Music making with iOS; the pros and cons; no. 1; no hard drive vs no hard drive

As a regular user of iOS in my own personal music-making workflow, I take no convincing of the various useful roles my iPad (or iPhone) can play. They are many and varied (itself a topic for another time) but, while I’m more than happy to exploit what IOS can offer, I do realise that I’m in a music tech minority. There are lots of musicians who (a) are aware of iOS technology but get their job done without needing an iPad to do it, (b) have perhaps been exposed to what iOS can offer but remain skeptical or, (c) have never even considered iOS as a platform for music making. And, of course, there is also the novice music maker to whom music technology – in whatever form – is still a world to be discovered.

While I’m obviously a fan of what iOS – and the many brilliant iOS music apps we have available – can do, I’m also aware of its limitations. It is not, of course, the ‘perfect’ platform for all aspects of music making. Yes, it is maturing and, what’s possible today is considerably more advanced than what was possible even just a couple of years ago….. but, when compared to the desktop environment, on a number of fronts, iOS still has progress to make.

All of which is by way of saying that the technology has pros and it has cons. While this is a topic I’ve meandered my way around at various points over the last five years or so of running the Music App Blog, I thought it might be interesting to bring some of those thoughts up to date in a series of short(ish) discussion posts. In part, this might provide some sort of ‘where are we at?’ summary….. but, hopefully, it might also provide some (vaguely informed) thoughts for those who remain to be convinced of the merits of iOS and for those yet to discover what it might offer. Anyway, let’s see where this might lead……

….. and, where possible, I’ll try to make each post look at both sides of the iOS coin….. the good and the bad (and, if needs be, also the occasional bit of ugly, although these are getting to be fewer and further between).

So, without further ado, let’s get started with a bit of a pro/con discussion on a specific topic that has, in some ways, shaped much of what’s different about iOS for music production when compared to the desktop; the data storage format.

There’s no hard drive; the cons

Apple take some considerable (and, in my own view, justified) flack for the pricing element of iOS hardware that seems to be related to the storage capacity. We all know how much 128 or 256GB of flash storage costs and, while Apple probably use a premium supplier of said storage in their devices in order to keep failure rates as low as possible, opting for a high storage capacity iOS device comes with a considerable premium in price.

Even then, 256GB is about as far as you can currently go (OK, you can add an external flash drive but that often means tying up your Lightning connector and with no guarantee that all your iOS music apps will be able to access it). Perhaps 128GB or 256GB are enough in routine use and, providing you manage your projects well (and make regular backups to off-load the data elsewhere), for multi-track audio.

The traditional hard drive is a modern miracle; it can have a huge storage capacity, its pretty fast and its pretty cheap.

However, what it’s not great for is storage of large sample libraries. We are beginning to see some really impressive sample-based virtual instruments for iOS. Apps such as iSymphonic Orchestra, Colossus Piano, SampleTank and Module (for example) are a match for some of the more modestly priced sample libraries available for the desktop. But, as users, we are always conscious of clogging up that limited (and expensive) Apple storage with mega-libraries for occasional use. And, equally, you get a strong sense that iOS music developers are spending lots of time focused on making their sample libraries ‘efficient’ (lower sample storage needs) rather than ‘of unparalleled quality’ (which generally means more samples).

Of course, traditional desktop hard drives take all this in their stride. Multi-TB hard drives are, in relative terms, cheap to buy and easy to upgrade and/or replace. They are also plenty fast enough to deal with the demands of streaming lots of audio files. This gives software developers the freedom to go that extra mile in terms of sampling for virtual instruments; size has stopped being an issue. If they have the patience and technological skills (and you have the money), they can deliver you some uber-realistic virtual instruments – orchestral sounds, drums, vocals, etc. – that capture the finest of details in the sound.

What’s the threshold size we need so that we (and the developers of sample libraries) might stop feeling constrained by our iPad’s storage? I guess it’s more than 256GB…. heck, it might even be more than 500GB. Can you imagine just how much Apple might charge for the 1TB iPad? Ouch! So, in some ways, the lack of conventional hard drive technology in your iOS hardware can easily be seen as a disadvantage of the platform.

There’s no hard drive; the pros

It’s not all downside though. When you are listening too, or in the act of creating, music, you want to listen to the music, and you want to listen and record, with the minimum of distractions. Of all the things it may be, your average desktop computer is not quiet. Hard drives – with their moving parts – alongside airflow-based cooling fans, are part of that problem. In an office environment, it is a minor irritation that, eventually, you don’t notice until you switch it off. However, in a studio setting, and particularly in a project studio setting where you record, monitor and mix in a single room, it is an irritation that can be difficult to overcome; the low-level computer noise can get into every audio recording that you make.

You can get flash drives to add to your iOS storage…. but they are not an ideal solution for those looking to make music….

OK, so solid-state drives in a desktop computer are becoming more commonplace but they also bring a hefty price tag at present. Equally, you can built a (pretty much) silent desktop computer (for example, based upon water cooling), but at quite a price.

However, with its flash-style storage, and lack of any moving parts, personally, I think one of the most overlooked benefits of an iPad (or iPhone) as a recording platform is that it is silent. Perhaps it’s not such a problem with a cranked Marshall but, if you want to record a delicate voice or a gently picked acoustic guitar in your spare bedroom (er….. recording studio), whatever other ambient noise issues you might have to deal with, your iPad will not add to them.

Of course, you still need to pay attention to all the other important parts of any recording signal chain – decent microphones, cables in good condition, the best A/D convertors and preamps you can afford in an audio interface (oh, and a decent monitoring system) – but a recording platform that is itself silent is undoubtedly a positive.

I’m lucky enough to run a pretty respectable project studio space with a desktop computer at its heart as well as my iOS rig. As computers go, my desktop system is pretty quiet but it is not silent. Equally, because I have storage needs for lots of audio, sample libraries and video that I use in my work, I also have an external hard drive array…. and, yes, that means more noise from moving parts and cooling fans. It would be possible to house that in some sort of baffled enclosure but, equally, I suspect that might also incur some costs in terms of operating temperature and lifespan.

The bottom line here is that, for all its other acoustic imperfections, my ‘studio’ is a heck of a lot better as a recording space when I turn off the two pieces of equipment within it that I rely upon to make the recordings in the first place. As Alannis might say, isn’t it ironic?

Or, of course, I could just hook up my iPad to my desktop audio interface and track all my delicate audio into Cubasis surrounded by the sound of silence? And, whether I then move that over to my desktop system for subsequent arrangement and mixing, my iOS rig has solved a specific problem and improved the quality of the audio that I’ve captured. That’s got to be a good thing and, for those of us unable to afford to build that perfect ‘silent’ desktop computing system, it’s one obvious way that iOS can help us squeeze a little bit more out of the equipment that we have been able to afford.

Suggestions from the floor?

Anyway, I’ve got a few other topics lined up for this ‘pros and cons’ series….  but I’d also be interested in hearing your own thoughts on this topic. So, if you want to share, then get commenting below. Until next time…..  Very best wishes, John

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    1. Vincent says:

      Very interesting article. I’ve taken advantage of my I pad as a silent recorder for video but never thought through the studio recording question.

    2. Funny… I didn’t even consider the noise issue. My first desktop-based DAW had fans as loud as a small jet engine. My solution was to run cables out of the studio into a seperate building and put the CPU in there. My most recent DAWs ran very quiet (by design) so it wasn’t an issue. For me it is the convenience of the iPad and iPhone that is the biggest “Pro”. Only recently has it become true that I can do everything I need to do using the iPad alone. My laptop is essentially retired except as a place to store stems and completed projects, and I have a few VSTs that I have no other way to use.

    3. Trilobyte says:

      reminds me of my G4 powermac…which was SO LOUD there was no way to record anything with it in the room / not in a sound-isolation box…there was no silent option then!

      Glad to see this series: just beginning to put together an iPad-based “music nest” in which to practice and record, so this will be a big help, I’ve no doubt – glad to see you settled into the new site….

    4. Charles Telerant says:

      I’ve got an iPad Pro 12.9 , 128 g, 4 gig RAM. I’m quickly running into the conundrum of “too many options” even on here . Sampletank may note be “Komplete” but it gives me plenty to work with as does Beathawk.. One or two more generations of Cubasis updates and it’ll be a different ballgame , not to mention the rumored upcoming Reason ” for iPad.

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