Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hybrid iPad Music

Making music on the iPad usually requires just a bit of patience with inter-app audio or audio sharing, communicating and crashing. That is just the "state of the art" at the moment with iPad music creation. I make a great deal of music on my tablet but to do so requires unique workflows, frequent saving and a bit of luck!

Recently while experimenting with the excellent MIDI instrument, Gestrument, I rapidly found my iPad misbehaving in various ways and decided a compromise was in order. Using my iConnect MIDI 2, I can send and receive either audio or MIDI to and from my iPad. I decided that I wanted to create a piece using the Gestrument instrument but with desktop samples (which are STILL head and shoulders above any sampled instruments on the iPad).

Gestrument is very expressive and with multi-touch gestures will send MIDI notes, velocities and varied pitches, etc. It can control multiple MIDI channels all at once and is capable of making some very unique sounds.

I wanted to make a jazz piece and use some Native Instruments Kontakt samples. I chose the MM Bass and the MKII electric piano for the background of the piece (both part of the Komplete bundle from Native Instruments). I wanted to use gestrument to send chords which is not something it does easily. Rather than wrestle with multiple voices on Gestrument, I sent one instrument into a "Track Stack" in Logic X and then sent the notes to the Bass on one track, a MIDI chorded piano on a second and a syncopated arpeggiated piano on the 3rd track. This set up the basic bass and piano rhythms in the piece very nicely. By playing the notes and articulations on the iPad, I recorded the resulting MIDI into the track stack which played back on the 3 sub-tracks in Logic.

For jazz drums, I find the drum tracks a bit lacking in Logic, so I resorted to some excellent Jazz looped drums.

Once this was all done, I set up a few saxophone tracks and played various rhythms in the same key (Eb minor blues) as the rhythm and then mixed, tweaked and mastered on Logic from there on out.

Say what you will about Cubasis or Auris, Logic X is still worlds easier to work with multiple MIDI channels with or without the iPad.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Black Friday update

So I was doing pretty well with iPad Black Friday sales until I caved and bought another sample library - iSymphonic Orchestra. I was looking hard at Korg Module but ran into another issue - my 64 GB iPad Air was full! This leads to a pet peeve of mine which is how music apps store their files on the iPad. At some point, almost every app stores large uncompressed WAV files.

On my desktop, my DAW of choice is Logic X and I do almost all of my work with MIDI files - tiny encoded numbers, rather than raw WAV or AIFF files. Since I don't record my voice, nor plug in a guitar, nor use older "gear", everything in my song files is usually simple MIDI files that are played by the plug-ins. Occasionally I resort to jazz loops for drums but otherwise, I almost never need to resort to raw audio files. Even my trumpets and sax files are MIDI tracks played via the Akai EWI and played through the excellent SampleModeling plugins.

MIDI is in all ways...better! Easy to transpose - simple to edit, change the time in and almost anything else. I can cover up a lack of performing talent with constructive post-production editing! Audio files, on the other hand are difficult to loop - hard to cut up and edit - sound weird when transposed or sped up or slowed down. Not only is most of my music MIDI, but its mainly virtual inside the computer or via USB cables. I don't have a single MIDI cable. 

Conversely, on my iPad, I often use Auria or MultiTrack DAW which work on only audio files. Lots of very large, uncompressed audio. On top of that, Auria will periodically store "snapshots" with copies of those large uncompressed audio files! This eats up space quickly and its a pain to manage/migrate and move these files to dropbox or to delete unused ones. 

MIDI on the iPad is still in its infancy it seems. In self-contained apps like Garageband or Gadget, tracks are stored internally as MIDI but its hard to get them out. The gold standard for MIDI is currently Cubasis, but even there, if you are using many IAA instruments, the memory quickly fills or bogs down until you have to freeze tracks - which, again, leads to more audio files. 

Back to iSymphonic - I haven't played with it yet but the advantage will be having one app that can handle 16 MIDI connections (I hope!). I plan on trying it with Cubasis and driving the MIDI via Noatikl. I anticipate lots of crashes, but we'll see!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Classical iPad options

Anyone who listens to my electronic music pieces quickly finds that I am  a bit eclectic in my musical styles and creations. The same is true for my listening. Most iPad created music falls into EDM, Ambient or somewhat electronic styles since they are really the natural domain of synthesizers.

However, I also grew up listening and playing a lot of jazz and classical music (on trumpet in those dark days) and I often long to make similar creations electronically. On the desktop I have some great samplers (Kontakt, Logic and and old version of Sampletank). Jazz-wise I've invested (heavily!) in SampleModelings Saxes and Trumpets but classical-wise, I have been more restrained. I do have the full version of Sampletank's Miroslav orchestra on the desktop which is a huge set of sampled orchestral instruments done around 1998 by the famous Miroslav Vitous (of Weather Report fame).

On the iPad, the choices are somewhat more limiting and for classical music there aren't as many options. Garageband on the iPad has some excellent string instruments. Sampletank has a cut-down version of Miroslav that I purchased and Thumbjam has some excellent orchestral samples. There does exist the Crudebyte iSymphonic Orchestra as well, but I don't have that one.

I may spring for the Crudebyte someday but its a bit pricey. Since I do many of my classical pieces with MIDI sequencing and generative tools such as Noatikl, my favorite tools for classical sounds are the Sampletank Miroslav orchestra and Thumbjam. Garageband, while excellent, does not really let you feed it MIDI without significant work arounds.

As a test, I tried putting together a small string orchestral piece in Noatikl with 4 parts (Cellos, Violas, 1st Violins and 2nd Violins) which I then fed into both Sampletank Miroslav and Thumbjam. I recorded the results into Auria and added some nice convolution reverb there for a performance hall. The results were (at least to me) interesting!

For this experiment, I used IAA tracks into Auria. A few interesting notes....

Miroslave samples in Sampletank are already "positioned" by a typical orchestra. This means that the cellos are off to one side, the violins off to the other even with your "Pan" settings are central. Its important to note this when using Miroslav so you don't try to position your instruments manually and really throw them off.

Thumbjam samples, on the other hand are not panned and you would want to pan them yourself to get a nice stereo mix. Also, since I used Noatikl to generate these pieces, they are NOT identical! Noatikl will use randomization, chordal harmonies and other tricks to create the voices. It is never the same twice. Also, since Thumbjam doesn't have a pizzicato violin, I used staccato for Thumbjam in its place.

So here is what Sampletank's Miroslav samples created with Noatikl:

The Thumbjam version is here:
I think overall, I lean towards the Thumbjam version. The samples provided sound a bit more realistically performed to my ears. If enough of you are interested, I could repeat the experiment with Desktop tools (at least the ones I own).

Overall, I did find the results listenable even though the sample sizes on the iPad are a fraction of what is available on the Desktop.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

iPad Reality Check?

So, I'm working away on the iPad, popping in track after track and decide to sit down at the desk and hook up to the iConnectMIDI2 to finish things off. I start reaching to the iPad in Cubasis and stop and ponder.

Here I am, sitting at the iMac, Logic X on the screen and I'm struggling to fit tracks in Cubasis - what is wrong with this picture? Obviously the best DAW at my disposal is Logic X and I can easily add iPad tracks into my mix over the iConnect MIDI.

In getting the iConnectMIDI2, I was looking to better integrate iPad music with my desktop. But it is important to think of the best tool for the job. At my fingertips is Logic, all of its plug-in synths, Komplete 8, Aalto, Arturia AUs, Korg M1 AU, SampleModeling Trumpet and Saxes and more plugins than I can ever hope to use.

So, why the iPad? Until recently, there were few, if any sounds on the iPad that I couldn't do better on the desktop but that is changing in a few areas. Animoog, for example is completely unique with its modulation possibilities and I can do things on the touch screen that are very hard to "automate in" with traditional desktop plugins. I also have some very unique add-ons such as the Grateful Dead set in Animoog that don't exist on my desktop.

In other areas, my tendency to "cheap bastardhood" weighs in. I have most of the libraries for Alchemy Mobile edition on my iPad but I only have the "free" Alchemy player on the desktop. To buy those libraries on the desktop is an expensive proposition, but I have the best of them on the mobile (I know the bitrate is different and its not the full library, but its still damned useful).

Z3tA - likewise, I don't have the desktop version, same goes for iSem and many other unique items on the iPad. So for all of these synths, I might use them and pass the audio into my pieces.

The other area where the iPad shines is as a MIDI controller. Using StepPolyArp, Gestrument or even Logic Remote is often more intuitive and more fun than using keyboard controllers on the desktop. I can pass the MIDI into my software synths on the desktop and have an extremely responsive controller. Thumbjam too works extremely well as a playing surface and can be used to control much better sample libraries on my desktop.

I get Computer Magazine and often see adds for novel MIDI controllers for the desktop but I'll sacrifice tactile feel for the infinite possibilities of a touch screen in most cases (the Akai EWI is a notable exception that I do have!)

Often when I am working, I am solely on the iPad and I do make heavy use of iPad DAWs in those cases. For those times when I do connect the iPad to the iMac though, I need to take a breath, think and decide what I want to accomplish with what tool.

If I want an iPad only experience, which is quite often, I will use the local DAWs and tools. If I want a polished jazz piece, I might opt for a Desktop only piece in Logic. But I think I should do more "hybrid" pieces and use the best of both. For my "sketch pad" style pieces, my best option is Garageband on the iPad and then moving the project file to Logic X. This brings all MIDI, audio and track information intact onto the desktop where I can replace some instruments, extend things, automate etc. I'll probably be doing much more of this in the future.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Cubasis with StepPolyArp

In my last posting, I discussed using DAWs on the iPad and hoping to work more or less in the same way that I do on Logic X on my desktop. Feature-wise, I found that Cubasis offered the closest thing to logic on the iPad.
  • Cubasis has a track based interface with both audio and MIDI support.
  • Cubasis has a fair set if builtin instruments and sounds
  • Cubasis supports Audiobus and IAA
  • Cubasis supports IAA tracks as MIDI as well as audio
With all of this, I can, in theory, plug in any IAA synth, record my track as MIDI and work on larger compositions. In reality, though, stability suffers the more apps that are involved and at times things just get flaky with IAA.

For my most recent track, I wanted to use the excellent sequencer, StepPolyArp to create several rhythmic tracks of jazz. Instead of stressing out my iPad, I decided that I will first set up the sequences and record them into Cubasis native instruments. After recording, I could then replace any native instruments with IAA alternatives.

This worked out very well and I put together a nice jazzy piece below:

The StepPolyArp sequencer is capable of sending individual lines of rhythmic patterns to different MIDI channels. I used several MIDI channels to send rhythms to Cubasis for the Bass, Piano, Trumpet and Sax tracks.

The lowest line above is transposed down 12 steps and only plays note "1" of the arpeggiated chord for the first long 3 notes and then the other notes for a little bass break. This goes to the bass part in Cubasis on MIDI channel 1.

The 2nd from bottom in this pattern goes to the Trumpet MIDI channel 3.

The top 4 lines all go to the Piano on MIDI channel 2 to play some nice chords (using the transpose number for chords).

I then went into many notes and played with probability of playing to make some fire all the time and others from 40% - 80% probability. Lastly I added some "swing" to the pattern.

With all of this, when playing chords on the keyboard, I get a nice alternating rhythm from StepPolyArp which I recorded as MIDI into Cubasis (see below).

In Cubasis, I added the Drum part later using some MIDI loops and I duplicated the Piano into another track and used a better IAA instrument (iCMP Grand Piano). 

That was about it for this track. A little minor MIDI editing and it was ready to post.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

State of the DAW

Its been quite awhile since I posted anything here so I thought I'd maybe take some time to catch up with how the iPad has evolved and how music making on it compares to the desktop.

As I've posted before, I use Logic Pro X on my desktop as my preferred DAW and when on the iPad what I tend to miss most is the ease of working within a single app or DAW without feeling like I'm juggling multiple apps with multiple interfaces. In the past few years, DAWs on the iPad have matured quite a bit and here is my own experiences with them.

In the 'good old days' of the iPad, compromises had to be made for memory and CPU which basically made most DAWs self-contained entities with limited music making capabilities. One of the first I used was the (still excellent) NanoStudio which had a very good internal synth coupled with a nice sample pad. What NanoStudio showed was that a traditional track-based DAW could work very well with a touch interface. Similar products out early include BeatMaker 2, Tabletop and MultiTrack DAW. Coincidentally, I have all of those.

NanoStudio and Beatmaker were the more traditional with multiple tracks of piano roll (MIDI) sounds and some support for Audio tracks. MultiTrack DAW, was more like Audacity in that it was just an audio track app and Tabletop was more or less like a self-contained Rack based Reason. But all of these were more or less "closed gardens" with limited ways to import sounds from other apps.

The holy grail of DAWs has always been to provide a unified interface that works with plug-ins and a multitude of synths, samples and sounds with effects buses, mixers, etc. More of less like Logic, Live or Cubase on the desktop.

When Garageband arrived on the iPad, I got a very polished DAW with fantastic built-in instruments, though with very limited interoperability and no automation at all. The good news for me was that I could start a project on the iPad in Garageband, tweak it all I wanted and then move it to Logic X unchanged and continue working there. The bad news, its a one-way trip but this worked (and still works) very well.

When I wanted more power on the iPad, I turned to Auria which has partnered with many professional companies to provide plug-ins as in-app purchases within their product. Prior to audio's and IAA, Auria had incredible plugins that could be purchased and used within the app. The downside was that all tracks had to be audio and my preferred method of working on music is MIDI, but it is still one of my favorite DAWs. The other downside was that their professional plugins had um...professional pricing. They were a fraction of the desktop price to be sure, but for iPad pricing, still a bit of money.

Audiobus started the revolution in inter-app processing and Apple eventually caught on and brought out inter-app audio (IAA). This changed everything and made it possible for DAWs on the iPad to act a bit more like desktop DAWs with their AU or VST plugins. This also probably ate into Auria's business model since iPad users could use IAA effects instead of buying them within Auria but that's another matter.

With Virtual MIDI, Audiobus and IAA, I should finally be able to get something approximating the Logic X DAW use. So is that possible yet? The short answer is sadly, no. But there is hope and things are close.

Steinberg has ported their Cubasis app to the iPad and more than any other DAW, this sort of has all the pieces. It is possible to use internal instruments as MIDI and they give you a credible built-in synth and sampler. It is also possible to put audio tracks in. The killer functionality for me is the ability to include IAA instruments such as Animoog, Nave or Z3tA into individual MIDI tracks. This is as close to plug-in VSTs as you'll get on the iPad. 

The only problem is that this doesn't always work all that well. I have an iPad Air (first gen, not the new one) which is limited to 1 GB of memory. Start adding in lots of IAA synths and you will quickly hit a wall. The workaround is to freeze your tracks and that should work but when you work with some "frozen" IAA tracks in Cubasis, adding additional IAA tracks doesn't always work for some reason. Also, when freezing, you have to set latency to 256ms or the frozen track will have the wrong BPM (a bug!). 

In theory, once you "freeze" a track with IAA, Cubasis should no longer care if the app is open or not since you have an audio version of the frozen track. For some reason, Cubasis still cares and on occasion will complain that it cannot open the IAA for a frozen track. 

Another limitation is that IAAs can only appear on one track. You can't easily use 3 instances of Z3tA for example. Again, freezing SHOULD work, but doesn't. I think all of the pieces are there but sadly they don't work very reliably as of yet.

There are other quirks that make it difficult to use. Cycle MIDI recording is lousy, for example. I continue to use it since it is a close as things get to a full DAW but it has a ways to go. 

Since I do almost all of my work in MIDI, this is the single most important feature for me. Easy use of external synths as MIDI instruments. Cubasis is probably as good as it gets, but it ain't there yet. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Plumbing concerns

There have been many articles lately about inter app audio and Audiobus 2.0 on the iPad and I just wanted to put in my two cents. 

As much as I enjoy creating music on the iPad, the one area that still feels a bit "primitive" is getting apps to play nicely together. Much of this is due to Apple's app "sandboxing" but another aspect is the maturity of the whole infrastructure. 

Audiobus arose more or less "organically" outside of Apple and managed to provide a much needed but still somewhat limited means of combining apps musically. Up to 3 sources can all pipe through effects and into one target. I believe that this introduces a degree of latency, but it can be handled as long as all items are going through the same path.

IAA (Inter app audio) is Apple's solution to combining musical apps and uses internal API items not accessible to 3rd parties - not exactly fair but who's counting. IAA works with much less latency and you can concurrently use as many apps as your CPU can handle (not that many really!). 

The exciting news is the upcoming Audiobus 2 which will actually save your plugin settings (assuming that the source applications support the feature). This is slowly getting to where you almost use the iPad like a desktop DAW.

The big difference on the iPad is that you are constantly worrying about the plumbing! How many apps are open? What presets need to be in each synth to combine my music? 

This happens quite a bit in my own creations with Noatikl where each synth must be played and captured at the same time (since Noatikl has each voice harmonize and play off the others in real time). I have experimented with both and once tried mixing and matching both IAA connections with Audiobus at the same time. They don't mix! Latencies are just off enough that the resulting files were way off time-wise and it was too much work to finagle them in Auria after the fact.

This means that for my Noatikl pieces that need many concurrent synths, they all need to be Audiobus (limit - 3!), or they all need to be IAA. 

When back on my desktop using Logic Pro, I never worry about the AU connections - they just work. If I save my song, all the settings are retained, there is rarely a CPU issue and I concentrate more on the creative process than on plumbing.

As things stand now on the iPad, I'm still feeling like Super Mario at times!