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An Audio Interface for the iPad: The Focusrite iTrack Solo – by Ryan Trauman

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

An Audio Interface for the iPad: The Focusrite iTrack Solo – by Ryan Trauman

Ary Smith

Let’s be honest. An iPad, on its own, isn’t great for audio recording. The onboard microphone can’t possibly capture good quality audio, and there’s no effective way of monitoring your audio as your record it. And yet the iPad still holds some powerful allure for many digital storytellers. Believe me, I get it. The mobility. The build quality. The compact restraint of the tablet form. The tactility of the touch interface. The constant stream of fascinating new recording apps. It’s a wonder iPad audio recording hasn’t already taken off.

Enter the iTrack Solo digital audio interface from Focusrite. The iTrack Solo allows you to connect your own external microphone to your iPad and to monitor your audio input as you’re recording. What makes the iTrack Solo such a useful tool (or any external audio interface, really) is that the it does all the digital audio processing inside the unit itself before sending the audio data to the iPad.

Clean and Clear Digital Recording

It used to be that most microphones sent an analog signal to a recorder. That signal made its way – after a variety of electronic filters and/or modifications – to analog magnetic tape. From start to finish, the signal remained analog. However, modern audio editing – including any that happens on your iPad or computer – relies on the conversion of that audio signal into digital data so that it can be edited, copied, saved, and distributed.

Some hardware accomplishes this task better than others, but the key to great-sounding audio lies primarily in the quality of pre-amplifiers (pre-amps) and the conversion of audio into a digital signal. Low quality preamps and/or low quality converters will introduce “noise” into your recording, which isn’t great to listen to. Although it has its competitors, Focusrite has built its reputation on the quality of both its preamps and audio converters. If you were to compare similar items from Focusrite’s competitors, it would become clear just how “clean” the iTrack Solo sounds. For interfaces in this price range, the Focusrite’s recordings are absolutely beautiful.

Offering XLR connections, the iTrack Solo allows you to connect a variety of microphones, depending on your own preferences. Most digital storytellers will likely choose a dynamic microphone such as the Rode ProcasterShure SM58, or Audio-Technica ATR2100. But other storytellers might prefer specialized condenser microphones like the Rode NTG-2 shotgun microphone or the Audio-Technica AT8010 omnidirectional microphone used by many journalists. Whatever your preference, the iTrack Solo will be able to accommodate almost any of them. I’ve included some audio tests of a variety of microphones plugged into the iTrack Solo…

Focusrite CM25S condenser microphone

Shure SM58 dynamic microphone

Rode NTG-2 condenser shotgun microphone

Audio-Technica AT8010 condenser interviewing microphone

Focusrite CM25S condenser microphone (longer recording)

The iTrack Solo also allows you to monitor your audio as you’re recording. One of the biggest complaints about recording with the iPad is that users go “deaf” when recording audio. That is, in most cases the iPad sends no sound to the headphones (via the headphone jack) when recording. There are plenty of reasons for this, but there’s no arguing that it’s a major limitation. The iTrack Solo, on the other hand, processes all of the audio being recorded before it’s sent to the iPad, so you can listen to the audio on your headphones as it’s being sent to the iPad. Being able to hear your recording in real-time is important for lots of reasons, but most important is that you’ll be able to immediately hear if there’s a problem with the audio signal like the microphone losing power or some new background noise being introduced.

iPad Apps

The iTrack Solo also works with most apps you might want to work with on your iPad. You might go with the ubiquitous GarageBand from Apple, or the journalist/interviewer focused Hindenburg app. But if you’re looking for a dead-simple way to record audio, with a few simple options for cleaning it up, and an easy interface for sharing it, you’ll want to take a look at Focusrite’s own app, Tape. Despite the overly skeumorphic interface, it’s quite simple and intuitive. If you’re looking to keep your costs low, Tape is a great option for recording. It’s free, and only takes a minute or two to learn. (I actually used Tape to record the audio tracks above.)

The iTrack can be purchased as the iTrack Solo ($120 @ Sweetwater.com), which includes only the audio interface unit along with the necessary power and data cables, or as the iTrack Studio ($220 @ Sweetware.com), which includes the audio interface, cables, monitoring headphones, and a microphone. And sometime soon, the iTrack Dock ($200 @ Sweetwater.com) will also be available. If you’re already sold on giving the iTrack a try, you might want to consider going with the iTrack Studio rather than the iTrack Solo. The included microphone and headphones both offer good value, considering the cost difference between the Studio and the Solo. But if you already have a set of headphones you can wear comfortably for extended periods of time, and you’ve already got a microphone you like, the Solo version might be just what you need to get started.

Microphone

The microphone included with the iTrack Studio (not included with the iTrack Solo).
The microphone included with the iTrack Studio (not included with the iTrack Solo).

The microphone included with the iTrack Studio (a Focusrite CM25S) is a large diaphragm condenser microphone. This is important. Generally, condenser microphones are more sensitive than, say, dynamic microphones. If you know that you’ll be able to record in very quiet environments like the living room or office of an empty house, a condenser might be the way you want to go. However, large diaphragm condensers tend to pick up a lot of ambient sounds like air conditioning, a running refrigerator, or even the fan from your computer. Additionally, condenser microphones require what’s called phantom power in order to work correctly. Luckily, the iTrack Solo supplies a good, clean source of phantom power for the included mic. I don’t want this info to come across like a criticism of the iTrack Solo. Rather, it’s just a note to say that the microphone included as part of the iTrack Studio is really meant more for recording singing vocals or acoustic guitar. The mic is more than capable in those types of settings. The build quality is good, though I don’t know if I would consider this a microphone designed for traveling.

If you plan to use the microphone included with the iTrack Studio, you’ll definitely want to pick up a desktop stand ( a heavy base version, a standard tripod, or a compact tripod). You might also consider getting yourself a pop-filter to reduce breathing noise and plosive sounds, as well as a shock mount to reduce handling noise.

Headphones

The headphones included with the iTrack Studio (not included with the iTrack Solo).
The headphones included with the iTrack Studio (not included with the iTrack Solo).

The headphones included with the iTrack Studio don’t quite live up to the overall quality of the iTrack Solo itself. They certainly sound fine – much better than what you’re going to get for less than $100 at your local Radio Shack or Best Buy – but the build quality leaves a bit to be desired. They feel a little bit flimsy, and I don’t know how much I would trust them thrown into a gear bag or messenger along with the other equipment you’ll be taking on your recording trip. I will say, however, that in addition to their average sound quality, they are incredibly comfortable if you’re going to be working with them for any continuous stretch of time.

Interactive Feature Tour (hover over the dots for info)

More quick thoughts:

  • If you’re going to be using this interface primarily with a laptop or desktop computer, not an iPad, Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 would be a much, much better value. Not only do you get most of the benefits of the iTrack Solo, but you also have the option for two simultaneous inputs. This is especially important if you want to record audio with two people talking.
  • The housing for the iTrack Solo is an extruded aluminum with silver brushed finish. Not only is it attractive, but it’s also very strong. You’re not going to crack or scratch this unit if you plan on toting it around with you from location to location.
  • If you don’t already have a decent microphone and headphones, you might want to start with the full iTrack Studio and then upgrade your microphone to an Audio-Technica AT8010 or Rode NTG-2 when you’ve outgrown the included mic. These microphones are more versatile and they will both sound better for spoken word and digital story recordings. Go with the AT8010 if you want to try some interviews in the field; go with the NTG-2 if you want a microphone that works well with a video camera set up, too.
  • If you’ve got your microphone, but you need some headphones, definitely snag a pair of these headphones from Monoprice.com. They are comfortable, durable, affordable, and they sound great. Easily the best headphones deal I know of.

Conclusion

Here are my three most convincing reasons for choosing an iTrack Solo: the ability to choose your own microphone, the ability to monitor your recording in real time, and Focusrite’s high-quality preamps and audio converters. If you’re just getting started with recording, Focusrite’s iTrack Studio offers a solid foundation of quality equipment on which you can build as your skills and investment in great audio continues to grow.

Note

The iTrack Solo is actually designed to work with most iOS devices like the iPad, iPhone, and certain iPod Touches, as well as with OS X running on Apple laptop and desktop machines. You should check the Focusrite website before purchasing.

(Focusrite was generous enough to loan me a unit for this review, and I want to thank them for that. Thanks!)