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Using Bus-Powered Hardware MIDI Controllers with iPad Apps

Connecting and using external controllers with your iPad is easy - if you know the tricks

by Phil O'Keefe

The Apple iPad is a surprisingly wonderful music-making tool. A quick search of the App Store's Music category reveals a wealth of different virtual instrument apps, including emulations of some classic instruments in impressively authentic-sounding virtual form. But the one thing that can be a bit of a bummer for musicians is the teeny-tiny virtual keyboard that most of them include. Even with some of the tricks that manufacturers employ to make them more usable, most of them can be difficult to play - especially compared to a hardware controller. Yet many hardware controllers have their own issues when trying to use them with your iPad.

First Comes MIDI

The iPad has one fairly significant limitation - no dedicated MIDI input, or even a USB port to accommodate controllers that support MIDI over USB. Fortunately, the Apple iPad does support MIDI - but you'll need to purchase an Apple Camera Connection Kit to add a USB connection to older iPads with 30-pin connectors, or a Lightning to USB Camera Adapter for newer models. Why didn't Apple just call it a USB adapter? Beats me…but that's essentially what it is, and it can be purchased from Apple, big box electronics stores like Best Buy, or online vendors like Sweetwater.

No driver or other software is needed for the adapter. If you have a USB MIDI controller with its own power supply, simply plug the Lightning connector into the iPad, and a USB cable from your MIDI controller into the USB port on the other end of the Lightning to USB Camera adapter. I recently tried this with an Akai EWI-USB wind controller while working on a review, but…it didn't work. Why not?

We Need More Power, Captain!

In the case of the EWI-USB the problem is that even though the Lightning to USB Camera Adapter provided a USB port, the iPad simply doesn't provide enough power for many external bus-powered MIDI controllers - including the Akai. Is it hopeless?  No - not at all! For a bus-powered USB MIDI controller, the secret is using a powered USB hub in between the bus-powered USB / MIDI hardware controller and the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter.

I found a suitable USB 3.0 powered hub from Anker on Amazon. One feature you'll want to look for is a hub that can be powered with a USB OTG ("On The Go") cable, which leads us to...

One More, For Mobility

So will you be tied to a AC wall outlet whenever you want to use a bus-powered external hardware controller? Fortunately not, but there's one final piece of hardware you'll need for true mobility: a USB powerbank or portable charger. These are basically batteries you can recharge at home, and then take with you. They're available in various capacities, and are designed to recharge your phone or tablet when on the go. I bought a 10,000mAh model (which gives me enough power for the whole day) through Groupon, but you can find them practically anywhere - even some gas stations and convenience stores. Instead of connecting your phone or tablet to it, we'll use the powerbank to power the USB hub, and by extension, the hardware MIDI controller connected to the hub.

So now that you have the necessary hardware:

  • Connect a USB cable from your MIDI controller into your powered USB hub.
  • Plug the powered USB hub into the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter and plug that into your iPad.
  • Finally, connect one end of the USB OTG cable that comes with the powered hub into your USB powerbank (or into the wall adapter that comes with the hub, it if you don't need mobility) and the other (smaller) end into the USB hub itself.

You will need to use a virtual instrument app that responds to incoming MIDI and you may need to assign your controller as a MIDI input for your softsynth iPad app, but most of them will do it for you automatically when you connect everything. If not, check the documentation for your softsynth - the MIDI input assignment will usually be somewhere in the settings or options menu, as it is with Cakewalk's Z3TA+ synthesizer app shown here.


That's all there is to it! You're now powering the hub from the USB powerbank (or AC wall outlet), and the USB MIDI controller is drawing its power from the powered hub. The iPad will get the MIDI data from your controller through the Lightning to USB Camera Adapter, and I'm sure you'll find that the external USB controller is much more fun and expressive to play than those tiny virtual onscreen keyboards. Have fun! -HC-


Anker 4-port powered USB 3.0 Data Hub ($16.99 "street"), available from Amazon      

Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter ($29 "street"), available from Sweetwater, B&HAmazon, Apple, and others    

Have questions? Want to comment on this article? Join the discussion here.



Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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