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Music

Using a MIDI Controller With iPad

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:ShortLanguages:

The Apple iPad has quickly risen to the challenge of becoming a very capable music production environment. In this tutorial, I'll show you how to connect and use a MIDI controller with iPad using The Apple Camera Connection Kit; and demonstrate with various DAW and synthesizer apps available for iPad how you can use it.

What You'll Need

There are a few items that you will need in order to successfully use a MIDI controller with iPad:

  • iPad (iPhone and iPod Touch will also work) with iOS 4.2 or higher
  • Apple Camera Connection Kit (Lighting or 30-pin connection depending on iPad)
  • Class compliant MIDI controller
  • Powered USB hub (for non bus-powered controllers)

Connecting to iPad

As far as I can tell there's no right or wrong way to connect a MIDI controller to iPad, but out of practice I'll recommend the following sequence:

  1. With the MIDI controller switched to off, connect the MIDI controller’s USB male port to the Apple Camera Connection kit USB female port.
  2. Next, connect the Camera Connection Kit Lightning or 30-pin male port to the iPad female Dock Connector.
  3. Power on the MIDI controller once connected to iPad.

Non Bus-powered MIDI Controllers

If you know that your MIDI controller is not powered by the USB port, or if after connecting and turning on your controller you see an Accessory Unavailable warning on iPad, then you will need to use a powered USB hub to use your controller.

If after turning on your MIDI controller you see an Accessory Unavailable warning you need to use a powered USB hub to power the device
If after turning on your MIDI controller you see an Accessory Unavailable warning, you need to use a powered USB hub to power the device.

Simply insert the powered USB hub in between the MIDI controller’s USB cable and the Apple Camera Connection Kit by plugging the MIDI controller into the Powered USB hub and then plugging the USB hub into the Apple Camera Connection Kit.

Using Your MIDI Controller with iPad

There's unfortunately no visual feedback that you've successfully connected your MIDI controller to iPad. You'll know you've done it correctly if you can now control various music apps via the controller.

There is also no system–wide user controllable MIDI setting inside iOS. Aside from iOS Virtual MIDI, each music app will handle incoming MIDI in the way that the developer has designed. To demonstrate the various ways this can be done, let's have a look at a few music apps and how they handle incoming MIDI.

Apple Garage Band (DAW)

The first app to look at is Apple’s own Garageband for iOS. Now as much as I like Apple I have to say that Garageband’s MIDI capabilities are disappointingly limited. You can play keys, and that's about it. You can't map or change any MIDI CC assignments manually which is surprising. This is the first and most basic way that you can use your MIDI controller with iPad; you connect it and it works.

NanoStudio (DAW)

The next app is NanoStudio. NanoStudio allows you a bit more flexibility with editable MIDI channel assignments as well as MIDI mappings. If you select Manage > MIDI > Mappings you can see all the assign able MIDI parameters and MIDI Channels. You can manually select the CC mapping, or you can use the Teach function to assign the the highlighted parameter to the CC mapping that you move on your controller. You can also select the MIDI Channel that this app will use under the Inputs page. This is useful when using multiple apps with one MIDI controller.

NanoStudio is one of the earliest DAW apps and uses an older desktop-like file browser
NanoStudio is one of the earliest DAW apps and uses an older desktop-like file browser.

Sunrizer (Synth)

Sunrizer is a synth app that features the most flexible MIDI function built into iOS called MIDI Learn. MIDI Learn allows an app to function most like a desktop plug-in inside of a host DAW in that you can freely map any parameter the developer has specified to work with MIDI Learn.

Sunrizer features the most flexible MIDI implementation on iPad called MIDI Learn
Sunrizer features the most flexible MIDI implementation on iPad, called MIDI Learn.

Tapping the Learn button in the upper left corner will overlay a rounded square on every MIDI Learn assignable parameter. Tapping one will highlight that parameter blue indicating that it is selected and the next incoming CC message the app receives will be assigned to that parameter. You can quickly assign many parameters to your MIDI controller this way.

Tip: If you want to make sure an app will support MIDI Learn, read through the app description in the App Store on iPad or in iTunes on your Mac or PC. If it doesn't specifically state that MIDI Learn is supported, you can safely assume you will not be able to have this mapping flexibility.
Developers will usually specifically state which MIDI functions are supported in their app
Developers will usually specifically state which MIDI functions are supported in their app.

Nave (Synth)

Waldorf Nave is another great synth that features MIDI Learn. Instead of an overlay view, you simply tap-and-hold any parameter you want to map, and Nave will give you an alert stating the next incoming CC will be assigned to the selected parameter. Very intuitive and useful functionality on the developers part.

Each developer can specify exactly how  features are implemented Nave uses a tap-and-hold system for MIDI Learn
Each developer can specify exactly how  features are implemented. Nave uses a tap-and-hold system for MIDI Learn.

Thor (Synth)

Just to demonstrate that it really is up to the app developer to include this functionality, if we look at Propellerhead’s Thor synth, you can see that the only MIDI options that are available are to select the MIDI channel Thor will listen on. This is a great sounding and powerful synth, it's a shame it doesn't support MIDI Learn.

Not all apps support all iOS MIDI features Thor from Propellerhead is a powerful and great sounding synth but unfortunately doesnt support MIDI Learn
Not all apps support all iOS MIDI features. Thor from Propellerhead is a powerful and great sounding synth, but unfortunately doesn't support MIDI Learn.

Conclusion

Using a MIDI controller with iPad opens a world of flexibility and usefulness, whether for mobile production or practice. In this tutorial I've shown you how to connect and use a MIDI controller to iPad, as well as demonstrated various ways you can assign MIDI CCs in different apps. I hope this helps you get up and running or if you've been considering an iPad for musical use, how flexible it can be.

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