Sophisticated amp and effects modeling software and audio adapter / interface for Apple mobile devices
By Phil O'Keefe
Community Manager, Harmony Central
Have you ever wanted a guitar or bass rig you could take with you anywhere? How about an amplifier, collection of effects pedals, a tuner and a metronome, and maybe a few other goodies that are optimized for personal jamming, practice and rehearsal; all in a compact product that you can fit into your pocket? Well, if you have an Apple iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad, IK Multimedia's got something designed just for you - let's take a look.
AmpliTube running on an iPhone with an iRig interface connected to it, and a instrument cable and headphones connected to the iRig.
THE iRIG HARDWARE
iRig is a compact, mono in, stereo out audio interface and adapter for the Apple iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. It is fairly straightforward, with a 1/4" mono input jack, and a stereo 1/8" output jack. It connects directly to the 1/8" headphone / mic input on your device by way of a permanently attached 4" cable with an Apple format TRRS 1/8" connector at the end. The build quality seems tough enough to hold up to regular use, and the compact size allows it to fit easily into your pocket, or an accessory compartment in your instrument case or gig bag. Fig. 1 shows an iRig connected to an Apple iPhone.
By connecting an 1/8" stereo to dual mono 1/4" or RCA adapter cable (not included, but available for a few dollars at most music and electronics stores), it is also possible to connect the output of the iRig to your guitar amp, mixing board or powered monitor speakers. iRig works with every audio app for the iPhone that I tried it with, and the sound quality seemed every bit as good as when driving headphones or powered speakers directly from the output of my iPhone 3GS. And of course, unlike the iPhone, it provides a 1/4" input for use with guitar / bass cables, outputs from keyboards, microphone preamps and any other 1/4" line or instrument level source.
There are three versions of the software - AmpliTube Free ($0), AmpliTube LE ($2.99) and AmpliTube ($19.99); all of which are available for download via the Apple App Store. Each is available as a iPhone / iPod Touch app; additional versions that are optimized for the iPad are also available. AmpliTube is the flagship version, and features the full range of available amps, cabinets and effects including five different guitar amp simulations (Clean, Crunch, Lead, Metal and Bass), five different cabinets (1X12", 2X12", 4X12" A, 4X12" B and 1X15") and two different microphone types for the cabs - dynamic and condenser. Additionally, there are eleven different stompboxes, including Fuzz, Distortion, Overdrive, Wah, Env(elope) Filter, Chorus, Flanger, Phazer, Octave, Delay and Noise Filt(er). All of the amps have onboard EQ controls, and except for the Bass amp, each also includes reverb. The clean amp also has an "onboard" Tremolo effect.
The Free and LE versions differ in that they offer fewer amp, cab and pedal models. For example, the Free version provides you with only one amp (Lead) and cabinet, and only the Delay, Distortion (free upon registration) and Noise Filter stompboxes. Additional amps can be added to the Free and LE versions one at a time from within the app's "Add Amp / FX" Menu at a cost of $4.99 each, and additional effects can be purchased for $2.99 each. While the Free version is fine for giving you an idea of how the program works, I'd recommend spending the $20 upfront and getting the "full" version. The wider variety of available sounds and models makes it more than worth the asking price, and unless you plan on sticking to a limited setup, it's also more economical than purchasing additional amp and stompbox models a la carte.
Dialing up sounds is easy due to the very user-friendly and intuitive interface (Fig. 2), which makes good use of the iPhone's relatively small screen and touch interface. Instead of trying to cram all of the controls for an amp on to a single screen, larger controls are used, and only a few are displayed at a time. The basic rig setup includes one amp and cabinet, one mic, and up to three stompboxes. If you want to change the mic, tap on it and the graphic changes from a condenser ("87") to a dynamic ("57") model. Tapping on the cabinet has a similar effect and will rotate through the different cabinet options. While an iPhone or iPod Touch display is too small to show all of an amplifier's controls simultaneously, a quick horizontal swipe with your finger across the virtual amp's control panel pans through all of the available controls. You can "turn" an individual knob to adjust its setting, or tap on it to select it, and then slide vertically on the yellow bar graphic on the right side of the screen to turn that control up or down. I found the second method slightly easier - especially for making precise adjustments, but if you're using an iPad's larger screen, you may prefer to just adjust the knob directly. Selecting a stompbox is equally easy. Tap on one one of the FX graphics at the top of the screen (FX1 / FX2 / FX3) and select the effect you want to use in that "slot". The graphics do a great job of simulating real stompboxes, which helps the user feel right at home. Adjusting the effects is just like doing it with a stompbox, or with the app's amp controls - turn the knobs directly, or tap on the knob to select it, and then use the large vertical slide control on the right side of the screen. A tap on the "stomp switch" turns the effect on or bypasses it, just as you would expect.
ADDITIONAL TOOLS AND SETUP MENUS
Once you have everything dialed up the way you like it, you can save your creation to one of 36 user presets (Fig. 3). Unfortunately, they do not have any provision for names, so you'll have to remember that you stored you favorite clean sound in preset 1 and your rocking lead sound in preset 14, but the fact that there are any presets at all on a device of this type is pretty amazing. Just tap on one of the numbered blocks to recall a preset, and press and hold to store. Scrolling allows you to access two additional banks of 12, for a total of 36 memory locations.
In addition to the presets, the Tools Menu (Fig. 4) includes some additional goodies that musicians are bound to appreciate, such as an onboard chromatic tuner and metronome. The metronome even has a tap tempo function, which also sets the system tempo for use with the BPM sync switches on the Delay, Flanger and Phazer stompboxes.
There are eight short guitar audio demos in a variety of styles, which isn't unusual, but what is somewhat different is that those demos are all unprocessed recordings that play through the currently selected amp model and effects. This allows you to use those short riffs as a means of auditioning the sound while your hands are left free to make adjustments to the settings. It's just another example of the obvious thought that went into making this app very user friendly.
AmpliTube has two buffer settings - Low and Ultra Low. IK Multimedia recommends using the Ultra Low setting if you are annoyed by the very slightly longer delay of the Low setting, and using the Low setting if you encounter any clicks or pops while using the Ultra Low setting. In actual use, I really didn't notice the latency being overly objectionable, even on the Low setting, and I rarely heard any clicks or pops, even with the Ultra Low setting, so I left the buffer set to Low. There is also an Auto Sleep option which dims the screen after a minute or so to help reduce battery consumption - and battery consumption can be fairly considerable with a processor heavy application like AmpliTube, so you'll probably want to take advantage of this feature. You'll find these options located in the Setup Menu, which is accessed from a dedicated button at the bottom of the screen.
PLAY ALONG WITH GROOVEMAKER
Groovemaker is IK Multimedia's electronic, dance and hip hop track creation app. I didn't have a chance to test it, but I did see ads for it when I launched AmpliTube. Getting the occasional ad when you launch the "free" version of an iPhone / iPod Touch / iPad app is something we've come to expect, although it's a bit annoying to get them on the "full" version. Still, it only shows up occasionally when you first launch the app, so it's at worst a minor annoyance. And hey, you might want to check out IK's GrooveMaker app as a "jamming partner", since as of this time, you can not load MP3 / AAC songs into AmpliTube directly from the songs already loaded on your device. Instead, you have to load them via a computer over a wifi network. This is one of the bigger letdowns I found with Amplitube. On a positive note, the wifi upload process works well and is pretty fast, but it still means having to load your favorite songs into your device twice - once for use in iTunes, and a second time if you want to be able to play along with them using the iRig and the AmpliTube software. To be fair, this really isn't IK Multimedia's fault. IK Multimedia explained to me that direct import was not supported by the iOS at the time the application was written. Furthermore, iTunes has a large playback buffer, and big buffers mean big latency. Since the Apple devices only support a single audio driver at a time, if you utilize the one for iTunes, Amplitube would also share that same buffer size, which would result in unacceptable latency - a significant "delay" between when you play a note, and when you "hear" the note over the interface. By importing the songs into AmpliTube, the app can utilize its own low latency buffers for both the music and amp simulation, resulting in much better performance and practically imperceptible latency. However, it would still be nice if you could bypass the wifi and somehow load the song data directly from the iPod memory straight into AmpliTube, so hopefully future versions of the iOS and AmpliTube will support this feature.
You can load up to 20 different audio files, with MP3's being the "preferred" file type - but I had no problems using M4A and AAC files. You can delete previously loaded songs to make room for new ones if you've reached the 20 song limit. While I made no attempt to load Rhapsody In Blue or any other extremely long "songs", there didn't appear to be any time limitation on individual songs.
You can loop sections of loaded songs, as well as control the song playback level separately from your guitar rig volume in the Song Menu.
Once you have a song loaded into the app, a separate volume control (Fig. 5) allows you to adjust its relative volume separately from your instrument's volume. Another slider allows you to cue up any part of the song you want, and you can even set a "loop" within the song, which is a great feature for practicing solos as well as for figuring out pesky sections of a song you're trying to master. Setting loops is easy to do on the fly - just tap the "A" button as the song is playing to set the loop start point, and when you reach the end of the section you want to loop, hit the "B" button. Press the Loop button and that section will repeat over and over until you hit stop or turn the loop off.
The only other significant letdown was finding out that, as of this time, AmpliTube isn't capable of multitasking. I was hoping I would be able to use it along with some of my other iPhone apps, such as a four track recorder app, for songwriting on the go. Unfortunately, when it's running, you can't run another app at the same time. The folks at IK Multimedia have told me they're working on this - let's hope they find a solution soon, because it would make AmpliTube a fantastic mobile songwriting tool as well as a practice partner. Of course, you can use the iRig hardware as a input interface for other software apps; you just can't run the AmpliTube amp simulation app at the same time.
Really, it does. While it's not going to make me ditch my extensive amplifier and effects collections, the sound quality is surprisingly good, and unlike my amps and pedals, this fits in my pocket, and I can easily take it practically anywhere. The fuzz, distortion and overdrive are suitably meaty and aggressive, and the delay is surprisingly good, and so is the clean amp's throbby tremolo. I liked all of the amp models, with the Clean, Lead and Bass being my three favorites, but the other two are also quite good, and even the Metal amp model gets used more than I expected it to. There were only a few sonic letdowns - the reverb sounds more like a short and slightly ringy delay effect with a lot of regeneration rather than a dense ambient wash, and I still detect traces of "direct sound" in the high frequencies with some of the cabinet simulations - especially when listening with headphones or over good monitor speakers. To be fair, reverb is a processor intensive effect and this isn't one of the expensive high end studio processors I'm used to using - as I had to keep reminding myself, it's a $60 rig for my PHONE. When the price verses features, convenience and sound quality ratio is taken into consideration, AmpliTube and iRig are nothing short of amazing.
If you are a musician who already has an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad, getting an iRig and AmpliTube to go with it is a absolute no-brainer purchase. For not much more than you'd spend for a battery powered mini practice amp, you get a much better sounding and far more versatile practice rig that can also serve as a recording tool, and even as a compact effects rig for your "real" amp. While it may not be enough by itself to sway some people into purchasing an Apple mobile device, if IK Multimedia gets multitasking capability implemented, or develops a multitrack audio recorder app to go with it, I could see people buying an iPod Touch, iRig and AmpliTube just for mobile studio use. Even without those features though, AmpliTube is a powerful and good sounding product that definitely should be on every guitarist's iPhone.