Posted October 14, 2012 by Stephan Earl in Tips and Tutorials

Using Your iPad as an External MIDI Synth or Drum Machine

Using Your iPad as an External MIDI Synth or Drum Machine

It seems like not so long ago when purchasing a new synth or drum machine meant a trip to the neighborhood music store, and hours drooling over the latest hardware sonic marvels.  Now you can make one hardware purchase for an iPad, and browse the latest synth and drum machine apps that are available from the Apple App Store at a fraction of the cost.

But how do you make these cool sounding synth and drum machine apps compatible with your existing DAWs such as Ableton Live, Logic or Cubase?   All music creation apps for the iPad allow you to create music using the iPad’s touch screen interface, but in order to us these apps with your hardware and computer setup, you’ll need to tap into the apps MIDI functionality.

Below we’ll take a look at some really cool and useful synth and drum machine apps for the iPad, and go over how to integrate them into your current home recording studio setup.

iPad Synths and Drum Machines

Let’s start with some of the cool synth and drum iPad apps currently on the iTunes App Store.  All of these mentioned apps will work with Core MIDI and will be capable of pairing up with your DAW.

  • KORG iMS-20 ($32.99) analog synth studio is a complete recreation of the Korg MS-20 synth.  It’s an analog synth, a drum machine, 16-step analog sequencer based on the Korg SQ-10, and has dual Kaoss pads.
  • KORG iELECTRIBE ($19.99) is an analog synth, drum machine and step sequencer that is a recreation of the ELECTRIBE-R analog drum machine.  It features 4 percussion synthesizer parts and 4 PCM synthesizer parts.
  • Alchemy Synth Mobile by Camel Audio (Free / 14.99) is the iOS version of Alchemy synth plugin for Mac and PC.  Not only is this app a powerful hybrid synthesizer that uses additive, and granular synthesis, but the Pro version is also a controller for Alchemy synth plug-in for  Mac and PC.  The Pro version is available for $14.99 as an in-app purchase.
  • Sunrizer synth by BeepStreet ($9.99) is a virtual analog synth.  It features true SuperSaw sound emulation which is a layered waveform consisting of multiple saw waves which are detuned to create an extremely full sound.   It’s possible to use two SuperSaw oscillators per voice for a total of 98 saw oscillators playing at the same time.  This synth has very inspiring sounds and works well with MIDI.
  • NLogSynth PRO by Tempo Rubato ($14.99) virtual analog synthesizer features a fat analog modeled sound and 224 factory presets and full hardware synth sound control capability.
  • Molten Drum Machine by One Red Dog Media (4.99) is a synth and sample drum machine with a pattern-based sequencer.  It features user loadable samples and can integrate with your Mac or PC using CoreMIDI networking over Wi-Fi or using a doc or MIDI interface.
  • MoDrum Rhythm Composer by Finger Pro ($5.99) virtual analog drum machine that features a 32-step grid sequencer.
  • FunkBox by Synthetic Bits ($3.99) is a vintage style drum machine designed to look, feel and sound like the drum machines from the 70s and 80s.


iPad Synth and Drum Machine Connections

In order to connect an iPad synth or drum app to your MIDI controller or computer-based DAW, you’ll need a MIDI connection device suited for this purpose.

Apple’s Camera Connection Kit

iPad Camera Connection Kit

iPad Camera Connection Kit

The most common way to connect your iPad via MIDI to your MIDI controller or DAW is to use Apple’s  camera connection kit ($29.99).  This adapter connects to your iPad, and requires a separate USB cable to plug your MIDI controller or a separate MIDI interface.

If you’re only looking to play your iPad synth from your MIDI controller, then you only need the camera connection kit and a USB cable that connects to the USB MIDI connector on your controller.  The MIDI controller must be class compliant.

If you’re looking to control the sounds within the iPad synth app from your favorite DAW, then you’ll also need a MIDI interface which will transmit MIDI output and receive MIDI input signals.  The M-Audio Uno works well for this.
  M-Audio USB Uno MIDI Interface ($39.99)  Using the Uno in connection with the camera connection kit will allow you to use your iPad synth app like an external synthesizer.  In this setup you will also require an audio cable connected from the iPad into your audio interface in order to record the audio.

Here’s a recap of connection path using a camera connection kit:

  1. MIDI controller to play iPad synth or drums:
    M-Audio Uno

    M-Audio Uno

    • iPad >> camera connection kit >> USB cable >> USB class compliant keyboard or other MIDI controller
  2. Computer DAW to control iPad as external synth or drums:
    • iPad >> camera connection kit >> MIDI interface (ex. M-Audio Uno) >> Audio Interface

Other MIDI connection Devices

There are some alternatives to using the Camera Connection Kit that will cost a bit more, but provide more functionality including multiple device MIDI input, or audio and MIDI.  Here a some of the other tools for connecting an iPad via MIDI:

  • Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer II ($61.18) MIDI input and output for iOS devices that connects to your MIDI controller or DAW using a standard 5-pin MIDI cable
  • iConnectMIDI by iConnectivity ($172.36) is a multi-MIDI input / output interface that features both USB and 5-pin MIDI connections.
  • Akai SynthStation49 ($242.10) is a 49-key MIDI keyboard controller with Akai MPC-style drum pads, that has a built-in iPad dock that fits all generations of iPads.  The controller has 1/4″ stereo outputs and USB for connection to your audio interface and computer.  Akai SynthStation comes with the Akai SynthStation App which features a drum machine, poly synth two mono synths and a pattern-based sequencer.
  • Alesis iO Dock (164.99) is a music production docking station for the iPad that features: USB and 5-pin MIDI input / output, XLR and 1/4″ audio input, and 1/4″ stereo outputs.  The iO dock makes it easy to keep the dock connected to your computer and audio interface, while easily removing the iPad to take with you when needed.
  • IK MultiMedia iRig MIDI ($57.99) is very similar to the MIDI mobilizer.  It connects using the iOS 32-pin connector and connects to your MIDI controller or audio interface via 5-pin MIDI cables.
Akai SynthStation 49

Akai SynthStation 49


Portable MIDI Controllers for iPad Synths and Drum Machines

In addition to the Akai SynthStation controller, any class compliant USB MIDI controller can be a good fit for the iPad with the camera kit.  One good ultra portable option for controlling your favorite iPad synth or drum machine are Korg’s Nano 2 controllers.  These are great if you enjoy the portability that the iPad provides, but want a little more than the touch screen control.  The Korg synths such as iMS-20 and the iElectribe come pre-configured to work with the Nano 2 control series (not the original Nano controllers).

You can also opt for a 49-key controller such as the  M-Audio Axiom 49 2nd Gen 49-Key USB MIDI Keyboard Controller.

Leave a comment and let me know what iPad synths and drum machine apps you may be using to record with your DAW.

Stephan Earl

Composing, recording and producing music in the home studio environment for over 25 years, musician and author Stephan Earl now enjoys sharing his home studio setup experience with other home studio recording musicians via HomeMusicProduction.com.