AK-7 MIDI Keyboard Knows the Music but Mumbles the Words
AK-7 Core MIDI Keyboard turns an iPad into a MIDI controller that can tap into the virtual instruments included in programs like Garage Band. It allows you to play via a well-designed on-screen keyboard interface. However, latency can be a big issue, and novice users who need to learn how to set up a MIDI device may have difficult finding developer Saitara's instructions.
Apple's Garage Band for Mac is loaded with an array of virtual instruments. The application is capable of imitating brass, strings, winds and percussion, as well as a whole stable of fully synthesized noises with names like "Synchro Nice" and "Future Flute." None of the faux instruments included in the package come particularly close to sounding like the real thing, and some sound downright cheesy when played on their own. But if used correctly, they can add some depth to a musical project -- depending on the project, of course.
But regardless of the variety and quality of the instruments featured in Garage Band and apps like it, the fact remains that it's really, really hard to "play" an instrument through a computer. Some apps will present you with an on-screen keyboard interface through which you can plunk out individual notes, but mousing around a piano on a screen isn't going to yield a performance worthy of even a grade-school recital.
That's where MIDI controllers come in. These are physical devices that connect with the computer as a peripheral. They come in lots of different shapes and sizes. Electronic wind instruments and drum pads are common, but perhaps the most popular form is the piano-style keyboard. Once the computer recognizes the MIDI controller, the device can be used to play the instruments in a MIDI application. With a controller, saxophones, tubas, orchestral strings or any other imaginable sound can be played using a piano-like interface.
AK-7 Core MIDI Keyboard turns an iPad into a MIDI device capable of interfacing with Garage Band and many other MIDI apps for both Mac and Windows.
Not Quite the Real Thing
First of all, an iPad is obviously not going to be anything like playing a piano. For anyone with much piano or keyboard experience, nothing can replace the feeling of actual keys under fingers. Those who needs something like that should buy hardware, not software.
Others, however, may not need something so tactile. Maybe you don't plan on delivering a virtuoso, ivory-melting performance; you're just looking for something that will let you make a few lazy chords and slow arpeggios. In that case, a touchscreen might be suitable.
AK-7 delivers a plain interface that isn't overcrowded but leaves all the necessary controls within easy reach. It gives you a piano-style keyboard with a full 88 keys. A zoom feature lets you slide in to tighten the view over just the section of the keyboard you want to deal with, and a slider at the bottom moves your view left or right.
The Options button lets the user toggle between a "3D" view (really just a way to view the keyboard from a natural angle) and 2D view (top-down). There's a MIDI channel selector, a transpose feature and a velocity booster. You can also banish the extraneous GUI features if they're getting in your way (touch the spot where the Options menu usually is to get back to where you can reactivate it).
Other than that, the interface is nicely austere. All it needs to be is a serviceable keyboard interface, and that's all it is. The real work is done by your main music application on your computer.
Once you have AK-7 on your iPad, though, giving it a proper introduction to your computer isn't plug-and-play easy. You'll need to get your computer to recognize it as a MIDI device.
Perhaps the easiest way to do this is through WiFi -- if the computer and iPad are on the same network, they can be introduce through some light under-the-hood adjustments. I didn't like how hard I had to hunt around to find instructions for that, though. On Saitara's homepage are top-level links for "Home," "AC-7 Core Family," "Older Apps," "Forum" and "Support."
Think it might be under "Support?" Nope, that just brings you to an email address. Instead, a how-to video can be found under "AC-7 Core Family" -- which I tried last because I didn't think my "AK-7" app was part of the "AC-7" family. Click on the "Setting Up" submenu and you're there.
The video offers an easy guide to connecting for both PCs and Mac computers. Once AK-7 was paired up with Garage Band, though, a new problem immediately become clear: Latency. Hitting a key on the app produced a sound in Garage Band a fraction of a second later. That won't do when playing music -- you'll be constantly off time.
Saitara says Apple's Camera Connection Kit can be used to make a wireline connection. Maybe that would have solved the latency problem, but that device is not something I have in my arsenal.
Saitara also recommends using an ad-hoc WiFi network to minimize latency. But it doesn't offer any easy-to-find pointers on how exactly that's done. It's easy enough to use YouTube to find out how to establish an ad-hoc network, but after successfully making one, I still couldn't get AK-7 to work via that connection method, and I was stumped. Why not create a video especially for this and make it clear and accessible on the site? Or at least provide a link ... or a list of written instructions?
Maybe I'm being too needy. Maybe I'm asking for instructions on how to do things that should be no-brainers for experienced MIDI users. But a company that builds an app like this should take into consideration the fact that many of its users will be completely unfamiliar with doing any of this. A touchscreen iPad app used to substitute a piece of hardware that could cost anywhere from $40 to a couple thousand would seem to lend itself more to casual users than experienced pros. We need hand-holding, so why not make this info a little easier to reach?
AK-7 Core MIDI Keyboard presents a clean and well-designed interface that nicely works around the inherent size limitations of a 10-inch screen.
However, it's not easy to find the kind of guided walk-through a novice may need to set it up even via the simplest, most latency-prone method. I'd especially like to see whether an ad-hoc network really solves that latency problem, but instructions just weren't forthcoming.