- We outlined a brief context of DIY recording and how the iPad is perhaps the latest in a lengthy line of technologies that have gradually democratised multi-track recording and put it within reach of the musical masses (Part 1).
- We have looked at the audio and MIDI formats as a means of recording musical performances and how your own needs here dictate a number of the additional hardware items your iPad studio might require (Part 2).
- We have considered audio and MIDI interfaces, MIDI keyboards, microphones and monitors/headphones as essential pieces of additional hardware that you may need to sit alongside your iPad (Part 2 also, but also Parts 3, 4 and 5).
- We have discussed the range of software – those iOS music apps – that you need to start collecting to allow your iPad to emulate (in software) many of the key functions that, in a traditional recording studio in days gone by, would have been done with hardware (Part 6).
- And, in particular, we looked at the one absolutely key piece of software – the multi-track recording app – that will form the centrepiece of your recording process (Part 7).
- Finally, we considered our budget. Just how much is it going to cost to assemble this iPad recording studio ‘starter kit’? If money was tight, can we still do this with a ‘bare bones’ option? Or, if we were feeling a bit more ambitious (and a little more flush), is there also a ‘next step’ option we can aspire to? (Parts 8 and 9).
In this last part of the series, I’d like to try and do three further things. First, while building this iPad recording studio may take some money and effort (and effort to get the money), for those new to iOS music technology – or music technology of any sort – there is still a further price to pay; you have to invest some time and effort into learning how to use it all. That is, of course, a huge topic. Easily big enough to fill a series (probably several series) of posts and even then you would just be scratching at the surface. Still, what I’d like to do here is give you a few pointers to resources that might help you on your way.
Second, now you perhaps have a better appreciation of the kinds of equipment (and costs) associated with building this iPad recording studio, I’d like to briefly return to the topic of where iOS music technology fits into the wider scheme of the music (and recording) technology world.
And third – and finally – I’ll try to draw together a couple of simple conclusions to wrap the series up.
Let’s get started….
In days of old – when bands wrote and performed songs and then ‘went into the studio’ to record them – the recording process was a science and an art that lay in the hands of a fairly select few; the engineers and producers and technicians who spent all their working time in those recording studios, watching bands come and go and doing their best to capture their performances in a recorded format. While not exclusively so, many of the musicians themselves may have had little grasp of the recording technology involved or how to use it.
In one sense, this was quite a good thing. As a musician, you could concentrate upon your creative art; the writing and performing of the songs. However, as recording technology both improved, and accessibility to it increased, that situation has changed. In addition, there are many amazing pieces of music/recording technology that now actually shape how songs are initially created and how they are performed.
And, as DIY or ‘home’ recording technology has become more widely available, musicians built their own studios. At first it might have been the mega-artists or mega-rich but now, as we have seen in our discussion of the budget required to assemble a basic iPad recording studio, with a little determination, the essence of this technology can be available to almost anyone.
This is, of course, a good thing… anyone with an iPad and the fairly modest budget required to furnish it with the rest of what’s required, can own a sophisticated multi-track recording studio.
There are, however, two obvious downsides… the first of which is that the internet is now awash with a mass of independently recorded music and not all of it is great :-)
More importantly though – and more challenging for this ever-growing army of studio-owning musicians – is that this is all DIY; no expert engineer to set up mics or fine-tune your mix, no technicians to fix the kit when it’s not working as expected and no producer (paid for by the recording company) to apply some artistic direction when, frankly, the songs and performances suck.
All of those tasks – as well as the writing and performing – are now down to you in your DIY iPad recording studio. And it’s not as though most musicians now learn their recording chops by going into commercial studios as part of a band and picking up the basic by watching the ‘experts’ at work. Today, for most musicians, DIY ‘home’ recording is the norm and you simply learn it by doing it.
That ‘learning by experience’ is not such a bad thing and, if you have ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book ‘Outliers’, you will now that the most likely way to get very good at something is simply to do that something over and over (and over) again. Recording is no different… make some recordings, keep making them and, no matter how bad they might be at the start, eventually things will get better…. But it is another set of skills you have to acquire and think about, some of which are technical rather than creative, and it can be a distraction from the actual creative parts of being a musician.
That’s not to say that you can’t pick up some training or useful advice along the way that can speed up the learning process however. That might be something formal and there are some truly excellent college and/or training school options out there if you have the time and budget to consider them. However, this is an iPad recording studio we have been putting together here and I suspect that most musicians contemplating this as a route to record their own material might prefer a less formal (more guerrilla?) approach.
So, what are the less formal alternatives?
The iPad recording studio is a relatively new phenomena. As such, when it comes to ‘teach yourself recording’ resources – books, magazines or websites – there are still very few that really look at this issue from an iOS perspective. There are a few books available that look at Garageband for iPad (have a quick search on Amazon for example) and there are, of course, a number of popular websites and YouTube channels that cater for iOS musicians in general (see the Links page on the Music App Blog for a list of the best of these). What there isn’t – yet at least – is a whole bunch of different tutorial/learning/instructional resources that focus specifically on iPad-based recording. It will come with time…. but we are not there yet.
Fortunately, however, another branch of DIY/home recording – on the desktop computer – has been around for quite a lot longer and materials aimed specifically at that target audience exists in abundance. As I’ll discuss in a little more detail below, there are, of course, some differences between recording on a computer (Windows or OSX) system and recording on an iOS system. These differences are most apparent in the capabilities and workflows of that key software – the multi-track recording application – and that would need to be borne in mind when consulting these learning resources.
However, there is also a lot of common ground. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that the common ground far out-weighed the modest differences. For example, how to set up a microphone to record a vocal or acoustic guitar, how to use a compressor to tame the volume variations in a track, how to EQ your kick drum and bass guitar so they don’t get in each others way, how to get the overall mix balance right between your various instruments, or how to apply a little post-mix mastering magic to your tracks…. all of these tasks (and many, many others) are essentially the same whether you are working on a desktop, laptop or tablet. The hardware and software you have available to do these tasks might be different, but the principles of the tasks themselves remains the same.
I guess what I’m saying here is, in looking for answers to your ‘how do I do that…?’ question when working in your iPad recording studio, be aware that there is a tremendous array of self-help resources out their for the computer-based recording process that will translate pretty well to your iPad studio. No, it might not tell you about the specifics of this or that setting in your favourite iOS synth or audio effect, or provide you with a ‘my recording app basics’ tutorial, but for lots and lots of the fundamentals of computer-based recording (and the iPad is just a compact computer), then just get Googling…. there is a World Wide Web of very useful resources out there once you start to look.
And if you want a few specific starting points? Well, you could do a lot worse that the website of Sound On Sound magazine. This is the biggest selling recording technology magazine on the planet and – bar the most recent six-month’s worth of articles – the entire archive for more than 15 years of content is available free via the site. There is also a very active user forum. There are other magazines also and, for example, here in the UK we also have the Computer Music title that has a lot of very good tutorial content aimed at those new to music technology.
There are also lots of very good books. While topics about specific recording software can become out-of-date with time, those that cover the fundamental principles of the recording process will have a good shelf life – the basic techniques for mic’ing up a guitar or vocalist have not changed too much in 20+ years – so having a couple of handy references available when you are getting started is not such a bad idea. I’ve made a few suggestions at the end of this post….
This is, of course, the internet age and almost every niche interest has its own collection of websites. As well as the dedicated iOS sites listed in the Music App Blog’s ‘links’ page, you might, therefore, start digging around in Google and YouTube for some help. Yes, the quality can be very variable but, amongst the chaff you will also find some wheat.
One of my personal favourites is the Garageband and Beyond YouTube channel – low key but informative – and covering lots of basic recording processes so it is not just full of ‘how to’ on Garageband for OSX. For something more formal, you might also try the Berklee Online YouTube channel. You have to explore a bit as it covers more than just recording issues (although there is lots of other material that will be of interest) but there is some good stuff there.
And there are plenty more…. DIY/home/personal recording is pretty well represented in the online world….
iPad vs the world
In passing, I observed above that the iPad is, essentially, a compact format computer. While the OS is different from OSX or Windows (and, therefore, some of the software that runs on the OS is also different), an iPad is simply a compact, touchscreen device that crunches zeros and ones just like a desktop or laptop computer. Equally, if you chose to, you could get a reasonably well specified laptop or desktop computer for around the same price as an iPad (although you could also spend a lot more it you wanted to pimp out the specification of that laptop or desktop).
Now, given that the iPad-priced laptop or desktop computer might well have more basic processing power than an iPad – and that pretty much all the other hardware identified in our various shopping list budgets in Parts 8 and 9 (with the exception of the iPad-specific audio/MIDI interfaces) could also work in a DIY recording studio build around a laptop or desktop computer, there is one very obvious question. Why use an iPad in the first place?
This is such a fundamental question that you might wonder why I’ve left it until the final part of this series to consider it. The reason is simple; I don’t think this is a question with a simple answer and, in fact, I think the answer will come down to a number of personal (and therefore individual) choices. And now we have looked at some of the issues surrounding the building of our iPad recording studio, I think we are better placed to consider the releative mertits of desktop vs laptop vs iPad.
There are some ‘logical’ reasons for deciding to build your studio around an iPad but, equally, there are some elements of the decision that will simply come down to personal preference.
I’m lucky enough to have access to both sorts of system although, in my case, my desktop system cost several times more than my iPad system, but I’m also happy to admit that the desktop system wins hands down in terms of power and the sophistication of the software I have available. So why go down the iPad route at all?
Let’s start with some of those logical reasons and one of them is cost. The basic additional hardware (interface, keyboard, mic, monitors) would be the same whichever platform I choose. However, while I could buy a medium spec laptop or desktop for about the same price as an iPad, in terms of the software I’d then need to create my virtual studio, the pricing model of Apple’s iTunes App Store makes the iPad a much more accessible option. Indeed, some of the iOS music apps are ridiculously inexpensive and – as shown in our budgets in Parts 8 and 9 – you can put together an impressive collection of music apps for a very modest outlay. On the desktop, that could cost you a lot more to achieve.
A second reason might be mobility. OK, this is perhaps a less convincing argument against a laptop computer as that is still pretty portable but I’d still rather travel with my iPad, CME Xkey and earbuds as a ‘mobile’ musical scratch-pad than lug a laptop around. If you want to make music on the move then an iPad (or even iPhone) is the most compact format available.
A third reason is noise – or, more accurately, lack of it. An iPad has no moving parts and, if you set it up in a quiet room to record a delicate picked guitar performance, you won’t have to listen to the sound of computer fans and hard drives humming on the recording afterwards. Yes, you can create silent computers, but it will cost you a premium price to do so.
The fourth reason is where I think I’m starting to cross over into the area of ‘personal choice’ and this might simply boil down to the wider set of reasons that you, as an individual, own a computing device in the first place. If you were designing your DIY recording system from absolute scratch – and didn’t own either a suitable computer or an iPad – then, clearly, and quite rightly, you would consider both routes before taking a decision as to which way was best for you. But I suspect some of that decision might also be based upon the other things you might use that computing device for aside from than music making…..
Computers today – desktop, laptop or tablet – are multi-functional devices. They can do multi-track recording if you add a suitable combination of extra hardware and software but, equally, they are just as good for graphic design, accountancy, book production, photography, video editing or many other specialist functions you might care to think of. If you have other tasks you want your computing device to fulfil – and the iPad format happens to provide you with your best all-round solution given those tasks – then, by default, it also becomes the choice to build your recording studio around.
And for the same reasons, there are lot of individuals for whom today – because of the things they use technology for (and the things they don’t) and the way they like to access those things – the iPad (or iPhone) is simply their computing platform of choice. They already own an iPad – it’s ‘their’ platform – and therefore it becomes that individuals obvious choice to build this DIY recording studio around. This would be particularly the case for those just starting out with music technology and without a budget to by multiple computer platforms for specific tasks.
In the end, therefore, while there are some ‘logical’ reasons for going down the iPad route, one system is not absolutely better than the other… it is what suits you (as an individual) best that will dictate your final choice.
One final point; apps aside, the bulk of that additional hardware we mentioned – interface, mics, keyboards, cables, mic-stands, pop-filters and monitors – will work with any computer platform. With the exception of some iPad-specific audio/MIDI interfaces, if you eventually move from iPad to desktop (or desktop to iPad), that other equipment will generally come with you quite happily….
The iPad recording studio; some final remarks
A good number of years ago, I sold my soul to the Devil for good looks, eternal youth and the ability to play three chords and a blues scale. I am, therefore, somewhat older than I actually look :-) However, while I wasn’t around to see the absolute birth of DIY/home recording, I did experience that technology when it was still in its own youth. Back in my ‘yoof’, I know I paid around UK£1000 (and lived on toast for months) for a new 8-track, cassette-based multi-track audio recorder to replace a second-hand 4-track that used the same technology. I’ll leave you to do the math as to what that UK£1000 might be worth now….
In those days, that was cutting-edge stuff for the DIY recording enthusiast and, over the years, like many other recording enthusiasts, I’ve transitioned through a number of different technologies that have come and gone for the personal studio user – MIDI sequencing, digital tape, hard-disk recorders and, eventually, onto computer-based audio and MIDI recording. That last platform has, in the last 20 years, evolved into something both very powerful and, on the whole, very reliable. The iPad – with its compact format, pocket-money priced software and intuitive touchscreen control – is the latest incarnation of that technology.
The conclusion I’m getting to here is that today’s DIY recording wannabies are a pretty lucky bunch. Given the choice between the UK£1000 I spent back in the day on just an 8-track recorder (without any of the other kit required) and the UK£1000 ‘bare bones’ budget outlined in Part 9 of this series for an iPad recording studio (and which includes the price of the iPad)…. well, there is just no comparison; the iPad system is simply light-years ahead of what that old 8-track was capable of. I appreciate that finding that budget is still a significant challenge but, £-for-£ (or $-for$, etc.), right now, the value for money and level of sophistication you can get in your ‘budget’ home recording system has never been better.
And while music and recording technology will continue to progress and, with time, the next DIY recording platform will perhaps supersede the humble iPad (or perhaps the iPad will evolve into something else?), now is a brilliant time to be recording your own music in your own studio. So, go and get it done…. within your budget, grab your iPad, build that recording studio and then make it worthwhile…. record your own music.
As promised earlier, here are a few book suggestions if you want some home recording background material. None of these is iOS specific but all have lots of useful material that covers DIY/personal recording best practice.