How to Perform Live with iPad or iPhone Keyboard Apps

By Ryan C. Williams, Mike Levine

If you’re a keyboardist, you have a wide world of great sounding MIDI instrument apps for your iPad or iPhone at your disposal, from sampled grand pianos to classic synthesizers and everything in between.

If you currently use only one stage keyboard, which is your controller and sound source, then adding an iPad won’t necessarily lighten your load, but it will give you a lot of additional sounds to choose from. However, if you carry more than one keyboard because you’re using one for a controller and one for at least some of your sounds, perhaps an iOS device could free you up to shrink your rig a bit.

Getting set up

To use an iOS-based rig onstage, you need to be able to:

  • Plug in a MIDI keyboard to the iOS device.

  • Take the device’s output to your keyboard amp or the PA.

To accomplish these tasks, you could use separate iOS MIDI and audio interfaces, but unless you already own one or the other, it’s a lot more convenient to get an interface that handles both. Many of the dedicated iOS interfaces and USB interfaces would do the job nicely.

You would also need a MIDI keyboard controller of some sort, preferably a 76- or 88-key model, unless you’re only playing synth parts or are trying for an ultra-mobile rig, in which case you could go for a smaller 25- or 49-key ­keyboard. That’s up to you.

A typical setup would be like this: Your keyboard connects to the MIDI input on your audio interface. The interface connects to the iOS device via dock connector, and audio interface output connects to either a keyboard amp or the PA mixer.

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If you wanted to go for the low-budget setup, you could just use a MIDI interface, rather than an audio and MIDI interface, and take the output from the iOS device’s headphone output to the amp or PA. The amp would need to have line inputs; the signal would be too hot for a high-impedance instrument input. You would need to use an adapter to convert the stereo 1/8” output to either a mono 1/4” output or a stereo pair of 1/4” outputs.

It’s also possible that a mixer would have RCA inputs, in which case you’d have to convert your cable to those instead using plug adapters, which are readily available via online retailers.

In either case, you’ll be depending on audio from your iOS device’s headphone output. This shouldn’t be a problem from a sound standpoint, but because it’s a mini jack it’s not particularly robust, and your cable could get pulled out pretty easily if somebody stepped on it or jostled it. So take care how you set it up.

This alternate iOS keyboard setup would look like this: Your keyboard connects to MIDI In on MIDI interface, which is connected to the iOS device (most likely through the dock connector). The iOS device is connected to the keyboard amp or PA via its headphone out jack and adapter cables.

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If you’re connecting to the PA, and don’t have a stage amp, it will be hard to find a level for your keyboards in the monitors that you feel is loud enough for you to play correctly, but that won’t seem too loud to others in the band.

Playing unique iOS instruments live

Instrument apps exist that eschew the keyboard paradigm, and use touchscreen-based input on an original user interface to produce their music. Chances are, such apps wouldn’t be set up to respond to MIDI, because you couldn’t play them correctly with a keyboard if they did.

Wizdom Music MorphWiz and Normalware’s Bebot Robot Synth are examples of apps with user interfaces that rely mainly on touchscreen motions. To use an app like that onstage you’d have to play directly from your iOS device (you’d probably want it to be an iPad for the larger user interface).

If one of these iOS-specific instruments was all you were using for a performance, then you could either send your output directly from your iPad or through an audio interface, into an amp or the PA. Unless you’re planning to hand-hold your device — which would be difficult considering it would have wires coming out of it — you’ll need a special holder so you can mount your iPad to a microphone stand.