Practical iPad Music Making: Connecting Hardware

What’s this MIDI thing about?

Creatively, music is about assembling a new whole out of lots of pieces. So it makes sense that in a music workspace, making connections is important. Like traditional computers before it, part of what makes the shiny, new iPad musically useful is its ability to work with other gear.

Enter MIDI. For the uninitiated, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the de facto industry standard means for communicating musical events between different hardware and software. It doesn’t transmit sound, but it does transmit information like pitch, note events, knob twists, button presses, and clock and transport information.

I’ve been working with Tekserve, an independent Apple service and sales shop in Manhattan, to help show iPad owners how they can use this protocol – now more than a quarter century old – to make all their gear work together. Tonight at an event Tekserve titled “the future of music,” then, I’m the Ghost of Music Technology Past.

In the video at top, co-produced by CDM and Tekserve, I show a hands-on with MIDI gear and the iPad. Of course, by definition, what I’m saying also applies to other computing platforms that can support MIDI, which includes Mac OS, Windows, and Linux.

MIDI and iOS: Seen in this Video

Various iOS apps let you send MIDI (or other protocols, like OpenSoundControl) wirelessly, via the WiFi connection. (Bluetooth seems not to be an option, because of how Apple provides access to that connection.)

But here, we’re using good, old-fashioned hardware connections, which means you can work with hardware from the 80s through today – and you don’t have to have your computer with you. So, we need a hardware adapter.

Apple Camera Connection Kit: Works with USB devices that support MIDI class, and USB MIDI interfaces that connect to hardware with a 5-pin MIDI DIN port. Below, here’s a demo of the CCK with the Korg iMS-20.

Line6 MIDI Mobilizer: Works with any device with a 5-pin MIDI DIN port, no additional hardware required. Also the only device that works with the iPhone and iPod touch and not just the iPad. Line6 points out that it also theoretically supports faster speeds, but the thing I like most about it is that you get little LED lights that flash when MIDI is sent or received – ideal for troubleshooting! SonicState did a great video hands-on review:

If you’re serious about MIDI, you probably won’t regret having both.

MeeBlip is an open-source, hackable synth designed by James Grahame and sold and supported in collaboration with Create Digital Music. And if you don’t necessarily want a $500 iPad, here’s a demo video of the MeeBlip “gex0008” shot with a used Yamaha QY10, a portable MIDI sequencer.

Synthetic Bits little midi machine: A hardware-style analog step sequencer.

Edirol UM-1 EX is a USB MIDI interface that has those 5-pin MIDI DINs on one side and USB on the other. It’s now discontinued, but the UM-1 line lives on — see the UM-1G, now sold as Cakewalk by Roland. Just like its predecessors, there’s a little “advanced mode” switch that you can toggle to “OFF” for driver-free operation with the iPad.

MIDI Touch is a brilliant little app for making custom MIDI controller maps. (It works wirelessly, too.) I need to actually make a template for the MeeBlip. Check out microKORG and Shruthi-1 templates on Palm Sounds. Version 2.0 recently arrived.

Audio interfaces work, too. There are various driver-free audio gadgets out there; the $30(!) Behringer UCA-222 just happened to be sitting out Tekserve’s show floor and worked just fine.

The Akai LPK25 is a cute little music keyboard; Akai now offers a whole mess of controllers that work without drivers. That’s also true of similar, portable options like Korg’s nano series. I might opt for the Akai MPK mini, as then you get pads and encoders, too.

No iPad music demo would be complete without the insanely-deep iMS20 from Korg, which is what I use with the Akai keyboard (sorry, Korg) at the end. You could forget every other app and immerse yourself in the Korg app and probably be happy.

More Essential MIDI Apps

I’m not a believer in the notion of loading up your iPad with a zillion apps – I learned that lesson the hard way long ago loading up my computer with a zillion plug-ins. For me personally, I’d rather have a few good apps I depend on. For MIDI, here’s what’s on my machine:

  • StepPolyArp is the other MIDI sequencer I use, aside from little midi machine. It supports wireless DSMidiWifi and Line 6 Midi Mobilizer, and it’s utterly brilliant – you get to just focus in on editing a MIDI pattern with some truly powerful tools. I actually wanted to fit it into the video, but just didn’t really get it in.
  • Midi Monitor from iOSMIDI is a must-have app for heavy MIDI users: it’s perfect for diagnosing hardware support, messages in and out, and even comes with a layout for testing gear, modeled after Midi Touch from the same developer.
  • MidiVision is a simpler monitor app; this is an iPad story, but MidiVision is your best bet for an iPhone or iPod touch (and doing MIDI monitoring fits a handheld nicely).
  • S1 MIDI Trigger works really nicely with hardware MIDI. Like MidiTouch, it’s a custom layout app; it started out wireless-only but added hardware support. I haven’t yet decided which I prefer; stay tuned.
  • AC-7 Core is easily the most powerful controller app out there. It’s primarily for controlling your DAW on your computer, but it has MIDI support for hardware, too.
  • Synthetic Bits’ FunkBox is a fun little drum machine, focusing on simple, finger-friendly, hardware-style interaction like the awesome aforementioned little midi machine. Bonus here: it will send MIDI clock in version 2.0, which will allow tempo-synced fun. (That means you could use this with an iPad and something like an old Yamaha QY10, as seen above, and have it all clocking together.) Must-download. Get it. I wish there were more desktop apps this simple and fun.
  • One Red Dog Media’s Molten is similarly excellent. It also has MIDI clock support. As with FunkBox, it’s a standalone drum machine, too, but the fun part is that you can also use it as a controller or sync other devices (or your computer) via MIDI clock.

S1 was spotted this week on Synthtopia, demonstrating how you can use an iPad to extend tangible controllers you already have:

Here’s FunkBox in action, using MIDI clock:

And while it’s at the very end of the video, at around :50 you can watch Molten synced up to a MacBook Pro running Apple’s UltraBeat drum machine. This video does not show hardware MIDI, but that’s possible, too, via Core MIDI, the Camera Connection Kit, and a MIDI adapter.

What I really desperately wish had hardware MIDI / Core MIDI support: Shiverware Musix, a hexagonal music grid, and Audanika SoundPrism, which aligns music to a sophisticated pitch array.


There are some details to be aware, lest this seem that I’m simply advocating the iPad – I’m not; I’m really advocating using MIDI to keep everything compatible.

MIDI clock is pretty rare. Molten is the only app I know of at the moment that both transmits and receives MIDI clock over a hardware connection for synchronizing tempo. The MIDI Mobilizer evidently only recently added clock as a feature, so that could have something to do with the delay.

Bluetooth isn’t yet, as far as I and developers can tell, possible — too bad, as it’s a good option for wireless MIDI.

For hardware support, power is a consideration – a lot of gear has to be externally powered. Here’s one good write-up on that.

Let’s say that again: if you expect anything other than a very simple MIDI input device or adapter to be powered by the iPad, you’ll be disappointed. Even on desktop computers, we often find issues with power availability. Imagine that an order of magnitude worse on iPad; most devices beyond things like that portable MIDI keyboard above will require external power. We had a hub handy while we were shooting this. I like Richard Lawler’s idea of hacking together a battery-powered hub as a workaround for this (and other mobile devices likely to suffer the same issue).

There’s some serious fragmentation. Core MIDI works via a camera adapter – an unrelated device – but a lot of developers haven’t added it to their apps, and it doesn’t work on the iPhone. The Line6 MIDI Mobilizer is great, but it requires using a proprietary set of APIs (though some developers do say they prefer its simplicity). Apps tend to support one or the other, but not both – and a lot of apps don’t support hardware MIDI, period.

One thing I found in the demo that I can’t stress enough is that that tiny 30-pin dock connector is very, very delicate. The iPad seems a little precious to use in a gig. Sweat and multi-touch don’t mix, some people have told me, and the dock connector has a tendency to pop out. Akai’s dock might be a good solution, but I haven’t tested it yet. And using up the dock connector means you have to plan ahead and power up your battery, since the iPad doesn’t have a separate power jack. (That makes docks appealing, but then you may wind up spending more than you intended on your tablet.)

Maybe it’s so obvious that people forget to say it, but because MIDI has been around so long, traditional computers, netbooks (at half the price), and even used MIDI hardware are very competitive options. If you’re in the market for an iPad and trying to use this to justify the purchase, you’ll probably need some added reason – like, for instance, you love these apps or have other uses for the iPad.

Those things said, what is great about MIDI and enduring standards is that it means technology isn’t disposable, and isn’t cut off from other technology. You can have a synth you’ve loved for 25 years that works with something you’ve just bought. That’s pretty great.

Where to Find Resources

At top, a hands-on video with iSequence by Hank Lepstein on Noisepages.

Compatible device round-ups:
Synthtopia has reader reports with the Camera Connection Kit

Midi Touch and Midi Monitor developer has a nice round-up of other apps with CoreMIDI support

Notably, SyntheFX and Luminair are your choice if you use DMX and lighting.

iosaudio is keeping a running list of apps with support for different MIDI (and even OSC) features. You can see some of the fragmentation that’s happened, but you certainly don’t lack options.

Akai is the first company to offer integrated docks for MIDI support. The SynthStation49 is a big keyboard. More useful, at least from my perspective, is the Alesis iO Dock. (At the NAMM show, Alesis called it “StudioDock” but seems to have changed branding.) It helps alleviate some of the issues I had, with spaghetti cables and easily-disconnected dock connectors. But pricing and availability are uncertain, and since it’s not done, no one has yet tested how good it is.

If there’s interest, one developer suggested starting a spreadsheet on which readers could collaborate; I’d happily start one.

See also our Noisepages iPad/iPod musician group.

Lastly, iConnectMIDI is a high-end MIDI interface box. It looks pricey at nearly US$200, but it also works as a standalone MIDI box and with computers as a 2-port MIDI interface. That plus dedicated USB and power connections for an iPad means that for serious users, you could probably justify the purchase, especially since you can use it with your computer. It also works with the iPhone and iPod touch, so it will be a direct competitor with the Midi Mobilizer (albeit not nearly as portable). I hope to review it, because apparently I’m a MIDI fanboy. (Who knew?)

Want wireless support and compatibility with hardware? See our previous story:
The Missing Link OSC/MIDI Translator Makes Your Electronic Music Gear Wireless

Developers? Android?

If you’re a developer and want to talk more about this stuff, we have two excellent running groups:

There’s an epic thread running about using the open source Pure Data (Pd) environment on iOS.

We also have the mobile music + visual hack group for developers.

Pete Goodliffe has some terrific, open source sample code for using CoreMIDI in iOS. I’d love to see more.

Android developers, the future looks a bit murkier as far as hardware MIDI support, though most everything else is possible on Android (and even, increasingly, in mobile and desktop browsers). But if you’re curious to play around with Bluetooth MIDI – something you can’t do on iOS – Peter Brinkmann just shared some sample code with Pd and has it available open source on Gitorious.

iOS and Android developers may both want to check out libpd; see my previous write-up.

Will MIDI be available on mobile devices that aren’t on iOS? Signs point to yes. MIDI is (conceptually, at least) about the age I am, which is an eternity in computing, but it appears to be going strong.

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers

I hope this guide can evolve to be a comprehensive starting point for people wanting to integrate their iPad with their MIDI rig. So if you have questions, ideas, tips, apps of your own, sample code, sample apps, templates, or … you know, music, let us know!

Huge thanks to our friends at Tekserve for co-producing this video, especially to Chad Carino for shooting and editing.