A Short Musical Break

Last Christmas, having decided to act on last year’s Summer resolution and gotten myself a new MIDI keyboard, I also started wading through the Mac and iOS DAW ecosystems. With a year gone by since the whole thing began, and with my vacation mere hours away from ending, I guess it’s time for a little status update.

So let’s step out from the realm of cloud infrastructure and applications and coding and whatnot for a bit. As usual, it’s been a learning experience for me, and I’m not even going to say much about the actual music and the way I’ve had to tackle a fundamentally different skill, because that’s still ongoing.

Instead, like any engineer, I’m going to rant on about hardware and tools for a bit as I try to put together in my mind what sort of new processes I need for “solving” this…

Throwing Hardware at a Skills Problem

The three blocks that comprise the SongMaker Kit: Seaboard, Lightpad, and Loop block

As a sort of quasi-Christmas present, I splurged on a ROLI Songmaker Kit. It was both a way to commit myself to getting into music through an actual investment (the thing is reasonably expensive, and I would likely not have taken the plunge if it were not on sale) and a cathartic release due to my long fascination for the hardware itself.

Even though it’s trivial to get velocity-sensitive keyboards these days, I wanted to experience the physicality of it in much the same way I savor the difference between plastic keys and the lovely weighted keyboard of our Clavinova, and I can tell you right away that from a hardware perspective, it did not disappoint–not only is the Seaboard two-octave keyboard extremely expressive and pretty amazing, but the Lightpad block turned out to be surprisingly entertaining in its own right.

The modular approach works perfectly, and being able to plug in a bunch of separate modules via a single cable (or Bluetooth connection) is great, to the point where their Lumi Kickstarter will eventually be making its way to my desktop setup.

But after a while I realised I needed to step back focus a bit more on the basics. Let’s see if I can explain why:

The Trouble With ROLI

What I eventually figured out was that physical (and family) context matters. Since I have a home office and work regularly from it, spending my evenings there has become less and less appealing over the years, to the point where I prefer to sit around the house with an iPad for writing and doing personal e-mail rather than bask in the glory of my 27” iMac, its satellite displays and sprawling desk lint of assorted electronics.

And yet I found I can only really get the best out of the SongMaker Kit with a Mac, and on a desk.

Yes, the form factor and carrying case are great for (theoretically) using it on the go, but in practice the full SongMaker Kit is a tad too heavy to carry around without qualms (especially when compared to what an iPad weighs).

But the biggest drawback for me so far is that ROLI’s iOS software support is depressingly limited. Even though Noise is a lot of fun, it all works better on macOS: GarageBand integration, their Equator synth (which has no iOS equivalent) and even the configuration apps all target macOS, which means that you’re somewhat on your own if you want to use the kit on iOS.

And I’d rather spend most of my evening leisure time (all of two hours at most) on a couch instead of at a desk, which in turn means using my iMac or my laptop to run GarageBand is a rare event (except on weekends, which are crowded enough). During that time, I really like using my iPad instead, and ROLI’s software simply isn’t there, not in a meaningful way.

I did find an excellent third-party app called Block Dashboard that I use to configure the Lightpad block. But it is precisely the kind of essential tool I would expect ROLI to have shipped by now.

Instead, like most other software on iOS, their apps seem focused on selling content packs via in-app purchases (which is likely to be a sustainable way to drive up revenue atop hardware sales), and even though ROLI is ahead of its time where it regards MPE (which is poorly supported on iOS software), in the end I decided I needed something that was a better fit for my daily rhythm and decided try a different tack.

KORG nanoKEY Studio

A neat (if clackety) all-in-one

After looking at simpler controllers like the AKAI Mini MKII series (which are very popular but lack Bluetooth variants), I eventually went for the time-honored (and frequently discounted) KORG nanoKEY Studio, which is “unapologetically plastic”, incredibly lightweight and can be left unattended on a couch without qualms.

It is also well-supported by a lot of iOS software, which includes mapping the eight knobs and X/Y controller to synth controls on many iOS apps that support MIDI automation. But the important thing is that I can sit on the couch and noodle away on it without much hassle, so it’s become my go-to piece of kit.

The Software Side

Despite my qualms about spending even more time squirrelled away in my home office, I did manage to fool around with GarageBand and Ableton Live Lite on my 27” iMac, which really makes a difference when I want to play around with audio processing (especially since my iPad is still the long-suffering mini 4, and tends to choke when doing anything very CPU-intensive).

I’m not far along this road yet, but right now I have no real ability to move anything but the most basic stuff between iOS and macOS. GarageBand is still borderline unhelpful (since you can move your projects “up” to macOS, and you do get prompts that certain software instruments won’t be available in iOS), but otherwise you have to move raw audio and MIDI around manually.

I’m not especially fond of Live either at this point (largely because overall I have only managed to scrounge together the equivalent of a few full afternoons with it), but I am getting used to the differences in philosophy and workflows, and things like the Ableton Push Controller now make a lot more sense to me.

I don’t think I will be investing heavily in Live since I am rather more likely to go for Logic if I ever need a “pro” desktop DAW, and having access to most of its patches with MainStage I have little incentive to throw more money at what is still a (very) time-constrained hobby, but mastering a completely new skill that has zero relationship to what I do daily is the entire point here, so it’s all good.

iOS DAWs

The one thing that I have learned over the past year or so is that the iOS digital audio ecosystem is still steadily in the post-explosion stage, with hundreds of pieces of software vying for attention, and it takes a long time to sort through all of them–time that is much better spent studying music theory and practising.

But it is so much fun. For instance, if you want one fun piece of iOS software to try, I strongly suggest Xynthesiser, which is an absolutely amazing all-in-one sequencer/synth combo that has taken some of the dreariness out of my long train trips on the job.

On a broader note, there are a few interesting trends I’ve noticed ever since I started paying attention:

  • There is a huge long tail of outdated and unmaintained software out there (especially standalone synths)
  • Most DAWs (Cubasis, Gadget, etc.) have cyclic price cuts for the core software that they appear to be offsetting with more in-app purchases
  • There is a complementary trend towards everything becoming an Audio Unit (be it synths or effects units), which means you’re not limited to those aforesaid in-app purchases (since DAWs are increasingly moving to support AUv3)
  • Besides AUv3, things like MIDI learn and MPE (MIDI Poliphonic Expression) support are now de rigueur for new software, even if the latter is still a bit thin on the ground.

But picking up where I left off at the end of the last installment, I spent a while trying out other iOS DAWs (as well as a bunch of synths, but I won’t bore you with those this time around):

KORG Gadget

I was naturally drawn to Gadget via the nanoKEY Studio, and even bought a couple of the add-on engines. However, I soon realized that Korg has no intention of playing nice with the rest of the ecosystem, since there was no way I could re-use those synths in other apps and it has zero support for third-party plugins or Audio Units.

I haven’t tried Korg Gadget on macOS, so I don’t know if there’s any interop, but their iOS applications despite being excellent synths all appear to lack Audio Unit support and only integrate with Gadget–so I eventually got refunds for most of them, since I don’t see any point in investing in music software that isn’t future-proof.

Not being able to use extras like Synth One and VOLT (as well as a couple of classic Moog synth emulators I got on sale1) makes no sense to me, so I moved on.

NanoStudio 2

In contrast, NanoStudio 2 is amazing, especially considering it ships with a very nice built-in synthesiser (Obsidian) and that it integrates even better with the nanoKEY Studio than Gadget, including mapping knobs to individual synth controls (even if that’s squirreled away inside the mixer, of all places, it works and even allows for multiple profiles).

The only real shortcoming I’ve found so far is that NanoStudio 2 does not appear to support MPE by itself–its Obsidian synthesiser doesn’t play nice with the ROLI hardware, but Audio Units like the Moog synths do accept MPE input.

GarageBand

Even though I’m growing quite fond of NanoStudio 2, I keep going back to GarageBand. Partly for the high quality presets and macOS interoperability, and partly because it’s fun to explore it on iOS with my kids (it’s one of the few applications that are completely unrestricted on ScreenTime on their iPads).

It having moderately decent audio processing (including a nice visual EQ) for free doesn’t hurt either, and my only wish is that it had a less modal UI, since constantly switching between instruments and timeline views gets really tiring after a while.

However, I do have two annoying gripes with GarageBand on iOS: it seems to have absolutely zero MIDI learning capabilities, and its MPE support is pretty buggy, especially with guitars and string instruments (i.e., you simply cannot play some notes on those instruments via any of the ROLI devices in MPE mode).

Without MIDI learning, the nanoKEY Studio‘s knobs are useless, so I can’t really make full use of it, and I can’t make full use of the ROLI kit on iOS, so… we’ve come full circle, I think.

In short, nothing’s perfect–but I’m spolit for choice, really, and out of all the above issues I think Apple fixing the guitars for MPE in GarageBand is the most unlikely, simply because I don’t think it’s high on their priorities.

Everything else is only likely to improve, except for the amount of free time I’m likely to get.


  1. It pays to have coded my own App Store price watcher, which is keeping tabs on a few dozen iOS apps for me and alerting me every six hours of any interesting price drops. ↩︎