Apollo Remote Recorder review – wireless integration of iOS and desktop music production from Secret Base Design

Download from iTunes App StoreApollo Remote Recorder logoWhen it comes to making music, there are almost as many workflows as there are musicians. And, while there is plenty of science in the technology many of us use to write, perform and record our music, this is an art form we are talking about. Rights and wrongs simply don’t apply; you use whatever tools you have access to, and in whatever way you wish, so that you can get the job done in a way that pleases you.

Enthusiasts for iOS music technology have long had to put up with the ‘just toys’ comments coming from dedicated users of powerful desktop-based music production systems. Those attitudes are (perhaps slowly) changing as more and more musicians discover just what iOS can offer (and, more specifically, just how good some iOS music apps can be). However, if we are measuring things in terms of pure power, mature and fully-featured DAWs/sequencers and multi-gigabyte, multi-layered, multi-timbral virtual instruments then, frankly, however much of a fan you might be of your iPad, it is difficult to deny that a well specified desktop system is a very powerful tool.

Equally, there are those who prefer the mobile experience because of the flexibility/portability it brings, the absence of whirring disk drives, simplicity (e.g. fewer wires), and, for the software at least, the pocket-money pricing.

Of course, while you can choose to make this an either/or, it most certainly doesn’t have to be that way and I’ve used my iPad alongside my desktop system on a regular basis. While I’ll often sketch out musical ideas on an iPad and then move them over to my desktop system for development, the other main use of my moveable touchscreen buddy is as a remote controller for my desktop DAW/sequencer – Cubase – a role that it performs brilliantly.

Want to record the audio output of your favourite iOS synths as part of your desktop music production system?

Want to record the audio output of your favourite iOS synths as part of your desktop music production system?

However, given just how good some iOS music apps are now getting – effects and instruments – I’ve also spent some time trying to get a workflow that allows be to integrate some of my favourite iOS music apps into my desktop music workflow. At one level, this can be done simply by hooking up a hardware MIDI or audio connection between the two environments… but I still don’t think I have what might be called a ‘seamless’ process for doing this.

An app I’ve been exploring in the last couple of days might help improve this. Very much in the pocket-money price bracket, Patrick Madden’s new Apollo Remote Recorder app (UK£2.99) was released last week. Apollo Remote Recorder is an intriguing – and very inexpensive – means of getting audio from your iOS music apps into your desktop audio/MIDI recording environment. So, if you like to get your desktop DAW working with your iOS music apps, is Apollo Remote Recorder a useful addition to the software tool kit?

Not so secret (base) designs

If you have been exploring the wonderful world of iOS music making for any length of time then you will be familiar with Patrick Madden and his Secret Base Design iOS music app catalogue. I’ve looked at a number of these apps on the site in the past; MIDImorphosis, Voxkit, Double Decker, Nice To Be Your Friend and Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth (or AMOB for short). The last of these is particularly relevant here as, in one role that the new app – Apollo Remote Recorder (or ARR for short) – can serve, AMOB is required also.

So, just what is ARR? In essence, this is an ‘Audiobus recorder app’; it will sit in the Audiobus Output slot and can be used to record the audio reaching that point in the Audiobus audio signal chain to an uncompressed 44.1kHz, 16-bit AIF file. You can manually trigger the app into record mode (either from the app’s main screen or via the Audiobus control strip in any of the other apps you are running) and, when you toggle recording off, the new recording will appear in ARR’s file list using a naming convention based upon the data and time of the capture.

Apollo Remote recorder might not be the most exciting interface you see on an iOS music app but this simple front-end contains some useful technology.

Apollo Remote recorder might not be the most exciting interface you see on an iOS music app but this simple front-end contains some useful technology.

So far, so good – there are lots of apps that allow you to record a stereo audio file. However, rather neatly, ARR also includes a built-in webserver. If you switch that on from within the app, you can then open a browser on another computer, point it at the webserver address and download any of the audio files that you have captured within ARR. And while you can use iTunes File Sharing to also access ARR’s audio files, the webserver route means you can do it very easily and without any wires being involved.

And for my next trick….

Of course, ARR has one further – and quite significant  – trick up its sleeve; it provides a simple way to integrate your iOS apps with your desktop DAW/sequencer….  and this is the stage at which (for Mac users at least), Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth can come in, although it is not essential and the same end result can be achieved whether your desktop system is running OSX or Windows.

Essentially, to make this work, you need to establish a MIDI link from your desktop computer to your iOS device so that the latter can receive MIDI from the former. This can be done via a hardware MIDI interface plus suitable MIDI cables, over a Wi-Fi network (while this isn’t the most robust of solutions, I’ve documented how to do this for OSX and Windows previously) or, providing you have a more recent iOS device, via Bluetooth.

Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth provides a very neat wireless MIDI solution between iOS and OSX.

Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth provides a very neat wireless MIDI solution between iOS and OSX.

Once you have your MIDI link established, you can create MIDI performances in your desktop DAW/sequencer (which might be where you prefer to do your production work for whatever reasons) and send those MIDI performances out to your iOS device to trigger your favourite iOS synth (or synths). However, if you also send suitable note on/note off data to ARR on MIDI channel 16 (so avoid this channel number for your actual iOS synths), this can be used to toggle ARR’s record on and record off automatically.

The beauty of this – particularly via a hardware or Bluetooth MIDI connection  – is that you can exactly trigger the ‘record on’ mode by where you place the MIDI trigger note in your desktop DAW. That MIDI part just needs to contain one note that extends for the length of time you wish to record (and it can be any pitch) then, when the note off is received by ARR, the recording is stopped.

Finally, you can use the webserver in ARR to move your new audio recording over to your desktop computer and, if you line up the start of the new audio recording exactly with the start of the MIDI channel 16 trigger note in the desktop DAW, the audio recorded on the iOS device will be exactly in sync with whatever else is going on in your project. As a means of getting audio from your favourite iOS apps into your desktop DAW/sequencer, without wires and with a minimum of fuss, this sounds like a pretty neat solution….

First landing

I did my own experimenting with Apollo Remote Recorder using a combination of an iPad Air and Cubase 7.5 running on my iMac. I had ARR sitting in the Audiobus Output slot and tried various iOS synths (Nave, Thor, Z3TA+, for example) sitting in the Audiobus Input slot. I also had AMOB running on my iPad and Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth for OSX (free from the Mac App Store) running on my iMac.

Having got both versions of AMOB running and connected, I was then able to select ABOM as my MIDI output destination from any MIDI track within Cubase along with a suitable channel number (avoiding channel 16). This done, as I played my main MIDI keyboard through my desktop computer, that MIDI data can be relayed to my iPad. On the iPad, I set whichever iOS synth app I was interested in to respond to MIDI from AMOB along with the appropriate MIDI channel number…  and, as you would expect, the MIDI data from Cubase then triggered the synth.

A basic setup in Cubase on my iMac; one track that plays my iOS synth and the other to trigger Apollo Remote recorder (on MIDI channel 16).

A basic setup in Cubase on my iMac; one track that plays my iOS synth and the other to trigger Apollo Remote recorder (on MIDI channel 16).

To trigger ARR into action, a further MIDI track was required in Cubase, set to transmit via AMOB on MIDI channel 16. As indicated earlier, this MIDI track just needs to contain a single note spanning the region of the project through which you wish to record. So, for example, if I wanted to record bars 3 through to 16, I’d make sure the MIDI note started at the beginning of bar 3 and sustained through to the end of bar 16. In fact, in practice (and particularly if the synth sound you are using has any sustain to it or you are applying reverb on your iOS device), it’s not a bad idea to extend the note to start a bar early and finish a bar or two after the length of the MIDI part.

Having created this second (channel 16) MIDI part, you then trigger playback in your desktop DAW and, in my case, Cubase then plays whatever else is in the project while also sending MIDI data out to my iPad. My iOS synth with play on command and ARR with flip into, and then out of, record mode as required…..

… well, that’s the theory and, yes, it does work absolutely fine….  but I did have to spend some time making sure that I had all my MIDI channel/port settings correct on my iPad to ensure everything worked as required. The key thing here is that you need to look at the MIDI settings in both your iOS synth and in the iOS version of Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth to ensure the right MIDI is getting to the right apps. I have to admit that this did take a few attempts on my part but, once I’d figured it out, everything was plain sailing….  ARR did its stuff and triggered recording on/off as required.

ARR's webserver contents viewed fro Safari on my desktop computer.

ARR’s webserver contents viewed fro Safari on my desktop computer.

The final step – getting the recorded audio from ARR’s webserver and into Cubase – was very straightforward. I connected to the webserver using Safari on my Mac, downloaded the required file to the Mac, imported it into the Cubase project and simply lined up the start of the audio file with the start of the MIDI note that triggered ARR in the first place and – yay! – it sync’ed perfectly with the project; very neat!

With wires?

Of course, there are other obvious ways of getting this same job done. For example, once you have got your MIDI connection running between your iOS device and your desktop computer, you could just run a simple audio cable from your iOS device’s headphone output into your desktop computer’s audio interface. Equally, if you have a better quality audio interface on your iOS device (avoiding using the headphone output), you could run cables from the output of that to the input of your desktop audio interface. In both these ways, with MIDI data coming from the desktop, you can record the audio output from your iOS synths straight to an audio track within your desktop.

Import the ARR audio file into Cubase, line it up with my MIDI trigger note and a perfect sync is easy to make.

Import the ARR audio file into Cubase, line it up with my MIDI trigger note and a perfect sync is easy to make.

This works absolutely fine…  but it does mean additional cable spaghetti around the workspace and, if you are on the move working with a combination of laptop and iPad (for example), you might not have a high-quality audio interface to hand and might not want the extra cables to lug around with you.

Either way, Apollo Remote Recorder does the job in a pretty simple fashion and at a very low cost (the app is UK£2.99 at the time of writing). The downsides? Well, at present, I think you can only record 16-bit audio (Patrick will, I’m sure, correct me if I’m wrong); some users might prefer 24-bit even if the actually audio quality gains are marginal with some/many iOS music apps) and, while creating your MIDI performances and recording the results, you have to monitor both your desktop’s audio output and the iOS device’s audio output at the same time; a little bit of volume management is required for this stage. Otherwise, this is a neat, low cost, utility for making your iOS music apps feel a bit more like they are ‘part’ of your desktop workflow.

What else?

There is another, somewhat more sophisticated (and therefore costly) means of getting that sense of integration between desktop and iOS music technology; the various iConnectMIDI devices. There are various models in this range of hardware. These include a standard iOS MIDI interface (around UK£50) but also the rather more interesting iConnectMIDI2+ (around UK£70) and iConnectMIDI4+ (around UK£170). These provide various numbers of MIDI ports both as standard 5-pin DIN sockets and USB-based MIDI. They also allow you to power an iOS device and easily pass MIDI data between a desktop computer and an iOS device. The iCM4+ also allows you to hook up a USB MIDI keyboard. These are, therefore, quite powerful MIDI ‘hubs’ for a desktop/iOS musician with any amount of additional MIDI hardware.

However, the interesting bit of both iCM units is that they also support ‘audio pass thru’. This allows you to pass audio data alongside the MIDI data to/from any of the devices connected to the unit via USB. There are more options on this front with the iCM4+ (as you would expect given the price difference) but, in principle at least, both units allow you to send audio data from an iOS device (for example, the output of your iOS synth) to your desktop computer and into your DAW/sequencer. Providing you can configure the desktop audio drivers/control software appropriately, the iCM’s audio ‘pass thru’ is simply seen as another audio input to the desktop system.

The only problems I encountered were in setting the appropriate MIDI routing in Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth and my various iOS synths. A little experimentation will, however, eventually get things working.

The only problems I encountered were in setting the appropriate MIDI routing in Apollo MIDI over Bluetooth and my various iOS synths. A little experimentation will, however, eventually get things working.

I haven’t tried the more cost-effective iCM2+ but I have spent time with an iCM4+ recently. While I got the MIDI connectivity working without any issues, given my particular combination of desktop OS and audio interface hardware, despite a lot of experimentation, I couldn’t get the audio ‘pass thru’ to work. I know other users who have this working and are very pleased with how the performance. Equally, a quick trawl online will reveal others who have had similar problems to myself.

Based upon my own experience, I can only recommend that a ‘try before you buy’ approach is adopted….  The concept behind the ICM+ device is, however, a very good one and I could easily imagine those with a complex MIDI rig would find the technology appealing in both a studio and live performance context. I’m tempted to take a punt on the ICM2+ just so I can experiment a bit further for the blog….

Of course, not everyone might be able to consider such a punt and then write it off against tax if the unit doesn’t actually prove to be useful to them….. :-)

…. but at UK£2.99, Apollo Remote Recorder – while clearly not quite such an elegant or powerful solution as the iCM+ hardware – is within everyone’s grasp and, within the obvious bounds of what it attempts to do, gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.

In summary

Patrick Madden has a knack for coming up with useful utility apps for us iOS musicians and, in Apollo Remote Recorder, he has done it again. If you work exclusively on iOS then, while the app might still be useful on occasions as an ‘Audiobus recorder’, for those that want to bring the sounds of their favourite iOS apps into their desktop DAW/sequencer in a ‘no wires, no fuss, (alomst) no cost’ fashion, the app is just the tool for the job.

Maybe at some stage wireless technology will mean that we don’t require a specific app to do this kind of audio transfer between iOS and a desktop OS and, if so, then that would be great. Until then, Apollo Remote Recorder is well worth having installed on your iOS device even if it is only to occasionally make life that bit easier. Secret Base Design are become the utility specialists of the iOS music app world; Apollo Remote Recorder is yet another good example of this and well worth the price of entry.

Apollo Remote Recorder



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    Comments

    1. Chris Catalano says:

      I think John, the 16 bit issue might come down to Audiobus itself…they still have the resolution ceiling at that, and will only bump it up to 24 when they and IAA are fully integrated. That is what Sebastian from Audiobus stated back when AB 2 was released. Personally, I think Apple has some weird concern that if the devices run fine doing that, a lot of audio recording enthusiasts may finally consider moving away more fully from the desktop. Silly, really…

      • Hi Chris… thanks for this….. Patrick might pop by and elaborate. It would be nice to know whether ARR is potential 24-bit capable as and when other bits of the technology might allow it to be…. best wishes, John

    2. Patrick/Secret Base Design says:

      Hi — thanks for the coverage, John! The app will record whatever Audiobus makes available — for right now, that’s 16-bit stereo (this is CD-quality). I’ll probably get yelled at, but IMO, 24-bit is serious overkill (particularly for recording); that’s way beyond what most stereo equipment can render, and also beyond what people can hear. It reminds me of Monster Cable speaker wire — just because it’s expensive, it doesn’t mean that it’s better.

      There’s a limited amount of CPU resource, and 24-bit math chews up more than 16-bit. There’s also more bits to move between apps for audio processing. IMO, it’s better to spend the CPU on more interesting synths (more oscillators, effects, and so on) than on higher resolution sampling.

      For mixing, I won’t argue against 24-bit — but it’s possible to up sample, and then have more bits for headroom in the mix. Most music gets compressed into an MP3, and then listened to on $3 earbuds; the number of bits in a recording is pretty far down on my list of worries.

      • Hi Patrick… thanks for chipping in here to clarify. I must admit that, on my desktop system, I stick with 24-bit/44.1kHz as my working format for audio. I think it gives me the headroom I need but without hogging lots of resources moving higher rate audio files around. I’m not, for example, really convinced about moving to 96k sampling rates given that the rest of the equipment in my own studio space is probably not of a quality that I’d get a real benefit…. even if my ears (which have spent too long stood next to drum kits in my ‘yoof’) could really hear the difference anyway…. That said, there are lots of folk who tell me that, to their ears, the differences between 24-bit and 16-bit are obvious…. However, as you say, most consumers are listening to the final products on less than brilliant reproduction system, in less than perfect listening spaces and, often, in compressed formats anyway…. Best wishes, John

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