Tech Hack: Alesis IO Dock with USB Hub

Update, May 2014. I’ve put the unit on eBay. And I’ve summarised lessons learned from this hack here.

The Alesis IO Dock is a great product for iPad musicians – this small hack makes it even greater. It overcomes one limitation of the IO Dock: You can’t simply hook it to a USB hub. So I decided to build in an additional hub – which allows me to hook up additional class-compliant interfaces like my M-Audio Axiom master keyboard, and power them via the hub.

Yes, it works. No, it hasn’t been thoroughly tested yet. So try at your own risk.

The hacked IO Dock

The hack isn’t too sophisticated or demanding. Yet there are a couple of things we need to discuss before going to the step-by-step description. I’ve also tried to answer some questions that might arise in the FAQ.

What we’re doing:

We’re smuggling the USB hub into the connection between the iPad and the IO dock. (The video explains why.)

What you need:

  • A USB hub. Edit, 4-Jan-2012:  After giving it some more consideration I think that you might start with a normal hub rather than a powered one. (I used a powered hub Belkin F5U404.) This has certain limitations, though. Why? USB knows two basic types of port power – normal USB ports are supposed to deliver a 5V supply current of up to 100mA. That is enough to power simple interfaces and USB sticks. It is not enough to charge your phone, or to power a USB master keyboard.  So using a hub without power supply would normally mean that the iPad is not properly charged – but the way the iPad charges is actually hard-wired in the IO Dock’s iPad connector, so the iPad will charge even without a powered hub. (It is connected to the USB port’s input rather than to its output anyway).  IMPORTANT: As we will be using the IO Dock’s power supply, there are some limits to what we can drive with our hub. Please: See the FAQ. And I’ll have a more thorough look at the IO Dock’s power supply circuitry soon.
  • The hub’s connector cable. These cables have a flat A-type USB plug to go into your computer, and usually a micro-USB B-type plug like the ones for charging your phone (if you don’t have an iPhone, that is). We are going to cut up this cable and configure it to supply and interface the hub within the IO dock.
  • 2x 1.27mm 2mm grid pinstripe connectors – one 6-pin male, one 6-pin female. If you can, get connector strips with turned sockets; you can use them as plug and as female connector, like these ones. The original connector is like this one: [sample]
    EDIT, 19-Aug-13: Corrected the „these ones“ link to RS Components. Also see FAQ section.  EDIT, 10-Sep-14: Modelmakers may look in their boxes for JST PH connectors (thanks Wolfgang!)
  • A small 100uF/6.3V capacitor – or something along these lines – as a buffer for the hub’s power supply. If you haven’t already, see the FAQ.
  • Basic soldering tools and skills. 
  • A Dremel tool to cut out a hole for the additional USB ports in the IO Dock.
  • Glue to fix the hub within the housing – I used a run-of-the-mill hot glue gun.
  • A class-compliant USB device for testing. (What’s that? See the FAQ.)
  • Approximately 2 hours to do it.
Me with a surgical mask and a Dremel tool

Not really a project for the aspiring Evil Mad Scientist – there’s hardly any rocket science involved – but especially the Dremel brought out my inner Walter White.

So let’s get started!

Our bill of materials.

Our bill of materials.

It’s possibly a good idea to check whether your IO Dock has the latest firmware, and update, if necessary. Latest known version is v1.0.7. Earlier versions have been known to contain bugs.

I used this type of socket strip with turned contacts rather than the usual square type because they can double as a male or a female connector. You can just as well use a regular 6-pin socket and a 6-pin grid stripe connector, as long as they are in the 1.27mm grid.

I used this type of socket strip with turned contacts rather than the usual square type because they can double as a male or a female connector. You can just as well use a regular 6-pin socket and a 6-pin grid stripe connector, as long as they are in the 2mm grid.

Prepare the hub: Break it out of its housing.

Prepare the hub: Break it out of its housing.

cutting cable

Cut off the micro-USB plug with approx. 15cm of cable. We’ll turn this into the connection to the iPad, and it’ll get a female connector to replace the internal IO Dock cable.

hub, cable, connector soldered to it

Solder a cable like this one.

First soldering task: solder a female connector to our mini-USB connector cable. Getting the pins right is easy – the cables are colour-coded, so just solder them in the same order as they are with the IO Dock’s internal cable. From left to right: (1) Red/5V (leave unconnected), (2) Red/5V, (3) White/D-, (4) Green/D+, (5) Black/GND, (6) cable shield.

hub, piece of USB cable

Cut off a length of the remaining USB cable. Attach the male connector to it.

To keep things simple, I just soldered this cable to the hub’s board. You could just as well make a cable from remainder of the USB connection, with the plug, and plug it into one of the hub’s outputs.

Once again, really simple colour coding. Copy the IO Dock's connector or use my diagram here.

Once again, really simple colour coding. Copy the IO Dock’s connector or use my diagram here.

You see that I soldered in an additional wire: it connects the hub’s plug for the power supply (the plus line, that is) with the IO Dock’s +5V supply line. This is a bit dodgy, technically speaking: I had done a litte workbench test with the Belkin hub I’m using and noted that it worked almost too well: my iPad was still charged, now through the hub’s +5V power supply. So I simply replaced the external power supply by a connection to the IO Dock’s internal +5V bus.

So the iPad gets its supply current through the input plug of the Belkin hub now. If this does not work with the type of hub you’re using, you may have to cut up your hub’s connection to the input plug’s +5V terminal and rewire it to the +5V of the output plugs.

Whatever you do: don’t forget to solder in the buffer capacitor on the +5V line. I did, so it’s not in the photo yet.

As I said before, I just soldered the connection to one of the hub's USB ports.

As I said before, I just soldered the connection to one of the hub’s USB ports.

USB plug cut in the middle

This what remained of the one I used. The seasoned hacker ties cable cuttings like this one around his neck to instil fear in accountants.

Next step: get your Dremel running and cut a hole for the USB ports.

Next step: get your Dremel running and cut a hole for the USB ports.

In my case, I cut a hole that was 52mm wide and 8mm high, 17 mm from the lower edge of the IO Dock. BTW: Don’t turn the Dremel up too high, or you will melt the plastic rather than cutting it. Go for a rather low speed setting.

There's the hole where the USB ports will go.

There’s the hole where the USB ports will go.

You'll have to do a bit of cutting on the inside as well - remove the plastic edge where the hub goes or it rests too high for the ports to fit the hole.

You’ll have to do a bit of cutting on the inside as well – remove the plastic edge where the hub goes or it rests too high for the ports to fit the hole.

Just to remind you, this is what we’re doing:

iodockhack

Smuggling the USB hub into the internal path.

After sticking it together – maybe try a little workbench setup first – test it: Does the IO Dock still work? Does the iPad still charge?

The hub just plugged into the internal connections of the IO Dock but not yet mounted.

The hub just plugged into the internal connections of the IO Dock but not yet mounted.

If the iPad doesn’t charge, you need to solder an additional power supply wire from the hub’s power supply input (where you soldered the single connection wire, you remember) to the USB micro plug’s +5V port.

The putting it all together thing in a short video.

FAQ

One of my Evil Mad Scientist skills: Reading your mind and coming up with the answers for the questions you haven’t even asked yet. Muhahahaha!

Does it work with my [insert gadget here]?

It will, as long as the USB device is class compliant. That means: It follows a standard that the iPad and other computers know, so that there are no additional drivers needed to get it running. A USB-to-Midi interface, for example, or an audio interface, a USB keyboard, or a foot controller. It might not work with the fancy flux compensator control you just bought on eBay, along with a floppy disc holding the drivers. Take a look at this device list over at iosmidi.com (no longer online, archive copy here.)

Another consideration is how much power the device needs. We’ll get to that in a minute, for the moment just remember that you probably shouldn’t defile the IO Dock by hooking up a mug warmer or a fan to it.

What type of connector did you use? Where can I get it? And why do you list only sockets, no plugs?

Another excellent question. As noted before, I had 2mm SIL pinstripe sockets lying around in one of my parts boxes, so I did not think much of it. From the feedback I realised that they are not that easy to come by. Normal IC sockets are in the 2.54mm grid, so 2mm grid SIL sockets are hard to get a hold on. I’ve found them in RS Components‘ Online Catalog; unfortunately RS is not too keen on selling to private persons, but at least that means that the part is out there, somewhere. (There’s presumably another source on eBay, thanks Shep for commenting on this.)

And why didn’t I tell you to order socket plugs as well? Same reason, really – as a hacker, you use what you have. And turned sockets are excellent as plugs; just solder the cable to the socket side rather to the pin.

Is the IO Dock really capable of powering three additional USB loads?

Good question, actually. No, really. You may know that an iPad charging can draw a pretty hefty current – 2.1A, as far as I know. The IO Dock’s power supply is capable of delivering up to 3.0A, so wiring three 500mA loads to it – a USB/Midi keyboard, a Maschine-type controller, and a light – will drive it over the edge. Well, sod and burn the power supply, but the IO Dock’s internal supply voltage comes from a regulator,  and you wouldn’t want to burn that.

In my first experiments I hooked up a device that, while switching on, seemed to produce a spike current that demanded just a little bit more than the hub could supply – and this caused the hub (and the dock) to lose its power. I drew three observations from that: (1) Better add a buffer capacitor for the hub. (2) If you switch on the IO Dock with the load already connected, it works. (3) The IO Dock’s internal regulator is possible short-circuit proof, but no guarantee for that. It may still burn.

Scared now? You should be. I’m pretty confident that you are OK with one 500mA load (i.e. one device that only works on a powered hub, not on the camera connection kit itself) and two small loads like MIDI interfaces, but don’t blame me if anything goes wrong. We’re absolutely doing this on our own risk – I do, you do. Consenting adults, you know. 

Does the USB port for connecting the iPad to a computer still work?

Oddly enough, no. Which makes it all the more surprising for me that the hack actually works – a normal IO Dock seems to drive the iPad as slave rather than as a master, so once you force the iPad to be master, it won’t sync. (Theory.)

What the IO Dock still does when you plug it into a computer: It registers as an audio interface. Here what a Linux machine tells me:

[14339.660194] usb 5-1: new full-speed USB device number 2 using uhci_hcd
[14339.818328] usb 5-1: New USB device found, idVendor=13b2, idProduct=0020
[14339.818343] usb 5-1: New USB device strings: Mfr=1, Product=2, SerialNumber=0
[14339.818353] usb 5-1: Product: Alesis iO Dock
[14339.818363] usb 5-1: Manufacturer: Alesis
[14339.866455] usbcore: registered new interface driver snd-usb-audio

Does the IO Dock’s MIDI and Audio interface still work?

Hell, yeah! That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

What if I don’t want the hack any more? Is it reversible?

Yes. Just unplug the hub, replug the IO Dock’s USB connector plug, and everything is the way it used to be. That’s why we did it with connectors rather than with the usual brute-force cut-the-wire-solder-it-in-to-hell-with-tomorrow approach.

You can even try it out before cutting a hole into the IO Dock’s housing. I did this in my proof of concept.

I’m scared of messing with my shiny new IO Dock.

Well, then this is not for you. And did you know that there is a huge sticker on the back of the IO Dock warning of the shock hazard if you open it? Dangerous 48 volts of phantom power inside, you know…

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96 Gedanken zu “Tech Hack: Alesis IO Dock with USB Hub

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  2. Hello, Why 2 usb normal A to B cables do not work connecting both thru an A to A usb female adapter in order to use the B connector to the external powered keyboard usb controller and the other B connector to the io dock? thank you.

  3. Hello – does this hack now allow a MIDI controller to be connected as a USB device (ie,. not via the 5-pin). For example, something like the iRig Keys?

    Thank you!

    • Hey David,

      yes, absolutely. I used to have a QuNexus, which is functionally the same as your IRig Keys. The hack basically turns the IO Dock into a glorified version of Apple’s Camera Connection Kit. With charger. And a hub. And audio drivers. And MIDI.

  4. Have you ever tried like this method described below?
    Device needed:
    1. http://www.amazon.com/Generic-Type-Female-Adapter-USB_A_F-USB_B_M/dp/B000AA2SMS
    2. http://www.amazon.com/SANOXY-Cable-Converter-Keyboard-Window/dp/B0017H4EBG
    3. The alesis io dock (or any ipad dock with midi female port)

    Method is
    1. Plug device no 1 to keyboard
    2. Plug usb jack of device no 2 to device no 1
    3. Plug midi jack device no 2 to io dock alesis

    Is this works? If not, why?

    Thanks, sorry my bad English, my native language is not english

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