iOS Guitar Accessory Roundup - Winter 2012/2013
One of the benefits of using recording interfaces and apps for iPhone and iPad is that they allow you to quickly lay down an melody or riff at a moment's notice without having to fumble around with setting up an entire recording rig. For most musicians the best musical ideas often pop into your head without warning, and losing that inspiration after 10 minutes of amp tweaking and mic placement can be extremely frustrating. And the absence of those hassles makes iOS guitar accessories attractive and useful for players who spend a lot of time on the road and away from their home studios.
We've taken a look at some of the most exciting new devices on the market—including interfaces (Griffin GuitarConnect Pro, Line 6 Mobile In, RapcoHorizon i-JAM 3-n-1, Tascam iXZ, Traveler MI-10), controllers (IK Multimedia iRig STOMP, Griffin StompBox) and microphones (Blue Mikey Digital, Tascam iM2X)—and tested their durability, sound quality, and whether they're really worth your hard-earned dollars.
Griffin GuitarConnect Pro Analog to Digital Interface
Griffin has been a player in the electronics accessories business for a long time—even when the iPhone’s ancestor Newton PDA was still kicking around. So they know a thing or two about designing rugged accessories for portable devices. The GuitarConnect Pro showcases their eye for detail with a slender, weighty and rubber-footed enclosure, single ¼" input jack, input gain knob and 30-pin connector for low-latency digital tracking (as of press time, Griffin has not announced a Lightning jack-compatible version). The connection to the dock gives the interface the ability to help track 24-bit sound at 48 kHz, and pull power from the connected Apple device. Sadly, there’s no USB through-put jack to charge the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch being used, so you’ll need to keep an eye on the device’s battery level while you’re recording.
As far as simple iOS interfaces go, the Guitar Connect Pro is one of the best on the market. It tracks the instrument’s signal perfectly, and its weighty build and thick rubber pad keep it from sliding across the table. I experienced no latency issues when tracking with GarageBand, and the app’s built-in modeling seemed to have extra sparkle and clarity with the interface than with most of the others in this roundup. Unfortunately, my iPad 2’s battery started to die while I was in the middle of a recording session, and I had to disconnect the cable to charge the tablet. A USB-through jack for simultaneous charging on the Guitar Connect Pro would have prevented that inspiration-killing moment.
Line 6 Mobile In
At half the length of a credit card, the Mobile In is one of the more portable devices in this roundup. It has no physical controls, and serves only as a barebones interface for apps that use Line 6’s CoreAudio technology (such as Mobile POD) via an included 1/8" to ¼" cable. The unit generates 24-bit/48kHz audio with a wide 110dB dynamic range. Latency is always a big concern when working with digital conversion and processing, so Line 6 designed the Mobile In to plug directly into the 30-pin jack of an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. This unfortunately leaves the iPhone 5, iPad Mini and the newest generation of iPads out in the cold due to their newer Lightning cable connections, but there’s always the possibility that Line 6 will introduce a Lightning-compatible version in the near future. And hopefully they’ll address the its lack of a USB-through jack for charging while in use, because resource-intense apps such as Mobile In and GarageBand can speed up battery drain quite a bit.
The Mobile In interfaces smoothly with the Mobile POD, displaying super-low latency, great dynamics with amp models and rock-solid stability. The Mobile POD app has a whopping 64 models including some of the most hallowed amps, cabs, and effects in history, and they’re as tweakable as those on bigger PODs. The sound quality and crispness of the amp models is exceptional, and they’re often near-dead ringers for the same models in full-sized PODs and Gearbox counterparts. Unfortunately, there’s really no way to record your own ideas with it through GarageBand or any other iOS DAW app. You can record directly to GarageBand with the Mobile In interface, but you can’t output the app’s tones to the GarageBand app, nor can you record them in Mobile POD and paste them elsewhere. It’s downright frustrating, and limits the potential of what could be an extremely useful recording tool. And for the price it commands, it should offer this kind of basic functionality.
RapcoHorizon i-JAM 3-n-1 Interface
The i-Jam not only serves as an interface for guitar and recording apps on iOS devices, it also functions as a standalone headphone amp and a jamming tool for playing over music stored on your Apple hardware. The aluminum casing is very sturdy, and it also features a belt clip for keeping it close if you’re moving around. It has a handy push button for telling Apple’s internal music player to instantly skip to the next track. The i-Jam is a completely passive device unless you’re using its headphone amp function, which pulls power from an internal 9V battery. Replacing the battery requires the use of a Phillips head screwdriver to pull off the back panel, which could be frustrating for players who don’t always have a toolset within arm’s reach. The i-Jam also includes all of the cables needed to get you started, including a ¼" instrument cable and a long, 1/8" – 1/8" cable to connect it to your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch.
From a usability standpoint, the i-Jam is a wonderful option for players who need a quick and easy solution for on-the-go jamming. With a Stratocaster and an iPad pumping out some classic rock tunes, the i-Jam made it a breeze to play along silently without disturbing anyone who happened to be nearby. And if I grew tired of working on a particularly long tune (five minutes into King Crimson’s “Fracture” made my fingers feel like they were about to fall off), a quick tap of the i-Jam’s track skip button queued up the next song without any fuss.
The i-Jam also works well as a direct recording tool, provided that your iOS device isn’t running a ton of resource-heavy apps in the background. For the most part, I experienced no latency problems when tracking with GarageBand. But if I had a game and several apps running in the background, my tracks would often play back with digital glitiching and skips. This is probably partly attributable to the fact that i-Jam feeds its signal through the mic ring of the iOS device’s headphone jack rather than Apple’s data interface jack.
Tascam iXZ Mic & Guitar Interface
The iXZ is designed to be more of an all-in-one recording device rather of a simple guitar interface. The main input jack accepts both 1/4" instrument and XLR microphone cables, and the mic pre provides switchable phantom power from two AA batteries for condenser mics that need the juice. If you’re just using the passive setting for guitar or bass you don’t draw any power from the batteries.
Once you fire up your favorite DAW app, plug in your instrument or microphone of choice and connect the iXZ's stereo cable to the Apple device's headphone jack, you just flip the front switch to either mic or instrument and let 'er rip. Since the iXZ transmits signal through the headphone jack's internal microphone ring (which is reserved for external hands-free mics), it's compatible with pretty much any recording and instrument app out there. Tascam recommends using their free PCM Recorder app, or their four-track Portastudio app for iPad users.
Using a Stratocaster with both PCM Recorder and GarageBand, the iXZ recorded without latency issues, though there was some background noise that required me to work with the app's noise gate. The mic pre handled close mic’ing of a Fender Twin Reverb with an SM57 without excessive clipping, and considering that the interface costs only $30, the clear recorded tones that it captured far exceeded my expectations. The pre is certainly no substitute for desktop models made by Focusrite or Presonus, but it runs circles around Apple's internal mics, which tend to distort and muddy up easily.
Traveler Guitar MI-10 Mobile Interface for Guitar/Bass
Traveler’s MI-10 min interface is the most austere out of this bunch. It connects through an Apple device’s headphone jack, and pumps your guitar’s signal to the jack’s microphone in ring, which is then processed by the app of your choosing. And at a little over half the size of a Snickers bar, you can pocket it easily for quick and on-the-go jamming. The build quality feels just a bit flimsy, so I’d recommend against tossing it in with your pedals and cables. It sports an 1/8" headphone jack, along with a ¼" output for routing the app-processed tone to an amplifier or mixing console.
Despite the lack of bells and whistles, the MI-10 does send a very clean signal from a guitar or bass. The signal from my Stratocaster tracked into GarageBand without loss, and the interface’s ¼" output made routing effect processing apps such as Moog’s killer Filtatron app to an amp simple.
The biggest gripe that I have with the MI-10 is that there’s no way to adjust the input gain coming from the guitar, unless the app that you’re using has its own input gain level control. Luckily, I was able to set the levels in GarageBand, and FourTrack to keep signal clipping in check. Still, a simple thumbwheel or small pot for gain adjustment would have felt more natural to use than correcting levels from the apps themselves. But when you take into consideration its price, the MI-10 really is a solid choice for players who just want a simple and inexpensive way to record their guitars to their iOS devices.
Griffin StompBox Foot Switch Controller
Griffin’s StompBox foot controller is an ambitious concept that’s aimed at making your iOS device a gig-able rig on its own. The sturdy and rugged pedal sports four footswitches that can be programmed for bypassing or engaging effects and amps in Frontier Design Group’s iShred app. On top of that, there’s a ¼" jack on its backside for plugging in an expression pedal to control effects like wahs in real-time. It uses a 30-pin connector attached to a thick, three-foot long cable to connect directly to the Apple device’s docking port, and receives your guitar’s signal via an included Guitar Connect cable that plugs into the headphone jack. The StompBox does, however, suffer from a frustrating lack of a USB-through jack to charge the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad that it’s connected to.
With a Les Paul running into my iPad 2 with Griffin’s Guitar Connect cable, I fired up the iShred app and began building a rig. Using the StompBox to bypass and engage individual effects was extremely easy and the low-latency connection provided by the 30-pin connection meant the effects kicked on just as instantaneously as they would with regular outboard stompboxes.
I absolutely love the concept of the StompBox—especially now that amp and effect modeling on Apple devices is really starting to develop and sound impressive. And while Griffin’s iShred app is capable of generating some cool tones, it’s unfortunately the only guitar app out there (along with Positive Grid’s JamUp XT app) that the StompBox will work with. And it’s a shame too, because almost everything about the StompBox—right down to it’s tank-like construction, low-latency connection and budget-friendly price—are things that could make it a serious contender for iPhone, iPod and iPad-clutching musicians everywhere. Its incompatibility with other apps, however, really stifles its potential—at least for now.
IK Multimedia iRig STOMP
The iRig stompbox is a devilishly simple tool for controlling IK Multimedia’s popular Amplitube iOS software (as well as GarageBand and a slew of other apps, the company notes). You just connect the pedal to a 9V battery or Boss-style adapter, plug your guitar into the input jack and your amp or P.A. mixing console into the output (or a pair of headphones into the headphone jack), and set the signal level of the guitar via the large knob. The pedal connects to an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad with a specialized 1/8" cable that sends the guitar’s signal to the Apple device, through the Amplitube app for processing, and back to the pedal where the processed tone is sent to dual output jacks. This quick and painless setup allows Amplitube to mesh with your live guitar rig. And since you can program Amplitube patches to bypass amp modeling entirely, you can use the iRig Stomp to add any of the software’s effects into your pedal chain—transforming your Apple device a potent and useful effects processor.
The iRig Stomp put latency concerns to rest—demonstrating excellent response from a rig made up of a Stratocaster, iPhone 5 and a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier. Older devices like the iPad 2 and iPhone 4 performed just as well as the newer iPhone 5 did, too. The output was completely free of the annoying pops and clicks that result from poor analog-to-digital conversion. However, there was a noticeable drop in low end when using the amp models, as well as grainer digital artifacts in the high-end output in the app’s higher gain settings. Unfortunately, I could only correct these issues this from the app’s settings panel, instead of from a knob on the pedal—which would greatly improve its usability for players who don’t want to navigate menus to do something as simple as setting volume.
Despite those problems, the iRig Stomp’s ability to instantly turn your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch into a great-sounding effects processor is worth its price alone. I was able to easily bring in individual patches from Amplitube’s huge effects library, and use them with my own real-life amp—as well as use them in different combinations with my actual pedals in a signal chain. Bypassing the effects was completely click- and pop-free too, and I wasn’t able to detect any signal degradation in the pedal’s bypassed mode.
Blue Microphones Mikey Digital Microphone
The Mikey Digital is Blue’s attempt at packing their microphone design expertise into an iOS device-friendly package. And boy, did they succeed. This excellent microphone uses stereo condenser capsules, which are housed in a shockmount and protected by a tough metal grille. A three-way slider switch on the back sets the mic’s sensitivity range, which can be set for loud performances in the 100-130db range to super-quiet whispering at 45-65db, or an auto adjust mode. The mic’s hinge enables seven different locking positions, which is great for propping the mic at an angle on a table, or positioning it to capture the clearest signal possible. Direct recording is possible via a stereo input, and it even comes with a ¼" adapter for guitarists and keyboardists. Best of all, it sports a USB-through jack for charging the Apple device while the mic is plugged into the 30-pin socket. As of press time, Blue only offers a 30-pin compatible Mikey, and hasn’t announced an upcoming version that’s compatible with Apple’s newer Lightning interface.
Recording a full—and loud—rock band with the Mikey and an iPad 2 running GarageBand sounded remarkably clear and balanced. The mic’s auto mode did a good job of keeping the clipping to a minimum, and quickly adjusted when a section suddenly jumped in volume. I wanted to find out how well the Mikey could discern frequencies at different spots in the room, so I propped the iPad about five feet behind my drummer and asked him to go a little heavy on the cymbals for his parts. After playing it back, I was pleased with just how well the mic’ not only picked up the wash and crispness of his cymbals, but how much of my guitar tone was captured through the clamor of his drums. The recording did have some congested sections, but in general, it sounded amazingly clear considering that I placed it in a pretty awful position for general recording.
Close-mic'ing a loud amplifier with the Mikey wasn’t as successful, even with the sensitivity switch set to its lowest range. The raging overdrive of a Dual Rectifier proved too much for the mic to handle, though turning down the volume a bit and mic’ing from further back helped clear the congestion. Close-mic’d clean tones exhibited a similar brittleness, but as soon as I moved the mic back to add a bit of the room’s sound, the clarity of the recording opened up dramatically. The Mikey won’t replace your trusty SM57 or your prized Royer 121—and it wasn’t designed to—but it’s an absolutely wonderful-sounding microphone for full band practices and jamming ideas.
Tascam iM2X Stereo Condenser Microphone
The iM2X is an advanced X-Y stereo condenser mic for iOS devices that uses the same mics found in Tascam’s DR-07 MKII and DR-40 models. It’s small enough to fit in a jacket pocket or the accessory compartment in your guitar case. Its analog-to-digital converters deliver 16-bit CD-level sound quality, and it’s capable of handling up to 125dB without distorting. There's also an LED clipping meter on the front, and an analog limiter that can be switched on from the side. Due to its X-Y orientation, it’s really designed to mic up acoustic instruments such as pianos, drums and acoustic guitars, as well as vocals. While the little condenser pulls its power from the 30-pin jack of an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad, it also features a USB-through port for charging the iOS device when the mic is being used.
Tascam recommends using their free PCM Recorder app with the iM2X, which is a pretty decent two-track recorder when it works. The app crashed three times while I was using it with an iPhone 4s. Luckily, the mic worked with GarageBand without any fuss.
The clarity I achieved recording a Martin dreadnought was often astonishing. The highs were crisp and present, and the guitar's lows were warm and accurate. It’s very forgiving and I didn't even need to reposition the mic from its resting place on a table about three feet away to get a focused sound.