With change being the only constant when it comes to iOS music technology, 2015 has been a pretty jam-packed year for those who use their iPhones or iPads as part of their music-making toolkit. As I posted a few days ago, we have seen some great new iOS music apps released over the last 12 months. In addition, with iOS9 being introduced, we have also seen the first tentative steps with Audio Units (AU) technology and, as the year drew to a close, the arrival of a potentially very useful new app sync protocol in Ableton Link. Both AU and Ableton Link are positive developments but, as yet, not fully realized.
It’s not just been the software that has moved things forward though. A new generation of iOS hardware, including the larger-format iPad Pro, bought yet more computing resources to the platform. We have also seen some interesting new music technology hardware – maybe nothing to really provide a ‘wow!’ moment – but a number of useful additions none-the-less.
But, of course, 2016 is upon us and that ‘constant change’ is not about to stop. If we gaze into our Crystal Ball app, what might 2016 have in store for iOS music technology? Of course, nobody can predict with any certainty what the next 12 months might bring but there is some fun to be had in speculating… and some interesting ‘pub chat’ in pondering what we might like to see happen. So, with the obvious qualifier then that these are very personal suggestions or wish-list items, let’s get speculative….
Hey you! AU!
One of the most exciting new additions introduced with iOS9 was support of Audio Units (AU) technology. While the AU plugin format is well established under OSX (and a direct competitor of the VST plugin format), AU under iOS is not identical technology and, as such, software developers have to prepare iOS-specific versions of their plugins for the software to work on your iPad or iPhone.
The announcement of AU caused quite a buzz amongst the iOS music-making community when it was first announced. However, I think it is fair to say that, so far at least, the community hasn’t really had a huge amount to feed that enthusiasm. It’s not that some noble developers have not taken the plunge – I’ve reviewed a number of AU-friendly apps over the last couple of months – but the uptake has been… well, shall we say modest?
All speculative of course, but it is possible to suggest a number of reasons why this fairly slow adoption has occurred of what could potentialy be a significant breakthrough technology for iOS musician. The first might simply be that developers have taken a look at Apple’s first iteration of AU for iOS and decided that it’s not for them. Those of us who lived through the introduction of IAA will be very aware that, at first (and, in some respects, even now) it was not perhaps as robust as it might have been. To their credit, Apple have improved things with IAA over time…. but, perhaps this time around, some developers want to see ‘iOS AU v2’, with some of the wrinkles ironed out, before they commit development resources to it?
The second reason might be a bit of ‘chicken and egg’; developers of audio effects and virtual instruments/synths might be reluctant to invest development time until a number of the more high-profile DAW/sequencer developers add AU hosting capabilities. In turn, DAW/sequencer developers might be holding back in working on AU hosting and waiting for more iOS effects and virtual instrument apps to offer AU support. It’s a stalemate that might take some time to eventually break down.
We have a number of very capable DAW or MIDI sequencers now available under iOS and hats off to MultitrackStudio, Ferrite and midiSTEPs for sticking their necks out and offering AU hosting support. However, in terms of cracking this particular nut, I think everyone is waiting to see what WaveMachine Labs and Steinberg are going to do with Auria Pro and Cubasis.
Both of these developers have something of an ‘excuse’ in terms of hesitation over embracing AU. For WaveMachine Labs, I think they can be forgiven for being fully focused on what will have been a long-standing development plan for Auria Pro itself. They have done a great job in getting the MIDI side of the new version implemented and it must have been a significant undertaking. The last minute arrival of AU (well, fairly last minute in terms of the whole development process for Auria Pro) may well have been a distraction too far. Perhaps now Auria Pro is out there, and any initial teething problems have been addressed, WaveMachine Labs might turn their attention to AU and what’s involved in adding that layer of technology to their (already complex) app.
For Steinberg, the issue might be a somewhat different one. They are, of course, the originators of what is AUs direct competitor; Virtual Studio Technology (VST). VST is, on the desktop, undoubtedly the most popular and widely used plugin format that exists. AU is an OSX-only technology and, while Cubase runs on OSX as well as Windows, Steinberg don’t offer AU hosting support in Cubase for OSX. That’s an understandable commercial decision; VST is their format and they do, I suspect, earn some return from their development efforts in that technology via licensing of it to other software developers (I might be mistaken on this so, if you have better informed knowledge on this issue, then feel free to share). There is probably also some element of wanting to protect their plugin format.
So, with Steinberg seeing AU as a competing technology (on the desktop at least) and not having existing expertise in providing AU hosting in Cubase, it is possible to see their dilemma with Cubasis under iOS. It would be new territory and, if offered to iOS users, would OSX users then have an expectation that they might get it also? It could, therefore, be opening up quite a considerable amount of work for the Cubase/Cubasis development teams. Clearly, this will be a tricky call….. and I’ve no idea which way they might go with it.
That said, if Cubasis doesn’t offer AU hosting at some point, then Steinberg are going to have to hope that either IAA becomes something a bit more sophisticated (although I’m not sure I can see Apple working on that at the expense of AU) or (and I’ve absolutely no idea if this would be possible) take on AU with something like ‘VST for iOS’. This really is crystal ball fantasy stuff here but, 2016 or not, and whatever the fate of AU, an iOS-sized version of VST plugins would be great to see…. And it might well entice a number of mainstream desktop music software developers to consider taking a punt with iOS if their desktop development investment could be easily ported over to iOS.
That syncing feeling
In contrast to AU, Ableton Link launched with a bit more of a splash and, while we are still waiting on lots of developers to get on board (and, I think, for Ableton themselves to distribute the SDK to some of those that have requested it), I’m hopeful that this is a technology that will glean some widespread support in a fairly prompt fashion.
We should, not, of course, need it; MIDI Clock sync ought to work under iOS to a level that is possible in the hardware and desktop world (which is to say still perhaps not perfect but no where near as unpredictable as under iOS). I’m not entirely sure I understand where the issue (or perhaps issues) lie with MIDI under iOS. Some of it might be an Apple thing (just how MIDI is implemented under iOS) and some of it may be lots of iOS music app developers who don’t have experience gleaned from the desktop of the wonderful world of MIDI and are therefore perhaps still taking some time to get up to speed and iron out all the wrinkles in their own apps.
At the level of individual drum, synth or groove station-type apps, I suspect that adding Link support, while obviously involving some additional development work, is something many developers would see the advantages of. And, as they do, that means you can sync your various sound sources and lock them together in a pretty painless fashion. All good….
However, as many iOS musicians eventually end up with their creations recorded in their DAW/sequencer of choice, it’s these apps that we also need to see Ableton Link support arrive in. Korg’s have obviously already embraced the new protocol and, as I reported a few weeks ago, this includes Gadget. However, it’s the likes of Cubasis, Auria Pro, MultitrackStudio, etc., that we are now waiting for. Fingers crossed that any development resources required can be found and that any inter-developer competition can be politely side-stepped in the interests of giving users a technology that they need.
Ableton Link is interesting for another reason though, and one that is most definitely in the crystal ball category. Under iOS, musicians have been waiting for a sync technology that works for some time and it’s great to see something arrive that might offer a solution. However, on the desktop, as I hinted at above, syncing multiple bits of software is (generally) less of an issue. So why have Ableton – whose flagship product Live is currently desktop-only – spent quite so much time and effort developing (and then promoting) a technology that also works under iOS?
While you can make great use of Link entirely within an iOS environment, Link does provide a very neat element for iOS musicians looking to integrate some of the innovative virtual instruments iOS offers with a desktop music production system providing, of course, said musician is using Live on the desktop. Maybe, therefore, Ableton see Link as a means of attracting the growing community of iOS musicians into the Live fold? It is, therefore, as much a commercial move as an altruistic one.
That said, I guess there are more than a few iOS music-makers who are hoping Link is Ableton’s toe-in-the-water with iOS and that, at some stage, we might see Ableton Live for iPad. I’m not currently a Live user on the desktop (although it is a great piece of software) but I would love to see it delivered in an iOS format. I have no insider information here but I’d be far from the only one happy to see Live for iPad appearing out of the mists in my crystal ball prophecy for 2016.
Power to the people
Can I make a personal plea now? This is something I’ve mentioned a couple of times before on the blog but one of the things I find frustrating about my iOS hardware is that it is difficult to both (a) connect multiple bits of music hardware to it and (b) power it while I have one (or more) other bits of kit hanging off my Lightning port.
OK, I know I could go all out any splash out on one of the iConnect devices but what I’m really thinking of is something closer in spec – and price – to a USB hub. Let’s, for the sake of argument, say something with a shortish Lightning cable that goes to your iPad, three Lightning ports for connecting other Lightning-based peripherals (and these ports might, or might not, be able to power those devices… although it would be great if they could) so they can pass data (if not power) between iPad and each device…. and topped off with a small PSU to power the ‘hub’ that can trickle charge the the iPad itself. Oh, and if the PSU was actually just Apple’s own USB charger and a suitable USB cable, then that would be even better.
No, I don’t know enough about electronics or the ins/outs of the Lightning spec to know if this is possible but I can get close to this arrangement with a standard desktop USB hub…. close but not quite there…. so, if it can be done, I’d love to see such a bit of hardware during 2016. Oh, and if you already own such a device then please send me the details :-)
Missing in action?
As I commented a few days ago, 2015 has been yet another great year for iOS music apps and we have seen some great new releases. These have included a number of apps that, well…. I didn’t know I wanted/needed until I got them. And that’s because there are some very clever, laterally thinking, app developers out there whose brains are capable of seeing gaps that the rest of us are not.
That said, I’d still have a few ‘missing in action’ app requests that I’d love to see some (super-smart) iOS music app developer get to grips within in 2016. I’m sure we could all think of a few of these but I’d have three at the top of my own personal wish list….
First, I’d love to see the equivalent of ‘Kontakt for iOS’ appear. OK, there is no way you could bring something quite so fully featured to iOS (we don’t have the sample storage capacity to fully exploit it) but there are two features of Kontakt that would be great to see arrive under iOS; (a) a sample player instrument for which 3rd party sample library developers could market additional libraries and (b) a sample player instrument that offers key-switching between different performance articulations.
In terms of (b), an app such as iSymphonic Orchestra is close. It already offers multiple sample layers that are velocity switched and, with some of the patches, at higher velocities, the samples used do shift between, for example, sustained strings and staccato strings. That’s great and useful…. but not as flexible as a full key-switching system as is possible using something like Kontakt on the desktop.
In terms of (a), well…. we have some great individual sample-based virtual instruments but, as yet, not really one that offers 3rd party library developers an ‘in’ in the way that Kontakt does on the desktop. I’m sure there is a gap here waiting to be filled but, equally, I rather suspect it would have to be filled by a developer that already has a solid reputation with the sorts of 3rd party sample library companies that might be keen to re-craft their existing sample library content for an iOS format.
Said with a big smile, but the obvious candidate to solve this ‘little’ request would be Native Instruments themselves. Yep, Kontakt for iPad would do nicely, even if the spec was a slimline one so that it was tailored to the iOS hardware environment and, for NI themselves, not be a threat to sales of the desktop version of Kontakt. Oh well, I can hope can’t I….?
If I recall correctly, my second wish-list app for 2016 would be something I’ve been wishing for for some time; an audio editing app. OK, I know we have some candidates and you can, if needs be, use your DAW in this capacity, but what I really want is the iOS equivalent of Steinberg’s Wavelab or Sony’s Sound Forge.
Again, I’d be happy enough for such an app to be scaled for iOS use but it would be great if it included support for IAA and AU audio effect/processing plugins and could export audio in a range of standard formats including WAV, AIF and MP3 and different sample rates/bit depths.
We have some brilliant audio effect/processing apps available for iOS but there is one gap in the iOS arsenal that still continues to surprise me. So, my third wish-list app – a top-notch pitch correction tool – perhaps also reflects (a) that I often makes music with vocals and (b) the fact that my own singing is… er…. ‘characterful’ rather than ‘trained’.
While I get just as irritated as the next person by the overuse of pitch-correction software in commercial recordings, its use is pretty much ubiquitous in the modern recording studio. I’m fortunate enough to have used almost all the leading desktop pitch correction products and, while you can easily do T-pain with any of them if that’s what cranks your handle, you can also save an otherwise brilliant vocal take (and save yourself and your singer time, effort and vocal chords) with just a sprinkling of subtle pitch manipulation. Like it or not, this is as much as part of the modern recording toolkit as corrective use of EQ or compression.
Now, we have pitch correction options under iOS, including an iOS version of Auto-Tune, but I suspect that even Sue Marvin (the developer at Antares for the iOS version) would be willing to acknowledge that this is not, yet at least, anywhere near the class of the desktop version. Again, there may be an element of protecting the desktop product here but, even if the likes of Antares or Celemony (the company behind the equally brilliant Melodyne) don’t want to take this on for iOS, then it is a gap waiting for another developer to plug.
Done in real-time, pitch correction can be quite CPU intensive and perhaps that would be something of an issue for iOS based music making while also running all the other things involved with your DAW/sequencer project. However, both AutoTune and Melodyne also offer something that is more akin to an ‘offline’ pitch correction mode that is, in both desktop plugins, capable of higher quality results anyway. I’d be quite happy if my wish-list iOS pitch correction plugin, when it appeared, was an offline process…. Any developers out there up for the challenge?
What’s in store(age)?
This is neither a new wish list item nor something that I’d like to ‘predict’ will happen with any certainty, but I really would like to see Apple get over their current attitude to; removable storage media. An iPhone/iPad that included an SD card slot would, therefore, be very welcome.
In some ways, I can understand Apple’s reluctance. They would have no control over the quality of the SD cards that were used and, if a flaky card is inserted, it would be all to easy for a user to blame Apple for the resulting misbehavior of their iOS system. It might also impact somewhat on their bottom line; they charge a pretty premium price per GB for the various storage options provided in the current iPhone/iPad model range. If folks could buy the smallest internal storage iPad/iPhone available and simply expand it with a suitable (budget) SD card, then Apple’s ability to shift 128GB models would diminish pretty quickly.
However, if the external storage was restricted to storage of materials such as photos, video and your standard music library as opposed to apps and (for iOS musicians) any audio/project/sample data associated with those apps, then I think that would still be a very useful step forward. For the user, they would, at least, get back some internal storage for things like music technology use. For Apple, while some users might opt for a smaller capacity iOS device, maybe that would be compensated for by high sales simply because, for most users, the bulk of their storage is things like photos, videos and music.
Apple? Pretty please? OK, so I’m not going to hold my breath but neither have I given up hope…. yet.
Join the ‘band
Now I know we have the feature-packed Auria Pro and the slick Cubasis – and a few other very credible iOS DAW/sequencers – that we can all take our choice of but I think there is still a place for GarageBand for iPad in this particular iOS music app category. In some ways, GarageBand has always been brilliant. It provides a pretty friendly way in to audio+MIDI recording for the music-making newbie who just happens to own an iOS device for other reasons and, in the ‘smart instruments’, Apple were well up with the gaming in showing the world that a touchscreen can bring ways of making music that do not depend upon skills with a traditional musical instrument.
However, in some ways, GarageBand has now become the rather poor cousin to some of the other iOS DAW/sequencer apps. Yes, Apple have updated the app to keep it current (just about) so we have Audiobus and IAA but, even though iOS9 bought us AU, GarageBand is still not (at the time of writing anyway) capable of acting as an AU host. However, perhaps the most obvious missing ingredient is a decent virtual mixing environment within the app. That Apple have not addressed this in some way is – frankly – a bit lame….
On the desktop, GarageBand is a pretty decent recording package – different from under iOS in some significant ways – but it is pretty clear that Apple see GarageBand for OSX as a bit of a ‘come get me’ sales pitch for Logic Pro X. Despite having been under Apple ownership for a good number of years now, Logic has (mostly) survived the experience and it is still the DAW/sequencer of choice for many music industry professionals. However, if you are happy with your iOS platform, and have started your recording journey with GarageBand for iPad, where do you go next? Apple are missing a significant trick here I think in capitalizing on the opportunity GarageBand for iPad offers….
I’ve no idea whether they will decide to offer graduates of GarageBand another step during 2016 but it would be great to see either ‘Logic lite’ or ‘GarageBand Pro’ appear. Personally I think the latter is more likely than the former but it would be brilliant to see even a significant update to the feature set of GarageBand for iPad itself. Again, this is Apple so I’ll not hold my breath.
2015 saw the rather nice surprise that was Music IO, Studiomux and Audreio, all of which bought their own take on a low cost solution for integrating your iOS music-making technology to your desktop music-making system. There are, of course, all sorts of ways of doing this – some of which have a greater cost and require additional hardware – but the option to link your two systems together using the standard Apple USB charging cable is both (a) very welcome and (b) inexpensive.
It’s not, however, been either foolproof or without its teething issues; it works, and it is a definite step forward in terms of workflow for those looking to blend the two platforms, but it is perhaps best described as workman-like rather than slick.
I’ve no idea if there are software-based technical solutions that could make this simple USB-cable-based connectivity both tighter and, from an audio routing perspective, easier for the user. However, I do wonder if there are things that the developers of the mainstream desktop DAW/sequencers might be able to achieve on this front from inside their own software that can’t be done by a desktop plugin from a 3rd party developer?
That does, of course, require some desktop DAW/sequencer development teams to take iOS a little more seriously…. and many of us who are already convinced by the potential of iOS for music production would probably see that as a good thing anyway, whether any new development efforts were focused on connectivity workflow or some other way in which iOS can be exploited by desktop musicians.
Next bite of the Apple
If there is one ‘prediction’ we could all make for 2016 and feel pretty confident about, it’s that, pretty much on schedule in Q3, we will see another iteration of iOS and iPad/iPhone hardware. It is very easy to get somewhat cynical about the annual cycle of ‘updateitus’ that Apple (and, frankly, most tech companies) bring us and there is undoubtedly a sizable chunk of ‘new and shiny’ being dangled in front of us in the hope that we will bite and cough up another dollop of our hard earned cash.
However, I do think all tech manufacturers are caught between a bit of a rock and a hard place here; damned if they do (update everything) and damned if they don’t (update everything); money grabbing in one context and out-of-date slackers in another. Equally, I think it is worth a bit of a personal pinch occasionally to remind yourself – despite things this technology can’t do – just how much iOs has progressed in a very short space of time.
A few months ago, Sound On Sound magazine celebrated their 30th anniversary and, in reflecting on those 30 years of music technology change, they put together a recording studio based upon technology that would have been current when the first issue of the magazine was released. The results were interesting but the key lesson learned was just how influential the recording technology was in not just the sonic qualities of the music created but in the nature of the music itself; they ended up with something that sounded like a piece of 1980s music stylistically as well as sonically….. Oh, and they also commented that the kit – which represented the cutting-edge home/project studio of the time – was hugely unreliable and didn’t work as advertised (sound familiar?).
By the way, your iPad and a few well-chosen iOS music apps would leave this (very expensive when originally purchased) 30 year old ‘hi-tech’ studio in the dust in terms of features, flexibility, ease of use and reliability….
With iOS music making, we have a much shorter history to review but put yourself back just three years to January 2013 (that’s when I reviewed the first release of Audiobus) and just try and recall what we could and couldn’t do then; iOS music making, despite still being far from perfect, has come a heck of a long way in a very short period of time. While there are all sorts of folks (including a lot of very creative iOS music app developers) that we have to thank for that, some of the credit must also go to Apple for (perhaps without it being the highest of their priorities) having continued to make advances with a mobile computing device that, as well as being a highly desirable, top-end, consumer product for generic use (with a certain amount of smugness attached to ownership), is also capable of being a credible platform for music making.
It will be no surprise to anyone therefore, when later in 2016, Apple reveals exactly what incremental gains in hardware performance and new OS options we will be tempted with. As iOS musicians, we are a small element of Apple’s user-base, but here’s hoping some of the 2016 round of updates take iOS music making another step or two forward.
Happy New Year?
So would this combination of predictions and wish-list items make my personal new year a happy one? Well, they might certainly help…. However, I’m sure you might have your own ‘most wanted’ items to add that would address your own needs/wants for iOS music making…. and, if so, then do feel free to leave a suggestion or two below in the comments section.
In just three weeks time, we will, of course, get out first full-on taste of the music technology future for 2016 when the annual NAMM show gets under way. While the show covers all aspect of music making and technology, there are bound to be some iOS specific announcements. Watch this space….
And whatever 2016 might bring, in a musical context at least, I hope that it also brings you time and the creative urge to ignore what you would like your iOS music system to be able to do and, instead, to exploit what it can already do….s so that you can get some music made. The next ‘big thing’ may well be…. well, big…. but the current thing is already pretty big and I, for one, am looking forward to having some fun with it whatever 2016 might bring.
Happy New Year and very best wishes,