2010, meet 1984. For all the wonderfully-futuristic qualities of the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, electronic musicians have reason to scoff now and then: sometimes you want to be able to plug into good, old-fashioned, physical MIDI hardware.

Line 6’s MIDI Mobilizer is a nifty little gadget that provides MIDI input and output via the Apple Dock Connector, on iPhone, iPod touch, and (while it’s not listed on their site at the moment) iPad. As-is, it’s a decent purchase, but as was the case with MIDI on the computer back in the 80s, software is really the key. Line 6’s bundled MIDI Memo Recorder app does basic recording and playback, but that’s it. It’s very cool to be able to use your iPhone or iPod touch as a pocketable MIDI recorder, but with all the unusual software designed for the platform, why not grant MIDI to everything?

Since the announcement of MIDI Mobilizer earlier this year, we’ve seen a couple of apps that have expanded what it can do. But open development is clearly what we’d need to make this hardware truly useful. And this week, it appears, we’re getting just that: Line 6 has announced they’ve decided to make its SDK open to all interested developers, not just a handful of selected partners. (You still have to send them an email, but they otherwise say it’s free.) MusicRadar catches the story, and asks, iPhone and iPad to get more MIDI-capable apps?. I don’t want to go out on a limb before I know all the details, but I’d reply, “iPhone and iPad to get more MIDI-capable apps!”

Here’s a look at what MIDI Mobilizer can do currently, and the new developer announcement. (For an overview, see SonicState’s review on the iPad, top. And yes, I’m jealous of your Jupiter.)

MIDI Mobilizer Features and Reviews

Basic MIDI backup and playback, what Line 6 describes as “MIDI memos,” is already pretty useful, especially on the pocket-sized iPhone and iPod touch. That’s the reason that back in the MIDI hardware heyday, MIDI recorders were readily available.

A number of the existing reviews focus on this feature. Line 6, for their part, sums it up:

And here’s a test by our friend, PalmSounds:

Line 6 also demonstrates how to use the MIDI Memo App for backing up MIDI settings.

Matrixsynth has an excellent, extended written review from back in May:
Direct MIDI for the iPad is Here

Additional Apps

Line 6 worked with developer Audiofile Engineering to develop MIDI Surface, a US$5.99 app that makes iOS devices into a MIDI controller device, with keyboards and pads, via the MIDI Mobilizer hardware. That’s handy, though still not quite in the territory of killer app, just because a velocity-sensitive keyboard or set of pads is still going to be more playable. (There’s also not yet a native iPad version.)
MIDI Surface – iTunes link
MIDI Surface on Palm Sounds

MIDI Live, by Garren Langford, went further, with an app that allows realtime modification, though the interface is more than a little primitive and the app costs GBP23.99.
iTunes link

An Open SDK

I raised concerns and had some harsh words for the iOS platform earlier this year when Line 6 first announced the restrictions on developing for the device. It may have seemed I was simply savaging Apple’s platform, but I at least got feedback from iOS developers that my criticism wasn’t far off the mark. It was unclear at the time – partly because of vague wording on the part of Apple – how much fault could rest with Line 6 and how much with Apple’s hardware platform in general, though at least some blame fell in the latter category.
Of MIDI, iPhones and iPads, and a Restrictive Future for Hardware?

As I concluded at the time, though, I wasn’t going on a rant just because I like the sound of my fingers against my QWERTY keyboard – I hoped the situation would change. Whether via technical changes in Apple’s SDK, changes in the legal agreement Apple makes with developers (a Byzantine document for us non-lawyers to navigate), or some combination, Line 6 has had a change of heart.

MusicRadar’s Ben Rogerson reports:

“With Apple’s new iOS 4 it is now possible for any developer to create MIDI-enabled applications that work with MIDI Mobilizer,” explains Marcus Ryle, SVP of New Business Development at Line 6.

“As an open invitation to developers, we are now providing the SDK at no charge, and are not charging any license fee or royalty.”

Hopefully, this should kickstart the development of MIDI-capable iOS apps – requests for the SDK should be sent to MMdeveloper@line6.com.

I think the potential here is terrific. Sure, not everyone wants to use mobile platforms. Not everyone owns an iOS device. But in the long run, I’d hope that across mobile and desktop platforms, hardware and software, we retain the kind of standards that have made the desktop electronic music revolution possible. That means interconnected software and hardware and steps forward, not backward.

In fact, I imagine high on the priority list could be things like MIDI compatibility with cross-platform versions of Pure Data (Pd) running across desktop and mobile — something that’s very doable, by the way.

Important caveat – “open” probably doesn’t mean free. I expect the SDK itself would not be open source, so it would mean for a project like Pd, having to rely on a non-free license for a dependency. That’s something that, should Android finally get support for this, should be made entirely free on Android. Nor does that preclude commercial projects built on such a library – most Android projects use non-GPL-style licenses.

It seems like it’s also time for the Android community to ask how, with a Linux kernel, the absence of restrictive legal documents like Apple’s developer agreement, and a more open ethos, the Android platform has been beaten to this kind of hardware compatibility by iOS. (After all, that’s what competition is for — not flame-baiting in comment threads, but actually making things better.)

So, if you’re interested in getting something accomplished with this new tool, I invite you to let us know what you’re doing, and to join our Noisepages mobile hack group:
(If you need an invite to Noisepages, you can request one from an existing user, and we plan to provide more robust tools on that platform for September.)

And iOS, welcome to the 80s.

MIDI Mobilizer