Electronic Music Rig Necessities for Performing with Your iPad or iPhone

By Ryan C. Williams, Mike Levine

The difference between putting together a rig for synthesizers and a rig for “electronic” music (after all, when you’re running it through an iPhone or an iPad, isn’t all music electronic in some way?) is slight. The interface remains pretty similar, and you’ll still need a PA system to hear the music through. The big change involves the style of apps and the MIDI controller you use to control those apps.

So what’s the big difference?

Electronic music (at least in the sense of EDM, or electronic dance music) usually involves controlling a number of audio tracks or loops and modifying those sounds with different filters or effects. You can use a MIDI keyboard to control these apps, but you may find new and different MIDI controllers a little more suited for apps that play to the EDM crowd.

The apps

Check out apps like iMaschine, iMPC, and Novation Launchpad — these products can work on their own, but they can use specially constructed MIDI controllers to control which loops or sounds play at a certain time. Most of these controllers follow the 16-pad configuration (laid out in a 4×4 grid) made popular by the MPC sampler. Strike the pads to trigger a sound or loop, and strike the pad again to either continue the loop or restart it.

The controller

Now you get to play with some unusual toys — many manufacturers provide different kinds of pads and controls that allow you to manage your music software. All you have to do is plug the controller into the interface or the iOS device itself, and you’re ready to go. The challenge here is telling the MIDI controller exactly which aspects of the apps to control.

Apps matched with hardware by the manufacturer should match up instantly. But other devices, like the QuNeo from Keith McMillen Industries or even the Livid Guitar Wing (a guitar-mounted MIDI controller), may require a software editor to help plot out your MIDI controls. That kind of editor gives you a wide variety of available controls, though.

Another factor to consider is how you connect your controller. Most controllers connect through a dock or cable like MIDI keyboards, but some can use WiFi or Bluetooth connections to interface with your iOS device. For example, the Guitar Wing uses Bluetooth to communicate back to the brains of your rig, and you can add a WiFi connection to the QuNeo device to allow wireless communication.

Bluetooth and WiFi connections can make for convenient connections, but sometimes wireless means trouble. Long distances or environmental conditions can interfere with these connections, and dead batteries means devices stop talking. Make sure you test your connections before any live performance and keep everything juiced up. And if you’re worried about people interfering with your WiFi devices in a live performance, you may want to go with Bluetooth LE connections for a little extra security (if available).

You may need to review the MIDI charts to see how these devices match up with the apps. It may take a little work, but you can get a control to work well for you.