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Will DJs trade laptops for iPads?

After transitioning from vinyl to laptop computers, could the Apple iPad represent the next revolution for DJ technology?

Image of PadDeckX iPad app.
PadDeckX is one of the first DJ apps we've seen made specifically for the Apple iPad. With the added screen size, iPhone app developers can now represent more complex devices while maintaining functionality. Click to enlarge.

For DJs, the transition from vinyl to today's digital rigs has been a tense compromise between control and convenience. Year after year, a new crop of DJ software and USB gear attempts to fuse the responsive feel of vinyl with all the conveniences of digital audio. Invariably, these digital DJ rigs end up being too expensive, too messy, or downright gimmicky.

Enter the iPad. Here's an affordable device, roughly the size of a vinyl record, that offers quick multitouch control, integrated storage, a wireless digital music store, and a popular graphically rich software platform tied to a competitive app marketplace.

Could the iPad be the digital turntable replacement that DJs have been waiting for? Hell, at $499 each, you could grab two iPads and still spend less than you would on the majority of professional digital DJ solutions on the market.

For the most part, the software has already been worked out. iPhone applications such as Touch DJ, Virtual Deck, and Quixpin, have proven popular with adventurous DJ. More than anything else, it's the iPhone's limited screen size that's held these apps back from their full potential--well, that along with the fact that an incoming phone call could trainwreck your DJ set.

For a second opinion on my iPad DJ fantasy, I ran the premise by Peter Kirn, who runs the indispensable music gear site Create Digital Music. Peter put it this way:

The iPad is likely to become a very popular accessory for DJs with Mac laptops. Expect two applications: basic DJ apps, and--perhaps more popular--controller applications. Just don't expect to see iPads entirely replacing laptops running Serato, Ableton, or Traktor anytime soon; the mobile machines aren't as powerful or as flexible when it comes to working with hardware.

Representatives from Native Instruments (makers of Traktor) and Ableton (creators of Ableton Live) declined to comment officially on plans for the iPad. My sense is that they're waiting to see how the iPad is received and what independent developers are able to accomplish initially.

As hopeful as Peter and I may be about the iPad's future for musicians and DJs, there's reason to be pessimistic.

Image of Virtual Deck iPhone app.
An app like Virtual Deck strains to provide an all-in-one replacement for a real turntable. On the iPhone, it's a toy. On the iPad, it could be viable. Quickdecay


For all of the iPad's possibilities as the world's best next DJ deck, it's not without some drawbacks.

More importantly, the iPad only supports a single stereo audio output. A professional DJ setup requires a minimum of two stereo channels, allowing the DJ to privately preview music on one channel, while the other channel plays music out to the crowd. iPhone DJ apps currently work around the restriction by simply treating the left and right stereo channels as two independent mono channels, but it's obviously not an ideal solution. Using two iPads and a standalone mixer solves the problem, but makes for a bulkier, more expensive rig.

Let's not forget about storage. The base model of the iPad offers a scant 16GB of memory. For most consumers, 16GB is enough room to fit all the music and videos they really love. But for music-hoarding DJs, even the 64GB iPad is going to feel like a tight squeeze.

From a hardware perspective, the home button's ability to quickly kill any running application effectively makes it a big red button of death for DJs. The rounded back of the iPad makes it difficult to set flat on a table without it wobbling and spinning around (though, a rubberized case could cure this).

Photo of Apple iPad home button.
The iPad's home button is a useful feature for most, but for DJs, it's a surefire way to accidentally kill a set. James Martin/CNET

The limitations of the iPad's iPhone OS also present a few problems for DJ software developers. For starters, the Bluetooth audio output can't be treated independently from the headphone output, eliminating another opportunity for squeezing two stereo signals from the iPad.

But the ultimate dilemma facing any kind of all-in-one DJ app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, is the lack of access to music synced through iTunes. According to a developer I spoke with, apps built on the iPhone SDK are only allowed to read basic track ID information from your music collection, and trigger song playback within Apple's iPod app along with some limited controls for fast-forward and rewind, and playback speed.

To work around this handicap, DJ apps currently require users to bypass iTunes and sync music from their computer over the device's Wi-Fi connection. It's a convoluted and limiting way to load music files, but the end result gives the apps the ability to perform detailed waveform analysis, BPM calculations, overlap audio tracks, and other useful tricks.

Though iPad DJ apps will need to sync their music in much the same way as their iPhone counterparts, the iPad does offer one unique advantage: shared folder access. When connected to a computer over USB, users will be able to copy files to and from a shared folder on the iPad--a feature placed there presumably so that iWork documents can be copied back and forth. Hopefully, the folder access will make it easier for DJs to copy their music over USB, instead of the delicate process of pairing your device and computer over Wi-Fi.

The middle ground

Even if the iPad can't deliver the futuristic, all-in-one, digital turntable and mixer solution you might be looking for, there are plenty of alternative scenarios worth exploring. After all, now that DJs have spent the last decade trading their vinyl crates for laptops, the idea of starting over again seems counterproductive.

For better or worse, the laptop is the centerpiece of modern DJing. It offers expandable storage, robust processing speed, and a wide selection of tried and true software. What laptops lack is the kind of immediate, performance-oriented physical control DJs had with turntables.

There are countless USB-connected accessories designed to act as turntable surrogates for digital DJs, ranging from flimsy plastic jog-wheels, to high-torque aluminum platters. In this space, the iPad isn't the cheapest software controller on the market, but it isn't the priciest, either. More importantly, the iPad has the advantage of being endlessly adaptable with apps.

An app like Tonetable may not look like much, but what the lightweight app lacks in form, it makes up in function.

A turntable will always be a turntable, but an iPad can switch from turntable, to drum machine, to a virtual mixer with the push of a finger. That's a pretty powerful asset.

The iPhone already has a handful of useful DJ-oriented controller apps that communicate OSC messages to your computer wirelessly, which can be read as easily as MIDI messages in most DJ applications. A prime example is TouchOSC, which offers a multitouch control interface in a style similar to the JazzMutant Lemur, and is ripe for expansion to the iPad's larger screen.

Other controller possibilities take a decidedly low-tech approach for controlling DJ software. The iPhone application Tonetable, for example, presents a simplistic virtual turntable that controls the pitch of a generated tone. The tone gets interpreted by popular DJ programs such as Traktor or Serato Scratch, allowing Tonetable to emulate expensive and elaborate systems where real turntables are retrofitted with specially encoded vinyl records. Sometime the simple solutions are the best.

There's also the possibility of seeing apps that behave as secondary displays for computers software. Personally, I've never loved the way DJ programs organize tracks like a spreadsheet, and I would love to see a way for an iPad to act as a virtual record crate. Flipping through singles on an iPad using a Cover Flow-style interface and cuing them to my laptop would be much more exciting and intuitive than scrolling through a spreadsheet of song titles.

Finally, there's the realm of music production tools: the app-based drum machines, synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers where music can actually be composed. Existing apps such as iSample, Star6, and iDrum have already shown the possibilities for creating music on the iPhone and iPod Touch. With more screen real estate, a faster processor, and an easier method of loading user-created audio via the iPad's shared folder, the music-making potential for the iPad can only improve.

Only time will tell if Apple's tablet computer will find a real home with DJs and musicians or given the same novelty shrift as the iPhone. Whatever the outcome, it's an exciting time for those exploring the frontiers of digital music.