Experienced iOS musicians will be familiar with Secret Base Design through their various music apps such as MIDImorphosis and VoxKit, both of which I’ve reviewed on the website. Patrick Madden – the person behind Secret Base Design – is now back with a new iOS app aimed at musicians; Apollo. Or, to give the app its full name, Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth… which pretty much tells you what to expect.
Apollo (UK£1.99) is essentially a utility app that allows you to pass MIDI data between two iOS devices in realtime via Bluetooth. In fact, the app relies on the newer variant of Bluetooth LE that allows for much faster (and more reliable) communications between devices.
This does, however, mean that only newer iOS devices can work with Apollo. The iPad 3 and newer and iPhone 4S and newer should be fine and, to his credit, Patrick makes a deliberate point of emphasising which devices will/will not work with Apollo in the iTunes entry for the app so there should be no excuses from purchasers if they don’t pay attention.
There are a number of reasons why such a connection between two iOS devices might be useful. For example, if you need to run multiple synths as well as your iOS MIDI sequencer/DAW at the same time, it would allow you to share the CPU load across two devices. Equally, if you have a hardware MIDI keyboard connected to one iOS device (perhaps connected via the docking port), you could use this to play a synth app running on a second device. That second device might have another MIDI or audio interface connected to it – or even simply be connected to a charger so it doesn’t run out of juice.
In addition to the iOS connectivity, Secret Base Design also have a Mac OSX version of Apollo about to launch. There is an pre-launch version available on the website but it should also appear in the Mac App Store within a few days. This version will be free. As soon as the official version is available, I’ll take a look at that also as this would obviously be of interest to musicians looking to integrate their iOS music apps into their desktop music production system. For the purposes of this initial review, however, I’ll just focus on the iOS-to-iOS application of Apollo.
The setup process for Apollo is fairly painless. The app has to be installed on both iOS devices (for example, two iPads or an iPad and an iPhone) and requires Bluetooth enabled on both. Upon launch, the first task is to get Apollo to establish a connection between the two devices. A simple ‘device A’ and ‘device B’ protocol ensures you know what’s going on but I had no problems with this process connecting either an iPhone 5 or iPad 3 with my iPad Air (although only one of them at a time of course).
Once running on both devices, the ‘Search for…’ button very quickly establishes a connection. The only other things to address within Apollo itself revolve around the table of MIDI connections that appear on the right-hand side of the main display. Here you can toggle on/off which MIDI-compatible apps on each iDevice are active. Items get added to this list the first time you run them after installing Apollo and the coloured buttons indicate whether a connection is currently available (green) or installed but not available (red) because the app is not currently running. Clearly, the list of available MIDI connection may be different on the two iOS devices depending upon what apps you have installed on each device.
As well as these switches within Apollo, you also need to configure the MIDI settings within the apps themselves so that they are set to send and/or receive MIDI data via Apollo. In most of the apps I tested with, Apollo appeared as a choice within their MIDI config options. Usefully, MIDI Bridge and Apollo also seem to recognise each other quite happily and this might help if you do encounter an occasional app that doesn’t want to play ball. Apollo provides Core MIDI support.
When first getting started with Apollo this combination of switches within the app itself and MIDI settings within your music apps is likely to be the cause of any initial problems you encounter. I did find myself scratching my head a few times when things didn’t seem to be going quite as I expected. The error was, however, almost always mine and revisiting the combination of settings for a double-check soon resolved things. Anyway, a gentle warning just to pay attention :-) and having these switches within Apollo is actually a very good thing as it gives you the control you need over where MIDI data is being transmitted or received.
Talk to me
Aside from the above-mentioned issues with settings, using Apollo proved both very straightforward and remarkably trouble free. I used one iDevice as a source via apps such as Cubasis (both from MIDI tracks and playing the virtual keyboard), SoundPrism, Synthecaster, Chordion or simply the virtual keyboard of a synth app. On the other iDevice, I had a series of various iOS synths, including Thor, Nave and iSEM amongst others.
I was able to send MIDI data from one iDevice to the other for recording within Cubasis, although I occasionally had to experiment with the Cubasis MIDI in port settings to get things working. Recording MIDI data in the other direction also worked very smoothly.
Getting an iOS synth on one iDevice to trigger a second iOS synth on the other iDevice via Apollo was, on the whole, pretty painless. SoundPrism also worked a treat, seeming happy to send MIDI data via Apollo to any synth app I ran on the other iDevice. As I like this kind of app as a means of creating MIDI performances over that of a virtual keyboard, when I need the horsepower provided by two iPads (or an iPhone and an iPad), Apollo provides quite a neat trick.
Houston, we have a problem…
With Chordion, things were a bit more problematic and I tried all sorts of settings combinations without success, even trying to route data via MIDI Bridge or Cubasis, without luck. Having scratched my head for a while, I just unloaded everything, started it all up again and – as if by magic – it just suddenly worked using Virtual MIDI setting within Chordion for both the hex pads and keyboard MIDI output. I’ve no idea why but, clearly, it can work even though Apollo didn’t ‘see’ Chordion and display it in its MIDI connections list.
I then went through the same experience with Synthecaster and an ‘unload/reload’ cycle seemed to resolve it. I’m no technical expert on the wonders of Core MIDI, etc., so I’m in no position to judge whether the issue was related to a limitation in Apollo or something about Chordion and Synthecaster’s MIDI specifications. However, if Apollo takes off in the way I suspect it might with really keen iOS music-heads, then developers would soon be keen to ensure compatibility.
My only other quirk came while using Arctic ProSynth when I occasionally (very occasionally) seemed to lose communication between my two iDevices only for it to start working again – without me changing anything – a few seconds later.
What these experiences suggest is that somewhere within this rather amazing data chain, there is obviously still a gremlin or two. Frankly, I was kind of surprised at just how well Apollo did work and, when communications were solid – as they were with SoundPrism or Cubasis, for example, the MIDI response was really very good with no noticeable latency. If you want to hook up two iDevices for your music making, it is easy to see the considerable potential Apollo has to offer.
On this front, there is a very interesting comments-based discussion on Discchord’s website where Patrick Madden talks users through where Apollo is currently at – and Patrick brings a very sensible attitude to this discussion and is open about the fact that this is very new technology. He is happy to admit that, at present, there are bound to be some bugs in the system, although not all of them may lie with Apollo. Apollo is currently sat at v.1.1 and there are a whole host of iOS music apps that people might want to patch together using the app – and not all of them will have perfect implementation of MIDI data handling.
On the same thread, Patrick also talks about the future possibility of connecting multiple devices via Apollo, with one taking the ‘A’ position and several acting in the ‘B’ position. Being able to link devices for MIDI data transfer (perhaps with audio being returned via a cable connection) does mean you might still have some serious second life for your previous iOS devices when you upgrade to a new one.
Don’t get me wrong here; despite these minor technical issues I experienced, I already think Apollo is a bit of a technological breakthrough. This is a brilliant concept and, for connecting two iOS devices, even this early release demonstrates the potential and provides ‘proof of concept’.
If you are an iOS musician who owns more than one iOS device, at UK£1.99, Apollo is no-brainer; buy it an experiment with it. Fingers crossed Secret Base Design can keep the development work moving forward because this very neat utility app could open up all sorts of interesting creative possibilities.
And as soon as I get a chance to experiment with the official OSX release of Apollo, I’ll report back on that.for readers in North America for readers in Europe