Mobile Apps Will Not a Rock God Make, But They Can Still Be Fun



Let’s dispel here and now any notion that the next great guitar solo or hit record will be produced or recorded using Apple’s mobile devices or the myriad amplifier emulating and recording applications available for them today.

Will. Not. Happen.

That said, for the casual music enthusiast and app dabbler, a few interesting peripheral/app combinations continue to highlight the versatility of Apple’s mobile development platform — and point the way to a future in which talented individuals won’t have to invest thousands of dollars in equipment and studio time in order to produce professional sounding music recordings.

We’ve spent the past several weeks playing with three of these, from Agile Partners, Frontier Design Group, and IK Multimedia. Our report contains a decidedly mixed bag.

The formula for each of these ventures is the same: build an app that produces digital emulations of classic amplifier output, make the output recordable, and pair it with a hardware dongle that allows users to connect a real live instrument to the mobile device so Johnny B Goode can make music magic.

And don’t forget to make sure default configs tempt the user to add to his or her bag of tricks by buying additional effects, pedals and amp cabinets through in-app purchases.

In theory, what these apps make possible is nothing short of amazing: for the price of a $30 connective interface and a free (or nominally inexpensive) piece of software, would-be axe masters can embark on tone quests realizable in the real world only through guitar amps costing many hundreds and even thousands of dollars. In practice, what one gets is a frustrating tangle of incompatible impedances and an unwieldy mix of cords and cables that don’t connect well to one another, producing feedback and unbalanced output enough to make a totally acoustic approach seem eminently reasonable.

Frontier Design Group’s free iShred LIVE app uses a cable manufactured by the venerable Apple third-party hardware manufacturer Griffin to connect real instruments to an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. It comes with three default effects: Buzz Kill noise filter, HK-2000 delay, and Q-36 flanger. Additional effects can be added through the built-in store for only a buck or two. iShred LIVE also includes a built in chromatic tuner, metronome, 48 preset slots to store sounds, and a music/loop player to help learn and perfect your music.

In practice, we found the Griffin cable somewhat confining at only 6′ in total length – and similar to all of the apps we reviewed here – dealing with additional headphone cables (required to hear the output of the app) makes the real-world practice of using it something of a hassle. Beyond that, Frontier’s iShred LIVE UI is well thought out, intuitive and easy to navigate — and its sound output is very impressive.

We wanted to love IK Multimedia’s iRig and AmpliTube app the most for its inconspicuous little dongle interface and its excellent UI design that makes full use of Apple’s mobile screen real estate, rendering gorgeously realistic images of real life stomp boxes and pedal effects. In the end, though, the iRig dongle seemes cheaply made and fragile — and this set-up requires an inordinate amount of adjusting between instrument volume and app amp outputs to get a handle on the feedback produced trying to make it all work together.

AmpliTube features a chromatic digital tuner and a metronome and allows users to import and play along with songs or backing tracks with real time effects. You can also create, save and recall up to 36 presets on the fly. The basic free version of the app includes enough to wet your appetite for tone, and the storehouse of additional amp configurations and effects that can be purchased in-app give AmpliTube a wealth of flexibility — as long as your musician hat has room for the audio-engineer’s head required to get the most out of this set-up.

Agile Partners’ AmpKit app and AmpKit LINK, made by Peavy, seemed at first blush the most promising of the three combos we tried. The free version of the emulation app certainly comes with more onboard options than either iShred LIVE or AmpliTube and it supports more simultaneous effects than its competitors as well. Help and Info is very upfront about the possibility of feedback and instructive in methods for controlling it. And the AmpKit LINK dongle is the more robustly constructed connector of the three set ups we tried.

AmpKit’s sound emulation is pretty fantastic, too, supporting up to 60 preset combinations available through three amp heads and four different cabinet combinations. Because the AmpKit LINK connector is powered it handles feedback and crosstalk reduction better than the Griffin and iRig dongles, but in the end one is still left with a 1/4″ guitar cable and headphones connected to a little box connected to an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad and, frankly, it’s just no way to really rock and roll.

All three of these set ups prove Apple’s mobile operating system capable of supporting outstanding digital emulation of very expensive sound gear at a fraction of the cost of the real thing. The software developers behind these applications have all done an astounding job of packing flexibility and configurability into tiny UI portals and — given the requisite patience and willingness to tame the wild nature of electrical signals — users can experience bone crushing distortion as well as hi-toned sweetness in the comfort of their private headphoned Idahos, all for a pittance of what professional musicians and recording artists pay for similar effects.