Not that long ago, multi-track recording was something of a specialist activity. It was something only possible in purpose-built (read ‘expensive’) studio environments and required the expertise of dedicated engineers to manage the recording process and technicians to keep all the sensitive (and often temperamental) equipment working. This all meant that the ability to record your music was something of an elitist activity; if you had the budget then your recording could get made. For the rest of the musical community there was no alternative….
In the late 1970s and early 1980s that began to change. Recording equipment designed for the more budget-conscious musician started to appear and, eventually, it even became compact enough and cheap enough that the concept of a ‘home recording studio’ was something that wasn’t just in the reach of the elite; it also became available to the interested and enthusiastic amateur. No, the quality and flexibility of what was available might not have matched that in a top-end pro recording studio but you could at least make some multi-track recordings without requiring a budget based upon the proceeds of an existing hit single….
Move forwards a little further in time and the transition from analogue tape, through digital tape and into the era of hard disk-based recording happened. It is the latter – which is now perhaps the most common way in which multi-track recordings are made – that has fully democratised recording technology. I remember my jaw suitably dropping at some point in the mid-1990s when I first experienced Emagic’s Logic (then available for Windows as well as Mac OS) recording audio tracks alongside MIDI data. Yes, it crashed regularly, and no, the audio quality wasn’t great (mainly because of the available means of getting the audio signal into the computer), but the potential was all too obvious.
Since then, there have been a whole host of different compact ‘personal’ multi-track studio formats. Hardware-based devices by makers such as Roland, Tascam and Zoom have existed alongside computer/software-based systems, each with their own particular appeal and their own particular drawbacks. However, over recent years, I think it is pretty safe to say that the computer – both desktop and now laptop – have become the dominant force.
And, as a consequence, not only have more and more musicians had access to increasingly sophisticated recording technology but also, as the need for the traditional recording studio (at least those at the bottom/middle of the market) has made them commercially less viable, the computer-based studio has become where most newbie recording musicians learn their craft. No tape machines or large mixing desks or recording booths; just a computer, a spare corner of a bedroom and a ‘virtual’ studio recreating all the key components of a top-flight multi-track recording environment rendered in software.
So, not so many years ago, recording studios were dominated by magnetic tape. However, while there are still a significant number of musicians and recording engineers that prefer the sonic qualities that tape brings to an audio recording, today’s recording studios are dominated by computers and hard disk recording. This is true at all levels of the recording food chain, from multi-million dollar superstar facilities (where, perhaps, you will find hard disk and tape systems together), through the more down-to-earth pro ranks, into the project studios and, finally, for the DIY home recording enthusiast.
Indeed, given just how inexpensive (in relative terms) personal computers have become, and just how great a proportion of the functions and/or features of a traditional recording studio can now be recreated in software, almost anyone with access to a half-decent computer could get involved with some seriously sophisticated computer-based recording (although access to the features doesn’t mean that (a) the user knows how to use them effectively or (b) will record any musical material that the wider world really wants to listen to).
As Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is keen to emphasise, we are, however, entering the ‘post-PC’ era. Leaving aside the Apple-esq slant they might want you to take on this (the post-PC era rather than the post-iMac era?), if we take this phrase in its broadest sense, Tim Cook’s comment is a statement about the shift that the touchscreen tablet computer has produced in terms of people’s use of computer technology. The iPad may now have some serious competitors from other manufacturers but, as a product type, it defined a new category, combining portability, power and ease of use. And while lots of people still have their desktop computers as well, iPads (and other tablet computers) are, for many, the tool they now use for routine computing tasks such as email, web-browsing, document reading, accessing social networks and even basic ‘office’ style tasks.
While the iPad might have revolutionised the way we access and interact with these computer-based functions, at its heart, it is still just a computer. That means that all sorts of more specialised tasks – over and above those listed above – that are routinely performed on a computer have also found their way onto the tablet format. Obvious examples are photo editing, video editing and graphic design but there are all sorts of other, highly-specific things that developers have made apps for in business, education and in the health industry…..
…. and, of course, in the area of music technology….
From desktop to tablet; the iPad recording studio
And, without winning any prizes for seeing into the future, I suspect it is just as likely that the next generation of newbie recording musicians are going to get that first multi-track not on a desktop or laptop computer but on a tablet computer like the iPad (actually, not ‘like’ the iPad; it will be an iPad. Android and Window’s based devices are currently a long way behind in this particular niche application) or perhaps even an iPhone or iPod Touch.
As I’ve commented on the Music App Blog website on a number of occasions, the iPhone and iPad now essentially allow you to hold the key functions of a sophisticated multi-track recording studio in the palm of your hand. This is made possible because music app developers have created a range (actually, it’s now a huge range) of apps targeted at musicians – synths, audio recorders, guitar amp simulators, audio and MIDI effects processors and a range of ‘utility’ apps – all of which attempt to replicate the same software environments that have become the de-facto standard environments for recording technology on desktop computers.
Yes, perhaps some of this technology has had to be scaled down somewhat to work smoothly within the somewhat more modest horsepower provided by the current iPad or iPhone hardware, but it is still very powerful and, compared to the ‘home’ recording technology available to musicians in earlier generations, the capabilities are staggering.
So, the potential is there…. and if you are an iPad (or iPhone/iPod Touch) owning musician looking to get into multi-track recording, iOS is most certainly one possible route you can take.
But where to start? Aside from the aforementioned iPad, what additional kit – apps or hardware – do you need to build your iPad-based recording studio?
To a large extent, the answer to this will depend very much on the type of recordings you might wish to make and the genre(s) of music you like to work within. For example:
- Are you happy to work with just a few key synths and create instrumental music or do you need/want to add audio tracks such as guitars or vocals?
- Are you happy to play your synths via the touchscreen-virtual MIDI keyboards or would you rather use a real piano-style MIDI keyboard?
- Are you happy to listen to your recordings via ear buds and/or headphones or do you want to hook up some decent studio-style speakers?
The answers to these (and other) questions, will dictate just exactly what additional items you might need to built that iOS-based recording system.
The aim of this short series of articles is simple; to guide you through the types of questions posed above and to help you find the answers that are appropriate to you. Hopefully, with the help of the various parts in this series, you can develop your own personal shopping list to form the starting point of your iPad recording studio.
Before we move on though, let me also be clear about what this series of articles is not. First, I suspect this series is not really aimed at those who have ‘been there, done that, got the tee-shirt’ when it comes to setting up a home/personal recording system, While I hope there will be something of both interest and use to those of you reading this who already have experience of putting together and using a home or project studio, in the main, this series is particularly aimed at those who have not trodden this path before and, in all probability, their iPad is the starting point for a journey into the wonderful world of multi-track recording.
Second, the series is not intended to be an instruction manual or tutorial guide to then using that studio. Learning how to make best use of a multi-track recording system – and the various elements that are essential components within that system – is most certainly something you will need to learn about. However, that’s perhaps a topic for another day. Right here and right now, as we move on to part 2 of the series, we are going to focus on what you need to consider in getting the very basic elements (items of hardware and software) of that studio together – with an iPad (or even an iPhone) at its heart – and why each of those elements is required.
And, to get that ball rolling, Part 2 will consider the first of the three questions posed above….