The iPad as a control surface

A number of videos have popped up on the web of a new app which turns the iPad into a control device for Apple’s Color Grading software. This follows a number of audio mixing apps that show potential real time control of levels and effects in FCP and other audio software suites. I’m excited and intrigued by the prospect of being able to carry around 4 or 5 different virtual control surfaces in my backpack, as I’m often hired to set up shop on location or at a production office, and anything that allows me to travel lighter is a real bonus. However, there are a number of caveats to this utopian vision of a fully mobile grading and mixing setup.

Firstly, the software isn’t quite there yet. There are many reports of a real lag in the response times when making adjustments on the iPad, which can make it difficult to control, particularly when adjusting parameters over time, like recording the levels of a music or FX track in real time while playing back the timeline. The communication between the iPad software and the mac can be unreliable at the best of times and even a lag of just a few fractions of a second can throw you off (as evidenced by the incredible lengths hardcore gamers will go to to eliminate the problem in their setups). This issue is bound to improve over the coming iterations of OS and hardware, though, and is no-doubt more bound up in the communication between ipad and Mac, than the control surface software itself.

Gamer's ruin

However, there is a wider problem that prevents these apps from rendering their more expensive hardware cousins as obselete, and that is that they lack any means of giving the user any tactile feedback as they’re being used. Without having the physical form of, say, a weighty color correction ball under your palm, it is much much harder to ‘feel’ your way towards the adjustment you are looking for. You have to keep looking at the software control surface in order to see what you’re doing and so can’t concentrate on the actual effect that is being created on your output monitor. This slows you down, and makes it very difficult to ‘sense’ your way towards the effect you’re trying to create, a problem that is only compounded by the software lag mentioned above.

Tactile Feedback

It is certainly exciting to see these early versions of control apps pop up. There is no doubt that they have the potential to help out hugely on those jobs which require a easy, light, mobile setup. To have a multi-touch device available that can free up screen real estate and allow dynamic control of keyframeable parameters is a clear advantage, however I don’t see it marking the end of more expensive, well-made, physical control surfaces that have high build quality and intuitive ergonomic design. We are still (for now) physical beings and need physical, tangible tools to carry out many creative tasks. Especially those that are as sensory as grading and mixing.

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~ by cutlertv on September 16, 2010.

One Response to “The iPad as a control surface”

  1. Totally agree. You could say that people who think an iPad can replace a real tactile control surface figuratively read the book, but missed the plot entirely.

    Imagine an audio engineer with 120 tracks trying to do a mix with a touchscreen. That would be insane.

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