If you want to use your iPad’s touchscreen as a virtual control surface you’re your desktop DAW, there are now a number of different music app options available including V-Control Pro, DAW Remote HD and Absum-8. Each of these come with pre-configured options that support the major DAWs such as Logic, Cubase Pro Tools, Ableton Live or Reason (amongst others) and, while there primary function tends to be the provision of mixing and transport controls, other control options are supported (in V-Control Pro for example).
As a contrast to these pre-configured, off-the-shelf solutions, which tend to focus on just particular functions in your DAW, comes MIDI Designer Pro from Confusionists. As its name suggests, MIDI Designer Pro takes a different approach and, instead of giving you a fairly fixed, ready-made control set, provides you with a design environment where you can build your own virtual MIDI control surface to create something to meet your own specific needs.
While this will not be the cheapest music utility app you ever buy, the advantages of this DIY approach are obvious; using these tools, you can create any combination of knobs, buttons, sliders, crossfaders, XY pads, labels or panels so, if you want to, you can build your own custom DAW mixer controller. Equally though, if you want to design a control surface for a specific software instrument or effects unit, MIDI Designer Pro can be used to do just that. And if you have suitable hardware connectivity, in principle, you can also link your iPad to a hardware MIDI device which could open up all sorts of interesting possibilities – something that is described as the ‘ultimate hybrid’ (a controller that mixes software and hardware) on the MIDI Designer Pro website.
The disadvantage is, of course, that you have to create the virtual interface for yourself. Thankfully, MIDI Designer Pro design tools are fairly easy to find your way around and, as you explore beyond the basics, are packed with interesting features. So, if you are the kind of musician who likes to get their programming hands a little dirty, the MIDI Designer Pro might be right up your street.
As with other virtual controller apps, MIDI Designer Pro allows you to connect to your desktop DAW computer via WiFi (the computer and iPad need to be on the same WiFi network) and those using a Mac can establish a direct WiFi connection that ought, in principle, to give a slightly tighter connection (lower MIDI latency). This is the route I used to my iMac and, once the connection was established, the link between controls within MIDI Designer Pro and my DAW (I used Cubase 6.5 in testing) was very responsive. The MIDI Designer Pro website has some tutorial material on using WiFi connectivity if this is something that you are new to.
You can, of course, connect your iPad to your computer via a direct hardware link using one of the Core-MIDI compliant devices such as the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer or iRig MIDI. A direct MIDI connection opens up the possibility of linking MIDI Designer Pro to external MIDI hardware. I didn’t get the chance to test this possibility during my review but there is information and some tutorial material on the apps website that gives a hint as to what might be possible. Hopefully, as more users explore this possibility, Dan Rosenstark (the man behind the app) will upload some further examples to illustrate what can be done.
Finally, if you have other iPad music apps that are capable of running in the background, MIDI Designer Pro can use virtual MIDI to control them also. A video tutorial on the app website shows this working with the Sunrizer synth app. I was able to replicate this on my own iPad and it worked a treat.
The underlying idea of MIDI Designer Pro is simple; you get an editing environment that allows you to create your own layouts of virtual knobs, buttons, sliders, XY controllers that can then be used to control things like your DAW or virtual instruments or effects. The layout of these controls is highly configurable both in terms of the size of individual controls and their arrangement on the iPad screen.
You are not limited to a single layout; you can choose between having the screen spilt into two sections or a full screen (‘big page’) format but, in either case, you can switch between multiple pages (via the tabs at the top of the screen) and, if you need even more pages, via the bank buttons. Up to six banks can be created and, within each bank, a maximum of six pages are allowed, so that’s 36 pages of MIDI controls if you get really busy! Once you have created a set of pages that you like, these can be saved as a MIDI Designer Pro layout.
Once you have created your design, using MIDI Designer Pro it a doddle. While this ‘performance mode’ is very much dependent upon the controls you have created, there are a number of nice features that make it both flexible and easy to use. For example, using the Page tabs to switch between different screen layouts is a breeze. This system makes it easy to flip between different uses. For example, you might have pages dedicated to controlling your DAW’s mixer, while other pages are dedicated to specific controls from your favourite software instruments, and you can switch back and firth very quickly.
One other very clever bit of design is the way that you can place your finger on a knob or slider and, as you move it, a second display appears around your finger tip which mirrors the changes you are making to the control itself. As you drag your finger to make a change, this second display moves with your finger and so is always visible. This is such a simple idea but is beautifully implemented here and immediately overcomes one of the potential pitfalls of touchscreen control – that your fingers get in the way of you seeing exactly what you are adjusting – brilliant (although you will have to take my word for it as this overlay disappears when you try to capture the screen).
In finding my own way round what MIDI Designer Pro can do, I thought it best to keep it simple (because I’m stupid) to start with. As I’m a big fan of the Quick Control system in Cubase, I set about creating a set of eight virtual knobs that I could use with this system and that would then provide me with access to a lot of the key controls I routinely use for audio and VSTi tracks.
Given what MIDI Designer Pro can do, this felt a bit like using a sledgehammer (albeit a very elegant one!) to crack a nut but, even with my novice status, the take took less than five minutes, including several iterations of tweaking the arrangement until I was happy with the result. I then used Cubase’s own MIDI learn function to link my virtual knobs with the appropriate Quick Control within Cubase. This worked without a hitch and – hey, presto – just a few minutes in and I had a custom virtual controller for one of my favourite Cubase features.
The app is full of well-thought-out design features. For example, while designing your own layouts, you often need to perform similar operations of a series of controls in turn. Each of the editing dialogs has a small red button located top-right; tap this once and it turns green and this locks the dialog open. You can then switch to editing a different virtual control and get straight to work without having to re-open the same dialog. Tapping the green button closes the dialog once you have finished with it. Equally, the ability to duplicate controls you have created speeds up the process of designing complex control sets.
There are also plenty of options provided for ‘skinning’ your pages in terms of colours and background textures. If you want to, this allows you to give each page a custom look (as well as a custom label) as a visual cue as to what part of your MIDI system you are currently controlling.
Many users might feel MIDI Designer Pro is worth the entry fee just to be able to construct custom sets of this kind of very simple MIDI control collection to use with your DAW. However, this really is just scratching the very thinnest layer of MIDI Designer Pro’s skin. If you are inclined, things can obviously go much deeper but just how deep depends on how far you want to dig into what seems like a really sophisticated feature set.
For example, the Supercontrol feature allows you to adjust one control, or a set of other controls (called subcontrols), from another one (the supercontrol). At a simple level, you might configure a button to reset a group of faders to a specific setting but, equally, you can create complex chains of controls and, for tweaking synth parameters for example, this might open up all sorts of interesting possibilities. Incidentally, one interesting feature is the ability to get a control to return to its default value once you release it. However, you can also set the rate at which it returns to the default setting and this could also have synth programming possibilities and, apparently, is also useful in the world of MIDI-controller lighting rig programming.
Of course, this depth does come with a word of caution; in order to get the app to do some of the more sophisticated things that it is capable of does require (a) some trial and error effort to experiment with the programming options and (b) a willingness to understand the MIDI control options provided by your MIDI target, be that a DAW, software instrument or a piece of MIDI hardware.
Thankfully, the app website includes some useful resources in terms of (a). There is a collection of useful video tutorials and a Q&A section where the developer has responded to user questions and requests. These are well worth viewing and they demonstrate very clearly just how creative it is possible to get in terms of custom-building performance enhancing control surfaces.
That said, I’m sure a written manual covering some of the basics would also be great for newbie (including me!). Dan Rosenstark tells me this in under development and due shortly. A further recent addition to the website is a user content section. It will be great if this really takes off as it would give users a good head start. Equally, it might be useful if the website (or the app itself) included a few pre-configured pages (simple stuff would do) just to get folks underway. Even a few basic fader/transport control setups for the major DAWs would, I’m sure, be a welcome for new users to adapt and turn into their own. My interaction with the MIDI Designer Pro team suggests they are very pro-active in terms of development and responding to the needs of users so I’d be very surprised if these kinds of support extras were not forthcoming.
MIDI Designer Pro is a brilliant utility app for the more geeky and experimental music maker. If you fancy custom building your own MIDI control surface for your DAW or a piece of MIDI hardware you use live, then MIDI Designer Pro ought to be right up your street. While it can be used to create the most basic of MIDI control surfaces fairly easily and the design interface is very well executed, I suspect the real appeal will be for those users looking to go further and wanting a kind of ‘MIDI control surface Swiss army knife’. That is pretty much what MIDI Designer Pro is so, if you are open to getting hands-on in terms of creating your own ultimate iPad-based MIDI control rig, then this app could be just the ticket. At the time of writing, an iPhone version is also close to release. For those with a passion for MIDI control, MIDI Designer Pro is well worth the money and comes highly recommended.
MIDI Designer Pro