What do Apple's new iPhones and Watch mean for mobile musicians?

Apple’s long anticipated iPhone 6 is now a reality, as is their equally anticipated wearable, simply dubbed the Apple Watch. But what potential do the increased screen sizes and wearable factor translate into for musicians? Here are some early thoughts on our part.
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Apple’s long anticipated iPhone 6 is now a reality, as is their equally anticipated wearable, simply dubbed the Apple Watch. (Thankfully not “iWatch,” which would have been both predictable and a bit of a pun suggesting voyeurism, especially if your name is Jennifer Lawrence.)

The Apple and Android faithful are currently duking it out in every corner of the Internet about whether these new iOS devices are as cutting-edge as the current crop of Android flagships from Samsung and HTC, and certainly about whether the iPhone 6 is good enough to make an Android user switch. At the general-interest level, that’s a bottomless flame-pit I’m not going to climb into, as the whole issue is more about marrying an ecosystem than it is about the virtues of one piece of hardware versus the other. For those interested in creating music and hosting virtual instruments on a phone, however, iOS remains the only real choice. On the Android side, continued lack of an OS-level MIDI spec, not to mention well-documented latency between touching an onscreen note trigger (such as a piano key or drum pad) and hearing a sound, has made the Android platform pretty much a non-starter for mobile music production. So far, Google and their hardware partners seem fine letting Apple have that market, and Apple—in part due to the synergies that began with their 2002 purchase of Logic developer Emagic—seems happy serving it.

Which brings us to the question of what the iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, and Apple Watch can do for musicians. A lot of this comes down to how well third-party app developers exploit the new hardware, but let’s speculate on the potential.

iPhone 6 and 6 Plus

The main benefit here is screen size.Historically, Apple has insisted that a smartphone be easy to operate with one hand, hence the (until now) screen size that lagged behind much of the Android competition. But for synth, groovebox, and recording apps that have lots of controls, a larger screen means more accurate poke-ability. This makes a good case for the iPhone 6 Plus with its 5.5-inch screen. In fact, it makes a good case for going in for the iPad Air, but a tablet tends to be an extra that you consciously purchase because, well, you want a tablet. Your smartphone, by contrast, is something you always have with you—and that can make all the difference when inspiration strikes. No doubt the 4.7-incher will hit the sweet spot for a lot of people, but me? I’m ordering a 6 Plus the second I can. (By the way, does anyone else see “Plus” as a nod to earlier days of Apple? There was a Macintosh Plus and before that, the Apple II Plus computer, both of which I owned at different times, but we haven’t seen the moniker come up in recent memory.)

Apple promises that apps formatted for the previous iPhones’ maximum screen size of four inches will “just work,” but it will be interesting to see what route different developers take to optimize for the new sizes. Currently, many apps do markedly more screen-shuffling on the iPhone than do their counterpart apps on the iPad, in order to maximize the onscreen real estate and provide a smooth and intuitive user experience. Nows, apps could run with a more fully iPad-like complement of controls available at once, especially on the iPhone 6 Plus.

Then there’s power. Some apps that run happily on the iPhone 5S or even the plain old 5 are on par with desktop-based plug-ins in terms of sonic flexibility and audio quality. The new iPhones’ A8 processor (with the M8 motion coprocessor to do any graphical heavy lifting) will doubtless amount to a container that developers attempt to fill, and with the top models in both screen sizes packing 128GB of storage, the same will apply to virtual instruments relying on ever larger sample libraries.

So the promise of the new iPhones is really pretty straightforward for musicians: More screen, more speed, and more memory equals more music-making. The more intriguing possibilities, though, are hinted at by Apple’s new smartwatch.

Apple Watch

Something that can sense where your wrist is in three-dimensional space, not to mention read vital body stats such as your heart rate, can potentially turn that data into MIDI control messages. This concept has already been proven by products like the Alesis Vortex keytars, which employ an accelerometer to detect neck position and send a single MIDI CC of your choice, and Source Audio’s HotHand system, which controls effects by sensing the proximity of a hand-worn ring to the base unit. The sophistication of Apple Watch’s motion and position sensing, however, could take things to the next level. Seeing that iOS has the only robust base of existing music creation apps, it’s also likely to be the only smartwatch that even may be used in this way.

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Soft synth apps such as Animoog, Jordan Rudess’ MorphWiz, and Korg’s iKaossilator already have extensive X/Y implementation for shaping the sound, so it’s easily imaginable that working in concert with your iPhone (which would be hosting the apps), the Apple Watch could provide X/Y/Z control over MIDI parameters or macros of multiple parameters at once. “One-handed Theremin” might be the most obvious application, but really, you’d be limited only by how many MIDI-addressable settings are in your synth app of choice.

I could also see apps that rely on a simple interface, such as Propellerhead Figure, modified to be controllable entirely from the Apple Watch. I’ll stop short of saying “run stand-alone” because even if some apps may be able to run without an iPhone nearby (which is itself not clear at this point, with bets leaning towards negative), it’s more likely than not that you’d need the iPhone to output audio.

Let’s get a bit more fanciful. Imagine an Apple Watch-wearing audience at an electronic dance music performance. Information about their heart rates and how enthusiastically their dancing could be crowdsourced (with their opt-in, of course), averaged, and then transmitted to the performer/DJ, who factors this into what tempo and type of track to play next.

More practically speaking, the Apple Watch also makes the iPhone 6 Plus and the above-mentioned benefits of its larger screen more attractive to those who might otherwise find the phone’s size awkward. Operating a soft synth, amp modeling suite, or mobile DAW is typically not something for which users insist on one-handed operation. Sending and receiving text messages, checking your calendar, or mapping directions is—and you can do all that on the Watch while the 6 Plus rests in your pocket. It may seem silly to wear a mobile device to operate your mobile device, but if you want the visual benefits of a “phablet”—but only when you need them—the combo starts to make sense.

Last but not least, September 9th’s keynote also detailed the Apple Watch’s ability to sense finger pressure on its screen and distinguish it from the more commonplace tap. Any keyboard player watching this probably said one word out loud: aftertouch. It’s a big deal that this is implemented on a touchscreen as opposed to the moving cantilevers of a piano-like keyboard, and under the hood it works differently. Again, the likely application is one more way to send a MIDI message, and it remains to be seen whether any app will implement this in a way that’s usable or fun.

What we didn’t hear on September 9 was any mention of the Apple Watch working with iPads in the foreseeable future—only iPhones as far back as the iPhone 5. Since many musicians have built up substantial libraries of music apps on their iPads, it would be a shame if they were unable to take advantage of the expressive potentials offered by adding the Watch as a control source. So Apple, please put that on my wish list.