Music making with iOS; the pros and cons; no. 2; it’s compact vs it’s compact

This series of short(ish) discussion articles is focused on the pros and cons of iOS as a music-making platform. I’m a fan of the approach but I’d also be the first to admit that it is far from ‘perfect’ (whatever that might be given that we all make our music in different ways anyway). The various pros and cons of the iOS music technology manifest themselves in all sorts of ways and, hopefully, by giving some air time to some of the more significant of these ‘good vs bad’ aspects, the articles might help the as-yet-undecided musician whether iOS can become part of their music technology toolkit.

In the first installment of the series I looked at the topic of storage or, more specifically, the pros and cons of the fact that iPads and iPhone don’t feature a traditional ‘moving parts’ hard drive. In this second installment, I’d like to look at a different topic that can be a significant issue for some musicians; size.

Mine’s bigger than your’s….. the cons of compact

I don’t know about you, but I love reading articles or watching films about how some of my favourite music was recorded. Often times, if that involves a well-known artist, said article/film will feature some fabulous studio setup in London, New York, the Hollywood hills or an exotic Caribbean island. You know, the kind of studio with a live room the size of a basketball court, a control room with a mixing desk twice the size of a banquet table and lined by racks of outboard gear and separate isolation booths for the vocals, drums and any other noisy equipment.

While it most certainly comes at a considerable cost, this kind of environment is not just about luxury; it’s also about practicality. The option to ‘go large’ must be great for the artist. We should never underestimate the value of having an attractive environment to work in and a big, often characterful, space within which you try to be creative must have its advantages. OK, I’m sure there are plenty of stories of ‘the album turned out great coz the rubbish studio made us work harder’ kind but, given the choice, wouldn’t you like to create your next musical project in an inspiring, relaxed, spacious studio with an ocean view? (or maybe that’s just me?)

Does your recording studio look like this? No, mine neither…. :-(

Big can also bring some practical advantages. I don’t mean here that big means lots of gear (although in big studios that’s often the case) but simply that a bigger space makes it easier to work with whatever gear you do have. Equally, if it’s multiple musicians working together, a bigger space means less climbing over each other and bumping into each other’s equipment. And if your setup features a real drummer with real drums, it perhaps means less deafness and top-end hearing damage from all those cymbals right at ear level (been there, done that…. pardon???)

Even when we bring things down to something more representative of the majority of us musicians – the home/project studio environment – having a dedicated room you can set aside for your music creation and recording is a definite plus. Whatever gear you might populate it with, having enough space to not be bumping into walls every time you turn around with your guitar, or to be tripping over keyboards, cables and stomp-boxes just to switch on your computer, makes the whole process feel a little less chaotic (although some might like chaotic?). And, of course, a bigger space does at least provide the potential for fitting in more ‘stuff’ (if your budget can ever stretch to it) and more people (if you like to work collaboratively with other musicians).

Even a pretty modest project studio can eventually evolve to chew up a decent amount of space.

And, if we are talking ‘recording’ as opposed to ‘live performance’ having that bigger space – even if it is only a spare bedroom – means you can fit in that high-powered desktop computer, multiple monitor screens, a decent-sized MIDI keyboard/controller, a decent audio interface, some respectable near-field monitors, an external hard-disk array for project/sample/backup storage (see part 1 of the series), a guitar or two and maybe a small mixer. By this stage, we are on the borderline between compact (it all fits in a small room) and ‘comfortable’ (expansive enough to be comfortable, inviting to work in, and to have some seriously powerful functionality). What it is not, however, is particularly portable. I’ll come back to that later.

[As a slight aside, I saw a documentary about the author Terry Pratchett on the TV a few years ago and filmed just a couple of years before he died. The interviewer was speaking to him in his creative writing space that featured a pretty OTT bank of six computer monitors. He asked Terry…. ‘Why have you got a six monitor setup?’ to which Terry replied ‘Because I haven’t got room for nine.’ If you have a big space to work in – writing text or writing music – you can fill it with gear that is useful to your workflow. In Terry’s case it was additional screen real-estate. If you are heavily into your DAW/sequencer software and run lots of plugins, a bigger screen(s) can also bring some obvious workflow benefits and maybe an iPad – even an iPad Pro – doesn’t score quite so well on this front.]

Of course, not everyone’s music technology use feeds a recording habit; there is also the live performance context. So what does your current ‘live rig’ – either personally, or for the band you might be in – consist of? When I was in my ‘yoof’, my blues/classic rock leanings meant I spent most of my time trying to work out how to get my Marshall half stack into whatever vehicle was available to get to the rehearsal/gig. It was not only heavy, it was flipping big! Oh boy, it sounded great (and I still have a Marshall valve head in my personal project studio) but is was (literally) a pain in the neck to move around.

‘Gig over. Who’s turn is it to pack the van?’

It’s not just guitar players though; keyboard players can face the same issues, whether it’s multiple keyboards, keyboard amps or (heaven help us) a stage piano or a classic analog synth. All this stuff looks great on stage alongside some sturdy backline (unless the stage happens to be in your local bar/pub and is smaller than the average toilet cubicle) and it really can sound awesome. It’s just big, heavy and a massive faff to move around. Oh, and then there is the drum kit….. Oh, and the PA….

Small is beautiful…. the pros of compact

So, all that big stuff can be great – a big studio, a big mixer, a big live rig – it has real practical positives in use that mean you can achieve your musical ends. It also comes with a considerable dollop of ‘street cred’, something that is perhaps verging on the vain but for which the psychological effect (and making music is as much in the mind as in the physical) should not be underestimated.

On the flipside, big also comes with issues. In terms of space (your studio) bigger can mean more expensive (space costs money) and in terms of gear, big means difficult to move around (perhaps not such an issue for a permanent studio but certainly one for those on the move). And, of course, not all of us can afford the luxury of ‘big’ even if ‘big’ was what we really aspired to.

So what about ‘compact’? Well, whether we are talking about an iPhone, iPad, or even the larger format iPad Pro, we are in territory of a ‘compact’ – and versatile – computing device. If, by necessity or by choice, we have to go down the compact route, how might we take advantage of that iOS hardware we own to ‘downsize’ on the sorts of recording and live performance contexts summarised above?

Let’s start in the ‘studio’. Not everyone has the luxury of space. Even a spare bedroom might be more than some have available and their creative/studio space might have to sit in the corner of a shared living space or on a small table beside the bed. In this case, keeping the gear compact is a necessity. Yes, a small notebook computer can fulfil a role here but so can an iPhone or (perhaps more usefully) and iPad.

My ‘entire’ iPad-based recording studio…. all contained at one end of a dining room table.

I wrote a whole series of articles on building a recording studio around an iPad here on the blog a couple of years or so ago. While that series is due a update (that’s in progress by the way) to include some of the advances in iOS hardware/software that have come along since, the basic concepts remain exactly the same. I’ll not repeat the details here – just hop over and dip into those articles – but iOS, with a decent iPad at the centre, can make for a great platform for recording duties.

There are also all sorts of peripherals that you might want to acquire to sit around that iPad. On that front, music technology manufacturers now offer all sorts of options – audio interfaces, MIDI keyboards/controllers, monitor speakers, etc. – that are built with the iPad in mind. And, often, they are built with the compact footprint of the iPad in mind.

OK, so the compact form factor might also mean a compact (slimmed down) feature set for some of these items compared to their full-sized equivalents, but you get the most important features and you can get them is a surprisingly small package. If your ‘home recording studio’ has to fit on the corner of a desk, you can do it, and still (with due care and attention) make some great recordings.

The other (very obvious) positive of this compact, minimalist, recording setup is that it is very portable. Want to take your ‘studio’ with you while you are travelling? No problem…. Like to do mobile recording with your collaborators (in a corner of their bedroom rather than your, or in your rehearsal space)? Also, no problem…. Like to make ambient ‘field’ recordings in the natural environment? Again, no problem. As a portable recording system with the ease of a dedicated mobile recorder (for example, something like the popular Zoom H4n) but closer to the flexibility of a laptop/desktop DAW, an iPad setup has a lot to recommend it.

OK, a compact studio built around an iPad might not match a similar desktop system for absolute grunt or, in some ways, for ease of workflow (for example, those multiple monitor setups mentioned earlier), but is gets you a pretty impressive distance down the that home/project studio road without necessarily taking up lots of space or being difficult to relocate. For those with a need for a compact or portable recording system, iOS has a lot to recommend it.

What about the live performance context? Well, there is certainly the potential for a suitably configured iPhone or iPad to play a role here. However, let’s start with a sensible word of warning. The live performance environment can be pretty brutal of equipment; if there is a weak link in your equipment chain, then regular gigging will eventually find it out… and perhaps decide to do that in front of a (hopefully) large crowd of the paying public. Equipment failure ‘live’ is not a good feeling…. All of which is why ‘professional’ live gear is often built in a very rugged fashion and costs a lot of money.

However, that’s not to say that iOS isn’t up to the task; it certainly is in terms of the functions it can perform…. but you need to keep in mind this is a piece of consumer electronics (much like a standard laptop) and treat it with the appropriate level of care amidst the generally rough and ready world of the gig.

So what about some examples? Well, let’s take a guitarist perspective as a start. I love my Marshall and, at a more practical level, I love my (more compact) Blackstar valve combo (which can easily slip into the boot of a compact car) but I, and lots of other guitar players, have also explored the alternatives.

One of these is the dedicated hardware ‘virtual guitar rig’ device. Lots of manufacturers offer these but, for example, the Line 6 Helix provides a full virtual guitar rig in a compact floorboard format that is easy to carry around, sounds exactly the same every time you switch it on, and can plug straight into the house PA system and sound pristine. Ignoring the ‘it doesn’t sound like/feel like a real valve amp’ discussion for the moment, there are some very serious professional musicians who have swopped their large-format backline for the control, flexibility and convenience of a hardware ‘does it all’ guitar rig such as the Helix.

BIAS FX; top-notch virtual guitar rig for iOS.

And, of course, the Helix (and other hardware amp modelers) are built on software…. and virtual amp modeling/rig software can run on a computer, including an iOS-based computer. There are a number of great iOS apps that perform this role but, as an example, let’s just consider Positive Grid’s BIAS FX. It sounds awesome and, in essence, is built on the same algorithms that are now found in the hardware BIAS Head modeling guitar amp. Providing you take care of the quality of the guitar signal going in, and the processed audio coming out (and away to the PA/monitoring system), BIAS FX on an iPad can (and does for some musicians) crank out some seriously good guitar tones. And, bar your guitar, your whole guitar rig might well fit into a shoulder bag….

OK, so it perhaps lacks the cool vibe of the valve-based guitar stack, but it is super-portable, very flexible and can also be used to check your email while on stage. These are not all things you can say about your average Marshall, Vox or Fender setup :-)

Even if I could afford a collection of classic hardware synths (I can’t), I think a collection of iOS emulations might be a more realistic prospect for my local pup gigs :-)

Of course, exactly the same sorts of arguments can be applied to a keyboard live rig. Why lumber yourself with carrying around a set of ‘real’ synths when you can carry around an almost limitless number of virtual emulations of those synths as iOS apps on an iPad? One decent master MIDI keyboard, and a suitable audio hook-up to the PA, and off you go.

There are other ‘live performance’ roles also…. the iPad as a musical crib sheet mounted on a suitable clip to your mic stand, the iPad as your metronome, the iPad as your backing track provider and, if you have a suitable digital mixer, the iPad as your on-stage mix controller. These (and other) things that are all realistic options when it comes to your iOS hardware supporting your live performance setup.

Compact, or not, the choice is yours

So, the compact format of iOS may have its downsides (no six-monitor setup for your recording software to be spread out on) but it also has its upsides (your ‘studio’ can fit on a table-top and fly as part of your ‘carry on’). And, whether by necessity, or through choice, you can ‘go large’ or you can – with an iPhone or iPad – ‘go small’.

I’m not sure this size issue has an obvious or clear-cut financial element to it (the iOS route may, or may not, be cheaper/more expensive; it depends upon the exact role and the things you are choosing between). However, if you already own an iPhone or iPad for other reasons, like a laptop or desktop computer, it is a multi-function device. If it does double duty as part of your studio setup (for example, running a suitable DAW/sequencer) and as part of your live rig (for example, running amp modelling software), then maybe there is an money-saving argument to be made? Maybe the cost pros and cons of iOS music technology will be something I’ll come back to later in the series….?

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    1. For quite some time, I’ve had the vision – perhaps nudging towards an obsession! – with the idea of having a recording setup I could pack into a rucksack… and I mean *everything*. Interface; mike(s); mike stand; even extra instruments… That way, I have the potential to produce at least reasonable recordings, wherever I go, if inspiration strikes.

      I’m pretty much “there”, actually – I use my iPhone 6S for recording (via a Sonic Port VX), as well as synths, drum-machines, sequencers and FX running on it. Moreover, even my physical musical instruments are increasingly compact: my electric guitar of choice is a Ministar (basically, a neck with pickups), whilst I also often carry around a ukulele or two (including my Risa “stick” electric tenor uke, and Yamaha guitalele). I’ve already recorded a good few projects where everything (or nearly) was laid down on this setup – it just seems to suit my musical style and approach.

      That said… this isn’t my *only* studio “facility”: we have a “project studio” at home, based around a Mac and Logic Pro X with “decent” monitors. I hardly ever mix on my “rucksack studio” (unless it’s “rough” mixes for reference) – I prefer to “track” on mobile, but then transfer the material to Logic for overdubs (e.g. software instruments not on the iPhone) and mixing.

      In short: I love having a “studio in my pocket” (yes, I can even start songs with no other gear – Garageband and Caustic are favourite apps for this). I can’t do absolutely *everything* on the iPhone, but for me it means at least that I don’t always have to wait to “book time” on our Mac :-)

    2. The day somebody releases 1Tb external iPad powered, droppable (I would probably drop them!) hard drives (iHardDrive?) that stream samples and audio will be a most exciting day.

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