iPad 2 as a portable music recording studio

Garage bands may never be the same again.

When Steve Jobs launched Apple’s iPad 2 on March 2, he spent much of his time in the spotlight showcasing the new tablet’s music creation capabilities – powered by Garageband, a new app compatible with iOS 4.3. “Anyone can make music now,” Jobs proclaimed as he demonstrated the “smart” instruments in the app, and the ability to record real guitars using Apogee’s Jam adapter.

That prompted ITBusiness.ca to ask: “Really?” The first iPad is viewed mostly as a great way to consume media, not a great way to make it. Has that changed with the tablet’s sequel? We’ve already tested the iPad 2 as a video production studio, now we’re doing the same for its music capabilities.

With a little help from Steve Salt and Chris Tindal of 52 Song Project, and thanks to Steam Whistle Brewery lending us a room, we set out to record and produce a song using only the iPad 2.


Visit 52 Song Project to listen to the finished song. One version recorded on the iPad 2, another recorded using Pro Tools.

Hear the song: iPad version | Pro Tools version

How we did it

Steve and Chris are on a mission to create one song for every week of the year in 2011. So if we couldn’t get the recording done on the iPad 2, their quest would be in jeopardy.

There were several elements that went into the production of this song. We incorporated the recording of an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, a lead vocal track, a backup vocals track, and a live percussion track (using an empty beer bottle and a bottle opener). Add to that two virtual instruments courtesy of Garageband’s Smart Drums and Smart Bass, and that adds up to the recipe for an eight track song – which is Garageband’s limit on the iPad.

Chris first laid down the percussion tracks using virtual instruments. One track features the Smart Drums, which let Chris build a rhythm by dragging different percussive elements onto a grid that ranged from a simple to complex beat, and from low to high volume. Chris used snares, kick drums, symbols, and hand claps to perfect his track.

The bass allowed Chris to simply tap the chords he wanted played, and they were injected into a pre-set rhythm. Both the bass and the drums sections can be looped to cover the length of the song.

To record the vocals and the acoustic guitar, we needed something better than the iPad 2’s built in microphone. Using Apple’s camera accessory kit to adapt the iPod dock into a USB port, we connected Blue’s Snowball microphone. This worked like a charm, ably recording directly into Garageband. Another option would have been to use Apogee’s One USB microphone, which requires being routed through a powered USB hub before being plugged into the tablet.

Apple doesn’t officially support USB microphones on the iPad, but they do work.

We had wanted to use Apogee’s Jam adapter to record the electric guitar, as was demonstrated in Jobs’ key note. But when we discovered that device is not actually shipping yet, we looked for other option. First, we tried using Apogee’s One, which allows for a quarter-inch or XLR guitar input to be converted to a USB signal on a Mac. But this didn’t result in any signal being received on the iPad, likely because the One requires a driver for this function. As noted, the built-in mic did work on the One.

Apogee followed up with us, and said we could have set the device to record a guitar onto the iPad if we’d set it up via a Mac computer first.

“The reason One’s microphone worked when connected to iPad is because that was the units last input state while connected to a Mac. To change your input to One’s guitar input while connected to an iPad you would need to re-connect to a Mac, switch the input within Apogee’s Maestro software, and then connect back to the iPad. ONE requires Maestro software for input configuration which is the reason we do not support connecting to an iPad,” Apogee says.

Using the AmpliTube iRig, Steve simply plugged the guitar into the iPad’s headphone/microphone jack. This worked fine with Garageband, and the sound quality seemed good. Garageband’s virtual amp even allows for tweaking the sound of the guitar.

Steve played the guitar tracks and recorded the vocals while listening to the other tracks already laid down in Garageband. To be able to do this, we turned on the “monitor” feature available by tapping the puzzle piece icon in the top left corner of the screen.

Building the song track by track in Garageband, much of the editing is done as you go. Steve and Chris laid down their tracks one at a time and tweaked them so the timing was in sync. The track editing mode allowed them to adjust the volume level of each instrument, and to lengthen or shorten track sections by tapping them and dragging out the ends. Double tapping a track section reveals options to split, loop, or delete a section.

Once the editing was finished, Chris exported the song from the “My Songs” screen using the e-mail options. Just seconds later, he was listening to the song on his iPhone.

Problems we ran into

Having never used Garageband previously, Steve and Chris found the interface intuitive enough to record and produce their entire song in under three hours. But there were a couple of glitches along the way.

The first was some confusion over how to properly save changes to a track or entire song once Steve and Chris were happy with their sound. After laying down a pretty intricate percussion track, Chris was frustrated when he accidentally wiped out all his work by changing things in the smart drums’ instrument screen. The trick we learned fairly early on is that once a virtual instrument track is finished, don’t mess with the settings on that track again – instead, create another virtual instrument on a new track for any experimenting.

Garageband also doesn’t have a way to quickly make copies of the entire song, so you can store away backup files as you work. But this can be done, we discovered later, by duplicating the project from the “My Songs” screen.

The second major hitch was some confusion over the “session length” setting. On manual by default, this has to be changed to automatic if you want to record long songs. Otherwise, you simply get cut off from recording after several bars. We made the mistake of changing this back to manual after working on the song for awhile, and all of our tracks were cut short at 32 bars length. Chris was able to restore the recorded guitar tracks just by dragging out the end of the segment, but the virtual instruments had to be redone. Garageband also was cutting Steve’s recording off when he was silent for too long a time, meaning he had to record his vocal track in several segments.

Assessing the iPad’s musical capabilities

Both Steve and Chris concluded they’d not replace their current home studio set ups with an iPad 2, but could see the value of making a quick recording on the fly with one, or using it to record when portability is important (say for example, on a canoe trip).

Considering the cost of the recording setup, the iPad 2 offers good bang for your buck. Given the cost of the tablet, Garageband is only $4.99 in the App Store. We bought the other items from the Apple store, the iRig for $39.95, the camera connection kit for $35, and the Snowball mic for $60.

While it won’t be replacing professional’s studios any time soon, there’s no doubt the iPad 2 can be used to record a high quality song. You might want to consider getting one for your garage band.

Brian Jackson is Associate Editor at ITBusiness.ca, and has no musical talent, even with the help of ‘smart instruments’. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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