The 7th September saw the end of the analogue headphone socket. Apple’s new iPhone 7 is the first portable media device or smart phone not to have one. What does this mean for music making on iOS?
iPhone 7 Lightning
Initially and perhaps superficially there’s no big issue. Headphones can be plugged in via the Lightning connector. If you want to keep your old and terribly dated, unfashionable, anti-Apple and therefore anti-cultural analogue headphones then you can still plug them in via an included (thank the god of smart phones for small mercies) adapter. However, by cramming another data stream into that one connector Apple have created a whole new bunch of problems for the musician.
The single port on iOS devices is already a headache for music production and performance. Ask anyone who’s plugged in a MIDI keyboard while trying to charge the device at the same time. It gets expensive in adapters very quickly. This is perhaps more relevant to the iPad but I don’t see anyway how it’s not going to follow the iPhone 7. It is a courageous, future looking move and the headphone socket is indeed very old but at least with the analogue headphone port you are always going to get sound out.
As far as I can see there’s no adapter that splits a lightning connection so if you plug in your headphones you can’t charge at the same time (update – I’ve found one, see below). Perhaps more importantly for us is that you can’t use your lightning compatible MIDI keyboard at the same time either (update – this is probably still true – don’t know yet). Instead you’ll have to ditch your Lightning headphones and USB/Lightning keyboard and get an audio interface that also has MIDI. This will give you a good old fashioned analogue headphone socket and a 5 pin DIN MIDI socket that your portable controller keyboard probably doesn’t have.
The IK Multimedia iRig Pro Duo is a good example of an audio/MIDI interface for iPhone and iPad. It can take batteries so can be completely mobile, but when powered it doesn’t charge the iOS device. The only interface I’ve come across that does pass power through is the Apogee One. There are many other class compliant interfaces. Most will give you audio, some will give you MIDI as well, but none of them solve the charging issue.
So if you remove the audio side from the Lightning connector then we get easy MIDI back, right? Apple believe in a wire-free future and are pushing their awesome new AirPods as the perfect wireless audio solution for their devices. This does indeed release the Lightning port for charging and other duties but brings with it the whole issue of Bluetooth audio latency. The time taken for Bluetooth to covert audio, transmit it, receive it and render it into analogue audio we can hear takes a significant amount of time. This can vary between around half a second and 100ms at best.
Musicians and producers when working with desktop computers typically work at under 10ms. In order for the playing of virtual instruments or the monitoring of audio to feel “real-time” the delay has to be under 10ms. Get to 20ms and you can really feel the lag between hitting a key and hearing the sound. 100ms is completely unusable if you are trying to play an instrument or make beats. There are technologies that can reduce latency over Bluetooth such as the aptX protocol but as far as I gather Apple doesn’t support it.
Mobile music making
So, you’re on the train, AirPods plugged in and you fire up a synth app and start tapping away at the virtual on-screen keyboard. It’s going to sound horribly laggy and unplayable. The solution then is to bring your wired headphones with you as well. Great, that’s two sets of headphones to lose. Maybe you don’t like the feel of playing notes onscreen and so you travel with a little MIDI keyboard which you can plug into your iPhone. Ah, but now there’s no audio output.
Right, so for a little tune making on the train I now need a battery powered audio interface, a battery powered MIDI keyboard with proper MIDI ports, a bunch of cables and some old school analogue headphones. Thanks Apple, nice one. Good camera though and look, Super Mario.
Cables are fast. Analogue audio is amazingly efficient and robust. Until wireless technology becomes instantaneous then for music making cables are part of our lives. They work, they are easy to fix or replace and the signal flow makes sense. Apple’s move to an all wireless future is to break the amazing mobile music making features that iOS has brought to the industry.
However, innovation is driven by people trying to solve problems. Maybe this will push the development of faster Bluetooth. Maybe Apple will realise that allowing for two Lightning ports is a really good idea – they could make a load of money charging for that adapter. All I know is that for me having just bought my first relatively new car in a decade that I was rejoicing at the presence of a minjack aux input. It’s awesome to have it made instantly obsolete.
UPDATE: This just in. Belkin (who else) has a solution! At least to some of it. It’s their bizarrely named “Lightning Audio + Charge Rockstar” adapter. This whopping great big dongle gives you two Lightning sockets and claims to be able to run Lightning headphones (or the analogue adapter) and charge at the same time. It doesn’t say whether this would support any other devices such a MIDI keyboard or audio interface, but this could be the magic box for music making on the iPhone 7. We’ll have to wait and see, but you can never have enough adapters. It’s $39.99 and should be available in October. More info here.
How about you. Is this an awesome move from Apple or a complete disaster? Let us know in the comments.