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If you’re a musician or a producer who uses (or is considering using) an Apple iPad in your creative process, one of the most interesting accessories out there for recording and performing music is the Alesis iO Dock. In a single stroke, the iO Dock eliminates many of the shortcomings and limitations posed by this popular tablet computer. I recently had the chance to give the iO Dock a quick test drive, and I thought I’d share my impressions of this unique piece of equipment.
This product comes to life when you slide an iPad into its docking slot. An internal 30-pin connector enables the iO Dock to take over as the hardware input and output point for the tablet. It transforms an iPad from a consumer entertainment device into a full-blown production studio with professional inputs, MIDI connectivity and multiple monitoring options.
You get two sets of audio outputs: a dedicated headphone jack and a pair of 1/4" outputs to connect to studio monitors or a larger sound system. Both kinds of outputs feature dedicated volume knobs. A “direct monitoring” switch is included on the back, which can be helpful when applications incur latency in the sound. The inputs are combo XLR and 1/4”, with one input giving you the option to switch between hi-Z guitar level and mic/line. Both inputs can supply phantom power, and a single switch is supplied to turn it on and off. An RCA composite video output enables you to send your video feed to other sources, and a 1/4" footswitch output is included which can enable hands-free operation (if your music app of choice supports these kinds of MIDI commands).
Speaking of MIDI, it turns out that the iO Dock is super MIDI friendly. It features both a MIDI in and out port, as well as a dedicated USB MIDI port. This means that you can control the bounty of available iPad software instruments with any MIDI keyboard or controller of your choice (providing that the app your using supports iOS MIDI). Unfortunately the USB port doesn’t pass audio, so the iO Dock cannot be used as an audio interface (or to sync with iTunes, for that matter). The USB port just makes it easier to send and receive MIDI commands from a computer.
One minor bump in the road that I encountered right off the bat was that the slot in the iO Dock was designed for the original iPad, and that my thinner iPad 2 didn’t fit properly. This is due to the fact that the iO Dock I was borrowing was one of the earliest units that shipped from the factory, and Alesis didn’t yet have a chance to respond to the changes in the dimensions of the iPad 2. Going forward, all iO Docks will ship with an iPad 2 adapter included in the box, and if you happen to pick up a unit from the first batch, Alesis has gone through the trouble of setting up a special page on their website where you can submit your information to receive a free iPad 2 adapter in the mail. Luckily, a co-worker lent me their original iPad, which was loaded with Apple’s Garageband app so I was able to carry out my “first impressions” test drive.
At first I was a little taken aback by the fact that the iO Dock only featured a larger 1/4" headphone output. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the option to use a professional-sized headphone jack, but it didn’t seem to make sense for a product that’s designed to work exclusively with a consumer gadget. However, after investigating a little deeper I realized that the mini-plug headphone jack on the iPad is still easily accessible when mounted in the iO Dock (however, you cannot access the volume rocker). The iPad’s headphone output still functioned normally when the tablet was docked and running Garageband. This means that two people can easily plug into the iO Dock and listen to the mix.
One nice thing about the iO Dock is that it acts as the perfect little desktop stand for an iPad. Garageband and other music apps often feature virtual instruments like drum kits and sequencers that inspire you to lay into the tablet a bit as you play. It’s nice having such a sturdy, yet relatively lightweight and compact base station to hold the iPad steady as you cut loose.
When I first cracked open the iO Dock, the first thing I noticed was its construction. The iO Dock is made primarily out of plastic, which helps to keep it from being too heavy for travel, but some people might prefer a more robust metal chassis. At first I was curious if there was a dedicated iO Dock-related app that I needed to download. It turned out that there wasn’t, which is a good thing. It’s nice that the iO Dock isn’t tied down to a specific app. It can be used universally with any number of music-creation software applications. Because of this, it only ships with a quick start guide, rather than a thick manual.
I didn’t have time to really put the iO Dock through its paces, but I had a fun time making a few quick songs in the Garageband app. The headphone output easily supplied my Sony MDR7506 headphones with plenty of juice, and I was able to get good levels using its phantom power and preamps with my Audio Technica 4053B microphone. I liked the inclusion of a cable restraint on the back panel, which is good news for people planning on using their iO Dock and iPad live on stage. The restraint makes it less likely to accidentally unplug the power-supply cable, should it be tugged or tripped over. All in all, since this is the first product of its kind, I think it’s a nicely outfitted option for people looking to take their iPad music apps a giant step further.
Thanks for checking out this B&H InDepth hands-on review. If you have any questions about the Alesis iO Dock and making music with an iPad, we encourage you to ask them in the Comments section below.