Review: Instruments for Audio Production, Part 2 -- Scratching the Surface(s) for Apple iOS

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PAR’s “iAuthority” surveys some of the impressive, immersive controllers on the iOS platform.

We’ve all done it. Sitting in a seemingly never-ending session or gig, we’ve poked a screen in a frustrated, accusatory manner, fantasizing, maybe even hallucinating about being able to nip, tuck and nudge a stubborn waveform into the exact alignment in our mind, but with our finger. Some of us will be doing this a lot more in the near future ... but this time with a smile on our faces.

The introduction of Apple’s iPad 2, further refined in the “New iPad,” has opened up a convenient, fairly affordable interface for sound designers and control freaks who crave a more tactile, highly compact portal to the realm of digital audio. Taking advantage of an ad hoc Wi-Fi connection’s relatively low latency (or a USB adapter if you don’t mind remaining tethered), iPad (or even iPhone) users can now utilize a variety of multitouch surfaces to send/receive Open Sound Control (OSC) and CoreMIDI command messages to DAWs and all manner of sound generation/manipulation tools, and through modular features they can control far more than faders and knobs. 

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Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for more obvious physical control emulations, and if that place is conveniently tucked into a messenger bag and available no matter where you’re working then all the better. Programs such as Otreus Inc.’s StudioMini XL ($9.99, iPad Only) and Saitara Software’s AC-7 Core ($7.99, iPad Only; “Mini” version for iPhone sold separately for $4.99) have long offered all manner of levels control, along with transport/mute/solo toggles, etc.; basically, these programs are extensions of a standard engineer’s mixing board, and they communicate happily with all standard platforms, including Logic, Pro Tools, MOTU Digital Performer, Cubase/Nuendo, Sonar, Ableton Live, Reason/Record, Acid Pro, FruityLoops, etc. 

A bit more expensive, Neyrinck’s V-Control Pro ($49.99, iPad Only) promises deeper integration into the editing/mixing process, with control of sends, automation, groups, auditioning, jog/scrub/shuttle, I/O assignment and more that you can flick (rather than click) through. Using a small background executable server to facilitate communication, this type of program lets you take a patch of desk with you, lets you move a floating window or two off the main rig, and we all know how valuable screen real estate can be when the track count grows. 

Of course, not everyone is solely an engineer. Some self-recordists need a little extra set of inputs to allow them to drum up, key in and fulfill their creative impulses. A program such as Wiksnet’s Midi Studio Pro ($6.99, Universal) expands your options with an assignable, somewhat combinable fader set, a keyboard, a drum pad and an X/Y array. These layouts are “generic” in a good way; they give you no more than what you need to play in a motif, or tap in a rhythm to your favorite softsynth/drum sequencer. As an added bonus, the controller is velocity sensitive to force of impact, there’s an arpeggiator, and it provides some modulation parameters you can trigger along the surface of keys/pads. 

Even big names are getting in the MIDI control-change app game, such as Yamaha, which has released Faders & XY Pad ($1.99, iPad Only) and Synth Arp & Drum Pads ($3.99, iPad Only). Can you guess what these offer? But just having a touch-sensitive GUI isn’t the future promised by movies such as Minority Report or the lab shots of any recent episode of CSI. To be able to customize templates for content creation or to toss around controls, getting interactive — sometimes unpredictable — but always exciting feedback, you need to dig deeper into what the App Store offers. 

One of the core workstations to spur development of visually-inspiring control apps has been Ableton Live. With its vibrant clip grid-based architecture, Live is a natural to pair with the iPad, especially in landscape orientation, where it feels more like a natural desktop scene extension. Users of Live have been catered to with several app choices over the past few years, but two of the best remain Liine Griid Pro ($24.99, Universal) and AppBC’s touchAble ($24.99, iPad Only). 

Both aim to make the transition from hardware controllers painless by providing animated means to launch and morph Live through background server-aided virtual ports and a native LiveAPI that means no extensive MIDI mapping is required. Taking advantage of this direct communication with Live, Griid and touchAble can offer features hardware controllers can’t, such as an exact mirroring of user-defined clip color-coding, name and playback status/position.

Where the two programs differ stems from their initial development. Griid came out of collaboration with techno-pioneer Richie Hawtin, and its original intent was to aid his performances, which include exhausting amounts of source material he likes to trigger and tweak in various configurations. For this reason, Griid’s crisp organization and combinable pan/level modules (assignable to any track, selectable between relative and absolute) lend themselves more to a performer with a largely pre-sequenced set and an audience ready to go mental. Augmenting this ability is a Cliip step sequencer for “painting,” repitching and fine-tuning/swing-shifting MIDI notes and their velocity with a gesture (and it’s a speedy process to gather a rhythm as multitouch allows multiple notes to be laid down at once). 

Meanwhile, touchAble was conceived from a perspective with at least one foot in the studio, which means it has deeper integration into Live parameters, but also a slightly steeper, more cluttered learning curve. With touchAble you get more access to your levels, crossfader, send/returns, transport and toggles, etc. Templates are built in for various filters and EFX devices to allow direct module tweaking through various faders and axis means of manipulation. And you can delve into the creative process through features including keyboards (two stackable on one screen), velocity-sensitive drum pads, loop creation/movement within a clip on the fly, and an especially fun X/Y/Z pad that allows for the recording and playback of multiple simultaneous layers of pitch bending and creative detuning through shuttling around four interrelated dots mapped to parameters of choice. These can even have simulated gravity applied to them, to introduce interesting ramping/dragging effects on release.

Not everyone works solely in Ableton Live, however, so many folks are looking for more configurable surfaces. Enter programs including Hexler TouchOSC ($4.99, Universal) and Confusionists LLC MIDI Designer Pro ($18.99, iPad Only). These pixel palates take pride in offering more editable layouts, and this modular approach, using OSC protocols, can suit all manner of DAW/softsynth/effects programs, including Live, Logic, Cubase, Native Instruments Reaktor, MAX/MSP, Reaper and more.

TouchOSC provides the easiest transition from Live land, with its bright (some have said Tron-like) geometric rotary controls, encoder controls, push buttons, levels, XY pads, labels, LEDs, displays, etc. It works across a private network with your computer from both iPad and iPhone/iPod Touch, so you can establish an amalgam of faders, triggers, jog dials and more on the “big screen,” while reserving the iPhone for an auxiliary set of controls, perhaps dedicated to three-band EQ for example. From adding MPC-style drum pads for a sequencer to simply having the ability to solo/mute/fade Logic tracks on one tabbed page and manipulate a compression plug-in on another, TouchOSC fits in with the workflow of the user, assuming the patience is there to go through the MIDI assigning stages (Logic is perhaps the easiest program out of the box, as templates are provided by the company). It has also found a happy audience with users of Native Instruments’ Traktor DJ program. Several templates that emulate and improve upon the program’s layout have been created and shared by touring professionals. An additional fun ability involves the use of the iPad/iPhone Accelerometer, so a tilt can send data to manipulate X/Y/Z parameters.

MIDI Designer Pro, meanwhile, has expanded remote control features to work with not only DAWs and softsynths, but also other iPad apps via VirtualMIDI. Working directly on the iPad in strikingly bold textured colors, users drag-and-drop controls (buttons, dials, crossfaders, etc.) plus labels anywhere desired, and nothing is permanent. Arrange, assign, rearrange, mess around throughout multiple pages of banked controls as much as you like, even while the controller is active. Controls can be set up in chains, they can be assigned extra commands based on whether the same space is swiped or pushed, and settings/positions can be set for instant recall. Movement-tracking knob/slider overlays allow you to select a parameter, but make your adjustments after you’ve moved your finger off the control, allowing you visual access to your settings that your finger previously obscured. There are a lot more innovative features that blur the hardware-software lineage, and with the latest update they can be applied internally to a preferred iPad synth (such as BeepStreet’s Sunrizer) running in the background.

The basis of MIDI Designer Pro, however, still takes most visual cues from traditional hardware silhouettes. Those looking to leave the grid behind can turn to programs such as DRUW’s Beatsurfing ($11.99, iPad Only) or Konkreet Labs Konkreet Performer ($24.99, iPad Only). Beatsurfing allows you to “draw” your controls on the iPad screen into a collage of nonconventional objects. Want a set of overlapping crystal shards tied to MIDI notes that trigger synth pads? You got it. Want to “surf” from those to glitch-beat triangles that live on the other side of overlapping bassline octagons? You can make those seamless transitions in one fluid finger run rather than working in a “tap” mentality. What Beatsurfing ultimately feels like, however, is a colorful interface for triggering software samples, and hardware such as an MPC, or making ensembles for singular purpose Max for Live synthesis/tone treatment devices, not a program you would use for a lengthy mix session.

Konkreet Performer, on the other hand, presents a visual representation of sound, allowing you to play with countless nodes and endless possibilities. Its particular strengths lie in Max for Live Oblique (a free, mapped to Konkreet device) and Native Instruments Reaktor, synthesis programs perfect for thinking in multiple parameters at once, because with Konkreet Performer you can’t resist putting as many fingers on the screen simultaneously as possible. This is perhaps the most smudge-inspiring controller on the App Store, as there’s a visceral thrill in the way this abstract interface changes timbre.

The iPad offers so many control surface possibilities, but the question remains, is there one ring to rule them all? In a way, yes. This round-up wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Lemur ($49.99, Universal), which was launched in 2004 by the company Jazzmutant as the first dedicated touchscreen hardware controller on the market, and an expensive one at that. 

Now, nearly a decade later, that legacy of software development (tested and approved by acts such as Daft Punk, Nine Inch Nails, Björk, Orbital and more) has been ported to the much more affordable iPad by Liine. And this granddaddy of multitouch OSC surfaces for studio and stage still feels fresh, because it’s an evolving environment benefitting from well-produced video tutorials and an active user library of custom templates and several exceptional features that have found the program used for virtual and visual synthesis, DAWs and DJing, stage lighting and unrepentant tone mangling. It justifies its high price and steeper-than-the-rest learning curve.

Lemur can be as straightforward or as complex as you want it to be (and believe me, it can be complex), because it offers a physics engine and scripting capabilities no other program has come close to rivaling. Multisliders, LED matrixes, envelope editors, signal scopes, ring controllers, switches and pads – all of these and more can be organized into containers. What’s more exciting is the ability to have object behavior affected, seeing your controller blaze forth and recoil outside of your direct manipulation; this results in tones you hadn’t conceived. 

And if you have the initiative, you can get into the code and customize every object, from its appearance to its conduct. From granulators and LFO customization that uses the Accelerometer to record “gestural waveforms” to Mu, one of the original dedicated Ableton Live environments, to Akai MPC 2000 XL emulators, Arturia Analog Factory-dedicated controllers, Eventide editors and Reason mixer/transports, plus much more, Lemur encapsulates some aspects of all the iPad-computer pairing’s potential, which will continue to expand exponentially as developers polish code and innovate form factors not yet dreamed.

Washington DC-based live DJ and journalist Tony Ware has been an editor for Pro Audio Review and contributes to sister publication Electronic Musician.