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.
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.