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Using MIDI Devices with an iPad

Korg Microkey iPad MIDI Controller

The iPad has revolutionised many a market. The hardware and app ecosystem has enabled us to use pre-existent home technology, from lighting systems to wireless printers, with more grace than we ever have before. Now, the iPad can be aimed squarely at the recording market, too – you may not realise it, but it supports MIDI-in.

I learned this little gem purely by accident. You’ll need a camera connection kit – a third-party one will do, but I recommend the official one. It comes in two parts – one for SD cards, the other for USB connections. You’ll need the second one.

Messing around with my digital piano (which had a MIDI I/O to USB converter plugged in, bout off eBay for a few quid) and recording through GarageBand (£4.99, App Store), a brainwave hit – what if I plug one in to the other? Using the camera connection kit, I could – and, to my surprise, the iPad started recognising my keystrokes on the keyboard (a Roland HP-7e, if anyone’s interested) as MIDI inputs. Everything was mapped well – using the smart instruments was a doddle, and the virtual instruments were fully-enabled.

So, if you have a MIDI keyboard – or any instrument with a MIDI interface – you can get it working with your iPad, at the cost of a few connecting cables.

Even better was then running an audio jack from the iPad to the Audio In on my keyboard. The latency was virtually non-existent, the sound quite the opposite (GarageBand’s sampling was much better even than the top-of-the-line digital piano’s).

Beyond that, things got sublime. I paired my Bluetooth headphones and could play in silence fully unencumbered. Did I mention that the latency was negligible? I might mention it again. It was a digital instrument-playing experience without comparison.

What about recording the MIDI instrument? Not a problem – GarageBand on iOS treats it just as a regular instrument, so you can record and edit with no differences. In fact, there’s little to stop you from recording all your comps this way, and exporting them to GarageBand on the Mac for editing (you could export to Logic from there if you are slightly more engineering-minded).

As for gigging on the road, the iPad makes a wonderful MIDI companion. The sample bank in iOS’ GarageBand may be relatively small, but it’s a huge improvement over the built-in sample bank on any modern keyboard. If you need a synth sound, there are a few to choose from. Strings backing? Not a problem. And because the interface is touch-screen, it can make for great gigging on-the-fly.

Finally, if you’ve got a digital audio interface there’s nothing to stop you bypassing the audio jack and making use of the dock connector’s digital output instead. If you’ve got a fast wireless network, you can even try AirPlay. Don’t forget that iOS’ GarageBand also lets you hook up multiple iterations of the program to jam together. It’s an exciting time for mobile music-making.

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