A week ago, I dropped my son off at the Berklee College of Music Five Week Summer Program in Boston (he's plays Cellio and Bass). While we were there, we stopped in at the Guitar Center to buy him some gear for the program. I saw a lot of different hardware devices for plugging into your iPhone or iPad. I thought, "Could I do this for the Zendrum?". And, then a post on the Zendrum forums by Geosphere mentioning an iPhone MIDI interface got me motivated. Sadly, my Zendum has been collecting some dust in the corner, as I have spent most of my time over the past few years running a startup company and being a busy parent for four kids. But the thought of going ultra-portable with my Zendrum got me very excited. I found the laptop approach to be too cumbersome and temperamental and the drum machine approach lacked expandability and often came with horrible non-intuitive controls that made any level of customization maddening.
So, what was my experience with Zendrum + iOS this weekend? "Needs improvement" and "Not performance quality". I think it's a very promising future opportunity for Zendrummers, but it's just not ready...yet. i wish I had better news to report. It works, it's fun, but I wouldn't get up on stage with this setup and perform.
First, let's talk hardware:
I went with the IK Multimedia iRIG MIDI
over the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer II
for two reasons - the first is that the iRig has a charging port. If you go with the Line 6 unit, you better have your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch fully charged before playing for an extended duration, because there's no way to charge your iOS device while you have the Line 6 unit plugged in. The IK Multimedia unit has a secondary charging port, which seems like a big oversight by Line 6. The second reason I went with IK Multimedia was because they are the creators of SampleTank, the software for iOS I was planning to use. Also, an important note if you go with Line 6, the MIDI Mobilizer II supports CoreMIDI, but the original MIDI Mobilizer does not. Apple introduced CoreMIDI to iOS in v4.2, bringing this technology over from Mac OS X. Hardware devices that don't support CoreMIDI are going to likely have limited support by software developers.
Ok, let's talk software:SampleTank
by IK Multimedia: This is available for both iPhone and iPad as a universal binary, so you only have to buy it once. The cost is $19.99, but you can also download a free version from the App Store with a limited number of instruments. For an additional $39.99, you can buy all of the sound packs within the app using in-app purchase. You can also buy specific packs for $4.99. This was the first app I tried with my setup and I couldn't get the Zendrum to trigger any sounds, at first. MIDI was flowing into my iPhone, as the light on the iRig was being triggered. I struggled through the SampleTank UI and finally found a setting for channels, Channel 10 was the magic number and suddenly I was jamming on my Zendrum and out through my iPhone. Conceptually cool, but there were a whole host of challenge. Sample qualities were unimpressive, total samples available per instrument were limited (12 or so), SampleTank wasn't responding well to sensitivity on the Zendrum triggers, and I wasn't able to do much customization of my setup. SampleTank did allow for assigning pads, so I could customize to some extent, but I couldn't figure out how to save my edits or mix sounds form multiple instruments into a single setup. I am not even sure if either are possible as the UI is not very intuitive. I had a lot of hope for SampleTank, but it was a let down. If IK Multimedia were to released professional sounding instruments and make customization a part of the setup, it would have a lot of promise. I don't recommend that anyone go out and spend $19.99 on this without first trying the free version to see what you're in store for.GarageBand
by Apple: Available as a universal binary for both iPhone and iPad. The cost is $4.99. Immediately my Zendrum was triggering sounds for the drums in GarageBand, no channel settings were required. The sound quality was noticeably better than SampleTank and there was a much better sensitivity to triggers - it felt real in a way SampleTank did not, but it only included six instruments - three drum kits and three drum machines. There was no customization allowed. I couldn't edit any pad assignments. If I was in a pinch and had to perform with my iPhone or iPad, this is what I would use, although I would feel pretty restricted.DM1 - The Drum Machine
by Fingerlab: A $4.99 iPad-only app. Beautiful and easy to use UI, a large selection of kits and drum machines, sound qualities were good (although not as nice as GarageBand), but I couldn't figure out how to do any pad editing or customization, and it looked like there were only nine sounds per instrument? DM1 has some promise, but it's not clear to me that the way I want to use this app for Zendrum is a use case that the app actually was designed for. I will be emailing Fingerlab about this and see if there's any future plans for this app that will be useful for Zendrummers. It's close, but not quite what we need.MoDrum Rhythm Composer
by finger: Available as a universal binary for both iPhone and iPad. The cost is $3.99. No sound at first, I had to go into the MIDI Setup and enable MIDI In through the iRig. Odd UI, and really meant for creating and playing back drum loops. It works, but it's not really meant for this.
I tried a few other apps - some worked, some did not. I couldn't always tell from the app descriptions which apps would work and which would not. Even those supporting CoreMIDI sometimes would only support MIDI Out, not In. I didn't want to spend a bunch of money downloading apps hoping they would work.
If anyone had any better luck than me with any of the apps listed above, or other apps, I would love to know about it.
What we really need is BFD2 or Battery for iOS (+ ZenEdit for iOS!) and we're set. I was frustrated by the sample quality from the apps I tried in most cases, and the lack of customization in all cases. SampleTank came the closest, but I don't have a lot of hope that IK Multimedia is going to actively evolve the app and Apple rarely updates GarageBand. Plus, I can't import or buy new instruments from the iOS version of GarageBand, significantly limiting it (also, no customizations).
So, that's how I landed at my review of "Needs improvement" and "Not performance quality". It's fun, it works, but don't expect to make music with it...yet. We'll get there. I am hopeful that new apps in the next year or so will open up opportunities for Zendrummers to be ultra-portable.