The first part of a new Guitar & Bass series, Marcus Leadley seeks out the quickest, easiest and most pocket-friendly ways to get ideas down
Alot has changed since home recording went mainstream in the late 1970s, and falling prices, new formats and the proliferation of kits of every type has been great news for creative musicians. However, it’s created a bewildering set of options that leave many confused, and specific advice for guitarists is hard to find. This month, we’re looking at super-portable solutions.
Lie of the land
In 2013 there really is no excuse: no matter how small your budget, recording good quality guitar sounds is easy. Throughout this series the baseline question you have to ask is, ‘what am I recording for?’ The answer will pretty much tell you how you should be recording. Some possible answers: ‘I really want to capture this fantastic riff before I forget it’ or, ‘That’s a cool riff… I wonder how the bassline should go?’ or possibly, ‘I’ve been working on these parts for months, now I really want to spend some time getting a really good performance.’ In some cases, that will mean getting involved with standalone recording devices and the like, but the obvious place to start is to make the feature an add-on for a gadget you already have.
If you don’t own one of the new generation of so-called smart phones look away now, or think about getting one; they are definitely the 21st century equivalent of the Swiss Army knife. Chances are, your phone came with some sort of basic sound recorder – but third-party apps offer more flexibility, better sound quality, multi-tracking, editing features and a choice of file formats – very useful if you want to move files to a DAW.
First, the bad news: while Blackberry owners have access to all sorts of useful guitar tuner, metronome, synth/step sequencer, tab and tutor apps, recording beyond basic voice recorders hasn’t been explored. Check out Voice Record (free) or VR Voice Recorder (£8) – these will of course record anything you put in front of the mic, including guitar. If you’re an Android user, how about Tape Machine (£2.49) by Samalyse? This app has a nice clean waveform display to reassure you that recording is in progress. Like all these apps it functions with your phone’s built in mic (more about this later), so a good result means a bit of trial and error to determine how near to your acoustic or amp to put the phone.
As a songwriter you could theoretically record a number of takes, use the app’s editor to compile the best performances and upload an MP3 direct from your phone. Alternatively you can move the WAV or AIFF files to your computer to work on. RecForge Pro (£2.49) offers similar features and saves MP3s and WAVs, but not AIFFs. If MP3 recording alone will do, Hi-Q MP3 Voice Recorder (£2.39) is super-simple to use and offers 44.1 kHz sampling on certain devices.
Moving on up in terms of track count, J4T Multitrack Recorder (£1.99) is a four-track recorder for Android with built-in effects that offers stereo panning, cut, copy and paste editing, loop function and a metronome. You can tell it’s designed for guitarists; the effects have pedal graphics. Four Track Pro (£4.31) is another simple-to-use four-track app; it has no effects, but there’s talk of MIDI support on the way. Pocket Band Pro (£6.29) records audio and also gives you a multi-tracking sequencer environment complete with synths, drum kits and loops. It writes MP3s to an SD card and songs are built up from multiple short loops, which is great for guitar riffs but doesn’t exactly accommodate wig-out solos. There’s a whole cloud computing/social aspect to this app that lets you collaborate on songs with ‘friends’ if you want to.
Over in iPhone territory one of the simplest, most cost-effective and complete solutions for single-channel electric guitar recording is IK Multimedia’s iRig (£35), an app which works for iPad and iPod Touch as well. While the marketing buzz is focussed around the number and quality of modelled amps and effects and the signature versions (AmpliTube Fender, AmpliTube Slash, AmpliTube Metal, AmpliTube Jimi Hendrix, AmpliTube Custom Shop), you can also record your playing.
Purchasing the additional Master Effects expansion turns the recorder to a four-track device. iRig comes with an analogue input connector for your electric guitar (See Phone Connections for a discussion of analogue vs digital) or you can spend a little more on iRig Stomp (£55) where the interface is built into a pedal-style enclosure with a stomp switch and a rotary controller for haptic control of your virtual stompboxes. Acoustic guitar players should check out iRig Pre (£35) which features an XLR connection and phantom power for condenser mics. There’s a free download with iRig Pre: iRig Recorder and VocalLive multi-effect apps. Another app associated with an analogue input device is Peavey’s AmpKit Link (£35). This offers two amp channels, two cabs and three effects, and you can buy 30 extra elements.
You can record your playing and then play along with a different sound – it has no multitrack facility, but it’s a great practice and jamming tool.
Moving on to digital input options, the Mobile POD app from Line 6 offers 32 amps, 16 stompbox and rack effects, and 16 speaker cabinets. The app is a download when you buy the Mobile In (£64) interface that connects via the 30-pin connector for a high-quality digital signal path – and it supports stereo 24 bit/ 48kHz recording. However, the app itself doesn’t record, so you’d need to output to a separate DAW – and the Mobile In is compatible with many of these.
Once you’re in iPhone territory it’s not long before you crash into the behemoth that is GarageBand (£2.99). I’ll be looking at this software in more detail later as it ships with all new Apple computers. GarageBand for iOS is a well-featured DAW that can also be used on the iPad and iPod Touch. You can work across devices and update mixes on each via iCloud. While it’s limited to eight tracks, you can ‘merge’ tracks – a bit like the analogue process of bouncing down – except that you can back up the unmerged data. As well as the audio recording aspect, there are all sorts of goodies in terms of software instruments to build mixes around your guitar playing. Talking of which, there are nine guitar amp models and 10 stompbox effects (extras are available) as part of the deal.
If you want to keep things really simple there are plenty of basic iPhone sound recorder apps, such as Pocket Record Pad (free), that offer 44.1 kHz/16-bit recording, WAV and AIFF file formats. If you play an acoustic instrument or want a general room mic’ing solution for gigs and practices on your phone, the combination of Tascam’s PCM Recorder app (free) and the iM2 stereo condenser mic (£90) delivers the goods.
Four Track (£2.99) from Sonoma Wire Works does what is says on the tin. Three amp models and three effect units are included, and you can purchase 12 more of each or get them free with Sonoma’s GuitarJack (£122 – see iPhone section for details). One unique feature is the Taylor EQ: designed in a collaboration with Taylor Guitars, so the input presets are specifically designed to help improve the recording of acoustic instruments. Recording quality is at 44.1 kHz/16-bit and you can export a mix or individual WAV files. Studio App Pro (£2.99) is another four-tracker with internal bounce capabilities. Record Studio Pro (£2.49) is yet another four-track option with a very clear and simple interface. If you really want to do things on the cheap, how about the free app Multi Track Song Recorder? It is a pretty basic app, and when recording a track, all other tracks play as well so you will need to wear headphones to avoid re-recording the spill. But hey, it’s free!
While a phone’s internal mic will record your electric guitar playing for posterity, it won’t exactly give you great sounding results. At the most basic level you can use a jack with an 1/8" plug at one end and go direct to the analogue headphone/input socket – although not all basic apps are configured to accept this input. Assuming it works, the result will, most likely, sound rubbish; there will almost certainly be an impedance mismatch (high/low) between guitar output and phone input which will lead to a reduced high frequency response and a low signal level. Single coil pickups are worse than humbuckers; lower impedance active pickups can work quite well. Ideally you need some sort of interface capable of impedance matching – preferably with a proper 1/4" guitar input socket.
Not all phones are born equal and connectivity for Android phones is limited to this form of mono analogue connectivity. As electric guitars are, for the most part, mono instruments, this won’t be an issue for many. Android phones do function as music players so they are stereo output devices and a number of four-track apps offer stereo panning internally and stereo effects. iPhone users get to go digital – or use the low-cost analogue interfaces. Digital connection gives you dedicated, high-quality analogue to digital converters and opens up the world of hi-fi stereo recording.
Android and iPhone
Some companies market ‘computer-guitar recording cables’ but these simply have the right 1/4" and 1/8" jacks and don’t address the impedance issue. At £19.99 Tiger Music’s iPhone/iPad interface is an entry-level analogue device that connects to your phone via the headphone/input socket and will function with an Android phone. Peavey’s Ampkit Link and IK Multimedia’s iRig input devices will also work with Android analogue inputs, but neither company offers Android versions of its iPhone apps – which seems like they are missing a trick. While designed for the iPhone, Tascam’s iXZ (£59) is an analogue input device that will also work with Android phones. This is a very cool little gadget offering switchable connection for both electric guitar and microphone. It even delivers phantom power for condenser mics from the onboard AA batteries.
iPhone-ready devices generally also work with iPads and iPods, but not laptops where USB or Firewire is needed. We’ve talked about a number of these already because apps and input devices have been paired. The stylish Apogee Jam (£117) offers digital connectivity and the sleek design makes it look like a guitar cable extension. Conveniently it works with iPhone, iPad and iMacs. For top-of-the-line sound quality and a mic input be prepared to shell out £122 on GuitarJack from Sonoma Wire Works. You’ll get superior components, controllable input level control with 60dB of gain plus 12dB pad for 72dB of adjustment, configurable Lo-Z and Hi-Z modes and a 24-bit AD/DA converter. You can also record guitar and vocals simultaneously through separated inputs.
At the risk of sounding like a techno-evangelist, inter-connectivity is the musicians’ promised land; moving sound files between different sources into the computer editing/mixing environment and then into the self-publishing domain of the internet means that if you can make the music, you can find an audience. Even if you’ve only interested in entertaining yourself and friends, there really is no reason not to upload mixes to sites such as SoundCloud, Myspace or YouTube; it’s free and it means you can access your music from any computer.