iOS multitrack recording – the good, the bad and the wishlist

VU meter graphic on tablet 1As I write this in mid-August 2013, music making – and multitrack recording in particular – under iOS has come a long way in a very short time. When you consider just what can now be done with a ‘recording studio’ built around an iPad, a few pieces of essential additional hardware and a collection of low-cost (well, low-cost compared to their desktop equivalents) apps, it is pretty remarkable (even more so if, like me, you remember when the humble Teac 144 Portastudio was the height of personal recording studio technology). This is all good….

And while we should do our best to remember just how good this platform has become so quickly, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also acknowledge the things that, as yet, are not quite there…. yes, there is some ‘bad’ (although, thankfully, not too much that might be classed as ‘ugly’) and that means we can also identify some wishlist items that might help us past the ‘bad’ and, hopefully, expand on the already ‘good’.

So, as a bit of a personal take on the current state of iOS as a mutlitrack recording platform, let me review the good, the bad and the wishlist and see where we are at.

The good

This could be a long list so I’ll keep it concise with just the highlights. If you add in a decent audio interface to your iPad, as a means of capturing digital audio, it is now just as viable a platform as a desktop or laptop computer. In terms of the audio quality achievable – all other things (mics, recording space, etc.) being equal – there is no difference; it’s just the equivalent of a flash drive/SSD for data storage with a brilliant touchscreen front-end. That’s good.

If you are taking your first steps with multitrack recording, Garageband on the iPad is a brilliant place to start.

If you are taking your first steps with multitrack recording, Garageband on the iPad is a brilliant place to start.

There is an impressive collection of iOS multitrack recording software available at a range of price points and with different feature sets. Depending exactly upon your needs (audio only? MIDI only? audio and MIDI?) and your level of experience (beginner taking first steps or experienced recording musician wanting a recording platform for something a little more serious) you can take your pick from apps such as Garageband, MultitrackDAW, BeatMaker 2, Auria, Cubasis, Meteor, Nanostudio and a good few others. That’s also good.

In terms of sound sources – pianos, drums, synths or guitars – you are absolutely spoilt for choice. Synths like Nave, Thor, iMS-20, Sunrizer, Animoog and iMini are staggeringly good. Guitar amp modelling in Amplitube, AmpKit, JamUp Pro, THM and Mobile POD is getting very close to what’s possible on the desktop or in dedicated hardware. Another tick in the ‘good’ box.

And we are also seeing lots of creative utility and effect style apps; reverbs such as AudioReverb or AUFX:Space, sound manglers such as Turnado or Glitchbreaks, MIDI tools such as Chordion or Thesys, vocal processors such as VocaLive or Harmony Voice, post-recording processors such as MasterRecord and Audio Mastering. And, of course, we have the brilliant Audiobus, MIDI Bridge and Jack that help all these audio, MIDI and recording apps to work together. The list could go on… good, good, good.

For a fully-featured audio-only multitrack recording environment, Auria is the best of the iOS bunch at present.

For a fully-featured audio-only multitrack recording environment, Auria is the best of the iOS bunch at present.

Oh, and don’t forget that this is all focused on a device that is (a) mobile and (b) allows the more imaginative software developers to exploit a brilliant touchscreen interface. Yes, you still have to cart around all the other paraphernalia required to make location-based recordings, but, with an iPad, if you cut the rest to the bone, you can probably get the whole lot into a small backpack. If you need a mobile recording studio, this is more than good.

The bad

As I’ve commented before, with so many good things to list about where iOS-based recording currently stands, anyone taking their first steps with multitrack recording has a wonderful world of possibilities open to them and at a price point that, while not trivial when you build in the cost of the iPad and other basic hardware you might need to get started, is still very accessible.

Given that my head would have probably exploded if someone had travelled back in time and swapped my Teac 144 for an iPad, it seems churlish to complain about the state of iOS recording technology, but that doesn’t mean we can’t spot some room for things to be even better… yes, currently, there is still some ‘bad’.

There are some excellent iOS synths to run with your iOS recording studio including Nave by Waldorf.

There are some excellent iOS synths to run with your iOS recording studio including Nave by Waldorf.

Personally, I’d identify four areas that, for my iOS-based recording workflow at least, could bring some considerable improvements if resolved; processing power; data storage, power supply and plug-in protocol. There are other things you might add to this list but it’s a start so let’s deal with these in turn.

My 3rd gen iPad is brilliant but, once I have Audiobus, Cubasis, an amp modeller and a synth running, I know I’m going to have to work around the limitations of the available CPU. I’m sure the 4th gen device – with its more powerful processer – makes this less of an issue and, when the 5th gen model appears, things will almost certainly improve again. But, right here, right now, processing power is a limitation, particularly if you want to run multiple synths or lots of audio tracks with effects. More processing power would be good.

My 3rd gen iPad is a 64GB model. It is stuffed full of apps and music and books and all sorts of other things. While I could easily streamline the various content, audio recording can soon chew through storage space, particularly if you use lots of tracks and want to keep multiple song projects on the system at any one time. And if you were really trying to do some serious audio recording via an iPad – let’s say a 24 track feed (suitable audio interface permitting) from a live show into something like Auria, you could easily fill your storage space. The 128GB iPad model introduced by Apple is a very welcome addition and that’s the route I’d like to take as and when the 5th gen model becomes available. That said, even more storage is always going to be better.

Guitar players are well served for recording under iOS as there are some excellent choices available amongst the best of the amp sim apps.

Guitar players are well served for recording under iOS as there are some excellent choices available amongst the best of the amp sim apps.

The iPad is very portable so, as a platform for a mobile recording rig, it is a brilliant option…. providing it doesn’t run out of juice. The relatively long battery life is a real plus for true ‘field’ recording but, for longer sessions, power is an issue. The key stumbling block here is that the docking port is often going to be occupied by your audio/MIDI interface and, unless that also allows you to charge your iPad by passing power through (as, for example, the Alesis IO Dock does), at some stage you are going to have to stop working and put your iPad on charge. I’ve no idea if this is technically possible or whether Apple are simply not keen on the idea, but some kind of ‘double-docking port’ adapter would be great if it could be made to work; just a short cable with one connection to the iPad at one end and two connectors at the other end so you can attach both a power cable and something like an audio interface, MIDI interface or Apple’s Camera Connection Kit (CCK) to the other. Maybe this isn’t possible? Maybe it already exists and I haven’t spotted it yet? Either way, it would be very neat….

Somewhere along the line, I think these first three items on my ‘bad’ list will disappear. The hardware will continue to improve in terms of both processing power and storage capacity and the manufacturers of audio/MIDI interfaces will design their products so that the iPad support is given greater priority, pass-through power supply included. These solutions maybe for the future but I believe that future will be soon.

For my fourth and final ‘bad’ – plug-in protocols – I’m less certain about what the possibilities might be. In the world of desktop music software, audio plug-ins – whether virtual instrument or effects processors – are now taken for granted. The biggest breakthrough here was Steinberg’s VST (virtual studio technology) protocol, introduced in the mid-1990s, and that gave us a software standard for audio communication between different applications.

Over the last 12 months, Audiobus has revolutionised what can be done in an iPad-based recording system.

Over the last 12 months, Audiobus has revolutionised what can be done in an iPad-based recording system.

In one sense, Audiobus is a similar sort of standard but, brilliant though it is (it has revolutionised what can be done by the recording musician under iOS), it is not the same as VST (perhaps more akin to Propellerheads ReWire technology?). In the desktop world, VST (and other, more recent, protocols such as AU and RTAS), allow a virtual instrument to be used within a DAW rather than just with it. In using a VST plug-in, therefore, it’s as if your virtual synth or virtual reverb is actually part of your DAW.

What’s more, if you have more than one DAW that you like to use (or perhaps a video editing program that also supports VST for use with audio channels), the same VST plug-ins, once installed on your system, will be available to those as well; you buy the plug-in once but can use it in multiple DAWs and, more often than not, use multiple instances of that plug-in in a single DAW at the same time. VST was a revolution in desktop audio (thank you Steinberg) and, because of the way it integrates all of these software applications by different manufacturers together, it creates an almost seamless working environment for the recording musician.

Again, Audiobus is brilliant, but due to limitations of the underlying iOS architecture (and perhaps a little bit of Apple policy) it can’t, as yet, be exactly what VST is on the desktop. It allows us to run apps with each other and to pass audio from one app to another in real-time, but it doesn’t allow me to embed my instance of Thor into Cubasis or to use AudioReverb like a desktop ‘send & return’ effect plug-in.

Third-party plug-ins do exist in iOS though; Auria has some very impressive plug-ins that can be purchased as in-app-purchases (IAPs) and then used within Auria in exactly the same way as VST plug-ins on the desktop. Well, almost…. because unlike on the desktop, those same plug-ins are not available to use in other DAWs; at present at least, they only work with Auria. And, even if the same plug-ins were available in other DAWs via some sort of VST-like audio standard, is the IAP method of purchasing them the best model to allow a ‘purchase once, use within many’ piece of software?

iOS also includes some fabulous MIDI tools such as Thesys (shown here) or Chordion.

iOS also includes some fabulous MIDI tools such as Thesys (shown here) or Chordion.

I’m not sure what the solution is to this particular ‘bad’ on my list. I’m not an active iOS developer (I’ve worked as a programmer but that was a long time ago) so I can’t claim any great insight as to the current technical (or other?) limitations that the architecture of iOS places upon the possibility of a VST model for plug-in support (only to surmise that, if it was currently possible, then it would already have happened).

There is, of course, the prospect of some fairly fundamental changes to audio handling coming along with iOS 7. While some of these look very interesting, given the limited information that has been made publicly available, audio app developers for iOS are having to stay tight lipped about the details of their plans because of the usual Apple non-disclosure arrangements. Maybe iOS 7 will bring some good news on the plug-in front? Fingers crossed….

The wishlist

Well, the first four items on my wishlist are, obviously, going to cover the items discussed above so I’ll leave those as read. What about some other things it would be great to see? How about these two for starters?

1) I’ve said it before but I really think iOS is crying out for a top-notch audio editor app. I’m thinking here of the iPad equivalent of Wavelab or Sound Forge. Yes, perhaps somewhat streamlined in spec to match the more compact computing environment, but this would be another part of the whole recording/mixing/mastering workflow that could then be done entirely within the iOS environment.

If your recordings need drums, then how about some classic beat-box sounds from Funkbox? I'd still like a really good sample-based virtual drum instrument though...

If your recordings need drums, then how about some classic beat-box sounds from Funkbox? I’d still like a really good sample-based virtual drum instrument though…

2) We have some brilliant drum apps in iOS going from drum machine emulations such as DM1 or Funkbox through to performance apps such as Drums! and DrumKick. There are drums within some of the major DAWs like Cubasis, BeatMaker 2 and Garageband and a whole host of rhythm/loop creation tools like Loopmash HD, Glitchbreaks and Launchpad. But, like that missing audio editor app, I’m also surprised that we don’t (yet) have a killer virtual drum instrument. Here I’m thinking of a scaled down version of desktop packages such as Superior Drummer, BFD2 or Addictive Drums. I know that the iPad and iOS might limit exactly what could be achieved in terms of numbers of samples and sample layers, etc. but it would be great to see a developer take this on and I’d happily add both of these items to my iOS recording workflow given the opportunity.

What else to wish for? Well, why don’t you let me know what would be on your own personal wishlist for your iOS-based music making? Leave a comment below….

Bring it on

Some of us may have bought our iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad specifically with the intention of using it for music making. However, with so many iOS devices being sold worldwide, it’s hardly surprising that some musicians – perhaps, in the main, new, aspiring musicians – have actually acquired their iDevice for other reasons (hey, maybe someone actually uses an iPhone to make phone calls?) and, almost by accident, are discovering that they have also obtained something capable of becoming a powerful bit of music technology.

If the iPad is your first encounter with recording technology then 'lucky you' - with the right apps and a modest amount of additional hardware, you can build a very impressive recording system.

If the iPad is your first encounter with recording technology then ‘lucky you’ – with the right apps and a modest amount of additional hardware, you can build a very impressive recording system.

Experienced music technology practitioners might compare an iPad with their top-notch desktop system and not see a need to explore but, for this new generation of recording musicians, iOS is where they are making their first discoveries. It is the platform on which they will learn the basics of how multitrack recording and virtual studios work and what they can achieve. My generation started on Teac 144 portastudios; the current generation is starting on iPhones and iPads.

Savvy music technology developers will be paying attention because this has the potential to become a very significant market for their products – providing those products work under iOS and then perhaps transition those same users to more powerful desktop versions. Maybe this is one reason – even if it is an accidental one – where the business model of the pocket money pricing of most iOS music apps (even the ‘expensive’ ones) makes sense? Get a user hooked on Garageband or Cubasis on the iPad and then gently move them up to Garageband or Cubase Elements on the desktop before they finally can’t resist Logic Pro or the full version of Cubase? I’m not sure this is currently articulated as ‘the plan’ by the likes of Apple or Steinberg but, to me, it seems like a half-decent one.

As a platform for serious multitrack recording, iOS is still in the ‘emerging’ phase but it is transitioning through that phase at a very rapid rate. Personally, I think the ‘good’ already far outweighs the ‘bad’ and that balance is only going to get rapidly better within a very short time frame.

I remember by Teac portastudio with great fondness but I’m more than I’m happy to be aboard for the iOS recording studio ride…. bring it on….

Be Sociable; share this post....

    Comments

    1. Just one simple app for my with list. An audio recorder that works on audio input threshold and records for a preset amount of bars ie 4 8 16 bar loop and a set tempo just for making perfect loops without the need for editing the loops simple but effective

      • Not sure if it can do all of these things, but doesn’t Loopy HD offer a input trigger for recording? Might be worth checking if you have not already explored this?

        Cheers, John

    2. Great article.

      I think what Audiobus has done is amazing, and would like to see them really up the game. Hopefully, the Inter App Audio will allow more expanded routing possibilities that can accommodate FX Send Return.

      I would love to see Audiobus have another page that doesn’t demand all of the constant switching around. It seems, on my iPad mini at least, that some of the glitchy stuff happens at those times when the graphics are being taxed a bit too much.

      I have been involved with quite a few big studio purists, who really think this iOS thing is all trendy nonsense. I think all that is about to change. For creative mobile recording and production at a very high level indeed, it has phenomenal potential…

    3. Tomas Mozer says:

      Regarding the “double docking adapter” i have the hdmi adapter from apple (never really used it, we got airplay right? ) anyway this adapter has dual connections at one end, hdmi output and a 30pin for charging, and a 30pin at the other end. So you can charge your device while watching movies. So it seems possible with a dual adapter for audio use.

    Speak Your Mind

    *