Did you ever mess around with one of those cassette (remember those?) based multitrack recorders? We did, and we loved it. The iPad Creative team have even been known to record a few songs that should probably never see the light of day again.
If you never experienced the joys of trying to use a cassette tape to do multitrack recording then you missed out on a lot of fun!
So that you understand why digital multitrack recorders are so impressive, we will quickly explain what the 'old way' was like - feel free to skip to the next section if you have been there and done that, or simply don't care to hear why it is so amazing to see apps like StudioTrack being crammed into your iPad.
Multitrack Recording - the 'old way'
The problem with cassette tapes, apart from mechanical failure, was the quality. On a normal tape player, you would have two sides, with each 'side' of the tape split into a Left and Right channel for your stereo sound, so that is where the four tracks came from.
The special heads on the fourtrack recorders could play and record to all four tracks on the tape at once, if needed. You could also record onto tracks 1, 2 & 3 (perhaps drums and bass guitar), 'bounce' or combine those three tracks down onto the fourth spare track and then record over tracks 1-3 with your other song parts, such as rhythm/lead guitar, keyboards, lead and backing vocals, etc.
Bouncing tracks degraded the quality of the sound though, so the audio got very messy, very quickly. This was all in addition to other perils such as stretched tape making everything sound all warbly, tape being chewed up in the mechanism or worst case scenario snapping completely.
Digital Multitrack Recording - the 'new way'
First up, the obligatory features list:
Multitrack Recording - 8 tracks plus bounce
Re-arrangeable tracks with FX Bypass, Reverb Send, Pan, Gain, Mute, Solo, Record Arm and Track Icon
TrackFX - Tempo-synced Delay, Compressor, Parametric EQ and Reverb Send on every track
Calibrated Meters - accurately monitor record and playback levels
Calibrated Faders - accurately adjust playback level of each track
MasterFX - sweeten the sound of your recordings with a compressor-limiter and a 4-band parametric EQ
Output Compressor-Limiter - automatically fattens sound of the output mix
Master Channel with Reverb Return and Stereo Output meters
Metronome - select tempo by number or tapping. Includes pro drum recordings.
Bounce - mix song to track 1 and 2 of a new song to record as many tracks as you want
Mix - Save the mix as a stereo file
AudioPaste - allows pasting audio from AudioCopy compatible apps like InstantDrummer and DopplerPad
WiFi sync mix or individual tracks to a computer and import into any software that imports WAV files
Slide-to-Record - prevents over-writing your tracks
Latency Compensation - accurate to within 1ms
Recording Quality - 16 bit, 44.1 kHz
Supports both portrait and landscape iPad views
StudioTrack is in the app store for $39.99 (£23.99), we will come back to the price later.
What we liked
There is a lot to like about StudioTrack. It really is the digital equivalent of the multitrack recorders we mentioned at the outset, with the notable limitation of only recording one track at a time.
Here is what stood out to us:
It has to be said, StudioTrack is lovely to look at and a lot of thought and care has obviously gone into creating an authentic app, based on world real world mixers and recorders. That is not to say that it is all about the looks, the user elements are accurate and responsive to the touch as they need to be and we were confident about making adjustments using the onscreen controls quickly whilst recording, reviewing and mixing tracks.
If you have used any sort of analog (real world) or digital multitrack recorder many of the controls will be familiar to you, with Pan, Gain and Master FX send controls per track, also Mute and Solo buttons for each track.
We found the sliders to be just as accurate and responsive too, really adding to the authentic and professional feel of StudioTrack.
New tracks are added with a single touch and the new track is armed for recording automatically, assuming (probably correctly) that you want to record something else by adding a new track. Tracks can be reordered simply by dragging the track's left or right.
The app works in either Portrait or Landscape orientation, but you will find that in Landscape mode you will not see the level sliders on the individual tracks, so if you are reviewing and mixing then you may prefer to be in Portrait mode.
Each track of your audio has two slots which can hold several of four different effects applied. Some of the effects take both available slots so they can only be used on their own. The four effects are:
- Compressor (1 slot)
- 1-band parametric EQ (1 slot)
- 4-band parametric EQ (2 slots)
- Twin Delay (2 slots)
In addition to these individual track effects there is a Master Reverb. Each track has a green Reverb knob which adjusts how much of the total Reverb that track receives. This gives you a great deal of control over how your song sounds, letting you give the vocals, for example, more reverb than your guitar, or the lead guitar a little more Reverb than the rhythm guitar. This is also where the Mute and Solo buttons come in as you listen back to your track and adjust the effects accordingly.
The EQs are, as they should be, really powerful and we were able to rescue some pretty ropey sounding vocals recorded with the iPad's microphone via the 4-band EQ.
We talked about bouncing tracks at the top of this post, and although quality will always be compromised when bouncing tracks, in the digital world the compression effect of bouncing tracks is nowhere near as bad as it used to be on tape based recorders.
StudioTrack allows you to bounce several tracks down to another empty track in the same song, or even to another song altogether, something that would be very difficult to do with tape based recorders.
This is a really great feature and is an excellent 'ace up the sleeve' for Sonoma Wire Works. This sets StudioTrack apart from other multitrack apps as you can create audio, perhaps a drum groove or a synth riff/melody, in another supported app and then incorporate it into your multitrack recording.
There is a growing list of apps which play nice with StudioTrack, and there is an up to date list of them at Sonoma's site. These include FourTrack for iPhone and InstantDrummer (also by Sonoma Wire Works), DopplerPad, MorphWiz, ThumbJam and Looptastic HD (read our review of Looptastic HD here).
There is a Developer SDK for Audio copy/paste available from the same webpage too, so there may be many more apps in future that support this functionality, let's hope so.
Getting the audio off the iPad involves Wi-Fi sync. You can create a mixdown of your track to a stereo wav file or export individual tracks to your computer (on the same wi-fi network) for editing in a DAW. It is a fairly simple affair, hit the Wifi Sync button, an IP address is displayed, you type that in to a browser on your computer and you get a screen a little bit like the one below.
As you can see, each track is downloadable separately, and also a Mixdown track if you have created one. This only copies them to your computer of course, the originals are left on your iPad for further editing.
So those are the features of StudioTrack that stood out to us and we enjoyed using. Below, we discuss some of the areas that we were not so happy with or that we wish were included in the app.
What we think could be better
Lack of Inline monitoring
One of the main problems we had with StudioTrack was the lack of inline monitoring when recording. There is a monitor in the form of a coloured meter which jumps from green through yellow to red, and this tells you how 'hot' your input sound is and when it may be clipping or distorted. This works well as it is being very clear and emulates professional mixers.
But we were trying to record a guitar signal from a Multi-FX unit and it was difficult to tell what it sounded like when we changed the patch to something else or were pushing it a bit with a high gain setting.
Hearing what you are playing is particularly important if, like us, you are using distortion and delay effects that have a bearing on what you play depending on how the delay fades and rises.
This is something we think will be addressed very soon because it is in the new version of Sonoma's iPhone multitrack app FourTrack, but it is also something we would like to have seen in a professional level app from the outset, especially as it does work in some of the cheaper multitrack apps we have seen.
Lack of waveform
A bit of a wishlist one really, but we were thinking here about GarageBand on the Mac which shows the audio waveform so that punch-in recording can be done more easily and quick edits and cuts can be done visibly. This would also help with arranging parts.
There are cheaper apps that do offer waveform based editing though, most notably MultiTrack DAW at just $5.99. We hope to look at this app in a bit more depth in future.
It may not be something that is on the development roadmap for StudioTrack, but for the way we work it would make navigating around the song and editing it easier, which brings us on to our next point.
The scroll wheel
Using the scroll wheel to scrub backwards and forwards through the track is ok and we acknowledge there is a time readout, but if we had a waveform to navigate the whole song by it would be faster and easier in our opinion to pick out the audio section we wanted, such as when the chorus kicks in or a second guitar part is introduced.
On long tracks you can scrub along the progress bar but we found this to be a bit fiddly when trying to do things in a hurry, for example at a rehearsal when someone wants to re-record a part while they are 'in the groove'.
We found that even with a combination of flicking the scroll wheel and using the time scrubber we ended up in the wrong part of the song or overshooting the insertion point and it was frustrating to use.
One track at a time recording
This one is really a limitation of the iPad itself, so we are not levelling this at StudioTrack necessarily, but even with the humble tape based Four Track we could record several instruments at once, even recording a whole band during a rehearsal at the same time, so we would like to see some enterprising developer work this one out for the iPad to become a true mobile studio.
This is a thorny issue. At $39.99 (£23.99) StudioTrack is one of the more expensive iPad apps, even for an audio/music creation app, which tend to be more expensive. As such it attracts greater scrutiny and the price for many is an immediate turn off.
However, when you consider that our humble little tape based four track cost around £250 more than 15 years ago and this is an app that records in digital quality with a whole host of other features and effects that you would not find in the older units. Some features can be found on digital multitrack recorder units costing 8-10 times StudioTrack's asking price.
We did a quick Amazon search and found several books about Home Recording costing as much as, or more than, StudioTrack.
When you put it into perspective, the price does not seem that bad at all really, especially given Sonoma Wire Works' audio heritage and the resources they can put into future development of the app.
So yes, we think that the price is a barrier to entry, and that if StudioTrack was, say, $10 less then perhaps more people would be tempted to buy it. But Developers have to tread a very fine line between offering value for money and devaluing their time, effort and the product by offering such a complex app at a rockbottom price.
They also have to make a profit usually and StudioTrack has to be at the top end of development cost. As an end user though, this isn't really our concern is it? It is the perceived value to us and features that the app offers which affect our purchasing decisions.
Should you buy it?
StudioTrack is an amazing feat when you consider what has been achieved on a first generation device (although the foundations were laid with FourTrack on the iPhone). If the above points are addressed in a future update, then it would be a no-brainer.
We know there is an update on its way for StudioTrack, just from reading the comments in the forums and around the web from Sonoma employees, so we think that future versions of this app will keep getting better.
As it is at the moment, we have to say we would highly recommend StudioTrack to those who are after the nearest thing to a professional solution for the iPad and who can afford it.
However, if price is more important to you than the look and feel of the app and you can do without some of the more unique features such as the track FX and Audio Copy/Paste, then there are cheaper alternatives, and you may want to wait for the next version of the app and iOS 4 on the iPad.
Ok, that's what we think, over to you, let us know what you like/don't like about StudioTrack and the recording experience in the comments, we look forward to seeing what you have to say.
If you still haven't decided to buy the app yet, we encourage you to check out the site and watch the video below for an overview of what StudioTrack can do.
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