Touching Matters

So, like millions of other people, I now own an iPad.  I like Apple products, I admit it, but even I was a bit skeptical if I really needed one when they were first announced.  I have a current MacBook Pro, and an iPhone4 that I use all the time, and it was tough to see a use where the iPad was really going to make much of a difference between those two.

So, I waited to see how well it would be accepted, and what a new revision might bring.  I admit, I love the retina display on the iPhone4 and really hoped that was coming to the second version of the iPad.  The first iPad also felt a touch sluggish to me compared to the iPhone, no doubt due to having less memory for one thing.  I also wanted to see how the music community adopted it, since at the time the Lemur was really the only viable touch screen device for music apps.

Well, by Winter NAMM 2011 it was pretty apparent that the music manufacturers were starting to pay attention and embrace it completely.  Akai and others were coming out with new hardware to interface with it, more apps than ever were being written specifically for it, and most importantly for me, Spectrasonics was releasing the Omni TR app for it.  Since Omnisphere is my main synth these days, this alone was incentive for me to take the plunge.  It got rid of the pain in the ass need to manually map a generic controller to a software synth, and really embraced a method of controlling a synth ideally suited to a touchscreen (the Orb).

And of course shortly after this, Apple announced the iPad2.  While lacking the retina display, it was faster, lighter, and thinner, which are the usual adjectives one expects relating to Apple updates.  So, a couple of weeks after it was launched, I managed to finally get my hands on one.  I went with the base model 16GB, Wi-Fi model, as I’m still not convinced it’s something I’ll use enough to warrant the 3G connection or larger storage yet.  I’m not going to review the iPad2 itself, as there’s countless other places you can get that info, and my thoughts largely echo what you’ll read there.  Instead I wanted to share my thoughts on where it fits into my music making work-flow, and how it fits that niche between the iPhone4, and a laptop.

If you’ve used any iOS device in the past, then using the iPad is as simple as can be. Well, at least I thought it would be.  First thing I did was sync all my favorite apps, plus a couple new ones I bought specifically for the iPad, and then set about organizing them all like I had on my iPhone.   Right away you notice just how bad iPhone apps look on the iPad when in 2x mode, and suddenly all the complaints I had read from people wanting iPad native versions made sense.  I mean, they’re definitely useable, but they just look really poor scaled up that big.  So, it was a trip back to the App Store to see which ones had iPad specific versions, and to download all of those instead.

In most cases, this was well worth the time spent, as not only do the iPad native apps look better, in most cases they provide much better functionality.  The only one I found to be worse on the iPad was Yelp!, but that’s just me and not worth going into details about.  Weather apps, news apps, the normal day to day stuff you might use are by and large a much better experience on the iPad.  Not a huge surprise, but I was shocked at how much better they were laid out and how user-friendly they were with the larger screen.  News360, WeatherBug, NPR, Twitter, and Zite all stand out on this front, the iPad versions will change the way you think about getting information in the future, whatever that information smay be.

The other interesting thing for me, was how my previous method of organizing things on the iPhone translated so poorly to the iPad.  In the past I had folders set up for different groups of apps and shortcuts.  One for music apps, one for video apps, one for news websites, one for the forums I frequent, etc.  On the iPad version of Safari however, you retain the Bookmarks bar of the desktop version.  So you can access all of your normal web bookmarks without having to leave Safari.  On the iPhone, this is not the case, so home screen icons are the fastest way to navigate to these pages.  This way of working is counter-productive on the iPad though, it just doesn’t make sense to leave Safari and go back to your home screen each time you want to access a new website.  Add to that the fact that you can fit more icons on the larger iPad home screen, and I find that I end up using a lot less folders and icons in general for Safari related items.  It seemed counter-intuitive at the time, but treating it more like my laptop, and less like a larger iPhone was definitely the better way to work.

In general I think that I use it more like my laptop and less like my phone surprised me.  It’s easier to  hold and work with in landscape mode.  Typing is DEFINITELY easier in this orientation, and not as hard as one would think.  I’m still faster on my laptop keys by a long shot (and no, this post was not written on my iPad, how cliche), but I can type out decent length posts on the iPad really without much thought.  The only thing that is mildly distracting is iOS auto-correcting technical words I did spell right, into something totally unrelated.  But with use it’s learning and getting better at this. 🙂

Other than not being able to download and upload stored files, I can honestly see this replacing a laptop for most people.  One of the first things I do each day is sit in my living room with my laptop, checking email and various forums while I drink my morning coffee and plan out the rest of my day.  The iPad fits this role perfectly, and I have to admit it’s nice not having to disconnect the laptop from my studio rig of soundcards, hard drives, monitors, headphones, etc each morning (not that it was really THAT hard anyway, but still).  Anything requiring a longer reply or more detailed work, I just email myself a link to it and check it later in the studio.  Works great, for every day use I can see why so many people like the iPad.  Takes a little bit to get used to, but once you do, you don’t miss the laptop or larger screen that much at all.

Which brings me to what most people reading this probably care about: music apps.  I’ll try and squash some disappointment right away and state that I don’t have a ton of music apps yet, and if people know me by now, they know I’m not one to horde apps or plug ins anyway.  Still, I have managed to try quite a few over different categories, so I’ll share my thoughts on those.

For the most part, most of the mini-DAW type apps like Beat Maker, NanoStudio, and now Garageband work great.  The larger displays make working with them easy as can be, and I see no reason why someone couldn’t get some really great sounding demos or scratch ideas down anywhere they want.  Keys on their keyboards are easy to play, and moving around the apps is pretty simple.  This is one of my main goals for my iPad, using it to capture melodies and other ideas to expand on later in the studio.  Primarily using NanoStudio, though now I REALLY want an iPad specific version of that.

The new Garageband app is really well done I have to admit.  You can’t edit midi data you record, and you’re limited to the preset sounds they give you, but both of these are hardly show stoppers IMO.  Being able to open the work you do in Garageband on the Mac works flawlessly, and you can even open the files in Logic 9 directly too (though most of the instruments won’t work, the MIDI data all shows up fine).  I could care less about the new Smart Instruments they tout, but for quickly getting ideas down, even somewhat complex ones, Apple did a great job with this app, and other developers have some catching up to do IMHO.  Sound quality is excellent as well, and the velocity sensing you might have read about works better than you would think.

In terms of iOS controller apps, I haven’t tried TouchAble or Griid yet, but I do have TouchOSC from some stuff I was doing on my iPhone, and that works great as well.  Really no different from the iPhone version, just more screen space to fill with your own creations.  The Logic template that you get with TouchOSC works perfect too, if being a little bit busy for my tastes.  I eventually will redo my DJing template for TouchOSC for the iPad, but I’m still not sold on the idea of using a touch pad for all my DJing needs.  I can see it would be possible, but the touch screen is still not precise enough for me, and you always need to look at it to see exactly what you’re touching.  A good back up or for when I want to add some type of visual element, but I’m old-school I guess and prefer dedicated hardware mixers at this point still.  Maybe after some more use or with a better app I’ll change my mind.

There’s quite a few synth options on the iPad as well, and so far the one that I’ve enjoyed the most is Synthtronica.  The GUI is hit or miss at times, but it uses some cool formant shaping and filtering techniques that work well on the iPad.  Definitely worth the price if you’re looking for something unique and playable.  And of course apps like Bloom and Trope work just well on the iPad as on the smaller iPhone.  Ambient goodness, just larger.  🙂

On a side note, while its likely over-priced, the new Smart Cover works great for propping the iPad at a really nice angle when typing or working on music apps.  Ditto for watching movies.  Not trying to sound like an ad or anything, but if you’re on the fence about getting one, my vote is to go for one of the cheaper plastic ones.  It’s been more useful than I expected, even if most of them are in garishly bright colors.

So, some final thoughts.  My main intention when getting the iPad was for casual use at home, and for mobile music making. For casual use it’s been all I expected and then some, once I got over some small organizational issues I carried over from my iPhone experiences.  Web surfing is fast and fluid, movies look great, and it’s not as hard to type on as one would think.  For the average person, I could definitely see something like this replacing a laptop or a netbook, it’s almost a no brainer if you don’t need much file access.

For music making, well…. I’m split still.  For sitting out on my deck, or just in different rooms of the house, there’s no question I’ll use it a lot to sketch out song ideas when I just don’t feel like being in the studio.  I imagine I’ll bring it with me quite a bit to local parks like I used to with my iPhone for this reason too, though since it’s larger that will mean having to lug it about in a backpack instead of just my pocket.  It’s thin, small, and light, but still not as portable as a phone obviously.  Capable enough to handle creating complete songs on even, though I think I would still prefer doing this in the studio (as it should be)

As a DJ or general purpose live controller, there’s no doubt that it can be quite good at what it does.  I’m just not yet convinced that I want to work like that.  I certainly plan on working with it some more like this though, just to give it a fair chance at winning me over.  The flexibility and customization is there, I’m just not sure about sliding my fingers on glass to control parameters precisely yet.  Maybe the right app will win me over in time.

Dedicated control apps like Omni TR are a different matter though, and on that front I’m completely happy.  It completely changes the way I look at and interact with Omnisphere, and for me, that was worth the cost of the iPad alone.  It’s like having a brand new synth in fact. And on that note, there’s no denying how cool it is that for only $5-20 you can easily get some pretty cool sounding and powerful music tools via the App Store.  For those on a budget, $500 for an iPad plus $100 for apps will get you some really nice music making tools.  All of which can be run on battery power for up to 10 hours.

So while i might not be totally sold on the idea of a touch screen for making music all the time, there’s no denying that it’s something a lot of people and companies are going to be exploring in the near future.  I’m glad to at least have the hardware on hand to try out anything new that comes out, and if ultimately the touchscreen thing fizzles, well at least it was a lot cheaper than most hardware synths!

I’ll update my thoughts on all this as time goes on.  If anyone has any specific questions they want me to answer, just post them in the comments and I’ll get right on it.  Thanks for reading, and until next time, peace and beats.



6 Replies to “Touching Matters”

  1. Good rundown of the iPad experience. I think we’re in the early days of figuring out how to best use these devices.

    You might find my iPad midi control app, MideMe, interesting. It has some innovative (if I say so myself) features like recordable midi gestures.

  2. Whats up? Again, perfect timing. Right now I am in the market for something new . Maybe to inspire me, maybe just to play with or maybe just because I have a small amt of extra cash.(which is rare for me.) I actually bought (on impulse) a Microkorg the other day. I played w/ it for a few days then took it back. Wasn’t feelin it. Now I’m thinking, M-Audio Venom or Ipad. (Obviously I’m working w/ about $600.) I’m pretty much in the box aside from controllers. I love Massive, FM8 and Vanguard but for some reason I’ve been craving a hard-ware synth. I realize $600 won’t get me a Virus or an Analog synth but the Venoms looking pretty dope. Then again so does the Ipad. Anyway, I enjoyed the post/review and maybe I’ll go grab one and check it out. Thanx

  3. Keep in mind that the Venom does not let you edit everything from the front panel, you NEED to use the software editor to program everything. IMVHO, this is super lame for a hardware synth. Take a look at the Ultranova instead.

  4. The most important thing is that you have that machinedrum (and now a monomachine to the right) in the background of that picture waiting for you when you are ready to really get down with a GREAT hardware interface again 😉

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