Take Your Mobile Recording Studio Everywhere with iRig’s Product Suite

IK Multimedia wants to bring music creation into the mobile world, and its suite of apps and gear is a fine step in the right direction. I say step, it’s worth noting, because neither the apps nor the hardware I’ve been testing over the past few weeks manage to produce the full package.

But it’s a great start, and much of what we’re about to discuss would suit both professional musicians, journalists, podcasters, and DJs doing some light work on the road and hobbyists or amateurs on a budget or just dabbling in audio production.

I’ll be running through most of the IK Multimedia apps for Android and iPad, while touching on a few worthy competitors and alternatives, and weighing in on the hardware I was sent for review — the iRig Mic Cast, iRig Mix, iRig Pre, and iRig Mic. First, let’s look at the gear.

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This review has been jointly posted on Android.Appstorm with a few differences to accommodate for each platform.

The Hardware

iRig Mic Cast

My favorite piece in the set: the iRig Mic Cast is a microphone about the size of a Lego minifigure. It uses a unidirectional pickup pattern to minimize the background hiss you get from your device’s built-in microphone. This basically means that its sensitivity is strongest on sounds directly in front of the microphone and weakest directly behind.

It's a cute little thing.

It’s a cute little thing.

It’s no shotgun microphone, though, so you’ll still hear sounds from all around you, especially if you flick the switch to LO — a setting well-suited to recording lectures, concerts, or ambient noise. The HI option performs best on sounds recorded close to you, such as interviews or jamming on your guitar.

A headphone jack on the side lets you listen to your in-progress recordings (or whatever background audio you might have playing from another app), with latency more noticeable on Android than iOS. There’s also a cool stand for propping up your device to improve audio quality when it’s resting on a table.

I used the Mic Cast successfully for interviews and for recording a couple of panels at PAX Australia, and have taken to keeping it plugged into my phone most of the time. Its size and weight imprint is so minor that you barely notice it, and i’ts fantastic to have it on hand for those unplanned moments where you might need a quality hands-free option on a call or some impromptu podcasting, interviewing, or music recording.

I was much happier with the clarity and consistency of recordings made with the Mic Cast compared to the built-in microphones, especially on iOS — where there seemed to be less white noise coming through. But your mileage may vary. See below for a few samples, including my cat purring and me reading from A Dog’s Tale by Mark Twain, to hear how it stacks up.

  • My cat purring, with the microphone held half an inch from her head. Recorded on an Android phone.
  • Me reading from A Dog’s Tale, with the Mic Cast on HI setting. Recorded on an iPad.
  • As above, but this time recorded on an Android phone.
  • A snippet from the Halfbrick (Fruit Ninja developers) panel at PAX Australia. I sat my phone on my knee, with the Mic Cast plugged in and on HI setting.
  • A random short clip from a conversation where I was showing someone how to adjust the levels.

iRig Mic

More targeted at musicians and karaoke fans, the iRig Mic is a slightly less portable option. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill electret condenser microphone, which is a common general-purpose mic often used for recording vocals — both spoken and sung. It’s one point of difference is that it plugs directly into a smartphone, tablet, or Mac via a 3.5mm stereo mini-jack.

Good build quality on the mics, but not the bits that come with them.

Good build quality on the mics, but not the bits that come with them.

Where the Mic Cast tends to perform well on HI or LO setting, with minimal adjustment of input levels in your recording app, the Mic is fiddly. Getting a good sound often requires a bit of trial and error, flicking the switch between its three positions to adjust the gain and tweaking input levels as well as output volume on the other end to minimize static.

You get a decent frequency response and very few audible pops, although hissing proved something of an issue on a quieter audio input. Transport and use is easy, thanks to a swanky carry bag and a cheap mic stand clip. But if you’re out in the field, it’s really hard to go past the Mic Cast for portability at only a slightly greater compromise to quality.

The iRig Mic is good for the price (€49.99, which is around $66), but it looks to be no substitute for a professional microphone if you really need top-quality audio. I found it didn’t put up much of a fight against a Globalmediapro MCS-5VB — which is a Chinese knock off of a high-end large-diaphragm condenser microphone. Again, I’ve linked to some samples below.

iRig Pre

IRig Pre lets you plug your XLR microphone into a 3.5mm input jack, like those found on (almost?) every Android and iOS device. It has a 48V phantom power switch, for use with condenser microphones, and a gain control.

The iRig Pre is about the size of two fingers in each direction.

The iRig Pre is about the size of two fingers in each direction.

Like the Mic and Mic Cast, it offers a headphone jack so that you can still listen to the sounds of your device while it’s plugged in. Be warned, though, that this seems to introduce some white noise whenever the Pre is turned on.

Unlike the previous two items, the Pre requires a battery to run. It ships with a 9V battery that should last 10-30 hours, depending on your mix of condenser versus other kinds of microphone. I can only vouch for mine still working after seven hours and counting with the aforementioned MCS-5VB microphone.

iRig Mix

I have mixed feelings on the iRig Mix. It’s a great little portable mixing board, small enough to slide in a bag and carry around and powerful enough to do a little light DJing at a party. But it’s also frustratingly hard to use with the other iRig gear.

It’s small as far as mixing boards go, but it rocks the usual features. Sorry, this photo could have been sharper.

It’s small as far as mixing boards go, but it rocks the usual features. Sorry, this photo could have been sharper.

It has a stereo RCA output (with an included RCA to mini-jack adapter), plus two main inputs, designed for syncing audio with one or two smart devices — although you can connect both to the radio or whatever suits you and do basic mixing on the board. There’s also a headphone output, meant for monitoring one channel or the other, and a microphone input.

Great, I thought. I’ll hook up the iRig Mic and my iPad and Android phone and run it like a two turntable DJ rig with the mic for triple use as karaoke, party entertainment, and PA system. It turns out that’s possible, but not with the microphone divorced from the two music signals, as hoped.

I couldn’t plug it into the microphone slot, because it’s not compatible — even with an adapter. I also couldn’t get a working signal in one of the main slots. I could only use the iRig Mic, or a different mic in conjunction with the iRig Pre, if I plugged it into an iOS/Android device, then fed the connector cable from the iRig Mix into the Mic’s headphone slot. Sounds confusing, right? It is.

That’s not all. You still don’t get a microphone signal at this point. You need to then open an app on your device that supports audio input, and make sure it’s set to play sounds are coming in through the connected speaker. I might add that iPad users can turn on background audio in the settings of DJ Rig, VocaLive, and AmpliTube, if they’re so inclined to use IK Multimedia’s own apps, and that’ll serve as a solution even as they flit between apps.

It’d be nice if it worked that way out of the box, though. And on Android you face a more serious issue, as we’ll start to lay out next.

The Apps

IK Multimedia won’t just leave you to fend for yourself on the app front. On iOS, there’s a host of free and paid options tailored to several different needs. On Android, it’s rather more sparse.

iRig Recorder

Let’s get the disappointing one out of the way first. I didn’t like iRig Recorder at all. It’s pretty much identical on iOS and Android, except that it works on Android tablets and not particularly on iPad, and on both counts you can do much better elsewhere. It’s clunky and hard to use for anything more than quick and dirty recording, and its fancy audio optimization engine only cleans things up slightly post-recording.

This is what Android folks see. IPhone users get much the same, but with a different bar at the top and some buttons at the bottom.

This is what Android folks see. IPhone users get much the same, but with a different bar at the top and some buttons at the bottom.

If you actually want to tweak the levels to get the most out of your microphone, you have to head into the menus. This should be right on the main screen. Android users will be annoyed that you can’t record directly to the SD card, although on the plus side it offers FTP uploads and easy sharing options.

The paid version includes a decent barebones waveform editor, at a hefty $7.99. I use Recordium ($0.99) on iOS and RecForge Pro ($3.95) on Android to do more, with superior interfaces to boot. Let’s move on for now, then loop back to discuss the Android experience in more detail later.

I'm rather partial to Recordium's clean, colorful interface.

I’m rather partial to Recordium’s clean, colorful interface.

 

DJ Rig

It’s unfortunate that IK Multimedia chose iRig Recorder as its app to prioritize for Android, because the rest of the iOS ensemble is pretty good. I spent a bit of time with DJ Rig for iPad ($1.99 for the full version, plus $9.99 for extra effects and a digital deck), which is designed for use with iRig Mix, along with AmpliTube and VocaLive. We’ll touch on those last two in a bit.

This is what you lucky iPad users get.

This is what you lucky iPad users get.

DJ Rig boasts a double-deck virtual mixing board, with a feature set that perfectly complements the iRig Mix. It can access your iPod library, sync the local sounds with an external audio source (so that the beats match up), and do all the DJ-type things you might want — crossfades, scratching, live recording, equalization, looping, sampling, and so on.

I’ve used mixers before, but I’m certainly no DJ, so a lot of these features go over my head. But it’s fantastic for entertaining guests at a party, and it looks to be a great entry into the world of DJing — which would otherwise set you back a few hundred bucks.

DJ Rig isn’t available for Android, but I found a happy alternative in DJ Studio 5 (free, with a $7.99 “skins” edition). To my uneducated eye, it looks to match DJ Rig feature for feature — perhaps with a little less on the sound banks and effects side. It also works a charm with iRig Mix. Crisis averted, again.

This is what Android folks may end up using.

This is what Android folks may end up using.

 

AmpliTube & VocaLive

The iPad to Android gulf widens when you get into AmpliTube’s territory. It’s a multi-effects processor and single-track recorder for guitar and bass that expands to an eight-track recorder with an in-app purchase or a full digital audio workstation with a much beefier in-app purchase.

Laying a track down on AmpliTube.

Laying a track down on AmpliTube.

If you already have GarageBand, that may suffice. But AmpliTube’s DAW is a beast, big and powerful enough to record and master your band’s entire album all on its own — if you can just manage to get good enough instrument and vocal recordings in there. Once you get the hang for how it shows levels, that is — I had microphone input shown in the mid-greens on the monitor that ended up getting distorted (see the music recording above).

I don’t have room to go in depth, but the only major issues I see with AmpliTube are the nickel-and-diming of in-app purchases and the question of how to get professional-grade audio in there.

The second of those may be solved by the extra accessories — iRig HD, iRig Stomp, iRig Keys, iRig BlueBoard, and iRig MIDI. But I haven’t had the chance to test them, and if the hardware sent to me is any indication they may not stack up to the needs of professionals doing anything more serious than a demo.

VocaLive, meanwhile, is just a version of AmpliTube geared toward singers instead of guitarists, with my favorite feature being something called Voice Cancel. This removes the main vocal track from the song so that you can put your own voice in its place. (I won’t pain you with an example — I’m no singer — but it worked in my testing.)

Now you can be Freddie Mercury…if that’s your thing.

Now you can be Freddie Mercury…if that’s your thing.

In a nice gesture, you can share in-app purchases between the two apps — ensuring that you’re only penny pinched for processing effects once.

Android doesn’t have AmpliTube, or VocaLive, GarageBand, or Cubasis, or any other well-known digital audio workstations and effects processors. The closest I could find is Audio Evolution Mobile, which is a fairly simple DAW with little by way of effects processing. If you’re on Android and you’re after these features, you’re straight out of luck.

Wrapping Up

I was impressed, on the whole, by both the apps and the gear I tested, but the iRig experience is far from perfect. On Android, especially, there’s a lot left to be desired. iRig Recorder seems way overpriced and under-featured, but thankfully it isn’t required for general-purpose recording with either of the iRig microphones.

The mics themselves produce excellent recordings, but only under optimal or near-optimal conditions. The rest of the time you have to contend with a static hiss that’s hard to remove because it appears mostly when the levels spike and is barely noticeable during dead spots in the input. This is most evident on Android, which unfortunately has a few audio issues baked right into the operating system.

It may not even be worth trying to monitor recordings in progress on an Android device, such is the degradation in quality and significant delay that comes with it. My tests with recording on an Android phone tended to involve awful sound through the headphones, made almost unbearable by a triple echo and heavy reverb and latency.

iOS fared better on this front, but it too is not without noticeable latency (the audio pros among you will know this is to be expected, given the technology). And both devices, no matter which app I tried or how I tweaked the levels, had at least some small amount of audible hiss come through on most recordings.

If you need crystal clear flawless audio, you’ll need to shell out for something better — probably requiring an expensive preamp and mixer in addition to a great microphone. If you’re a dabbler, though, or a pro just wanting to do straightforward experimentation, or perhaps a journalist always out in the field, this entire suite of hardware may prove handy whether coupled with or without the apps.

Speaking of the apps, Android users really get the short end of the stick here. They have to fend for themselves in finding suitable apps to get the most out of the gear, and in the process they’re likely to be disappointed with what’s available — I know I was.

The dozen or so iRig accompaniment apps (I just covered the main ones) feel like forbidden fruit, gloating and teasing that we picked the little green robot horse and tempting us to take a literal and metaphorical bite of Apple. When it comes to audio production, the grass is greener in the land of the iPad.


Summary

After a couple of years steady progress, the iRig ensemble of apps and gear looks just about ready to be your portable audio/music production studio, serving the needs of several different niches with aplomb. It's got issues, but there's no beating the convenience of doing everything from an iPad.

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