I finished Part 1 of this series on building a multi-track recording studio around an iPad by posing three questions. Dealing with these sorts of questions will go a long way in terms of getting the bare-bones of your iPad studio off the ground so, over the course of the early parts of the series I’ll explore each of these questions in turn – and perhaps a couple of others also – so that you can get a better understanding of what you will need to start work on that iPad studio. Let’s just recap what those questions were….
- 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?
So, in this post – Part 2 of the series – let’s start with a question about MIDI and audio; do you want to use just one of these technologies or do you want to use both?
The key issue here is that the answer will influence your decision about one key piece of additional hardware that your fledgling iPad recording studio is going to need. Do you need an audio interface, a MIDI interface or both?
Audio, MIDI or both?
Most modern multi-track recordings can consist of a combination of two different types of tracks; audio and MIDI. Audio tracks are easy to get your head around; these are simply audio that you have captured from sources such as vocals, acoustic guitars or other ‘real’ sound sources. In many cases, these might involve a microphone placed in front of the sound to capture it, be that a vocalist, a guitar amp, a trumpet or a 50-piece orchestra (although that would actually be quite a challenge with a single mic!)
MIDI tracks are somewhat different. These don’t contain any actual sound but they do hold digital data. These data can be used for all sorts of things but their main function is to hold MIDI note data. This allows you to play a part on your MIDI keyboard (the notes can go to a MIDI synth at the same time so that you can hear what you are playing), record the MIDI notes to a MIDI track, perhaps edit them (if your keyboard playing is a bad as mine) and then re-play the track (as many times as you like), sending the MIDI data back to a synth so you can hear the end result.
You could, of course, just record your synth sounds as audio on an audio track. However, this has some disadvantages compared to recording the MIDI. First, the audio data is a less efficient way of storing the performance (it takes up more disk space). Second, if you make a mistake in the performance, the MIDI data can be very easily edited (for example, adding new notes, adjusting the timing, changing the pitch) but this is much more difficult to do with audio data (although it can be done with software like Melodyne on a desktop computer). So, compared to audio, MIDI is a flexible and very compact format (although it does have its downsides but that’s a story for another time).
So, that question I mentioned a couple of paragraphs above; are your recordings going to be audio-only or MIDI-only or use a combination of both? In most modern recordings, the use both of these track types is probably the most common route but, depending upon your personal answer to the question, you will need either an audio-only interface, a MIDI-only interface, one of each, or a combined audio+MIDI interface.
Interface in your face
If you were buying any of these interface types for a desktop computer recording system then there is a huge range of possible devices to choose from. These start at the budget end (perhaps UK£50, where you can still get decent audio quality but perhaps fewer features in total) and cover all price ranges up to the mega-price (over UK£1000, where you get top-notch audio quality and lots of additional features). However, for the iPad, currently at least, there is a more modest selection. And, as this article is aimed more at those making their first steps with multi-track recording, let’s start at the more budget end (maybe up to about the UK£150 mark?) of the audio/MIDI interface market to consider some examples.
Before looking at some examples, one further point is worth making. As in so many areas of life, when buying a piece of music technology hardware such as an audio or MIDI interface, on the whole, you get what you pay for (see the Music App Blog’s recent review of the SPL Crimson; not cheap but most certainly high quality). In the context of audio interfaces, higher prices generally bring two improvements.
First, the quality of the hardware is better. In the main, this might be reflected in the actual audio quality you can capture. This will be down to better pre-amps (the bit that amplifies the audio signal within the interface) and better audio-to-digital convertors.
Second, more money often means more features. The obvious way this will manifest itself is in greater numbers of inputs; a single input interface (where you can only record one audio source at a time) is likely to be less expensive than an 8-channel interface (which, at a push, you could use to mic up a whole band), all other things being equal.
So what about some suggestions of a few audio-only interfaces that might suit a budget-conscious iPad-based musician interested in doing some recording? Well, in terms of audio-only interfaces, you could try and make do with one of the guitar-based audio interfaces such as the Sonic Port, iRig HD or AmpKit LiNK HD (all within the UK£70-85 range). The main problem with these choices is that they are not ideal for use with sources other than guitars (although the Sonic Port does include a line-level stereo input that could be used with something like a synth/keyboard). Slightly more expensive would be something like the Apogee Jam 96k (c.UK£100) but it is a high-quality device and robustly built.
However, if you want greater flexibility that having two inputs can bring, perhaps a better bet is something like the Focusrite iTrack Solo (about UK£130). Designed for use with the iPad, this offers very respectable audio quality (used with care, you could make some excellent audio recordings with this unit) and has two audio inputs; one for use with a guitar and another that is aimed at microphone use.
If you just want a MIDI interface then, at the budget end, you could pick from the obvious candidates are the Line 6 MIDI Mobiliser II and IK Multimedia’s iRig MIDI (both are currently c. £40 here in the UK). The basic concept is similar in both of these and the cables included provide standard 5-pin MIDI connectors for MIDI in and MDI out for connection to your other MIDI kit. The iRig MIDI also features a micro USB port that allows you to charge your iDevice through the iRig MIDI. IK Multimedia also make the newer iRig MIDI 2 at around the UK£80 mark. This looks like a rather slicker design but is still very portable and ships with cables for both Lightning and 30-pin docking connectors.
For a more up-market take on MIDI connectivity that works with iOS, you could also look at the various iConnectMIDI devices. When you get as far as the iCM2+ or iCM4+ these units offer a lot of MIDI connectivity and, for complex setups where you have multiple MIDI devices to hook together, they might be just what’s required.
Best of both worlds
If you want/need both audio and MIDI you could, of course, buy separate audio and MIDI interfaces but the problem there is that, in all likelihood, they will both require the iPad’s docking port; you would not be able to use them at the same time. A single device that combined both functions – an audio+MIDI interface – is obviously a more practical solution.
For example, you might consider the iRig PRO (currently about UK£110). This provides a combined phantom-powered microphone input/guitar input (you can only record one mono source at a time) and a MIDI input in a compact format. The audio quality is actually pretty good and, for a solo musician happy to base their recording on a single mic setup, it works very well.
I’ve used one of these extensively with my own iPad setup. Yes, I happen to also own a much better audio interface than the iRig PRO and that I generally use with my desktop computer, but the iRig PRO scores for portability, the fact that it can be powered from the combination of a battery and the iPad, and that it can provide guitar, microphone and 5-pin MIDI input in a single small device.
There are, however, other good options well worth considering. While some of these are designed specifically for use with iOS devices – and I’ll consider a couple of these below – there are others that are more generic audio/MIDI interfaces that can work with Windows, OSX or iOS hardware.
For example, the Roland Duo Capture EX – currently at c. UK£120 – provides two mic preamps with switchable phantom power (these inputs can be used with guitars, keyboards, dynamic mics or phantom powered mics – and I’ll talk more about these different types of microphones in a later part of this series) and MIDI I/O in a very neat package. As it uses USB to connect to your iPad, it does require you to have Apple’s Camera Connection Kit (the CCK, available for UK£25 from the Apple Store) or the Lightning to USB cable (for newer iDevices and also priced at UK£25) but the audio quality is good and the unit could also serve as an audio/MIDI interface for a desktop computer system if you need that option as well.
Similar options might be the PreSonus Audiobox 2×2 (around UK£115) that, while not listed as formally supporting the iPad, is a class compliant core audio device (requires no drivers on a Mac) and there are plenty of folks out there (as a quick search on Google/YouTube will demonstrate) who have it working with the iPad as well as Windows/OS X, or something like the Focusrite 2i4, 6i6 or 8i6 (UK£150, UK£199 and UK£189 respectively). While the Focusrite website doesn’t always make it clear that these devices work with the iPad, user reports (try a quick Google search) suggest few, if any, problems.
I’ve used a Focusrite 8i6 in my own studio setup for a about a year and it works very well with both my iPad and desktop computer. The audio quality is very good indeed (material I’ve recorded using this interface has been used in broadcast TV so it is perfectly capable of good results). The model numbers and price differences reflect the number of audio inputs in each unit, with more features the further you go up the range. All use USB and therefore require the CCK or Lightning to USB cable (depending upon your iPad model) for use with the iPad.
The downside with some of these more generic ‘designed for the desktop’ audio+MIDI interfaces is that compatibility with iOS is not a given. You really do need to do your research here. Check the manufacturer’s website and search online to see if other users have experience of a specific make/model of interface with an iPad (or iPhone). And if you can’t find any definitive answers – and the manufacturer’s themselves can’t reassure you – then it’s probably best to avoid or get a hands-on demo in your local store.
There is one other issue to consider with an interface that’s not specifically designed with iOS in mind; power. Before you stump up your cash, make sure you know whether the unit is likely to work by drawing power from the iPad or whether it will need to be powered via the mains. The former is obviously convenient and would mean that you could (while your battery charge lasts) recorded anywhere. The latter means that you will not draw down your iPad’s battery charge quite so quickly but ties you to working near a mains source. In addition, note that most of these desktop-designed interfaces will use the iPad’s docking port and will not pass power through to your iPad. This may not a deal-breaker…. but do be aware of the issue when considering your options.
Designed for iPad
Of course, you could avoid any compatibility issues if you buy an audio+MIDI interface designed specifically with the iPad in mind. IK Multimedia’s simple – but very effective – iRig PRO that was mentioned above is a case in point. If you can manage with a single audio input (suitable for both guitars and phantom powered mics) and a single 5-pin MIDI input, this device is currently hard to beat and is both relatively inexpensive and highly portable.
However, if you need the greater flexibility offered by multiple audio inputs, then two relatively recent products are perhaps the obvious contenders; the Alesis iODock II and the Focusrite iTrack Dock. The formats of both these devices are broadly similar. Both require mains power, offer twin audio inputs that support instruments or phantom powered mics, have MIDI connectivity and outputs for both headphones and monitor speakers.
Both also have a ‘dock’ format so your iPad slots into (or onto) the body of the interface is some fashion. I have to say that I’m yet to be 100% convinced by the concept of a physical ‘dock’ (at least, in terms of how I’ve seen them implemented to date) simply because Apple are renown for changing the physical size of the iPad on a regular basis. However, if you are happy to live within whatever constraints the dock format might impose, both of these devices are compact and very convenient and, in use, both give very respectable audio performance, making the ‘interface+iPad’ combination seem like a single, coherent, recording system.
The Alesis unit is currently c. UK£135 while the Focusrite has a current street price of c. £170. There are some detailed differences in their specification (for example, in terms of the format of the MIDI support) so you need to consult the manufacturer’s specifications lists to decide which might suit your own needs best.
Don’t expect either to be a ‘perfect’ fit (at these prices, there is bound to be something you might wish to see included that is not) and also don’t expect anything at this price point to keep you satisfied for more than a year or two. Yes, you can do some seriously good recording with either of them (providing you take good care and attention of other elements of the recording process) but, in professional recording terms, these are devices build to a fairly modest budget. As a starting point for our iPad recording studio, however, either can do a very respectable job.
Of course, options such as the iRig PRO, Alesis iODock II and Focusrite iTrack Dock are far from the only choices and, as mentioned earlier, there are lots of audio+MIDI interfaces that are both desktop-friendly and also work well with an iPad. In the end, this is not a ‘one-size fits all’ kind of question…. but, with a bit of research (and armed with some ideas gleaned from this series of articles), you should be able to get as close as possible to finding ‘one-size that fits you’ sort of an answer.
So, to recap, you need to decide whether you want to record just audio, just MIDI or a combination of both. That will let you decide whether you need just an audio interface, just a MIDI interface or both. And if you want both, you can decide whether you will buy separate devices for audio and MIDI (and probably have to use them separately as you will only be able to plug one of them into your docking port at a time) or whether you are going to go for a combined audio+MIDI interface.
OK… that’s hopefully got you thinking. However, before you rush out and buy yourself an interface, we need to think about what other equipment you are going to connect to that interface. If we want to make some MIDI-based recordings, we need to consider whether we need a MIDI keyboard and, if so, what type and features we require. If we want to make audio-based recordings – perhaps with vocals or acoustic instruments – then we need a microphone (or two) and, if so, we need to consider what type of microphone might be most suitable for the type of recordings we intend to make.
And that’s where Part 3 (MIDI keyboards) and Part 4 (microphones) of this series will come in….