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Entries in Sonoma Wire Works (3)

StudioTrack for iPad Updated plus 50% off

Now is the time to grab StudioTrack for iPad from Sonoma WireWorks if you haven't got it already!

Added integration

We've been eagerly awaiting this update [press release link] which finally brings GuitarJack control panel and GuitarTone (great sounding amp sim) integration to the iPad.

This functionality was previously only available via Sonoma's FourTrack iPhone app. This is the app we had to use when reviewing GuitarJack 2 last month, which was less than optimal running on our iPad at 2x.

Now we can enjoy StudioTrack's 8 recording tracks along with this integration, we are very happy.

GuitarJacked

If you have been holding off on purchasing GuitarJack 2 for your iPad, this update will definitely improve your experience of using it.

We can't recommend GuitarJack 2 highly enough, it continues to impress as much as it did when we reviewed it, even more to be honest.

Non-Retina but great price

Although StudioTrack's UI has not yet been fully updated for the new iPad's 'Retina' display, it is good to see the updated version (1.5) being offered with a 50% discount at just $9.99/£6.99 for a limited time.

We highly recommend you grab a copy for the discounted price while you can. If you want to know more about StudioTrack and how it works, here's our review of the first release.

GuitarJack 2 Reviewed - Is It The Best Yet?


After surprisingly little begging on our part, the nice people at Sonoma Wire Works in California agreed to send one of their GuitarJack 2 review models over to the UK for us to take a look at.

Of course, we agreed to let you know what we thought of it in return, and as always we have written our review just as we found it, in 'real world' situations we would use the device in, so here goes.

Overview

We expect by now you already know what the GuitarJack 2 is, but its main purpose is to provide you with the best sounding, cleanest audio input into your iOS device, specifically the iPhone 4, iPad 2, iPad, and iPod touch (not 1st gen.).

Here's a little video showing the GuitarJack 2 in action:

First Impressions - Construction

Our first observation? This thing is built like a tank!

All the other interfaces we've laid our hands on have been made of plastic of some sort. They seemed fairly substantial but one was certainly flimsy enough that if it were left on the floor it would not withstand the impact from a misplaced boot.

GuitarJack 2, on the other hand, has an aluminium shell and a heft to it that makes us think it could easily withstand a stomping from our 'gig boots' (we haven't tried it because we do have to send it back). It is a big chunk of made-in-America metal.

This solid shell is backed up by the very welcome metal jack sockets for a ¼" guitar/instrument cable, an ⅛" headphone jack (with increased drive for monitoring with headphones) and on the other side an ⅛" stereo microphone/line in.

The ¼" input is a solid brass Switchcraft jack, which we think is a good thing. In fact it is so solid that removing our guitar cable from this jack often involved inadvertently disconnecting the GuitarJack 2 from the device's dock connector.

About the Dock Connector

The one thing that we have found with most dock connecting devices, including Apple's own Camera Connection Kit, is that it is very easy to knock the 30 pin connector loose and it remains a problem in a busy recording setup even with GuitarJack 2.

Proxima Dock Extender Cable bought for under £5This connector issue also means that GuitarJack is not best hung off your device with cables connected to each jack, whether in portrait or landscape mode. The weight is liable to pull the interface away from the dock.

Sonoma have obviously thought about this though and you will find four little rubber feet on the bottom of the unit which give it some grip on a desk surface when your device is laid flat on its back, as in the product shot with the iPad (above) and iPhone (below).

They also suggest using a dock extender cable, even offering a $26 one for sale on their site, but we managed to pick one up on Amazon (UK) for under £5 (pictured above) that has full charging and syncing capabilities. It is this cable that we used when recording all the samples below and it never came loose.

Some info and hardware specs

Before we get into how the GuitarJack 2 sounds, here are a few specs from Sonoma Wire Works for the techies in our audience:

  • 1/4 inch (6.5 mm) instrument input
  • 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) stereo mic/line input
  • 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) stereo headphone/line output with increased drive for headphones
  • Dock connector designed for use without removing most cases
  • Device powered for ultimate portability - requires no batteries or power adapter
  • GuitarJack Model 2 includes a 24-bit AD/DA Converter, however only 16-bit audio playback and recording is currently possible until a firmware update becomes available.
  • Sleek and rugged aluminum shell

Software Features

(Control Panel in GuitarTone, FourTrack, StudioTrack & TaylorEQ)

  • GuitarJack 2 Control Panel in FourTrackLevel Control: 60 dB of continuous level control
  • Input Modes:
    • Instrument (1/4 inch) - mono - Pad, Lo-Z or Hi-Z mode
    • Mic/Line (1/8 inch) - mono, dual-mono or stereo - Pad, Normal or Boost mode
    • Both inputs - Mic/Line input on the right channel and Instrument on the left channel
  • Included Software:

We will be taking a look at the software integration in a future post. For this review we will be concentrating on the GuitarJack 2 hardware and its sound.

So what does it sound like?

We know, by now you're probably thinking, "This is all very good, but what does it actually sound like?", so let's get to that.

For a device costing this much, it better be good right?

Well, we have to say, it is!

GuitarJack 2 is by far the cleanest audio input device we have tested. Noise is non-existent in all but the highest of gain settings and even then you have to turn the volume up very high to know it's there.

Audio from a microphone is clear and totally devoid of noise. Sound recorded from another audio device (in our test the audio from an iPad's headphone socket) sounds just as good.

Guitar tones are crisp, clear and well balanced. Even with high-gain, distortion loaded, fuzz-maven settings in AmpKit+, there was an obvious lack of feedback.

We ran plenty of sound tests and we recorded our general observations and a few samples for you to hear below.

Compared to Headphone jack input devices

Our main concern was how the GuitarJack 2 would sound in comparison to audio input devices that used the iOS device's headphone jack.

We have always been a bit disappointed with the noise levels present in audio interfaces connecting via the headphone jack.

To be honest, this may be less GuitarJack 2 versus iRig / AmpKit LiNK / JamUp Plug / iRig Mic, etc. than it is 'dock connecting audio devices' versus 'headphone jack connecting devices'.

The iPad/iPhone audio circuitry always generates noise in our experience and, as such, we think devices like iRig Mic, etc., will continually be at a disadvantage because of this.

But let's see what GuitarJack 2 sounded like with a guitar.

Guitar Input

We tried lots of different guitar apps and setups. GuitarJack 2 worked with everything we tried except Amplitube. IK Multimedia's apps just don't seem to detect an audio source via the dock connector, something we hope they rectify very soon.

We had been sent an A/B switch by Sonoma Wire Works too, which let's you input your guitar and split the output in two so that we could record on the iPad and iPhone at the same time. We used the amazing sounding AmpKit+ because it has both iPhone and iPad versions and we know it well.

A/B testing a guitar signal using AmpKit+ on iPad & iPhone

After trying lots of distortion laden settings and comparing the GuitarJack 2 with iRig, AmpKit LiNK and the JamUp Plug, the biggest difference was the lack of screeching feedback using the dock connected device as compared to the headphone jack devices.

But it was when we stripped everything down to the cleanest amp settings we could in the AmpKit+ app, took away the noise gate and matched the settings on both the iPhone and iPad, that we finally understood how clean the signal was from GuitarJack 2 in comparison.

Here's a few sample recordings so you can judge for yourself. We used our A/B setup shown above to record the same audio onto two devices simultaneously. We recommend listening with headphones for a better comparison and don't worry, Phil doesn't have to rely on his guitar playing to make a living!

First up, clean as we can get it, using AmpKit LiNK:

and now using GuitarJack 2

It is the audio hiss that you can clearly hear from the device connected to the headphone jack (in this case the AmpKit LiNK) that sealed it for us. The GuitarJack 2 is far superior and offers the cleanest signal we have heard so far, even without a Noise Gate pedal.

Feedback

This demo took us by surprise. When we were recording these we could only listen to one of the devices for monitoring (unless we wore two pairs of headphones, which seemed a bit weird).

So we chose to monitor our guitar through the GuitarJack 2 connected to the iPhone whilst recording. That sounded ok with this sample, noisier than we would normally use because of the high gain and lack of Noise Gate pedal, but acceptable:

Then later we listened to the version we had recorded via the AmpKit LiNK into the iPad. The feedback we heard here was not the nice tonal kind, but even using AmpKit's excellent re-amp feature afterward we had trouble dialling it out.

Here's how the same set-up, with the same 'Dynamically Dirty' preset, sounded through AmpKit LiNK, the headphone socket audio device that has arguably the best feedback prevention (warning: it's not very comfortable to listen to):

The difference is clear, we're sure you will agree. We haven't done anything with these sounds except trim the end bit off and export them from the apps used to record them.

Microphone input

As mentioned, GuitarJack 2 has an ⅛" stereo mic input with software controls to use mono, dual-mono or stereo input depending on whether or not you are using the ¼" input at the same.

When we used our old mono condenser mic (XLR to ¼" mono) we couldn't get it to work using both of the GuitarJack 2's inputs (for example vocals and guitar, or vocals and output from an iPad for video demos).

Our old mic and XLR to stereo jack cableThe 'Both Inputs' mode on GuitarJack 2 seems to take the Right channel only from the stereo mic input and our mic was only showing up on the left.

After playing with lots of of step-down/mono/stereo adapter combinations we gave up and ordered an XLR to stereo ⅛" cable that is bridged, so the mono signal is split into a left and right channel output. This worked wonderfully.

So how did the microphone sound? We compared GuitarJack 2's input to the nearest headphone jack competitor we had, the iRig Mic from IK Multimedia. This device also has three hardware switchable sensitivity settings, as does GuitarJack 2 (via the software control panel).

We wanted to specifically show you what the noise levels were like on each setting. We strongly recommend you listen with headphones to more effectively hear the comparisons.

First, the iRig Mic:

And here's our inexpensive mono condenser mic connected to the ⅛" stereo socket on GuitarJack 2:

Hopefully the difference is obvious, especially on the high sensitivity setting used at the end of our audio. GuitarJack 2's noise-free audio is clearly evident here in the second example.

Further testing underway

We are still conducting various 'real world' tests with GuitarJack 2, especially using dual inputs for videos of the iPad in action recorded on the iPhone 4, as well as the GuitarTone software that only works with FourTrack currently, but hopefully with StudioTrack on the iPad very soon.

As soon as we have more to show you we will let you know.

Final thoughts

In our opinion, audio recorded via the GuitarJack 2 sounds better, cleaner, more dynamic and more reliably useable than that of any other audio interface we have used for iOS devices.

Much of this is due to the fact that GuitarJack 2 interfaces with the dock connector. But just as much of the GuitarJack 2's performance comes from the way it has been professionally engineered and optimised to work with both the hardware and especially the compatible software.

If, like us, you could not normally justify the $199 RRP cost of the GuitarJack 2, you can get away with devices like the ones we have mentioned above that connect via the iOS device's headphone socket. For many purposes these would probably be enough and are a fraction of the cost.

If, though, you are serious about your sound, if you want the best possible start and quality of audio recording that you can reasonably expect on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, then we think you should sell something else and/or scrape together the pennies to buy yourself the GuitarJack 2.

We are sure you'll consider it a worthwhile investment in your music and other audio productions.

GuitarJack 2 was still available for a discounted price of $149 from Sonoma Wire Works direct, at the time of writing and its online and street price may be around the same when the deal finishes. A quick Google search has the price at a fairly uniform £139 here in the UK.

Further reading: iRig vs AmpKit LiNK - which is better? Part 1 of 2

Further reading: iRig vs AmpKit LiNK - which is better? Part 2 of 2

StudioTrack for iPad - Should You Buy It?

icon-studiotrack-512px.pngDid 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'

So we come to the iPad as a portable and importantly digital version of a multitrack recorder via the StudioTrack app from Sonoma Wire Works.

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:

User Interface

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.

studiotrack-mixer-portrait-sml.jpg

 

studiotrack-fxselect4eq-portrait_sml.jpgAudio Effects

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.

Extra Bounce

studiotrack-bounce-portrait_sml.jpg

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.

Audio Paste

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.

Audio Export

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.

StudioTrack wifi-sync.png

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.

Price

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.