iPad Pro 2018 thoughts from a composer and music educator

Opinion

After the first iPad was released by Apple in 2010, some users started to wonder if it was a tool that could replace their laptops. For musicians, the idea that they could replace towering stacks of paper with a single Internet-connected slab of glass seemed too good to be true. The intervening years have included iterations that have moved the platform closer to replacing not only paper workflows, but also PC workflows. Musicians in particular have rapidly adopted iPads, particularly for performance, since the release of the first large-screen iPad Pro (12.9-inch diagonal) in 2015.

Last week’s release of the iPad Pro 2018 edition presents some truly astonishing hardware that has the potential to replace a lot of what composers, performers, educators, and librarians are doing with notated music.

Just don’t throw out your laptops yet.

First, a bit of my background: I’m a composer and educator, currently teaching composition, theory, aural skills, and music technology. I own a first-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro with Apple’s “smart” stylus, the Apple Pencil (first generation), and I have been using it every day for teaching, writing, and recreation. While I certainly do a lot of heavy lifting on laptop and desktop computers, the majority of my time at a screen is on my iPad.

As of this week, I’m the proud owner of the newest 12.9-inch iPad Pro and second generation Apple Pencil. In this article, I won’t exactly be reviewing the new iPad, as there are lots of smart people doing much more thorough reviews that I could. Instead, I’ll share some thoughts on the new device and reflect more generally on the iPad as a tool for musicians.

The hardware

Long-time iPad users will likely be struck by the look of this device. It’s the first significant redesign since the 2013 iPad Air shrunk the long-side bezels, and this should suit musicians well. The latest device has removed the home button, allowing the bezels to come in much closer to the screen. (Apple is very generous in calling this an edge-to-edge display, but it’s much closer than any previous iPad.) This makes the larger iPad much less bulky and cumbersome.

Previously, I recommended the largest iPad to musicians because it was closer to the paper sizes we’re used to; but, I always included the caveat that it’s unavoidably big and heavy. I still recommend the largest screen size, but I feel less compelled to make excuses for it. Additionally, the now-flat edges will sit much more solidly on a music stand (the sloped back edge was always a little precarious).

The display is the best on any device I’ve seen, including my 27-inch 5k iMac. The latest iPad display is bright, colorful, very crisp, and has an extremely fast refresh rate, making writing with the new Apple Pencil feel closer to writing with a (lowercase) pencil on paper than any previous computer. There is no perceptible latency.

Speaking of which, the device does not bat an eye at large files. Between the hyper-efficient memory management of iOS and the 4GB of RAM (6GB if you spring for the terabyte of storage), the newest iPads have no trouble at all with large PDF files that you might have for an orchestra score. I am flipping through a 100-page tabloid-size wind ensemble score as fast as I could on paper, possibly faster. And even zoomed all the way out, I have no difficulty ready the tiniest staccato dots on the display.

In more pedestrian and practical improvements, Apple has ditched the proprietary Lightning port for a standard USB-C port on the iPad Pro, which allows it to share the same charging adapters and cables as the current generation of Mac notebooks and many Windows PCs as well. And that’s good, because you’ll want to replace the charging cable right away, as the included cable is obnoxiously short at only one meter.

The compatibility is great if you have one of other USB-C devices, but it now means you can’t charge an iPhone, or any older iPad, pencil, keyboard, trackpad, or mouse using the same cable. On the bright side, it means we might be able to see more accessories that can play nicely with the iPad. Unfortunately, things like audio interfaces or storage devices won’t necessarily work out of the box, and will require either app support or future iOS updates to work.

Perhaps most frustratingly for musicians, Apple as again found the “courage” to remove the headphone jack from a device. Unlike their removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus in 2016, Apple is not including a headphone adapter in the box. For that, you’ll need to shell out another $9 to Apple. Welcome to Dongletown. This is your life now.

The Pencil

Apple released the first Apple Pencil along with the original iPad Pro. It was an active stylus that communicates with the device over a private Bluetooth connection. The Pencil felt nice and heavy in the hand, was incredibly accurate, responded to tilt and pressure like a real pen or pencil, and had excellent palm rejection, allowing users to rest their hand on the screen while writing, just like a sheet of paper.

The new Apple Pencil improves on the previous generation in every way. The matte finish is easier to grip and nicer to look at. It is now attaches to the iPad magnetically. When attached, the pencil charges wirelessly and reconnects to Bluetooth if needed. The previous Pencil had a very awkward charging system and didn’t attach at all, which made it much easier to forget or kill the battery. The new Pencil also feels more responsive, but that may just come from improvements in the display.

The biggest improvement to the Pencil might be the gesture to quickly switch tools. The digital stylus was elegantly designed without a single button. The latest iteration doesn’t even have a plug or port, so it might be otherwise difficult to tell if it’s electronic at all. Instead of adding a button or switch, double-tapping on the barrel of the pencil with a finger quickly switches tools, such as switching from pen input to the eraser. This is a much more fluid way of erasing than was previously available, and the feature is already implemented in the betas of at least one score reader, and will likely come to others in the near future. This simple but handy feature allows performing and rehearsing from the iPad Pro to feel intuitive and more like working on paper.

It may seem silly, but to me the Apple Pencil is the number one reason and the number one facilitator for musicians moving their work to iPad over other platforms or even paper. I have never used a stylus as smooth, responsive, intuitive, and that felt as much like writing on paper.

The software

Up until this point, you would be forgiven in thinking it was time to place an order and list your laptop on Ebay. Think again.

As amazing as the hardware of the new iPad Pro is — and its processor has been benchmarked faster than most desktop and laptop PCs (faster than 92% of portable PCs sold today, according to Apple) — it is not ready to replace your laptop or desktop computer.

That’s because of the software.

Much of what we do as professionals, whether performers, composers, teachers, or students, is moving files around. You can do that on iOS, but it’s just harder to do it on an iOS device than it is on a Mac or Windows PC. Copying, renaming, and sharing files is all just a tiny bit more annoying. The fact that I can plug in a USB-C thumb drive but that the operating system won’t address it seems like an oversight, and one that I expect to be corrected by this time next year.

For teachers, the online tools you rely on may not be available. For example, Don Freund’s orchestration tutorial site doesn’t work in the iPad browser, and my university’s Learning Management System (Blackboard) is uniquely terrible on iOS. You’ll need to check before diving into the deep end of mobile-first computing.

One of the greatest benefits of iOS to any user is the vibrant third-party app platform. There are a number of readily available apps for reading, rehearsing, and performing from scores, and there are some that are just as rock-solid, reliable, fast, and convenient as any other score-reading technology, including paper.

Score readers are most promising space for making use of the iPad Pro. Newzik, forScore, nkoda, BlackBinder, PiaScore and others are all actively developing and competing to be the musician’s favorite tool for replacing reading from paper. In a future Scoring Notes blog post, we’ll do a more detailed comparison of the various score reader options for iOS.

Yvan Cassar leads the Opéra de Rouen in a performance using Newzik and iPad Pros

The apps for sketching ideas on digital paper are also robust and competitive. I like GoodNotes and PDF Expert, but Notability and others are also worthy of your consideration. These are all under $20, and most are under $10 in the App Store.

The rosy software picture starts to turn a bit less rosy when you look at other app categories for notated music. While there are some DAW-like apps (Ferrite is very impressive), you’ll have a hard time replacing something like Logic Pro, Pro Tools, or Reaper with anything you’ll find in the App Store. And while there are many competitors for the entry-level of notation and scoring apps (see my previous reviews of Komp and Symphony Pro 5), none of them are capable of replacing a professional desktop application like Dorico, Sibelius, Finale, or even MuseScore for their power, flexibility, and quality of results.

Symphony Pro for iOS

This isn’t likely to change any time soon. It’s one thing to give Apple a 30% cut on a $4.99 app, but it’s hard to ask a Steinberg or an Avid to part with $180 for each $600 sale. Apple simply isn’t providing $180 worth of value there. Having said that, this might be a place where Avid is in the best place to succeed with their subscription model, and they already have a toe in the iOS waters with Avid Scorch, which tracks its development along with the main Sibelius releases. There could well be a future for Dorico on iPad as well, with its modern codebase. If only there was a USB-A port on the iPad for that license key!

Conclusion

If you’re an iPad user looking to upgrade to a Pro for you performance or teaching workflow, you couldn’t ask for a better time. The hardware is beautiful, sturdy, and reliable. The score reading software is top-notch. If I were a performer or a student, I would carry this around everywhere I went. Unless you’re already on the most recent previous generation (mid–2017, 2nd generation), the 2018 iPad Pros are worth considering.

If, however, you’re wanting a device to create scores on as a composer, arranger, or teacher, you’re still better off getting a Mac or Windows PC. In addition to all the technology improvements, Apple as also “improved” (that is, to their benefit) the price on every iPad Pro and every related accessory. They’ve added enough technology to justify the increases; but, this is a device that is priced at the same level as a laptop (or more), and the software support isn’t there to switch completely for most musicians. I love my iPads for working on music; but, they’re not going to be my primary creation device any time soon.

I have a hunch we’ll be seeing some improvements on the software front, both from Apple with things like external storage support and from third party developers taking advantage of the hardware to make more powerful scoring apps. That’s not a good reason to buy now, but if you’re looking to upgrade your current rig from anything earlier than the previous model, this would be a great time.

All iPad Pro images via Apple.

Comments

  1. Shiki Suen

    The only thing being lacked of is an iOS version of Dorico.

    1. Rex Thomas

      ….or Sibelius.

    2. David MacDonald

      I agree that having Sibelius or Dorico on iPad would be great. I currently switch between these two for my own work, and if one of them was on my iPad, it would be easy to move to it exclusively.

      Having said that, as long as they have to forfeit 30% of every sale to Apple, I can’t see that it ever coming.

  2. Mario Vila Nova

    Thanks David for such great article!
    Currently, to my knowledge, the only app that offers full editing (with very small differences between then) in both OS X and iOS is Notion, from PreSonus. It is a great tool for learning as you can edit on the fly in both platforms and synchronize files immediately.
    It is a very interesting tool/system to teach and to rehearsal as you can make changes in iPad directly. You can even print! It has it’s quirks though. Playback is quite nice and there’s a great sound library for iPad with lots of playing techniques but you cannot use third party sounds in iPad. The pencil implementation is far from perfect and the printed output is not up to more serious score editors. That said, I use it a lot…
    I’m sure that the people at PreSonus will continue to develop this app.

    On the other hand, my best wish is that the guys at Steinberg realize the need for an editing tool and not just a score player on iOS and make an iOS version of Dorico. No need for dongles in this platform as the Apple Store system is quit good protecting developers interests by avoiding ilegal copies.

    Regarding DAWs for iOS, I like Cubasis 2, as it is solid and powerful.

    1. David MacDonald

      Notion often comes up when I write about iPad, and it’s ok, but I don’t think it’s much better than Symphony Pro, and both have plenty of frustrations. Like you, I’m hoping that one of the bigger companies sees this as an opportunity. There could be a huge first-mover advantage to being on iOS.

      For DAWs, you’re right about Cubasis 2! I should have mentioned it. It’s also great, and it’s the sort of thing that really shows off the power of these new iPads.

  3. John Reed

    Dear Mr. MacDonald,

    You should probably take a look at MusicJOT which was first released in Jan. 2017 and has since gone through 14 updates with another due out within a couple of weeks. Although we had a rocky start, it has progressively improved and we have added some truly innovative features (check out the Transformation Editor). What is particularly irksome about the app economy, is that the user expects to pay ridiculously low prices for desktop-grade power. We’ve had our share of complaints that MusicJOT doesn’t do this or that, but Finale does. Those same people then go on to complain that they laid out a whopping $29.99 for our app (Finale is currently retailing for $600). Yet, MusicJOT does things Finale can only dream of – handwriting recognition, and again, our Transformation Editor. Furthermore, MusicJOT is less than two years old while Finale was released in 1988 which is over 30 years ago.

    Please look at our site at: Mona Lisa Sound for detailed information, screen shots and videos.

    It is almost impossible to get notoriety and exposure when you are as small as us (MusicJOT was written by just myself and my partner) with no operating budget.

    A nice review from you might help a bit? Just asking : )

    Best,
    John
    ___________________________________
    John Reed
    President, Mona Lisa Sound
    Cellist/Arranger, The Hampton String Quartet
    Past President, String Industry Council
    Past Board Member, American String Teachers Assoc. (ASTA)
    212-831-1187 (direct)
    877-263-5691 (toll free)
    201-696-3946 (fax)
    JMReed@hvc.rr.com

    MusicJot®, a new music notation app for iPad

    1. David MacDonald

      With all due respect, John, I currently own MusicJOT and have used it on several iPads. I don’t think a review from me would be very helpful to you.

      1. John Reed

        Well, that certainly sounds ominous. I certainly would welcome your [obvious] criticisms in a private email. My partner and I are dedicated to continually improving MusicJOT, so your thoughts might be helpful.

  4. Bill

    I think iOS itself is the biggest software issue.

    1. David MacDonald

      Why do you say that? I mentioned the lack of hardware support in the OS, but in general, I think iOS is very solid. For performance in particular, I don’t think there’s an OS I would trust more for performance and stability.

      1. Bill

        It’s solid BECAUSE of limited hardware and because the user is SO restricted in what they can do.

        I love my iPhone and iPad, but to me they’re little more than a toys.

        1. David MacDonald

          I definitely agree that the strict limitations are one of the reasons that iOS is so rock-solid, but I also find my Mac to be pretty solid and it’s much more flexible.

          I strongly disagree that my iPad or iPhone are toys. At this point, they are completely integral to my day-to-day work.

  5. Steve Steele

    My story is very similar to yours David. I purchased the first 12.9” iPad Pro and Apple Pencil along with Notion iOS, Symphony Pro 5, Notate Me, Cubasis, Piascore and Newzik, (along with AudioBus and many synths).

    I teach music theory and composition, and PDF markup has been especially nice for teaching. I’ve also started recording videos with the built in screen capture app and a good mic for my YouTube channel, amd that’s worked out well enough.

    I agree with you on most points but I think Notion iOS and Symphony Pro 5 are more useful than you probably do. I’ve scored a lot of music for full orchestra with Notion iOS. Is it good for layout? No. But it’s just as useful as the big three when it comes to note entry. Over the past three years I’ve learned where MusicXML fails to handle exporting from Notion iOS to Finale or anything else. So for a mobile composing device, I find the iPad Pro to be faster for me, when it comes to sketching orchestral ideas, and either writing exercises for students or demonstrating analysis.

    You’re right that the hardware is ahead of the software, but I think that will change soon. The price people were willing to pay for iOS apps has been a big hindetence for major developers and some large developers still see the iPad as a prohibitive device.

    I love macOS. Been using Macs since the 80s. But the iPad Pro is something else. I don’t support apps that follow the subscription model, but some developer is going to come along and write the killer app for serious musicians and it will take off like wildfire, and I’ll gladly pay the asking price. In the meantime I’m making do with the iPad Pro and my Mac Pros. I sold my laptops a long time ago, and won’t be going back. I’ve already bought into the eco system. I just hope the killer app shows up sometime in the next couple of years. I’d also like to see NotePerformer ported to iOS to work with the up and coming notation apps that will support external MIDI soon. NotePerformer seems to be a perfect fit for an iPad instead of a huge Vienna Ensemble Pro template (like a I have on the Mac Pros).

    Thanks for your reviews,
    Steve Steele

    1. David MacDonald

      Thanks for reading, Steve.

      I should have mentioned AudioBus in the article as well! It’s often overlooked because it’s tricky to explain in a short marketing blurb, but it’s one of the things that allows the iPad to be used for some incredible music production workflows that really leverage the hardware power.

      I’m going to respectfully disagree that Notion or SP5 are good for sketching, at least for the kinds of music I write and the ways I sketch. I love my iPad for this task, but I prefer to do it in GoodNotes, which is closer to a paper experience. And just for the size of the document, I still prefer to do my sketching on a 12 x 18 (Carta No. 21!) pad of staff paper and a nice pencil (0.9mm OHTO Promecha). Call me old-fashioned. And I don’t think the quality of results is at a level that I would be comfortable sharing out of either Notion or SP5 to anyone else, even if it’s just a worksheet for students.

      I would encourage you to reconsider your aversion to subscription applications. They’re not going away, and I actually view subscriptions as a good thing. It’s a feature, not a bug. It’s a commitment to the future development of an app. I’ve come to rely on too many apps that I paid $4.99 for one time and then don’t get updates because the developer can’t afford to spend more time on it. Give me the subscriptions.

      Like you, I can’t wait to see what Apple and 3rd party developers do in software to take advantage of this absurdly powerful hardware.

  6. Tony Reyes

    In buying the iPad Pro 12.9 3rs Generation, is it recommended to buy with the LTE or cellular model or the WiFi model is enough ?

    1. David MacDonald

      It really depends on what you’re doing and where you’re doing it. For me, wifi is totally fine. I did upgrade the storage to 512GB, and I’ve been really happy with it.

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