February 13, 2009 The song you're about to hear will probably never win a Grammy, but it was recorded entirely on an iPhone using only the equipment that came with the phone - and one very nifty application. FourTrack, from Sonoma Wireworks, is a US$10 iPhone app that brings 4-track audio recording capabilities to the iPhone, including the ability to adjust the volume and pan of each track. Each track is recorded to WAV at CD quality and auto-compressed - and once you're done you can WiFi the results straight to your computer. Apart from a couple of niggles, it's a pretty amazing little songwriting tool that lets you flesh out a tune with harmonies or instrumental tracks when you don't have GarageBand handy.
Other songwriters will understand when I say that musical ideas tend to harass you at the most inconvenient moments - when you're out and about, driving a car or just generally busy with other things. And I don't know if I'm unique in this, but if I don't get something down on tape or really finely detail it on paper while the spirit of that song's still in me, by the time I get to the right gear the idea loses its substance and slips through my fingers.
Which is why FourTrack on the iPhone is so appealing. It's a multitrack recording app that does pretty much what you'd expect it to, for a very gentle US$10 price tag.
It can record up to four tracks of audio at 16 bit/44kHz, either through the built-in microphone, the iPhone included headset (that's what I used) or another external microphone. The recorded tracks play back as you record the new ones, and you can set the volume and pan of each track to produce a mini-mix.
A jog dial lets you accurately select time points, and each track can be recorded over from any point - so if you mess up a part halfway through, you can drop yourself in and fix just the part you want to.
FourTrack makes it very easy to transfer the recorded output to a computer - it sets up a WiFi server that you connect to through a Web browser and download all the parts as separate WAV files. From here you can import the WAVs into Garageband, ProTools, Logic or any other recording software, where you can add effects, produce a better mix or build further on what you've recorded. If you install Sonoma's RiffWorks recording software package, FourTrack will sync whole songs back to your PC.
Here's the issues I ran into:
- You can't set the input level on the iPhone, it's a hardware/firmware limitation. So singing into the headset microphone tended to peak and distort it. I ended up holding the earbud with the mic' attached to it away from myself at arm's length and singing as quietly as I could. You'll hear it distort a bit anyway on the MP3.
- While the software allows you to drop in and record parts in bits, this doesn't really work that well. If you do it too much, the track will go out of sync with the others. You're better off clearing the whole track and starting again - except...
- There doesn't seem to be a way to clear tracks out when things get buggy and out of sync.
- The app launch button is ugly.
- When exporting the songs back to a PC, it would be nice to be able to fire them straight out as a mixed WAV or MP3 with all the volume and pan settings from the session - I had to import the tracks into Garageband, line them up and then export them as an MP3. I didn't want to show off anything that the FourTrack app itself couldn't achieve, so I left the levels unmixed and the tracks unpanned, meaning the end result didn't sound quite as good as it did right off the phone.
Still though, this is a 4-track recorder built into my phone, which means I'll have it with me wherever I am next time the song genie sends an idea my way. And to me, that's got to be worth the $10 they ask for it.
OK, you've probably scrolled far enough, friends. Here's the MP3 - I'm no instrumentalist so I've just used four vocal tracks. Please note that I did the whole thing in about fifteen minutes, so be kind in the comments section - and remember, it was recorded on a freakin' telephone.
If you want to hear what my buddies and I get up to when we've got slightly better gear, check out my vocal band Suade, or go grab our first album "All Singing, No Dancing" from iTunes. We've got an all-original disc in the pipeline set for worldwide release in a couple of months, and I promise the "Jammin' on the iPhone baby" song won't be on it!