Earlier this week, I took a quick overview of what options you can choose for connecting MIDI to the iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad. Make no mistake: the coming of iOS 4.2 will broaden your options for mobile MIDI on Apple gadgets. But I realized a somewhat glib comment in my story made some folks – Engadget included – get the wrong message. They jumped to the conclusion that the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer, a portable MIDI adapter for these platforms, is no longer important. On the contrary, better MIDI support in the OS should make anything to do with MIDI more useful.

To better cover where the MIDI Mobilizer sits in this picture, I spoke to Line 6’s Marcus Ryle. iOS 4.2 is still under NDA, which is part of why you aren’t hearing more specifics; I expect we’ll be able to say more once that NDA is lifted. (That’s when you’ll actually be able to get the OS yourself if you’re not a developer, anyway.) But we can indeed talk about the hardware now.

First, here’s what I was trying to say: if you own an iPad, you don’t necessarily need a MIDI Mobilizer after the release of 4.2. If you’re getting a Camera Connection Kit anyway, and you have a spare 1×1 USB class-compliant MIDI interface lying around, your first step is likely to be just plugging those things in and playing. I’ve found 1×1 MIDI USB interfaces tend to sort of collect in gear closets; I have at least two of them, maybe a third if I dig.

But let’s be very clear about why you would want a MIDI Mobilizer:

  • It’s your only choice on iPod touch and iPhone. To me, having a pocket device that you can use for MIDI transcriptions and saving banks and pocket-able synths and effects with MIDI control is a huge advantage. Since the handhelds don’t support the Camera Connection Kit (at least not yet), the MIDI Mobilizer is currently your only shipping choice for hard-line MIDI, period.
  • It’s really small. See the picture above. You need the breakouts to the MIDI cable, but it’s the most compact solution
  • It’s potentially a good buy if you don’t have other gear. Adding a Camera Connection Kit and USB MIDI interface will add up to about the MIDI Mobilizer’s US$70 street price.

It’s also worth noting that the MIDI Mobilizer has hardware time-stamping, for timing resolution independent of the OS or software that’s accurate to one millisecond on both input and output.

Conversely, if you want a MIDI interface you can swap between your computer and your iPad, with the emphasis on the word iPad, or you want to directly connect a USB MIDI controller, the USB Camera Connection Kit may be a better route. For many daily tasks, I find class-compliant MIDI to be perfectly acceptable. (Windows has been known to have some class issues, but … this isn’t a Windows story, so I won’t go there.)

Anyway, let’s get to the really important thing, and that’s which apps work with the MIDI Mobilizer. Currently, there are a dozen supported apps. These include apps that make sense for MIDI input. Here are the currently-supported apps, complete with iTunes App Store links:

MIDI Memo Recorder
MIDI Surface
S1MIDI Trigger:
Little MIDI Machine
Pianist Pro
NLog MIDI Synth
NLogSynth PRO
Music Studio

Because of the demo videos that have been widely posted, a common reaction I’ve heard goes something like this:

Random person (or potentially, one Mr. Peter Kirn): Why the heck would you get an iPad just to turn it into a big touch keyboard and knobs? Isn’t an actual keyboard and knobs a better solution?

Yes, in fact – that’s a completely rational response. (I’m biased; it’s a thought that has been known to bounce about my very own brain.)

There is absolutely no way, apart from taking up less space, in which a touchscreen picture of a keyboard is as good as, let alone better, than an actual keyboard. It’s useful if, say, your iPhone or iPad fits next to your computer more easily than your computer, for quick synth programming, and it makes sense that people shot videos as proof-of-concept, but that’s about it. There are two ways in which MIDI connections to iPads do make sense in a broader set of real-world situations:

1. MIDI input to an iOS sound source. Knobs and keys and faders turn out to be really awesome inventions. An iOS gadget is actually just a very compact computer. Plugging in a MIDI input is useful for the same reason we’ve been doing it with computers since the Reagan Administration.

2. MIDI output from something that is uniquely multi-touch. Multi-touch control can, likewise, do things knobs and keys and faders can’t. And the iOS gadgets can run everything from arpeggiators and odd sequencers.

Many of the apps now supported by MIDI Mobilizer – and the many others I suspect will soon support iOS’ Core MIDI framework – cover one or both of these two bases. I think there have been a number of demos of #2, so for case 1, here’s one example with Richard Lainhart and Jordan Rudess, playing the NLog Synth. Yes, you could do this with any number of hardware of software synths and no iOS device – but that’s kind of the whole point. It’s just another platform on which we can do this whole MIDI-controlled synth thing. (Insert your own musical genre here, if you prefer to play, say, electropop bluegrass.)

More apps are coming: Marcus naturally can’t comment on the specific apps or iOS 4.2, but he does tell me some 75 developers are now working on MIDI Mobilizer compatibility.

Why the sudden surge? Thank Apple. As I reported in August, a change to Apple’s developer agreement finally made it practical for developers to write apps that support third-party hardware:
MIDI Mobilizer, iOS Hardware MIDI Adapter, Roundup and Open SDK

I’m going to have to stop using the word “open” since it’s dangerously close to meaning nothing, so let’s say what this really means: you can now write apps for someone else’s accessory without them directly publishing your app.

Beyond that, stay tuned for when iOS 4.2 ships – now imminent – for more compatibility.

And for now, these kinds of capabilities remain limited to desktop platforms and iOS, at least until someone works out a way to support MIDI hardware on other platforms. Don’t worry. I’m sure MIDI itself will outlive all of these operating systems – and, presumably, all of us.

Core MIDI + 4.2

By the way, if you are interested in adding Core MIDI support to your iOS 4.2 app, Pete Goodliffe has kindly posted some sample code. I actually think this arguably doesn’t break NDA, because it’s all effectively an implementation of CoreMIDI compatibility from the desktop Mac OS.

Using CoreMIDI in iOS (an example) [Goodliffe blog]
Feel free to come discuss using this code on Noisepages — certainly, any Core MIDI discussion is fair game, and we can all chat publicly about iOS 4.2 after it’s released.

You’ll want this kind of, ahem, disclosure, because Apple’s Core MIDI and Audio frameworks aren’t terribly friendly to newcomers in terms of documentation or samples.

Side note: we’ve likewise been frustrated with Gitorious, so since the Gitorious server itself is free, I may investigate putting it on our relatively reliable CDM servers. Anyone interested in that – a little mini GitHub/Gitorious, full of music and visual code?