Silence is golden

man with headphone noiseHow would you like to perform a little experiment? It won’t take long (seconds) and it won’t cost you anything but it is, for anyone who is relatively new to DIY recording, quite instructive. Yes? Then read on and let me set up the context….

I’ve posted before on why I think mobile devices – and iOS-based devices in particular – represent a significant new paradigm for the home, DIY or project studio musician. An iPad, accompanied by a small number of additional hardware items (some of them identical to those required to build a desktop-computer based recording studio) and some pocket-money-priced apps, is light years ahead of the Tascam cassette-based four-track that I took my first stumbling recording steps on. Musicians with a desire to record their music have never had it so good, so cheap, so powerful or so small.

Now, I’m happy to acknowledge that the best iOS DAWs don’t, at yet, match the sheer power of top-flight desktop DAWs like Cubase, Logic, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Reason or Sonar, but then they don’t cost as much either. That said, there is a business principle – the 80:20 principle – that can easily be applied to computer software in a couple of ways. In business, this principle acknowledges that rewards don’t tend to follow in a linear fashion from effort; that is, 80% of your productivity actually comes from 20% of your time (or, in reverse, you ‘waste’ 80% of your time on getting that extra 20% productivity). In software, you might argue that 80% of what you need to do is contained within 20% of the software’s features – and providing iOS DAW developers focus on that key 20% of features, users will get 80% of the functionality they really need. Streamlined software is not, therefore, such a bad thing.

In addition, when it comes to things like amp modelling or virtual synth instruments, I think iOS is already delivering more than 80% of the features users need at way less than 20% of the cost. Apps like Thor or Nave or JamUp Pro or AmpliTube or AmpKit or Mobile POD or iElectric or….  well, you get the idea…. punch well above their respective weights. And if you want to see a more detailed discussion on the issue of app pricing, then hop over to SmiteMatter’s website and read this article on the topic.

And, of course, mobile devices are… well… mobile. Yes, you can move a laptop around quite easily but, if you want the most compact of mobile recording studios, an iPhone or iPad is pretty hard to beat, particularly if there are tasks you can perform entirely in software (synth parts, MIDI editing, arranging, etc.) while you are on your commute or on your lunch break.

So, as a platform for DIY recording, mobile devices – and iOS devices in particular – are powerful enough (in relative terms), inexpensive enough (in relative terms) and portable enough (in absolute terms) to be a serious alternative to the desktop world. They won’t meet the needs of everyone – but that’s fine – they will meet the needs of some (many?), particularly those either just starting out with recording or who need the most portable system possible.

But what about that experiment I mentioned earlier? Well, there is one other positive about iPad-based recording that is worth mentioning and the short experiment demonstrates it quite easily. To do this experiment requires two pieces of equipment; (i) a typical desktop computer and (ii) your mobile device (iPhone, iPad, etc.).

If you are able, stop what you are doing, turn off the background music or TV, hush the kids and shut the dog out of the room. In other words, get yourself some peace and quiet; just you, your computer (switched on) and your iPad. Now listen…..

…. and unless you have splashed out on a water-cooled PC or own a (nearly silent) iMac, I suspect what you can hear is ‘computer hum’.

Most of the time – when we are word-processing or browsing the web or listening to our music collection or there is other general clatter in the background, we don’t really notice it. But, when you want to record an acoustic guitar or a vocal, you can bet your bottom dollar that your microphone will notice it….  and it will add it to every track you record in the same room as your desktop computer.

Now, put your iPad (or iPhone) right next to your ear. Over and above the computer hum that is still going on, what do you hear? Absolutely nothing….  and if you turn off that pesky computer and are just left with your iPad, all you will hear is the sound of silence….  lovely, recordable, silence…. that will not intrude upon your delicate finger picked acoustic guitar part or whispered vocal.

OK, hands up…. I appreciate I’m being a bit flippant here just to make a point. Equally, I appreciate there are ways that you can banish computer hum with appropriate cooling technology or housing the computer away from your recording area. But there is still a serious point to make here. Most of us try our very best to maximise the audio quality we obtain in our recordings; computer noise is just one more thing that can get in the way of that. With no moving parts and no electronic noise, an iPad (or iPhone) doesn’t do hum and it’s one less thing to have to contend with in the recording process.

So, if you want another item to add to the list of positives for iOS recording, the sound of silence is a pretty good one.


P.S. Incidentally, the 80:20 principle mentioned above is an interesting concept that can be applied in all sorts of eye-opening ways. This book never mentions audio recording (although there are lessons that can most certainly be applied to your musical endeavours) but, if you fancy one of those life changing reads, then try Richard Koch’s ‘The 80/20 principle’ from either Amazon UK or Amazon US.


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    1. It is a great point, and hopefully kickstarts the “drive” to mandatory SSDs on all Laptops and Desktops. I used a quiet-ish Roland Hard Disk recorder years ago because I could not figure out how the hell anyone got a quiet vocal recording on a PC without an ISO booth. Yuck. An Athlon, I think, and the thing was so bloody noisy, I could not stand to have it on in the next room at night, even with my bedroom door shut!

      2008 MBP is still quiet enough, but not when that hideous fan kicks in.

      When I am mobile, I now record vocal stuff on an iPad mini with an Apogee Mic, and that little gem hears everything BUT the iPad. Golden, indeed…

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