Recording Music with an Apple iPad
When we’re asked to picture a recording studio, it’s still easy to think of a massive custom-built space. One with flawless acoustic treatment and a mixing console that rivals the cost of a car or house. And you can’t forget the fact that it likely has a multi million-dollar budget! These are the kind of studios found in places like New York City, Los Angeles, and London. Studios that are featured in magazine articles and serve as the backdrop for celebrity interviews.
Well, the reality of the modern recording studio is far, far different. More and more music is being made in home project studios, bedrooms, basements, on the road . . . pretty much everywhere! And you don’t need to spend a fortune to make music at the same quality as a major record label. In fact, there is one immensely powerful and popular device that’s a secret music-making machine. It’s one that you’ve no doubt seen and quite possibly even own.
When it comes to the performance of the iPad, there is no shortage of praise from the creative world. You see thousands of apps, the vibrant visual tools, the powerful camera and photo-editing capabilities, and the storage capacity for your music collection. But, did you know that this thing can MAKE music? Like, full-on, high-end recording studio quality, Grammy-worthy music?
Yes, it’s absolutely true.
First, Apple’s device hardware and clean operating system design is all about making the user experience consistent and very straightforward. The iPad’s calling-card is multi-purpose functionality in a lightweight, compact footprint. If you’re using an iPad, you’re most likely already utilizing it for personal and business task management, visual art, communication, and entertainment.
So, when it comes to recording and producing music on iPad, how does it work? What would I need? Does it cost a lot?
Let’s Get Started!
The purpose of this article is to clearly spell out how you can turn your Apple iPad into a full-fledged recording studio. A studio with the capabilities to capture audio and design sound at a fully professional level. With these helpful suggestions, you’ll be able to take advantage of the iPad’s powerful internal processor and collection of music apps. Please note that this article is geared specifically toward models that are able to run the newest iOS (11 at current). That includes the iPad Air, iPad Air 2, 2017 iPad, iPad Mini 2-4, and both generations of iPad Pro.
I’ll also address the Apple-specific closed source or “walled garden” programming. While appealing to the user experience, it does comes with a couple of important rules that need to be followed. Any music gear you plan on using must be able to play nice with the iPad, the iOS software, and whatever app you intend to use. At current, iOS 11 – the newest version of the Apple mobile operating system – requires all apps to be 64-bit. I’ve made sure to confirm that all apps mentioned in this article are 64-bit and the information surrounding them is current. Also, since you are ultimately connecting a device to the iPad, the power requirements must also be taken into consideration. You can’t just plug in any standard studio digital mixing console or full-sized USB-powered keyboard controller and power ahead. Never fear – the solution, however, is simple and straightforward.
The hardware for your musical needs
As a basic starting point, you’ll first need to ask yourself what type of music you’re primarily aiming to make with your Apple iPad. Are you a singer-songwriter with a guitar or keyboard looking to lay down some solo tracks? Are you part of a small duo or trio? Is sound design and electronic music production your passion? What you want to make is ultimately going to determine what type of hardware (and what combinations) will go best with the iPad.
An iPad-compatible audio interface
If you’re a musician, producer, or have been aspiring to explore the world of recording, you’ve likely heard of audio interfaces. These are pieces of hardware that connect directly to your desktop computer, laptop, or other device – such as an Apple iPad. They are the necessary intermediary between your instruments/microphones and the DAW (digital audio workstation) software you are working with. They also function as a dedicated sound card, shouldering all of your device’s audio processing needs. Interfaces come in all shapes and sizes, each with a variety of inputs and outputs. They also provide volume knobs, effects, and additional controls to assist you in the recording process.
Again, power requirements and iOS compatibility need to be taken into consideration whenever you connect an interface to an iPad. This does indeed limit the size and channel count, but don’t worry – you’ll see that there are iOS interfaces that offer tons of flexibility when recording projects of various scopes and sizes.
The iPad does have a nice internal microphone, but it can be quite a bit limiting when recording music. An audio interface gives you the option to incorporate your own collection of microphones. Many interfaces supply phantom power, allowing you to use even more microphones for specific vocal and instrumental applications.
Choosing the right model
For my own personal setup, I went with the price-friendly and versatile Steinberg UR242 ($199.99). The UR242 provides a nice combination of connectivity options and is ideal for Steinberg’s award-winning iOS DAW, Cubasis 2.
The UR242 includes:
- Four (4) inputs
- Two (2) combo XLR-1/4” TRS with Yamaha D-PRE mic preamps (for guitar/bass/microphones)
- One (1) 1/4” stereo-in (for keyboards/line-level audio devices)
- MIDI-in (for keyboards/synths/rhythm machines)
- Two (2) outputs,
- One (1) 1/4” stereo-out
- Provides phantom power
This particular model runs on an AC power adapter, so if you’re looking instead to go completely untethered, the similar Steinberg UR22MkII ($149.99) is able to run off an external battery pack via USB Micro, with a slightly reduced input channel count (only two combo XLR-1/4” TRS inputs).
Other highly recommended options include the Apogee One ($349), Duet ($595), and Quartet ($1,395) interfaces. In addition to the aforementioned Steinberg UR242 and UR22MkII, the Presonus AudioBox iTwo ($159.99) is another compact, value-driven, feature-laden interface that syncs comfortably with the iPad. In addition to working with iOS, all of these great interfaces work with either Macs, PCs, or both. This adds an extra layer of versatility if you ever need to jump from one platform to another.
The Apple Lightning-to-USB Camera adapter
First and foremost, after choosing your interface you’ll need to purchase the new Apple Lightning-to-USB Camera adapter. This cable connects your interface directly to your iPad, allowing it to be recognized and utilized. The adapter also includes an additional Lightning Port for added power supply connectivity. I highly recommend purchasing this adapter from a trusted and authorized retailer of Apple products. This ensures that you’re receiving a genuine item that has been subjected to the proper quality controls.
Producers – incorporate a MIDI keyboard controller for your iPad
Is your area of musical focus more centered around EDM (electronic dance music)? Are you looking to add symphonic elements, synths, loops, and beats to your solo vocal or instrument tracks? Then a keyboard controller is the right tool for you. This is an absolute must-have for any modern production studio. While fixed studios centered around a desktop or laptop allow you to power these devices directly through that hardware’s USB, you’re a bit more limited when recording on iOS devices. But don’t fret, there are lots of incredible options waiting to be used with your iPad!
In my personal setup, I went with the Korg nanoKEY Studio ($149.99), a 25-key controller with iOS-friendly Bluetooth connectivity. It has eight touchpad buttons and a Kaoss-style pad for note/parameter entry. Most importantly, the nanoKEY Studio has the ability to connect directly to my iPad via Bluetooth and keep wired connectivity reserved for my interface! It’s powered by 2 AAA batteries that can provide up to 10 hours of battery life.
In addition to Korg, other popular models are available from Akai, M-Audio, and IK Multimedia, as well as a number of other top-brands. Be sure to check if these are Bluetooth compatible, need to be connected with the Apple Lightning-to-USB Camera adapter, or are able to use their own proprietary cable to connect directly to your iPad.
Extra protection for all of your hardware
Cases and screen protectors are a must for smartphones and tablets. So why not give all of your iPad recording gear the same level of added protection? Wanting protective peace-of-mind and easy access storage, I purchased two small padded equipment bags. The first (the 10” x 10” x 3.5” Gator GMIXERBAG0909, $29.99) is to hold the Steinberg UR242 interface and its requisite power adapter, the Apple Lightning-to-USB adapter cable, and cables to suit any instrument connection (XLR, 1/4” TRS, and MIDI). The second (the 16” x 10” x 3” Gator GK-1610, $29.99) is to hold the Korg nanoKEY, its components, and a package of batteries. In addition to the Gator bags mentioned above, World Tour Equipment Gig Bags also come in a wide range of sizes that can be tailored to your specific gear and accessory storage requirements.
The control center – an iOS DAW
With the Steinberg UR242 interface in my setup, I am running Steinberg Cubasis 2 as my DAW of choice. A few examples of other highly-rated iOS multitrack recording DAW apps include Auria Pro, Presonus Capture, and Apple GarageBand. Each of these iOS DAWs bring their own batch of comprehensive recording features to your iPad.
Cubasis, much like other iOS apps, offers a demo or ‘LE’ version for free. This is an easy way for you to get a feel for how everything works while recording. The full version unlocks a powerful tool with a straightforward learning curve and it works seamlessly with Steinberg interfaces, such as the UR242. While it’s true that $49.99 is a significant price to pay for an app, you’re getting a fully-fledged professional DAW with an unlimited track count and true multi-track recording capability. Not to mention full MIDI editing and a huge library of professional virtual instruments, samples, effects, and loops – and that’s just for starters!
You’ll also be able to import audio from your iTunes library, iTunes file sharing, or iCloud. Once finished, export your work to an external hard drive, wireless flash drive, Dropbox, e-mail, or to Steinberg Cubase. This app works at an incredibly high level, with plenty of power to handle start-to-finish productions filled with rich detail. Again, you’re covered if you prefer to do additional post-production in a traditional studio environment. Cubasis makes it easy to bounce and export your work – full mix or separate tracks.
Power up your setup with iOS softsynths!
In addition to DAWs, the iOS app store has a number of top-brand softsynths to add to your production and recording setup. These range from added audio libraries to fully immersive sound design platforms. Some have a modern look and others draw from the vintage analog synth patchbay and keyboard! The apps go hand-in-hand with keyboard controllers and can work as plug-ins within the larger DAW apps. They also work as live performance instruments or as standalone production tools in their own right. Korg Gadget and Audulus are a couple of the apps that I have ready and waiting in my iPad recording setup.
Learning the ins and outs of DAW software can seem daunting, but with Cubasis 2 on the iPad, it’s way, way easier than you think. I’ll give you a quick-start overview that will help you on your way to outlining new creations in no time!
Let’s start with the left portion of your screen. Here is where you create, delete, and duplicate separate audio and MIDI tracks. Each track can be solo’ed, muted, and triggered to record, allowing you to record multiple channels at once or overdub a single track over the top. At the very far left is a track parameter menu that is specific to a single channel. Here you can choose the routing preference (microphones, MIDI, and output audio choice), select an instrument of choice for use in MIDI tracks, apply built-in effects, automation, and tweak channel preferences (such as volume).
The bulk of the middle of the screen is taken up by the track grid. This is where your recorded soundwaves and MIDI key information is entered and stored. You can zoom in and out by ‘pinching’ the iPad screen and select material to edit by touch. Use the rows of commands at the top of your screen to control elements pertaining to the recorded material of the track grid. It can easily be set to run as a timestamp in minutes and seconds. Or if you prefer, it counts measures and beats in the time signature and beats-per-minute (BPM) tempo of your choice.
Utilizing MIDI on your iPad
On the MIDI side of things, you can select a portion of information to transpose (change keys). You can also quantize – correcting selected notes so that they ‘line up’ on the nearest beat or fraction thereof. The very upper right of the screen has a general ‘Setup’ menu that shows device connectivity for interfaces and Bluetooth. Numerous audio category control panels can be altered to match your personal preferences. A ‘Shop’ menu gives you access to purchase and download new Steinberg plug-ins, audio collections, and functionality upgrades. A ‘Help’ Menu does a deep-dive into the workings of the app, answering any further questions you might have.
Other apps have a very similar layout to Cubasis. The majority of space is dedicated to the track grid and channel controls. Other menus take up residence in other parts of the screen. Once you spend time working with one DAW, you’ll begin to notice a striking number of similarities when switching over to another.
There You Have It!
You have an Apple iPad and padded equipment bags containing your interface, keyboard controller, and all necessary cables. You also can pack recording extras, such as microphones, headphones, and portable battery packs. Talk about convenience – *all* of this gear can fit comfortably into a single messenger bag or backpack!
You also have a huge number of scenarios covered. Record your vocals. Plug your guitar or bass directly into the interface or record by mic’ing up your amplifier. You can do the same with your keyboard, either connecting stereo ins, MIDI ins, or mic’ing up your amp.
And that’s just at home. This setup is tailor-made for your journey, so load up the backpack and see where inspiration takes you. Make tracks in the bedroom or hotel room using a keyboard controller. Take this handy setup on a road-trip along with your trusty guitar and microphone stand. Record rehearsals and jam sessions. Meet up with friends, family, and colleagues and record with their new gear and instruments! With your iPad and all of this great gear, I know that you’ll be making incredible music no matter where you go!
by Kyle Novak
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