iPad for a laptop musician?

[music minded readers may wish to skip straight to fifth paragraph to avoid generic mac fanboi waffle]

There seems to be some quite violent disagreement about whether this new iPad gadget is a revelation or a complete waste of time. People seem to be dissing it for not being utterly innovative – (as if a half inch thin piece of rock and plastic which can beam all the information in the world down from space and turn it into glowing dancing pictures isn’t inherently amazing), for just being a giant iPhone, not having [x feature] or [y feature] – rather than focusing on what it does do. And lots of people seem to be excited about it but not really specifying why.

Personally I like the idea of it. It’s not a serious piece of computing gear – it’s quite clearly aimed at being a leisure device. And as Charlie Brooker has also said (though I thought of it too all by myself) the main thing I can see people using this for is sitting on the sofa idly looking at the internet whilst they watch TV – which is exactly what I currently use my iPhone for.

Look what I found!

My hunch is there’s a market for this sort of thing. Not everyone needs everything a laptop does. Most people want a computer to look at the internet, listen to music, watch kittens falling over, check their e-mail/facebook/twitter – to faff in other words. And if the iPhone’s anything to go by, doing all these things on an iPad will be an absolute pleasure. That’s where it’ll succeed – if it does.

All the gushing reviews say ‘wait until you get your hands on one’ – and that’s the same with any Mac product I’ve owned. There’s no one gimmicky feature that makes them great, they just give an elegant, intuitive, version of the core elements of a home computer. They add depth for serious users, but are also simple and streamlined for casual users who just want to do fun stuff. That’s the market for the iPad- not the kind of people who are employed to write technology blogs.

Anyway music on the thing…

Before the announcement I was intrigued by the possibilities of this mythical iBox for music making. Like most I think I was imagining it was going to be an OSX based tablet computer. I had visions of running Ableton on it at a gig, hooking it up to the monome, perhaps some new touch based music software would come out – maybe a kaoss pad style programme? Mostly I was hoping it might fulfil the role of a Jazzmutant Lemur – a thoroughly exciting multi-touch surface used by Daft Punk & Hot Chip which looks like a console off Star Trek. My hopes of this happening were shattered when I saw that it was essentially a larger iPod touch, with no USB port (seriously wtf?).

borrowed from David's World of Star Trek

iPad space travel app

BUT what honestly would have been the point of something which was essentially a touch screen based version of an OSX machine? Why does an OSX machine need to have a touch interface? I already use a touchpad on my PowerBook instead of a mouse. What else would I gain by being able to drag windows around with my finger? If you’re going to have any kind of Tablet based computer then it needs an OS and a GUI which is geared towards the touchscreen, something like… well like an iPhone.

So having established that my imagined device would actually have been an utter waste of time, how now does the iPad stack up? (remember I’m solely considering it as a musical implement now). Well actually it’s pretty exciting. There’s already a synthesiser application for the iPhone called Jasuto which allows you to manipulate coloured balls in various ways to control sound, pitch, filter etc. It costs about £3 and I bought it, played with it a bit and found that I couldn’t really get into it because the screen… was… too… small…. Hang on…

Jasuto

Suddenly the iPad’s a bit more exciting. Jasuto on a decent sized screen could actually be used seriously in a live performance. It would be much easier to actually ‘perform’ on it. It would be visually interesting for the audience in the same way that a monome or Tenori-on can be. Even some of the more basic 59p apps like ‘Melodica‘ (which is actually like a really basic but fun matrix sequencer rather than a ‘blowy keyboard’ melodica’) would suddenly have more serious potential. Other synths like noise.io and synthpond could similarly come into their own on a larger screen.

Melodica app for iPhone

Synthpond iPhone app

noise.io pro iPhone app

Given how much these slightly cheap and (without being mean) slightly novelty apps would improve on a bigger screen, the prospect that some developers could bring out more seriously priced applications making use of the iPad is quite exciting. It might be a year or two before we see anything like that come out, by which time we might be on iPad 2.0, but it’ll happen.

The only problem then arises in that Apple have introduced some slightly irritating hoops to jump through.

Firstly we should note that you could not, in any seriousness, own an iPad as your only computer. Even a casual user would struggle with this – for example how the hell would you import your existing hard copy music collection? You wouldn’t. For a laptop musician this wouldn’t inherently be a problem given that the only feature of the iPad which is inherently exciting from a musical standpoint is, of course, the multi-touch control surface itself.

But say Jazzmutant brought out a software only version of Lemur/Dexter for the iPad it would be exciting – except the LACK OF USB would complicate how (or even if) you could transmit OSC/MIDI messages from the iPad to whatever the Lemur app was controlling. Big problem.

Jazzmutant Lemur - drool

You also couldn’t (currently) use an iPad with Jasuto alongside your DAW (Ableton or whatever) within the iPad. The only way to get the audio out of the synth and into your computer would be via the headphone output – which would degrade the sound quality. It’s possible that Ableton (or whoever) will develop an iPad version of their DAW, and that could be great. But an iPad with 64GB of storage would barely accommodate the 48GB of Ableton Suite as it currently exists, before you even started saving your audio files. So we’d be looking at a ‘lite’ version.

So the obvious route would have been for the iPad to function as an auxiliary device THROUGH A USB. Are you starting to see what my major complaint is here?

It’s still possible that all this could be achieved via the 30 pin iPod style connector – I don’t know about such things – and this would up the drool factor for potential iPad musicians. Certainly for me.

Lack of multi-tasking on the iPad would be another problem for musicians for obvious reasons. But again we’re getting into territory where you start to think ‘why not just get a laptop’? If you want to run a sequencer then do synth noodles over the top you could use an iPad and another machine – you’re going to need one anyway.

Overall in conclusion it’s pretty positive, there is quite clear potential for this thing (admittedly the same potential that would exist in any Tablet computer). But it’s one area where Apple’s app store with it’s potential for home spun designers to reach a large audience through the app store has potential. Clearly this raise the issue of Apple’s strict proprietary attitude – which is their single greatest failing to my mind.

But an open platform for music software contained within their undeniably elegant design and software implementation? That would be exciting.

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5 Responses to “iPad for a laptop musician?”

  1. Harleigh QUINN Says:

    It should be pointed out that all of apple’s heaphone jack ports are actually optical audio out and therefore is true digital audio. Also, there is a dongle/adapter, which, though I too hate it as the only option, would at least allow you to connect it to a port replicator.

  2. Scatman Dan Says:

    Can see it’s value in that way: I too was expecting a tablet running OSX, and that truly would have been pretty cool, but there’s still potential value for casual computer users to do, well, basically the same stuff they would already do on an iPhone, sorta, but bigger. And yes, I’m sure we’ll see dozens of musical hacks in no time at all (give any musician-geek a big, portable touchscreen and you’re just asking for it to be used as an unusual instrument: or rather, an unusual orchestra of instruments).

    Me? I’ll stick with more multi-function palmtop/phone, laptop, and desktop: I’m not a casual computer user, and toys like the iPad feel restrictive and “dumbed down” to me; but then, I suppose I’m not the target audience.

  3. Peter Harrison Says:

    I would have been very disappointed if it ran OSX. I don’t want a tablet that replaces a laptop or desktop. I wanted the tablet to be something fun and enjoyable to browse the net on and use as an entertainment device, while providing developers with a fantastic platform with more power and screen size in order to make some fantastic new apps. In short, I got exactly what I wanted. I couldn’t live without my iPhone now, and I’m more than happy with my iMac and Powerbook Pro, and I don’t need a tablet computer to replace any of them. OSX on the tablet would have been horrible.

  4. Hector Gonzalez Says:

    have you checked. that using osc (open sound control) you can design your own controllers for the ipod/ipad… take a look at those fascinating hacks

  5. Someone Says:

    Google: WePad
    And you’ll see,
    what iPAD would be meant to be.

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