The Unique Geek

The Unique Geek
March 3, 2011

Death of the Swiss Army Knife

I don’t know if you’re still on the fence about this, but tablets are for real and are here to stay. What form they’ll take ten years from now or what we’ll want from them will surely change. But, in essence, tablets are here to stay.

I hear the arguments pro and con tablet (Apple, Toshiba, Samsung, etc) and both sides are right. The iPad is weak as a laptop and is “nothing but a big iPod touch.” But, the point is – it’s powerful and portable. Period. If you like the ease of apps on your Evo 4g phone, but want it bigger – you’re set. If you think your laptop is still too heavy and bulky to just throw on your lap in lieu of being bored waiting for the nurse to say, “the doctor will see you now”, this is what you want.

All of this noise aside, let’s just assume the tablet is now a fact of consumer life and think of what it means to you the musician. First thing you have to get past is the idea of how weak the tablet is. Just think of it in one sense; is it more powerful than your Yamaha workstation? Yes. Soon you’ll see apps that house huge sample banks of sounds and you’ll trigger them with a midi controller – which Akai has already made for the iPhone and iPad. “Why would you bother”, you ask?

  1. The screen is never big enough on the workstation.
  2. The instrument samples have to be enormous to sound realistic
  3. The interface and menus on synths almost always stink
  4. Workstations can be complicated when going between recording modes, sequencer modes and sound banking
  5. Hard drives go bad and don’t travel well
  6. You get limitations in sounds available on your specific platform

Now, do you think an app with gigs upon gigs of samples comprising a workstation on an iPad or some such tablet would suck? No. No, it wouldn’t. And, it won’t be long now. It’ll be tough for Roland, Yamaha or Korg to swallow the notion that they are going to offer a solution that costs hundreds of dollars and not $1900, but someone will offer it soon. Native Instruments?

When musicians argue the merits (or lack thereof) of the tablet for live or studio use, they always point out all of the things a tablet isn’t powerful enough to do. But, on stage, I don’t want something that replaces the studio. I want just an amp modeler (see: IK Multimedia’s Amplitube for iPad) or I want just a synthesizer (see: Korg’s iELEKTRIBE) up on stage. In this regard, the iPad is sick. In the studio the iPad may be used as a remote controller for Logic if you are in the vocal booth or a massive touch pad for your computer which dwarfs a mouse. “Dwarfs” a mouse? Well, you get the idea. And, imagine the guy doing bar gigs in the greater Omaha area – you could use “Ultimate Guitar Tabs” and see the lyrics and chord charts whilst rocking out to Jimmy Buffet – if that’s ever really possible.

When you look at Android or iOS (the operating systems of the tablets) and think of them in terms of what they can’t do you might be looking at it wrong. They are limited and an HP or Apple laptop is so much more powerful. But, the DAW (digital audio workstation) isn’t what this replaces. Android and iOS are going to give you very powerful and even more portable platforms to work with. In synth-world, for instance, we keep waiting to see when everyone collectively blinks and choose to go all computer on stage. Well, if you had a solid-state drive (a hard drive that behaves like RAM) and a computer that boots in 15 seconds – you might just do that. This is what the tablet can offer – stability, ease and speed.

The Tascam Portastudio (4-track recorder) is $9.99 for the iPad. Do you know how depressing that is to my inner 18 year-old? Ten dollars for something I paid $400 for back in the day? Now that I think about it – it was always worth $10 and I want my $390 back. Ah well, that’s the point; the Tablet is a game changer. The world doesn’t need another Pro Tools or another Reason or another Guitar Rig. What it now needs is ease, speed and affordability, which helps to spur us on and inspire us.

“And you may ask yourself”, whether you want an iPad or an Android tablet. If that’s where you are at right now – consider this: Apple announced on March 2nd that the iPad2 comes with Garage Band. So, now you get a DAW in the iPad. It’s no Pro Tools, but you have amp modelers, synths and multi-track recording capabilities included right out of the box.

In the 90s we kept talking about a musical instruments or a software as “the Swiss Army knife”; and this was a compliment. We are now looking for tools that do one or two tasks very well. Have you ever owned a Swiss Army knife? You end up using the same 2 tools out of a possible 30 anyway.


  1. Clemmie says:

    VERY TRUE about the Swiss Army Knife. After trying that route, I ultimately landed on a single blade. Much easier to carry.

    The move of Photography from the Film age to the Digital age took a similar route – starting with megabucks for fancy editing suites that did it all (PhotoShop Pro – $1000), and gradually coming down to cheaper programs for what one actually uses (IrfanView – Free).

    With affordable Apps ($10 for a 4-track Recorder certainly sounds reasonable), there may be hope yet for acting on the Musician dreams of my youth. The fact that Geriatric Rockers seem to be ‘in style’ nowadays also helps!

  2. Ken says:

    Great article! And as someone who loves music, instruments, cool recording, gear, AND Swiss Army Knives, I must mention that not all Swiss Army Knives have 30 tools, so don’t stereotype too much. Victorinox and Wenger make lots of different models, from solo blades to many tools and everything in between. They’re still made in Switzerland and are very affordable.

  3. [...] Well, tablets for one. Actually, let’s not pretend this is a category of products. For the time being, let’s just call these iPads. If you are someone who is making music with a different tablet – feel free to chime-in in the comments section. See past blog on the use for iPad’s in music creation. [...]