iPad for musicians

Musicians love the iPad. Not for playing tunes or watching music videos as most users do, but for composing with musical notation or guitar tablature, multi-track recording, and perhaps coolest of all, remote-controlling recording software or DJ gear. The best part is, while the iPad isn't cheap, the incredibly low price of its apps compared to PC or Mac software puts far more power in the hands of the average cash-challenged musician than ever before. If you're a musician with an iPad, you'll want to check out these apps and accessories.

Keeping Score

Notion's onscreen notation is appealing, and you can enter notes via a virtual piano and guitar.

Apologies to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, MTT, and PBS for that pun, but what sold yours truly (an inveterate PC user) on the iPad was the existence of not one, but two great musical notation apps: Notion and Symphony Pro. The latter is more mature, makes entering notes a bit easier, and has the basic appearance and workflow of the PC/Mac programs Finale or Sibelius. It also includes more instruments.

Notion formats music onscreen more organically and allows you to enter and see music on guitar and piano grids. Unlike Symphony Pro, however, you can't enter notes directly onto the score; you must use the in-app piano or guitar. Notion's selection of included instruments is basic, but they sound excellent (they were recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra). You'll have to make in-app purchases for some of the less-used instruments such as jazz guitar and non-mainstream percussion.

Guitar Pro is a handy tablature and practice tool for, you guessed it, guitarists.

Both Symphony Pro and Notion have their strengths (and a couple of bugs), but at only $15 each you can buy both and transfer compositions back and forth as Music XML files attached to emails. You're still better off with a full PC or Mac for final arrangements and tweaking, but the programs are surprisingly facile for quick compositions on the road.

Guitar Pro is similar to Symphony Pro and Notion in that it displays notation, but specializes in guitar tablature (a kind of easier notation specific to guitar and bass) and practice features for guitarists. There's no editing of scores as with the PC/Mac version, but is still a great app for guitarists to have around.

Pass the Remote

Anyone who's ever recorded music alone knows that by far the biggest hassle is manipulating the recording equipment and/or software. You're tethered to the recording gear or computer and constantly leaning over to grab the mouse or press keys. It's annoying, and worst of all, it interrupts the creative flow.

TouchOSC's interface is impressively Tron-like. User templates let it control virtually any piece of MIDI or OSC software or hardware.

The iPad is a first class control surface and in conjunction with apps such as eyoControl, Lemur, LiveControl, ProRemote, V-Control Pro, and TouchOSC lets you operate your recording software remotely-- wirelessly via an ad hoc network, or using a MIDI interface such as the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer II or IK Multimedia's iRig MIDI. Which app you choose depends largely on what software you wish to control. eyoControl and V-Control Pro work with many DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations), ProRemote is slanted towards Avid's Pro Tools but works with other DAWs, and LiveControl is tailored for Ableton Live. There are more in the App store, and most provide demos.

Lemur (a $50 iPad rendition of a very expensive hardware controller) and the $5 TouchOSC are the most versatile, allowing you to create your own control layouts for virtually anything using editors that run on the PC or Mac. They both serve up eye-catching interfaces as well.

TrakProDJ is a dedicated controller for Traktor.

eyoControl, Lemur, and TouchOSC also provide virtual drum pads and keyboards to enter notes into your recording software. The latter two may also be used to control DJ software such as Traktor Pro and MIXXX. TrakProDJ is a DJ remote control app dedicated to Traktor. For accurate real time device control and note input Wi-Fi may suffer too much latency (lag) so a MIDI interface may be in order.

Though it's strictly a roll-your-own-controller, MIDI Designer Pro deserves a shout-out. It's the only app that allows you to create your control templates on the iPad itself. It also has some unique features for interfacing with effects pedal boards, though you can use it to control virtually anything.

Laying Down Tracks

Apple's own GarageBand is a decent little iPad app for sketching musical ideas. However, there's a bit of a gotcha for many musicians—it only exports to the Mac version of GarageBand and Apple's Logic Pro. This makes life difficult for users of other DAWs.

Music Studio's multitrack layout is reminiscent of GarageBand.

A better app for musicians is Music Studio. With multi-track recording, virtual instruments, and FX, it's nearly as easy to use as GarageBand, has a lot more features, and best of all, it lets you export your creations as music XML or MIDI files for further refinement on your computer. If you don't want to actually record audio but to compose using only virtual software instruments (drums, synths, pianos), there are also great options such as FLStudio Mobile and Akai Pro SynthStation.

Plugging a jury-rigged cable into the iPad's headphone jack or the integrated mic generally won't cut it for recording audio. A good interface is required. These run the gamut from the IK Multimedia iRig and other inexpensive devices that use the headphone jack to pricier interfaces such as the Alesis iO Dock that leverage the docking port's USB connection. There's no line-level audio support in the iPad as there is in the iPod and iPhone, so those accessories won't work.

Note: If you have a USB interface that's USB audio class-compliant, you may be able to use it with the iPad using Apple's own Camera Connection Kit and its USB port. Search around; some users have done it.

There's more…

There are tons of other musical uses for the iPad.

Guitar amp: IK Multimedia's AmpliTube allows you to plug in and shred to your heart's delight.

Synthesizer/Virtual Instrument: There are literally dozens of software synthesizers, virtual basses, guitars, pianos, etc. available.

Practice companion: several nice metronomes for keeping your beat steady are available. I use the free version of Metronome Touch. I also use Slow Down Music Trainer from Santa Cruz Integration to reduce playback speed and loop passages so I can pick out tricky guitar licks.

Training: Numerous ear and sight training apps are also available. My personal favorites are Rhythm and Rhythm 2 by Ludek Dolejsky which let you test yourself by tapping along with notated rhythms (they're actually iPod/iPhone apps). There are also tons of sight trainers, ear trainers, and musical games available.

Sheet music: Not only are there quite a few programs that interface with online sheet music stores and the like, there are also sheet music display programs that performers can use in lieu of normal sheet music. If you have great eyes, they're doable, but for myself and many others the iPad's screen is a tad too small for reading from as far away as a music stand.

Remote Desktop: If the remote software discussed above don't give you all the control you need over your DAW, you can use one of several remote desktop programs for complete access to your software or PC. 2X is my favorite freebie, but there are others.

It's a Bargain. Really.

I've really only scratched the surface of the iPad's musical universe. The iPad is a great control device and display, offers cheap apps and accessories, and there are hordes of developers working on affordable musical applications. Indeed, half a dozen interesting new apps have shown up since I started this article and I've omitted many existing ones.

[Updated 7/16 11:42 a.m. to correct information about GarageBand, which is able to export GarageBand files.]

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

Subscribe to the Tablet Tips & Trends Newsletter

Comments