iPad Rocks Musikmesse 2011

“Musikmesse” is the world’s largest trade show for musical instruments and audio recording technology. It is held annually in Frankfurt, Germany, and has everything on display that makes musicians and gear-heads drool.

The range of products on display is vast, especially in the realm of electronics. Still, this year’s ‘Messe had a very easily recognizable overarching theme in that area: iPads everywhere!

The iPad as a software-based musical instrument, a portable recording studio, a flexible wireless remote controller for synthesizers or mixing consoles — basically every manufacturer of keyboards, mixers, and audio software showed off their take on how to include an iPad in music performance and production.

Here are a few of the iPad-related highlights that caught my eye in Frankfurt last month.

Reactable mobile

It may look like a bistro table at first glance, but is, in fact, a highly interactive musical instrument.

The Reactable Live! comes with a set of translucent acrylic blocks, slabs, and discs called “pucks,” which represent synthesizer modules like oscillators, filters, modulators, etc. As soon as you place one of these pucks onto the Reactable’s touch-screen surface, it is magically connected into a sonic circuit.

Reactable Live! device with acrylic modules on its touch-sensitive surface.

Control elements appearing around each puck let you edit its parameters, e.g., an oscillators waveform or a filter’s cut-off frequency. You can also rotate the pucks themselves, which makes for a literally hands-on, immersive sonic experience.

Here’s the magic behind the scenes: the Reactable’s surface is a semi-transparent pane, and a video projector, which is mounted underneath it, produces the on-screen controls. The projector unit also houses a camera that detects the position of fingers placed on the screen as well as dotted patterns on the undersides of the pucks.

Each type of puck has its own individual pattern, and the patterns are non-symmetrical. That’s how the system can detect a puck’s rotation angle. The Reactable Live! software that controls the system and generates the sounds, runs on a Mac.

Several online tutorials are available showing the Reactable Live! in action. For the synth-heads among you, the full manual is available online.

Although the Reactable can be played from a keyboard via a MIDI Input puck, that’s not its primary use — because the real fun starts when you gather a group of people around the device and play around with all the modules without following any specific musical agenda.

As a current special, the Reactable Live! retails for a solid €7,900 (about US$11,212), not including the Mac to run the software. A much cheaper alternative that delivers nearly as much fun is Reactable mobile for iOS.

An iPad displaying the Reactable mobile app on its screen

The app offers more than 20 pucks in virtual form, imports samples and loops, and lets you share your Reactable sessions. It runs on iPhones and iPads under iOS 3 or later, and is available from the iTunes App Store for $9.99.

Way Out Ware SynthX

A noteworthy newcomer among software instruments that have been custom-designed for the iPad, is the SynthX, an analog modeling synthesizer by Way Out Ware.

The SynthX is modeled after a vintage ARP synth (whose name rhymes with “X…”) in both architecture and sound. Its oscillator can provide simultaneous saw and pulse waveforms, the filter boast a 24dB/octave slew rate, and the LFO, ADSR, and S&H routings follow ARP’s classic example. Unlike the monophonic ARP, however, the SynthX is polyphonic with up to six voices.

SynthX' screen with parameter faders and XY pad "keyboard"

To help polish the characteristically edgy sound of the SynthX, it comes with an extensive effects section, including distortion, delay, limiter, flanger, and chorus. In fact, there are two effects sections, one for the synth’s output, and one for transmogrifying the signal from an external audio input.

The soft-synth comes with more than 200 factory sound patches and you can fully edit all parameters via the “8-bit retro style” user interface. An unusual feature in this app is a wave form display floating on the screen, thanks to which you cannot only hear, but also see the sound you’re working on.

The SynthX supports CoreMIDI, so you can also play it via an external keyboard or sequencer. If you want to play it via the iPad’s touch screen, you can choose from three input options: an on-screen piano keyboard; an XY pane, in which the horizontal axis controls the pitch and the vertical axis controls sound modifications; and a grid.

SynthX' grid keyboard

SynthX also supports Sonoma Wireworks’s AudioCopy/AudioPaste for exporting the audio from a SynthX performance to other AudioCopy/AudioPaste-compatible apps.

SynthX runs on iPad, requires iOS 3.2 or later, and is available on the iTunes App Store for $9.99.

Korg iMS-20

The Korg iMS-20 is another impressive software synthesizer.

Based on the legendary Korg MS10 family launched in 1978, the app faithfully emulates an MS20 analog synth and complements it with a 16-step analog-style sequencer, a six-track drum machine, a mixer, a pattern composer, and several effects.

iPad running the Korg iMS-20 app, and connected to a nanoKEYS2 mini keyboard

In contrast to the simplified, abstract user interface of the SynthX, the iMS-20 reproduces the original’s front panel, including the patch panel. Such ultra-realistic UIs are often more difficult to use than UIs custom-designed for touch-screen devices. And yet, especially if you have ever played the original Korg MS synths (yes, that does date me…), literally patching a sound by tapping-and-dragging “cables” on-screen makes for a sweet dose of sound editing nostalgia.

The recently released update to version 1.5 of this app adds support for CoreMIDI as well as the “AudioCopy/AudioPaste” system. Also, you can now playing the iMS-20 by connecting a Korg nanoKEYS2 keyboard or nanoPAD2 drum pad directly to an iPad without requiring any further configuration.

The iMS-20 runs on iPad under iOS 4.2 or later, and costs $15.99 on the App Store.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 1.5

Just in time for ‘Messe, Spectrasonics released an update to their flagship Omnisphere software synthesizer.

The new version 1.5 expands the software’s synthesis capabilities and contains 700 new patches to show off the new sonic possibilities . In total, Omnisphere now ships with over 5,000 patches and 8,000 total sounds. The developers also implemented some improvements to the software’s user interface, the most fun of which is the Orb controller.

Spectrasonics demo booth at Musikmesse 2011

At first sight, the Orb looks like a radar screen with a circular blob floating around on it. Moving this blob with the mouse or a MIDI controller modifies the sound based on parameters that are automatically picked by Omnisphere.

If you don’t like what you hear, rolling an on-screen “dice” will randomize the configuration, so you can playfully approach your musical performance without having to think about too many technical details.

For the sound control freaks among you, manual configuration of the Orb is available, as well.

You can record the Orb’s path or automate it via a sequencer, and it even possesses physical properties, making it bounce back from the Orb’s “walls” as if it were the little ball in a roulette wheel.

Playing around with the Orb on a screen already is a lot of fun. As soon as you see it being controlled through the Omni TR iPad app (the “TR” stands for “touch remote”), though, the appeal of direct control with your finger becomes obvious immediately.

The Orb in Omni TR

Omni TR’s user interface is not limited to the Orb: It also serves as a configuration tool aimed at live performances. In addition to the Orb, there are three more view pages: 

  • the Main Page with eight patch slots similar to Omnisphere’s Live Mode,
  • the Controls Page with a pitch “ribbon” controller and eight sliders for editing sound layers, and
  • the Jumbo View for selecting the eight parts of a sound, whose names are displayed in large type for easy viewing even on a dimmed stage.

Omni TR runs on iPad, requires at least iOS 4.2 and Omnisphere 1.5, and is a free download from the iTunes App Store.

Spectrasonics “Bob Moog Tribute Library”

Spectrasonics also released a new sound library for Omnisphere, which comes with a very cool twist.

Dedicated to the legendary synthesizer designer, the “Bob Moog Tribute Library” contains more than 700 new Omnisphere sounds that were contributed by over 40 artists and engineers, among whom are such famous names as Vince Clarke, Jean Michel Jarre, Jordan Rudess, Steve Porcaro, and Jan Hammer. 100 percent of the proceeds from the Tribute Library go to the Bob Moog Foundation, whose mission is “educating and inspiring at the intersection of music, science and innovation.”

Along with the release of the Bob Moog Tribute Library comes the OMG-1 contest. The contest’s grand prize is a one-of-a-kind instrument which combines a Moog Little Phatty, a Mac Mini, dual iPads, and dual iPods in a custom-built maple case. Obviously, the Mac runs the Omnisphere soft-synth, and the Omni TR remote control app is installed on the iPads.

The Spectrasonics OMG-1 with Moog Little Phatty, dual iPads, dual iPods, and a Mac running Omnisphere

To enter the competition, you need to write and perform a piece of music with the Bob Moog Tribute Library for Omnisphere, and submit your track to Spectrasonics by July 15th, 2011. The lucky winner will receive the OMG-1 during the MoogFest in October. The Spectrasonics website has all the contest details.


Another area where the iPad’s portability and wireless connectivity enables new possibilities is DJing. 

The U-MIX REMOTE by MixVibes “allows you to DJ, move across the dance floor and let your audience take part of your mix.”

MixVibes DJ setup with U-MIX REMOTE on iPad and a real hardware controller

The app packs all the features of MixVibes’ top-of-the-line hardware controller mixer (except for the audio interface, of course) and is used in its place to remote-control the CROSS line of DJing software.

Not being a DJ myself, I can’t tell whether the controls on a flat touch-screen surface work as conveniently and reliably as the three-dimensional knobs, faders, and “turn-tables” of the hardware sibling.

Then again, grabbing the iPad, bring onto the dance floor with you to wireless control your setup, and maybe even involving some (of the more well-behaved) members of your partying audience hands-on in the mix sounds like a pretty cool idea.

As of this article, U-MIX REMOTE has not been released yet, but will be available on the App Store “soon.”

Akai SynthStation49

For those of you who prefer playing an iOS music app via a real keyboard instead of on-screen controls, the Akai SynthStation49 is a compact solution with a four-octave keyboard with full-size keys, mod and pitch wheels, nine MPC-style drum pads, a handful of controls — and a dock for an iPad or iPad 2.

Via MIDI-over-USB you can also play external instruments from the SynthStation49, and it accepts MIDI input to control an iPad music app from a sequencer or other MIDI controller, as long as that app supports Core MIDI.

Akai SynthStation49 keyboard with iPad docking station

Speaking of sequencers, the SynthStation 49 has a set of transport buttons plus a number of sound selection buttons dedicated specifically for use with Akai’s own iOS music application, called simply SynthStation. The SynthStation app offers three different synthesizers, 50 drum kits, editable effects, and performance recording. Besides its integration with the SynthStation49 and the SynthStation25 — the smaller sibling with a two-octave mini-keyboard and an iPhone dock — the app can also operate in stand-alone mode, in which it is controlled solely through the iPhone’s or iPad’s touch screen.

Apogee JAM

For bassists and guitarists, getting sound into an iOS device is as important as getting sound out. The Apogee JAM is an audio interface that has been designed specifically for these musicians.

The JAM is plug-and-play, so connect the JAM to your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad, plug your bass or guitar into the JAM’s 1/4-inch socket, and you’re good to go.  The only “configuration” that’s required is adjusting the signal gain via a wheel on the side of the JAM. A built-in LED displays the JAM’s status and also serves as a simple input level monitor.

Apogee JAM guitar and bass interface connected to an iPad

What’s special about the JAM is that it is not just a cable adapter: the analog signal is converted to digital using high-quality converters inside the JAM. The communication between the JAM and the iOS device is purely digital.

Judging from what I heard during a short demo, the sound of the JAM is as impressive as you would expect from Apogee.

As of this writing, the JAM will only work with GarageBand for iPad, but Apogee is evaluating other applications to ensure compatibility. The JAM also works with a Mac, and while it is optimized to play well with GarageBand, Logic Pro, and MainStage, it will play will with any application that supports Core Audio.

Alesis iO Dock

Alesis has created an audio and MIDI interface for the iPad and iPad 2, dubbed the iO Dock.

Audio is fed into the iO Dock via two XLR-1/4inch sockets, both of which have their own gain pot and provide phantom power for condenser mikes. One of these inputs can be switched between line-level inputs and high-impedance for directly connecting a guitar without having to go through a DI-box.

A stereo pair of 1/4-inch sockets and a headphone jack lead audio back out from the iPad. For compatible apps, there is even an RCA video output jack.

Alesis' iO Dock with iPad (mockup) in place

MIDI communication is enabled via a DIN-socket In/Out pair, as well as via a USB-to-host connection. Thanks to support for CoreMIDI, any iOS music application should work with this Dock.

The design of the iO Dock is very space-efficient: its outline is only marginally larger than the iPad itself. The angle of the iO Dock is non-adjustable, but its almost-flat position felt just right for me.

Much more to come, I’m sure.

These are just a few of many interesting apps and hardware devices for integrating iPads and even iPhones into a studio or live music setup. And yet, as the Bachman-Turner Overdrive put it, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” and I’m looking forward to seeing what other cool music products the developers will dream up in the future.

For a few impressions from ‘Messe that go beyond iPads, have a look at my Musikmesse 2011 photo set on Flickr.