How to Integrate iOS Devices into your Studio Setup

Get jamming and processing by syncing a world of apps for iPhone or iPad
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In the span of a decade, the audio and music possibilities for Apple’s iOS have evolved from a handy musical notepad to a fully functional production platform that’s every bit as legitimate as a desktop environment. Thanks to ongoing advancements in interoperability and innovative standards like Ableton Link and Audiobus, multiple apps can now work in concert to create professional productions. What’s more, Apple have steadily added features to their mobile operating system that optimize it for sophisticated creative tasks when recording and mixing all genres of music.

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Since many of these improvements have been incremental—and new users arrive on the platform daily—it can be tough to keep track with all of the amenities in iOS. Add in several hundred genuinely affordable music production apps and it’s even trickier to know where to begin.

For example, in iOS 11, Apple quietly introduced MIDI enhancements to the AUv3 plugin standard that now allow apps to do tricks like arpeggiation and sequencing, in addition to simply processing audio. While a handful of ambitious developers implemented it, it’s still quite nascent, as even the current version of GarageBand doesn’t make full use of the innovation. That’s how deep some of these changes can go.

So here we’ve compiled the most powerful aspects of iOS (and some notable app-based tricks) into a single reference, so you can quickly discover the production possibilities within your device.

SETUP ESSENTIALS

First things first, while the iPad is still largely a tool for mobile production and composition, its value increases exponentially when you thoughtfully integrate it into your desktop/studio workflow. With these simple configuration steps, you can use your device for a remarkable number of tasks ranging from doubling as an external hardware synth in conjunction with your primary DAW to an offline processing tool with a huge—and inexpensive—collection of effects that aren’t available on any other platform. Making the most of these options requires three simple steps that can be accomplished in an hour or so.

1. The simplest way to get audio from an iOS device into your computer is obviously via the headphone jack (or Lightning headphone adapter), but for Mac users who want to stay in the digital realm, there’s an additional tool in their arsenal: Aggregate Devices. With iOS integration introduced in macOS 10.11.1, this feature lets your Mac receive audio directly from the iPad via its Lightning cable, while simultaneously combining your existing studio interface into the framework. Configuration is handled in the Audio MIDI Setup panel, where you select “Show iOS Device Browser”. From there you’ll see any connected devices, which can be enabled as audio sources (Figure 1). At that point, the Aggregate Device will show up as a routing option in your DAW’s interface preferences panel.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

2. While there are several excellent paid apps for transmitting MIDI to your iPad, Matthias Frick’s excellent freeware MIDImittr is a time-tested tool that lets you send MIDI directly from your DAW to your iOS device via either Bluetooth or the USB ports. The app’s interface for each platform is strictly text (Figure 2), so setup is essentially a series of checkboxes and only takes a few minutes to implement. Incidentally, when both your iPad and controller are in close proximity to each other, Bluetooth MIDI is surprisingly robust, so you can skip additional cabling entirely in most cases.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

3. Since the introduction of the Files app in iOS 11, combining iCloud, Dropbox, and Google drive is utterly painless and lets you quickly move stems, project files, and renders between your desktop and iPad with a minimum of fuss. By creating accounts on the three services, you’ll have over 20 GB of storage without signing up for a payment plan, unless you’re already using them for photos and videos. That should be more than enough for all but the most extreme production tasks, while also ensuring that your work files are backed up to the cloud until you finish your project.

THAT SYNCING FEELING

Veteran iOS producers may recall Korg’s WIST synchronization protocol during the early years of iOS, which offered start/stop and tempo sync between compatible apps from a fairly wide range of developers. While WIST works over Bluetooth, Ableton’s Link protocol works via WiFi and is supported by an even wider range of software that now includes both Mac and Windows applications. In fact, using Link, you can theoretically synchronize Korg Gadget on an iPad with Native Instruments’ Traktor Pro 2 on a Mac, while simultaneously syncing Reason on a PC, creating a three-way tempo-locked configuration—as long as all devices are on the same WiFi network. In practice, the whole process is relatively seamless and unless the network itself is glacially slow, the rig will stay locked for the duration of your session.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Once you get the hang of setting up Link networks, it’s possible to accomplish one of the coolest magic tricks in the iOS lexicon: Syncing voltage-based analog gear. The secret ingredient is a free app from Korg called SyncKontrol (Figure 3), which was originally developed as a way to sync Korg’s iOS apps with their Monotribe synth/drum machine using WIST. The caveat is that SyncKontrol works by outputting its voltage clock through the headphone jack, so modern iPhones are now excluded, but the current entry-level iPad still provides one.

When Link was introduced a few years back, Korg promptly added compatibility to the SyncKontrol app. This means you can sync Korg Volcas—or even a vintage SH-101—with Ableton Live or Traktor Pro on a laptop, by simply plugging the iPad’s headphone jack into the voltage sync input on your hardware. And if you have an old iPhone gathering dust (I use my iPhone 4S for this task), you can breathe new life into it as a wireless sync device. That said, it’s really essential that you turn your phone’s notifications o beforehand, because a phone call or message will instantly interrupt this synchronization.

AUV3 TAKES A STEP TOWARD MODULAR

While compatible DAW and sequencing apps are the obvious choice for integrating the rapidly growing range of AUv3 plugins, there are several “hub” apps that serve nicely as a nerve center for combining apps in a manner that approximates the possibilities of an intermediate modular rig. Comparing a tablet to a Eurorack may seem like a stretch to some, but there are two products that are fully compatible with the AUv3 standard, including its new MIDI functionality: Kymatica AUM and apeSoft’s apeMatrix.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

AUM offers the most familiar interface for producers (Figure 4), with a workflow that bears a resemblance to Apple’s MainStage app. That is, it relies on a mixing console paradigm with individual channels for each music app, whether it’s a synth, drum machine, or even sequencing tools like Intua Beatmaker 3 or Korg Gadget. AUM is compatible with the three main iOS audio routing standards: AUv3, Inter-App Audio (IAA) and Audiobus, so nearly every music tool is covered. From there, you can insert processing apps or create bus sends for global use within a session. Your only practical limit is the CPU/RAM of your iPad, so with a maxed out iPad Pro, you can assemble extremely sophisticated routings that combine disparate processing and generative apps, which can then be saved for future use.

The “modular” analogy comes into play when you start adding AUv3 MIDI tools like Ruismaker’s Rozeta suite of MIDI plugins, several of which can be routed as sources for MIDI CC data. For example, you can route Rozeta’s triple LFO plugin to modulate multiple synth parameters on BeepStreet Zeeon, processing the results with several insert effects—while layering Moog’s Model 15 virtual modular on another channel.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

Taking the modular comparison a bit further, apeSoft apeMatrix (Figure 5) presents its interface as a set of up to three 10x10 routing grids that can be connected into a cohesive whole. The routing system strongly evokes the EMS VCS3, both visually and functionally. With it, you can route, split, and combine audio and/or MIDI to nearly any destination imaginable—as long as the apps themselves support your objectives. What’s more, apeMatrix has its own integrated modulation sources, including LFOs and access to your iDevice’s accelerometer. These can be assigned to synth and effect parameters within your matrices, much like patching two modules together. The only caveat in both apps is that AUv3 and IAA are separate systems and don’t play well together. But as more apps upgrade to AUv3, the process will eventually be seamless.

CROSS-PLATFORM PORTABILITY

Many apps include the ability to export their audio to two-track formats like WAV and sometimes MP3. In the case of DAWs like GarageBand, FL Studio Mobile, and Steinberg Cubasis, you can easily transfer projects between your iPad and desktop environments. However, there are a few noteworthy products that let you export your projects for continued work outside of the original app or its Mac/Win counterpart.

For example, Korg Gadget lets you export projects in numerous distinct ways. If you don’t mind working with audio loops instead of MIDI data, you can export from Gadget to Ableton Live, with Gadget’s sequences converted to audio clips and seamlessly integrated into an Ableton Live project file. Even if you’re not using Live, you can still export this file, then dig the loops out of the Project’s sample folder and drop them into your DAW of choice.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

If you have the Mac desktop version of Gadget, you can export files to that platform, but since Gadget for Mac also comes with VST and AU versions of all of its mini-synths, you also have the option to export it to Live with the MIDI and plugin information intact (Figure 6). This lets you open the original Gadget file in Live and continue work without missing a beat. Even if you don’t have Gadget for Mac, you can export the Ableton Project as MIDI-only; and if you just want to export the raw sequence data as standard MID files, that’s yet another option.

Users of Kymatica AUM should also be aware that it offers the ability to record its channels as individual stems, which can then be imported into any DAW as audio tracks. While apeMatrix doesn’t include that functionality at the time of this writing, it seems likely that it will follow suit in this area. Working with stems can be a tad laborious, but it’s still quite impressive when you factor in the price differential between iOS apps and their equivalent desktop versions. So if you have an exotic processor like Klevgrand’s DAW Cassette and want to apply that to an existing audio track, you can move it to the cloud, process it on your iPad, then upload the results and bring it back to your desktop.

SAMPLING AND RECORDING

When it comes to field recording and sampling, iOS is poised to dominate that market—especially with a growing number of audio interfaces that are optimized for the platform. Roland’s Go:Mixer is a solid entry-level interface for getting started, while the Go:Mixer Pro adds an XLR input and phantom power for condenser mics.

If you've been looking for Mercedes-class performance, on the other hand, CEntrance’s new MixerFace R4 features dual XLR/Neutrik connectors with studio-grade mic pres with phantom power and independent lo-cut filters, all powered by an integrated LiPo battery, letting you bring professional gear on the road. It's also well worth noting that Roland’s R-07 hi-res portable recorder includes free remote apps for both iOS and the Apple Watch, so you can set the device near your subject then access transport functions via Bluetooth.