Has The iPad Made Digital Synth Keyboards Obsolete?

Yamaha DX 7

Has the iPad made digital synths obsolete?

That’s the question raised by a recent MatrixSynth post:

All digital synths are software based. I’ve stopped lusting after them ever since I picked the first gen iPad and Sunrizer and compared it with my Roland JP-8000.

I picked up the JP-8000 new for about $1100 back when it came out. I picked up Sunrizer when it was called Horizon Synth for $4.99. $4.99 for a full blown VA and it sounds great.

You can’t replicate analog, so maybe we will see more of that. As for full blown digital, I can see each having it’s flagship synth for the pro musician on the road, a flagship controller for the iPad, and apps to go along with it.

I think there will always be an audience for each, but there is no denying the iPad has become the new breed of digital hardware synthesis.

This echoes predictions we made when the iPad was introduced:

The iPad will be immediately useful as a musical tool, because it runs countless existing iPhone apps.

As developers adapt their apps to the larger real estate, though, the Apple iPad will come into its own as a new platform for music.

Since then, we’ve seen reaction to our iPad-related posts evolve from complete rejection (aka, the rename the site to ‘apptopia’ comments), to skepticism with interest, to many readers embracing it as new platform for music. And posts related to iPad music apps, including Animoog, Auria, PPG Wavegenerator and Magellan, have been some of our most actively discussed recent stories.

Do you think there’s a bigger trend here? Interest in analog synths is going strong as ever, but readers seem to be less excited about recent digital synth keyboards.

Has the iPad made digital synth keyboard obsolete? Are powerhouse VSTi’s to blame? Or do digital synth keyboard manufacturers just need to up their game?

Image:Ā rockheim

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142 thoughts on “Has The iPad Made Digital Synth Keyboards Obsolete?

  1. I think there still is room for outstanding hardware digital synths, which have great design and added value such as kronos, virus and some others. But quite soon it may change.

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  2. What makes the iPad better than a computer, to have the privilege of being the first device which made the digital synth keyboards obsolete? The interface? That’s only half of the story. The other half is in that software engine and A/D converters. AFAIK, iPad hasn’t got professional quality converters nor ultra powerful software like U-he Diva or NI Massive, etc…

    Also, try to play with your ipad after 10 years…you won’t even be able to turn it on by then.
    Simply put, tablets are not there yet. The lack of a proper power source option (except battery), their weak CPU power and their consumer level converters makes them “luxury disposable devices for the masses”….not professional musical instruments.

    Users might be less excited about digital keyboards nowadays because of computer programs and cheap professional audio interfaces…not because of tablets.

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  3. Alex, have you seen the Tascam iU2? This gives the iPad a mains power option while using MIDI, quality DA converters and a digital out (so you can either upgrade the DAC or bypass it completely and record direct from digital).

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  4. All a tablet is is a non upgradable, throw a way portable computer, with a touch interface. As are midi keyboards and controllers of the past. I see Tablets and Smart phones as been a fancy midi interface / controller all be it with out after touch and expression . If VST Producers start to write apps for them to intelligently and interactively control there big synth / fx / software then we will have the correct balance . I see running a synth on a table as a good doodle tool for ideas and for composition / improvisation but not for recording or stage shows.

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  5. Anyone who disagrees with the Apple iPad becoming a major professional music making tool for studio and stage is either:

    A: Pissed off because they spent thousands of dollars on hardware synths

    B: Don’t know how to work a synth app.

    The iPad is more powerful than anything the Beatles have ever recorded on in the 60’s.

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  6. Even with using an IOdock – the ipad output still sounds compressed – testing the Sunrizer app back to back with a JP8K – the JP walks all over it – & that is before the pleasure of using the Roland’s controls is factored in. The iPad is a wonderfully control surface for midi & a great sonic notepad but to promote it as replacing hardware with the current physical state of the hardware is more than a bit naive. There is also something horribly reductive in the app for everything situation – clever though it is. Having said that – we lost vinyl to CD – CD to Mp3 etc & fidelity in the bargain so if the market is seen to dictate change – so be it.. It will be a sad day if h/w synths become a boutique only option.
    One of the issues with synth development is where to take the sound next as it seems there is now nothing new under the sun, just new ways of presenting it. Witness the complexity of the Kronos concealing the fact that nothing actually innovative is being brought to us in the sound generation itself. Even the leftfield OP-1 is not sonically cutting edge in this respect. I do wonder if we have reached the end of the road & are just walking up & down it in different boots now.

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  7. I was laughing a lot on the comments. I’m just telling my story. I’ve found Nanostudio (for ipad, iphone, mac/win) recently, and I was shocked & amazed how incredible intuitive and detailed the interface, the synths, the drum machines. it’s about $4.99 and I felt more creative and expressive than with ANY software before (and I’ve tried everything from early trackers on 8bit computers to professional DAWs in the last 15 years).

    Nanostudio (for IOS) turned on the inside composer / music maker of me so much I totally dig into the subject. I couldn’t imagine a tool like this until now.

    I’m very sorry about the people who are unable to see the potential an IPAD as synths, controllers or a combination of both. The true potential of this device is still just unfolding.

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  8. I made this little song IN THE LAUNDRY from stratch last week.
    I’ve used only my Ipad / Nanostudio.
    It never happened with me before, like I feel I composing music in the laundry while I’m waiting, I’m downmixing it to wav, & uploading to soundcloud right there as the dryer finishing.


    it can digitally write to the SSD ANYTHING you want. The quality will depends only on the algorithms used by the software and NOT limited by the hardware.

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  9. Are mobile devices the future of music making? No.

    iPad and other similar IOS devices have 20ms output latency minimum. The situation on Android is similar (some old devices had a minimum of 100ms!). You simply can’t play those things tight in real time, sorry. Your notes come out late, which destroys your timing. Compare with 2ms latency on a properly setup PC with Asio or Wasapi drivers, and potentially even lower latency on IRL hardware synths.

    Not to mention the inadequacies of touch input. Yes, touch input is intuitive and nice. But it’s not particularly precise (compared to a mouse) and has significant latency (probably 50ms or so – they have to filter out the signal, wait to see if it’s a touch or a multi touch, etc). Plus, it lacks the tactile feedback of knobs and keyboards. Even moving a virtual knob or slider on a PC using a mouse ends up being faster in the long run (because of the lower latency and higher precision).

    So yeah, the PC wins easily in live settings (due to latency) and in sequenced settings (due to much faster input and multi-screen).

    Oh, and on IOS, Apple specifically prohibits apps from installing code plug-ins. This rules out anything like VST synths and effects, and castrates any potential professional application – if you have a nice sounding synth app, and a nice sounding drum app, you will never be able to have them play together. Let alone combining your favorite sequencer with your favorite synths with your favorite sampler with your favorite effects.

    So yeah, mobile devices make awesome musical toys – where you’ll do something nice sounding and all. But as a _professional_ tool, they incredibly far behind the PC. Play around with an iPad synth for hours, I’m sure the synth sounds good and you’ll have fun, but once you have to score something like a video game, you’ll want to kill yourself if you try to use a device like that instead of the “boring” (but extremely productive) PC.

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    1. the ipad has 3ms system latency not 20ms
      i use it with elektrons machinedrum and latency is not audible

      even when playing nlog cassini ims20 and addictive synth in parallel via virtual bg midi and background audio, on an ipad2 btw

      i see no problem of using the ipad as a musical instrument

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    2. What IPad latency have u ever used one? There is no latency u can sense and no it wont fuckup ur timing.
      If u use Animoog or Wavegenerator etc u can get pretty dynamic expression with aftertouch by just playing keys on ipad. But overall sound of ipad can not touch sound of nord virus moog….Ipad can never sound as huge and massive as dedicated hardware

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      1. “Oh, and on IOS, Apple specifically prohibits apps from installing code plug-ins. This rules out anything like VST synths and effects, and castrates any potential professional application ā€“ if you have a nice sounding synth app, and a nice sounding drum app, you will never be able to have them play together.”

        Soo… have you not heard of Inter-App Audio or Audiobus? Cause I can make a whole bunch of synth and drum apps play together… and run them through effects,,, in *realtime*… and record it into a sequencer… which has even more efx… all while using a midi sequencer on the ipad to control a hardware synth… and record it back into the iPad… just sayin.

        Also, WRT others’ comments about sub-par converters: this can be avoided with third-party hardware. And while it’s anecdotal, I don’t know of any studios that use the stock soundcard that came with their “far superior” desktops.

        The iPad doesn’t yet have enough fuel to truly go the distance in terms of processing power. But things will change.

        It may always be a disposable piece of technology, but it will also be about 1/2 the cost (or less) of a well-tuned desktop audio machine.

        Like this comment?: Thumb up 3
  10. When PC’s and Apple IIs first were used for synthesis, we heard the same naysaying about their ability to produce state-of-the-art results. Maybe not now, but apps for tablet computers will catch up with the rest of the industry. Remember, this is in its infancy. The things you are comparing it to are not.

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  11. Musicians will use whatever instruments interest them to make music. Other musicians will tie up network and biological bandwidth debating which of those available instruments other musicians should use to make music, when they could be making interesting music.

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  12. When an iPad can run something like FM8 or has a professional soundcard then let’s talk until then it has a ways to go.

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  13. Naturally the iPAD will not take over the place that synth’s, organs, pianos and keyboards earned themselfs over the past 15 or 25 years (or longer). Its polyphony makes you use multiple numbers of iPAD to get the same effect, however that will evolve also. If I play my iPAD2 with Alchemy and I listen to it well, then I know that in some years time the iPAD and equivalents will earn their place next to Roland, Korg and other synth manufacturers. The question is will Apple stay amongst us for such a long time or will their well dry out and wil they loose their battle with Android, now that’s more likely……

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 2
  14. The iPad is already being used as an instrument to make professional music. So, it’s not a “toy”.

    It also has introduced to the masses new ways of manipulating sound – Animoog is a case in point.

    Does it replace an analog synth? No way.

    Does it replace a digital synth? Sometimes – but the keyboard is so small that you need an external MIDI keyboard to be expressive across a wide range of octaves, and specifically when compared with playing two handed polyphonically.

    Does it replace a drum pad? Or a controller? Again – sometimes.

    Talking of expressive – if you are used to a “real” analog (i.e. guts and wire and wood and metal) intstrument’s expressiveness – then nothing compares with that on an iPad. The best digital synths with nice weighted keyboards and a full set of octaves get a long way there: I use them and like them. But just like digital instruments haven’t replaced traditional instruments, so the iPad won’t replace digital keyboards.

    Nevertheless, the iPad has given me new ideas as a musician and the multitouch interfaces of a number of iPad synths have allowed me to be more expressive than I could have been with the equivalent VST and a mouse.

    Android is not a runner. Maybe it will be soon, but it’s nowhere yet because of latency.

    So, I like the iPad as a usable instrument, but as a replacement for a digital keyboard? No – no way.

    I am not an Apple “fan”. I use Linux, Windows and MacOS – all for music production and a whole host of other reasons, but I do think the iPad has done some very good things for musicians.


    Like this comment?: Thumb up 5
  15. This is like arguing about which music is better: classical or noise? It is kind of pointless. We can all agree that we like making electronic music. Don’t discount the technology of the past because that is what got us to this point. At the same time don’t be ignorant of new technology and new methods. Investigate new and old without prejudice. the vast option of platforms and options out there speaks to the diversity of workflow preferences we all have.

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  16. Ultimately, these are tools we are talking about. The musician should determine what we do with the tools, not the other way around. With the right kind of creative thinking we should be aiming to make anything that’s available to us as a tool useful… Whether its a “toy” or a vintage piece of hardware. Why limit yourself to traditional technologies? Bob Moog didn’t. Delia Derbyshire didn’t. Let’s not fall into the trap of rock musicians who will only play out of an original silver face fender amp.

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  17. C’mon. The answer is ‘obviously’. šŸ™‚

    I still reckon there will always be some space for innovative or really well designed/thought out hardware digital synths. I can not imagine buying one though.

    The iPad is what that rackmount ‘VST player’ thing from years past always hoped to be. But! WITHOUT RUNNING WINDOWS. šŸ™‚ And really, that’s a huge part iOS’ success. An immensely simplified OS.

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  18. Good for the kid who wants to be a music composer when he grows up, or , for the adult who wants to start doing music. That is my view on the ipad. I grew up with an instrument in my hand, and worked my way into composing digitaly. I can’t see anyone doing anything else other then mixing live(thats where you beat match into your next track for people who are new to this all). I saw the video where a guy is playing a bunch of riffs on que with eacother….but thats kind of it. I’m that musician that haves to have the musician setup but if you’re into DJ’ng this is a great way to start off. if you’re looking into producing electronic music then the ipad isn’t good to start with(id suggest synapse orion platnum or fruity loops for beginners). Someone who’s done music for a loooong time would get a kick out of this, but wouldn’t take it seriously, which is why you don’t see tiesto, skrillix, bt, or any other big name wipping out there ipad on stage.

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  19. and also…if you really took the time to make the ipad great enough to become a producing tool, you’d soon discover even more possibilities with music tools other then the ipad like the access Virus TI keyboard and the vci 100 ean golden eddition. I’m just saying, if you really fight that hard to make an ipad that great, you should see how much greater you are on something that was engineered for music.

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  20. There are some people who are quite obviously disappointed that there is no improvement
    on the action or the piano sounds, but to make advancements on these would require a significant hike up in the price.
    You also need to check digital piano reviews for weighted action and touch sensitivity.
    It suits practically any interior decor, and occupies
    much less space than most coffee tables.

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 0
  21. Some great sensible comments and some very ignorant ones too! Those who doubt would be surprised what is possible if they actually knew…

    What has been missed here is that this isn’t a replacement, it’s a completely NEW kind of instrument; we have had skin stretched over wood, wires brought to high tensions plucked and struck, wind instruments, other percussive instruments, ebony and ivory (and synthetic counterparts), electronic sound generators, software synths, electronic drum pads, etc… Etc…

    But never before have we had an instrument that combines software with a glass multitouch infintely variable surface; it’s completely new, it’s totally different, and the possibilities are huge!

    Musicians will find ways to make sound however that may be and I for one find the iPad to be an extremely versatile, very playable, great sounding musical instrument that allows me to compose anywhere, anytime…

    As for the notion that you can’t have more than one thing running at once, that’s absolute horseshit, I regularly knock up a quick jam with a drum machine with a pad synth, a bass and a lead, all running perfectly in time with each other, even without syncing them via midi, oh and it’s pretty darn easy to sample any of these in real time and get them looping, allowing for layering and switching between parts too.

    Of course it’s quite easy to make it sound like crap, out of time and flat too… and when I first started using it I did this quite a lot, but as with any new musical instrument, they can take years to master. If you haven’t mastered it yet, it doesn’t mean it’s not professional or a real musical instrument or any of the other ridiculous things people say, it just means you are currently unable to use it effectively.

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  22. The White Elephant in the room here is the question of , Are Musicians intended to be Programers?? Does one in his or her craft of musical expression need to step outside their box and develop other skills like quantizing sound bytes on an amoled screen?? Or delving into coded binary language to create subtle digital instrument expressions for a particular voice or patch? I do understand the world of virtual instruments and the overwhelming marketing going into them..I also understand that some Musicians do like the fast reeling world of VST’s..These VST’s will now and forever be here with us and in our art of creating music..As far as VST’s, Ipad’s, Soft Synth’s. making Digital synthesizers obsolete , I disagree with the notion..In the end it is all about the Music, and those who have an absolute passion for nothing more then the music and the only satisfaction to that end is the absolute focus on the music, not on the virtual peripherals available..If one is going to concern themselves with other parameters of making music, then they are diluting themselves….We Pianists and keyboardists are not programers, we are players, we are Artists..All we need is all our timbers in one tangible apparatus and time to concentrate our efforts on that object to become are best at our art..

    Like this comment?: Thumb up 1

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