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Review: Midi Designer Pro iOS Controller Designer

Want to build your own custom layout control surfaces on iOS? Besides the major players from Liine and Hexler, there’s a newer upstart, Midi Designer Pro, that is worth considering. Today, Chris Brackley gives the software a full review, including tips on using it in real world DJ scenarios and a critical eye to how design can influence the perceived quality of DJ tools.

When it comes to controlling your DJ (or other MIDI) software with an iOS, there are two big names which immediately come to mind; Hexler’s TouchOSC (also on Android, a big selling point), and Liine’s Lemur. Priced very cheaply, and at a premium, respectively, those two players seem to have the market pretty much sewn up between them.

However, there is a plucky little upstart which doesn’t get quite as much attention: Midi Designer Pro. A look at their site shows that the developers and community seem to be mostly focused on production hardware and software, but the app does have a lot of potential for DJ use.

CHOICES: THE DIFFERENT FLAVORS OF MIDI DESIGNER

The many versions of MIDI Designer
The many versions of MIDI Designer

If you search the app store, there are 4 versions of Midi Designer available. The full version, Midi Designer Pro (MDP), at $24.99, works with both iPad and iPhone. That includes all the available features, and is the version I’ve been testing.

There’s a free version of the iPad app exclusively made for controlling Casio’s XW-P1 hardware synth, as well as an app called Midi Designer 12 ($1.49). That version is fully featured, but with a maximum of 12 controls; although that sounds like a bargain, unless you’ve got a very specific requirement for your controlling needs, I’d give it a miss.

Where Midi Designer really wins is with the free Lite version. Fully featured, but with huge (seriously, MASSIVE) adverts popping up over the centre of the interface regularly. That means it’s not an option for actual performance, but it also means you can get a real flavour of how useful the app is to you before you commit to picking up the full version, either by purchasing Pro outright, or through an in-app purchase.

That’s a massive deal – whilst TouchOSC is cheap enough ($4.99) that it’s affordable to try on most budgets, Lemur is $24.99, which is a lot to drop on an iOS app without trying it first. So kudos to the developer of MDP for offering a way to ‘try before you buy’.

WHAT’S GOOD?

A knob and XY control on the app's iPhone version.
A knob and XY control on the app’s iPhone version.

Eschewing custom Daemon or Bridge software on the PC/Mac side of the setup equation is a good move on the part of MDP. Setting up a wireless midi connection with Audio MIDI Setup (OSX) and RTPMidi (Windows), is very straightforward, and seems plenty reliable. There were times, during the iOS 6 era, that ad-hoc networks and iOS devices did not play nice together very often. Thankfully, those issues seem to have a faded somewhat with iOS 7. I had zero connection issues during my testing, using OSX 10.8.

The app also doesn’t require any additional design or editing software on the computer side, either. Everything is done solely within the iOS app itself, which makes creating and tweaking your own designs both immediate and intuitive.

Supercontrols in Midi Designer Pro
Supercontrols in Midi Designer Pro

Advanced interactions like Supercontrols, where one control can activate a number of others, are handled through a simple drag-and-drop interface. Even for a novice MIDI mapper, the app should be very easy to pick up and use; unlike Lemur, which can seem almost deliberately obtuse at times, with scripting being the gateway to truly advanced features. In MDP, scripting is non-existent. For most users, this is ‘a good thing’.

Pretty much all the controls required for most DJ setups seem present and correct, with the absence of jogwheels. But I have yet to find a jogwheel mapping I’m truly happy with for either of the other ‘big two’, so I won’t hold that against MDP. Jogwheels are just tough, it seems.

Overall, the way the app lets users create layouts, as simple or as complex as required, is simple and quick. The user interface is clear and consistent, and there are more than enough options to satisfy the most hardcore mapping-heads.

WHAT NEEDS WORK

The interface can get pretty gaudy - but it doesn't interfere with function.
The interface can get pretty gaudy – but it doesn’t interfere with function.

True story: I was aware of MDP in the past, but I had not even considered picking it up. Why? Simply because, to me, the styling of the app looks rather ugly. Not objectively ‘bad’; the aesthetic design doesn’t interfere with the operation of the app. But, subjectively, I don’t like the styling of MDP at all. Whereas Lemur and TouchOSC have settled on very similar minimalistic styles, MDP seems to be sitting somewhere between ‘future’ and ‘retro’; like a vision of the future, as seen from 1988. Things like the bevelling on the knobs and such, just don’t have the slick look of it’s competition.

Any talk of aesthetics is entirely a matter of personal taste, of course. I’m sure there are DJs out there who use Virtual DJ skinned to look like a pair of CDJ-1000s, or a unicorn, or the cast of CSI, or something, and they’re very happy. But as much as it’s wrong to judge a book by it’s cover, as a human being, it’s hard to fall in love with something which you don’t think is pretty. It’s easy to tone down some aspects of the design, like the textures, within the app, but the controls are the controls; there’s no getting around that.

The only other negative I have to mention, is that for some users, the hands-on approach to layout creation might not be what they want; scripting and suchlike is second nature to some people, in which case they’ll find Lemur’s ‘offline’ approach more suitable.

SUPPORT

One area where MDP does score points is on the support front. The developer, Dan Rosenstark, seems to be very responsive to customer questions, feedback and suggestions on the website. Plus, whilst the community isn’t as large as that over at Liine’s forum, there seems to pretty good engagement from users.

This is in stark contrast with Hexler’s TouchOSC, where, although things have improved recently, there have been times in the past where the app almost appeared to be abandonware. Time will tell if they can keep their renewed focus up; I hope they do, as TouchOSC is really the only option for Android users at this time.

Another aspect of support which MDP has got nailed, is tutorial videos. There are a ton of YouTube videos from the company detailing all the features and functions of their app; it’s comprehensive coverage, and is the reason I won’t go too much into describing the features in this review; if you want to know exactly how it works, head to their channel and get watching.

A REAL-WORLD ASSESSMENT

Advanced control options
Advanced control options

 

For DJs who are new to the world of MIDI mapping, and want to start using an iOS device in their setup, Midi Designer Pro is pretty easy for me to recommend in spite of its looks. Even at five times the cost of TouchOSC, the ‘all in the box’ paradigm of MDP makes it massively intuitive to use for a beginner, and the support from the developer is superb.

For more advanced users, however, MDP is a harder sell today. When I shot the video review, I was under the impression that Lemur was still $50 (the price I bought it for). On checking prices for this article, I see that Liine have now halved the price of their app permanently.

With MDP at 50% cheaper than Lemur, it would be a nice easy choice for many. $25 is a fairly hefty chuck of change (in mobile app terms), and MDP offers pretty much everything an average DJ could want from an iOS control app.

But at the same price, Lemur still wins out for me. Live Control 2 (a free control setup for Ableton Live which comes with Lemur) is absolutely killer. Plus, from a DJ perspective, there are a lot more user templates for DJ software already available online for Lemur. MDP’s forum has a decent selection for production gear and software, but precious little for DJs. That doesn’t mean I’m dismissing MDP out of hand – for people who work best in a ‘hands-on’ way, it’s really good. Plus, like any good app, it is constantly evolving and being upgraded, and the developer appears to be very responsive to suggestions and ideas. So even if you feel like Midi Designer Pro might not be the app for you today, it’s definitely one to keep your eye on.

  • Richard

    Im having lots of issues with mine, My banks are all messed up, I have to hit bank 1 in order to get sound from any other bank, Im using Scratch Live….for example if I have a siren on bank 1 in scratch live and I hit bank 1 on the midi app it works, then if I hit bank B in Midi pro if I hit what WOULD be in bank B i get nothing but instead have to use Bank 1 to activate it

    • MIDI Designer

      Please get in touch with support via Config -> Actions -> Email Us. Thanks!

    • We got you sorted with MIDI Designer back in 2014, right? Thanks.

  • sir ftp

    What I would love to see is an app that allows you to dig through your music library and then load it onto Traktor on your laptop. I’m not seeing this anywhere with DJ Controller apps on the iPad, Lemur, midi control, etc etc all concentrate on reproducing dials and buttons and sliders that control tracks that have already been loaded. The finding and loading of tracks seems completely ignored.

    What I miss from playing records is digging through my record crates and recognizing good tracks from the album cover itself. an app could do the same – show album covers that you can search through (like you search through photos for example), you touch the cover and the name comes up, maybe a waveform graphic, rating, key, whatever. Then you drag the album picture right or left for decks A or B or something.

    Would be much better than sifting through the menus on the traktor library window.

    Does anybody know if something like this exists?

  • Martin C

    Nice vid Chris. Whats that white TWITCH???

    • Mojaxx

      12inchskinz FTW Martin!

  • chris

    Basic Knob, and advanced Knobs…. turns the red LED on….mapping head …*sweat*…oh yeah baby, show me the rythm

  • Raj

    Dj

  • Great review, thank you! The video hits a lot of points very quickly and clearly, and the written review packs in a ton of information beautifully.

    ON TASTE
    Taste is a personal thing:

    Google Image Search, MIDI Designer iPad
    google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=MIDI+Designer+iPad

    Google Image Search, Lemur iPad
    google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=Lemur+iPad

    We are very proud of what MIDI Designer users have created (and the Lemur stuff looks great too, but with perhaps less variety).

    NO SCRIPTING, EVER
    Regarding supercontrols-subcontrols vs. scripting: scripting CAN be more flexible, but it can also be more error-prone and is DEFINITELY harder to learn. We get defectors from the Lemur platform every single day, and the reason is that MIDI Designer is — for music-makers — flexible, powerful, and EASY TO USE. We provide the Lite version for free so that users can find out just how powerful it is.

    The importance of editing on the iPad/iPhone directly doesn’t matter much when you are trying out the App. But when you want to tweak your layout on the way back from the gig, right before the gig, on a break, or even DURING the gig, then it’s huge. And those kinds of adjustments are common in the real world. And it’s not just a convenience to be able to work on your rig while on the bus or stuck in traffic. It’s a necessity.

    SOME MINOR CORRECTIONS
    And now, some very minor corrections:

    1) while we do allow for Wi-Fi connections using regular and ad-hoc networks, you can also connect via hardware, including the iConnect, iRig, and Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer II.
    2) The “MASSIVE” ad in the middle of MIDI Designer Lite — the Lite Bar, which is 18% of the screen height — can be moved out of the way by dragging. There are definitely users who use Lite live. Try it, it’s FREE!
    3) MIDI Designer 12 is $1.99 US, not $1.49. And while the limit of 12 controls is real, they can be XY pads, which means 24 parameters… on iPhone, that’s more than you’ll probably need.

    WHAT’S NEXT
    We are building towards an awesome future with MIDI Designer, and our users who have gotten on board and followed our progress (see our Change Log at midiDR.com/changelog) know how quickly the App is advancing. And who knows? Maybe MOJAXX’s review will get us to offer some new skins for our users to design even more amazing things with.

    Stay tuned and thanks for checking out MIDI Designer!
    Dan Rosenstark
    Author & CEO
    MIDI Designer
    dream | create | play

  • Great review, thank you, Chris! The video hits a lot of points very quickly and clearly, and the written review packs in a ton of information beautifully.

    ON TASTE
    Taste is a personal thing:

    Google Image Search, MIDI Designer iPad
    google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=MIDI+Designer+iPad

    Google Image Search, Lemur iPad
    google.com/search?tbm=isch&q=Lemur+iPad

    We are very proud of what MIDI Designer users have created (and the Lemur stuff looks great too, but with perhaps less variety).

    NO SCRIPTING, EVER
    Regarding supercontrols-subcontrols vs. scripting: scripting CAN be more flexible, but it can also be more error-prone and is DEFINITELY harder to learn. We get defectors from the Lemur platform every single day, and the reason is that MIDI Designer is — for music-makers — flexible, powerful, and EASY TO USE. We provide the Lite version for free so that users can find out just how powerful it is.

    The importance of editing on the iPad/iPhone directly doesn’t matter much when you are trying out the App. But when you want to tweak your layout on the way back from the gig, right before the gig, on a break, or even DURING the gig, then it’s huge. And those kinds of adjustments are common in the real world. And it’s not just a convenience to be able to work on your rig while on the bus or stuck in traffic. It’s a necessity.

    DEDICATED SOFTWARE FOR ABLETON LIVE
    There are at least four big players with dedicated iPad software for Ableton Live. If that’s your interest, check out Point Blank’s video here: youtube.com/watch?v=90WBXrzq83k.

    But… if you want to make your own controller, then MIDI Designer is a very strong choice.

    SOME MINOR CORRECTIONS
    And now, some very minor corrections:
    1) while we do allow for Wi-Fi connections using regular and ad-hoc networks, you can also connect via hardware, including the iConnect, iRig, and Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer II.
    2) The “MASSIVE” ad in the middle of MIDI Designer Lite — the Lite Bar, which is 18% of the screen height — can be moved out of the way by dragging. There are definitely users who use Lite live. Try it, it’s FREE!
    3) MIDI Designer 12 is $1.99 US, not $1.49. And while the limit of 12 controls is real, they can be XY pads, which means 24 parameters… on iPhone, that’s more than you’ll probably need.

    WHAT’S NEXT
    We are building towards an awesome future with MIDI Designer, and our users who have gotten on board and followed our progress (see our Change Log at midiDR.com/changelog) know how quickly the App is advancing. And who knows? Maybe MOJAXX’s review will get us to offer some new skins for our users to design even more amazing things with.

    Stay tuned and thanks for checking out MIDI Designer!

    Dan Rosenstark
    Author & CEO
    MIDI Designer
    dream | create | play

  • alex

    Forget this, use lemur.

    • stefanhapper

      Why?

      • strotifiler

        Not OP, but I like lemur a lot in part for its look and this looks cluttered and more like a toy than an actual tool. Plus lemur has a really large user library and the factory presets like live control are top notch. The midi mapping options for lemur also offer a lot of customization, even if the editor itself is a bit clunky.

        • LiveControl 2 looks really cool. Wonder how it compares to Touchable (which people LOVE) and Conductr?

      • Scripting!

  • tsutek

    Beatsurfing is the my-first-ios-controller app to get IMO. It’s very intuitive and fast to use, and has some pretty cool features many other controller editors lack. Cheaper than MDP or Lemur as well (well in the case of Lemur, the cost is justifiable as it is so deep, especially now with html5 canvas support)

    • Mojaxx

      Interesting… I must have heard of Beatsurfing on or around it’s launch (I’ve definitely seen their demo video before), but then it disappeared off my radar.

      I’ll download and try it today.