Building an iPad recording studio; Part 9 – bare-bones and next step examples

finger on a tablet computer screenIn Part 8 of this series on building a iPad recording studio I outlined an example of what might make a solid, respectable, ‘starter kit’ – hardware and software – to sit around your actual iPad.

A system such as this – not necessarily based on these exact items of equipment but items of a similar general standard – would allow you to make some decent recordings using both audio and MIDI and would give you plenty of creative options.

However, as we saw in Part 8, when you do a budget for such a system, over and above the cost of the iPad itself, it could come in at around the UK£840 mark (or the equivalent in your local currency). In the context of a complete DIY home recording system, and given the range of options it provides you with, well…  that’s actually pretty cheap….

empty pockets

Financially challenged having coughed up for your iPad? You need the ‘bare bones’ shopping list to complete your iPad recording studio….

However, what if your budget won’t take you that far? Is there a ‘bare bones’ version of the iPad recording studio that can give us ‘almost’ what the ‘starter kit’ does but for a lower initial cost? Equally, what if we know that this iPad recording studio we want to build is going to get some serious use for some serious recording. Where might we best invest any additional money to step up from the ‘starter kit’ and, potentially at least, improve on the quality of what we can do?

In this instalment of the series  – Part 9 – I’m going to look at both these scenarios; the ‘bare bones iPad recording studio and the ‘next step’ iPad recording studio, and put together a similar outline budget for both.

To reiterate a point I made in Part 8, neither of the shopping lists below are intended to be absolute recommendations; they are illustrative of what’s possible at two very different price points and, for any of the items listed here, you could easily substitute something from an alternative manufacturer that would perform just as well for a similar price… but, hopefully, these lists will, at least, get you thinking about what’s possible….

The ‘bare bones’ iPad recording studio budget

OK, so if, initially at least, we have to pare back on some of the items in Part 8’s ‘starter kit’ budget, where might we make some sensible savings without also making great compromises in what we might achieve?

Well, we can, of course, buy slightly less expensive items of hardware, maybe even avoid one or two hardware items and, of course, start with a smaller collection of music apps. The table below shows an example… with the usual disclaimer that this is just an example; there are plenty of alternative ways of approaching this and different items of equipment that could substitute for some (all?) of the items shown here….

Can we apre down our expenditure and create a 'bare bones'iPad recording studio that can still deliver decent results? Yes we can...  but there are some compromises to make.

Can we pare down our expenditure and create a ‘bare bones’iPad recording studio that can still deliver decent results? Yes we can… but there are some compromises to make.

As you can see, the bottom line for this ‘bare bones’ system (not counting the iPad) now comes in at around half of the ‘starter kit’; around UK£430 as opposed to UK£840. If you are just getting into this kind of music technology that might well be a more achievable target. So, what changes, omissions or compromises have we had to adopt to get to this reduced expenditure?

Let’s start with the hardware. First, this shopping list adopts a less expensive audio/MIDI interface; the iRig PRO. This still allows you to connect both a condenser microphone or an electric guitar source to your iPad, and also a MIDI keyboard (as long as it has 5-pin MIDI connectors rather than USB MIDI), but you can only input one audio signal at a time. This might not be such a big deal for the solo musician or a couple of musicians working in collaboration. The audio quality of the iRig PRO is still, however, pretty good so there is not too much of a compromise on that front.

I’ve kept the same MIDI keyboard but dropped items like the pop filter, reduced the expenditure on other accessories/cables, etc. and included a cheaper mic stand. All these things save some money without having too great an impact on the audio/MIDI capabilities of the system.

The iRig PRO; only one audio input but it gets the job done with either a condenser mic or an instrument and also includes MIDI.

The iRig PRO; only one audio input but it gets the job done with either a condenser mic or an instrument and also includes MIDI.

However, perhaps the biggest changes are in a less expensive microphone, less expensive headphones and, for the time being at least, taking the decision to manage without ‘proper’ nearfield monitors. These are areas that will influence what you can do and, if there was money in the budget, these are compromises you would not really want to make. That said, to start with at least, you can get by with just headphones…  and maybe you can check your mixes on other audio systems such as a hi-fi, earbuds or a car stereo. This is good practice anyway but, obviously, eventually some decent studio monitors would be worth acquiring.

A further point is worth making here…  given the choice, in the short term, I’d do without something (for example, the nearfields), if it meant I could actually buy something else (e.g. the headphones) of better quality. So, if I had a budget of c. UK£100 for monitoring, I’d be inclined to spend it all on decent headphones (leaving the nearfields until later) rather than divide it between a lesser pair of headphones and a cheaper set of nearfields. Buy one ‘good’ item and save for the second, rather than buying two cheap items, both of which might need replacing later on.

The Audio Technica ATH-M30's still perform pretty well at about half the price of the M50s.

The Audio Technica ATH-M30’s still perform pretty well at about half the price of the M50s.

Microphones might be approached in a similar way; if you can manage without something that is less vital to start with in the overall setup, buy the best microphone your budget allows. That way, even if you upgrade other elements of the system, the mic can come with you. For audio recording – vocals, acoustic guitars, etc. – the mic is the first stage of capturing the best audio quality that you can. It would not matter how good your audio interface was if the mic sat in front of it was c**p….

In terms of the software, well… all I’ve suggested here is pairing down the number of apps you initially purchase. Fewer synths, for example and fewer audio effect apps. What’s left here will still (a) provide plenty of sound sources, (b) plenty of creative options and (c) allow you to capture, edit, mix and master some great recordings.

Depending upon which model of iPad you have purchased, with this ‘bare bones’ budget, you could put together a pretty powerful personal iPad recording studio for a total (inclusive of the iPad) around UK£1000. This is still a lot of recording functionality for a pretty modest total outlay.

The ‘next step’ iPad recording studio budget

If, however, you have just had a modest win on the lottery or your boss has provided you with an unexpected bonus (or, more likely, your band mates are pooling resources), you might feel ready to get a little bit more ambitious than the ‘starter kit’ outlined in Part 8 of the series. If that’s the case, where best might some extra money be spent?

To an extent, the answer here depends upon whether your recordings make use of plenty of audio (vocals, guitars, acoustic drums, pianos, etc.) or are almost exclusively electronic in nature. However, for the sake of discussion here, I’m going to assume that audio in at least an important element. If that’s the case, then money spent capturing the best audio quality you can, will be money well spent.

Anyway, that assumption taken, here’s an example of the direction we might go in….

If you have a more ambitious budget, then you could take your iPad recording studio to the next step.

If you have a more ambitious budget, then you could take your iPad recording studio to the next step.

Excluding the outlay on your iPad, in this more upmarket iPad recording studio, we are looking at a budget of around UK£1580. So where has that extra (imaginary) cash been spent?

Much of it is allocated to better quality hardware. So, for example, I’ve gone for a standard desktop USB audio/MIDI interface. This Focusrite model works fine with an iPad (although it does require external power and will not charge your iPad while connected) but features 4 analog inputs (two mic/instrument and two line-level, all of which can be used at the same time), twin headphone outputs, and would support two alternative sets of monitors. There are, however, plenty of alternative audio+MIDI interfaces at different price points that you could swap in here.

Focusrite's USB Scarlett 6i6 interface is designed for the desktop but works well with a iPad, has 4in/4out analog audio, MIDI connectivity (on 5 pin sockets) and very good audio quality.

Focusrite’s USB Scarlett 6i6 interface is designed for the desktop but works well with a iPad, has 4in/4out analog audio, MIDI connectivity (on 5 pin sockets) and very good audio quality.

I’ve also includes a more upmarket – and larger format – MIDI controller keyboard with lots of additional hardware controls. This will come in handy if you want to get creative with your iOS synths (for example) and you could use the faders to help automate your mixing in your main iOS recording app.

The microphone is also a more expensive – and hopefully better – model. In truth, you could keep spending here and, if you do want to record more than one audio signal at the same time, then you could also budget for a second mic (and mic stand/cable) to go alongside it. With a better mic, you need a better mic stand but I’ve also added a reflection filter. This is a device that fits to the mic stand (so it better be a good solid one) and shields the rear of the mic from noise. It means your recordings are that bit cleaner with less room reflections reaching the mic.

sE Electronics make a range of 'reflection filters' that can really improve the quality of your audio recordings by reducing unwanted sound getting to your microphone in the first place.

sE Electronics make a range of ‘reflection filters’ that can really improve the quality of your audio recordings by reducing unwanted sound getting to your microphone in the first place.

Finally, on the hardware front, I’ve gone for some larger, and better specified, monitor speakers. Again, this is an area in which you could spend a lot of money but, even in an ambitious studio start-up, you will be able to tell the difference between UK£100 and UK£200….  you are getting closer to the ‘sweet spot’ in terms of pricing even if not actually reaching it.

Note that I’ve also added something to the budget for some acoustic foam panels. These are not for sound proofing but for sound treatment and would be placed behind and to the sides of your monitors to reduce reflections from any hard surfaces reaching your listening position. These ‘clean up’ your monitoring environment and make it easier to hear the speakers rather than the room…  and the result is that it is easier to make judgements about your recordings and mixing. Auralex are perhaps the best known make of these products but there are others and, if you shop around, you can find retailers who will sell you just a few 2x2ft panels (4 or 5 would be a good start) rather than having to buy enough to treat a complete recording room.

On the software front, all I’ve done is add in a few extra creative options in terms of apps – extra audio effects apps, extra synths and a number of electronic music production apps. Even so, for UK£300, this range of software represents a lot of potential for a pretty modest outlay, especially when compared to desktop software prices.

Even a small amount of acoustic treatment around your monitoring position can help...  Auralex make an excellent range of such products and they don't have to me gray (I went for the rather fetching purple!)

Even a small amount of acoustic treatment around your monitoring position can help… Auralex make an excellent range of such products and they don’t have to me gray (I went for the rather fetching purple!)

And combine that with what is some pretty decent audio hardware, and you have an iPad recording studio that – once you have its basic operation grasped – could make you some genuinely good recordings.

What next?

And that last statement actually leads me quite nicely to Part 10… because while you might have the budget, and can therefore assemble all the equipment, there is still another ‘budget’ to consider. No, not more money to find but something a bit more precious; your time.

If you are going to capitalise on what this iPad recording studio can actually achieve – starter kit, bare bones or next step versions – you need to ensure that you – the operator – are not the weak link in the recording signal chain. So, having coughed up the cash, you need to invest some time in learning how it all works. So where do you go to start teaching yourself about how all this wonderful music technology can be fully exploited?

Now, this is a big topic… and one part of this short series is not going to give you many (heck, maybe even any) of the answers. However, I’d better at least try and nudge you in the right direction….

Onwards to part 10 then – the final part of this series – and where I’ll make some suggestions on this front, try to put this shiny new iPad recording studio into a slightly wider context and, finally, bring together a few general conclusions from the series as a whole.

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    Comments

    1. If I have all of the VocaLive Inn-App’s in AmpliTube is there any reason to buy VocaLive?

    2. Russ, amplitube allows a single vocalive effect (fx slot1), whereas vocalive standalone gives you 2 simultaneous vocal effects (+ 2 ‘traditional’ fx – chorus, reverb etc). I often chain the de-esser from vocalive in amplitube with pitch fix , choir etc from vocalive standalone…you can run both via IAA, effectively giving you 3 vocal effects on a recorded vocal track with no latency. To me it’s worth it being able to chain 3 effects, YMMV. Hope this helps.

    3. What about storage? Do I need an external drive to store my project files and finished products? If so, what should I be looking at?

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