Geekiness unbounded: Sibelius Flexi-time with an iPad

You know what Flexi-time is of course. It’s the very clever note input method in Sibelius where you can play arbitrarily complicated passages on a MIDI keyboard in real time, and Sibelius writes it all out like an unreasonably talented wizard. There’s often some cleaning up to be done afterwards, to be fair, but it’s a massive time saver, and a truly impressive piece of programming, given how imprecise musical performances (deliberately) are.

We’re very big on Flexi-time at the Chichester Music Press. For copying music (as opposed to composing it) it’s a very fast way of getting the notes onto the page. Being able to play music in live through a keyboard and watching it appear on the screen has always had a sniff of geekery to it. But did you know that you can use your iPad as a MIDI keyboard, and wirelessly Flexi-time into Sibelius using that? Well you can.

The app on the iPad responsible for this witchery is called MIDIKeys – Wireless MIDI Keyboard Controller, by Michael Eskin. The app is actually for iPhone, but it works on the iPad, and as I haven’t got an iPhone I shall say no more about that.

MIDIKeys

MIDIKeys greets you like this

MIDIKeys works by presenting you with a two-octave keyboard, C to B, which you can slide up and down octave by octave as necessary. Then, as you press the notes, the app sends midi data out onto your Wi-Fi network, and Sibelius picks it up.

Instructions for getting MIDIKeys to talk to the computer Sibelius is running on are here on the MIDIKeys support pages. Scroll down and find the bit you’re looking for, be it for Windows or Mac. You also have to make sure that Sibelius has the DSMIDIWiFi program it mentions available as a MIDI input device.

The biggest problem to overcome when using Flexi-time with new hardware is that of latency, which just means how long it takes for the machinery to respond to you after you’ve pressed a note. The smaller the latency, the faster it all responds, and the more useful your results. As Flexi-time relies on being able to keep up with a real-time rendition, this really is a make-or-break issue. I was delighted to find, on using MIDIKeys for the first time, that there was no latency to speak of. It was possible right from the word go to play in real time on the iPad, and for Sibelius’s Flexi-time to pick it up and do its business. So if the computer you’re running Sibelius on is already successfully using Flexi-time from another keyboard, you shouldn’t experience any new latency problems from using the iPad or the Wi-Fi network.

There are a handful of hitches, however, which may disorient you if you’re used to using Flexi-time with a real keyboard:

  • You can’t feel where the keys are! This is nobody’s fault of course, but you will have to keep an eye on the iPad while you play, which you wouldn’t necessarily have to do on a realer keyboard, and of course it means you might have to take your eyes off the music you’re copying.
  • The screen is a bit slippery, and the keys are close together, and it’s very easy during a long note for your finger to slide onto the note next to it. Sibelius always notices when this happens.
  • The two-octave range is a little restricting. It’s easy enough however to bang notes in in the wrong octave and change them afterwards in Sibelius.
  • There’s no indication of what octave the virtual keyboard is presenting to you. I normally test the water by pressing the note I am going to start my Flexi-time input and seeing what appears on the screen, and then nudge the keyboard up or down as appropriate before starting.
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About Neil Sands

Director of the Chichester Music Press. Astronomer.
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