A number of mobile recording devices, including IK Multimedia’s iRig series, are designed specifically for guitar.
Doing Homework: Stand-alone Devices Rule
If you’re serious about performing, few things are as valuable as the “homework tape”—a simple but clear recording of your band’s practices and performances. I always think of these as “capture” sessions more than recording sessions. You want an accurate representation of the music, not a self-conscious recording.
As a result, the ideal tool will be something that can run happily in the background, without forcing you to stop. Recording time and ease of use are primary considerations, but flexible inputs and other extras are welcome additions.
Stand-alone recorders—especially those with built-in mics and removable storage—can be ideal for this. You can set the machine up some distance away, point its mics at the music, hit record, and forget about it for the rest of the night.
A mobile phone or tablet may be able to get you through an entire session, but for piece of mind, a stand-alone recorder is probably a better choice thanks to its larger storage space and the fact that it won’t be interrupted by phone calls, texts, and other intrusions that can plague phones and tablets.
And avoiding interruptions is the key: Most stand-alones—even those at budget prices—can record in both compressed (like MP3) and uncompressed (AIFF or WAV) audio formats. And although the uncompressed audio offers higher fidelity, you’ll save space—and therefore increase potential recording time—by using a compressed format. When you’re tracking with mics from across the room, you’ll hardly notice the trade-off in sound quality.
In addition to storage, you also want to make sure that your device isn’t going to run out of juice midway through the session. If it’s an option, run it on a plug-in power supply. If you are using batteries, make sure they’re fresh or freshly charged.
When it comes to placing the unit and setting your recording levels, that’s a matter of trial and error. If you’re recording in the same space regularly (such as a rehearsal studio), pick a spot and use it as consistently as possible.
Take the time to do a quick level check by recording a song at the start of rehearsal or during soundcheck. Listen back, and adjust your input levels and placement as needed. I always keep the levels just a little lower than optimal because bands tend to get louder as the night progresses.
Here’s an idea to consider when you’re capturing a live show: If your recorder can use its internal mics and external line inputs simultaneously, combine the mics with the feed coming from the PA’s front-of-house mix. This can be especially good if each input is saved to its own audio file, because you can then upload the files to a digital audio workstation (DAW) and mix the room sound from the mics with the board mix from the direct feed.
Multitracking: Apps and Interfaces To Go
Sometimes I think multitrack recording should be called “multi-personality” recording, because so many different approaches fall under the multitrack umbrella. Are you working alone and building tracks one at a time? Recording a band? Are you only recording acoustic and amplified instruments like voice guitar, drums, and tuba? Or are you using electronic and software instruments along with your guitar?
As you’re putting your system together, consider what you hope to do with the tracks after you record them. Do you plan to produce and mix complete tracks with your mobile rig? Or are you going to hand your tracks off for later overdubs and mixing?
Although some stand-alone recorders can handle multitrack recording, we’ll focus on more “production” oriented setups—DAW software running on a computer or mobile device that’s mated to an audio interface. For guitarists, the software might include the recording app itself along with amp-modeling plug-ins, other effects, software instruments, and more.
If you’re looking for a small footprint, you’ll find a number of options for iPhone or iPad. Apple’s own GarageBand ($4.99) is built for these devices, and offers easy compatibility between mobile and computer versions of the software, as well as Apple’s professional DAW, Logic. PreSonus Capture ($9.99/free demo) offers basic multitrack recording in an elegant interface. If you’re willing to spend more, $24.99 will get you Steinberg’s Cubasis for iPad (a streamlined yet powerful version of the company’s Cubase Pro PC/Mac sequencer), or Auria by WaveMachine Labs, an audio-focused app that seems to be modeled on Avid Pro Tools.
Although these tools can be used to produce complete mixes, they are limited to some degree by the platform. “Tech always has a tradeoff,” Leonard says. “An iPad, for example, offers a lot of production power in a small package, but that comes with restricted storage and a limited use time unless you’re able to charge the unit while you work. When you finish a session, you will need to transfer your tracks so the device doesn’t fill up. That process is a little slower than copying files over a computer network. Get into the habit of transferring files in any free time. Because once you’ve filled up your device, you can’t work until you free up more space.”
For production work, an external interface and a quality external mic is definitely recommended. On the lower end of the price scale, you’ll find options that use the mobile device’s headset input. This category includes a number of devices designed for guitar, including IK Multimedia’s iRig series, the RapcoHorizon iBLOX, and others, which have 1/4" connections for an electric guitar or bass, as well as a jack for stereo headphone monitoring. But the headset input still uses your phone’s analog-to-digital converters, so the sound isn’t great.
For serious recording, an external interface that connects to the phone’s USB input (currently Lightning for iOS devices) will offer much better sound. The options continue to grow, including several that boast instrument inputs for direct recording of your guitar or bass. Many of these compact interfaces can also be used with a computer, making them both economical and flexible. Guitar-friendly models include IK Multimedia’s iRig PRO, Fender Slide Interface, Line 6 Sonic Port VX, and Apogee Jam (among others). You’ll also find all-purpose interfaces that let you plug in a 1/4" cable, standard microphone, or use an internal mic. The compact Apogee One, for instance, has a built-in mic as well as a removable harness with 1/4" and phantom-powered XLR inputs. The Focusrite iTrack Pocket iOS interface acts as a dock and has built-in DSP. PreSonus AudioBox has a more traditional USB audio interface form factor and connects to both computers and mobile devices.
If the USB interface has its own power supply, it can even be used to charge your mobile device—something that seems like an “extra” when you read the features list, but turns out to be a big deal when you’re in the field.