Well, that was different wasn’t it? For some (OK, not all), 2016 is welcome to exit – stage left – never to be seen again. It has been a year of political uncertainty that, wherever you live in the world, the ripples are going to reach you in some form or another and at some stage during 2017. We also lost some significant musical talent starting with David Bowie in January and ending with George Michael in December. Whatever your musical tastes, the odds are that we lost someone whose work you loved in the last 12 months. 2016 – goodbye and good riddance.
However, at a personal level, 2016 has also had lots of positives (such as the completion of my new project studio space as readers of the email newsletter will be aware). And, for iOS music technology, I think there has also been a good number of high points (not least the excellent new apps that have made their debut in the last 12 months), a (welcome) lack of real significant bumps in the road and, perhaps, a few rather stubborn niggles that don’t (quite) seem to want to go away.
And so, 2017 is now upon us….. Where has 2016 left us iOS music makers? And where might 2017 take us? I don’t claim any special powers of foresight here (just a quick swipe across my Crystal Ball app) but, as a bit of that ‘end of one year/start of another’ musing that many of us experience as the calendar does its annual thing, here are a few personal thoughts….
State of (iOS) play?
I think its fair to say that 2016 has been one of evolution rather than revolution for iOS music technology. OK, we have had some obvious highlights and my personal choice as iOS music app of the year – Jonatan Liljedahl’s brilliant AUM – has, for many iOS musicians, been a bit of a game changer in terms of workflow. However, while was have seen progress – newer iOS hardware, new version of iOS itself – and no major disruptions (the transition from iOS9 to iOS10 was, thankfully, a pretty smooth one), 2016 has been characterized by incremental change overall rather than some of the step-jumps we might have seen in earlier years.
Personally, I think this is a good thing…. and a good thing for two reasons. First, after experiencing lots of rapid – and sometimes not always forwards – changes, I think the community was perhaps ready for a little bit of consolidation. Change and progress are great but, equally, if the pace is always full-on, then there are bound to be folk who just get frustrated at trying to get work done within a technical environment that is always shifting.
Second – and this is perhaps a bit more speculative – perhaps 2016 marks the transition of iOS music making from infancy (growing fast and always changing) to adolescence (maturing, if still far from actually mature, and a slightly slower rate of change)? Maybe we are through the really bumpy bit of the development journey and moving into the consolidation period for this platform? Don’t get me wrong… I still think there is plenty of ‘could do better’ room for further growth/maturity in the platform but we are perhaps reaching a slightly shallower slope on the growth curve.
Personally, I think stability – with some steady forward momentum – is a welcome place to be. Of course, I could be wrong and 2017 might dump big-time on us iOS musicians at some point (anyone else ever wondered whether Apple might eventually merge OSX and iOS? eeekkkkk!). Here’s hoping for a steady ship in 2017….
A brief 2017 wishlist?
And what of 2017? What might that bring? Well, aside from World peace, a cure for cancer, an end to global poverty and a more tolerant and respectful sense of what it is to be human (you know, the ‘big’ stuff that really matters), back in the microcosm that is iOS music technology, there would be some (obvious) candidates for my own personal wishlist.
First up would be further progress with the Audio Units format. I have to admit that I’ve been a little surprised by the somewhat slow uptake we have seen for AU by developers over the last 12 months. OK, I think we can all take a pretty good stab at understanding why this has been the case but, even so, things have moved more slowly that I expected. Us users are obviously very keen though….
For developers, I suspect two barriers has made them cautious about AU. First, the initial AU specification for iOS was, apparently, just a bit on the undercooked side. I’m not sure I’d have wanted to jump in – with all the R&D costs involved – if I wasn’t convinced that the code in the OS itself wasn’t quite (yet) fit for purpose. Second, profit margins in a low cost product line such as iOS music apps (and these are low cost items regardless of how many times folks complain about how ‘expensive’ a particular app might be compared to the latest version of Angry Birds) are super-tight. With a user-base expecting all their updates for free (pretty much), squeezing a return from what might be substantial effort to implement AU in a complex app is quite a challenge for developers.
The AUv.3 specification released by Apple during 2016 has undoubtedly helped a great deal and iOS10 has, I think, pushed us on a bit further. We have, therefore, seen a steady flow of AU-ready apps. In the main, however, this has been new apps arriving with AU included rather than old favourites with AU support being added. If the two suggestions cited above do reflect the reality of the developer’s dilemma, then perhaps this is not so surprising?
I’m not quite sure whether there is a single, all-at-once, solution that can release this AU bottleneck. Yes, some of us might make polite requests to our favourite developers and ensure that they know that we are prepared to pay for an AU version/update/IAP…. but whether that will be enough to change things…. well, I remain to be convinced.
What I suspect 2017 will bring, therefore, is simply more of the same…. a steady drip feed of new AU apps…. new releases most certainly (and many might be AU-only) but, hopefully, as the pendulum slowly swings in favour of AU rather than IAA or Audiobus, a few more of our favourite, long-standing, apps will make the transition.
Incidentally, on that front, I think apps such as Wolfgang Palm’s Phonem have created a model that other might follow here. The ‘full’ app (which works as a stand-alone synth) provides the full range of editing options while the AU plugin (included within the price) provides a somewhat more restricted editing environment for sounds but full playback options from your AU host. This is a neat and sensible solution for developers struggling with how to translate a complex stand-alone control set into a more compact AU windows size.
Frankly, I’d be quite happy if all 2017 delivered was the final rise of AU to bring the well-established (from the desktop) workflow benefits that a proper plugin format brings. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t think of a few other wishlist items for the coming year….
How about a few more options when it comes to wireless (Bluetooth) MIDI controllers? Cable spaghetti is a pain at the best of times but, when you have a USB hub, an audio interface and a couple of MIDI controllers, instruments and a mic or two hanging off something as a compact as an iPad, it makes for a bit of a mess. Anything we can do to reduce the tangle (while maintaining reliable connectivity) has got to be a good thing…. and solutions for reducing the actual number of wires involved – MIDI or otherwise – would be a good thing.
Software-wise, I’m not sure I’m missing a great deal (other than having more stuff in an AU format) but I’d still love to see folders and group channels in my favourite iOS DAW/sequencer (pretty please Steinberg?) and I still can’t believe we don’t have a more powerful pitch correction app for iOS (an offline one would be fine with me).
However, perhaps the area where I think we still have some room for improvement is in the associated hardware we all need to sit around our iPad /iPhone music systems. While there are some great MIDI keyboards, MIDI control surfaces and audio/MIDI interfaces out there, the bulk of this stuff is still created with the desktop musician in mind.
I’m not sure I want stuff that’s dedicated to iOS (I’ve no objection to a custom solution but such devices are often susceptible to iOS hardware changes) but a greater choice of compact products aimed at the musician on the move (laptop or mobile) would certainly be welcome. What’s more, while I’m happy to see the entry-level catered for, I think we also need some road-ready products a little further up the food chain. Sonically, there are plenty of iOS music apps that are more than capable of delivering in a live performance context, but we need associated hardware that makes it easy to build that very portable, but professional, rig whether that’s for live performance or for hotel room recording. See some joined up (as opposed to ad-hoc) solutions for getting your iPad into your live rig in 2017 would certainly be a welcome development.
Happy New Year?
So would this combination of 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 2017 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 2017 might bring, 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….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, just as in 2016, in 2017, I, for one, am looking forward to having some fun with it.
Happy New Year and very best wishes,