By Clive Young.
In the July issue of Pro Sound News, Craig Anderton wrote about smartphones, suggesting that they could eventually pave the way for a pro audio tablet computer. One of the inspirations that led to his theory was that he’d seen IK Multimedia demo its new AmpliTube iRig hardware and software, which turns an Apple iPhone or iPad into a guitar amp and stompbox simulator. As it happens, an iRig interface landed on my desk at PSN the other day, so let’s take it for a spin on an iPhone.
First things first: Is the ability to turn your cell phone into a pedalboard a goofy novelty? Heck yes—but no.
Let’s face it—rocking out through your iPhone is amusing; when I handed my phone to a friend so he could make the wah pedal work by tipping it while I played, we both cracked up laughing. The thing is, there comes a point where the novelty aspect wears off, and you keep working with the app. Eventually, I started to find things I liked and disliked about it—and that’s when I realized I was taking the whole concept seriously.
The AmpliTube iRig Plug Interface Adaptor ($39.99) is comprised of a 2.5-inch plastic cylinder that sports jacks for both a standard ¼-inch guitar cable and a 1/8-inch plug for headphones. Leading out of the cylinder is a 3-inch cable that plugs into the headphone jack of an iPhone. The iRig is tough and ready for abuse, though with such a short lead, it’s doubtful it’ll spend much time lying on the floor—unless you’re OK with potentially stepping on your phone.
Sound-wise, um, it’s a 3-inch cable that plugs into your phone. The quality of sound has more to do with what you plug into the iRig—a high-end guitar cable and quality headphones will elicit more enjoyment than an $8 cable and your standard-issue iPhone earbuds.
Getting sound in and out of your iPhone is cool, but it’s what you do with the signal while it’s in there that counts, and that’s where AmpliTube for iPhone comes into play. The app comes in three flavors—Free, LE and Full; if you want either the LE or Full apps, they are a separate cost from the iRig.
The Free version simulates three stompboxes (Distortion, Noise Gate, Delay), a amp/cabinet and two microphones. The LE version ($2.99) adds a Wah and Chorus to the lineup and you can make in-app purchases for additional stomps and amp/cabinets in either version. The Full edition ($19.99) gets you all 11 stomps (the previous five plus Fuzz, Overdrive, Envelope Filter, Flanger, Phazer and Octave) and five amps/cabinets. If you start off with the Free version and find yourself wanting to make in-app purchases such as a clean amp, you’re probably better off upgrading to the Full version, as (to my knowledge) in-app purchases can’t be carried over if you eventually upgrade to the LE version.
The various pedals sound as you’d expect, and you can have up to three running at any given time (the iPad version allows four). I particularly like the Fuzz and Chorus, as they both have rich sounds that can be altered easily. One nice touch is that the Delay, Flanger and Phazer have BPM sync switches that set the effects to the pace of your playing. Switching the various cabinets and mics around will cause often slight-at-best but nonetheless audible differences, and every amp has plenty of parameters to explore.
Latency is rarely an issue; while my aged 3G can’t handle “Ultra-Low” without clicks and pops, the standard “Low” setting has been trouble-free and hasn’t thrown me off in terms of timing. Other offerings—a tuner and metronome—work as you’d expect. A option that allows users to load MP3 files for accompaniment from a computer into AmpliTube via WiFi is fairly painless, though it’d be nicer if the app could simply use some of the songs already on one’s iPhone.
Considering the limited amount of screen space, the app does a great job of making the most of the room available. To set a knob, you tap it and either A) try to spin it by rotating your finger (which doesn’t work well) or B) drag your finger up and down the large yellow meter on the right side of the screen. This works nicely and allows you to get precise with your settings. Once you’ve got a good sound going from your virtual pedals, you can save the settings as one of up to 36 presets.
There are some quirks to AmpliTube for iPhone. For instance, the virtual pedals output on their right side—the opposite of real stompboxes—so you have to remind yourself that the theoretical signal chain is going right instead of left when arranging pedals. Choosing stompboxes can be a chore, too, as the buttons that scroll through your options (the gray row, second from top) are too small; I kept accidentally hitting the buttons above them, which sent me to other screens or caused me to screw up pedal choices I’d already made.
AmpliTube for iPhone conjures some interesting sounds and is a lot of fun to work with, even if isn’t quite meant for pro audio use. You wouldn’t use it for recording beyond a lo-fi demo, and gigging with it would be rough going unless you used the same settings throughout an entire song. However, it has very respectable effects, is great for practicing and hashing out song ideas, and will doubtlessly be loved by folks who never journey far without a traveler’s guitar in tow (and you live sound engineers know who you are). I suspect that for a number of users, it will also wind up becoming a stepping stone to the full-fledged AmpliTube software for Mac and PC.