June 13, 2011 at 11:55 am

The Dream of an iPad Recording Studio Remains Out of Reach

Tablets are a lot of things: They’re certainly interesting, most assuredly innovative, and even suitable as a laptop replacement for music writers.

But despite all the press about how they’re changing the world, they’re not perfect. And they can’t do everything.

Not everyone gets this. At Apple’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference, company luminaries spoke of our inexorable movement towards mobile computers — first from desktops to laptops (which now account for just under three quarters of Apple’s computer sales), and now laptops to mobile devices, ideas from which are permeating Apple’s upcoming Lion operating system. Even Microsoft, king of the desktop, is said to be working on a Windows 8 tablet as part of its bid to remain relevant.

Tablet hype continues at a fever pitch, but we shouldn’t get too cocky about the iPad or any other tablet replacing everything we can already do with a mouse, keyboard and old-fashioned desktop. Case in point: We recently set out to find a MIDI control surface for iPad that could supercharge a home recording studio with its touch controls and sharp screen. The iPad seems almost custom-made for acting as the main interface to your home studio, but every app we tested came up way short.

Despite many pained hours hunting for, installing, and trying to comprehend these apps, we’ve written a story we didn’t set out to write: the narrative of why these apps — and, by extension, the tablet — are simply not up to the task.

Yes, it is possible to record directly onto the iPad into a digital audio workstation. But for real-time multitracking, no mobile hardware can get even close to delivering the required processing power to record — especially considering the demands of real-time effects plug-ins. Instead, we sought ways to control Pro-Tools on a high-powered Macbook Pro using the iPad, which was a match made in heaven, or so we thought.

Things looked initially promising, as we unearthed nearly 20 MIDI controller apps for the iPad in the iTunes app store. A deeper look revealed that most limit the user to hitting tiny virtual keys to make tinny synthesizer sounds. Three apps remained in the running: Far Out Labs’s Proremote; Monotone’s Trixmix2; and Saitara Software’s AC-7 Core.

The first, its developer suggested, would give me the equivalent of “almost $5,000 of hardware” on the iPad. This is what apps are supposed to do, in part: give us software versions of hardware we could never afford. Excited at this prospect, I bought that line, but cost aside, I will never get those hours back.

These apps’ features vary. Some work wirelessly, while others use the iPad’s camera connection kit to connect directly to the multitracking mothership on your “real” computer. Some support more tracks, and “support” (and I use this term cautiously) more digital audio workstations (DAWs) than others. Some are priced for the average consumer, at under $5, others for the rich (or perhaps gullible) at $100.

In the end, though, we found four big reasons why these devices won’t be running in our project studio, at any price.

1. Superficial controls

The controls of any half-way serious DAW are deep and complex. None of the apps we tested were able to replicate even a fraction of these possible functions. I found myself returning repeatedly to my mouse and keyboard, even at the preliminary stages of a recording project, which quite obviously defeats the purpose of these virtual control surfaces.

2. Screen size

Then there is the screen real estate. I, along with many other professional and non-professional engineers, have a two-screen system to allow the most possible space to fit in windows for mixers, insert effects, CPU meters, transport controls, etc. — and that’s not even including the main tracking window. Some developers have ingenious solutions for fitting these functions on the tablet’s screen, but there is just no way to fit all that stuff on screen without either making virtual controls so small that you’re constantly touching the wrong thing, or cutting out most of what you need to work on your project.

3. Lack of tactile feedback

Thirdly, the touch screen gives you no sign of what you’re doing unless you look at it, unlike hardware breakout boxes that offer similar MIDI control over DAWs. This is hardly the developers’ faults, but if you’re constantly looking down to wrestle with your tiny virtual controls, you can’t look up and see what you’re actually doing to your project. You end up futzing around with tap controls rather than being inspired.

4. Headaches with no relief

The biggest problem lies with support. These apps are clearly in their infancy, as you can tell when you come across a problem, or want to understand a control that’s not obvious. I have worked as a studio engineer, in a past life, so I have a pretty good working knowledge of “the desk.” If anyone should be able to pick up one of these and run with it, it should be me. As such, my advice, in a nutshell, to whoever feels the need to use one of these: Good luck.

Even the $100 ProRemote comes with no documentation. The developer of the TrixMix2, which I could never get to function properly, suggested going to the command line, which is a lot to ask the average audio engineer or home recording enthusiast.

I hope this field improves in due course, because the basic idea of using an iPad as a pretty interface for a home recording studio remains a exciting one. For now, though, these apps are far more trouble than they’re worth.

  • http://twitter.com/Audiosilver Audio Silver Lining

    You’re waaaay off the mark here. Feels like you’re flying in the face of the current excitement about iOS as a music platform and lets face it – no one ever said, or expects them to be a complete replacement for standard DAW’s.

    The quality of journalism on this blog is normally very good but this is a serious fail guys, sorry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Randall-Waddith/100001780878278 Randall Waddith

    With all due respect, sounds like a “newbie” trying to make sense of this stuff. A better perspective would be from someone who has used a HUI extensively. The AC-7 app is a darn near exact recreation of the HUI. If you had ever used a HUI, you would probably see the value of the AC-7. It works seamlessly and well.

    Also, the fact that it uses OSx’s network MIDI functionality is killer! Other’s require a standalone “server” to run on the machine you wish to control.

    If you are well versed in using a controller such as a HUI, you don’t “need” to look up at the screen while working (use your ears, not your eyes). It DOES take some getting used to, but overall, as a former HUI owner and a current AC-7 user, I’d say that it is AMAZING that a $6 piece of software can darn-near replace a $600 piece of software.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fhagey Foster Hagey

    I do feel what is being said here.  I’ve been trying to solve the issue with cutting vocals.  It would be awesome to go stand in the booth with a singer with transport controls and cue points available to me on my iphone.  I’d set the pre-roll to 2-bars and we’d be off, but it just isn’t so.

    I’ve been using Control.  It gets the job done, but then I’m a super-studio-nerd, so I don’t expect others to be willing to take the time to push the envelope.  It blurs the line between beta tester and development.  I’ve found http://iosmidi.com/ to be a great resource.

  • Gabe

    This is some of the weakest product assessments I have read. I also find it misleading, misguided, ignorant and overly biased. And this is why. I am a professional audio engineer. I run a recording studio in Brooklyn and I also do composition work where I am often working alone without an assistant. The problem I aimed to solve was to be able to do basic level adjustment (not editing) remotely and also have remote access to transport functions. Whether I am walking around the control room while listening back or if I am in the vocal booth recording, a wireless control surface that makes no fan noise to be picked up by a mic is an asset. I purchased and tested the aps in this post plus many more and found almost all of them to work great and dependably aps like these have made the listen back with clients very pleasant and functional also recording take after take of vocals and drums by myself in a live room or iso booth separate from the control room has been made possible with these aps. The ac-7 core is my favorite and the one i use most and I have experienced no connection problems with the wifi of the setup.