While the winter NAMM show was, as usual, dominated by guitars and drum and keyboards and desktop music technology, tucked away in the corners were a number of items that would obviously appeal to the iOS-based musician. For example, IK Multimedia – one of the more prominent supporters of the mobile musician – had a few new things to announce. These included the up-coming iRig Pro I/O (a follow up to the very popular original iRig Pro) and the iRig Nano Amp (a pocket-sized amp for your iOS-based guitar rig modelling software).
However, while we will have to wait for these two products, one other announcement made is for an item that’s already shipping; the iRig Acoustic Stage. Long-standing readers will recall that I reviewed the iRig Acoustic – a simple, clip-on, microphone device suitable for almost any sort of acoustic instrument – back in November 2015 when it was first released. The new unit, as its name suggests, is a development from that original product.
However, as well as the iRig Acoustic pickup – which remains in a similar physical format – the ‘Stage’ package also includes a much more sophisticated break-out box. And, while the design most certainly does make it an option for use on stage in a live performance context, the new hardware is also going to appeal to home (including iPhone and iPad) recording enthusiasts.
The new device is available now and, priced at €121.99 (and I suspect a very similar US$ price), is perhaps less of an obvious ‘casual purchase’ than the original iRig Acoustic pickup. So, what does the new ‘Stage’ version have to offer?
Been there, done that
The pickup element of the new package is, in general terms at least, identical to the original iRig Acoustic. I’ll not repeat too much detail here, therefore, but simply send you off to the original review so you can check out the details. I’m not sure if IK Multimedia have made any design changes to the internal spec of the pickup itself (although it wouldn’t surprise me if there have been some minor tweaks). However, I’ll just recap that the pickup itself is a doddle to use, will clip to almost any acoustic guitar with ease and can also be used with many other acoustic instruments that feature some sort of sound-hole, be that circular or f-shaped.
It’s perhaps also worth repeating what I said about acoustic guitar recording in general when reviewing the original iRig Acoustic. There are all sorts of ways of recording an acoustic guitar. You can, of course, stick a suitable microphone in front of it (as you would any acoustic sound source) or, if the guitar has a pickup system build into it (for example, under the bridge), you can simply patch that straight into your audio interface. However, getting a ‘great’ sound with either of these methods is not a ‘gimmie’. The mic route has all sorts of potential pitfalls related to the quality of the guitar, mic, audio interface and the nature of the room in which the recording is being made. Using any built-in pickup, while perhaps very useful in a live performance context, can generate a somewhat less-than-natural sound when recorded.
If you have struggled with both of these approaches (or a combination of them) in the past, then any solution that can make getting a decent acoustic guitar tone into your recording software or PA might be of interest. And, if that solution happens to have been designed with iOS in mind, then so much the better.
The iRig Acoustic Stage pickup is, of course, a ‘budget’ device designed to a modest price point. It would be unfair of the user to expect it to deliver the quality of results that might be obtained with a top-end mic via high quality audio interface in a beautiful sounding acoustic space. That said, for the price, it delivers results that punch well above its weight. It also does it in a consistent fashion and, to a large extent, takes the ‘room’ out of the equation (and the room can be a big part of the recorded sound regardless of the mic/guitar combination used) that, for many home recording fans, is often a positive.
The next stage
Instead of the mini-breakout box of the original, the ‘Stage’ version of the iRig Acoustic concept comes with a larger – and more fully-featured – breakout box. As shown in the various images, this can be belt or strap mounted and the thin cable that is connected to the cute plectrum-shaped mic/pickup connects to this breakout box.
While all the hardware is of a plastic construction, it seems solid enough (and you do get a good padded carry case for the system included within the box) and perhaps to mic-to-breakout box cable is the one element of the package that you would need to take some care with; it’s easy enough to imagine it getting pinched at some point….
The breakout box features include a mono 1/4” jack output and a standard guitar-style jack cable can be connected here and onwards to your acoustic guitar amplifier (for stage use) or to a mixing desk/audio interface (for either live or studio use). I’m pretty sure the signal level coming out here is ‘guitar level’ and therefore requires a Hi-Z style input on your audio interface or mixer (that’s certainly what worked best for me in testing).
There is also an ‘Aux’ input. This is intended for use with acoustic guitars that also include their own pickup system. Simply run a short jack cable from your guitar’s jack socket to the Aux socket on the breakout box and you can then blend the two signals – guitar pickup and iRig pickup – and balance them as required via the Mix knob. The Vol knob allows you to adjust the overall output level and, rather usefully, this can be pushed in/out of the main body of the breakout box so that you won’t accidentally knock it mid-gig having got your level set.
On the opposite sides of the unit are two switches. The first is simply a power on/off switch and the breakout box houses two AA batteries that will, apparently, give around 15 hours of operation time in normal use. On the other side is a Phase switch. This can be toggled between 0 deg and 180 deg and, if you are blending the iRig pickup and a guitar pickup, it’s worth experimenting with to see if one setting produces a better sound than the other.
The front panel contains the Feedback cancelation button and the Tone options. As explained in the PDF manual, while the basic function of these two controls is pretty obvious, there are some interesting features tucked behind them. For example, the ‘Cancel Feedback’ button does exactly what its name might suggest but can cancel up to ten different frequencies at the same time.
So, for example, if you wind up your amp’s volume until it starts to feedback, hitting the ‘cancel’ button will (hopefully) kill the feedback. You can then wind up the volume a bit more and a different frequency might start to feedback… yep, hit the button again and the unit kills some of that frequency also. And repeat as required…. I didn’t try this in a stage setting but did use it with a small amp in my (also small) studio room. It seems to do a decent job but then I was (a) pretty close to the amp and (b) not working at realistic stage volumes…. Most feedback suppression systems will help when used on stage but, equally, most can not perform sonic miracles. I don’t expect the iRig Acoustic Stage system would be any different; a help but not a magic bullet.
The Tone button offers six tone options. By default, the selection is for a steel strung instrument and you can step through the natural, warm and bright tone settings. They are subtly, but usefully, different. Keep stepping and the Nylon LED lights up and you get the same three options calibrated for a nylon strung guitar.
However, if you hold down the Tone button for two second, all the LEDs start to flash and you can then play your input instrument over a range of frets (there is a tutorial video on IKM’s website that shows this process) and the system will then ‘profile’ your input signal and adjust the tonal settings accordingly. I gave this a go with my Taylor acoustic and it did generate a small difference… but not one that I’d really say was very obvious. Still, the option is there if you want to experiment with it. Incidentally, both the Feedback settings and the Tone calibration settings can be reset to their default values by pressing and holding the respective buttons.
I tried the iRig Acoustic Stage system with a number of different instruments and a number of different output destinations. In terms of guitars, I used it with two steel strung acoustics (one with its own internal pickup and one without) and a Yamaha thin-line nylon stung guitar. I had no problems with any of these sources. If I had the choice of blending in an internal pickup alongside the iRig’s signal, then, for live use, I suspect that’s what I’d do. It gives you the option of adding just a little more ‘edge’ although perhaps sacrifices some of the more ‘natural’ acoustic sound captured by the iRig pickup.
As with the original iRig Acoustic, across the board, the actual sound of the pickup – whether through an amp, or recorded to my desktop/iPad system, was pretty good…. and certainly as good as I could have achieved using a budget condenser mic. It was also a lot less faff and, because the pickup stays in a fixed position on your guitar, a little bit of movement while you play is less of an issue.
In terms of recorded sound, I think I’d characterise the results as ‘honest’ but not flattering. Personally, I think that’s a good thing (and perhaps as much as we have any right to expect given the modest price). It will not turn your cheap acoustic with worn out strings into some mega-Martin clone…. the iRig just does a decent job of capturing what your actual guitar sounds like up-close and personal. Whatever mix tweaks might have been required after recording with a standard mic – EQ and compression, for example – are just as likely to be required here.
There is one further feature of the hardware I have not yet mentioned; the USB output. This uses a micro-USB connector and, hooked up to your computer or iOS hardware (you have to provide your own cable), you get an audio interface with a mono input (and no output; you monitor via your studio system or via your iOS headphone output for example).
When I came to do some iOS-based recording into Cubasis, I tried both the audio out from the iRig breakout box and the USB out (connected to my iPad’s Lightning port via a suitable USB connector). Of the two, I think I preferred the results I got with the USB route. There was plenty of level and I thought the sound was a pretty good representation of what I was hearing when actually playing. As a means of quickly getting an acoustic guitar part into my iPad recording system, this is just as easy as the original iRig Acoustic system but I think produces somewhat better results.
For those making demos on the move, the iRig system would make for a very convenient and consistent approach. It wouldn’t matter quite so much which hotel room you happened to be in on any particular night; the iRig pickup and breakout box would pretty much take the room out of the equation.
Incidentally, you could, of course, still then indulge in some processing of your recorded acoustic parts using IKM’s AmpliTube Acoustic app – released at the same time as the original iRig Acoustic pickup – and still available on the App Store. This features some interesting options for tweaking your acoustic tones if the standard processing options within your DAW/sequencer of choice can’t quite get you where you want to be.
To a large degree, my conclusions here mirror what I said about the original iRig Acoustic. Given the combination of price, compact format, ease of use, and the fact that the recorded results are very respectable, I think IK Multimedia have good a good job here of moving the whole iRig Acoustic concept up to another level. As a product line, no, perhaps it is not as road-ready as some hardware you can buy. However, treated with care, I can easily imagine it giving singer-songwriter types decent service in a live context. It is also a respectable performer for basic acoustic guitar recording, including for those working on iOS.
There are perhaps better ‘live pickup’ options you can buy… and also perhaps better acoustic guitar recording setups that you could use…. but I suspect they will cost more than the iRig Acoustic Stage and it does a decent turn at both these tasks. And that perhaps best sums up the target market for the unit; someone who needs a single device that will serve both duties in a solid fashion and at a modest price. It’s not perhaps something for the fully-fledged pro performer/recording guitarist who is doing well paid gigs/sessions but, for those of us a little further down the professional ladder, it’s a convenient, workable and cost-effective option with few downsides.
Yes, you might eventually move on to bigger and better things but, until then, the iRig Acoustic Stage can do a very decent job and, as a total package, is a step up from the original iRig Acoustic and well worth the additional outlay.