As any die-hard iOS musician will be aware, Apple held one of its super-slick launch events yesterday with Tim Cook and the crew taking us through a number of new Apple product enhancements. Yes, sad that I am, I sat through the whole 2 hours (I multi-tasked though!)….. :-)
The focus was very much on the iPhone and Apple Watch so, if you are more of an iPad-based iOS musician, and maybe also run a desktop-based music system using a MacBook or iMac, then there was perhaps less to get your teeth into….. Even so, it is always interesting to see just what Apple are doing in terms of their hardware range as technologies in one area often then feed into another…..
While the event mentioned iOS10 – which is due in just a few days – and some of its new capabilities (a number of them very useful for the general user experience), there was little by way of reference to the needs of iOS music makers on this front. Here’s hoping that – somewhere under the hood of iOS10 – there is a little more certainty for iOS music app developers who are grappling with the AU protocol. In the absence or anything more concrete at the event, it is still a case of ‘watch this space….’ on this issue.
Leaving the Watch aside (although this iteration does look like a much more credible option for sports and exercise fans), the major item on the Apple agenda was the new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. As expected (although no less welcome for being expected), as well as some cosmetic changes, this iteration of the iPhone includes some significant (on the test bench at least) performance hikes and, for photography buffs (that’s me), the new camera options are petty impressive, particularly on the larger iPhone 7 Plus with its dual camera option.
For musicians, it is the new CPU performance figures – and perhaps also the improvements in graphics performance – that will be the biggest bonuses. The (somewhat inevitable) CPU performance chart suggests another jump in technical performance (of the order of 20%) and, all other things being equal (although they never really are), that ought to mean more music apps at any one time or more tracks in your music projects before your hardware starts to press the panic buttons.
With the annual cycle of equivalent iPad upgrades probably due in October (if Apple stick to something close to their usual timetable in these things), then I guess we would all expect this same sort of performance hike to also reach the next generation of iPads. Whether you can justify the cost of a new device on this annual basis is another discussion all-around, but it is obviously a good thing to see performance improvements, especially as Apple also seem to be able to achieve these without a significant reduction in battery life.
However, for iOS musicians (and, it has to be said, for lots of general iPhone users), perhaps the ‘highlight’ of the launch event was confirmation of the widely reported rumour that Apple have ditched the analog headphone jack on the new iteration of iPhones. If you want to connect headphones, it will now have to be done via the Lightning connector or, if you are prepared to cough up for suitable headphones, wirelessly.
I think there is both good and bad for iOS musicians in this change. Phil Schiller outlined the various reasons for this decision all of which are perfectly reasonable and, for the music listener and general iPhone user, aside from needing some suitable Lightning-equipped headphones (or the UK£9.99/US$12.99 adaptor) or wireless headphones, it would have little impact upon the way they might use their phone and makes reasonable sense from a design perspective. He also described the change as ‘courageous’…. although I don’t think this is intended to make us all feel like hi-tech super-heros as we plug in out Lightning headphones…. more courageous as a marketing/business decision given the long-standing and ubiquitous nature of the analog headphone jack.
For the iOS musician perhaps it is easier to see more obvious downsides? However, at a personal level, while your mileage might vary, I don’t think I’d overplay these. In my own iOS music making, the only time I really rely on my iPhone or iPad analog jack socket is when I’m in a more casual music-making mode. This might be lying on the couch or sitting in the park (or some other ‘on the move’ location). On these occasions, I don’t have other peripherals in use, I’m not hooked up to mains power and I’m happy to use my Apple earbuds and whatever performance interface my app(s) offer. In these sorts of circumstances, whether those headphones occupy the analog jack or the Lightning port doesn’t really matter.
If I’m in a more workmanlike mode, then I will have my usual audio/MIDI interface hooked up to my iOS hardware via a Lightning-to-USB connector and, as that interface features an analog headphone jack, I’d be using that anyway over any jack built into my iPhone or iPad. Where it might be more of a pain is if said audio/MIDI interface doesn’t include a headphone jack…. and a case in point is the very popular iRig Pro. OK, so you can still use the standard in-built speakers to monitor what’s going on but that’s not ideal if you are also recording an acoustic audio source in a multitrack recording context (for example).
The other obvious issue is that if your headphones are occupying the Lightning connector (perhaps you don’t have a suitable audio/MIDI interface?), you can’t also be charging your iOS device or, for example, have an external (wired) MIDI keyboard connected. Whether Apple’s (rather expensive) Lightning/USB3 splitter cable would allow you some flexibility here I don’t know… but hopefully some keen iPhone 7 users will try it out and report soon enough…..
Of course, the other possibility is wireless connectivity…. either for that MIDI keyboard or – as included in the Keynote – wireless headphones. Apple’s new AirPods look cool and will, for consumer in-ear ‘buds, probably deliver decent sound, but they are neither cheap nor do we know much (yet) about their likely latency or the reliability of the connection. For general music listening, I’m sure the performance will be great… but for music production…. well, the jury will be out until a few folks can suck it and see. I can’t imagine the bulk of iOS musicians heading off down this route just yet though, however ‘courageous’ it might make us feel.
Yesterday’s event didn’t include any iPad news or, as some had expected, any news on a MacBook refresh. Fingers crossed, we will soon see a similar launch event for these product lines with some equivalent performance improvements and product enhancements. Before that, however, we have to negotiate the launch of iOS10, which will be available as a free update from the 13th of September. I think for most general iOS users, the update will be a bit of a no-brainer but, for us iOS musicians, who perhaps tend to push the boundaries of what our iOS devices can do, and rely on the OS letting us flow audio and MIDI data between multiple apps, a little caution might be required.
How brave do you feel? I will, of course, put on my Music App Blog branded hard hat, and press the upgrade button as soon as iOS10 becomes available. Hopefully, my iPad and iPhone will survive the experience long enough for me to report further here :-)