Wednesday, June 30, 2010

iPhone Guitar - Hardware Matters

I've been thinking about my last entry and the iRig, and one of the things I've realized since I last posted is that the iPhone/iPod market will be a lot like the desktop virtual amp market in that you should probably consider your hardware and software solutions separately, to an extent, and weigh your hardware choices more carefully than your software choices. Here's why.

I do not for a second regret the $49 I spent on my Toneport GX when it was on clearance. It has limited input options, (a single standard TRS input), and the enclosed Gear Box software, (since upgraded for free by Line6 to Pod Farm), is not the best sounding or most versatile on the market. Still, just getting the USB interface allowed me to try out and play with most of the other software on the market for an absurdly low entry cost given what I got for it. And the GX gives me a low-latency, line level input device.

Input level and latency are going to be huge for portable applications. Every complaint I have heard about the PRS Jam Amp/Guitarbud seems to be related to one of these -- either that there is too much latency in the signal or that the signal craps out and becomes unusable as soon as the level gets too high, (and woe to all who have high output or active pickups in their guitars). No matter what the software is like, if the signal from the instrument isn't useable then there's nothing that the software can do to fix it. This is doubly true of portable applications because the memory and processing speeds are much more limited than they are for desktop applications. And, unlike desktop applications, you aren't likely going to want to carry around any additional gear with your iPhone/iPod rig to get it to sound better. It defeats the purpose of all that portability.

My guess is that a signal input that works with one set of iPhone guitar amp software will likely work with any other as well. It has to work with the internals of the phone itself and that is going to limit proprietary approaches substantially. This means that whatever hardware you get now will likely work for the near term no matter what new and amazing software is developed.

Short answer conclusion: If you decide to make the jump into iPhone guitar stuff, get the best hardware you can and keep your software options open because those are going to change a lot faster than the input options.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

iPhone/iPod Virtual Amp Race

Look's like it's on. IK Multimedia just announced their Amplitube iRig for the iPhone/iPod.

Back in March PRS started sending out press releases for their Jam Amp/Guitarbud combo which gives you a virtual amp, play-along capability, recording and a tuner. It looks simple enough -- there's a 1/4" input for your instrument cable, a minijack input for your headphones and a minijack plug for your iPhone or iPod Touch that allows it to process your signal and send it back to you.

I thought it was a good idea when I first heard about it. I had always looked wistfully at the Waves iGTR and thought about picking one up for its convenient form factor, but I never really liked the sound of it or the way the controls were laid out. I have a Vox DA5 for a practice amp and already feel cramped by it on the effects front despite it having a lot of useful effect combinations and three tweakable parameters for each. The iGTR limited you to three each from amps, filters and time effects and gave you only one parameter for each. The results being that everything sounded overprocessed and artificial to my ear. PRS took things a step farther than the iGTR by just using the iPhone/iPod hardward, adding an input for your instrument and letting you purchase the amp software in the app store.

Great idea, but the app/hardware got fairly mixed reviews. I took these with a grain of salt because I know that a lot of users don't have the patience to troubleshoot and tweak things in order to make it work and the bad reviews could just mean that a good product had a steeper learning curve than your average iPod. What made me pass on it, however, was that I was looking for a little more tonal flexibility than a single virtual amp with no effects could deliver.

The iRig, meanwhile, gives you the option of a free model with one amp and three effects, a low cost lite version with one amp, five effects and the option of plugging in more a la carte, or the full version which has eleven effects and five amps and looks to be very tweakable:

I'm going to be replacing my cell soon with an iPhone, which means my old iPod Touch will be free. I'll wait for the first reviews to come in (or the first big sale) before getting it, but this looks really promising. I'm hoping that this is just the first wave of a bunch of new virtual amp options for smartphones and mp3 players.