How To Use An iPhone as a MIDI Controller?

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If you’ve ever tried using your iPhone as a MIDI controller to control external synthesizers, you know the hassle of messy cables and complex setups.

But what if you could use your iPhone itself as the MIDI sound source to make music? Modern iOS devices offer powerful synth engines and audio capabilities that rival hardware MIDI sound modules.

Let’s dive in and explore using an iPhone for not just MIDI control, but also as the MIDI synthesizer sound source itself.

What is a MIDI Controller and Why Use Your iPhone?

A MIDI controller is a piece of equipment used to generate and control MIDI data, which is used to control other digital music devices like synthesizers, drum machines, and even DAWs on computers.

The benefits of using an iPhone versus a traditional hardware MIDI controller are that you likely already have an iPhone on you at all times, it offers a portable and compact way to control music equipment and software, and the touch screen interface allows for intuitive control and customization options.

Using an iPhone can turn the device into a versatile and customizable MIDI control surface for musicians, producers, and DJs.

Whether connecting over a wired connection for use as a studio controller, or wireless for live performances, the iPhone makes an excellent addition to any musical setup.

MIDI Interface Options for iPhone

Lightning to USB Camera Adapter

One of the easiest ways to connect your iPhone to external MIDI devices is by using Apple’s Lightning to USB Camera Adapter.

This inexpensive adapter allows you to connect a USB MIDI controller or instrument to your iPhone through the Lightning port.

The adapter supports standard MIDI cables, so connecting devices is plug-and-play.

This wired connection method offers stable, low-latency connectivity making it a good fit for studio use cases.

The adapter also provides power to your iPhone while connected.

One limitation is that you can only connect one MIDI device at a time.

Audio Interfaces with MIDI Connectivity

Another studio-centric option is to connect your iPhone to an audio interface like those from Apogee, Universal Audio, or Focusrite, that offers MIDI input/output connectivity.

This allows you to connect multiple MIDI devices via the MIDI ports on the interface while streaming audio to and from your iPhone over USB.

The audio quality and latency will be excellent using a pro audio interface, but the downside is this is a less portable solution best suited for studio setups.

You also need to supply power separately to your iPhone when using a passive audio interface.

Wireless MIDI Interfaces

For live performance or portable studio use, wireless MIDI connectivity is convenient for controlling external synthesizers and keyboards without cables.

Devices like the Yamaha MDBT01 transmit MIDI over Bluetooth, allowing you to pair your iPhone with MIDI instruments wirelessly.

Latency may be higher compared to wired connections, so wireless MIDI systems are better for controlling instruments rather than software.

Make sure to check battery life on wireless devices before long performances.

Additional power banks may be required.

Apps with Built-In MIDI Connectivity

Some iOS MIDI apps offer virtual MIDI ports that can be routed internally on your iPhone to other compatible apps.

For example, a softsynth app with a built-in MIDI output port could connect directly to a MIDI sequencer app on the same device wirelessly over a virtual connection.

No additional hardware is required here as communication happens internally.

This keeps the overall setup simple, portable, and affordable.

However, you are limited to what can be achieved with apps on the iPhone alone.

Setting Up MIDI Software on Your iPhone  

Getting a DAW or MIDI Software on Your iPhone

The first step is downloading a digital audio workstation (DAW) app or some form of MIDI software onto your iPhone, as this will serve as the central hub for MIDI connectivity.

There are full-featured DAWs like GarageBand, advanced synth production suites like Korg Gadget 2, and modular MIDI environment apps like Audiobus.

Try out the various options as each DAW and composition tool offers different workflows, levels of MIDI routing capabilities, and external hardware support.

Read reviews and check compatibility to make sure the app aligns with your usage goals.

Popular iOS DAW Options 

Some popular iOS DAWs and production suite options to explore include GarageBand, Cubasis, Auria Pro, BeatMaker 3, or Korg Gadget 2.

Here is an overview of each app’s key features as they relate to MIDI connectivity and controllerism:

GarageBand – Apple’s free DAW is a simple yet surprisingly capable option for basic recording and MIDI programming.

Comes loaded with customizable Touch Instruments and basic editing features.

Easy to learn and use.

Cubasis – Feature-rich DAW with full MIDI editing, unlimited audio and MIDI tracks, plugin support, automation, timestretching and more.

Great for songwriters.

Auria Pro – Pro-grade DAW designed for multi-track recording and mixing but also handles MIDI production very well.

Better for advanced users.

BeatMaker 3 – Top notch drum machine sampler and groove production suite with MIDI learn, 75 plugins, timestretching and tons of export options.

Korg Gadget 2 – Loaded with over 30 virtual instrument apps you can use standalone or combine in this synth production studio.

Fun and intuitive for electronic musicians.

MIDI Controller and Synth Apps 

In addition to a central DAW app, you will want MIDI controller, synth, sampler or drum machine apps on your iPhone to actually play and shape sound.

Great options include pLanet synth by Roli Labs, Model 15 modular synth by Moog, SynthMaster One by KV331 Audio, iMPC Pro by Akai Professional, and GeoShred from Wizdom Music.

Configuring MIDI Settings

Most iOS apps that support external MIDI devices will have a MIDI section accessible from the settings page.

Here you can enable appropriate MIDI input and output channels that align with instruments, controllers or apps you want to route messages between.

Some apps auto-configure or scan for available MIDI ports while others may need manual pairing.

Consulting app documentation will provide guidance on customizing MIDI settings for that particular software’s workflow.

Connecting Your iPhone to External Hardware

Connecting to a Mac/PC via USB

If you want to use your iPhone to remotely control music software like Ableton Live or Logic Pro on a Mac or PC, you can establish a wired USB connection for MIDI routing using the camera connection kit.

The iPhone will function as a class-compliant MIDI device.

Open MIDI settings on your computer to enable routing from iPhone controller apps into the DAW session.

Over a direct USB connection, latency will remain very low for responsive performance control even when sending lots of MIDI CC messages from the iPhone to software instruments and FX on your computer.

This is great for studio production and composition workflows.

Power can be supplied to the iPhone via the computer’s USB port as well.

Pairing with MIDI Keyboards, Drum Machines, Synths via Wireless MIDI

For controlling external MIDI hardware like synthesizers, electronic drum kits, or MIDI keyboards wirelessly from your iPhone, use a wireless MIDI interface like the Yamaha MDBT01 adapter.

This uses Bluetooth MIDI to send and receive messages between iOS apps and instruments.

Pair the accessory via Bluetooth in your iOS Settings.

Then from within MIDI-enabled apps, choose the wireless adapter for MIDI input and output routing options.

Latency may be higher compared to wired setups but still adequate for live playing in most cases.

This allows mobile, cable-free control of multiple instruments and devices from iPhone MIDI controller apps.

Battery powered MIDI devices and wireless adapters mean no direct power connections are required either.

Using the iPhone as a Control Surface

In addition to generating and sending MIDI performance data to external equipment, your iPhone can also be used as a customizable control surface for manipulating parameters in hardware and software synths, FX pedals, DAWs and more.

Map physical controls like faders, knobs, buttons and XY pads on your iPhone MIDI apps to target parameters on external devices via MIDI CC assignments.

This allows hands-on, tactile control of your studio gear right from your phone.

Use OSC (Open Sound Control) over WiFi for wireless integration with newer digital instruments and effects units too.

This enables deep software control remotely from your iPhone.

Mapping Controls and Making Use of Touch Capabilities

Highlighting the internal MIDI routing capabilities of iPhone apps

Customizing Knobs, Faders and Buttons in MIDI Apps

The benefits of using an iPhone for MIDI control include touch gestures, multi-finger inputs, and other expressive control capabilities.

But you still need to map physical widgets like faders and buttons to target parameters.

Most any MIDI app will provide customization options to link on-screen controls to MIDI CC messages, note values, program changes, and other data types.

Map knobs to effects sends, faders to synth filters, and XY pads to modulation – the possibilities are vast. 

Use MIDI learn modes to instantly assign controls to external hardware parameters as well.

This allows hands-on personalization of your iPhone MIDI interface.

Using Multi-Touch Gestures and Modifiers

The iPhone touch screen allows for expressive control through multi-finger gestures.

For example, use 2-finger swipes to manipulate parameters on hardware synths mapped to MIDI CC channels.

You can expand the controller setup by assigning tap, press or gyro movements to additional MIDI messages.

Some apps enable multi-touch modifiers that allow a control to behave differently based on whether you touch the widget with 1, 2 or 3 fingers.

This effectively multiples the options a single interface element can manipulate.

These touches and gestures particularly shine when controlling software instruments and effects where MIDI mapping is highly flexible.

Explore various multi-touch options in your MIDI apps.  

Conclusion

In summary, while MIDI controllers generally lack built-in amplification, iOS devices present unique all-in-one production solutions for mobile music making.

With virtual instruments, MIDI apps, and connectivity interfaces, you can wield an iPhone as both a MIDI controller and synth module without needing external hardware.

The possibilities are powerful and portable.

Dominic

Dominic is the chief editor of the Burton Acoustix blog which writes about acoustics and soundproofing to help readers with their queries and questions they might have with regard to improving any sound or noise issues that they faced in their life.