How to Use MIDI Workstation Apps to Record Music on Your iPad or iPhone

By Ryan C. Williams, Mike Levine

The line between traditional DAWs and MIDI workstation apps for your iPad or iPhone lies squarely on recording audio — DAWs can handle recording multiple audio tracks, and MIDI workstation apps work mainly with virtual instruments and MIDI tracks. That doesn’t mean you can’t create full productions using MIDI workstation apps.

Indeed, it’s probably easier to work with these apps on an iPhone or iPad because you can record and produce with just the device and some headphones (and a MIDI keyboard or controller, if you feel inclined to beat on something).

These kinds of apps can take many different forms, but they generally fall into a few categories.

  • MPC-style apps: The Akai MPC (Music Production Center) helped produce some of the most iconic hip-hop tracks in history (from Boogie Down Productions to J Dilla, whose personal MPC now resides in the Smithsonian), and that interface translates well to the single screen of the iPad. Akai licensed its own version of the MPC to the iPad, and other apps like the iMaschine and the Novation Launchpad emulate the multiple-pad configuration.

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    These apps let you use pre-defined samples or audio you can upload separately to create loop-based productions. You can usually set the pads to play a single time upon being pressed (sometimes called a single-shot) or to loop automatically based on the tempo settings of the app. You don’t actually lay down tracks as you would in a DAW, but you can record these loops as a performance and create songs as you go.

  • Multiple-device apps: Apps like SampleTank from IK Multimedia may also include pad-based screens like the MPC-style apps, but they also include different input devices and instruments. You might use the pads to input drum sounds, then switch over to a keyboard to play piano or other key sounds.

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    Some other apps, such as Korg’s Gadget or Retronym’s Tabletop, actually let you drag and drop devices into different tracks and route audio from each device through effects into a main mixer. Again, you won’t actually lay down audio tracks like a traditional DAW, but these apps give you access to a wealth of other instruments, and you can get your songs together for either completion or export to an audio DAW for completion with vocals or “real” instruments.

  • Retro synths and sequencers: If you have some great affection to the sounds and machines of early electronic music, you can still take advantage of these designs on your iPad (there are just too many tiny knobs and switches to these apps to really work well on an iPhone). Apps like the Korg Electribe and Propellerhead Rebirth let you use step-based sequencing to create a song. Just tap a button to make the app play the specified drum or synth sound on a selected beat.

    As you can imagine, this kind of recording works best with short phrases and loops, but it’s possible to put together complete recordings using just these apps alone. Given the possibilities on your iPad, though, these apps work best as part of a larger arsenal, and most apps of this type work with Inter-App Audio and Audiobus.