Music App Blog article – The Ideal iPad Audio Interface?

There is no doubting the potential of the iPad as platform for musicians, whether it is simply for music app utilities (e.g. Guitar Toolkit, V-Control Pro) or as a sound source (synths such Animoog or iMS-20 or guitar amp sims such as AmpliTube or AmpKit+). Equally, if you are happy with synths and sampled sounds, apps such as NanoStudio, SynthStation or iElectribe demonstrate it can also be a brilliant compositional and music production tool. However, if you want to get into full musical productions combining synths and sampled sounds with live instruments such as vocals or guitars – and you want those recordings to be more than just demo tracks that you might re-record in a ’proper’ studio at some point – you need a better way of getting audio in (and out) of the iPad than the built-in mic and the headphone jack. In short, you need to add an additional audio interface.

Of course, the established music technology manufacturers who cater for the computer-based recording industry will not have missed this particular trick and we already have examples of these 3rd party audio interfaces in the market place. At a simple level, something like the iRig does this job as it allows you to connect a guitar or mic to your iPad. Equally, IK Multimedia also make the iRig iMic if you want to do more by way of acoustic instrument or vocal recordings. However, perhaps the most obvious example of a more developed audio interface is the Alesis IODock where your iPad simply slots into the interface and you then get two microphone inputs that feature switchable phantom power (allowing you to use a more professional standard of studio microphone), can cater for guitar or instrument level inputs and also has outputs suitable to feed a decent external monitoring system as well as headphones. The Alesis IO, while perhaps built to a specific budget, has been very well received and the company has followed it up with the IO Mix that also includes some mixer-like hardware controls.

All that said, I’ve still not been tempted yet to splash my own cash. This is not a reflection on the quality of things like the Alesis IO but more because I’m not yet convinced that any of the units currently available really nail my own specific wish list of features. This is perhaps a more acurate reflection of how new this niche in the marketplace is compared to the similar product line for desktop/laptop computers. In that market, there are now dozens of competing products aimed at different price points and with a wide range of feature lists and specifications. In essence, there is enough choice to suit almost anyone’s budget and to match your own specific needs (for example, numbers of inputs or outputs or other features) to perfection. With the tablet-based recording studio still in nappies, we just haven’t had time for the market to mature enough to reach that same stage.

Ins And Outs

All of which kind of got me thinking about what I would need in my own ’ideal’ audio interface for my iPad-based mobile studio. So, given the type of recordings I make, what would be on my feature list?

Forget the hardware controls; go for a tight feature set combined with solid built and audio quality.

In terms of mic inputs, for me at least, two would be plenty. Yes, very, very occasionally, I might want more than this (for a drum kit or a  small vocal group) but I want to keep the cost reasonable and I’d rather have two decent mic preamps rather than four average ones. Phantom power is a must (which probably means the whole unit needs to run off mains power – although it would be nice if, in an emergency, there was an alternative and it most certainly needs to also feed power to the iPad itself) and it needs to be switchable (although I don’t mind if that’s global rather than for each mic input individually). The two inputs also need to accept instrument-level and guitar-level signals and to features physical gain controls, although I’m happy to ignore hardware level metering (on screen level setting is fine) or keep it to a minimum if that also keeps the cost down. However, I do want decent quality in the inputs and I’m happy to pay for that so the preamps need to be equivalent to those found on some of the mid-priced USB or Firewire audio interfaces we are all so familiar with – not esoteric and expense – just decent and able to get the job done cleanly.

In terms of outputs, I’m happy with a single stereo pair of main outputs for when I want to hook up the system to a proper monitoring system (some powered nearfields for example) and it would be nice to have a physical output level control. I don’t need multiple outputs for different sets of monitors or for surround sound. That’s great in my ’proper’ studio but this audio interface is for my iPad-based mobile rig. And again, it keeps the cost down. However, I would like two headphone outputs and preferably with independent output level controls. I want to be able to record another musician while I’m acting as engineer – so we both need headphones. Twin headphone outs are found on lots of the computer audio interfaces now – so this isn’t such a big ask.

In terms of specific audio features, I think that is pretty much it – no real bells and whistles – just two-in/two-out audio of decent quality with a pair of headphone outs. However, there are other hardware ’features’ that I think are highly desirable. First, the unit has to be compact so that, like the iPad itself, it is easily portable as part of a mobile recording rig. Second, it needs to be roadworthy. By this I don’t mean indestructible and built to a military spec, but equally, I don’t mean brittle plastic and wobbly knobs. I’ll take good care of it just like I do my iPad but I want to feel that it is built well enough to survive a few knocks.

Dock Off

So far, my feature list is actually not a million miles away from the highly regarded Alesis IO mentioned earlier. However, my third and final additional hardware feature is perhaps a little quirkier – I don’t want my iPad to ’fit in’ to the audio interface. What I really mean here is I don’t want a docking station-like connection between the iPad and the interface. While I can understand the attraction of this – you end up with a very neat solution where the two devices essentially become one – it’s not something I’m convinced is either necessary or actually a good design idea. Let me explain….

When I buy this ideal audio interface I want it to be built to last me a while – let’s say two, three or maybe even more years of useful life if it is worth investing in – but that is well beyond the seemingly annual development cycle of the iPad that Apple currently seem to operate. While I’m not suggesting that we all need to slavishly upgrade our iPads every year, Apple certainly make it very tempting! What concerns me is, even with a subtle shift in the physical design of a next generation iPad, or perhaps a technical change in the specification of the device’s docking connector (something that happened between the iPhone 3 and 4), it could render a ’docking station’ style audio device (and other 3rd party hardware) redundant. Personally, I think it makes far more sense to connect the two devices via a cable. This protects the audio interface against possible changes in the spec of the iPad and, if those changes are technical, then a redesign of the cable might be all that is required to allow the audio interface to continue to work with new generations of iPad. This doesn’t mean that the audio interface can’t physically accommodate the iPad – a simple ’ledge’ to safely prop it up on would be fine – but this approach is less susceptible to any changing physical dimensions of the tablet. I would have thought that this might also have advantages for the manufacturers as it might allow them to make the same basic audio interface available for other types of tablet (if alternative tablets can get a serious foothold) with minimal technical changes.

The Right Key

Give me MIDI in/out on the audio interface so I can chose to use whatever external keyboard I might like.

One of the other ‘add-on’ hardware markets that is appearing for the iPad-based musician is in MIDI controller keyboards. Personally, I’d have the same preference concerning connectivity in an iPad controller keyboard. Physical keys are great for playing virtual instruments but, again, I want my investment there to last. Connect via a cable and at least I won’t have to update that element of my rig when Apple ring the changes in the iPad itself. Having mentioned keyboards, one final thought; for desktop use, there are a number of units that combine the functions of MIDI keyboard controllers and audio interfaces. It would be interesting to see if that format starts to appear for the tablet-based studio.

There is, of course, a simpler and more flexible solution and it is exactly what Alesis have done with the IODock – you add MIDI in/out to that audio interface spec I described above. Then I can take my pick of whatever MIDI keyboards (or other MIDI controllers) I might have available to use with my iPad recording setup – whether it’s a tiny 25 key unit on the move or a weighted 88 key monster in a studio.

In Summary…

So, two-in/two-out audio of decent quality, two independent headphone outputs, MIDI connectivity, robust (if not necessarily military) construction and a cable connection that also delivers power to the iPad rather than a docking station. If you hear any rumours of the impending arrival of an iPad audio interface that might tick all my boxes, then please do let me know!

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    1. Graziano Fiscella says:

      I liked much this and I’m looking for such ad interface. But nowaday, october 2013, the only interfaces that fulfill all your (and mine) request are apogee duet (too expensive) and tascam iU2 (too plastic and discontinued). And with lightning the two docks (alesis and Behringer) are unusefull . As you told!

      • I use a Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 with my desktop system and – while not cheap – it also works very well with my iPad. I’m a fan of Focusrite stuff and they do make cheaper audio/MIDI interfaces than the 8i6 that might be worth looking at…. Good luck with your search. Best wishes, John.

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