At times, IK Multimedia have had their share of detractors amongst the iOS music making community (most notably for their use of in-app ads but, thankfully, this is criticism they have responded to) but they are certainly a company that has embraced the iOS platform full-on.
The R&D costs of developing software for a relatively new platform are considerable yet IKM have produced a number of very creditable music apps, AmpliTube, SampleTank, VocaLive, iGrand and iLectric amongst them. However, the R&D level of risk for hardware must be an order of magnitude greater…. and IKM are one of the few companies that have consistently bought new and improved hardware products to the market aimed specifically at the iOS musician.
This process started with the original iRig – a compact, inexpensive, audio interfaces that made it easy to plug your guitar into your iOS headphone jack to use your favourite iOS guitar amp rig (AmpliTube included) – and while that unit was never going to satisfy the audiophile guitar player, it sold by the bucket-load. It was followed by devices such as the iRig Pro and iRig HD, both of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog (and, incidentally, both or which I still use on a regular basis), which improved the feature set and the audio quality considerably, albeit at a higher cost.
And, officially released this week, we have the latest iteration of the guitar-friendly iRig line; iRig HD 2. The new unit is priced at UK£99.99/€122 (around the US$130 mark I think?) and, like the iRig HD it supersedes, connects to your iOS hardware via the Lightning port. It is also supplied with a USB cable and can work with both OSX and Windows computers (the latter using the freely available ASIO4all drivers).
So, aside for a ‘v.2’ label, what does the iRig HD 2 bring that’s new and improved? Let’s find out….
New rig, same as the old rig….
The first thing to make clear is that the iRig HD 2 most certainly covers the same ground as the iRig HD…. it just does it better (in terms of technical specification) and more of it (in terms of additional features). This is, therefore, a compact audio interface aimed very particularly at iOS mobile guitar players but who might also want the same device to do a turn with their OXS/Windows computer.
Physically, the construction is all-plastic as per the previous iRig units but, with suitable care and attention on behalf of the user (much as you would have to pay to your iPhone or iPad), it ought to survive the gigging environment OK and, in a home/project studio setting, would be absolutely fine.
HD 2 is slightly larger than the original HD to accommodate some extra connectivity that I’ll get to in a minute. However, as before, you get a micro-USB connector/cable combination to connect the iRig HD 2 to either your Lightning equipped iOS hardware or to your USB-equipped computer, a standard 1/4” jack socket to plug in your guitar or bass, an input level LED (which changes colour to indicated the input level) and an input gain control on one side of the unit so you can easily deal with guitars/basses with different sorts of pickup output levels.
These features are all found on the original iRig HD but the 1/4” input does benefit from what is better A/D conversion hardware inside the unit. This can handle up to 24-bit and 96kHz sample rates. In my own testing, I’d have no complaints about the quality of the audio reaching my iPad through the HD 2; it seemed transparent and free from obvious noise. I didn’t have my own iRig HD available to do a direct comparison (it’s been stolen by my eldest son and is currently in the UK) but I suspect the HD 2 does bring some marginal (but always useful) improvements.
On my head(phones)
The HD 2 does, however, also bring some new features and both of the ‘highlight’ new connectivity options suggest that someone at IKM has done some pretty sensible thinking in terms of the needs of guitar players wanting to include their iOS virtual guitar rig into their live performance setup.
First, and most welcome if you happen to be the proud owner of a new iPhone 7 or 7 Plus, the iRig HD 2 now includes a 1/8” stereo headphone output; for private practice, you can now easily just plug in some ‘buds or other headphones and not have to deal with any additional add-ons. However, that’s not all this output brings. You also get a dedicated headphone output volume control (on the opposite side of the unit to the input level control) and the preamp for the headphone output is, apparently, of a high quality.
In the absence of full technical data (although that can, of course, be little use at times in giving a sense of real world performance), all I could do here is make a comparison between the standard headphone jack on my iPad Pro and the iRig Pro HD 2. So, running a guitar signal into the HD 2, through AmpliTube for iOS, and then out to a suitable audio input on my own studio mixer/audio interface, I have to say that the HD 2 was the clear winner. Both produced very respectable audio performance but I think the HD 2 had a bit of an edge in terms of noise levels…. and also seemed able to shove out a noticeably higher level overall (presumably a more powerful preamp used?).
Cranking my studio monitoring system – as you would need to crank a PA in a live performance context – didn’t reveal any obvious noise gremlins, although any high-gain amp modelling is bound to be prone to some noise just as a real amp with high gain levels is. Thankfully, AmpliTube includes noise gate/noise suppressor options so you can tame some of this anyway, but the bottom line is that the headphone output of the iRig HD 2 is, in my limited testing at least, of better quality than that build into your iPhone or iPad…. Whether you have an iPhone 7 (without a headphone jack) or earlier iOS hardware, the odds are that you would use the HD 2’s headphone jack anyway.
I love my amp
As someone who is more of a studio animal than a live performer, I’ve always been happy to embrace the world of virtual guitar rigs, be that dedicated hardware or in pure software form. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the ‘real amp’ vibe through and, when it comes to the occasional live performance or jam session with a few friends, then there is something undeniable about how a warmly cooking valve amp sounds and, more importantly I think, ‘feels’ that impacts upon your playing. That said, the latest modelling technology such as the Line 6 Helix or Kemper ‘Profiler’ Amp Head are very, very close (check out the Anderton’s YouTube channel for a recent blind test of the Kemper; impressive stuff).
All of which begs the question as to whether it is possible to combine the best bits of both digital and analog (valve) technology in your guitar rig…. and, in the iRig HD 2, IK Multimedia are trying to offer guitar and bass plays exactly that option with the second highlight new feature; the new 1/4” amplifier output.
This is located at the base of the unit next to the 1/4” input jack and means that you can send the output from the unit directly to your guitar amp or, indeed, to a full range amplifier/speaker combination. This opens up all sorts of interesting options….
For example, if you wanted to be entirely virtual and let AmpliTube – or another iOS virtual guitar rig app – be the source of all your tone, you could feed this output to a full-bandwidth amp (many acoustic guitar or keyboard amps fit this description) rather than a conventional guitar amp…. or, providing you have a suitable unbalanced input on your mixer, straight to your PA rather than using the headphone output. Fasten your iPad/iPhone and iRig HD 2 to your mic stand (and their is a clip and velcro strap included in the box to do just that for the iRig HD 2 itself) and off you rock :-)
However, the other option – and this is the one that instantly appealed to me – was to use my iPad simply as a virtual pedalboard for its various stompbox effects, bypass the amp modelling within whatever iOS guitar rig I was using, and then use this output directly into my guitar amp and let the ‘real’ amp do its thing.
Having given this a try, I have to say it worked a treat. I have a small (but seriously loud when cranked) Blackstar HT Studio 20 is my own setup and, with any of my favourite iOS guitar rig sims (I tried AmpliTube, Mobile POD and BIAS FX in this role) sat in front of it, but with their guitar amp and cab modelling bypassed, I was able to stick all sorts of interesting footpedal combinations in front of the amp with just a few taps. And, frankly, it sounded great….
OK, so this still might not beat a dedicated stompbox pedal board in some ways and, if your amp happens to support an effects loop (so, for example, you can run your delay and reverb effects after the real amp rather than before it), then iRig HD 2’s amp output is not really going to let you recreate that…. but by enabling the options for an iOS virtual pedal board with a lot of flexibility, it really is an impressive feature.
This output also offers a ‘Thru/FX’ switch located on the side of the iRig HD 2. This allows you to bypass the processing in your iOS device entirely so the guitar input goes straight to the 1/4” amp jack output. I guess this would be useful if you simply wanted any latency the iPad/iPhone might create out of the way… but, in own testing at least, I don’t find that a problem with the current iOS hardware; it’s fast enough to operate at pretty low latency levels providing it isn’t also being asked to run a bunch of other apps at the same time. For information, note that the ‘Thru’ option doesn’t apply to the headphone jack; that always gets the processed signal.
As you can see from the photo included here, I did also try this potential ‘live performance’ combination of iPad virtual pedalboard and real guitar amp with IK Multimedia’s iRig BlueBoard. I used the BlueBoard to switch on/off the various stompboxes I had selected within AmpliTube. For hands-free switching mid-song – even if your iPad/iPhone is within easy reach – this is obviously preferable. Again, this worked a treat and the BlueBoard (or Positive Grid’s BT-4) as part of this ‘mixed’ rig just makes it that much more like using a traditional ‘amp plus pedalboard’. I’m sure there are also other ways you could make use of this combination of outputs….
And there’s more….
At UK£99.99/€122/US$130, the iRig HD 2 is not perhaps a casual purchase, but the pricing is in line with other products in the iRig line and, given the portability, features on offer, and sheer convenience it provides for the iOS-wielding guitarist, I think it is fairly priced. No, not ‘bargain’ or ‘steal’, but fair….
However, IKM have added in a further sweetener to the deal; you also get the full version of both AmpliTube for iOS and AmpliTube 4 on the desktop. The latter, incidentally, retails on its own for around the UK£130/€180/US$200 mark…. er…. no, I’m not quite sure what sense that pricing makes either but, if you were interested in picking up a copy of AmpliTube 4 for your desktop system, why not pay less for the iRig HD 2 and get AmpliTube thrown in?
Having given AmpliTube 4 a quick spin on my Mac, it seems to work very well and sounds great. By default, it perhaps doesn’t have such a wide range of virtual kit as some other guitar amp sim plugins (as in the iOS version, you can expand the choices considerably via the online store) but there is plenty to get you started and to allow you to dial in tones from super-clean to hard-core metal straight out the box (er… download). Anyway, it is quite an impressive ‘freebie’ as part of the iRig HD 2 package.
Are we there yet?
If we go back just a few years in terms of iOS music making history, there were so many obvious ways in which you could see the potential of the platform for musicians. Fast-forward to the present day and many of those areas of potential have been explored by the community of brilliant and inventive developers. No, we might not be ‘there’ yet on all fronts – there is still considerable potential waiting to be exploited – but we have seen progress in all sorts of areas.
And, in its own way, the iRig HD 2 is an example of that progress. Having given us the original mobile guitar audio interface for iOS in the iRig, IK Multimedia have taken the improved audio performance introduced in the iRig HD (and iRig Pro) and pushed things up a notch. And, in the ‘Amp Out’ option, they have also added a new feature that, for live performance duties, opens up some excellent new possibilities for the guitarist. This is another small step along the way in making it possible to integrate your iOS virtual guitar rig technology into a live rig but in a way that allows you to combine the best of both the digital and analog worlds.
OK, so there is still more you might ask for (in the case of the iRig HD 2, that effects loop option is an obvious example) so we are not in perfect iOS music production nirvana just yet…. but progress continues to be made and that’s a good thing.
I really like the iRig HD 2. I think IK Multimedia have taken a well-established concept and added something extra that, for live performers in particular, would be very welcome. They have undoubtedly also added incremental improvements to the audio quality of the audio interface.
Even as a committed fan of virtual guitar rig systems (and I use such systems almost exclusively in my own recording projects), I can really see the attraction of using my iPad as a virtual pedalboard while retaining my ‘real’ valve amp for the core of my guitar tones in a live performance environment. Add in the Bluetooth MIDI switching for that iPad pedalboard and it becomes an even more practical solution. For the live performer then – looking to bring their iOS tech into their live rig – the iRig HD 2 is a very neat solution.
If you are predominantly a studio person (like me really), and you already own a decent, Lightning-based, audio interface to use with your iPad or iPhone (including the original iRig HD) then maybe the incentive to upgrade is somewhat less…. even with the bundled versions of AmpliTube. That said, for all the occasions that IKM have copped some flack from the iOS music making community, I think they should also cop some praise when they deliver something genuinely useful…. and the iRig HD 2 is exactly that. IK Multimedia…. well done :-)