How musicians are using the iPad

16th Jan 2011 | 08:00

How musicians are using the iPad

The professionals using iOS in the studio and on the road

How musicians are using the iPad

During a performance on NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show, Squeeze pianist Stephen Large broke into one of the most unlikely piano solos for a band formed in the 70s: he played it on an iPad running Pianist Pro.

"When I first saw the footage, I was blown away with what an accomplished musician could do with a touchscreen piano," says Mark Terry, the app's developer. "There's no greater thrill for the creator of a musical instrument than to hear it being used by a skilled musician."

And while that performance may have been the most high profile use of the iPad for music in web coverage terms, it's not an isolated incident.

Though perhaps not as proudly touted by Apple as the gaming and educational achievements of iOS, music apps have been a staple of the App Store since day one, initially as a novelty but now with enough clout to make major manufacturers, producers and artists take notice.

Mark Terry's company, MooCowMusic, is a perfect example of this. Debuting with the fun, but hardly professionally oriented, Band for iPhone, it now boasts four iOS apps that could easily be applied to a professional's practice and production arsenal.

moocowmusic band

EARLY WORK:MooCowMusic's Band app

"The electronic music press loved Band, but wanted much more functionality, often unfairly comparing it to Cubase or Logic, which leads the app designer to a quandary," says Terry.

"Most users don't want to read instruction manuals and expect to be able to use an app immediately. If an app is too complex – if it requires reading instructions – then they're likely to give up and give it an unfavourable review. This is partly due to the 'throwaway' pricing of iPhone apps.

"But once they start using the app, they demand more functionality – ultimately, in the case of a music app, to the level of a full-blown application such as Logic Pro."

While Band still remains a favourite, it's joined by Guitarist, Bassist and Organist, all of which sit in the upper echelons of the App Store's music app chart.

Going pro

"After the success of Band, my sights were set higher to please the music press with their 'not Cubase' comments, and to aim for professional musician users who would take the 'iBand' concept further.

"Unfortunately, I fell down that slippery slope of functionality (the downside of working with no external deadlines) and spent over a year writing 'the definitive music app', which was ultimately shelved because the user-interface was getting too complex.

"Luckily, the technology behind the app wasn't wasted and allowed me to develop Pianist Pro for the iPad in the very short time that Apple gave us from [the iPad's] product announcement to launch."

Mark's hard work paid off: Pianist Pro is one of the most popular iPad music apps and regularly hits the top spot on international App Stores, especially following the kind of publicity garnered from events such as Squeeze's Fallon appearance.

pianist pro


A Google image search for the word 'piano' brings up an image of Pianist for the iPhone as the third hit; impressive for an app that didn't exist three years ago.

Mark Terry's success doesn't end there, however. Evan Taubenfeld, guitarist for Canadian pop-rockstress Avril Lavigne and an artist in his own right, also makes use of MooCowMusic's digital keyboard. "Pianist Pro is simple and straightforward to use," he says. "It's like carrying a piano or synth with me everywhere I go."

While portability is certainly one of the iPad's major benefits for musicians, the way it interacts with an existing computer setup is another asset for the recording artist.

"I start a lot of ideas in Pianist Pro and then email myself the MP3 and begin to build in Pro Tools HD or Logic Pro," says Taubenfeld. "What's cool is that after I'm back on my Mac Pro, the iPad still serves a number of other functions."

Making use of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, the iPad can be used as both an additional display and a dedicated control surface for desktop music software, and Taubenfeld harnesses these abilities when recording.

"I use Air Display for pushing lyrics into the vocal booth, as opposed to a traditional music stand, and use AC-7 Pro as a control surface in Logic and Pro Tools for mixing, muting, punching, playback and automation.

evan taubenfeld

LYRICAL MASTER:Evan Taubenfeld uses the iPad to view lyrics in the studio

"Basically, the iPad stays around the studio after I've transitioned to using a fully fledged DAW (digital audio workstation), because it's the ultimate utility and can serve a million different purposes."

Artists have begun taking advantage of the iPad's feature set, wealth of apps and its portability to improve the way they work. Taubenfeld feels this is just the beginning of the relationship between artist and iPad.

"Technology has finally bridged the gap between portability and quality, especially with respect to being able to make music anywhere without limitations. For writers, we have apps that do pianos, synths and drum loops. Almost every lyricist now uses computers anyway, so the iPad is easier to take around and write ideas out on.

"Performers can make use of things like iRig, iElectribe and many others, so I think it's just about finding the right apps to fit your needs."

The combination of respectable music creation platform and networked accessory makes the iPad a very attractive device for musicians. It's exciting enough to be able to plot beats, record riffs and even bang out live solos wherever you may be, but it's the continual development of apps to fill gaps in the music-making market that adds the weight.

Evan Taubenfeld is the poster boy for this new wave of tech-centric artist, using the iPad not only for generating new ideas, but building on them in the studio with the device at his side.

The versatility of controlling professional music software from the iPad's screen and viewing lyrics when recording vocals are surely what Steve Jobs originally envisioned for the iPad's future as a device suited to any possible discipline.

"When I completed my last album, the iPad wasn't out yet, but I've used it a ton on all the new material," says Taubenfeld. And what, if any, changes would he make to the iPad's feature set?

"Tech spec-wise it would be nice to have a USB input/output for connecting to a computer and using the iPad as a traditional MIDI controller, and also being able to connect MIDI controllers to the iPad for laying down more complex ideas."

Since we spoke to Taubenfeld, iOS 4.2 was released and turned out to have MIDI support, satisfying yet another need for musicians.

Software over hardware

With new music apps appearing daily and artists adopting the iPad as the ultimate studio partner, it's little surprise that major music software developers and legendary brands are starting to wake up to the potential of Apple's products.

Gibson has seen success by embracing iOS with its Learn & Master Guitar application, which recently won the Billboard Music App award. Partnering with Legacy Learning Systems, the guitar manufacturer has put together a unique resource for the iPhone that also serves as a great tool for accomplished guitarists.

With a built-in tuner that makes use of the iPhone's microphone as well as a metronome and chord library, the app offers an impressive feature set and also includes free video lessons from the Learn & Master Guitar series.


TUNE IN:Gibson's Learn & Master Guitar

Guitarists and bassists are well-served on the App Store with a wide range of apps, and a new breed of production tool is beginning to surface for today's musicians.

Peavey (a name synonymous with audio products) and IK Multimedia (producer of software and hardware music tools) both offer amplifier replacement apps for iOS that require a simple adaptor in order to connect a guitar or bass to the iPhone or iPad.

Removing the need for a physical amplifier or effects pedal, these apps have also wooed celebrity followers with their flexibility and impressive output for use in the studio, on-stage or just as a practice tool.

Peavey's AmpKit app and AmpKit LiNK adaptor provide a dream combination for guitarists and bassists using the iPhone, providing a huge selection of pedals, cabs and mics as well as recording features, a tuner and metronome.

Peavey's AmpKit also offers in-app purchases for additional effects, and the company looks set to continue on iOS.

"Peavey is deeply committed to virtual instrumentation innovation," says Hartley Peavey, the company's founder and CEO.

"AmpKit and AmpKit LiNK open up an entirely new mobile paradigm for beginner and experienced musicians alike. I believe these innovative new products will give guitarists a whole new level of freedom and convenience – with AmpKit and AmpKit LiNK, anyone can access amazing guitar tone even when they don't have the space and time to set up a conventional rig."

Similarly, Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard makes use of the popular AmpliTube and iRig adaptor from IK Multimedia to create and practice on the road.

"I love the look of AmpliTube on my iPad. It inspires me to practice," he says. "To be able to access sounds easily when writing music speeds up my creative abilities and allows me to hear what I want on the spot."


DREAM TEAM:AmpliTube and iRig

Lessard isn't the only music hero to make use of AmpliTube and iRig either, the software and adaptor combo has also been picked up by Nick Hexum of 311 and Richard Fortus of Guns N' Roses.

AmpliTube works in much the same way as Peavey's AmpKit LiNK adaptor, connecting a traditional guitar or bass to an iPad or iPhone. As with the AmpKit LiNK, the simple iRig adaptor plugs into the headphone jack of your device with the other end connecting to a guitar or bass. A third connection runs to your headphones or to a set of speakers to monitor playback.

It would certainly be possible for a band to play an entire set using this setup, and it's a neat option for smaller bands who can't move heavy equipment from gig to gig.

With the iPhone and iPad able to accurately reproduce the sound from a tour bus's worth of kit, it appears that the boundaries between traditional and software instruments are further blurred – but perhaps they could simply merge.

If you're familiar with the billboard chart of China's best concert pianists, you'll know of Lang Lang. The 26-year-old classical superstar is known for his impressive ivory tinkling, but this year he wowed the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco with his digital dexterity, playing Flight of the Bumblebee on an iPad as part of his encore.

Granted, he was using the idiot-proof Magic Piano from Smule with his right hand, but his left hand drifted toward his real piano's keys for parts of the performance to play along with the iPad.

Smule has been instrumental (ahem) in the development of the iPhone and iPad as a digital instrument. Founded by Dr Ge Wang and Jeff Smith, the company began life with Ocarina for iPhone, which lets the user blow into the microphone and play notes in the same way you would with a wind instrument.

From this starting point, the company picked up serious acclaim and the support of a major recording artist in T-Pain. The hip-hop star's famed Auto-Tune'd vocals are made available to the world with the I Am T-Pain app, which provides a number of presets to tweak a voice as well as recording facilities and backing tracks.

The unique take on mobile music, paired with T-Pain's celebrity status, saw widespread coverage on the web and TV, and earned plaudits from both the tech and music community.

The addition of such a big name in the music world certainly didn't harm the idea that music production and iOS were realistic partners and led Smule to the even bigger Glee app for iPhone and iPad, providing karaoke-style features based on the hit musical TV show.

Smule is also paving the way for digital music performance sharing with its apps, too. Ocarina, I Am T-Pain, Leaf Trombone and Glee all feature ways to get your music heard by broadcasting it to other users.

Starting with Ocarina, Smule has added a world map to its apps that shows different users across the globe playing a tune at that time – you simply tap the location to hear the song.

Like a sonic Twitter, this feature could well pave the way for similar sharing methods and become a great way for new bands to gain publicity outside of the usual channels.

Modern classics

Not only do classical artists appear to relish the iPad, but classical producers do as well. Alexander Van Ingen, a producer who has worked with an enormous list of clients, ranging from the London Philharmonic to the Winchester Cathedral Choir, and record labels such as Sony Music and Apex, uses an iPad on a day-to-day basis.

"I use it to aid my work on recording sessions, as well as to help with all the associated organisational stuff," he says.

"I use it mainly as a pitchfork and as a metronome, but I've also used it when rigging to keep track of mic lists, patching and so on – not to mention taking lists and using the GPS and maps to get me to the recording venue in the first place! It's also very handy for finding a curry house after recording."

Making use of Cleartune as a pitchfork and for pitch detection, Subdivide as a metronome and Mark Terry's Pianist Pro, Alexander sees the benefit of the all-in-one device: "It's made it slicker and simpler; fewer gadgets to remember to take with me, fewer boxes to have scattered around the desk when working and fewer items to run out of battery life, necessitating a scramble to find another pair of AA batteries."

Alex appreciates the way that some apps are interchangeable between devices. "I use a mixture of iPhone and iPad apps. Some of the iPhone apps work really well on the iPad; Cleartune, for example, would be even better with a dedicated iPad version but, as it is, it's nicer to use on the iPad than on the iPhone."

In comparison to using a laptop, Alexander is sold on the iPad's form factor and ease of use. "The interface is so much better, the whole Multi-Touch screen is great to use and the physicality of working with it is fantastic.

"I mean, you can hold it in your hand, put it in your lap, prop it up against a meterbridge… the form factor is super for ease-of-use around a studio, where a laptop just isn't so convenient. My MacBook Pro now feels a bit cumbersome after getting used to the iPad! And have you tried using a MacBook Pro for maps on the dashboard of your car?"

Another music hardware heavyweight, Korg, makes the iElectribe app, which turns the iPad into a virtual analogue beatbox. iElectribe's 16-step sequencer allows for simple groove creation using the ample space of the iPad's screen, and opens 10 years of instrument evolution to a whole new digital generation.


ELECTRIC DREAMS:Korg's iElectribe

Sean Foreman, of electropop outfit 3OH!3, makes use of the app when backstage or travelling, and feels it won't be long before iOS devices are more commonplace in music circles.

"Basically, iElectribe is an even more portable Korg Electribe R. The more compatible these programs become with computer software like Logic and Ableton, the more you'll see iPads in the studio or on stage," he said.

Mark Terry is in agreement. "For the future, I'm moving slightly away from novice musicians towards the professional sector for my userbase," he says. "This means more integration with the studio setup, with iPad apps offering additional musical tools rather than trying to be a replacement for existing kit."

The Logic leap

While there is a huge number of music-related apps on the App Store, many of which offer unique and powerful tools, we've yet to see the kind of all-in-one, go-to application for music makers there is on the desktop; at the moment, it's a pick and choose affair.

Select the app that suits your need, whether you're a guitarist, vocalist or producer, and access other applications as and when you need them.

But the market is there for a fully fledged production suite that caters for all of these techniques and more. When asked about apps he'd like to see on iOS, Evan Taubenfeld's answer is simple: "Who doesn't want a more involved DAW on the iPad? Like Logic, for iOS."

evan taubenfeld

MUSIC MAN:Taubenfeld wants to see full workstation on the iPad

Sean Foreman, on the other hand, wants more in terms of control. "I'd really like to see more Ableton control on the iPad".

Rumours persist that Apple's iLife creativity suite will follow iWork to the iPad, and bring a fully featured music app to iOS in the form of GarageBand.

Whether Apple opts to follow the consumer path or wheel out a mobile version of Logic, remains to be seen, but if GarageBand appears on the iPad as iMovie did on the iPhone, the chances are it'll not only be impressive, but radically different to its current incarnation.

Should such an app come along, it's likely that the iPad would be the best fit with its larger screen and superior performance, and the app may carry a large pricetag. However, according to most musicians already using the iPhone and iPad, the market is there.

evan taubenfeld

STUDIO SESSION:Will iOS devices become tiny, shiny studios?

Little has been heard from the major music software developers on the iOS front. Steinberg's Cubase and Ableton's Live software are both likely contenders alongside Apple's Logic to make the ultimate iOS music tool in some form or other, and it may be the third-party developers that get there first.

Steinberg has already launched its free Cubase iC app that enables an iPhone or iPod touch to control desktop music software over Wi-Fi, and third-party developers have produced apps such as Griid by Liine and Touchable by AppBC to control Ableton Live. But we're still left with a certain void in the market.

If you're looking for a ray of hope, consider the work of Brian Transeau, the American electro star known as BT and creator of the stutter edit, a digital music technique.

His development skills have been well-documented, starting by writing his own software for Mac OS 9 and building software called BreakTweaker for his latest album through his company Sonik Architects.

Sonik Architects also developed Sonifi for iPhone and iPod touch with BT, which enables users to program beats and loops, add effects and shake the phone to perform stutter edits on the fly.

BT has also used an iPhone on-stage as part of a set and so has seen the benefits an iOS device can provide. If anyone were to build the ideal app for musicians and DJs, BT is one of the main contenders.

Tools of the trade

Concert pianists, music producers, rock stars and pop icons – the evidence that iOS is a genuine contender as a studio tool can't be ignored. So are music apps a gimmick or a genuine new wave of instruments?

If the professionals are to be believed, it's the latter, and to further cement that, you could consult the next edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

The academic tome, maintained since the 19th century with companion volume the Grove Dictionary of Music Instruments, will be including MooCowMusic's Pianist and Guitarist in its latest incarnation.

"I'm hugely flattered that I've created an instrument that is to be listed in the primary academic reference, and will be there for at least another couple of decades until the next edition," says Mark Terry. "But it's also really cool that iPhones are now being classed as musical instruments in their own right".

With developers such as Mark, as well as leaders in the music technology sector, working to help the professionals using iOS devices, there's a rock and roll future ahead for the iPhone and iPad.

From tour buses to studios, they look certain to see a lot more stage time than just Steve Jobs' keynotes in the coming months.


First published in Tap! Issue 1

Liked this? Then check out Tap! magazine for more apps, games and kit reviews for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.

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