Using your iPad for live music performance; a starter kit for the performing iOS keyboard player

piano key close up 2As with the starter kit for guitar/bass players, let’s take the term ‘performing’ here in its broadest sense; any keyboard-playing musician who wants to use the iPad (or iPhone or iPod Touch) as a sound source. Again, the ‘performance’ itself might just personal practice, rehearsal/jamming with band mates or, for the more adventurous, in a live performance in front of paying punters. The first of these is perhaps a less demanding and less difficult ambition while the last requires you to be very confident that your iPad-based rig is going to behave flawlessly.

In this context, I think keyboard players are perhaps in a slightly better position than guitar or bass players as many keyboard players have been using software-based synths (mainly running on laptops) in their live rigs for some years. The whole concept of using a computer as your primary sound source is, therefore, perhaps not so alien in the world of keyboard players than it perhaps is in some (the majority?) of the guitar-playing population (although this is just a matter of perception; digital modeling amps from the likes of Line 6 are, of course, just computers built into a traditional looking amp/combo box).

While the starter kit for the performing guitar player can be boiled down to quite a short list (although there is nothing to stop you adding to it), for a keyboard player, there is probably more by way of temptation, especially in terms of potential apps to acquire. Given that, let’s start at the other end – the additional hardware you might need – and then come back to some of those apps later.

Additional hardware – MIDI me

While the virtual piano keyboards built into many apps are perfectly serviceable, the obvious hardware item required to get the best from some of the synth and keyboard apps is an external MIDI keyboard. There are a number of scenarios here. For example, you may already own a well-specified MIDI keyboard/synth that features standard 5-pin MIDI connectivity. Alternatively, you might have a keyboard that is designed for use with a computer and transmits MIDI over USB. Finally, you might consider a keyboard designed specifically for the iPad and that connects via the docking port. There is also the prospect of wireless connectivity via Bluetooth but, as yet, few actual products available. I suspect this will be an area that grows though.

The iRig MIDI features MIDI in, out and thru - but also allows you to charge your iDevice - very useful.

The iRig MIDI features MIDI in, out and thru – but also allows you to charge your iDevice – very useful.

The first of these situations is perhaps the most straightforward and, in a ‘mission critical’ performance context (that is, in front of paying punters rather than your mates in your bedroom), perhaps feels like it ought to be the most secure. While there are a number of recording-orientated audio interfaces that also feature MIDI I/O (such as the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 that I’ll discuss in the ‘recording starter kit’ section), if your need is just for MIDI I/O to your iDevice, then there are cheaper MIDI-only solutions.

Perhaps the most obvious candidates are the Line 6 MIDI Mobiliser and iK Multimedia’s iRig MIDI (both are currently c. £40 here in the UK). The basic concept is similar in both of these. They provide a very neat adapter that plugs directly into the iDevice’s docking connector (at the time of writing, these units use a 30-pin connector so you will need an adapter if you are using a Lightening-equipment iDevice) and a pair of dedicated cables that plug in to the unit itself and then lead out to standard 5-pin MIDI connectors and provide MIDI in and MDI out. The iRig MIDI also features a MIDI Thru connection and, significantly, a micro USB port that allows you to charge your iDevice through the iRig MIDI; a big plus if you are playing longer sessions.

Of course, both of these devices can be connected to other MIDI-based equipment and not just keyboards. If you use a MIDI-based pedal board for your guitar or a MIDI-based electronic drum kit, these devices could also make use of these MIDI I/O ports to drive suitable apps on your iDevice.

There are more upmarket (read sophisticated and expensive) options in terms of MIDI interfaces (for example, the iConnect MIDI) and, if your are both serious and ambitious with getting your iPad into your live rig, these are worth exploring further.

There are also keyboards that transmit MIDI data via a USB connection. These have generally been designed with the computer musician in mind. Some (although perhaps not all, so do check the technical details before making a purchase) will also work happily with an iPad providing you connect up via the Apple Camera Connection Kit (CCK).

Finally, there are also keyboards designed specifically to work with iOS devices. These generally provide a dedicated cable to connect to the iDevice’s docking port. There are, however, also keyboards that include a mount for the iDevice (rather like the music-player docking stations that you can buy) designed to accommodate either an iPhone or an iPad. These can provide a very neat solution but (obviously) only support one format and one type of docking connector (the older 30-pin version on most existing keyboard models).

So those are the options in terms of MIDI connectivity. What about some specific keyboard examples of each type?

Find the right key(board)

If you go down the MIDI interface route described above, you can make use of any keyboard that features actual MIDI ports so, if you already own a suitable hardware synth or ‘master’ keyboard (essentially, a MIDI keyboard but without any built-in synth sounds and designed to be used to play other hardware or software-based synth sound sources), then there may be nothing else you need here.

Something like the Alesis Q25 makes for a compact solution.

Something like the Alesis Q25 makes for a compact solution.

However, if you really are just starting out and need a first ‘real’ keyboard to use with your iPad as a step up from the virtual keys built into your favourite apps, or perhaps you just need a more compact keyboard that you can carry around with your iPad for jamming/rehearsal sessions (as well as the occasional gig), then what are your choices like?

The short answer is ‘plenty’. The compact MIDI keyboard format has been around for a long time to meet the needs of both gigging and recording musicians. For home studio owners, quite often, space is a consideration, so a smaller format (rather than an 88-key, grand piano sized monster) is very popular.

If you are flexible in terms of the form of connectivity (separate MIDI interface or USB MIDI via Apple’s CCK), then there is a huge choice. Companies such as Akai, Novation, Miditech, Korg, M-Audio, Alesis, Behringer, CME, ESI and Samson all make suitable devices with standard ‘compact’ formats being either 25 or 49 keys (although you can, of course, also buy larger 61, 76 and 88 key devices if that’s what you need).

If you need ultra-compact, then Korg's nano series is difficult to beat.

If you need ultra-compact, then Korg’s nano series is difficult to beat.

Prices vary depending upon the exact specs. For example, you can pick up something like the compact Alesis Q25 for about UK£50. This features both USB and full, 5-pin MIDI ports plus pitch and modulation wheels in addition to 25 velocity sensitive keys. If you want ultra-compact, then the Korg Nano series devices are worth looking at including the Nano Key 2 (about UK£35) that uses USB MIDI but is advertised as supporting the Apple CCK. It doesn’t have as many features as more upmarket offerings but it is very compact and portable.

Samson's Graphite 25 also provides some nice control options.

Samson’s Graphite 25 also provides some nice control options.

Slightly more upmarket would be devices such as Samson Graphite 25 (c. UK100) – lots more control options build in (pads, rotary knobs) as well as semi-weighted keys – and also advertised as supporting the Apple CCK for USB MIDI although it also features a standard five-pin MIDI out.

Prices obviously increase well beyond this level depending upon the range of features you require, just how road-worthy you want the construction to be and how many keys you want….

In terms of iOS-specific keyboards that connect directly to the iDevice docking connector or connect wirelessly, then there is less choice but still some perfectly acceptable candidates. IK Multimedia’s IRig Keys would be an obvious choice at c. UK£65. It features 37 velocity sensitive keys and can work with either a PC/Mac or your iDevice (a 30-pin cable is provided and a Lightening cable is available as an optional extra).

Alternatively, Line 6 offer their Mobile Keys in both 25 key (c. UK£60) and 49 key (c. UK£90) versions. Again, these work with Mac/PC but also support iOS and are supplied with a 30-pin dock connector cable (and ought to work fine with a Lightening adapter).

Akai make a range of iPad/iPhone friendly keyboards with different specs to suits different budgets.

Akai make a range of iPad/iPhone friendly keyboards with different specs to suits different budgets.

The other obvious candidate comes from Akai with their SynthStation keyboards. For example, the SynthStation 49 features a docking port for the iPad (30-pin format) and also features various pads and buttons that – app depending – can be used to tweak your synth on the fly. The other advantage of this format is that the external power supply powers not only the keyboard but also charges your iPad. The issue of power (or, more specifically, lack of it) requires some consideration if you are going to use your iPad-based keyboard setup for anything that might turn into an extended performance.

Control freak

If you are new to all this music technology stuff and the iPad is your first foray into serious synths, it can be tempting to plump for one of the cheaper keyboard models. That’s fine, but it is worth drawing a little breath in your first rush of enthusiasm and making sure you get the decision right. The issue of how you approach the MIDI connectivity aside, trying to answer the following questions will help you identify which keyboard model might best suit your needs.

1) How many keys do I need (size and playability vs portability)?
2) How are the keyboard and iPad powered (this matters if you play longer sessions)?
3) The actual keys aside, what other controls do I need on my keyboard surface?

Hardware controllers integrated into your master keyboard can make for a much greater set of creative performance options.

Hardware controllers integrated into your master keyboard can make for a much greater set of creative performance options.

For novice keyboard players, the last of these is well worth thinking about. All the top-notch iOS synth apps provide plenty of real-time sound mangling features built-in to the software. Yes, you can use the iPad’s touch surface to access all of this but, particularly in a gig situation, having a few hardware controls that can be mapped onto these software controls (via MIDI – don’t worry; it’s easy to do in most apps using something usually referred to as ‘MIDI Learn’) gives you much more ‘hands-on’ control. Pitch Bend and Modulation Wheels are a start but if you can stretch to something with a few more rotary knobs and maybe even a slider or three, that will only add to the fun further down the line.

Audio out

If all you want to do is explore your iPad synth collection in your bedroom then the standard headphone jack audio output – whether connected to headphones or some sort of powered speaker system – will be more than adequate. Indeed, even if you want to use your iPad for jamming, band rehearsal or the occasional gig, providing you use decent quality cables between the headphone jack and whatever means you are using to amplify the sound, you ought to be able to get a perfectly acceptable audio quality.

If you are, for example, patching your iPad into a keyboard amp or a PA system of some sort, one other consideration is making sure that the inputs on the amplifier or mixer that you are plugging in to are of the right sensitivity. This does require some care so you both maintain audio quality (as little hiss and hum as possible) and don’t overload the amp or mixer’s inputs (avoiding nasty distortion). When first plugging in, always make sure that both the iPad output volume and the amp/mixer input gain are set to zero and then very gradually increase them until you find a suitable level – better safe than sorry :-)

IK Multimedia's iLine cable set is a good place to start in terms of getting basic audio out of your iDevice and into other audio systems.

IK Multimedia’s iLine cable set is a good place to start in terms of getting basic audio out of your iDevice and into other audio systems.

In order to make these kinds of connection, you will also need the right cables. It’s difficult to give specific advice as the exact requirements will depend upon exactly what you are trying to connect your iPad to. However, IK Multimedia’s iLine Mobile Music Cable Kit (currently about UK£42) would be a good place to start and ought to provide what you need for many situations.

For a slightly more sophisticated approach you could look at something called a DI (direct inject) box. These are simple small devices that are designed to allow audio devices that produce one level of signal output to be patched into a second device (often an amp or mixer) that only accepts a different signal level. A common use of these devices is to patch an electric guitar (a very low level signal) directly into a mixer or PA (which would prefer a higher level signal). Stereo versions of these devices can be purchased from about UK£40 upwards (for example, the Samson S-direct plus at about UK£50) but it would be a good idea to try before you buy so you know it will do the job.

The alternative is to buy one of the many ‘mini-mixers’ that are available. These are essentially very small versions of the live sound audio mixers or recording studio mixers and just feature a few channels (sometimes just two) but generally also include a range of different input and output sockets so you ought to be able to patch the headphone output of your iPad into one of these and then connect the output of your mini-mixer onwards to the amp or PA mixer.

Mini mixers like those from Alesis can also provide a useful way of getting audio out of your iPad and onwards to an amp or PA in a performance context.

Mini mixers like those from Alesis can also provide a useful way of getting audio out of your iPad and onwards to an amp or PA in a performance context.

Devices such as the Behringer Xenyx 302 (about UK£35) or the Alesis Multimix 4 (about UK£65) ought to be able to get this job done. These devices come with a further advantage; as they also feature gain (volume) controls, it gives you the ability to mute your iPad’s audio output with a physical knob should you need to do so. Models with an independent volume control for the mixer’s headphone output (I think the Multimix 4 has this feature) are also useful as that means you can mute the main output (the audience hear nothing) while still being able to hear the iPad through a pair of headphone (perhaps while you madly try to work out why the synth app is not making the sound you thought it ought to be!).

The other obvious possibility is to combine both MIDI I/O with audio I/O by using one of the many recording audio/MIDI interfaces that can work with an iPad or other iDevice. The majority of these are USB-based (and therefore require the Apple CCK) but there are also one or two that are designed specifically for iOS and use the docking connector (for example, the Alesis IO Dock). However, as these devices are pitched more at the recording musician, I’ll save a full discussion of them for a ‘getting started with iOS recording’ article.

Apps for keyboard players – a history of synths in a hand-held box

This is where the fun really starts and, providing you have even a modest budget at your disposal, there is a brilliant array of virtual keyboard instruments available for iOS; you literally are spoilt for choice. A good number of the leading contenders have been reviewed on the Music App Blog so, where appropriate, I’ll point you at those reviews for further details and focus here on giving you some recommendations to think about.

For electric piano sounds, iLectric is pretty hard to beat at present.

For electric piano sounds, iLectric is pretty hard to beat at present.

Let’s start with the most fundamental of keyboard instruments; the piano. Here, for me at least, the choices are pretty straight-forward. I’d take IK Multimedia’s iGrand as my ‘performance’ acoustic piano app and toss a coin between iLectric and Neo-Soul Keys when it comes to electric piano sounds. All three of these apps are, however, performance-ready; the sound quality is really very good.

In terms of virtual synths, there is a much wider set of possibilities. Indeed, like in the desktop music software world, iOS now has a whole collection of virtual recreations of classic hardware synths and, in addition, software synths that might never have existed in hardware form but are becoming classics in their own right.

Thor's main screen looks unassuming but this is a brilliant app. Probably my favourite iOS of those currently available.

Thor’s main screen looks unassuming but this is a brilliant app. Probably my favourite iOS of those currently available.

If I had to pick a couple to start the ball rolling, right now (July 2013) I’d go with Propellerhead’s Thor and Waldorf’s Nave. Both of these sound amazing and, if you like to get your programming hands dirty rather than just relying on the supplied presets, then you will get plenty of mileage out of these two. Both are, however, supplied with extensive collections of excellent presets.

The Waldorf Nave music app sounds great and offers lots of programming options.

The Waldorf Nave music app sounds great and offers lots of programming options.

That said, like choosing your favourite guitar, when it comes to synths, different opinions will abound. So, if you want a few top-notch alternatives then Addictive Synth, iMini, iMS-20, iPolysix, Sunrizer, Animoog and NLogSynth will, amongst a number of others, crank plenty of synth player’s handles. And when you consider that you could probably buy all of these for less than the price of a night out for four, this a lot of synth for not a lot of money, particularly if you compare it to the equivalent hardware synths or even desktop software equivalents. If you want a more sample-based approach to keyboard sounds to complement all these synths then, at present, SampleTank – along with a selection of the additional sounds available as IAPs – is probably the best current choice.

Other considerations

Given that one possible aim here might be to take your iPad out and gig with it, it is worth finishing up here with a few further practical considerations. While mentioned earlier, it’s worth coming back to the issue of power. However you hook up your external MIDI keyboard and get audio out of your iPad, you need to ensure that said iPad will have enough juice to get you through your gig. If that’s just a 30-minute slot, then perhaps it’s less of an issue but, if you play in a function band where the gig might go on for several hours, the ability to charge your iPad while performing is going to be essential. You will need to pick your other equipment to accommodate this.

IK Multimedia's range of iKlip stands are useful accessories to have around.

IK Multimedia’s range of iKlip stands are useful accessories to have around.

Equipment failure is, unfortunately, a fact of life so, if you currently are the kind of musician who always has a spare everything in case of emergencies, then perhaps a spare iDevice – with a duplicate collection of apps installed (although, providing it is registered to the same iTunes account, you don’t have to buy the apps twice which is nice) – would obviously help you sleep the night before a big gig. For the more relaxed amongst you, confidence built through dry-running your system at rehearsal might be enough? How fail-safe you can be may, of course, be dictated by budget.

The other practical consideration is keeping your iPad safe, secure and easy to use during your performance. Unless you are handy enough to knock up a custom-built arrangement, something from IK Multimedia’s iKlip stand range might be useful. This includes both a mic-stand and a desktop clip stand but these will both keep your iPad stable while in use yet easy to insert/extract as you come on/off stage for security.

Finally, just like you might have a set list for your band’s gig, with all these synth apps at your disposal, it is well worth compiling a patch list that identifies which synth and which patch is required for each song in your set. If you are only using one or two apps for everything, then a custom patch bank is going to be a good idea to ensure patch switching between songs is as efficient as possible.

The final note…

With a little planning and thought, your iPad can sit at the centre of a very powerful  - and very compact - live rig.

With a little planning and thought, your iPad can sit at the centre of a very powerful – and very compact – live rig.

If you have also read the similar guide aimed at iOS guitar/bass players, you will appreciate that there is perhaps a bit more for keyboard players to think about in setting up an iPad-based performance rig. That said, it can be done and is perhaps something that experienced keyboard players would find less alien than your average guitar player anyway as they may well already be very familiar with the world of software instruments.

The key practical issues are MIDI connectivity, audio output and power supply for the iDevice. Solve these in a pragmatic fashion and something like an iPad can then easily provide some stellar sounds for your live performance duties. Just which apps form the source of those sounds is a more difficult choice but, providing you plan a bit of a budget for the task, making those choices will be a lot of fun :-)

I hope this all helps….   but if any readers have experience of taking their own iPad out live and have some tips or advice they would like to share with others, then please do leave a comment below….


Product Links

iTunes App Store links to some of the iOS apps mentioned in the text….

iGrand Piano for iPad – IK Multimedia
iLectric Piano for iPad – IK Multimedia
Neo-Soul Keys – MIDIculous LLC
Thor Polysonic Synthesizer – Propellerhead Software AB
Nave – Waldorf Music
Addictive Synth – VirSyn
Animoog – Moog Music Inc.
KORG iPolysix – KORG INC.
Sunrizer synth – BeepStreet
NLogSynth PRO – tempo rubato
SampleTank – IK Multimedia

Amazon links to some of the hardware products mentioned in the text….


Be Sociable; share this post....


    1. Thank you for this really great post – it helped me as a starter a lot!

    Speak Your Mind