The Dismal State of Android as a Music Production Solution

I took the picture above on New Year’s Eve, and I was originally planning to use it as part of a post illustrating how an iPad-centric music system costing under $1000 is capable of producing better music than multi-million dollar studios from just 25-30 years ago. So let’s take a quick look:

My son Christopher is working a DJ mixer which is interfaced to a netbook that is streaming music from MOG; an iPod Touch with some other pre-recorded music; and an iPad.

The iPad is the workhorse of the music system, located just to the left of the iPod Touch and below the netbook. What you will see below the iPad are three USB devices from Korg – a pad controller, mini piano-style keyboard, and slider-based controller. The three controllers chain together through a $20 USB hub also from Korg. All four combined cost less than $200 and are well-built and simple to use. You just plug in and play.

That night Chris was rocking tunes of his own creation using iMS-20, FL Studio, GarageBand, NanoStudio and others. He had only gotten the Korg modules a couple of days earlier, yet they were already integrated into his music studio, making life easier even than using my M-Audio Axiom Pro USB keyboard controller. Everything. Just. Worked.

If you read through my coverage of the Winter NAMM show – which is the premiere forum for new horizons in music technology, you probably noticed a theme. That theme? iPad as the center of an on-the-go music system. For synthesis, recording, DJ work, guitar work, multi-track sound production, effects processing, amp simulations, drum machines, controller interfaces … pretty much everything.

Note that I did NOT say ‘tablets’ … I said iPad. There is a HUGE market for the iPad as a sophisticated music making and recording and control tool. Apple has always had a great focus on music and media at the core of their OS, so the way that the iPad excels at those tasks grows organically out of that focus.

On Android?

A few mediocre little apps, but absolutely NOTHING approaching the level of serious musical production capabilities offered on the iPad.

Why is it that an otherwise robust OS has such an abysmal lack of coverage in this area? Here are a few possible reasons that I think add up to the cause … and the reason we won’t see it solved any time soon:

  • Touch screen lag issues. This is a known issue that most of us who use Android work around, but when it comes to making music suddenly things don’t feel right. This is a fundamental issue, and until it is resolved Android will never be more than ‘amateur hour’ for music.
  • Operating System Latency The ‘why’ has to do more with everything in Android running in a JVM (Java Virtual Machine) and the lazy way that most devices implement the crappy high level audio API from Google than an actual issue with the Linux kernel, so it is fixable. The ‘so what’ is that as a result Android is absolutely useless as a real-time music recording operating system.
  • Hardware fragmentation there is a singular iPad design, meaning that those mixers and guitars from NAMM can easily target the iPad 1 & 2 and even ‘future proof’ to the iPad 3. There are basically no two Android tablets that fit the same physical space. That is a design killer – and given that nearly every Android tablet has been a commercial underachiever and designs change about every six months, I cannot see a small music company making such a risky investment.
  • OS/Device Fragmentation latency is an issue that most people won’t deal with, but basic MIDI and audio timing IS. And as I mentioned before, the JVM abstraction, and non-priority implementation of the Google audio APIs are a huge issue … for most devices. SOME products by SOME makers implement things with a higher priority … but it isn’t consistent. It isn’t a ‘Nexus’ thing or a ‘HTC’ thing or a ‘Droid’ thing … in fact based on what I could find, some devices that had great performance for audio lost it in system updates. That is another killer – why bother working hard when some lazy carrier/handset update will destroy your hard work?
  • Core Hardware Support Joel did a great review on the Blue Yeti Pro USB microphone, which is a pro-level microphone with excellent features for something that plugs into a USB jack. If you have an iPad with a Camera Connection kit, you simply plug it in and immediately record in GarageBand or a load of other programs without Blue ever having done anything. However, plug it into even an Ice Cream Sandwich-based device like the Galaxy Nexus with USB host capability … and guess what? No, it DOES work in terms of being powered … but the phone has no clue what to do with it, so it is just a battery drain. There is simply no system-level support for this stuff. Again, why support an OS that does nothing to support you?

But perhaps the most depressing reason comes down to this: Google simply does not care.

It is worth calling to mind a comment I read recently: Despite being thought of as a tech company, Google is actually an ad agency.

That might sound harsh, but as the expression goes “follow the money”. Google makes 95% of money from advertising. Google + is not about being a social network but about preventing ad revenue from moving to Facebook or Twitter, something they have reinforced multiple times.

Similarly Android isn’t about being a mobile technology company, but about preventing advertisement money from going elsewhere … and maintaining dominance in search. Therefore those things that help them further ad revenues are priorities, and those things that don’t … aren’t.

Before you think I am pounding on Google – I am not. I admire a company with strong focus and identity. Companies that spend too much time and money trying to be things they are not end up getting crushed under their own weight. Look at Apple in the mid-90s, with eWorld and Pippin and licensed clones and Newton and two OS efforts at once and on and on … they were unable to sustain much of anything in a cohesive fashion and it almost killed them. If Google tries to fully engage in all of these industries they will lose their basic focus and fail.

But in the end what it means to people who are serious about making music on a mobile platform have only one serious platform … Android need not apply.

Categories: Editorials, Music Diary, Rants and Raves

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10 replies

  1. Incidently….Google and Android have no excuse as there is driver support for USB audio in the Linux kernel.  I use it every day with my Linux netbooks at home.  Why is the driver not in most Android builds?  This isn’t even a proprietary driver so there is no excuse.  The only excuse may be how the different ARM SoC’s implement USB but considering I can mount USB Storage without issue, it should not be a problem.

    The lag issue is gradually going away. I am not noticing it nearly as much on The Galaxy Nexus (for the 5 minutes I played with one).  I think they’ll have this licked soon.

    Android can do this.  It just needs some time…and help.  A lot of it.

    • Exactly! That is why I mentioned it in the article briefly. Some are quick to blame Linux but others point out that isn’t accurate.

      I know it CAN be done … but WILL it? That is what I wonder. Google has little incentive, carriers have no incentive, and device makers are constantly altering their footprint and UI to differentiate … so I really don’t see it as a priority for anyone.

      • I don’t think many even consider these Android devices for content creation yet I recorded a voice comment with my Droid 2 for a fellow podcaster.  These devices….even Android…can be used for content creation.  It’s not until someone else sees what really can be done will Google care.  For Google, this is a fringe case until someone major really makes waves using an iPad for creation of music.  You and I know that the iPad can do it.  Android can too but it just needs some tweaks and some apps and it’s there.

        • I don’t think you are getting what I am talking about here.  Any device can create a podcast.

          The Gorillaz created a full commercial top-selling album release you can buy from iTunes, etc … exclusively on an iPad.  There are loads of other examples that are less high-profile.

          You are right that Android and Android devices ‘can do it’ technically.  Heck, I was able to do robust multi-track audio mixed with MIDI on a 100MHz computer more than 15 years ago!

          You are sadly also right that it is a fringe case for Google.  They simply have no clue about the thousands upon thousands of people who were at the NAMM show last month, and millions more watching the news from their computers at home … all who of whom got a singular message: the iPad is ready for pro music production at all levels, and the pro music industry has fully embraced the iPad.

          But even if Google decided to care about this – and their tablet OS remains such a mess I can’t see it being a priority now (heck, they’re already pulling a Rocky & Bullwinkle ‘this time for sure’ and readying ANOTHER tablet-centric OS release!) – the bigger issue … is devices.

          Imaging device makers thinking that they had to keep essentially the same footprint for 3 years – and that footprint had to be identical to their competitors.

          Not going to happen, so things like integration to mixers, controllers, virtual guitars and so on … just isn’t ever going to happen for Android.  And if you can’t get ‘one stop shopping’ for a platform, why even bother.

  2. I think if we leave this in the hands of google and major developers it will be too little too late when android does fix its lag issues. I believe androids only real hope lies within the home developer communities like XDA. They seem to work wonders for android, turning completely useless tablets like the GTab into something that is quite powerful and viable. 

  3. Android tablets will catch up. The coding necessary to pair an android tablet with a audio interface/instrument with very low latency is not a difficult chore.  I have no doubt.  (I won’t upgrade my studio with a PreSonus until I can use my android tablet) I agree with what has been mentioned that it will take awareness by Google to fix the problem in Android. The Fall was not reviewed well by critics, general consensus: it lacked professional production quality and the Gorrilaz expected effort in cohesiveness. So I guess as a proof of concept, fine, but it stands to reason, as long as there are conventional computers that exceed the fidelity, from initial gain stage through post-production, of tablets, WHY would you CHOOSE to utilize a tablet other than for on the road inspiration capturing, as I use mine. (for a killer virtual rack of music making gear check out the Android Caustic 2 app, works great) It would only seem to be for an Apple marketing partnership or as a gimmick plain and simple for a professional artist to produce on an iPad or a tablet X.

  4. Have a look at Audio Evolution Mobile. – Light at the end of the tunnel!

  5. pretty far off the mark there dude, in at least one respect. Caustic 2 for Android is a full mobile DAW that enables you to create pro level tunes and works as a live tool. Don’t damn an entire OS just to make your point when there are people working REALLY hard to change this presumption :p

    • James – a few things:
      – This article is nearly 1.5 years old. Everything I said was absolutely true back then.
      – Even in mid-2013, I would put Android 2.5 – 3 years behind iOS in terms of being an audio solution. Caustic 2 is good, but nowhere near as robust or advanced as Nanostudio. FL Studio just arrived for Android, but they had to write their own audio engine to get it to work … and even on new top-end Android devices it is nowhere near as good as the iOS experience.

      Your point about hard work is very true – but it also points out a core deficiency in Android. Developers need to code up their own audio engines because there is no core Android solution. That is a real shame – I want the devs to be working on MUSIC solution, not compensating for a crappy OS.


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