Review: IK Multimedia Amplitube iRig for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad
The iOS platform has enabled developers to turn the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad into far more than just media playback devices: new accessories and software apps are being developed to allow musicians to actually leverage the iOS platform for composition and musical performance. IK Multimedia's new AmpliTube iRig ($40) is an example of such a solution; a hardware accessory designed to work with the company's series of AmpliTube apps, which turn the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad into virtual guitar rigs, replacing the physical stompboxes and amps normally used by electric guitar and bass players.
The iRig is simply a patch cable with a built-in pre-amp that connects an electric guitar or bass to your device using the line-in on the headphone port, providing a 1/4” mono input for a standard guitar patch cable and a standard 1/8” (3.5mm) stereo headphone port to connect a set of headphones, amp or powered speakers for output. iRig’s headphone port outputs audio from the iOS device rather than passing through the input, and notably can use the line-in capabilities of iOS devices to provide guitar/bass input for any iOS audio recording app.
The real power of the iRig solution, however, lies in the AmpliTube app that IK Multimedia has developed. Available in separate iPhone/iPod touch and iPad versions, AmpliTube provides a virtual rig of stompbox effects and amps that provide realistic tone modelling, allowing guitar and bass players to essentially carry a complete audio rig in their pocket.
AmpliTube provides a total of 11 effects stompboxes and five different amps. Stompboxes include delay, overdrive, fuzz, wah, envelope filter, chorus, flanger, phazer, octave, noise filter and distortion, while amps include clean, crunch, lead, metal and bass. Users can also choose from five different speaker cabinet sizes appropriate for the different amps and a choice of either dynamic or condenser microphones. You can download either a free “modular” version of AmpliTube that can expand through in-app purchases, or a full version for $20 that bundles all of the available effects and amps. The iPhone and iPad versions are separate downloads, and in-app purchases made in one version do not transfer to the other. Consequently, users who want to use the app on both their iPhone and iPad will either have to purchase either both full versions or each effect and amp that they want to use separately in each app—a real inconvenience.
The free versions include the lead amp, cabinet, and three stompboxes—delay, noise filter and distortion—though users must register the app and setup a free account with IK Multimedia to download the distortion effect. Additional gear can be purchased from within the app at $3 per effect stompbox and $5 per amp. Users will occasionally be notified of sales on specific gear that can be purchased for as little as $1. Discounted prices aside, however, it is clear that serious musicians will likely be better off simply spending $20 for the full app than buying a lot of gear through in-app purchases.
AmpliTube on the iPhone allows for three simultaneous stompbox effects while the iPad version allows for four. Other than this and some UI differences the iPhone and iPad versions essentially provide the same features, although the larger screen of the iPad makes for a more pleasant user experience. The iPad version runs only in landscape orientation, presenting users with their four selected stompboxes in the top half of the screen and their selected amp in the bottom half. A toolbar at the top allows for selection of different stompboxes for each slot using a drop-down menu, while a toolbar at the bottom provides access to different amps and cabinets, preset gear configurations and additional options. Up to 36 user-configurable presets are available with nine pre-defined to get you started.
Due to the smaller screen size, AmpliTube on the iPhone and iPod touch simply displays a single stompbox or amp at a time with a toolbar at the top used to switch between the various slots and a secondary toolbar used rather than a drop-down menu to select different stompboxes or amps for each slot. The stompboxes fit on the screen reasonably well, however the amp controls require panning to the left and right using the touchscreen in order to access all controls. It’s also worth noting that the iPhone version only runs in portrait orientation, making the screen feel even more cluttered.
All of the knobs and buttons are manipulated by tapping or sliding on the touchscreen, making the app fairly intuitive, except that knobs are turned not by rotating your finger on the screen as you might expect. Instead, you place your finger on the knob and slide up and down to adjust the setting appropriately. The iPhone app also allows levels to be adjusted by tapping on the appropriate knob and then sliding your finger up and down the digital level display at the right-hand side of the screen.
In addition to the stompboxes and amps, AmpliTube also provides a built-in tuner and metronome that can be accessed from the tools menu. The tuner also appears in the bottom center of the toolbar during normal playback and provides a “mute” feature to allow for tuning without passing through the audio output—a useful feature for live performance situations. Several audio demos are also included in the app, allowing users to test the various stompbox effects and amp settings without having to connect and play an actual instrument.
Users can also upload their own songs to the AmpliTube app as backing tracks or accompaniment. Sadly, AmpliTube does not provide any access to music already in the device’s iPod app, but instead requires you to manually sync your own tracks to AmpliTube using your web browser over a Wi-Fi connection. Users can adjust the track volume as necessary, which plays the uploaded track as-is or lets you loop only a section of the track.
IK MultiMedia’s AmpliTube apps produced very impressive results in raw sound quality, easily matching and in some cases even exceeding the mid-level gear that we compared it against. In many cases, AmpliTube actually more accurately reproduced finer effect details when compared to physical gear. While these differences were minimal when using basic headphones as output, the AmpliTube apps were particularly impressive when using higher-end earphones such as Shure’s SE530, which were able to better reproduce many of the bass and reverb effects with more clarity and depth. Of course, the key benefit of the AmpliTube solution over comparatively large physical rigs is its extreme portability: the iRig adapter can easily be tossed into a guitar case, saving a musician the trouble of carrying around a lot of extra gear. The ease of use with headphones makes for an excellent practice application as well.
In sum, the iRig is a useful accessory for its intended purpose of getting guitar/bass input into an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad, and provides the necessary pre-amp to ensure that input levels are appropriate for the device. Although the AmpliTube apps are designed for guitar/bass players, the iRig adapter can also be used with other similar line-level sources such as keyboards and mixers to get input into your iOS device. By comparison, the AmpliTube apps are impressive, although we were somewhat disappointed with the more limited user interface on the iPhone and iPod touch, particularly when compared with the great layout of its iPad counterpart. Despite the fact that the iPhone version was released first, that application feel as if the developer tried to squeeze the full-size iPad graphics onto the smaller iPhone screen without much regard to usability. Simply adding support for landscape mode would have been a big help here, though the app does rotate for inverted use. It should also be noted that neither app provides any kind of recording capabilities or background audio support, requiring a secondary device to be connected to the line-out to actually make recordings.
We were also less than thrilled that the iPad and pocket iOS device apps are sold separately, with in-app purchases similarly specific to the app and platform they were purchased on. This means that a user who wants to use AmpliTube on both her iPad and iPhone will either pay $40 for both apps, or worse yet re-purchase the same gear in the free versions of the app. Since the two apps provide essentially the same features, a universal app that could share in-app purchases would have been preferable here. As it stands, users with both an iPhone and iPad are really better off purchasing only the iPad version and not really being able to use the app at all on their iPhone.
That said, however, the AmpliTube iRig setup provides a very solid option for guitar/bass players who want an easy, portable accessory that supports a variety of different playing styles. Although they’re not inexpensive when considered as a complete package, the AmpliTube apps and the iRig adapter certainly provide a more cost-effective and convenient solution—at the same or possibly better sound quality—than a bunch of physical gear. The iPad and accessory combination strikes us as a particularly potent and worthwhile option for musicians.