iPad Audio/MIDI Interfaces – Alesis i/ODock & StudioConnect
Just a few iPad interfaces now combine MIDI and audio abilities, together with other facilities such as video interfacing. The first of these to be released at around $300 was the Alesis i/ODock, an ambitious product which aimed to turn the original model iPad, when accompanied by suitable apps, into a fully fledged recording studio.
The i/ODock comprises a wedge-shaped support stand, with an external power supply, into which the iPad slots, offering on its sides and rear MIDI In and Out sockets (of the familiar five-pin DIN variety), a USB socket (for connection to a computer only, not to a USB keyboard controller), balanced XLR/jack microphone sockets with volume controls and switchable phantom power, each switchable to line and one to guitar level, stereo audio quarter-inch jack outputs with volume control, a headphone output with volume control, a footswitch socket, and a video output which on the original iPad would only send an image when playing the Movie app or one or two others. On the iPad 2 and new iPad, a small adapter tray compensates for the thinner body size, and the video output, of course, now shows screen images of all apps in use.
This is a formidable specification, and the selling price falls far below that of acquiring separate MIDI and audio interfaces, phantom power supply, video output cable and all the appropriate socket convertors. An iPad mounted in an i/ODock does indeed become a formidable looking piece of studio equipment. Both Alesis and Gator offer a laptop-sized backpack for transporting an iPad inside an i/ODock at around $50.
The i/ODock, however, has received mixed reviews, although in cases where it doesn’t perform well, this is more likely to be the fault of the specific app rather than of the hardware, and this in turn is often likely to be caused by Apple making iOS updates without any particular regard to how existing apps have been designed. The MIDI In/Out facilities of the i/ODock work extremely well for many synthesizer apps when combined with most MIDI controller keyboards. Whether functions like the footswitch input (most usually used for Sustain) or filter cut-off will work predictably depends more on the individual app. Again, the balanced XLR audio inputs work extremely well when combined with apps which expect this type of input appearing via the Dock connector – those which expect an input through the iPad’s Audio In would fare less well.
At various points in time, the i/ODock has failed completely to perform with some apps. It is possible to download i/ODock firmware updates from Alesis, but these aren’t always able to keep up with iOS updates from Apple. iOS5 apparently worked extremely poorly with the i/ODock, while iOS 5.1 solved most of the problems. No version of firmware and iOS to date has allowed the i/ODock’s MIDI sockets to handle System Exclusive messages, which is very odd, and makes it of limited use for various types of synthesizer patch librarian and controller packages.
The construction quality of the i/ODock is fair – it’s lightweight yet reasonably solid, perhaps not designed with regular onstage performance in mind – and its requirement for a chunky external power supply is more or less dictated by its ability to offer phantom power to XLR mikes.
Just coming onto the market at the time of writing is the Griffin StudioConnect ($150), which is a wedge-shaped stand mounting an iPad vertically and offering a headphone output on the front together with a volume rotary and large data wheel style controller, and on the rear, five-pin DIN MIDI In and Out sockets, RCA phono stereo audio outputs, stereo minijack audio in and a quarter-inch jack guitar input. The device has a short captive cable to the iPad dock port and keeps the iPad on charge while in use.
StudioConnect is designed particularly to work with GarageBand and while not offering the wide range of connections of the Alesis i/ODock such as video out and balanced mike in, does offer a compact method of bringing the iPad into use as a mobile studio – as long as you don’t want to record a stereo synth. However, since it features MIDI rather than USB ports, and no phantom-powered XLR mike port, almost everything you connect to it will need its own power supply as well, so it may not be entirely the portable solution it seems.
No doubt the number of all-in-one, MIDI and audio interfaces for the iPad will increase in the future. It’s also likely, given the extended video shooting abilities of the latest iPad, that these will offer a lot more in the way of video outputs as well as audio and MIDI interfacing.
Mark Jenkins is a writer for Melody Maker, Keyboard, and Music Week; a musician performing in the UK, USA, France, Holland, Germany, Brazil, and China at venues including the Royal Festival Hall, London Planetarium, and National Theatre of Brazil; and author of Analog Synthesizers (Focal Press) as well as iPad Music: In the Studio and on Stage (Focal Press.)