I’ve been lucky enough to get to try quite a range of hardware add-ons that might be of interest to the iOS musician in the course of running the Music App Blog. As a relatively new – and very quickly evolving – platform, buying hardware dedicated for just iOS use can be a bit of a risky business. However, perhaps less of a risk are products aimed at both desktop and iOS users and the latest hardware item I have in for review is an example of this; the iSolo wireless acoustic microphone system.
In fact, in the format I got to try – the ‘live & recording’ version – the small microphone system can be used wirelessly for both for recording (iOS and desktop) or for live use and you can choose between three different versions of the product; recording only, live only and, as I tried, the ‘live & recording’ version. And, while the version I received is aimed at the acoustic guitar player, there is also a similar bundle aimed at the violinist. I have not tried this but is appears to be very similar in nature aside from some differences with the microphone component.
iSolo – about a mount
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the iSolo is the microphone itself. It is built into a small metallic housing about the size of a USB memory stick and, as well as a few compact controls, this features a short aerial for wireless transmission of the audio, the microphone itself (this is, I think, where the acoustic guitar and violin designs may vary; the guitar mic is on a short goose-neck so you can easily adjust its placement while I think the violin mic is actually built into the housing itself) and, on the base of the housing, what iSolo (the company) call the Magic Carpet.
No, not that sort of magic carpet… but the sort that firmly sticks the microphone housing to your instrument body at whatever point you think is appropriate, holds it there firmly while you perform, and then is easily peeled off and doesn’t leave a mark. It can also be stuck on, and then pulled off, multiple times without seemingly losing its stickiness. The boxed version I received included a couple of replacement Magic Carpet pads so, I assume, eventually, things do get a bit less sticky. That said, I mounted/unmounted the unit many times during the review period and never had an issue with it feeling unstable once in position.
Of course, the obvious question you might be asking right now is whether you would really want to mount a sticky pad onto your (maybe very expensive) acoustic instrument. I do admit to a little apprehension when I first tried to fix the iSolo microphone housing to my Taylor acoustic guitar but, having tried it on a cheap-as-chips acoustic first – without the pad leaving any sign of residue – I was suitably impressed with how this works. No, I don’t know what special formulation the sticky bit of the Magic Carpet uses, but, if my testing over a week or so is anything to go by, it seems to be pretty harmless in terms of the surface of your instrument.
iSolo – about an amount?
I’ll get to the further technical details of the complete system and its performance in a minute… but let’s not beat about the bush; with the three versions mentioned above currently priced at US$199 (recording), US$299 (live) and US$349 (live & recording), two things are apparent. First, this is unlikely to be a casual purchase for most musicians and, second, at these price points, the user would have every right to expect some pretty good results. Prices do, I believe, include world-wide shipping….
What’s in the box?
The ‘live & recording’ review package I received contained a number of elements. In terms of the hardware, there was the microphone housing itself, a USB interface that acts as a receiver for the wireless audio from the pickup and that can be used with both desktop and iOS platforms, and the ‘live’ receiver which is the size of a standard guitar stompbox pedal but includes a small antenna panel. This requires a 9V power supply and a suitable one is included in the package with a USA two-pin format (an adapter would be required in other territories).
I suspect lots of guitars players might have a pedalboard with a central power supply that could deliver the 9V required. The package also includes a USB-style power cable so you could power the floor pedal receiver from something like an iPhone charger (I did this without any problems). The various photos included in the review show all these items in detail.
Two other cables were included in my review package – one long and one short – that both seemed to offer the same connectivity; USB charging for the microphone housing. This obviously has a built-in rechargeable battery and the documentation suggests you should get around 2.5 hours of use out of a full charge. That seemed to be a pretty fair assessment based on my experience during testing.
Aside from the two spare Magic Carpet pads, the other items included were a short printed manual and a rather nice carry case for the pickup and USB receiver. The manual is OK but perhaps suffers a little from translation from Japanese into English…. don’t be surprised if you end up scratching your head briefly when you first attempt to configure things. That said, once you have found your way around, setting up, and connecting the hardware to your computer or live rig, really is very easy.
The key thing is ‘pairing’ the pickup to either the USB receiver or the stompbox receiver…. This seemed a pretty reliable process though and you can, apparently, operate at a distance of about 2-5 meters without any issues in terms of audio transfer. Audio transmitted is a mono signal of 16-bit/48kHz, although your recording software may well capture the audio at some other resolution depending upon how you have it configured. Over 5m (and up to a maximum of 10m), as the wireless connection technology is pushed a little harder, some data compression takes place (I think; the documentation isn’t very clear on this point). That said, unless you regularly play gigs on a mega-stage or record in a cavernous live room, I suspect these distances will be more than workable.
The microphone housing features a USB socket for charging, a power/pair button and a gain switch with three positions going from low to high gain (output) settings. There are also a couple of LEDs that indicate changing status and pair status. The goose-neck is about 12cm in length and the small condenser capsule sits at the end of this. The mic is, I think, omnidirectional (as opposed to cardioid) but, as it generally sits pretty close to your sound source, the guitar’s sound (rather than what else might be going on around you) will dominate the signal.
Alongside the Magic Carpet, the goose-neck makes it very easy to position the microphone in a variety of places on your guitar body to get the sound you are after. As shown in one of the photos included here, you can even flex the goose-neck and place the microphone into the sound hole. This takes it well away from where your strumming or fretting hand might bump into it. On my own guitar, I favoured a position that placed the mic pretty much over the joint between the guitar body and neck. This is usually my default location when micing a guitar for recording and I find it captures a nice balanced tone without too much boom….
That said, the ease with which the Magic Carpet allows the mic to be repositioned means experimentation is the order of the day…. although a few locations soon demonstrate they don’t work as the mic position interferes with your playing.
Incidentally, I tried the mic on my Taylor steel string, a Yamaha nylon strung guitar and a cheap and cheerful ukulele and, in each case, was able to find some suitable mounting positions without any problems. And, rather like a fixed sound hole pickup or under-bridge piezo pickup, the fact that the iSolo microphone stays firmly in one place, even if the guitar itself moves, means that you don’t have the level variation issues created by a guitar player who can’t keep still when placed in front of a conventional microphone on a stand.
Live and loud
I didn’t get the chance to test out the ‘live’ approach in the context of an actual gig situation…. but did put the stompbox receiver through its paces in my studio both by recording its output through my usual desktop audio interface and by feeding it to a suitable flat-response amp/cab system suitable for live performance.
In both cases, once the initial configuration was made and the microphone housing and the stompbox paired, from a technical level, the performance was very good indeed. Connectivity was very solid and I didn’t experience any dropouts. Perhaps my only comment would be that I found the output level from the microphone to be quite low (even on the highest gain setting on the microphone’s three-position switch). I’ll come back to this point in a minute as it is perhaps more relevant for iOS users…..
The stompbox includes a Volume knob so you can further tweak the output of the system before it reaches your audio interface/mixer/live amp. There is also a Low Cut control that can be adjusted between 30 and 300Hz depending on just how much low end you wish to roll off (this might vary depending upon the live context and your specific instrument). In both live and recording contexts, rolling off some low end of an acoustic guitar can be a good thing to clean up the sound and get rid of any boominess, so this is a useful feature.
The stompbox also features a channel switching system so you could, I assume, have multiple iSolo setups in action on the same stage without them interfering with each other….
Give it some stick
Of course, while you could record to your iPad or iPhone via the ‘live’ stompbox, for a more compact plug and play approach for laying down some acoustic instrument parts, the USB receiver stick is the more obvious choice. I did try this briefly with my OSX system and it worked fine but, as this is the Music App Blog after all, I spent more time experimenting with the USB-based connectivity with my iPad under iOS.
As this is a USB-based device, you do need a suitable means of plugging a standard USB accessory into your iPad. I tried this with the Apple Lightning-to-USB cable both directly and via a USB hub sitting between the cable and the iSolo receiver. In terms of just getting connected, both worked fine and, having tried a few of my more usual iOS music apps – Cubasis, AUM, Auria Pro, for example – they all saw the iSolo as a mono hardware input device. I was, therefore, able to record directly into all of these apps very easily.
(Not) wired for sound
So, technicalities aside, how did the iSolo actually sound ‘live’ or ‘recorded’? Well, the short answer is both simple and welcome; very good indeed. If you have a loathing of wires (and who doesn’t?) in your live setup or recording environment, this would certainly be a way to get rid of a few while still getting some very respectable tones out of your acoustic guitar or ukulele.
While it did require a little experimentation with mic positioning for each instrument I tried, this was certainly no more difficult than when using a standard microphone to record with. However, given that the mic stays so consistently fixed in position relative to the instrument, the iSolo certainly delivered a very consistent sound in any given take.
As mentioned earlier, perhaps my only real performance reservation is that, compared to how I would generally record my acoustic instruments, I found the iSolo microphone+USB receiver generated a signal that was lower than I would normally use, even when using the highest gain setting on the microphone housing. That’s not to say that the level wasn’t very useable, and well away from the noise floor (plenty more signal than noise), but not quite as ‘hot’ as I would setup when using a mic. While some iOS recording apps might provide you with some input gain adjustment in software, this is digital amplification rather than amplification while still in the analog world and therefore doesn’t really change your signal:noise ratio.
This somewhat ‘lower than usual’ signal level might not, of course, be such a bad thing as the habit of recording high signal levels is one that perhaps owes more to analog recording systems of old rather than today’s digital world with decent A/D convertors and suitably high bit-rates. Providing you are getting a signal level that keeps you well away from the system’s noise levels – and the iSolo was capable of that – then it is not really an issue.
Tonally, I liked what I was able to achieve and, while I still found myself doing some of my usual EQ moves on the recorded sound to get it to fit into my mix. This was mostly to clear out some unwanted frequencies based upon my recording room’s characteristics and I’d be more than happy to use the output of the iSolo for my own acoustic guitar recordings.
The price is right?
So, it’s rather nice to have a few cables left tucked in their storage box and, in terms of sound, the iSolo system is up to the task and easy enough to set up. However, as mentioned earlier, this innovative product does come with a non-casual price tag. So who might consider buying one?
Good question…. I suspect for the budding home/project studio owner – whether iOS or desktop – if they already own a decent condenser mic aimed at acoustic instruments (for example, the Rode NT5 or AKG C1000s or even a somewhat cheaper ‘clone’ of one of these, and are already getting decent results paired with their audio interface of choice, then the desire to go wireless would have to be pretty strong to justify the fresh outlay for the iSolo. Yes, it sounds good, it removes some cables from your system and, used via the USB receiver, is a pretty slick means of getting good quality audio from your acoustic guitar/ukulele, etc. into your iPad or iPhone…. but whether that would justify the cost if you can already get results you are happy with using a conventional mic? Well, that’s a call only you can make….
However, if you also use your acoustic instruments in a live context, then I can see the overall iSolo package perhaps becoming more obviously tempting. It allows you to get the sound of a decent microphone on your guitar but provides the performance flexibility of a (often somewhat harsh sounding) internal pickup system…. and, of course, it does it wirelessly. And, if you also happen to perform some occasional recording duties, the ‘live & recording’ package could be an attractive proposition.
The iSolo performs well. It does what is advertised with a minimum of fuss and allows you to capture – for recording or live use – a natural and pretty accurate sound of your instrument. I like the wireless options and the microphone mounting system, while looking a little strange at first sight, if a clever piece of design, allowing you to position the microphone accurately and consistently.
Of course, this quite innovative technology – with live performers as well as desktop and iOS recorders in mind, does come with a bit of a price. The iSolo is certainly an intriguing product. While you get very respectable audio results – live or recorded – this is an alternative technical solution to the tried and tested methods we already have available to do the same job. Ultimately, whether you think the price is worth paying will depend upon how happy – or otherwise – you are with those tried and tested solutions for your own recording or live performance work.
Either way, hats off to iSolo for taking the plunge with this system and, in particular, for making iOS support an integral part of it. It is a clever bit of design… here’s hoping that it gets the support that clever design deserves. You can find out more and purchase the units directly from the iSolo website… and also purchase via Amazon in the USA.
iSolo Guitar Wireless Microphone System