IK Multimedia will be well known to regular iOS music app fans; they have been one of the music technology manufacturers that have most readily embraced the whole mobile computing environment as a place to make music. With a range of dedicated hardware (for example, iRig, iRig Keys, iRig Mix) and apps (Amplitube, VocaLive, GrooveMaker, DJ Rig, SampleTank, etc.). And, with a number of new products announced at the winter NAMM show back in January (including the iRig HD guitar interface), it’s a trend that doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.
The latest app off the production line is iLectric Piano. As the title suggests, this is an electric piano instrument and is a follow up (or companion to) the iGrand Piano app that was released a few months ago. Of course, even in the relatively new world of iOS, there are already a number of piano-based instrument apps; so does the iOS musician need another one to choose from?
Perhaps the most interesting thing with iLectric (and, incidentally, also with iGrand), and which IK Multimedia seem keen to stress with the app, is its sound quality. Indeed, the company are keen to stress that this sample-based instrument contains the most detailed sampling to be found on any current iOS virtual piano instrument; hence the £13.99 price (or equivalent in $/€s) that, while not expensive in the context of the desktop virtual instrument world, is at the more expensive end of the app market. Of course, this detailed multi-layered sampling should translate into a more playable instrument capable of producing a more dynamic and engaging sound. In short, IK Multimedia are trying to create a sample-based electric piano that you could put to serious use for either live or studio applications – the fact that it happens to run on an iPad might be seen as a side issue – it is just intended to sound good.
Open the lid
iLectric Piano is currently an iPad only app (unlike iGrand that has separate iPhone and iPad versions). For those of you who have used iGrand, the iLectric interface will be instantly familiar. The top half of the screen is dominated by the preset selector where you simply swipe through the available options to pick the required instrument, while the bottom is taken up by a neat and tidy virtual piano keyboard. In between the two is the control section. This can also be swiped with the various controls spread across three tabs.
iElectric includes 20 different electric piano instruments by default but, if you want to expand the collection, a further 20 instruments are available as an in app purchase (£6.99 or the equivalent $/€ price). There are also individual instruments given away free if you register the app or register another IK Multimedia product online. Any experienced keyboard player will soon recognise the inspirations behind most of the presets; ‘Wurly Suitcase’, ‘FM EP 1’, ‘Suitcase EP’ and ‘Clavinet 1’ will, therefore, sound very much like you expect them to.
The keyboard itself is sensibly sized (although it can not be re-sized for those with stubby fingers) so you get to see just over two octaves. It can be scrolled while playing or, using the little padlock icon, locked in place. Velocity response is controlled by where you hit a particular key; play the key towards its base and you get a higher velocity (louder sound) while the further up the key you strike, the lower the velocity response. A number of instrument apps use this approach and, while it does take a little getting used to (particularly if playing chords), it is effective enough. Of course, if you want to get the best out of iLectric, then an external MIDI keyboard is going to provide a more playable experience.
The central control section includes volume, a simple (but very effective) three-band EQ, reverb, overdrive, a selection of modulation effects with speed and depth controls and, on the final tab/swipe, transpose, tuning and release. The last of these is used for changing the length of sustain after you release a note.
The other aspect of the controls is the rather excellent ‘MIDI learn’ facility, accessed by tapping the MIDI icon located at the left edge of the central control panel. This then allows you to select one of the on-screen controls, twiddle a real hardware controller on your master MIDI keyboard, and link the two together. You can then use the hardware controllers on your MIDI keyboard to tweak iLectric’s settings more easily during a performance. This system worked very smoothly and it made adjusting things like volume, overdrive or release on the fly a much easier process.
Other features of the interface include a simple, but very useable, metronome. This is great for practicing with or using as a guide if you need to create a performance to match a tempo in a music project within another app. The menu button provides access to your IK Multimedia account, the Store, the online manual and the app Settings page. Amongst this last lot are the ability to adjust the velocity curve, set the MIDI channel and enable background audio.
The treble clef button (located top-centre) opens up iLectric’s recording options. Here you can either playback an existing MIDI recording or create a new one. You can access the metronome and tempo functions from here as well as enable the Quantize options that can tighten up your timing as the recording is made. There is also a keyboard button here that opens up an 88-note version of the keyboard. This works but, unless you become adept at playing with matchsticks fastened to your fingertips, I suspect most people would find it quite difficult to actually play.
One very neat feature of the recording options is the overdub facility. This allows you to make a recording and then layer that with a second performance. The obvious application here is to play in your left hand chords and then overdub any right-hand melody/harmony parts. This works very well.
Finally, once you have a recording you like, the Export button allows you to render that as a WAV file. This can then be accessed via iTunes file sharing, email or AudioCopy.
iLectric in use
So much for the technical side; what does iLectric sound like? Well, the short answer to this is pretty darn good. Given the price (yes, I know… high for a ‘app’ but low for a decent virtual instrument), the sound quality struck me as being very good indeed. Listening through either my studio monitors or a full-range keyboard amp, the output was very satisfying. All the different instruments seemed to have a very nice sense of stereo (and this could be enhanced further by using the modulation effects) and, when using an external MIDI controller keyboard, iLectric responded well to velocity/playing dynamics in both volume and, where appropriate, in tone. Overall, iLectric captures the classic sound of the electric piano in its various forms pretty well.
The bottom line here is that I would be happy to use the sounds themselves in commercial recording context. While I suspect you can get more detailed virtual electric pianos in a desktop format (and at a higher price), iLectric is certainly comparable with some desktop virtual electric pianos I have on my own system. I’m sure keyboard players who have adopted the iPad as part of their live rigs would also be more than happy to perform with these sounds.
The controls are easy to use and offer some flexibility in terms of sound tweaking. I particularly like the EQ; it can warm or brighten a sound easily without the user getting lost in masses of parametric EQ bands. The modulation options are also nicely implemented with enough control to get what you need. I was perhaps less convinced about the Reverb or Overdrive options. While they sound fine in themselves, perhaps more control would be welcome here? For example, a tone control on the overdrive would have been useful. It would also be great to have a choice of a couple of different reverb types and a ‘reverb length’ control to go alongside the level control?
iLectric seems to play nicely with other apps in terms of MIDI. For example MIDI Bridge sees the app and I had no problem routing MIDI data from Cubasis to iLectric for playback. The app also worked very well with my external MIDI keyboard, both via a Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer and when using a Wi-Fi network connection from by iMac.
Of course, when you are not the app developer, it’s very easy to say ‘what about feature X then?’ when exploring any piece of software, music or otherwise. For iLectric, aside from the very minor comments made above about the effect controls, I’d have two obvious ‘wish list’ candidates; the ability to save my own presets and Audiobus support.
The presets included in the app are excellent but, if you tweak the controls to get just the sound you need for a particular part or song, it would be rather nice not to have to do all that tweaking again (assuming you can remember what the settings were) next time you wanted to play the same part or song. I’m sure being able to create your own custom presets would be a very distinct advantage in a live performance context.
As regular readers here will know, I’m a big fan of Audiobus and, whether it ends up becoming the iOS standard for passing audio between apps or is overtaken by some alternative protocol, musicians using multiple apps for recording and composing, need app developers to agree on these sorts of standards. iLectric supports AudioCopy and this is useful but, for the recording musician, Audiobus would just make life much easier. And with an instrument that sounds as good as iLectric, I want to be able to integrate it into my recording workflow.
Having scoured the IK Multimedia online forums, I know other users have been asking about Audiobus support in their apps. The company have acknowledged that they have the SDK and that they are working on it; fingers crossed this works out well and IK can bring their excellent app product line – including iLectric – aboard the ‘bus’ in forthcoming updates.
Is iLectric the best virtual electric piano ever? Well, no, I expect it is not, but you are going to have to pay a lot more than this asking price if you really want the best there is and it won’t run on an iPad. Is iLectric a good virtual electric piano instrument? Absolutely and, at this price, it is an genuine bargain; iLectric Piano contains the best electric piano sounds I’ve heard so far from an iPad by a stretch. It also includes an excellent MIDI Learn facility and, from the point of view of ease of use, the interface is well thought out. While I’d love to see Audiobus support so I could integrate iLectric more easily into my iOS recording workflow, I’d also be happy to hook iLectric into my desktop system as a sound source. It’s good enough to do a creditable job in that context.
Whether it is for recording applications or live applications, sonically, the fact that iElectric is running on an iPad is immaterial; it just sounds pretty darn good. And that, I suspect, is exactly what IK Multimedia were aiming at.
May 3rd 2013; IK Multimedia have posted the first update to iLectric (v.1.1) and, given my comments above in the original review text, I’m happy to say that the major inclusion is Audiobus support. There are other improvements in terms of background audio performance and compatibility with external hardware.