It’s only been a decade since we started using cellphones for even simple tasks like emailing or surfing the web. And it’s only been in the last couple of years—essentially since the advent of the iPhone 3G and the iPad—that amp-and effects-modeling apps and multitrack recording apps have turned mobile devices into worthy musical sketchpads. So, in some ways, it’s a real surprise to look up from your coffee cup in early 2012 and find a whole spectrum of impressive amp and effect simulators, as well as a clutch of affordable plug-and-play interfaces, that make jamming on your smartphone as easy as adding emoticons to your text messages.
Not that you couldn’t see the wave coming a while ago. IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube and iRig interface were among the first products to make a splash in the mobile music world, while Sonoma Wire Works followed up their groundbreaking FourTrack app with the rocksolid GuitarJack interface and GuitarTone amp-and-effects app. Created with Apple’s remarkable GarageBand app in mind, Apogee’s Jam interface now finds the respected up-market manufacturer entering the mobile-device fray, while Positive Grid’s JamUp Plug and JamUp Pro app, along with PocketLabWorks’ iRiffPort and PocketAmp app, have expanded the options even further with solid audio quality and clever designs of their own.
To be fair, certain questions are inevitable when considering iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) music-creation gear. Namely, how useful is this stuff, anyway—especially for the serious player? Sure, a few bands have actually released music recorded on an iPhone—L.A.- based indie rockers the 88 notably recorded their hit “Love is the Thing” using Sonoma Wire Works’ FourTrack app—but those instances appear to be novel, attention-getting experiments more than serious recording practices. If there’s a professional application for all these iOS platforms, perhaps it’s simply that they give musicians a convenient way to experiment with song ideas and guitar tones no matter where they are.
Considering what most of these apps and interfaces cost, they’re worth the money for those uses alone. But it could also be argued that they’re a godsend for beginners or hobbyists, too—because many of these amp- and effect-modeling apps constitute a crash course in guitar gear. For a few bucks, you can learn the basic, salient tonal characteristics and operating mojo of virtually every major amp, cabinet, and pedal type extant. (I wish I had Positive Grid’s JamUp Pro when I was 16, I’ll tell you that much!) Add in the recording and mixdown capabilities, and it’s clear that making music on an iPhone or iPad—even if not yet on the same level as working on a dedicated digital audio workstation (DAW) or at a full-blown professional studio—is certainly an increasingly viable way to take your tracks—and your talents—one step further along that road.
Sonoma Wire Works GuitarJack and Guitar Tone App
GuitarJack Model 2 is compatible with:
• iPhone 4S and 4
• iPod Touch 4th, 3rd, and
2nd gen. iPad and iPad2 GuitarTone works on iOS 4.3 or later
The industrial design of the Sonoma GuitarJack suggests a tiny Steinway grand piano crossed with a silver Ferrari. The laseretched SWW logo on the glossy steel housing adds to the impression of quality—GuitarJack, in other words, comes across as a proper piece of studio gear, not a mere accessory.
The GuitarJack weighs 2.25 ounces and plugs into your iPhone or iPad’s 30-pin dock connector (a “spacer” keeps it flush), thus providing higher quality data transfer, less crosstalk, and better fidelity than headphonejack interfaces. The right side of the unit features a 1/4", nickel-plated brass Switchcraft guitar input (configurable via the included software for Pad, Lo-Z, and Hi-Z modes) and a 1/8" “increased-drive” headphone/line output. The left side has a 1/8" stereo mic/ line input with similarly configurable Pad, Normal, and Boost modes. The back panel is made of tough brushed aluminum and held in place by three small hex screws.
It’s also worth mentioning the rubber grip pads on the back, which work together with the unit’s appropriate weight to keep the GuitarJack in place when laid flat with your iPhone on a table. (That said, it also means that, when placed in an IK iKlip or similar upright iPhone holder, the unit is more likely to slip out.) Indeed, it’s hard to argue with the build quality and elegant design of the GuitarJack. Frankly, I have big-name effects pedals that aren’t half this solidly built.
The better news is that is sounds as good as it looks. That’s because it boasts a proper 24-bit AD/DA converter. And though you can only currently play back at 16-bit, that’s slated to change with an upcoming firmware update. It’s also the only interface in our group that features a dedicated microphone input—and, yes, you can record using both the guitar and microphone inputs simultaneously into FourTrack or StudioTrack. That’s huge. GuitarJack is made right here in America, too.
Sonoma’s GuitarTone app can be launched as a stand-alone app, or it can be integrated within other Sonoma apps, like FourTrack or StudioTrack, where it operates much like a plug-in effect in a DAW like Logic or ProTools. (One curious thing, though—the stand-alone version’s tuner function disappears when you’re using GuitarTone within FourTrack.) GuitarTone’s main page displays the first of several presets, a list that can be expanded by purchasing additional Amp and Pedal Packs (and the cool presets that SWW has designed to exploit those sounds and features). By touching the small FX, Amp, and CAB boxes (which are a bit too small for my taste) below the preset icon, you can swipe through options for all three.
Perhaps you want a Vox AC30-style cab—no, make that a slant 4x12—and how about a tweed-style head and a germanium-style fuzz unit? It’s all available with a few touches. What’s more, each cabinet choice includes several microphone-emulation options—including dynamic, condenser, ribbon, and precision— and to my ears, they pretty much nail the characteristic EQ qualities of each. As a GuitarJack owner, you’ll already have an expanded set of virtual amps, effects, and cabs, though you’ll almost surely want to plump for the additional AmpPack 2 and PedalPack 2 libraries. (Though it might have been nice to throw those in, too, given the cost of the GuitarJack.)
While the models are worthy and the time-domain effects were suitably hi-fi, I can’t say these sounds were the most inspiring I’ve heard. And I would like to see Sonoma add some kind of noise-gate function in future versions, because many of these sounds exhibited a lot of noise. I also found that the onscreen touch controls were often too closely grouped together, requiring some rather dexterous finger maneuvers to tweak the virtual knobs.