iRig MIDI and SampleTank for iOS review (Updated)
Back in July, IK Multimedia (the company that's brought us the iRig, iKlip, Amplitube for iOS and a whole host of other music hardware and software) announced the iRig MIDI, an interface allowing MIDI instruments and machines to be connected to iOS devices.
However, the device didn't come to market until just this last week. And while there are other ways (MIDI to USB cable) and interfaces (Line 6, Yamaha) allowing you to get a MIDI connection to your iOS device, there are only a few which have created a MIDI interface to be used with Apple's 30-pin dock connector. And IK is one of the first to release one in conjunction with their own app, SampleTank for iOS.
Before you read on, if you don't know what MIDI is or why and how you'd want to use it with your iPad or iPhone, check out this previous post.
The iRig MIDI Hardware
The iRig MIDI is a standard Core MIDI interface. It has 3 ports (IN/OUT/THRU), two LEDs and a micro USB port for keeping your iDevice charged. It is essentially a small, black, plastic box with a 30-pin dock connector attached to it.
Unlike the ruggedness of the iRig for guitar or even the iRig Mic, the iRig MIDI doesn't feel particularly sturdy. In fact, it feels like if you were to accidentally stand on it, it would crack. However, it is neat and tidy, and it gets the job done. Coincidentally, it looks remarkably similar to the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer I and II, though I haven't physically handled one myself (white on black print, triangular, red LEDs, dock connector to the right of the unit).
Two MIDI cables and a micro USB cable are bundled with the iRig MIDI. The MIDI cables are a good meter and a half in length, which means you should find ample length to position your setup the way you want it. The micro USB cable is for keeping your iDevice powered while using the iRig MIDI (connecting to any standard USB power supply) and it plugs directly into the side of the iRig MIDI. This is a welcome feature, however the provided cable is particularly short, making it rather difficult to reach a standard USB power supply!
To get things up and running, simply plug the iRig MIDI into your iDevice (I used my iPad) and connect your MIDI cables to your MIDI device (I used an Axiom 49 MIDI keyboard). Once plugged in, you'll be prompted to download the free iRig MIDI recorder app from the iOS App Store. This is a simple MIDI recording app which also contains the firmware to make everything work, so make sure you download it. I had no problems getting things up and running. It worked the first time, which was great!
As mentioned earlier, the iRig MIDI has two small, triangular, red LED lights to indicate when MIDI signal is being received and sent. If you're not seeing the lights flash, you've probably not got the cables plugged in the right way or any power to your MIDI device. These LEDs are a simple yet very effective way of letting you know that things are really working. Speaking of power, this may be obvious, but the iRig MIDI will not power your MIDI device like a USB cable might, so make sure you've got your power adapter for your MIDI device if you need one!
From there, you're pretty much good to go. The cool thing about using a MIDI interface like the iRig MID is that you're now able to take advantage of over a hundred other apps which are Core MIDI compatible (like GarageBand for iPad). IK has conveniently put together a list of all those apps here.
The iRig MIDI costs around US$69.99, which is comparable to other iOS MIDI interfaces out there, like the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer II.
SampleTank for iOS.
So what about the app that IK is pushing in concert with the iRig MIDI? Well, you may have heard of SampleTank before, it's IK Multimedia's professional desktop sampling software package. And they've now brought it to the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Providing over 400 instruments bundled into 16 different instrument categories, layering of up to 4 instruments simultaneiously, a whole bunch of melodic and rythmic patterns or grooves to play with and sound and effects editing to customize the sounds your playing, SampleTank is an instrument sound library compressed into one app for your iDevice. It's not the first, but its power is in its sample quality and abundance, as well as working in tandum with the iRig MIDI.
The combination of these two makes for the perfect, light-weight solution for musicians who play using samples, particularly in live performance settings. Think about carrying your laptop and all its accessories, your audio interface and then your MIDI keyboard, for example, to a performance. Now think about your iPhone, the iRig MIDI and your MIDI keyboard. The second of these setups has a significant'y lower footprint than the first. But of course, your computer is going to be much more powerful than your iPhone, and handle much bigger samples with more integrity, right?
So the question is, how do the SampleTank samples stand up? Well, they are sampled -- and we're not talking about gigabyte sample files here -- so naturally, some are going to sound better than others, and it all depends on what your looking for. But take the piano samples, for example, and have a look at this YouTube clip below.
That doesn't sound bad at all. In fact, it sounds great! You could easily get away with using that piano sample in a rehearsal or a live performance. And most of the other instruments offered stand up well. Some in my opinion, however, fall a little short -- like the orchestral strings -- but on average, you'll be pleased with what's available, especially considering you're using your iPhone and not your computer!
Of course, all this doesn't come free. You get a taster of samples in the free app, but individual packs can be bought to expand a category of sounds (pianos, drums, strings) at $4.99 each. Or you can buy them all for $39.99.
The interface is simple enough to use when choosing instruments and preset grooves and loops. It's also pretty straight forward to edit and tweak the sounds and samples, which is what we've come to expect from apps like these. There's also a built-in virtual keyboard player, which means you can play the samples in the app without having to hook up an external MIDI device. Layering up sounds one on top of the other takes a little more time to get used to and it's quite a basic feature -- great for coming up with a few ideas, but nothing more. Yes, you could have hours of fun doing this, and it's a great way to explore all the samples, but personally I don't see any real musical application for it in it's current state other than having a bit of fun. You can export these creations too, but that's about it.
Clearly, where SampleTank shines is with its samples being used in a performance setting, and the ease of use with which it can be implemented.
So, is the iRig MIDI and SampleTank for iOS the combination of hardware and software for your iOS device that you've been looking for? Well, if your a keyboardist (or a drum machine user) and you love using a ton of different samples and sounds, then yes.
However, don't forget that the iRig MIDI alone is compatible with a multitude of other Core MIDI apps to choose from on the iOS store. Like GarageBand, for starters, which in my opinion is still one of the best and most comprehensive music apps out there at a very reasonable price.
However, if you're after some particular, high-quality sampled instruments, one of the nice things about SampleTank is that you can start with SampleTank Free and expand it the way you want by purchasing the samples you need. And some of those samples really do sound amazing.
Here are some demos of some of the samples on offer in SampleTank for iOS.
Or you can download SampleTank Free here.
For all the details, check out IK Multimedia's website here.
Update: The guys at IK Multimedia have got in touch to update us on a few things. Firstly, regarding the short micro USB cable for keeping your iDevice charged while using the iRig MIDI, they say, "[W}e wanted to supply a longer one [power cable], but due to the very tight power rating requirements by Apple, regarding devices supplying power through an accessory, this was the maximum cable length we could go to. If a device like the iRig MIDI doesn't correspond to their specific requirements, Apple simply won't approve it for use."
Secondly, they've let us know that an iPad version of SampleTank for iOS is on the way. It will be a universal app and a free update to those that purchase the current version.
Finally, IK say that at some point in the future they will be adding recording features into SampleTank for iOS, but there is not specific time frame at this point.