iPads and their multitude of audio apps are everywhere you look, yet serious doubts remain. Can an experienced, opinionated pro-level audio engineer comfortably use an iOS DAW to professional standards? Our Technical Editor—a Nashville-based pro with a propensity for world-class tracking sessions—takes the plunge to find out.
This—PAR’s January 2013 cover story—is a software review. It’s a hardware review. It’s an iPad review. No, it’s a tablet technology review. Actually, it’s all four rolled into one, so let’s dive in and see if I can illuminate the future of Auria’s multitrack software for iPad, while also considering the validity for recording of the Apple iOS, USB interfaces and using tablet technology. Whew.
Never let it be said that I’m timid when it comes to auditioning gear. Having done shootouts with 50 mics, 34 preamps, 22 ADCs, I’ll admit to being a little “ambitious.” So as soon as I heard that WaveMachine Labs had released a 48-track DAW that ran on an iPad, I thought “Let’s take in the studio and see what it can do.” Trial by fire? You could say that. I wanted to see if an iPad could substitute for a console and ProTools rig.
I’m getting ahead of myself. First let’s talk about the Auria software. “A DAW that runs on an iPad and will handle 48 tracks? Seriously?” It’s called Auria and is made by WaveMachine Labs, the Drumagog people. I downloaded it from the iTunes store and, after a few minutes extracting upon first launch, I was ready to go. It’s very intuitive and is an incredibly mature and flexible package for a 1.04 rev package that was just launched in July 2012. The download also includes a well-written 146-page user guide in .pdf form (which I admittedly did not read cover to cover). A lot has been written already by reviewers about the features and capabilities of Auria so I’ll just list those briefly: 48 tracks of playback at up to 96 kHz (44.1 and 48 kHz also), 24 simultaneous recording tracks at 24-bit resolution, 64-bit mix engine, multitrack editing, bundled software plug-ins plus VST support, subgrouping, two aux sends, fader automation, ability to sync two iPads for 96-track playback, programmed punching and too many other options to mention. And it’s $50? That’s affordable and amazing.
With it installed on an iPad (iPad 2 or higher recommended), the simplicity of this recording setup is truly astounding. Using a powered USB hub, I connected an Auria-approved interface (see the list on their site) to the hub and then connected the hub to the iPad using the camera connection kit (Apple’s 30-pin MFi connector to USB Type A connector). Done. (I subsequently swapped up to the iPad 4 during this review which required an additional swap to the Lightning-connector camera kit.) I tried the PreSonus 1818VSL interface (with an additional Focusrite OctoPre connected via lightpipe) and later the Focusrite Scarlett 18i6 and each worked the very first time, providing up to 18 simultaneous inputs, through a mix of XLR Mic in, Line In, ADAT optical in and SPDIF in. I also tried recording with just the internal mic or a USB mic like the Apogee MiC with similar ease. The big news here is that there were no drivers or additional software required. It is truly plug and play, so long as you have the cables with the right connections. After connecting the interface, going to the Input Matrix screen reveals an input map (inputs to tracks) that is self-explanatory and routing is accomplished by tapping blue virtual buttons. To start a new project (Menu>New Project), just type in a session name, pick the sampling frequency (44.1, 48 or 96 kHz) and the number of tracks (0, 2, 4, 8, 16, 24, 32, 48).
Controlling Auria is very simple. There are only three pull down menus (Menu, Edit, Process) and an Undo/Redo button in the Menu bar. Two screens (Mix, Edit), Frequency, clock source, Grouping, Marker drop, Transport and Time Counter round out the informative top menu. The Mixer window features faders (with mute and solo), pan, two aux sends, buttons for FX, Track record, Automation (R+W) and subgroup assign readout. Also featured on the Mix screen is a cool little speedometer window (Performance Meter) that displays CPU, Disk, Max CPU, Max Disk (largest values are held), Battery Life and Disk Space usage, and Free Memory. Nice.
Caption (photo at right): Sleek, simple interface: the Auria mixer window showing the ChannelStrip and Master Meter. Note the Battery and Space indicators top right.
Auria is full of useful (sometimes hidden) touches. Hold down the Record button and a pop-up menu appears offering Record Effects (which records plug-in effects to the track), Set Record Level, and Input Matrix. The Record Level is handled in software and varies from -144 to +10, with a default value of (oddly) -2.38 dB. (I’d prefer a default value of 0, but perhaps that’s just me. Maybe that pad is there as an overload safety net. I’d also prefer a global adjustment instead of individual track level settings.) Select a plug-in insert menu and a “Plug-In Store” option is listed so I can buy plug-ins from the app store and use them right away. Nice touch.
Speaking of plug-ins, allow me to restate that this entire DAW package is $50; I didn’t expect much in the way of plug-ins from a DAW that costs less than most single plug-ins, but I was pleasantly surprised. The standard PSP ChannelStrip is a very comprehensive Expander/EQ/Compressor. The equalizer controls are extensive (4 parametric bands plus hi/lo pass filters) and the compressor/limiter sounded quite good on vocals and drums. The gate/expander performed as expected. The ReTune tuning plug-in, on the other hand, was useless for pitch correcting even a solo voice without artifacts. I was never able to get anything useable out of it. (Similar comments are posted on the Auria forum.)
To hear a quick sample of the Auria compressor/EQ on kick and snare, take a listen to the before and after here:
Review Audioclip Link 1: http://www.3daudioinc.com/par/auriasamples/auriadrumsample
In Use: Tracking
Now back to my session and the burning question: Does it work?
At the end of a tracking day, I had some of Nashville’s best players (Dave Cleveland, guitar; Pat Coil, keys; John Hammond, drums; and Craig Nelson, bass) hang around for one more song. Drew Cline, singer/songwriter, brought in a chart and we took a few minutes repatching the microphone paths. All the same mics in all the same positions were rerouted. The drum mics changed from GT Vipre, Millennia HV-3R, Cranesong Flamingo and Neve preamps and instead went directly to a Focusrite Octopre MkII and a PreSonus Audiobox 1818VSL. I skipped the EQ I had added via a Great River MP2NV EQ (on kick and snare) and on the console. I did swap a Shure Beta 52A in place of my standard Royer R122 active ribbon mic on the outside kick because the 122’s output was too hot and there were no pads on the preamps. [See the sidebar for the mic list. — Ed.]
Caption (photo at right): Here’s the 16-input setup for recording rhythm tracks all in one room, not unlike recording in a living room.
So what happened? It actually worked. It’s impressive to watch a $600 iPad chugging along recording all those tracks without a glitch. Combining the PreSonus AudioBox 1818VSL and Focusrite OctoPre plugged via USB into an iPad, I was able to cut 16 tracks of rhythm instruments and a vocal utilizing a stereo headphone send for cue (which I also monitored), straight to a stock 64 GB iPad 3. The Auria session (using rev. 1.03.1) recorded 16 simultaneous 24-bit tracks at 48 kHz, using the default settings (256 sample record buffer). The players commented on the latency (typically I use 128 or lower) but we recorded the track without changing it and it was not mentioned again. I did the track in one pass, which is good because Auria cannot punch “on the fly;” only programmed punching is possible, utilizing In and Out markers for record. I also had an issue with clocking between the Focusrite and the PreSonus, but I’m pretty sure that was my fault. The tracks were then exported to ProTools via AAF and delivered to Drew, the singer, for him to do additional overdubs and final vocals (not completed at this time). The raw multitracks are available online as 24/48 kHz .wav files for audition.
Review Audioclip Link 2:
When setting up, I noticed that plugging/unplugging the interface from the iPad will reset the input mapping to default (1-1, 2-2, etc.). Since I had inputs mapped to different tracks (1+2 to 9+10, 3 to 1, 4 to 2, etc.) it was a real waste of time if I needed to unplug the interface or it accidentally became unplugged, which did happen. Only being able to do programmed punches instead of punching “on the fly” is a big issue with a room full of musicians, these pros being less than eager to wait for me to mark IN and OUT points for the punches and then roll back and let the iPad punch. That’s a time drain. Plus I always put markers within the song to identify song sections, so repairs can be done efficiently. Auria has only four markers available, so unless the song is only Intro/Verse/Chorus/Outro, I can’t do that. The workaround was the old-school way of writing counter numbers on the chart, which worked just fine.
Now let’s talk interfaces. The players’ evaluation upon swapping the preamps was interesting. “What happened to the bottom end on the bass?” said Craig, the bass player. “Well, that’s certainly different,” said the ever-diplomatic Dave on guitar. None were hampered in their ability to perform, but it was clear that they were not thrilled by the preamp swap. As true professionals, they played on. I did notice that the OctoPre preamps were demonstrably quieter than those in the AudioBox 1818VSL.
My sonic opinion? I was pleasantly surprised that it sounded so good. Was it better than my standalone preamps? No, but that’s no surprise. While not superlative, it was certainly useable, largely due to the sounds coming from these instruments in the hands of pros. Listen to the tracks and decide for yourself. If I had been using all my original front-end gear, I suspect it would sound great.
About 96 kHz sampling: I was pleased at how well Auria handled high sampling frequency recording. On the iPad 4, I was able to 38 continuous minutes of 18 tracks at 24-bit, 96 kHz with a buffer of 512 with no hiccups at all and the CPU load was never above 16%, stopping only because I didn’t want to fill up the internal drive. On a previous pass, with a 256 buffer, it failed and quit recording in less than six minutes.
In Use: Mixing
To explore mixing on the iPad, I took a large studio orchestra recording that I had recorded at Oceanway Nashville (about 80 tracks in all) and submixed the tracks into stems (42 tracks in all) so that I could import them into Auria and try mixing on a tablet. The import was easy after I took the files and zipped the Audio Files folder and transferred it in via iTunes. One drawback when transferring files to and from Auria is losing track names. So all 42 console channels had to be renamed after import. No fun. While mixing, I was impressed with the EQ and compression in the PSP ChannelStrip and the ease of grouping to the 8 submixes. I found the ClassicVerb to be adequate but was most impressed and pleased using the Convolution Reverb, especially the presets Big Rich Hall, Warm Hall and AbbeyPlate. It was when I turned on the automation that things got challenging.
Caption (photo at right): A vocal track in the Tracks window, showing volume automation breakpoints. Note the submenu (in black to the left) of automatable parameters in ChannelStrip, offering lots of control.
Being able to edit groups of break points in volume or send automation is something I rely on, but without a mouse and the ability to highlight and group regions of breakpoints, the only method of eliminating them is by highlighting and deleting them one at a time. That can be very time consuming in a big mix with lots of moves. Of course, the alternative is just to get it right the first time. Easier said than done, especially when grabbing small virtual knobs on a screen. This was one of the biggest frustrations to me, to the point that I just started letting things slide, which is not something I am prone to do. With all the editable automatable parameters (normally a plus), not having easy control over them is counterproductive. For a less complex mix with fewer tracks or fewer moves, this would not be an issue. But I wanted to find out just how close this would come to providing a professional with the tools needed to mix a record without any compromise.
Caption (photo at right): Mixdown Dialog window, showing selectable output parameters and destinations.
Another observation/suggestion: While Auria stores three versions of the session to allow Undo/Redo, I don’t think there’s a way to save alternate versions of a mix and recall them. So I couldn’t do a standard mix and then save a MoreGtr/LessVoc mix and then a BassDown/DrumsUp mix version. I monitored the mix using the headphone out on the iPad and to speakers driven from the line outs of the Focusrite 18i6 (don’t tell, but I even tried mixing one version just using the built-in mono speaker on the iPad, just because). On the positive side, the mix that I found adequate coming from the iPad sounded much better when I took the mixdown and played it back through my Cranesong DAC using my Lucid wordclock. I printed a portion of the mix for you to hear, with the understanding that it was the result of an abandoned work in progress.
Review Audioclip Link 3:
Sidebar 1: Strengths Vs. Weaknesses
In this fast-paced technological world, it’s interesting that what one person believes is Auria’s strength can be another person’s perceived weakness. For instance, from a professional recording engineer’s standpoint, $50 seems incredibly inexpensive: there are single plug-ins that cost 10 times as much. But in the “app” market, the competition is mostly $.99 to $2.99 and an app that costs $50 seems extremely high to the younger crowd. That feeling is reinforced by the realization that GarageBand is only $5.
Some people will love the fact that Auria is a dedicated audio recorder that will handle 48 tracks (or 96 if you pair two iPads) at 96 kHz. But there are other people I found online who complain that it only handles audio. “Where are the drums and basses and guitars and keyboard samples?” Another criticism is that there is no MIDI support. To those of us who remember when a tape machine did only two things, a) record and b) playback, it seems odd to expect a DAW to be an all-in-one music creation box. Yet that’s the reality today.
Sidebar 2: iOS 6
I think the Auria manual says it best: “iOS is a unique operating system with a different architecture than traditional Macs or PCs.“ As amazing as it is and considering how seamlessly apps integrate into it, iOS is still not the computer OS that I know and love. Not having the ability to drag and drop folders or immediately synchronize between two or more drives for security’s sake are challenges to a professional workflow. Having to depend on the cloud for storage (whether Dropbox or iCloud) may be fine for some but it’s not terribly comforting or fast. And having to deal with iTunes to transfer files in and out is a drawback, even though it works. The iTunes file sharing system doesn’t allow copying of folders, so one forced workaround is zipping folders to import them to Auria, which are there unzipped as a folder automatically. That’s a workable but cumbersome compromise.
Practical considerations: The largest iPad currently is 64 GB, which is roughly how much space I use for a single record these days (recording at 24-bit/48 kHz). If I need to do more, or I’m working on several projects simultaneously, then this could be an issue, as projects would have to be transferred onto and off of the internal drive. There are WiFi drives appearing on the market that can be networked for iPad auxiliary storage but they are good just for transfer, not recording and playback. Another issue is that when you tie up the Lightning connector (or MFi) for I/O, then the iPad has to run on battery power, since there is no way currently to have it run on AC and use the I/O at the same time. So, I had to keep my eye like a hawk on the battery status indicator while recording. Once the battery runs down, then it’s break time until the battery is recharged and on the new iPads (3 and 4) that can take up to 12 hours.
While I originally considered the Auria/iPad combo as a substitute for a computer-based system, it’s really not a substitute because I still need a computer for backups, file transfer, offline storage and more. While others might disagree, I don’t think I could use an iPad and Auria as the only recording platform for a whole project unless it was a completely live recording. It is interesting to think that hard drives used to cost over $1000. Now an iPad could be considered an intelligent drive and a user could buy one to record an album and, when it was finished, retire it and buy another one for the next album.
Sidebar 3: The Tablet Experience
It’s odd to think that a laptop and a rack of DSP cards used to be considered an amazingly portable solution, especially compared to hauling around a 2” machine and a console. How quickly things change. Now, to the next generation, a laptop is considered cumbersome compared to the ubiquitous phone or iPad.
So let’s consider the tablet format: Having everything at your fingertips is, well, cool in a very Star Trek kind of way. But little buttons on the screen can be hard to hit accurately. I lost count of how many times I hit Solo instead of Mute. And I found that consistently moving or holding a value on a fader or knob is not so easy as it might seem—it’s an acquired skill. Frequently, I resorted to putting my fingers on the edge of the tablet for stability and using my thumb to control a parameter. Sometimes my touch movements were misinterpreted (pilot error to be sure), like expanding a window became scrolling if I wasn’t careful. I have worked with the iPad for weeks and I became accustomed to it, but I’m not sold on it being better, not yet at least. There are times when the current standards just work better. I must have hit the space bar on my wireless keyboard dozens of times when I wanted the music to play. It doesn’t work. I have to reach up to the screen and hit the Play button. I know it’s just a matter of reprogramming my brain, but it can still be a nuisance. Not having the ability to option-click for grouping, or have Record groups, or highlight and surround an area of automation breakpoints to delete them all with a single keystroke—these are functionalities that may come, but they are productivity shortcuts that I am accustomed to and depend upon. Not having them definitely slows things down.
One of the major frustrations with the tablet experience is the interface. So many times I would try to select a button or a function and end up with something different. I suspect that phenomenon is a function of the small screen size but it is very frustrating, and I’m not the only one to register such a complaint. I think the iPad is a great tool for capturing audio, but as an editing and mixing tool, its limitations are hard to overlook. I’m not suggesting that it can’t be done and done well, but there are faster, more efficient ways to control a DAW at the present. Many of the keyboard shortcuts and productivity enhancements that I rely on in ProTools just don’t exist yet in tablet form. Not saying they won’t, but they don’t yet.
Compared to the tools I used to make my first recordings, the Auria/iPad combination is light years ahead and incredibly inexpensive. Could I make a great sounding record using this paradigm? Without a doubt.
Having the ability to take something that I normally carry with me anyway and actually record a high-quality performance is very exciting, especially when it takes just seconds to set up. There’s one connection to the iPad. The software works and the plug-ins are very useable. I should add that the Auria support forum online is very active and visited daily by the designers. I got several questions answered in hours.
But the limitations of storage (iPad’s internal drive) and file transfer methods combined with the restrictions of the iOS are frustrating, at least to a professional with a very well-refined set of expectations. Having everything going in and out through an unsecured connector the size of my fingernail is a little scary, as it came unplugged several times by accident as I was recording but that can be elegantly secured with gaffer’s tape.
I think the tablet is the wave of the future, but at this point, with its small screen and small buttons, I think it is useable but not preferable, especially when compared with more refined software on a laptop. For a bit more money, I could buy a more powerful recording software package and run it on a laptop and achieve similar portability with much more flexible and a full slate of editing features. For those on a budget who need to record without lots of editing, Auria is a very good option.
Auria seems ideal for location recording of minimally-miked house concerts or small venue live events, without a need for headphones or multiple cue mixes. And for stereo recording with no muss/no fuss, it would be ideal. Fast to set up, fast to tear down. For me, being able to carry in under one arm an iPad, a stereo mic like the Blue Yeti Pro that will connect with one cable (and adapters) and record whatever is happening on no notice at all is where I see Auria’s biggest advantage, augmented by 96 kHz and true multitrack recording.
A few suggestions: Auria needs a way to suspend a group or adjust a single fader within a group without ungrouping them, so one fader in a group can be moved without taking it out of the group, like Control-Click in Pro Tools. I think it needs a multiple Save As… option for different mix files. I’d like to see a way to enable highlighting of multiple break points for automation. It would be nice to have an Export Selected Tracks function, since I like to record a project, export it to ProTools for editing, and then do another overdub on the iPad and would like to export only the new track (not the whole session again as an AAF).
Given the current limitations of iPad internal drive sizes, it might also make sense to offer a 16-bit record option. The Sonoma Wire Works functions AudioCopy and AudioPaste, used to move audio between apps, is limited to 16-bit, and recording at 16-bit vs. 24-bit depth would add 50% more recording time for the same drive size. When recording electronic samples or talking head material, this would be an easy way to extend record time.
Price: $49.99 from Apple’s App Store
Contact: WaveMachine Labs, Inc. | http://www.auriaapp.com
Pluses: Simplicity of use; amazing powerful for the money; sounds good; mostly great plug-ins; more plug-ins available to purchase; inexpensive to buy and equip; runs on battery power (except interfaces); 96 kHz capable
Minuses: No keyboard or mouse (wireless keyboard will work); no option-group clicking; battery only operation; having to use iOS routing for file management (Dropbox, Soundcloud or iTunes); editing is possible but challenging compared to current DAW standards
The Score: Could I make a great sounding record using this paradigm? Without a doubt.
Sidebar 4: Microphones for Auria Tracking Session
Kick In – Audio-Technica ATM-25
Kick Out – Shure Beta 52 (sub’d for my Royer R-122)
Snare – Shure SM57
HiHat – AKG C-451
Tom 1 – Sennheiser MD 421
Tom 2 – Sennheiser MD 421
Tom 3 – AKG D112
Overheads – Audio-Technica AT4047 (x2)
Room – AEA R84 (x2)
Electric Guitar – SM57
Bass – Direct from player’s rack
Keyboards – Direct from player’s rack
*Thanks to Nashville engineer Bret Teegarden for the Focusrite OctoPre loan.
Sidebar 5: A Historical Perspective
As I took pictures of the iPad sitting on the 96-input Neve VRP console at Oceanway Nashville, I realized something. This isn’t just a juxtaposition of the oversized pinnacle of analog technology with the miniaturization of digital technology. It is the past meeting the future. This was emphatic to me because this wasn’t a photo shoot. This was an hour before the downbeat of my 26-musician orchestra session: a session that genuinely requires a console with lots of faders and inputs and outputs and buses and multiple headphone sends and lots of tracks. And yet, how many people these days are recording dozens of musicians at the same time in the same room? Not many.
So is there a market for a solution that will record 24 tracks at the same time and fit in a briefcase, complete with interfaces and cabling? That’s what Auria represents. And the 64 GB iPad with Auria, even including interfaces, costs about the same as 2 of the 100+ faders of GML automation on this Neve console. That’s the most striking contrast.
BIO: Lynn Fuston is the Technical Editor for Pro Audio Review, an accomplished audio engineer, and owner of 3D Audio, Inc. http://www.3daudioinc.com