Review: IK Multimedia's iRig HD and AmpliTube
June 24, 2013
IK Multimedia recently released its latest iRig audio interface, the iRig HD, in addition to giving its popular iOS amp-modeling software AmpliTube a facelift. Gizmag investigates whether the two products can offer musicians a portable platform for band practice, playing shows, or recording songs.
Before getting started, it may be useful to discuss just what iRig HD and AmpliTube actually do.
The iRig HD interface allows musicians to plug a guitar, bass, or synth into an iPad, iPhone, or Mac. The user then makes use of software simulations of pedals, amps, and even a recording studio, forgoing the need for heavy and expensive real-life music gear. So, with iOS device, guitar, and iRig HD in hand, one could conceivably record new songs or practice without needing anything else. You could also use the setup to play shows, but you would need to output through something a little bigger than the chosen device's speakers.
The iRig HD is the hardware part of the equation, and AmpliTube is the (optional) iOS companion software, which contains software simulations of pedals and amps. There are actually AmpliTube versions for several other platforms, but we're dealing with the iOS version only here.
The iRig HD is a simple black plastic tubular device which sports a quarter-inch jack on one side, a connector jack on the other, an LED, and a Gain dial ... and that's it. It is very small and light, yet still seems robust. Indeed, though I didn't wish to subject the review unit to the perils of a drop-test, the iRig HD feels like it could handle a fall from a half-stack easily enough.
There are no batteries, since all necessary power is drawn from the iRig HD's host device, and IK Multimedia tells us this is a very small draw indeed. In order to begin using an iRig HD, one simply plugs a guitar, bass, or synth into the input jack at one end, and the required adapter into the connector end. The latter then fits into your device of choice. You'll know you've got it right when the LED glows blue (it also glows red, and green, depending on input levels).
Unlike more fully-featured interfaces like the M-Audio Fast Track Pro (and even its predecessor the iRig), the iRig HD has no built-in headphones output, so audio must be listened to via the host device. It also has only one instrument input, so it's strictly suitable for solo-performers only.
For the most part, I used an iPad Mini for testing the iRig HD, but an adaptor for the older-type 30-pin iOS device connector is included. I also plugged the iRig HD into a MacBook Pro running OS X Mountain Lion using the supplied USB adaptor, and on both machines the device performed flawlessly.
The full specs are as follows:
The iRig HD can convert an analog guitar signal to a digital signal at an audio bit depth rate of 24-bit, which is the standard for most modern audio interfaces.
I submitted the device to a simple subjective hearing-test, it sounded very good to my ears, and certainly comparable to any of the better hobbyist-level audio interfaces, like the M-Audio Fast Track Pro for example. I didn't suffer any nasty hum or feedback, even when using it with my own vintage and rather hum-prone single coil guitar.
Indeed, the iRig HD was so quiet that I briefly wondered if there was some kind of noise gate technology integrated into its pre-amp, but there wasn't. In my experience, no unwanted digital clipping was evident, and the device offered a crystal clear sound. Perhaps most importantly, there was no noticeable latency whatsoever.
Making a connection
As mentioned, the iRig HD comes with all the necessary gubbins for hooking up both old-style iOS device types, and those sporting the new iOS Lightning connector, in addition to Mac. The only gripe I had concerning the iRig HD was the small port which connected the iRig HD to the iOS or USB cable. I found it to be more than a little fiddly, and was genuinely worried I'd break the review unit when changing between iPad Mini and Mac, but it held true throughout my time with it.
I experienced no driver issues or bugs while using the iRig HD and it "just worked" in all the apps I tried, including Ableton Live 8 on the Mac, and GarageBand and AmpliTube on iOS.
IK Multimedia's AmpliTube is really more of a suite of linked apps than a single program, and perhaps complex enough to warrant its own in-depth article. However, we'll take a brief look at its main features here.
AmpliTube comprises three main sections: iRig (mostly effects and amp sims), Rec (basic 8-track recorder), and Studio (full Digital Audio Workstation).
First up, iRig's effects. They're pretty good, overall. The Reverb and Chorus are arguably the most tricky of software simulations to get right, and these versions predictably fell flat compared to the real thing. They're decent, but that's as far as it goes.
However, the Distortion, Overdrive, Fuzz, Delay, and Tremolo effects were more convincing. You can use up to four pedals onscreen at any one time, and these can be mixed/chained as desired.
In addition, there are several choices of presets which alter the pedal's settings to offer sounds like "Seattle," "Mild Crunch," and so forth. Besides the effects pedals, amplifier, cabinet, and even microphone choices can also be tweaked.
Sure, nobody's going to be fooled into thinking you're playing through a vintage Vox AC30, but very few, if any, software simulations could perform that feat, and an iPad running AmpliTube is a lot lighter than the real thing.
To tweak the effects pedals, one must make use of small dials, which work like the real thing. I found them rather awkward and fiddly to use onscreen, but this is more a drawback of tablet-based music software in general than any fault of IK Multimedia. That said, I wouldn't like to have to perform too many adjustments on a stage while an impatient audience looks on. You can, however, create user presets to mitigate this hassle.
iRig also contains several handy tools like a guitar tuner, and a simple drum machine, the latter being suitable for basic backing beats to jam along to. Your iOS Music Library can also be imported via the Songs tab, allowing you to play along to your favorite tunes.
If you've never done so before, it's really quite a bizarre experience using an iPad as an amp and effects pedal rig initially, but this soon wears off. Then you're left with a perfectly serviceable set-up, suitable for practice, small shows, or recording – just be ready for some funny looks if you bring it to band practice, or to play a show.
AmpliTube's Rec 8-track is an easy to use multitrack recorder which appears to perform exactly as expected in the limited tests I could perform using the demo copy of the software. Without making an in-app purchase, it's restricted to just single track recording.
A tap-activated Metronome and Loop function are featured in Rec, and there's also an edit button which unlocks Copy, Paste, and Bounce features which perform much like a classic analog 8-track cassette recorder.
AmpliTube also contains, via an in-app purchase, AmpliTube Studio, which is the company's attempt to offer a fully-featured DAW. Unfortunately this wasn't available for testing in my review copy, but IK Multimedia says it offers more advanced timeline editing, the ability to add fades, and independent effects for each track.
Though IK Multimedia regularly refers to the iRig HD as "studio quality," I'd advise treating such claims lightly. Sure, the iRig HD is 24-bit, but there's a world of difference between plugging your guitar into an iPad or Mac via the iRig HD, and the experience you get from using a real mixing desk, or even just a more flexible multi-input interface.
That said, I came away very impressed with both AmpliTube and (especially) the iRig HD, and would be happy to use both in a live setting, or for recording. Indeed, I've since found myself grabbing the iRig HD as my "go-to interface" when wanting to lay down guitar tracks on my Mac.
Providing you bear in mind its inherent limitations, the iRig HD is an excellent little device that's sure to be an asset around the hobbyist's home studio, or as an on-the-road portable studio, and I'd recommend giving it a try.
The iRig HD is available now for US$99.99, while AmpliTube is available in both free and paid versions from the iOS App Store, with several in-app purchases also required to unlock the numerous extra features.
Product page: iRig HD