Putting together an iPad home music studio part 1: mostly failing

I read with interest that Damon Albarn, founder of Blur and the primary music force behind Gorillaz, recorded The Fall, their recently released album, almost entirely on an iPad during their fall 2010 tour of the US of where I live A.  The aforelinked article gives the impression that everything on the album was app based, but when you read the credits, you find references to additional guitars, bass, keyboards etc for each track, which got me thinking -why not do likewise in my musical endeavors and mix app-based with real instruments. Musical endeavors you’re thinking?  Why yes (as Anthony Bourdain would say) I have a band, an unnamed, recently formed project with an old friend and someone we recently recruited to sing and collaborate with, who I’m please to call a new friend and hope to one day call old friend.

Instruments, a mixer, wires, an iPad and my laptop.  A simple easy-to-use studio.

Anyhow, the article mentioned StudioMini XL as the recording tool used so I bought it.  I found myself sitting there, looking at this open app on my iPad, holding my bass thinking -how do I get the sound in there?  The internet yielded some options -iRig, iMic with an Apple camera connection kit, and others.  I went and bought an iRig.  I was able to get some sound into the recording app, but it was rough.  I really couldn’t easily control the level of the sound going into the app.  Next I bought a camera connection kit to use with an iMic I already had.  Guess what?  The iMic requires a powered USB port -something the iPad doesn’t have.  I was at an impasse.  I could go buy a powered USB hub to deal with the iMic’s needs, or I could think about things, see where I was and figure out if I had what was needed to do some recordings.

At this point I decided to have a look at Garageband, a program that came pre-installed on my purchased-in-June-2010 MacBookPro6 and see if I could make some recordings with it.  Okay, Griffin, who makes the iMic has some help/how to pages that showed how to record on GarageBand with the iMic.  I followed instructions and voila! I had some plunky, hard to monitor/control recordings.  My first recordings were simple SoundGrid loops going through a 1/8″ stereo connection from the iPad to the iMic and into Garageband.  I monitored with my earbuds.  All indications pointed to the need for a mixer to have control over the level of the signal coming in, monitoring and EQing.

I know what your thinking here -why the long diatribe on what didn’t work?  Because what you read here, all succinct little ‘come to full stop, turn left’ realizations took days to come to.  Each connector represents a $4/gallon drive followed by a $30-ish purchase, each experiment represents a nest of wires in my living-room and another most-likely failure.  All between trips to record with my partner on ProTools at a high quality and with born-of-experience ease.

I made a trip to Guitar Center -your local corporate music store- and checked out the mixers.  I could have gotten a cheapo for about $50, but the character who was helping me -you have to be a character to endure the daily torture that is endless guitar noodling by skilled 14 year-olds with bad taste- told me to buy a Mackie 402-VLZ3.  $129 minus various discounts based on bargaining, signing up for GC subscription emails etc and I brought it home for $89 + tax.  I wont bore you with the details of the various trips I made to RadioShack to get required connectors, but at the end of a long day of educated trial and error I made a recording of somewhat respectable quality in GarageBand.

What are you hearing here?  A simple D-G-A turn around.  The drums are a loop made with the EasyBeats app on the iPad, the bass is played on a real bass guitar, the piano is the CP 70, and the synth is the free NLog Synth played on the iPad.  4 tracks, single takes (no patch-ins), volumes EQed then downloaded.  I’ll explain using the mixer in my next post and how I got the sounds out of at least one of the apps.

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