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iPad: using piano and keyboards

Updated on November 28, 2011

Non - techy article!

This article will not be unduly techy, and as I am mainly a guitar player, I don't pretend to be an expert on music technology - especially as it seems to change on a weekly basis! So, all I'm trying to do here is point you in the direction of some developments in piano and keyboard technology enabled by the iPad, which you may not be aware of - and it should be basic in approach.

  • You will need an Alesis iO dock (around $180, around £140)
  • Some MIDI cables.

The iPad at home

Let's assume you have a keyboard or digital piano. You can connect your piano or keyboard to your iPad, and convert it into a recording studio - which will probably result in a lot more practice and playing time, and also a lot more fun in the process. If you have kids who are learning piano it might make all the difference in encouraging them to practice, without it even seeming as if that's what they are doing.

  • You can download the GarageBand app, which is a virtual recording studio, and use it to record and arrange music. It is very cheap - £2.99 in the UK.
  • You can download software versions of different organs and synthesisers, and also drum kits, and control the sounds and parameters from the touchscreen. Again, many of the keyboard apps are very cheap, typically less than £1 in the UK.

The problem is always in how to connect computers and piano keyboards, but this interface is now a lot easier with an Alesis iO dock.

The Alesis dock has a very well configured set of connectors, and enables you to connect the iPad to your keyboard with just a couple of MIDI leads - in the blurb it claims to "Connect all of your audio gear to the entire world of apps for iPad" and when it was demonstrated at the weekend by its proud owner it did exactly that, with no fuss and instantly. In addition, the iO dock offers a rugged protection to the iPad, which would be very reassuring on a gig - it's basically encased it in steel. The best things about the Alesis iO dock are the simplicity, and the all-in-one nature of the beast - you could connect it up with all kinds of audio, mic, and piano technology.

Alesis iO dock review and features

Upgrading your piano sounds

If you have an elderly keyboard or digital piano, the chance are that the sounds are a bit basic and old-fashioned, but by using the keyboard apps you can gain access to a whole new world of sounds and sound effects. The old keyboard is now just functioning as a controller, so the redundant sounds are no longer a problem. In fact, it may even save you a lot of cash if you were replacing the piano or keyboard you already own.

You can use the Alesis iO dock to route the audio outputs into a PA system or stereo amps, and it will also act as an interface so guitar players and bass players can use all the recording options that the keyboard player has. There are XLR mic inputs for recording vocals too.

Of course, one of the main advantages of this system is its portability. I think keyboard players will increasingly use the iPad as a sound module on live gigs.

If you don't have an iPad, most Macs will happily connect to your keyboard through MIDI cables, but you'll need a MIDI to USB connector lead to do this - an inexpensive option.

Using your iPad for music

It's now becoming quite common to see the iPad in use for live music performances. The possible uses of an iPad could include:

  • Chord charts - jazz Real Books can be easily accessed and edited for live performance - and you can replace all that sheet music with an instant access system that contains more songs than you'll ever need. As the charts are on a touchscreen, lighting is no longer a problem on dark stages.
  • Tuner apps can be used for tuning guitars and bass.
  • Keyboard sound apps can be controlled from a master keyboard, with sound effects.
  • Using the recording capabilities of the iPad, you can record a live performance with just a few extras.
  • You can also use the iPad to help you find the gig in the first place! (Using the maps function)

Practical stuff

To connect the gear just do this:

  • Put the iPad into the iO dock
  • Connect MIDI cables to the back of your keyboard
  • The other ends connect to the MIDI ports on the IO Dock. When you open up the Garageband app, it should all work!
  • You'll need headphones - or connect the audio outs to a stereo system, PA, amp etc.
  • If you have a Yamaha Clavinova or similar digital piano, you may be able to route the outputs channels of the iO dock back into the aux inputs of the piano (two RCA phono jacks) and play back the new sounds through your keyboard's internal speakers. So now the iO dock is acting as a kind of MIDI sound module.

iPad for guitar and bass

The iO dock includes a guitar-direct switch, which means that guitarists can play into the iPad and use the amp modelling and recording apps to produce music.

Using drum machine apps and GarageBand means that there is a lot of potential uses for the guitarist, and this could be seen as a kind of effects unit that also records and multitracks. Although many digital multitrack recorders are already available, this could appeal to guitarists who already own an iPad who want mobility and access to GarageBand.

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