Mobile devices become more popular—and more powerful. Are they poised to replace computers as songwriters’ go-to creative tools?
Readers of a certain age (not even all that old, I might add) will remember when computers went from being a useful addition to the old tape-based recording studio and became, well, the recording studio itself.
Something similar is happening with mobile devices. Led by Apple's iOS, mobile technology is already powerful enough to provide a platform for multitrack recording, software instruments and effects, music notation, and more. Combined with WiFi and 3/4G connectivity, these devices are making it easier to capture and develop ideas, share them, and prepare for gigs.
Right now, tablets and smartphones are in the middle ground that computers occupied in the 1990s: It's nice to have one, but most of us are still using our laptop and desktop computers for the bulk of our production work. That may be changing soon.
"For music creation, tablets will likely become more and more significant, eventually supplanting the role currently played by laptops," says Marcus Ryle, co-founder and senior vice president of Line 6, a company best known for its modeling guitar hardware and software that has become active in mobile apps. "They provide many significant advantages, like near-instant startup time, greater portability, and intuitive touch screen interfaces, that are all benefits to music making. Over time, the available processing power in these formats will likely rival what we have in laptops today."
According to Forrester Research, tablets may start outselling laptops as early this year. The company projects that by 2015, tablet sales will reach 20.4 million, while desktop computers (which still outsell laptops) will drop from 18.7 million units in 2010 to 15.7 million in 2015. "Forrester's projections are still considerably more conservative than forecasts recently published by eMarketer, which predicts that 81.3 million tablets will be sold in 2012 alone, up from 15.7 million this year," Lauren Indvik of Mashable. com wrote recently.
Mobile technology has changed the way people listen to music, watch TV shows and movies, read books-and get targeted by advertisers. But while it may be the general consumer market that's driving the technological advances in smartphones and tablets, musicians are enjoying the benefit by seeing plentiful- and affordable-apps. There are literally thousands of free and paid music apps for the iPad alone, and while many may have limited appeal to professional musicians, there are still plenty of options for those who want to write, record, mix, and share their music from wherever they are.
"As tablets become more powerful, I expect to see many of the same features you now see on desktop computers becoming a standard on these devices," say Jim Boitnott of Notion Music, which makes notation based music creation software for Mac and Windows computers and recently released the iOS versions of its Notion and Progression software. "[Tablets will be used for] high quality multitrack or live recording, composing for larger ensembles with more access to great samples and effects, better musical collaboration, or just utilizing the touch interfaces of the tablet to create ideas quicker no matter where you are. I also think you will see the tablet become more of a real 'instrument' in the musical process-something that not only captures your ideas, but also allows you to perform them."
"It's truly mind boggling when you realize how many new and significant applications are out there that musicians can benefit from," adds singer/songwriter and publicist Laura B. Whitmore, who led a panel about mobile music apps at SXSW in March. "The potential for apps to influence how music is written, recorded, and performed is truly amazing-I think we're at the start of a new era in music making."
There are dozens of tablets on the market. Which are best for making music? Google's Android operating system is used to run a wide range of devices by a variety of manufacturers. Windows Mobile is poised to make an impact, as well. Yet Apple's iOS, first developed for the iPhone/iPod Touch and now driving the iPad, still dominates music creation-at least for now. "Unless competitors can respond with a similar approach, challenges to Apple's position will be minimal," Gartner's research vice-president Carlina Milanesi wrote in a recent report. "Apple had the foresight to create this market and in doing that planned for it as far as component supplies such as memory and screen."
"On the application side, there are many choices available on Android as well as iOS," Ryle explains. "The big difference lies in the hardware and the interface standards. Apple has created an eco-structure in which the capabilities of the tablet device, the iOS, and the hardware interface [30-pin] are coordinated, defined, and structured. Other tablets may utilize a common operating system such as Android, but have a lot of latitude with regard to what their individual hardware systems are capable of, as well as what hardware interfacing is provided."
According to Ryle, it's this integration of hardware and software that currently gives the iOS such a strong leg up for music makers. "Music making requires hardware peripherals, whether it be microphones, audio interfaces, music keyboards, etc.," he adds. "At the moment, these types of devices designed for iOS are able to clearly state what systems they will work with. For non-iOS tablets, this is currently much less clear."
Audio Ins and Outs
All tablets have some kind of built-in audio I/O, in the form of an onboard microphone and a 1/8" mini headphones jack. The sound quality of the built-in mic on, say, an iPad 2, is good enough to capture ideas. And although it's a little on the hissy side, the tablet can produce better results than a laptop's built-in mic because the machine itself doesn't make the fan/ drive spin noises most computers produce. But for serious audio, you will want to go with something more robust.
Tablets may not yet compete with computers when it comes to multichannel audio I/O, but you will find a growing number of options offering improved sound quality for a reasonable price. Apogee's M/C condenser mic, Blue's stereo Mikey, and TASCAM's stereo iM2 and just three examples of microphones that can connect directly via an iOS device's 30-pin jack. Or, you can opt for XLR-to-30-pin interface that works with standard microphones, such as IK Multimedia's iRig-Pre or TASCAM's battery batterypowered iXZ, which provides both instrument and mic inputs. Apple's own Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit ($29 from the Apple Store) allows users to directly connect some external USB I/O devices, such as the Blue Snowball mic (some devices may need additional power). All of these devices can work with apps like Apple's GarageBand for iPad and others.
Guitarists and other electric instrumentalists have a wide range of options, too, with the hardware often mated to a software application. Standalone examples include Apogee's 24-bit Jam (which, like the M/C, can also work with an Mac laptop) and pocketlabworks iRiffport. IK Multimedia's iRig, Peavey's AmpKit, and Line 6's MobleIN each work with mobile app versions of their respective companies' amp simulation programs.
Hardware installation can be much more streamlined on a tablet than a computer. The minute we connected one guitar interface to our iPad, we were prompted to install the required free app-and taken directly to Apple's AppStore to do so. We were up and jamming in minutes.
While you can use the iPad's touchscreen to trigger software instruments, there is also a growing number of devices offering much more tactile control. If the device is CoreMIDI compliant, it can work with any iOS app. Line 6's velocity-sensitive Keystation comes in 49- and 25-key versions and tethers to the iPad, which provides power over its USB port.
You can also find stand-alone MIDI interfaces that allow you to use any controller with your tablet. Examples include the two-in/two-out iConnectivity iConnectMIDI and the more compact Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer.
A "dock" is a device that holds the tablet securely while providing additional access for audio, MIDI, or both. Akai's SynthStation49 has 49 velocity-sensitive keys, nine drum pads, modulation and pitch wheels, and a cradle to dock and charge your iPad. It also provides 1/4" audio jacks, a headphones jack, and USB port (allowing it to be used with computers, as well). While it's optimized for Akai's Synthstation (which provides three software synthesizers) it can be used to control other apps too.
Alesis has a trio of docks, each intended for a specific user. The IO Dock offers phantompowered XLR-1/4" combo inputs, stereo outputs, MIDI and USB connections, and a composite video out. DM Dock turns the iPad into the brain for an electronic drum set by providing 13 trigger inputs and MIDI I/O. The Amp Dock provides two channels of audio I/O (including an XLR connection for microphones), MIDI, a USB port, and has a bank of knobs and a separate footswitch to provide tactile control of virtual amplifier parameters.
Digitech's iPB 10 turns the iPad into a fullfeatured pedalboard with 10 stompbox switches and a rocker pedal, as well as parameter knobs. It holds the iPad in place and works with Digitech's free iPB-Nexus app to act as a fullfeatured guitar amp/cabinet/effects simulator.
Even if you don't want to opt for a dock with audio, there are a number of devices that make it easier to bring your tablet onstage, including IK's new iKlip studio stand (which can mount on a flat surface), the K & M iPad Stand Holder, and the Primacoustic Showpad. The latter two can mount onto a mic stand, ideal when you want to use your tablet as a lyric sheet or fake book onstage.
At the moment, a relative few manufacturers have been active in creating mobile hardware for musicians. Expect more to jump onboard as the app universe grows. "As speeds and capabilities of mobile devices continue to increase at a greater rate, developers are seeing the opportunity to support music production via mobile apps," says Angelo Biasi, Adjunct Professor for Mobile Marketing at NYU SCPS and VP of In Tune Partners, LLC. "I predict more extended versions of existing, as well as new, music production software for the small screen-and not-so-small tablet screens-as well as increasing trends in the 'freemium' model [where a basic app comes for free and users can pay for enhanced versions and add-ons] similar to the shifts we're seeing in gaming."