Building an iPad recording studio; Part 1 – The evolution of the home recording studio

finger on a tablet computer screenNot that long ago, multi-track recording was something of a specialist activity. It was something only possible in purpose-built (read ‘expensive’) studio environments and required the expertise of dedicated engineers to manage the recording process and technicians to keep all the sensitive (and often temperamental) equipment working. This all meant that the ability to record your music was something of an elitist activity; if you had the budget then your recording could get made. For the rest of the musical community there was no alternative….

In the late 1970s and early 1980s that began to change. Recording equipment designed for the more budget-conscious musician started to appear and, eventually, it even became compact enough and cheap enough that the concept of a ‘home recording studio’ was something that wasn’t just in the reach of the elite; it also became available to the interested and enthusiastic amateur. No, the quality and flexibility of what was available might not have matched that in a top-end pro recording studio but you could at least make some multi-track recordings without requiring a budget based upon the proceeds of an existing hit single….

Move forwards a little further in time and the transition from analogue tape, through digital tape and into the era of hard disk-based recording happened. It is the latter – which is now perhaps the most common way in which multi-track recordings are made – that has fully democratised recording technology. I remember my jaw suitably dropping at some point in the mid-1990s when I first experienced Emagic’s Logic (then available for Windows as well as Mac OS) recording audio tracks alongside MIDI data. Yes, it crashed regularly, and no, the audio quality wasn’t great (mainly because of the available means of getting the audio signal into the computer), but the potential was all too obvious.

Something to aspire too... That multi-million £/$/€ studio to record your next hot album in :-)

Something to aspire too… That multi-million £/$/€ studio to record your next hot album in :-)

Since then, there have been a whole host of different compact ‘personal’ multi-track studio formats. Hardware-based devices by makers such as Roland, Tascam and Zoom have existed alongside computer/software-based systems, each with their own particular appeal and their own particular drawbacks. However, over recent years, I think it is pretty safe to say that the computer – both desktop and now laptop – have become the dominant force.

The very humble Teac 144 Portastudio; the start of home recording for the masses.

The very humble Teac 144 Portastudio; the start of home recording for the masses.

And, as a consequence, not only have more and more musicians had access to increasingly sophisticated recording technology but also, as the need for the traditional recording studio (at least those at the bottom/middle of the market) has made them commercially less viable, the computer-based studio has become where most newbie recording musicians learn their craft. No tape machines or large mixing desks or recording booths; just a computer, a spare corner of a bedroom and a ‘virtual’ studio recreating all the key components of a top-flight multi-track recording environment rendered in software.

Studio evolution

So, not so many years ago, recording studios were dominated by magnetic tape. However, while there are still a significant number of musicians and recording engineers that prefer the sonic qualities that tape brings to an audio recording, today’s recording studios are dominated by computers and hard disk recording. This is true at all levels of the recording food chain, from multi-million dollar superstar facilities (where, perhaps, you will find hard disk and tape systems together), through the more down-to-earth pro ranks, into the project studios and, finally, for the DIY home recording enthusiast.

Indeed, given just how inexpensive (in relative terms) personal computers have become, and just how great a proportion of the functions and/or features of a traditional recording studio can now be recreated in software, almost anyone with access to a half-decent computer could get involved with some seriously sophisticated computer-based recording (although access to the features doesn’t mean that (a) the user knows how to use them effectively or (b) will record any musical material that the wider world really wants to listen to).

Sophisticated desktop recording software such as Steinberg's Cubase recreates a whole studio full of recording equipment in a virtual format.

Sophisticated desktop recording software such as Steinberg’s Cubase recreates a whole studio full of recording equipment in a virtual format.

As Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is keen to emphasise, we are, however, entering the ‘post-PC’ era. Leaving aside the Apple-esq slant they might want you to take on this (the post-PC era rather than the post-iMac era?), if we take this phrase in its broadest sense, Tim Cook’s comment is a statement about the shift that the touchscreen tablet computer has produced in terms of people’s use of computer technology. The iPad may now have some serious competitors from other manufacturers but, as a product type, it defined a new category, combining portability, power and ease of use. And while lots of people still have their desktop computers as well, iPads (and other tablet computers) are, for many, the tool they now use for routine computing tasks such as email, web-browsing, document reading, accessing social networks and even basic ‘office’ style tasks.

Computer-based studios - desktop or laptop - now dominate the multi-track recording world.

Computer-based studios – desktop or laptop – now dominate the multi-track recording world.

While the iPad might have revolutionised the way we access and interact with these computer-based functions, at its heart, it is still just a computer. That means that all sorts of more specialised tasks – over and above those listed above – that are routinely performed on a computer have also found their way onto the tablet format. Obvious examples are photo editing, video editing and graphic design but there are all sorts of other, highly-specific things that developers have made apps for in business, education and in the health industry…..

…. and, of course, in the area of music technology….

From desktop to tablet; the iPad recording studio

And, without winning any prizes for seeing into the future, I suspect it is just as likely that the next generation of newbie recording musicians are going to get that first multi-track not on a desktop or laptop computer but on a tablet computer like the iPad (actually, not ‘like’ the iPad; it will be an iPad. Android and Window’s based devices are currently a long way behind in this particular niche application) or perhaps even an iPhone or iPod Touch.

As I’ve commented on the Music App Blog website on a number of occasions, the iPhone and iPad now essentially allow you to hold the key functions of a sophisticated multi-track recording studio in the palm of your hand. This is made possible because music app developers have created a range (actually, it’s now a huge range) of apps targeted at musicians – synths, audio recorders, guitar amp simulators, audio and MIDI effects processors and a range of ‘utility’ apps – all of which attempt to replicate the same software environments that have become the de-facto standard environments for recording technology on desktop computers.

Yes, perhaps some of this technology has had to be scaled down somewhat to work smoothly within the somewhat more modest horsepower provided by the current iPad or iPhone hardware, but it is still very powerful and, compared to the ‘home’ recording technology available to musicians in earlier generations, the capabilities are staggering.

Just what equipment do you need - software and hardware - alongside your iPad to build a workable multi-track recording system?

Just what equipment do you need – software and hardware – alongside your iPad to build a workable multi-track recording system?

So, the potential is there…. and if you are an iPad (or iPhone/iPod Touch) owning musician looking to get into multi-track recording, iOS is most certainly one possible route you can take.

But where to start? Aside from the aforementioned iPad, what additional kit – apps or hardware – do you need to build your iPad-based recording studio?

To a large extent, the answer to this will depend very much on the type of recordings you might wish to make and the genre(s) of music you like to work within. For example:

  • Are you happy to work with just a few key synths and create instrumental music or do you need/want to add audio tracks such as guitars or vocals?
  • Are you happy to play your synths via the touchscreen-virtual MIDI keyboards or would you rather use a real piano-style MIDI keyboard?
  • Are you happy to listen to your recordings via ear buds and/or headphones or do you want to hook up some decent studio-style speakers?

The answers to these (and other) questions, will dictate just exactly what additional items you might need to built that iOS-based recording system.

Cubasis provides a well-featured audio and MIDI recording, arranging and mixing environment all brilliantly implemented on the iPad's touchscreen.

Cubasis provides a well-featured audio and MIDI recording, arranging and mixing environment all brilliantly implemented on the iPad’s touchscreen.

Series aims

The aim of this short series of articles is simple; to guide you through the types of questions posed above and to help you find the answers that are appropriate to you. Hopefully, with the help of the various parts in this series, you can develop your own personal shopping list to form the starting point of your iPad recording studio.

Before we move on though, let me also be clear about what this series of articles is not. First, I suspect this series is not really aimed at those who have ‘been there, done that, got the tee-shirt’ when it comes to setting up a home/personal recording system, While I hope there will be something of both interest and use to those of you reading this who already have experience of putting together and using a home or project studio, in the main, this series is particularly aimed at those who have not trodden this path before and, in all probability, their iPad is the starting point for a journey into the wonderful world of multi-track recording.

Second, the series is not intended to be an instruction manual or tutorial guide to then using that studio. Learning how to make best use of a multi-track recording system – and the various elements that are essential components within that system – is most certainly something you will need to learn about. However, that’s perhaps a topic for another day. Right here and right now, as we move on to part 2 of the series, we are going to focus on what you need to consider in getting the very basic elements (items of hardware and software) of that studio together – with an iPad (or even an iPhone) at its heart – and why each of those elements is required.

And, to get that ball rolling, Part 2 will consider the first of the three questions posed above….

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    1. Jayson Vein says:

      Excellent excellent post John!! Huh, that recording studio looks just like the one in my basement. Err…Wait, it doesn’t. My bad……

      I just downloaded Rock Drum Machine, after reading about it on the audiobus forum. It is such a good drum app. Just got inner app and audio bus. I laid down a quick thrash song to test it out into Multi track DAW. I couldn’t get JamUp to work with inner app, or audiobus after my initial recording. I wanted to lay down another guitar rhythm and lead track. Couldn’t figure out what the deal was.

      Rock Drum app just needs some fills to make it jsut about perfect. For me.

      • Hi Jayson, thanks for the kind words. Just about to take a look at Rock Drum for myself so thanks for the recommendation :-) best wishes, John

    2. Angel Alvarado says:

      I’m very happy that you are doing this series. But all, past present and future, in perspective. My setup right now is a 2nd gen iPad, an Oxygen 61 midi keys, Apogee’s Jam amd MiC, Behringer headphones and M-Audio AV20s for sprakers.

      Right now I’m taking my favorite sounds from Atari 2600 games and recording them to AudioShare and experiment with them in Nave, Grain Science, iMPC Pro, etc. I’m using my 2007 Windows Vista machine, to run an emulation of the Atari, audio output through NI Audio Kontrol 1 to Jam and finally AudioShare where I send the sound to diferent areas.

      It would have been extra hard and expensive to have done this in the 80’s. Let’s think about it, to capture a sample of Atari sounds 30 years ago, like I’m doing now, required and Atari, with audio out to a sampler, like a CMI, or and E-MU or Akai sampler…a very expensive route compared to today.

    3. This couldn’t be better timing. I’ve decided to build a home demo studio around an ipad. Thanks for all the advice !

      • Same! Best birthday present ever… the best part is that I can do all of this in the comfort of my bedroom!

      • Same, Rick! The best part is I can have it in the comfort of my bedroom!

        Again thank you, John this information was really useful.
        For anyone else still struggling to find the best app I would defiantly recommend Garage Band it is a straight forward app yet brings fantastic quality to your music and is perfectly ideal for setting up a studio at home. If you are a bit confused over what to do on Garage Band, YouTube will defiantly have tips.

    4. Jayson Vein says:

      That sounds cool Angel! Have fun sampling……..

    5. David Warman says:

      A very minor niggle, but I knew these folks: one who didn’t might well get the impression E-magic was the first full featured DAW in the mid 1990’s. But that is not how it was. OpCode’s Vision, in IIRC 1989 – 1990, owns that spot.

      Other than that, I like this series.

      • Hi David, thanks for this… sorry if I gave that impression (I’ll edit when I get a chance). No, it was simply that Logic was the first platform upon which I saw this technology working (well, sort of working!). Thanks again and very best wishes, John

    6. Hi John. I decided to go fully into an IOS setup and so far I am very impressed with it. It took me some time to get familiar with touch gestures as an input device. My setup consist of:
      (1) I pad air 2 128 gig
      (2) DAC Focusrite 18i20
      (3) Powered usb hub to lightning connector.
      (4) Controllers: Launchkey 49 and Launchpad Mini
      (5) Main Digital Audio Workstation software is Auria Pro
      I also have a number of i Pad synths samplers and effects that feed directly into the individual midi channels in Auria Pro. The Focusrite 18i20 feeds 8 analogue channels of audio into 8 separate audio channels in Auria. It just keeps getting better.

      • hey Tom,

        your set up sounds fantastic, I’m curious about it. I am running an IOS studio too, I use the same ipad with Cubasis – I have a mixing desk the ipad sits in and I can run studio monitors out to it.

        id love to have a chat and look at the benefits of what your running compared to my studio, and vice versa – drop me a line and we can share experiences – my only real issue with my set up is vocals can be quite difficult to get right – id be interested to see how you do these etc.

        cheers – – drop me a line

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