Low Latency Wired MIDI with iPad, Bitstream 3X, and QuNexus

Like many of you I have experimented with MIDI over wifi on the iPad. Mainly so that I can use a proper keyboard to play some of the splendid virtual instruments available on iOS. However, connecting to the iPad this way requires a computer on the same network, or instantiating an ad hoc network for the MIDI I/O. Secondly, although it can be stable it is usually slower and suffers from wireless network traffic congestion, hence more latency than a wired connection.

So what are the options? Over at CDM there’s a really great article from Nicolas Bougaïeff, the creative director at Liine (makers of the Lemur app and LiveControl) that explores a wide range of possibilities. Here my intent is to share what I have found works for me with a minimal investment in iOS specific hardware. Specifically, the Camera Connection Kit (CCK). The CCK essentially provides USB I/O for the iPad allowing class compliant MIDI devices to be connected and used. This works great, if you have such a device and all you want to do is use a hardware controller with the iPad.

The problem with the CCK is three fold – integration into more complex MIDI setups, class compliance, and power restrictions. Most USB MIDI devices only have a single USB port, so you can’t have a computer connected to the same controller to record the MIDI, or otherwise interface with iPad apps. As a result, two MIDI interfaces are required – one for the iPad and another for the computer for wired communications between them to be possible.

Secondly, many iOS hardware solutions are costly and impractical especially if you’d rather make use of equipment that most experienced producers have already invested in. Hardware that could work perfectly if only there were drivers available for iOS (I can dream, right?). One of my MIDI keyboard controllers, for example, is not class compliant over USB (an admittedly crappy CME UF7).

Third, beyond Apple’s sandboxing of iOS, even if your device is class compliant, they have set a very low limit on the power draw (10-100mA) often causing an annoying error to come up stating “The connected device requires too much power.” Fortunately there’s a hack/workaround for this problem. Simply attaching an unpowered USB hub between the CCK and your MIDI controller prevents the error from popping up and allows you to use your class compliant hardware. As an added benefit, the USB hub allows you to use multiple devices with your iOS device as long as they are either powered on their own, or they can draw enough power from the iPad/iPod Touch/iPhone. Side note: this works on iOS 6, but I do not know if it works on iOS 7 since I’m still waiting to do the update, so I’d love to hear from someone who has tried this.

Lately I have been researching potential solutions, and digging through my old MIDI hardware to see what kind of setup will work the best for me take to advantage of my favorite iOS music apps. Recently the thought occurred to me that perhaps I could use the Bitstream 3X MIDI controller (BS3X) with the iPad. I bought the BS3X back in the Spring of 2011 specifically to use as a controller for my Roland Super Jupiter MKS-80 analog synth, and therefore it is consistently available in my studio setup.

The BS3X is one of the most flexible and programmable MIDI controllers ever designed. It has traditional MIDI I/O including an in, two outs, and a thru jack. It’s even got a pre-MIDI Sync-24 jack. More importantly to this conversation is that is has class compliant USB MIDI I/O. The BS3X is designed to be an interface and controller in one and works perfectly to bridge my old hardware, iPad, and MacBook Pro together. Since everything is wired there’s little to no noticeable latency when playing a synth app with any MIDI keyboard plugged into the BS3X. Also, thanks to the plethora of I/O options on the BS3X, I can use the iPad and a collection hardware controllers (including my non-class compliant devices) with or without a computer in the chain. Furthermore integrating the iPad into this setup does not interfere with BS3X controlling the Roland MKS-80 because those controls send system exclusive messages (sysex) to the channel I have dedicated to the MKS-80.

In the video I have focused on illustrating how one might use two iPad synthesizer apps and a hardware synthesizer together including Cassini, Sunrizer, and the MKS-80. The BS3X is used as both the iPad interface and MKS-80 controller. No computer is required, but a simple change of cable allows for a computer to be integrated into this setup because the MOTU UltraLite interface and standalone mixer has MIDI I/O. In other words two MIDI interfaces are still necessary with a computer, but prior to this experiment I was only using the BS3X as a controller for the MKS-80 and bypassing the class compliant USB MIDI interface functionality. Since the USB hub was required I also added the QuNexus to the setup. This was dedicated to feeding notes into the arpeggiator in Cassini. The keyboard controller was split so that in the low end I could play the MKS-80 effect then tweak it with the BS3X knobs and sliders as it decayed. In the upper end of the same keyboard I played a lead sound programmed in Sunrizer.

New Ostraka Track: Tunguska Dub

I produced this track soon after I got my DSI Tempest about five months ago. As a keyboard player one of the first things I did was hook up a MIDI controller to it. Although the Tempest is a legitimate, six-voice, polyphonic, analog synth it does not yet record chords into the internal sequencer. To get around this I simply synched the Tempest with Ableton Live and recorded the MIDI there. Obviously not an all-at-once-live-playing endeavor, but many of this machines limitations have pretty simple and effective work-arounds.

After five months of sitting on the track I finally decided to clean up the mix a little, give it the title Tunguska Dub, and preview it on SoundCloud. All of the drums, the main melody, the dub organ, and the wub bass are done on the Tempest. The SCI Pro-One is handling the main bass part, and the Super Jupiter is making the arpeggiated counter-melody.

DSI Tempest Parameter-Lock-Like Technique

I must admit that I am curious about the Elektron Analog 4 (A4), but not in the market for new gear while I am still on my honeymoon with the DSI Tempest. So, I thought to myself that as complex and sophisticated as the Tempest is there must be some way to simulate something like the A4 parameter lock (a sequencer feature that allows for real-time manipulation of synthesizer parameters on a per-step basis). So, I tried a few experiments using an unorthodox method that requires adjusting the system settings while simultaneously playing in a sequence with a MIDI keyboard. Not an ideal alternative to the workflow of the A4, but useful for me none-the-less. Distraction Surplus Syndrome was produced using this technique. The bass and sustained melodies were played on the SCI Pro-One. Let me know what you think, share your experiences using parameter-lock-like techniques, or read on for recipe details. Continue reading

Synchronizing Music Technology at Slam Academy

I am teaching a class starting on November 29, 2012 at the Slam Academy in Minneapolis titled Synchronizing Music Technology. The first class class of the four session module is free to attend with no obligation. If you decide to take the module you are eligible to purchase a Korg Monotribe and Korg Monotron for $175. General admission and student pricing is available.

In this course we will examine ways to synchronize musical devices including vintage-to-modern MIDI compatible devices, as well as pre-MIDI analog instruments using CV (control voltage) and gate signals. We will also learn how to sequence and interface these devices with computer software making it possible to create studio and performance setups that integrate decades of music technology.

The Slam Academy is one of a handful of certified Ableton Live training centers worldwide. Most classes are around $200 or less for students and meet for three two hour sessions. I am very excited to be an adjunct instructor at this incredibly forward thinking school for electronic arts. If you’re in the area please stop in for the free intro class on November 29 or consider registering for a module or two.

Ninths Chords on Stacked Polysynths

I played these dense open ninth chords triggering both the Roland D-50 and the Roland MKS-80 simultaneously.

Ninth Chords on Stacked Polys