I think it’s fair to say that the availability of guitar amp sims such as Amplitube, AmpKit, Jam Up Pro and Mobile POD have done a lot to draw guitar playing musicians into the wider world of iOS-based music making. At its best, the quality of the amp, cab and effects modelling possible on an iPhone or iPad is almost as good as that offered by some of the top-end desktop software packages or dedicated hardware units such as Line 6’s POD devices.
Having a collection of virtual guitar rigs that you can carry around in your pocket is great for personal practice – add in a suitable guitar-friendly audio interface such as the iRig HD, LiNK HD, Sonic Port or iRig PRO, for example – and you can have access to a massive palette of tones to encourage you to work on those scales and chords. However, the modelling quality is also good enough to be used in other contexts. Add Audiobus and a suitable DAW app and you can create some great guitar-based tracks for your latest demo recording.
Equally, if you are feeling really adventurous (and don’t mind the comments about the diminutive ‘size of your rig’), as I described in a recent article, you could take your iPhone/iPad-based tones out live, whether that’s for jamming with friends, a rehearsal with your band or even at gigs. Given the right audio connectivity, this can be made to work well.
While the amp modelling and audio quality is good, at present, however, there is still one element of this iOS guitar rig that doesn’t quite match up to the more traditional approach; the inability to use your feet. Despite having all these wonderful virtual stompboxes within your amp sim app, unless you are happy to put your iDevice on the floor and gently tap the touchscreen with your bare toes to switch effects on or off or move between presets, you have to take your hands off your guitar and use your fingers for these tasks. This is fine in the context of personal practice or when recording but, in a live context, it is very restrictive (and no, I wouldn’t recommend gaffer tapping an iPad to a stage and using your toes especially if you have other band members who like to jump around a lot).
What we need is a real-life pedalboard to control some of this switching within our guitar amp sim apps. Enter – stage left – IK Multimedia’s iRig BlueBoard (c. UK£75), designed to do just that. IKM announced the BlueBoard some time ago (I mentioned it a few weeks ago in my ‘getting started/iOS performing guitarist’ article) and iOS guitarists have been eagerly awaiting its arrival to see just how well it might tackle this obvious need. So, with thanks to Paul Kaufman at IK Multimedia’s UK office for arranging a short-term loan of a review unit, let’s find out.
Best foot forward
If you have experience of using traditional hardware multi-effects pedalboards, the first thing that strikes you about the BlueBoard is its very compact format. At around 270mm in length and 90mm wide, it is most certainly mobile. The construction is mostly plastic but it feels nicely made and the four labelled buttons – that glow a nice shade of blue when in operation – are firm and require a good press to get them to switch on/off. While you perhaps shouldn’t expect to jump on the BlueBoard in the same way that you can with some of the more industrial strength stomp boxes that you can buy, treated with a little respect and it ought to cope with use in a live context.
The unit is powered by four AAA batteries (giving about 100 hours use) and, as well as the battery compartment, the underside of the unit has a recessed on/off switch. The top surface features the four illuminated foot switches plus a small status LED to indicate when the power is on and a Bluetooth connection has been made.
The only other features are the two TRS jack sockets on the right-hand side of the BlueBoard. These allow you to attach two expression pedals to the unit. These might be used to control volume or a virtual wah pedal within your iOS amp sim. I didn’t have a suitable pedal to try this out with but buying one as an add-on to the BlueBoard would be a good investment. There are a number of these available from various manufacturers starting at about UK£30 and going upwards (mainly based on the ruggedness of the construction). M-Audio’s Expression Controller Pedal would be one of the lower-cost examples.
To configure your hardware you need to download the free iRig BlueBoard app from the iTunes App Store. To connect your BlueBoard hardware to your iDevice, you simply power up the hardware, launch the app and, once the app finds the hardware, just tap to establish the connection. In my own testing with my 3rd gen. iPad, this worked flawlessly and I had no problems with the connection. This was, admittedly, in a ‘lab’ situation rather than the chaos that is the usual gig environment but it is encouraging. Needless to say, it would be sensible to give it a good workout to build confidence at a few rehearsals before doing anything too ‘mission critical’ :-)
Once connected, the app allows you to fully configure the operation of the hardware. This includes configuring the expression pedals if you have one or two of these connected. At its most basic, configuration simply requires you to select between two modes of operation; program change mode and control change mode. In program change mode, when used with a suitable guitar amp sim (and, obviously, IKM would like you to use Amplitube), the foot switches allow you to move switch between different presets and, by pressing and holding either the A or B button for 3 seconds or more, you can also move up/down to the next preset bank. As Amplitube organises its presets into banks of four, this arrangement is obviously ideal.
In control change mode, the bank switching remains available (although you can choose to have it on or off via the Settings menu options) but the four foot switches can be assigned to any MIDI CC number that the user requires. The most obvious application for this is to switch individual stomp box effects on/off for the current preset. So, for example, you to toggle on/off a delay or overdrive pedal just as you might do with a more traditional set of hardware stomp boxes or a floor-based multi-effects unit.
In principle, as you can assign any CC number to both the foot switches and the expression pedals (if you have any connected), you ought to be able to use the BlueBoard with any MIDI compatible app. Setting a CC number within the BlueBoard app just requires you to tap on the existing CC number and then make a selection from the dial that appears; all very straightforward.
Play with friends
As you might expect, the iRig BlueBoard integrates very nicely with IK Multimedia’s Amplitube app. Aside from picking program change mode in the BlueBoard app, there is no other configuration required if all you want to be able to do is to switch between different presets. This works very smoothly.
Switching between the four presets within an individual preset bank is pretty much instantaneous so you could, if required, easily manage this mid-song. If you tend to use different presets as a basis for sound switching, this would work fine live providing the sounds you required can be contained within a single bank of four. Switching between banks takes a few second longer as you have to hold either the A of B foot switch for three second to move up/down a single bank. That’s perhaps something that you are more likely to attempt between songs.
Alternatively, if you are happy to stick with a single preset for each song but want to be able to switch any of the four individual effects in/out at different stages of the song, the control change mode allows you to do that. Once you have selected this mode within the BlueBoard app, there are a couple of routes by which you can configure this; from the BlueBoard app or within Amplitube itself but, in this instance, the Amplitube approach is probably the most convenient.
If you tap and hold any of the controls within Amplitube’s main screen, a small ‘MIDI Learn’ style dialog appears. If you then move/press a MIDI hardware control that is connected to your iDevice, that hardware control is immediately assigned to the Amplitube virtual control. This works for the on/off switches for the four virtual effects pedals that you are allowed within each Amplitube preset. It is therefore easy to configure the four BlueBoard footswitches to be able to toggle your effects on/off. Incidentally, within Amplitube, these virtual on/off switches turn a rather nice shade of gold when they are linked to a MIDI controller.
One thing did initially confuse me with this arrangement. If I swapped one of the pedals in my Amplitube preset (perhaps taking out a chorus and adding in a phaser), the MIDI control assignment didn’t carry over to the new effect. The assignment is done at the level of the individual effect rather than at the level of the effect slot. However, if I then re-loaded the original effect, that too had lost the MIDI assignment.
However, there is a solution to all this as the MIDI assignments are saved with a preset and, whenever you re-load the entire preset, the MIDI assignments are immediately re-established. This works well and the only downside is that you have to go through all the presets you might use in your performance context, set up the MIDI assignments in each one and then resave the preset.
Used in control change mode, you could switch presets via your iPad’s touchscreen between songs and then use the BlueBoard to switch effects on/off during that song. This works well enough and the only other thing to say about this approach is that when you switch presets the lights on the BlueBoard foot switches don’t automatically update to reflect the status of the four effects within the new patch. Once you tap any of them they do catch up but be aware of this when you are checking what’s on and what’s off after a patch switch.
The other obvious target for the BlueBoard is IK Multimedia’s VocaLive app (I reviewed this a little while ago on the blog). As this app is pretty much an ‘Amplitube for vocalists’ in that it provides a series of vocal-style effects, four of which can be combined into a preset and the presets themselves are organised into banks of four, everything I’ve just said above about Amplitube applies to VocalLive also.
This all worked like a charm, whether in program change mode or control change mode. I could imagine singers using the latter mode would find it very useful to be able to switch on/off things like the Double of Choir effects using the footswitches, perhaps bringing in the harmony voices for a chorus, for example. All very neat.
Make new friends?
So, as you might expect, the BlueBoard works pretty seamlessly with IK Multimedia’s own apps but what about guitarists using other amp sim apps? How might they fair? This doesn’t, of course, really depend upon the specification of the BlueBoard as it is perfectly capable of sending whatever MIDI CC data you choose to configure. However, it is constrained by whether your favourite guitar amp sim is capable of responding to that MIDI data.
As far as I can tell, at the time of writing, neither AmpKit nor Mobile POD have MIDI support. They can not, therefore, be used with the BlueBoard. JamUp Pro XT does have MIDI functionality built in though so I spent a little while experimenting with that combination to see how it might work.
Used in program change mode, once I’d turned on the ‘Enable MIDI Control’ settings within JamUp’s Settings menu options, JamUP Pro worked without any further fuss. I was able to switch between the four presets that make up a JamUp Pro preset bank and also able to switch between banks using the ‘3 second hold’ on the BlueBoard’s A and B switches in exactly the same way as with Amplitube.
Things were less straightforward when I switched the BlueBoard to control change mode. JamUp Pro includes a MIDI Assigments screen where you can specify the CC numbers for various effects. This includes the ability to toggle on/off the various effects slots (for example, you ought to be able to toggle off the ‘stomp’ effect). However, despite spending a considerable amount of time trying, I couldn’t actually get anything sensible to happen in this mode. JamUp Pro was obviously receiving some MIDI data but didn’t really seem to be interpreting it in quite the way I expected. I’m not sure where the problem lies here but it would be nice to think that it could be resolved. While I couldn’t test this, it would also be nice to know whether you could get any MIDI expression pedals connected to the BlueBoard to work with JamUp Pro. That would be great for controlling the Cry Baby or Pitch Shifter effects. If I can blag a loan of a suitable pedal from a friend I’ll test this and post an update.
Are we there yet?
Used with IK Multimedia’s own iOS apps such as Amplitube and VocaLive, the iRig BlueBoard works very smoothly. Having the two modes of operation – program change and control change – is very convenient and it allows different users to configure the system in the way that works best for them. In physical terms, while perhaps not in the ‘industrial’ category, the hardware seems to be solidly built and, used with a little care, it ought to cope in a live setting providing you don’t get carried away and start stomping from a great height.
Given what it does and the build quality, I think the unit is very sensibly priced. Add another UK£30 for a basic MIDI expression pedal and you would have the basis of a very useful foot-based control system for your Amplitube rig.
In thinking about the price of the unit, there is, of course, a broader question to consider. If you were building a portable guitar rig based around amp modelling (rather than a traditional valve amp, cab and various stomp box pedals) from scratch, would you choose to buy an iPad for the task when you can buy a stellar floor-based multi-effects unit with amp modelling from the likes of Line 6, Zoom or Roland for less money? In short, for live use, is an iOS solution the best bank for buck?
I’ll let you to debate that particular one (although I’ll join in if you want to leave a comment below on the subject). However, if you already own the iPad and Amplitube – or maybe you are just a nailed-on iOS junkie and want to use your iOS rig for everything just to prove that you can – then the incremental cost of the BlueBoard is a pretty modest one. It would certainly make a virtual rig that already works great for personal practice or in the studio a much better proposition for live performance use, whether that’s jamming with friends, a band rehearsal or a full-on gig.
Whatever your take on the virtues of virtual amp modelling vs a cranked valve amp, when I was in my late ‘teens and early 20s, and doing more gigging than I do now, there were countless times when I stared at my Marshall head and 4 x 12 cab and wondered how I was going to get it up a set of stairs to a gig or in the back of a small car. Yep, I could have used a smaller amp (do now, in fact) but if someone had told me I could have had a whole set of (virtual) amps, cab, effects – oh, and a footpedal system for switching between them – and carried them all in one hand (leaving the other hand free for my guitar), I suspect I might have (a) laughed at the joke and (b) wished it wasn’t a joke. ‘Ain’t technology amazing?
For users of Amplitube or VocaLive, with a sensible balance between price and construction, the iRig’s BlueBoard is the missing piece of the jigsaw when it comes to taking your iOS guitar (or microphone) out live.
You can order the iRig BlueBoard directly via IK Multimedia’s website…. just click on the image to check the price in your region….
And if you want a suitable MIDI expression pedal to go with it, M-Audio offer an inexpensive option that is worth a look.