Less is more; part 3 – a minimalist iPad recording studio on a budget

finger on a tablet computer screenI posted a couple of articles (here and here) last week arguing the merits of ‘less is more’ when it comes to a working collection of iOS music apps and, in particular, a set of apps aimed at recording applications. In this third instalment, I want to pick up where I left off in part 2….

Before I do, however, let’s remind ourselves that this is not a new idea. There are lots of musical examples where successful artists have made brilliant music using only a limited range of equipment or under some other sort of workflow constraints. The bottom line here is that access to shed-loads of ‘gear’ is not what limits musical creativity for most of us; it’s our skill level in using that available gear and, of course, our musical skills themselves (playing, singing, writing, arranging, etc.)….

So, by the end of part 2, I’d shared with you my own collection of 16 iOS music apps that, for me at least, would form a flexible, but streamlined, platform for personal recording duties. Yes, you would most certainly need to tailor those app choices to suit your own musical needs, but the principle of defining a compact ‘core set’ of apps is obviously both possible and attractive.

Just how much gear do you actually need to start recording?

Just how much gear do you actually need to start recording?

The slim-line studio shopping list

As promised, I’d now like to move on a further step. While an iPad (or iPhone) and a collection of apps might be all some users need to make their music, if you do use any ‘real’ sound sources – vocals, guitars, pianos, etc. – in your music-making, then you are also going to need some additional equipment. The questions are:-

1. What equipment?

2. How much might is cost?

There are lots of different answers that could be given here and, to a large extent, these are topics I discussed in greater length when I put together the ‘iPad recording studio’ series some time ago. If you want a more comprehensive treatment then feel free to dip into that series of posts. However, what I’d like to do here perhaps answer a slightly more specific version of the same questions…. and versions that might well appeal to those who are just ready to start out on this ‘I want a recording studio’ journey:-

1b)      What’s the absolute minimum amount of equipment I need?

2b)      What’s the minimum amount of money I need to invest?

OK, those are still questions that might have multiple answers depending upon your musical interests but the good news is that, if we take things down to the most minimum ‘start up’ iPad recording studio, the number of items, and the total cost, is surprisingly modest. The other good news is that lots of folks have asked these kinds of questions in the past so the answers (and multiple variations upon them) are actually already to be found.

For example, you could (should) check out Graham Cochrane’s excellent video post on his Recording Revolution blog/YouTube channel. The video is entitled ‘5 Key Home Studio Components’ and, as usual, Graham’s advice is full of common sense. It is not, of course, specifically aimed at iOS musicians…. so, with a very polite nod to folks such as Graham who have already trodden this path, let’s put an iOS spin on the same sorts of suggestions.

Item 1 – the iPad (or iPhone)

So, let’s start with the assumption that you already have a guitar or piano or tambourine and a desire to record some self-made music. With that context, the first item we need for our minimalist recording studio is a computer. In the vast majority of modern recording studios, computers now form the central hub…. there are alternative ways to go (dedicated hardware recorders, for example) but a computer-based studio offers more flexibility.

Now, this could be a desktop or laptop computer… but, as you are here on the Music App Blog, I’m also going to assume that you either already own an iPad (or perhaps an iPhone) or are considering buying one. And, if that iPad is going to serve other needs (web-browsing, email, movie watching, game playing) as well as recording well, that’s a bonus; the most expensive part of the whole setup is going to multitask :-)

If the iPad is your first encounter with recording technology then 'lucky you' - with the right apps and a modest amount of additional hardware, you can build a very impressive recording system.

If the iPad is your first encounter with recording technology then ‘lucky you’ – with the right apps and a modest amount of additional hardware, you can build a very impressive recording system.

For recording, the iPad format probably does have an edge over the iPhone simply because the larger screen has given developers more scope in terms of software design. Either way, just be aware that some of the discussion below might need a little tweak if you are going down the iPhone route.

Item 2 – recording software – and further app pruning

In part 2 of this series, I identified a ‘core set’ of 16 apps that I already own – paired down from some 200+ that actually sit on my iPad – to construct a software environment for streamlined recording duties. However, what if your iPad is still awaiting its first iOS music app? Do we even need 16 apps to get started?

Thankfully (budget wise), the answer is no. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that one might do (although finding exactly the right one for your needs might not be easy for everyone) and that, for a guitar or piano playing singer/songwriter (with a band or not), three or four would actually offer quite a lot of options for a studio start-up.

The first app would be your recording software itself and I’d suggest a DAW/sequencer app (that is, something that can record both audio and MIDI tracks). My weapon of choice here would be Steinberg’s Cubasis, currently UK£39.99/US$49.99 so not as cheap as some iOS music apps, but it has a great feature set for the iOS platform, a slick user-interface and you will not outgrow it too quickly. There are, of course, other options including the excellent Auria Pro, although, in both cases, check that your iPad hardware meets (and hopefully exceeds) the minimum stated specifications; multi-track recording can be quite demanding on a computer system, iOS or otherwise.

Cubasis offers a brilliant combination of slick interface and a well-thought-out feature set.

Cubasis offers a brilliant combination of slick interface and a well-thought-out feature set.

Cubasis is a good choice because it does include some pretty solid virtual instruments – pianos, organs, synth sounds, etc. – and a decent collection of the effects options required when mixing (EQ, reverb, compressors, delay, etc.). That means you don’t need to buy all of these useful features in the form of multiple other apps when you are just starting out.

If I was to add 2 or 3 further apps to this selection of 1, for electric guitar players it might be guitar rig simulator (Mobile POD or BIAS FX example; at full, price, both are around the UK£14.99/US$19.99 mark) while for piano players it might be iGrand (UK£14.99/US$19.99). These provide better quality sounds than your built into Cubasis (or most of the other iOS DAW/sequencers for that matter). In both categories there are other choices you could make.

The other app I’d add would be some sort of drum or groove instrument. Exactly which app might depend upon the style of music you like to make but, for ‘real’ sounding acoustic drums, DrumPerfect Pro (UK£13.99/US$18.99) would be an option while for more electronic drum sounds, Patterning (UK£7.99/US$9.99) would be worth a look. In both cases there are a number of equally good alternatives available.

So, lets say I’ve gone with Cubasis, Mobile POD and DrumPerfect Pro. That’s my initial software set for a total around the UK£70/US$90 mark…. If you are new to the world of music technology and recording, please believe me that this level of recording technology would have costs many (many!) times that amount 10+ years ago. This is more ‘studio’ than was available when any of the classic albums of the 1960s and 1970s were recorded.

Item 3 – a microphone

While this might not apply if you are purely interested in instrumental electronic music production, for everyone else, a microphone is going to be essential for capturing sounds like vocals or acoustic guitar. You can, of course, start with the microphone built into your iOS hardware (at zero extra cost) but, very soon, you will realise the limitations of that and require something better.

Fortunately, advances in technology in general have permeated into many areas of recording technology and microphones are no exception. You can, therefore, pick up a very respectable studio-style microphone for what is a pretty modest cost.

There are different styles of microphone you might go for here but, for general recording duties (as opposed to live performance), the most obvious choice is probably a ‘large diaphragm condenser microphone with a cardioid polar pattern’. And if that sounds like a lot of gobbledegook, it translates as a microphone that requires external power (this is the ‘condenser’ bit; I’ll explain where the power comes from in a minute), collects sound from the front and rejects it from the rear (the ‘cardioid’ bit) and is more versatile than a small diaphragm option (the ‘large diaphragm’ generally means greater sensitivity a somewhat wider frequency response all other things being equal).

The Audio Technica AT2020 might be a 'budget' microphone but it can deliver good clean results if used with due care and attention.

The Audio Technica AT2020 might be a ‘budget’ microphone but it can deliver good clean results if used with due care and attention.

Lots of manufacturers make really rather good products of this type and, amazingly, prices can start from around the UK£40/US$50 mark for something that, used with care, with allow you to make some very respectable audio recordings. As an example, I have an Audio Technica AT2020 (around UK£85/US$110) but something like the Behringer C1 (UK£35/US$45) or Samson C03 (UK£55/US$70) would deliver great results also.

Do note that many manufacturers make such mics with either traditional XLR connectors (a three pin connector type) or USB connectors (for direct connection to your computer). I’ve used a number of USB mics with excellent results but, in terms of versatility, as a first ‘serious’ mic purchase, my own preference would be to go for the non-USB option to sit alongside item 5 (which I’ll get to in a minute).

Item 4 – a monitoring system

In any recording system you need a way to monitor (listen back to) the things you are recording both as you make the recordings and when it comes time to mix them; you need a monitoring system.

This is actually a complex topic because it not only involves a discussion of things like studio speakers but also the acoustic properties of your recording space and how that might influence the sound you hear back through your monitor speakers. You could, of course, start with the speakers built into your iOS hardware or your favourite ear-buds…. but, in all likelihood, the sound that you hear through these is not going to be a particularly accurate one. They may, therefore, give you a false impression of what your mix sounds like so that, when you play that mix somewhere else (perhaps through a large PA in a club or on your car stereo system) the EQ balance of the mix can sound completely off-wack. If your monitoring system is not giving you a decent, unbiased, sound as you mix, it’s very difficult to make good mix decisions about levels, pan and EQ.

Eventually, you probably are going to want to go down the route of some reasonable studio ‘nearfield’ (that is, you listen to them quite close up) monitors (perhaps starting at around UK£200/US£250 and going upwards) but, as this is the ‘less is more keep the budget as low as possible’ option, my recommendation would be to start with a decent pair of closed-back (sound doesn’t leak in/out of the ear pads and they enclose your ears completely) studio headphones.

For my own headphone use, I have a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones (UK£125/US$160) and I’ll happily use these for quite serious mix duties as well as when tracking (recording). However, I’ve also used the cheaper M40 model (UK£85/US$110) and the differences are actually quite modest. Audio Technica also make an M30 model for around UK£60/US$75 and these are also supposed to be pretty good. Other brands will make similar headphones though so, whether its AKG, Samson or one of the other mainstream music tech giants, you will have some very respectable choices from UK£50/US$65 upwards.

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.

For those just starting out with recording, headphones have some obvious advantages. First, they are less expensive than a decent set of studio monitors for a similar level of ‘accurate’ response. Second, because they take the room’s acoustic properties out of the monitoring equation, you don’t have to worry about acoustic treatment or the ‘sound’ of your room influencing your monitoring system. Third, they are portable; you can record/mix anywhere and the sound in your ears remains the same. Fourth, you can record and mix without being too much of an inconvenience to others you might share your space with.

There are downsides as well though. First, judging pan position can sometimes be difficult using headphones. Second, judging the amount of reverb required on sounds can sometimes be more difficult when mixing on headphones. Third, it is easy for your ears to become fatigued (especially if you listen too loud) with extended use; regular breaks are generally required. That said, providing you always cross-check your mixes on a number of speaker-based systems (which is good practice anyway), with due care and attention, you can soon learn to manage these sorts of headphone downsides.

Item 5 – an audio (or audio/MIDI) interface

As mentioned above, in picking a microphone, I’d go down the XLR-based route rather than the USB one for my first studio-style microphone as, in the long run, this is likely to be more versatile. That does mean we need one further piece of equipment though; an audio interface. This will allow our XLR microphone (or a guitar or bass lead) to be plugged into the audio interface and, in turn, the audio interface will be plugged into our iPad.

Again, there are plenty of options here but, unlike the microphone and headphone choices, for this item on our shopping list, it is very important that we ensure we are getting something that is specifically stated as iOS compatible; not all USB-based audio interfaces (generally designed with the desktop/laptop musician in mind) are. On the positive side, as with microphones, technology advances mean that even budget audio interfaces can achieve some pretty good results.

So what about some candidates? Well, how about two suggestions offering somewhat different features? If you want ultra-compact, then IK Multimedia’s iRig Pro (UK£115/US$150) is an iOS-friendly option. I’ve used one of these with my iPad for a couple of years and it delivers decent audio quality in a compact format. It is a simple enough device offering one channel of audio input (that is, you can record one monophonic audio source at a time), allows you to plug in guitars, dynamic or condenser (powered) microphones and, as a bonus, also includes a MIDI input; if you have a MIDI keyboard with a standard 5-pin DIN MIDI out port, you could connect this via the iRig Pro and use it to play your iOS synths.

The iRig PRO is a very compact audio+MIDI interface for iOS.

The iRig PRO is a very compact audio+MIDI interface for iOS.

If you want something that is perhaps a bit more upmarket in terms of features, then Steinberg’s UR22 mkII audio interface is a contender. This can be used with both desktop and iOS devices and has two channels of audio in/out as well as MIDI in/out. This is a great entry-level audio interface and, from an iOS perspective, the only downside is that it requires external power to work within an iPad; unlike the iRig Pro, your iPad can’t provide enough power to run the UR22. That said, as I’ve seen this selling recently for as little at UK£95/US$130, it is a bit of a bargain.

There are, of course, other USB-based, 2-in/2-out audio interfaces with MIDI in/out from other manufacturers and there are some real bargains to be had if you look around. The key thing, however, is to ensure that the device is advertised as suitable for use with an iPad; don’t assume it is in the absence of a statement to that effect.

The UR22 mkII is a seriously good choice given the very modest price.

The UR22 mkII is a seriously good choice given the very modest price.

Item 6 – the accessories

The above 5 items cover the key pieces of equipment to get your recording studio off the ground but there is a sixth – much less exciting – area that you have to also budget for; accessories. By this, I mean cables (to hook everything up), a stand for that microphone (so you can place it exactly where you need it) and, if you are recording vocals, a pop-filter would be a good investment.

That said, when starting out, if you allocated around £50/US$65 to cover these initial ‘accessory’ costs, you won’t be too far out.

And the total is…..?

So, assuming that you already have the most expensive item in the list above – the iPad – accounted for, how much does everything else in the list add up to based upon these suggestions?

Item 2 – recording software (3 apps including Cubasis)   UK£70/US$90

Item 3 – condenser microphone (e.g. Samson C03)   UK£55/US$70

Item 4 – headphones (e.g. Audio Technica ATH-M30) UK£60/US$75

Item 5 – audio interface (e.g. iRig Pro)   UK£115/US$150

Item 6 – accessories (e.g. cables, mic stand, pop-filter) UK£50/US$65


TOTAL   UK£350/US$450

OK, so this is more than your average weekly pocket money if you are still of school age but, considering just how much multi-track recording technology that then puts in your hands, this is a scarily small sum of money compared to what a similar (from a technical perspective) system would have cost you 10 years ago and, equally, not a lot of money to pay for unlimited studio time when even a humble commercial studio would charge you that much for a few hours recording time. Advances in technology have, in a very real sense, put sophisticated recording systems within the grasp of the masses as opposed to just the musical elite.

OK, so our 'less is more' iPad recording studio might not quite match this.... but as a means to get started and learn your craft, it forms a very powerful environment at a very modest cost.

OK, so our ‘less is more’ iPad recording studio might not quite match this…. but as a means to get started and learn your craft, it forms a very powerful environment at a very modest cost.

This is also a little that goes (in educational terms) a long way. You can learn a heck of a lot about the basics of recording and mixing with just the equipment on this fairly modest list if, as outlined in the first part of this ‘less is more’ series, you invest some time in your skill set rather than constantly investing money in new equipment. Write, record, release, repeat…. and, pretty quickly, you will begin to see the improvements appear.

In conclusion

As I stated earlier, this ‘less is more’ example has, of course, focused on what is my own primary area of interest when it comes to iOS music making; the recording process. As mentioned earlier, if you want to see a somewhat more detailed discussion of this topic, then check out the full ‘Build and iPad Recording Studio‘ series….

However, you could also take these same stripped-back principles and apply them to an iOS-based system for a live performance context… or perhaps to tools required for learning an instrument or those aimed at just composition or just electronic music production….

I’m not sure at this stage if I’ll dig into a few more of these topics based upon the ‘less is more’ idea of not. There are probably folks who are better placed than me to cover some of these topics and, while I could perhaps rustle up some suggestions (for example) aimed at live performance with a guitar, I’m not sure I’d want to put myself forward for the same task for a dedicated keyboard ‘lean and mean’ iOS-based live rig. I’ll give this a think and see based upon the response to this post…..

And, talking of responses, if these few ‘less is more’ discussion articles have got you thinking, then feel free to share your thoughts below by posting a comment… or in an email to me through the Contact Us link…. I’ll be interested to hear the views of the site’s (very diverse!) readership…. Get commenting :-)

cubasis logo 3Cubasis for iPad – review

mobile pod logo 2Mobile POD – review

drumperfect logo 1DrumPerfect Pro – review

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    1. Markus Larjomaa says:

      I’d add my favourite audio interface here: Roland Duo-Capture EX. And it’s best feature: it can run on AA batteries. Ahh, complete mobile recording freedom!

      • Hi Markus…. thanks for this comment and alternative suggestion. The option for battery operation is an important factor for many iOS musicians so this is good to know…. Thanks again and very best wishes, John

    2. Can you make one that would cover using the iPad as a groove box type set up?

    3. +1 on that AT2020. I tried a few “higher end” mics around the time thought the AT2020 held it’s own nicely. I’ve also got a Perception 220 that I like in about the same price range.

    4. therealdmt says:

      I got the Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 audio interface, which, like your Steinberg, requires outside power. It’s a kinda cool product, but with the extra oddball Y-cable and the battery tank (the Y-cable is needed to hook up the battery tank), plus a USB hub that would let it interface with the iPad (a real hunt to find the right one, a hunt which I guess would now be thankfully unnecessary due to Apple’s new camera connector kit“ powered USB hub thingy released this past spring), it’s a bit of a pain for the most casual of use. Dealing with that, I ended up also gettting that little Irig Pro single input audio interface for when I just need one input — which is actually a good chunk of the time.

      I also have a pair of SM-57s for mixing cabs, an SM-58 and a pair of no name mics from a home stereo system, plus a Studio Projects B1 large diaphragm condenser. Near field monitors, but I sold my closed back headphones (the bass frequencies ended up pounding on my ears) and for now I’m just going with my Bose in-ears (which don’t have the typical “Bose bloat” for “headphones”). Cables, mic stands…

      If you’re going to be using some of the synths or piano-type app’s for which the iPad excels, an external hardware keyboard controller is a nice add, like Irig Keys 37 perhaps (if you’re not going to be really playing piano where you’d be more intrested in range and key action, maybe onboard sounds, etc.

      Anyway, pretty in line with what you’ve described, but I think a lot of people could spend less on the DAW than the $50 for Cubebase. I’m using a DAW called Meteor, and that’s been fine for my non-professional use. It cost like $7.99, iirc. I believe Meteor was the first DAW to let you record both MIDi and audio tracks.

      My only complaint with Meteor so far is that one time when I took a song I’d recorded into Meteor on my iPad that included a MIDI track and imported it to Cubase on my computer, the MIDI track was out of sync with the rest of the song (iirc). In that regard, I have a question — Do midi tracks recoded onto Cubasis on the iPad stay in sync when transported into Cubase on a desktop for further work?

      Anyway, I just wanted to say that if you have the instruments already, you can do a lot of recording with a setup such as the both of us have described. The next step would be a pair of condenser mics (perhaps small diaphragm) for stereo recording and an audio interface (such as your Steinberg or my Focusrite) that can accept at least two simultaneous mic inputs. That will pretty much cover all the basics except for recording drums.

      For drums you’ll want at least 3 mics, (and thus an iPad compatible audio interface with at least 4 mic inputs — I don’t think anyone sells a 3 input interface). You could easily use a lot more mics (and kinds of mics) on drums though. If you already added the pair of small diaphragm condensers I mentioned above (for stereo overheads), you’ll probably also want a mic that captures bass frequencies well and can handle high SPLs (loud noises) for the kick drum. You might search for such a mic that could also serve as a bass cab mic when desired.

      Just some thoughts…

      • therealdmt says:

        That should have been “micing” cabs above, not “mixing cabs”, lol.

        So, summing it up, hardware-wise, one might want to also add (while still keeping things kinda minimalistic-ish) a pair of stereo small diagram condensor mics (for stereo room mics, stereo acoustic instruments or drum overheads), a dynamic mic like the SM-57 (for loud guitar cabs), a loud bass lovin’ kick drum/bass cab mic, and a keyboard controller.

        Bass is often recorded direct though, and if you use drum apps instead of micing an actual drum kit, you don’t need a kick mic. That also lets you skip buying a larger (more than 2 input) audio interface. If you have access to real drums though, that can sure be nice (with the right drummer, that is!). And if you’re satisfied with app sounds for your guitar (or you don’t have an amp or your amp sucks), you can skip the SM-57 too.

        That still leaves a stereo mic pair of some sort and a keyboard controller that are the kinds of things that are semi-essential for many — and definitely sure nice to have.

        • Thanks for taking the time to share your own experiences – it’s very much appreciated. Yes, there are some perfectly viable alternatives to items I’ve suggested in my own ‘minimalist’ line-up…. These are, of course, just examples, although all items I know well compared to some of the other possibilities….

          In answer to your Cubasis-to-Cubase question, yes, project import pretty smoothly from iPad to desktop and this is something I do on a regular basis as I often use my iPad system as a musical scratchpad before moving ideas to my desktop….

          Anyway, thanks again for sharing… and very best wishes, John

    5. Great series John!

    6. If someone were starting from scratch, would XLR mics and an interface still be the way to go? It strikes me that if you truly have a clean slate, USB connections cut down on the cost quite considerably (even given the price of Apple’s USB-Lightning accessory!). Most modern MIDI controllers seem to come with USB connections as well.

      To be clear, I don’t know the answer to my question and may be completely wrong. Cheers!

      • Hi Milko, thanks for the comment. yes, there certainly is a case for using USB-based devices and I think what is ‘best’ will depend very much on what you might be trying to do in terms of recording. For example, if you knew that the only external instruments you wanted to add were perhaps an acoustic guitar and vocals, then a USB-based mic could be a perfectly sensible choice. The problems can come if you want to then move on… maybe to recording electric guitar (DI’ed and through an iOS guitar rig sim) or perhaps record in stereo…. then a 2-in/2-out audio/MIDI interface would start to make more sense….

        The interesting thing in all of this though is that, whichever way you go, the costs are (compared to the fairly recent past) really not great….. and while we would all want an investment in equipment to last so we get good value, if you do find you have to set something aside (such as a USB mic) and replace it at some point down the line, then the costs are not so great…. Good luck if you are building your own system…. While the choices can be bewildering, they are great to have and, bang for buck, there has never been a better time to start building a home/project recording system…. best wishes, John

    7. Great series! Thanks John!

      Has anyone had any experience with the iConnectAUDIO2 +. Looks like a very cool device. Bus powered and power supply powered plus it can connect to two compute devices simultaneously (e.g. Mac and iPad) and reroute signals digitally between the two. Looks like you could use soft synths from the iPad and route them to a Mac as well as being used singularly with an iPad. Reading one of the comments earlier about the new Apple USB 3.0 Camera Connection Kit – caveat: connecting an iPad charger to the additional Lightning port will only charge the iPad (which is is cool) but speaking to Apple, they don’t claim it will power devices downstream on a connected USB hub. Power for them comes only from the iPad (with it’s limits on consumption). It seems to me that a powered USB hub would be best for connecting multiple bus powered peripherals. Perhaps a model that can be powered from a microUSB port would be ideal so it can draw power from any of the ubiquitous battery charges for iOS devices as well as from it’s power adapter… Any suggestions?

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