard.)

And then there’s the fact that most of the interesting music apps on iPhone don’t use MIDI keyboards. Ion has to provide their own app to fill the gap, which also makes me wonder whether this will work with any other software; I’m guessing not, but I’ll find out. Update: Word from the CES show floor is that Ion plans to open this developers; whether that’s anyone or just partners or even decided yet, unknown, though I hope to snag them at NAMM. Us hard-core geeks would naturally have preferred a standard MIDI interface, so you could use unusual sequencing apps with hardware synths. (Never mind; I’ll take a MIDI Command, instead.)

That raises another question, though — all due kudos to Apple for providing a hardware interface. When will we see third-party hardware support on a platform like Google’s Android? It seems the “open” philosophy of the platform would be best served by an open approach to hardware, too, and technically speaking, the job wouldn’t be that hard, thanks to the fact that Android runs a standard Linux kernel. That could allow any kind of controller — mass-produced or homemade — you want.

I’ve got lots of questions about the iDISCOVER, though; I’ll try to track down answers this week at NAMM. I’m not quite sure who would want this particular product, but it does raise some interesting issues about mobile music tech, especially given the earlier discussion this week.

Thanks to Derek Dumais for the tip. Oddly, Ion seems to have their own version of Akai’s mini-keyboard, too; it seems to be white instead of black but otherwise appears identical. (Consumers want white, pros want black?)

  • Whether this hardware is accessible to other apps is entirely up to Ion.

    Typically the hardware developer controls access to their accessory by controlling access to the external accessory protocols. They could easily make those protocols public if they chose to. Then any app could implement support. So it would be interesting to find out if ION intends to allow any or all third parties to use the keyboard.

    Also the protocol identifiers are enumerated in the header for the app so it would probably be easy to see these on a jailbroken iPhone. From there it maybe possible to hack access to the device. (I'm going to guess it acts a lot like a MIDI controller. Just a hunch.) The hardware developer can, however, implement authentication or encryption to prevent unauthorized use of their hardware and software by other software and hardware respectively. Hacking that would violate DMCA etc. No fun.

    Personally, I'm not wild about the design. I'd prefer something like a Korg or Akai mini-keyboard with a plug for the iPhone on the cable. (It's just USB or serial.) That way apps wouldn't be constrained to horizontal orientation. You'd be able to pick up the iPhone device and move it around to use the accelerometers or the compass for input. The Discovery IO appears to block access to the headphone/mic jack on iPod touch. The next generation device that's inevitably going to be a silly millimeter larger won't fit in that hole…. sigh.

  • i'm sure there are a few iphone/touch owners out there that don't own a DAW, but think it would be fun to have a little keyboard hooked up to their i-thingy. the software could be fantastic or sucky, but doesn't it open up a bit the idea of the i-thing as a sound-generating unit, and provide impetus to open up i-thing synth apps to external control?

    does the keyboard have built in speakers? then it's a self-contained (once you add the ipod) portable synth of enormous flexibility (uh, potentially) and maybe it's really cheap?

  • dubremix

    I am not sure this is useful. What purpose does it serve? Seems a bit like a gimmick.

  • Karl P

    Isn't "Ion" just a spin-off from Akai for the consumer market? The iPhone App has AKAI branding all over the place…

    Personally I think this is a good idea, as the iPhone has a nice display, wireless IP access etc. already, which would be too expensive for a standalone Casio. Think about simple online music collaboration or about music classes in school (the keyboard is there, pupils plugging in their own iPhone…)

  • dyscode

    I admit this seems at least interesting if a bit unreasonable. But the real trouble about it is, the iPhone Audio/MIDI/OSC standards are already starting to drift apart.

    ioLibrary fron Amidio, and AudioCopy from Retronymes are already two standards for Interapplication audio exchange.

    But these two company have not shown any sign of working together to make a defacto standard.

    Also the MIDI/OSC over WiFi Protocols from e.g. Silicon Studios iTM Series and Hexlers TouchOSC are already bidirectional.

    IF those companies would decide to worked together with the 'traditoinal' music companies they could establish an open defacto standard.

    so in essence: the absent of any defacto standard will be the pitfall for every hardware that will be produced for the iPhone.

  • tom vicky

    As much as this is marketed at a "stupid audience", I think it could be a step in the right direction. It's about time musician's allowed the consumer to make some decisions about what they are listening to. This could be really interesting with an interactive app such as RJDJ.

    I suppose this would have been a dj controller if they were really targetting splurge lightsaber app junkies. The mobile mobile technology has become and is an instrument. This controller is just an evolution that really isn't that important. But without it, what will be here in a year might not be as brilliant as it will be. So i suppose support i support it, and if it funcions as a normal midi controller as well and the price isn't bad, i might swap it for my axiom 25 since the pads/knobs are rubbish anyway.

  • Al Hogar

    I had no idea that Ion was also selling their own version of the Akai LPK25 keyboard controller…

    Oddly the Ion version has two more buttons than the Akai but I can't tell from the sparse info on the site what the functions are…

  • Alex

    This is lame…

  • I definitely think that OSC or midi over wifi is the way to go. This way you can play your iPhone apps without having a big piece of gear to lug around.

  • Paul Norheim

    In the future we may see a MIDI keyboard/Audio Interface for the coming Apple iSlate (and it`s rivals). That could be rally interesting…

  • velocipede

    Where are people finding pricing information about this device?

    Personally, I am surprised that it has taken this long since the iPhone platform was opened up to external devices for something like this to arrive.

    The audio output could be usable—too bad there is not an audio input.

    Anyway, this could be a lot of fun and useful even if it only works with the AKAI/ION app, as long as that app is halfway decent.

  • Synthmob

    What if you're in the middle of a gig with this and someone calls you on your cellphone?

    I would like a universal keyboard control for all of my synth apps – that would also have a MIDI IN so it can receive MIDI from my DAW and control the software apps… but I realize some of the apps themselves would need modification to accommodate actual MIDI data as input.

    V 2.0 maybe?

  • Matt Gnarly

    Something like this for Intua Beatmaker could be pretty cool

  • kevin

    @synthmob — airplane mode.

    I spoke with a representative from Ion about this at CES yesterday, as it's quite an interesting device from a mobile musician's perspective. Unfortunately, they didn't have an iPhone or iTouch in the device to show it off in action.

    My main concerns were flexibility and usability — do I have to use an Ion application for this device to work? what if I want to write my own application that uses the keyboard?

    While they don't really have much on display besides the concept, the rep assured me that they were doing their best to keep the protocols open and to support 3rd party software development. They're not to market with it yet, but the answers to my two questions above were no and yes, respectively, which is good news.

  • Kenwood Flanger Plun

    RichardL@ only in a world ruled by an O/S that is flawed by no provision of standardized communication to software are available. But that's what you get with the iPhone/iPod. It's a pda/pmp/smartphone with ACCESSORIES, not controllers or APIs dedicated for such use. This is gimmicry beyond no end because it just does not make any sense at all in the iPhone design. That doesn't mean a better smartphone/pmp/pda with a smarter and more standardized means of communication to external controllers and accessories (re:usb+midi or one of the hundred other solutions) won't come along.

    I've got some nitpicking with the original post too… to often you see people write "open" when regarding developement for anything Apple. That's BS. "Open" in Apple terms simply seems to mean "we now allow you to do this and here is an SDK, but X&Y you are not allowed to do and if you figure out how we'll destroy you." First, an SDK does not mean it's open.. it just provides an interface for programming, but there is no open development or use of the hardware. Do not confuse these terms as many people so often do. Second, I'm so tired and the rest is so obvious by now that it doesnt need spelling out. I'm not hating on Apple here.. I own alot of their stuff.. just point out a common abuse of the word Open.

  • salamanderanagram

    i like how their marketing says it comes with an app that provides "more than 24 sounds." the cynic in me immediately translates that into "25 sounds."

  • LOL.

  • eXist

    its small , so it works in vacation, or any other place. it fits good in the bag, and the Akai app i think will have some "gimmicks" , the question is. There where is that APP ?! , i will buy it if i find it on appstore, but i dunno the name yet.

  • Birds Use Stars

    It's a bit silly. I had a dream night though and this thing was in it. It was pretty neat.

  • low resolution sunse

    Well, gold star for effort, I guess.

    Going with the Ion brand implies rather strongly to me that it is going to be sold at retail outlets like Costco and Best Buy as opposed to Guitar Center or something, so I think that shows us quite a bit about who they think is going to but it.

  • apoclypse

    I think its cool, if only because I think using the iphone as the brains to controller would be cool. Its portable, which is what everyone complains about with software based sequencers (you need a laptop). Because its software you get the benefit of easy upgrades/more regular updates without requiring a whole new piece of hardware (unless you feel you need a new iphone).

    I think something like Maschine with an integrated audio interface and the maschine software on the iphone would be great. The interface then becomes instantly portable, at the moment its still portable but you still need two other pieces of gear on top of the controller itself (audio interface, laptop).

    As for the whole thing about using Android because its more open, unfortunatley that is not true. The software is definitely open, but there is such disparity between the hardware that it would become a nightmare to support. To top it off, not all Android phones have the latest OS or can even be upgraded. Its really a mess over there. While the whole open platform thing is true for the software, the hardware front still leaves much to be desired. The iPhone while definitely a closed garden has the benefit of having only one device, with multiple form factor true, but all use the same connectors and have the same OS on them (unless you don't upgrade for some reason). An iPod touch will work just as well as will a 1st gen iPhone.

    Right now Apple hasn't seen any music peripherals made for the device which is why you have so many 3rd party app developers trying to provide the functionality that is already present n OSX. I'm sure if enough developers asked for the feature Apple would port more of their Audio and Midi stack over to the iPhone. The capability is obviosuly there but is the demand there?

  • @apoclypse: I think you're exaggerating the challenges with Android. I'm disappointed that carriers have been slow to offer over-the-air OS upgrades, though that's gradually improving. (Sprint, incidentally, is the real problem; TMobile and Verizon have done a pretty good job.) But it's possible to target across these operating system versions, partly because the API differences between them at this point are pretty modest. Unless you're developing for a specific new API feature, it's not a big issue, and in that case you simply require a certain OS version (as some iPhone devs have done). In fact, from what I've seen it's easier to specifically target certain features on Android than iPhone. Hardware differences are likewise not the enormous deal people are making it out to be. It's pretty easy to query a device for its available capabilities. The other issue is supporting multiple resolutions. But I'll say this: none of this is a new challenge for development on either desktop or mobile. On mobile, Android is a hell of a lot easier than the other devices that have been around for years.

    There are things that are much, much easier on iPhone, it's true – but there are things Android does better, as well. It's mostly a matter of time and adjustment.

    I don't think it's too late for Google to do a hardware SDK. Those connectors, while sometimes physically different, are all flavors of USB. And you use USB drivers to talk to the phone when it's connected. I still could see it happening, especially with tablets on the way. And it'd open up the phone to a bunch of pre-existing Linux driver support.

  • @Kenwood: you're right; I was sleepy while writing this up and didn't mean to word it that way. 😉 Open to me would be having the ability to use standard Linux-style drivers, and if we don't see it on Android, I bet we *will* see it on one of its rivals (other Linux phones and tablets or even Google's own rival Chrome).

  • @ dyscode

    Unfortunately both ioLibrary and AudioCopy are proprietary interoperability "standards".

    @ Kenwood Flanger Plunge

    If you mean that all iPhone peripherals are app-specific accessories not general input controllers, then you are exactly right. (There are a few exceptions such TCP/IP over Wifi or cellular, wired video output and wired and Bluetooth audio input and output devices, and USB camera access (MTP/PTP?).) And I agree it is very flawed. Apple should at least provide support for a richer set of generic devices such as standard HID (e.g. QWERTY keyboards) and class-compliant MIDI controllers. Then they should also expose a mechanism to add generic drivers and I/O protocols to the OS. But they don't. As Peter points out, Android OS has yet to take up this cause either. Maybe if Android does it then Apple will follow suit.

    @ eXist > There where is that APP ?!

    The iDiscovery app is included with the hardware purchase. iPhone has a system whereby you plug-in or connect an iPhone accessory and the system will figure out whether you have any software that supports it and give you the option to launch that software. If you don't have any software for the accessory the iPhone will give you the option to go directly to the software in the App Store in order to download it.

  • @Richard: well, that's the funny thing, isn't it? I mean, ioLibrary and AudioCopy are at least solutions to a problem, if proprietary (and somewhat kludgy) solutions, partly by necessity of the circumstances.

    Of course, these are problems that have already been solved by things like HID.

    I don't know that Google has made a conscious decision not to support such things; I think they just haven't taken any action at all.

  • Meh


  • @Peter > or even Google’s own rival Chrome

    I don't think you will see music I/O on Chrome OS any time soon. The problems of supporting local devices on a secure generic web-app platform like Chrome OS are very difficult. Chrome OS has a hard enough problem just supporting printers and digital cameras (the details of which they have yet to disclosed). I imagine we will see a broader range of generic devices on Chrome OS over time, but everything on Chrome OS must come down from the cloud, and any drivers will have to get past many layers of security before they will be allowed access to the metal. Google could implement a protocol query and download system much like the iPhone OS's EA system. But it too would have to be locked up just like the iPhone to maintain the Chrome OS security model.

  • I'll admit, I haven't looked at Chrome – partly because, well, I just don't have much interest in it. I just find it odd that we're suddenly starting from scratch with all of these issues, given how much baked-in support there is in Linux, including *in the kernel*, and all the years of supporting this kind of hardware. Maybe all the time spent with Chrome and Android will actually convince people that run-the-mill desktop OSes like Ubuntu and Fedora are actually a more painless way to go for certain tasks.

  • @Peter

    ioLibrary is kludgy.

    AudioCopy is not a kludge, it simply uses the iPhone OS's standard mechanism for copy and paste, but its protocls are proprietary and closed by vendor choice not necessity of circumstances.

  • Chrome OS is really trying to solve a very different problem from Linux distros and Android. It's the problem of serving an entire OS down from the cloud to a generic device. In many ways architecturally it's more like the Unix X-terminals of the early 90's.

  • @Richard: True, but AudioCopy wouldn't be necessary if iPhone had an open file store any app could use, as Android does. (In fact, it seems well worth learning some of the lessons of how AudioCopy/AudioPaste does work effectively, as they'd be easier to implement in the other case.)

    I hear you on Chrome. But it's still based on the Linux kernel, which contains device driver support. And some of that support (like HID USB devices) is indeed the very definition of generic. So why can't they do both? (Maybe they can… it's still early days, and I haven't seen much of it yet.) There are also generic libraries for things like audio…

  • @Peter > True, but AudioCopy wouldn’t be necessary if iPhone had an open file store any app could use, as Android does.

    AudioCopy uses the iPhone OS standard pasteboard mechanism which really is just a file store any app or suite of apps can use based on access to the keys. The developer of the AudioCopy protocol has chosen to keep the access keys to that file store under their proprietary control which is certainly their right, but it has nothing to do with any control by Apple. The choice of open or closed is entirely in the hands of the software developer.

  • Ah, okay; I wondered how they had devised it. That's helpful; thanks! Now I have to read up on pasteboard mechanisms on both platforms. In fact, it'd be really nice to be able to copy and paste between devices over Bluetooth and Wifi, huh? 🙂

  • Chrome OS could certainly support generic HID and class-compliant MIDI. It's the non-generic devices that are problematic. If and when support for more generic devices will come is based on Google's priorities. They've got a lot of work to do. And although it's all live open source, it's not practically possible to create a branch based on the distribution architecture. But anyone can actually start working on the main tree. Maybe someone will take up the cause of adding things like MIDI devices or OSC to Chrome OS. That would be very cool.

  • Take a look at the PasteBot iPhone app. It allows you to share pictures and text on the iPhone's pasteboard with the Mac OS desktop pasteboard over Wifi. It only supports text and pictures because those data types are openly defined by the iPhone OS. But there's no reason audio clips or MIDI data couldn't be similarly openly defined.

  • Fantastic. And it'd be equally nifty to share, say, OSC control layouts clipped from machine to machine, too.

    Honestly, most of the audio and MIDI (and even video cam) stuff I use on Linux is already class-compliant, so that's fine. Heck, even the APC40 and Axiom Pro are class-compliant, so even these apparently-proprietary devices. 😉

  • JannisPablo

    what is this for a akai app on the i phone?

  • JannisPablo
  • Genjutsushi

    Its great! I hope that this will be a lame market leader that proves the concept for more serious investment from Akai into a version of their APC40 iPhone edition… or maybe not.

    Perhaps you could stick a guitar strap on it for some SH101 style action?

    I want an Ion iType… now that actually IS useful.

  • Angstrom

    Ok, really – looking at that image this is what comes to mind:

    "Yo Dawg, we heard you like electronic music, so we put a graphical keyboard in your graphical keyboard in your phone in you keyboard, so you can look at a keyboard when you look at a keyboard when you look at a keyboard."

    ah yeah.

    My point is – what the hell is going on with all those graphical keyboards on the phone on the keyboard on the keyboard?

  • Stij

    @Angstrom: Woah, yeah, I didn't even notice the third keyboard until you said something. Weird.

    I'm not sure if I understand the point of this…isn't the appeal of the iPhone is that it's ultra-portable? Doesn't a full-sized keyboard defeat the point of that? Like Peter said, you might as well use a laptop and a MIDI controller, if software flexibility is what you're after.

  • dubremix

    Actually, thinking about this it could be a nightmare. What if the user is playing this live though a sound system and they get GSM noise? The software better be smart enough to turn off the radio.

  • To let the iPhone be the synthesizer brain and just hook it up to a keyboard is cool. It's not about the iPhone, it's about making an advanced mini synthesizer. Today I guess the MicroKORG XL and stuff counts as mini, but compared to this it's pretty large. If this is usable or not is up to latency and configurability.

    However, I think the most exciting mini synthesizer is the upcoming OP-1 from Teenage Engineering. It has everything in one piece.

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  • Justin Reed

    if other app makers allow this hardware to work with their apps and it offers decent quality Audio outputs it'd be a real nice piece of upgrade. I have been in the market for a decent dock to 1/4" solution for some time…I won't hold my breath expecting high quality D/A Conversion here though.

    The ipod has plenty of muscle to work as a decent synth/sequencer brain. Lots of apps have taken advantage of the good enough hardware. (just dlded bebot and its blowing my mind!)

  • I'm not quite sure why everybody is so worried about the phone going off. You can easily disable the phone radio on this or any phone. And actually, once you do that, there's no reason an iPhone is going to be any less reliable than any other device – especially once we start talking computers. 😉 So I agree with others who say, this could be a cheap mobile 'brain.' And with the iPod touch (and other new mobile devices running Android, Linux, etc.), it's not really expensive, either, minus the punishing cell contracts.

    No, I think the bigger issue is:

    a) whether you really want another music gadget with this particular form factor

    b) how well this will work with other apps

  • so it seems like somebody just needs to build a ithing dock >to> USB/midi cable and away we go– tiny portable synth brain now connectable to any controller you want to use (including your GRID, pk 😉

    and why wouldn't a Novation or Akai, Alesis, etc. build an interface like this?

    seems like just a matter of time

  • Brand B

    You know.. I am currently using a Ipod Touch..on top of the display of my MPD32 to display the preset,mute groups, and volume sliders from MLR (via OSC). Less looking at the computer. Now think.. if RJDJ is already running PureData on the Iphone.. sky is the limit.

  • Yes, exactly. Pd is working on the iPhone, and I'm sure the Pd devs would love to make this work with Pd. 🙂 Ditto anything that happened on the Android side.

  • I don't have an iPhone and my phone costed 29€ to me..

    well, I wonder what would be the use of such a gadget when you will get sick of your wonderful iPhone (most probably within two years); personally, I own two MIDI keyboards: one since 2001, and one since 2009, and I don't plan to change them until they will cease to function. I simply feare the whole idea behind iPhone-centric devices.

  • I think Apple has gone of the deep end, everyday there is a new gadget. Some are good, many are not. Not sure I would want this one.

  • BC Thunderthud

    You refer to this a couple times as a "MIDI keyboard" but neither the product site or the pdf makes any mention of MIDI. Do you know something we don't?

    Obviously if this had MIDI ports on the back it would be way more useful (anyone remember MIDI sample dump?) but I don't imagine it does and I don't see any reason to assume it has any MIDI capabilities at all.

    Could you clarify?

  • Something that small seems kinda useless for intricate performance applications… but fun none the less… and a surprisingly useful on the go tool (a la public transit time killer)

  • ps if the itouching technology could be used as a controller as well then it would be nice

  • what a bad joke… composing music with a phone, on a phone. only you are not making music, you can agree that idea. ae

  • Moogatiu

    The Numark/Akai/Alesis/ION corporation has a long history of not making proper software and drivers to support their hardware. People are still waiting for them to release the NRPN's for the Micron from 2004.

    There won't be any software for this from the company. And the third party software will take a long time to arrive because the company just isn't interested in giving third party vendors the technical information they need to help Numark/Akai/Alesis/ION sell their products and make them better.

  • This is a really useless accessory, what would be way more interesting is a small accessory, with something like 4×4 I/O +midi (including preamps) with an open protocol for any sound and music app to utilize, effectivly opening up the possibility for the iphone to be turned into a synth.

  • Akai has released what appears to be the exact same product but in black: Akai iPK25

    They keyboard is $99 which includes some sort of voucher for the app. (I don't know of any way they can actually do that. But they'll figure something out.) The app alone is $10.

    It functions as a generic USB midi controller to a PC too.

    Akai has said they will make the keyboard interface freely available to other apps.

  • Hi, friends. I will wait for the iPhone MIDI Keyboard. It is a great device for me. Please, inform me, when the keyboard will be sell in the shops. I think, ION have to make next midi keyboard for iPhone for 5 or more octaves. And I'll buy it too. Thank you very-very much.

    Rim Hasanov, composer