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Can an iPad Replace My MainStage Rig?

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You play keys at live gigs? Chances are you use MainStage, or have thought about it. MainStage is an awesome Mac app that makes Logic Pro's plugins available in an interface optimised for live playing. But it means you have to take your precious MacBook Pro on the road. Could your smaller, cheaper iPad stand in for the job? I've given it a go, and the answer is "maybe"!

Disclaimer: Though I have MainStage and iPad live keyboard rigs, and use both regularly when playing at home, I currently tend to rely on the sounds of pro keyboards like Roland RD pianos and synths when playing live.

This article is a discussion I'm having with myself to find the best way to change that. Here's what I've discovered. Are you on a similar journey? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

iPads Work Well with a Wide Range of Keyboards

What I love about MainStage (and virtual instruments in general) is that you can plug your favourite keyboard into your computer, and have access to a wealth of sounds and effects. Can the iPad keep up?

Most people's first taste of playing keys on an iPad is using an on-screen virtual keyboard. Not a good first impression! You'll want to use a decent "real" MIDI controller keyboard—either a weighted 88 note monster, or something more portable but with playable keys.

iPads have neither USB nor MIDI inputs, so to get hooked up, the first thing you'll need is a fairly inexpensive Lightning to USB adaptor (or Camera Connection Kit if you have an older iPad with a 30-pin connector). Once you have one, you can connect your keyboard using a standard USB cable. Every keyboard I tried—from Yamaha digital grands to a Roland Lucina to a tiny M-Audio Keystation Mini—just worked.

Larger keyboards used mains power (or their own batteries) as normal. But smaller keyboards can be powered over the USB interface, using the iPad’s own battery. This worked well, and the iPad was able to power the keyboards for hours. That's very freeing, especially for practice. It totally frees you from the need of a power point. When playing live, I'd rather not risk a flat battery, but more on that later.

I encountered a small glitch when I first plugged in my MIDI controller, a Sampson Graphite 49. I received a message on my iPad that there wasn’t enough power. Bummer! I never got around to buying a power brick for it.

But I was sure it was meant to work, so I started experimenting, and discovered that you need to be careful about the order you plug everything in:

  • first plug the USB cable into the keyboard and Lightning adaptor
  • then plug the Lightning adaptor into the iPad.

Once I worked that out, I was happy. Maybe my experience will save you some frustration.

Latency is quite good—the delay is hardly noticeable, or unnoticeable. I do have the occasional problem, usually after I’ve been running lots of apps. But resetting the iPad makes it responsive again.

So this is a real win. When playing live you can can your favourite boards, and as long as they have a USB interface, you’re set to go.

But Forget About Using Your Knobs, Buttons and Sliders

I love how easy it is to map all of my keyboard controls in MainStage, giving me control over levels, effects, and any parameters I want to fiddle with as I play. Does the iPad offer me the same flexibility?

While the basic keyboard features work fine, there doesn't seem to be a way of mapping all of those useful buttons, knobs and sliders on my keyboard to do anything useful. I imagine it's a problem with the apps, rather than iOS itself. It may be addressed in the future, or already be supported in some apps I haven't tried yet. (Let us know in the comments if you come across any.)

It's not all bad news, though. The iPad itself is an awesome control surface, and most audio apps have excellent on-screen controls. They're not quite as easy to get to as hardware controls, but definitely useful.

The good news is that the touch interface of the iPad may allow you to buy a less expensive keyboard controller. With buttons and sliders on the iPad screen, you can get by without them on your keyboard.

The iPad Has Some Decent Audio Apps with Good Sounds

I had quite a collection of basic music apps when the iPad came out, but basically gave them all up when GarageBand was released with the launch of the iPad 2. The app is well designed, and has reasonable (but not brilliant) sounds.

I really wanted some better sounds, so I spent a lot of last year exploring the newer apps. In the last year or two many of the big audio names (and lots of small ones too) have come out with great iOS apps. So I went on a spending spree. (Special thanks to my understanding wife!)

It was a good day when Propellerhead released Thor for iPad ($14.99). It immediately replaced all of my (more basic) synth apps, and is a lot of fun to play with, though not the simplest app to get around. I love the way Animoog ($29.99) works too.

Propellerhead's Thor for iPad
Animoog

I spent a lot of time fiddling with ThumbJam ($8.99). It has a fun but weird onscreen interface that makes playing fun, and works well with external keyboards too. It has some unique sounds, including some of Jordan Rudess’s synth leads, and more can be downloaded from the Net. For a while, this was a real favourite of mine, and still gets used from time to time.

ThumbJam

But I’m really a piano type of guy, and wasn’t satisfied with any of the pianos I’d come across. After a lot of searching and YouTube surfing, I came across iRig’s iGrand Piano (free with in-app purchases), and later iLectric Piano ($19.99). They have the best and most configurable piano and electric piano sounds I’ve come across, and I found it hard to stop playing them.

iGrand Piano showing a selection of pianos
iGrand Piano, showing how tweakable the sounds are. You can even open or close the lid.
iLectric Piano includes just about every electric piano imaginable

But as much as I love the sounds, I have two frustrations with IK Multimedia's apps. The first is cost. They cost $20 each, which is a fair bit for an iOS app. Then you discover that most of the sounds still need to be unlocked! My (bigger) frustration is the pop-up advertising they use to let you know about their other apps. Even after you buy them, the pop-ups continue, though I haven't noticed them as much recently. Overall, I find the value of the apps more than balances my frustration.

The final IK Multimedia app that I purchased is SampleTank ($19.99). It includes many of the instruments from iGrand and iLectric (though not the highest quality instruments), plus many more, including drums, bass, guitar, organ, synth lead and pads, and orchestral instruments including strings. Besides the instrument sounds, it also has lists of MIDI loops and arpeggios for each instrument, that can be used either live or to record songs. Useful, but not something that I use a lot.

SampleTank, showing a list of synth leads and arpeggios

I feel I've hardly scratched the surface of the available apps, but tend to turn first to the three IK Multimedia apps mentioned above. I can't afford to try them all, so I'd love to hear about your favourites in the comments.

But It's Not Easy to Get the Apps to Work Together Effectively

MainStage allows me to play a Logic piano on one region of my keyboard and a Reason synth on another, making it easy for me to mix and match my favourite instruments. How does the iPad compare?

Not well! Multitasking and running multiple apps concurrently has never been its strong points. But there are a few limited ways to achieve this.

My favourite app for working with multiple audio apps is Audiobus ($4.99). It works pretty well, and every audio app I've come across supports it. But I find myself having to swap between the different apps to tweak settings and levels—not the experience I have when using MainStage.

A recent major update to GarageBand (free) added inter-app audio support. In theory, this would allow me to select my favourite sounds from various apps, layer them, and control their relative levels. In practice, I can't tell you how well this works. None of my audio apps seem to be supported!

Other iOS DAWs apparently do a better job of this, including Steinberg's Cubasis ($49.99). I haven't shelled out the cash yet, so can't comment. Let us know of your experiences in the comments.

Currently, my favourite way of combining sounds is to stay in one app—SampleTank. It allows me to layer up to four instruments, and control the balance of each. So I can easily combine a piano with a pad, or an electric piano with strings. And by tapping and holding four buttons, I can easily mix and match different combinations, or just play a solo instrument.

SampleTank, showing the ability to layer up to four sounds. In this example, Grand Piano 1 and a pad are being layered.

With Just One Hardware Port, It's Difficult to Get Digital Audio Out

iPads have a single hardware port (not including the headphone/mic jack)—a Lightning connector on newer devices, or a 30-pin dock connector on older devices. Since we're using that port to plug our keyboard in, the only way to get audio out of the device is through the headphone jack.

For live music, I think the audio quality of the headphone jack is probably good enough. That's the option that I'd go for right now.

But if you really need higher quality output, you have options. Because you can't plug two devices in (one for audio and the other for MIDI), you'll need a single device that can do both.

Browsing through our article Top 30 Devices and Interfaces for iPad Audio, there seems to be some contenders. These include the Alesis iO Dock (if you have a full-size iPad with 30-pin dock connector), Roland DUO-CAPTURE EX (which features balanced stereo outs), and the Lexicon Omega Desktop Recording Studio. Prices vary between $150 and $200, which isn't too bad.

I haven't tried any of those devices yet. If you've had some experience with any iPad-compatible audio/MIDI interfaces, I'd love you to tell us about your experiences in the comments.

It's Not Easy to Power the iPad when a Keyboard's Plugged In

Oh, and there’s one final concern. Once you’ve plugged your keyboard into the iPad, you can't connect the iPad to power. I'd feel safer during the gig knowing there's no chance of the battery running out!

You have a couple of options:

  1. Some of the devices mentioned in the previous section (like the Alesis iO Dock) will power the iPad when connected.
  2. You can purchase a powered USB hub. These are inexpensive, and will guarantee you don’t lose power at the worst possible time.

I hoped that plugging my iPad into a powered keyboard would charge the battery. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case, at least with the Yamaha piano I used.

Conclusion

Imagine a digital sound source that comes with a huge variety of quality software instruments, samples and loops, has battery life that will last all day, and doesn’t just have an interface for your favourite MIDI controller, but can power it for hours as well. That’s the promise of the iPad.

Does it deliver? Yes and no.

At this stage, the experience of an iPad-based live keyboard rig has limitations you won't suffer when using MainStage on a Mac. If you want to use all the knobs and sliders on your keyboard, or use virtual instruments from different apps, you're better off with MainStage. A Mac will allow you to play more sounds at once, with more configurability and higher quality.

However, an iPad can definitely be used as a decent keyboard rig, especially when price and portability are at a premium. And even if you're using MainStage, an iPad can supplement your setup with additional apps and sounds, or can be used as an additional control surface.

What's your preference?

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