Since my very first generation iPod, I've wished for a way to integrate my favorite music player with my hobby—recording my own music. When the iPhone and its accessories exploded onto the scene, the ability to record directly on the device was finally realized. But how well does it compare to more traditional recording methods?
First, let's consider the typical "garage-band" recording session. The old-school essential gear includes some type of recording device, one or more microphones, a medium to store the music on, and of course, your band. I used to record my own music on an old Karaoke machine, for example. It had the ability to tape dub (record from tape to tape while adding live audio input). It also had a primitive equalizer to adjust the mix and add a touch of reverb (to cover some of the bad notes). Now, I mostly do digital recording through my computer. The recorded data can then be saved as MP3 files. (Other formats include WAV, AIFF, OGG, and AAC.)
Digital recording is quick and easy, and you can use almost any computer with a line-in 3.5mm audio or mic jack to do it. To save your music into MP3 files, however, you'll need an application that records from your sound card, and a "codec" to encode the music. A common one that is used for MP3 is LAME (see lame.sourceforge.net). It is free (licensed under GPL) and actively improved and updated. See the section on Audacity for more information.
I have used a mixture of methods over the years. This review will compare recording on computer to recording on the iPod touch.
Recording with a computer and mixer
To record to my computer, I use several decent Shure microphones and a Behringer XENYX 802 mixer, which I purchased new for around $59 from GuitarCenter.com. The Behringer has 8 total input channels available (2 mic, and 6 line) which would allow the recording of two singers and several instruments. It also has inputs that let you play music from a CD or tape so you can sing or play along with prerecorded music. Finally, it has a headphone jack to listen in while you're singing or playing.
Like many computers, mine only has a single audio input jack, which limits what you can do in a recording session. However, you can do what the pros do and build a song one track at time. For example, you can record the rhythm guitar first, go back and layer in the lead guitar and drums, overdubbing as you go.
I use a free program called Audacity for both live recording and overdubbing (audacity.sourceforge.net), which is available for both PC and Mac. Audacity makes overdubbing tracks a breeze and lets you go back and edit tracks, clip out noise or pre-song chatter, etc. To encode music to MP3, you need to download and install the LAME encoder as well. Check out the Help tab/FAQ for specific instructions. If you have a Mac, you can install Garage Band, which has more features and is easier to use. (Garage Band is part of Apple's iLife suite ($79; store.apple.com/us/product/MB966Z/A/iLife-09). That's pretty much all you need for digital recording from either PC or Mac.
Recording with an iPhone/iPod touch
The iPhone and the second generation iPod touch can record sound input natively, using the built-in voice memo app. The iPod touch requires an external microphone to enable this feature, and you can't do any overly fancy editing—but you can create simple recordings. The problem here is that there are a limited number of hardware solutions for getting quality audio input to the record function.
For this review, I used an accessory device called the Mikey ($80; bluemic.com/mikey). Developed by Blue Microphones, Mikey plugs into the bottom of your iPhone or iPod touch and turns it into a miniaturized stereo-recording studio. I recorded a simple guitar track with the iPod touch with the Mikey sitting right in front of my guitar amp. For comparison purposes, I used my PC recording set up to do the same.
Blue Microphones has been making great mics for years, so it's no surprise that Mikey is an outstanding and relatively affordable product. They also offer Blue FiRe (free; app2.me/2358), a recording app that will let you do some of the same things as with the full computer setup I described earlier in the article.
Blue FiRe lets you create and save stereo tracks in WAV, AIFF, or CAF formats. You can edit them, but you cannot overdub or mix them. For that you need to purchase a separate app like FourTrack ($9.99; app2.me/154). Unfortunately, both of these apps have limitations. You can only record mono (single channel) recordings, and none of the apps I looked at supported MP3. This is a problem because none of the other formats are as universally supported as MP3, making it more difficult to share your tunes and play them back on other devices. Fortunately, there are ways around this limitation.
The Blue FiRe app also allows you to export your tunes from your iPod or iPhone onto any PC or Mac on your network. So you could create your tracks on your iPhone, download them to your computer and convert them to MP3 on your PC or Mac. But since you're going to wind up working on a desktop computer anyway, why not use the more robust method described in the "Recording with computer" section? It's probably a better approach for aspiring professionals.
New version of Mikey/Blue FiRe app
The Mikey/Blue FiRe combo is great for times when you want to put your musical ideas quickly into a recording but aren't near your PC or Mac. A new version of Mikey is coming out soon and will include an upgraded app that supports multi-track recording, saving tracks as MP3s, and the ability to upload your tracks directly to the Web. To learn more about Mikey and see a video of it being used by a real pro, visit hearmikey.com.
Whether you record your next top 10 hit on your iPhone or your computer, new and interesting methods are available. The important thing is to share your music so others can enjoy your creative efforts.
Bay-Area Pro Uses iPhone to Mix His Hit CD
Bay area pro Tom Freeman (a.k.a., "Freematik") mixed his own album using his iPhone. You can check out his work on his Web site (freematik.com). I was able to interview Tom via e-mail for this review, and he gave me some insights into how he did it:
iPhone apps used:
Tom considers INTUA's BeatMaker ($9.99; app2.me/308) the Rolls Royce of beat-making apps. He also uses a number of the iDrum apps ($4.99 each) to create beats. He uses Yonac's miniSynth ($1.99; app2.me/305) and ARGON ($1.99; app2.me/2359) for keyboard tracks, and Thereminator ($2.99; app2.me/2360) for eerie sounds. He also employs apps like Jasuto Pro ($4.99; app2.me/2361) and iSkream ($1.99; app2.me/2362) to record and process audio samples.
Recording tools used:
Because you can't record sounds and play them at the same time, he could not do both on a single iPhone. Instead, he used iPhone line-out to a Universal Audio 2108 Mic preamp (uaudio.com). Tom used CUBASE 5 (steinberg.net/en/products.html) software for overdubbing and the general mix of effects. Finally a Summit DCL 200 (summitaudio.com) was employed as a bus compressor on the overall mix. The DCL combines sonic characteristics of older vacuum tubes into modern solid-state circuitry.
Tom experimented with iPhone music apps, making different beats and sounds, amazed at how fast and easy it was to make quality music on the iPhone. He said the synthesizer apps were not that easy to use because of the iPhone's small screen, but sound manipulation apps like Sound Warp ($4.99; app2.me/2363) were very effective at adding realistic effects to his recordings. Of turntable apps, Tom says, "... I started with a free one, but eventually found and fell in love with Flare Scratch ($4.99; app2.me/2364)… Flare lets you import your own samples from a wireless connection and ‘scratch' the sounds… I was even able to practice my scratching skills while a passenger on a road trip to L.A."