In this edition of the BBoyTechReport.com 5 Tips series we’ll explore the practicality of using an iPad as synth module. In this day and age of portable studios and mobile musicianship, iOS devices have become the ideal musician’s companion. Particularly so with the iPad as it has become the all around all-purpose portable synth, studio, DAW, beatmaker, drum machine, vocal and guitar processor.
So let’s get into what you may want to consider when thinking about Using an iPad as a Synth Module.
1. APPS Consider the types of sounds you want/need. There are loads of synth apps out there. Some are absolutely great and others, not so much. I’d probably think in terms of mono synths for leads, bass, efx or just all around analog sounding app synths which would lead to apps like iMini, SunRizer, Magellan and minisynth. If you happen to be looking for polyphonic sorts of synth sounds, bear in mind a few of the previously mentioned synths would work out well but I’d also advise you to lean towards iPoly 6, Arctic Keys or WaveGenerator.
How about if you are looking for something more fancy and expressive? Well, Animoog comes to mind as king of the hill and could provide any number of textures, leads, efx, strings, bass, pads etc. If you need something more like a rompler sort of sound module say something like a XV5080 or XR5050 in iPad app form, I’d advise that you go with Sample Tank.
For those of us that are more prone to the Stage piano playing sort of app, I’d say look towards iGrand Piano for a nice variety of realistic pianos. But if you need sweet electric pianos iLectric and Neo Soul Keys is the way to go.
Thinking of digging into some wave table synthesis akin to Waldorf’s vintage line and even their later line of Blofeld and Rocket? There is indeed an app for that on the iPad platform from Waldorf themselves and it is called NAVE.
2. Keyboards & Midi There are a good number of keyboards out there that are portable enough and compatible with iOS devices. If you would like to go with the most simple plug and play set up, the IK Multimedia iRig KEYS is the best choice. It’s a good controller that works without an Apple camera kit and is compatible with older 30-pin iPad devices as well as newer iPads with lightening connectors. Check out our review of IK Multimedia iRig KEYS for a more detailed overview.
Other controllers include Arturia Minilab, Keith McMillen’s QuNexus Smart Sensor Keyboard Controller, Korg Nanokeys, Akai LPK25 are a few of the ultra portable keyboards that come to mind as I think of pairing with an ipad. But keep in mind if you choose any of the tons and tons of other options out there you should be prepared to buy a camera kit. The Apple Camera Kit is the key to using your iPad as a sound module with any of these controllers with the exception of the IK Multimedia iRig KEYS.
If you’d like a mini keyboard controller with drum pads for controlling drums in programs like iMPC or Beat Maker 2, you may want to consider something like the 25 key Akai MPK Mini or the new Axiom AIR Mini 32. Bear in mind, I have not used either of these two controllers but it stands to reason that with a camera kit they should work just fine with the iPad.
What about midi considerations for using an iPad as a Synth Module? You’ll obviously need to integrate your new synth module into your rig, DAW, MPC etc. Well, there are a few options but I have experience using two specific ones. I use IK Multimedia’s iRig Midi and Alesis I/O Dock. iRig Midi is a very specific in its focus on strictly midi connectivity. Whereas the Alesis I/O Dock is a it more of a jack of all trades with more than just midi capabilities. We’ll touch on those other capabilities shortly.
For now, take a look at our recent video review of iRig Midi as I show how to integrate an iPad into your MPC set up using iRig Midi.
3. Audio (iRig HD, Apogee Jam, i/o Dock) The audio portion of this deal can work in a couple of ways. You can easily rock one of my favorite little ultra-portable audio devices, iRig HD or Apogee Jam. These devices are preamps that do the AD/DA conversions for you on the device itself rather than on the iPad. The benefits to this that you get; A.) a bit more physical control over the signal volume / gain via the physical gain control knobs on each device, B.) high impedance mono output and C.) the 24 bit conversion without taxes the iPad at all. Sure these devices are not stereo devices but they will provide a superb sound to your DAW, MPC etc.
Otherwise, there is the afore-mentioned Alesis I/O Dock which will kill two birds with one stone so to speak. The Alesis I/O Dock is aptly named for its massive amount of I/O connectivity directly to and from your iPad. It has connectivity for balanced and unbalanced XLR, mic, line, guitar inputs, phantom power, stereo outs, midi in/out (DIN), USB and foot switch. It’s a beast with regards to I/O. The Alesis I/O Dock is perfect for turning your iPad into a total studio. So it is suffice to say that mere audio is easily tacked by this little powerhouse.
4. Presets & Resets Design, Reload, Save at will. Buy preset packs from places like http://www.sunsineaudio.com/ . SunSine Audio is a wonderful resource for additional patches for reasonable prices. There are some learning opportunities here too. You should always examine how they make patches. You could learn from their design expertise. Never the less, buying their patch presets will keep you fed with minimal need to find another synth to quench your thirst.
Another thing to keep in mind about presets is that your should get familiar with how iTunes allows your chosen app synth to import and export patches. This is priceless and it is pretty simple. Managing your presets, both pre packaged and your own creations, is a huge part of keeping your presets in order.
5. AUDIO BUS Learn your way around Audio Bus. What is AudioBus? It is described as an app that “allows users to easily connect the output of one Audiobus-compatible iOS app into the input of another, playing a synthesizer live into a looper or multi-track recorder, or using one app to manipulate the live output of another.”
Essentially, Audiobus is the glue to your arsenal of synth apps and effects stored on your iPad. It is probably the most important thing to happen to iPad musicianship since iPad musicianship. Since Audiobus’ released Software Developer’s Kit (SDK), which allows any software app synth developer to integrate Audiobus functionality into their own apps, the world of iPad music was set a blaze. It would be in your best interest to get familiar with the use of Audiobus if you plan to use an iPad as a Synth Module.
## Bonus Note: Avoid App Synth overload. Don’t be so gung-ho about the latest apps that you just go around copping any and every app. Refer back to tip number one. Consider your needs and how well the app will help you achieve those needs. Dave SMith said during my interview with him “now that software synths are on iPhones and iPads, they are becoming disposable. You pay $5, play with it for a couple of weeks, then get something else.” This is the fastest way to never reach the apps full potential as many of us tend to go thru with hardware synths too. I’d suggest choosing widely and getting to know the ins and outs of these synths. Believe it or not a lot of these synths are deep. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s an iOS synth. Also, you may want to avoid app synth overload for the shear fact that some of these apps can get pretty pricey. its’ not just the $5 app deal anymore they can get as expensive as $30.