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Instruments for Audio Production: iOS DAWs

PAR’s “iAuthority” covers the most compelling multitrack recorders and DAWs built specifically for Apple’s iOS platform.

According to legend, Keith Richards had the riff for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” come to him late one night in a hotel; barely awake, he recorded it to a portable cassette deck he kept beside his bed, though it would still take several studio sessions before he nailed the cadence and tone for the song.

Just imagine what he could have done if he had an iDevice.

Over four hardware generations, Apple’s iPad has transitioned from a largely consumer platform to legitimate production component, augmented by an increasingly expansive selection of apps for both tone manglers/wranglers and sound gatherers. While it can operate as little more than a stereo recorder or singular instrument, the iPad now has the processor architecture that allows it to support suites of recording/ mixing software and multichannel interfaces.

Previously in the “Instruments for Audio Production” series, we’ve discussed various creation components for iOS devices, but now let’s look at the glue that turns making sounds into making songs.

It didn’t take long for companies to realize the potential that pocket computing had for songwriting and practice tools; in fall 2008, Sonoma Wire Works, in conjunction with developers Retronyms, already had its iPhone app FourTrack ($9.99, iPhone only) on the market. Arm, record, repeat, went the mantra, allowing for the quick capture of musical ideas. And that was on top of copious single-track “memo” recorders, which could do double duty to jot down basic melodies.

However, by 2010, the introduction of the iPad and its greater screen real estate quickly led to increased capabilities, as exhibited by Sonoma’s own StudioTrack ($19.99, iPad only). now armed with eight mono strips (think a “portastudio”), plus bounce, a host of faders and multiFX, musicians had a much more powerful tool that could be used to process and organize demos, then export the session stems via iTunes to a computer for DAW refinement. Sonoma saw the potential of external mics, as well as internal sources. The company released not only the attractively machined aluminum GuitarJack 2 interface ($149, Universal—meaning it will work on iPad or iPhone—with 30-pin jack, can accept 1/4- and 1/8-inch line level/guitar inputs simultaneously and provide 1/8-inch output), but also Sonoma helped establish the Mobile Audio Product Interaction (MAPI) Partner Program to introduce the AudioCopy/AudioPaste standards.

These have allowed well upwards of 100 iOS apps a dedicated clipboard to exchange audio over the past few years.

Over the years, StudioTrack has been regularly updated, adding more onboard effects and portable audio correction/compensation tools, etc., and it remains a solid sketchpad for the linear-minded. And, of course, Apple has ported its own GarageBand ($4.99, Universal) to iOS, joined by programs such as Beatmaker 2 ($19.99, Universal), Music Studio ($14.99, but with in-app purchases to unlock instruments, Universal) and Tabletop (Free, but with in-app purchases to unlock instruments, iPad only), among others, for those looking to engage with and arrange on a timeline through a suite of virtual MIDIreceptive instruments. The integrated “music production environment,” or “mobile music workstation” approach is definitely something we’ll see more of in the future.

And plenty of apps have integrated their own four-track or more track components (such as AmpliTube and Animoog) for layering of a specific instrument. Still, even with the sequencers and multiple channels of effectible audio, the gap was still there to translate the experience of a more “traditional” DAW session to the iPad. Developers quickly took up the challenge.

There are now several viable options for the recording of simultaneous tracks and for nonlinear, nondestructive graphical audio editing. One of the longest running and constantly maturing is Harmonicdog’s MultiTrack DAW ($9.99 for 8 tracks, expandable to 24 via in-app purchases, Universal). The app offers a classic waveform display for easy and precise slicing/moving/crossfading/ snapping of tracks, as well as punch-in recording. Tracking at up to 96 kHz, 24-bit is supported, if you have the mics and interface to make it worth the increase in storage space required, and the program recognizes the import of formats, including wav, aiff, AAC, MP3, M4A and OGG. The look of the program is rather pedestrian with geometric shapes in a muted color palette. The touch interface, however, allows the program to deviate from a traditional DAW and compensate for bigger fingers on smaller screens through the selection of transports/parameters, which zoom in and out when needed. The implementation of a popup “Hotbox” circle of options allows the user to select context-sensitive handling of selected audio regions. Compression and EQ are available on each channel, and reverb and delay can be assigned to, and reordered on, the master buss. For export, it’s possible to select single tracks or entire sessions, transferring them in .wav, .ogg or .m4a formats.

Another option is 4Pockets Meteor Multi Track Recorder ($19.99 with effect plugins and MIDI instruments/editors available through in-app purchase, iPad only), which offers much brighter colors and up to 12 tracks of 16-bit, 44.1 kHz audio with delay compensation. The ergonomics are much closer to a traditional DAW, with more upfront toggles and traditional menu systems.

Again, you can import/paste sounds, or use a physical adaptor to record in mono or stereo. A sound editor allows for a dedicated page in which to edit/affect waveforms, and the mixer is fully automated. Also automatable are controls of the effects, which are many, but do require an investment above the initial entrance price (especially considering that compression and more precise carving EQs, which most would consider core features, are $2.99 each). The effects are well-modeled; there are multiple send/receive busses, side compression is an option, and a MIDI editor can also be purchased, opening up options for step recording/editing virtual instruments and syncing clocks to external hardware. Once all the levels have been set, the session can be exported to a full-fidelity .wav file.

Whereas MultiTrack DAW currently feels like an efficient way to lay down and organize a wealth of musical sections, and Meteor offers fewer tracks and leans more on its multi-effects processing and arrangement capabilities to stand out, there’s an app that nails the look and feel of working with a professional console: WaveMachine Labs Auria ($49.99, iPad only), a simultaneous 24-track recording, 48-track mixing/post-production station that can even be synced to another iPad for up to 96 channels.

[See Technical Editor Lynn Fuston’s full review of Auria in the January 2013 print and digital issues of Pro Audio Review. – Ed.]

Auria is set up with two main pages—one to mix and one to edit—which should be very familiar to Pro Tools aficionados. Laid out in portrait mode (landscape mode also available), it offers four-dozen channels with 100 mm faders and adjustable metering.

Tracks can be panned, soloed, muted and use two aux busses plus eight subgroups—the type of setup familiar to anyone familiar with a mixing desk. Of course, this reliance on physical accuracy means some controls are smaller than others, but never frustratingly so, at least to me. The zoomable editing timeline also offers no surprises to the DAW experienced, offering all manner of snapping tools, fades and crossfades, separations, gain, normalization, dc offset, reverse, etc.

What stands out are the professional level plug-ins, which come from familiar names that have recompiled their VST effects for Auria. For example, the built-in ChannelStrip comes from PSPaudioware, as does the master channel, in conjunction with such effects as Mu Technologies, ReTune pitch correction. Also, MoReVoX RetroVerb convolution reverb is incorporated, with additional impulse libraries available to buy.

Once done, sessions can be exported via AAF format through iTunes or Dropbox and imported into a full-fledged DAW. Or, for those who would rather run stems through hardware, Auria supports multiple outputs over USB (requiring appropriate adaptors).

Auria doesn’t offer MIDI or virtual instruments, and is resources intensive, but it offers a clean, efficient graphical interface that provides a near seamless transition to the iPad for mix engineers on the go.

Just as this article was being finalized, WaveMachine Labs lowered the hurdle to Auria adoption (price) by releasing Auria LE ($24.99, iPad only), a version trimming $25 off the initial entry fee. What this costs you is some tracks, sample rates, effects and import/export features, as it lowers the simultaneous playback channels to 24 (from 48), simultaneous recording to eight tracks (from 24), subgroups to two, makes the only sample rate available 44.1 kHz, disables the convolution reverb/pitch tunershifter/brickwall limiter and PSP master meter, and also deactivates AAF import/ export, WIST and AuriaLink, the output matrix, track freeze, normalize/DC offset/ reverse/silence, aux channel plugin delay compensation and the 64-bit mix engine. All these functions are upgradable via in-app purchase, however, so the LE’s more affordable taste simply acts as a gateway drug.

Released too close to this issue’s production to preview hands-on, Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH announced Cubasis ($49.99, iPad only), the mobile complement to the company’s Cubase music production system. Offering unlimited tracks of audio and MIDI, import via iTunes, WiFi server or AudioPaste, a sample/key editor, up to 64 voices (hardware dependent) of virtual instruments and loops sourced from the HALion Sonic workstation, the ability to sequence other CoreMIDI apps in the background, a mixer with over 10 effects processors, as well as direct export-to-Cubase capabilities, the program brings familiar arrangement and mixdown tools into the portable multitouch realm.

The most exciting recent development, however, has been Audiobus ($9.99, Universal), a third-party solution to the biggest iOS problem. Cut and paste functions are all fine and dandy, but Audiobus allows compatible apps to send/effect/receive audio with other apps that have integrated the API and its simple tab interface. It’s only a single channel—for example, running a synthesizer into a guitar amp simulator into a loop recorder—but it’s a direct conduit where before there was none. Just a few of those supporting some aspect of this gloriously simple in/thru/out routing overlay are Moog, Korg, nLogSynth, Audulus, Grain Science, Sunrizer, JamUpPro XT and ReBirth, among many others, including Harmonic Dog’s MultiTrack, with Auria compatibility in the works.

Perhaps, as hardware allows, we’ll see multiple instances supported, or even wireless integration between devices and desktop/ laptop systems. Expect more coverage of the possibilities opened up by Audiobus in an upcoming installment of Pro Audio Review. With all the activity in the Apple/iPad ecosystem, it’s becoming increasingly possible that iPad equipped recording enthusiasts can get some satisfaction.

—Washington DC-based live DJ and journalist Tony Ware is a contributor to Pro Audio Review and sister publication Electronic Musician.