by Craig Anderton
The number of applications for the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch keeps growing, and iRig Mic (for iOS 4,0 and higher) is one of the latest. For $60, you might wonder just how good a product like this can be, but remember that the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch does the heavy lifting in terms of processing; you’re basically paying for a mic and cable. If you also had to buy hardware to implement all the effects that IK makes available for the iThing of your choice, the price would be a whole lot higher than $60 (or $59.99, if you want to be precise).
So really, this is something you can take seriously. Of course, you don’t want to have unrealistic expectations; iRig Mic is not going to replace a U87 and TC-Helicon VoiceLive 2. But, to dismiss it as a toy would be equally wrong. iRig Mic is an intelligently-designed, portable solution for vocalists, presenters, and podcasters, and you can even press it into service for recording lectures, rehearsals, and the like. And, the effects that are available for iRig Mic take it into a whole other realm, as you can get very creative—and produced—vocal sounds.
The main attraction here is the condenser electret hand-held mic with cardioid pickup pattern. It sort of looks like someone morphed a Shure SM58 and SM57, as the head is rounder than the 57 and squarer than the 58. The housing is metal, and you can unscrew the metal grille to reveal the element, as well as the internal foam layer that reduces p-popping. (If you’re the popping type, though, you’ll probably want to add a second pop filter or windscreen.) There’s a three-position sensitivity switch, but there’s a huge spread: The setting for soft signals could pick up an ant eating dust at 10 yards (or more realistically, a college lecturer with a soft voice while you’re sitting in the back row of an auditorium), while the loud signal setting could probably record someone screaming primal therapy into the mic without distorting. I kept the sensitivity switch in the middle, which worked fine for my voice.
The mic has a built-in cord that terminates in an iOS device-compatible 1/8” multiconductor plug which also incorporates a stereo 1/8” output jack. This is where you would plug in earphones, an adapter to feed a PA, powered speakers, audio interface, etc., or breakout cable. As long as you don’t plug a mono male plug into the output (this would short one channel to ground and generate feedback), hooking up iRig Mic to external systems is simple.
You also get a zippered carrying pouch (given how portable it is, this is a considerate touch), and a clip to hold the mic to a mic stand.
Of course, any hardware designed for iOS sinks or swims on its related apps. Three free apps—VocaLive Free, AmpliTube Free, and iRig Recorder Free—are available from the App store. In terms of processors, VocaLive Free provides reverb and after you’ve registered, doubling. It also includes some “vocal tools” (vocal center-channel eliminator, scale player for warm-ups, demo tracks for auditioning effects settings without singing, and a metronome).
iRig Recorder is a basic, single-track recorder with some automatic optimization tools. It’s not really designed to provide hardcore recording, but instead is intended to provide easy field recording for any level of user. However, for $4.99 you can upgrade VocaLive Free or the full version to a 4-track recorder if you want to do overdubs, try out arrangements, etc. Finally, AmpliTube Free is for guitar, but hey, lots of singers play guitar so why not include it? Besides, I’m sure IK hopes that if you give a try, you might be tempted to get the full version of AmpliTube for iOS.
To go beyond reverb and doubling, there’s the VocaLive full version for $19.95. I saw a few comments on the web about its “high price” and had to chuckle—these are people who are used to paying $1.99 for an app, not $199 for an effects pedal. So at least from my perspective, this is a bargain—you get four more vocal effects (Pitch Fix, Choir, Morph, and De-Esser) and six additional “studio” effects (Delay, Compressor, Parametric EQ, Envelope Filter, Chorus, and Phazer).
For those who just want one or two of these effects, you can buy them individually ($4.99 per vocal effect, $2.99 per studio effect). However, all the effects are pretty cool so I’d advise getting the full version. It’s the same price as buying the effects individually, so you can think of the studio effects as freebie.
There are also utilities, like song import into a player that can speed up or slow down tempo, and set loop points for playback. The stretching isn’t hi-fi, nor is it intended to be; think of it as a phrase trainer. There’s also a noise filter that effectively, and unobtrusively, quiets hiss, along with options to integrate the mic itself (independently of the VocaLive software) with your iOS device. This makes your iOS device more of a stand-alone recorder that just happens to have a better mic than the one inside, say, your iPad.
You’re limited to a maximum of three effects per chain, saveable as a preset. You can designate four presets as favorites, but curiously, if you call one up there’s no indication which preset it is. Inserting, removing, and re-arranging effects is obvious, as is saving and loading presets. Here are the available effects that are dedicated to vocals.
The name is kind of misleading in a way, because you might be expecting a chorus effect but this does a whole lot more—like generate three independent harmony lines, with pan and volume for each, and overall dry/wet control. You do need to tell it the key and scale (eight options); this isn’t software that recognizes pitch. But it’s surprisingly effective, and the quality of the harmony is much better, and more natural, than I would have expected. If you set the harmony to Unison, then you do indeed get a chorusing type of effect.
This effect seems to weigh heaviest on the CPU, because there are two options for latency (low and ultra-low); this gave pops with the ultra-low setting, but none of the other effects did. Changing latency to low solved the problem, and frankly, the delay isn’t really much of an issue, even with the longer latency setting.
Well, you probably guessed what this does. Rather than have variable filter controls, you instead have controls for Mode (soft, medium, and loud) and Type (male or female). While not as sophisticated as industrial-strength studio de-essers, this fits in with the emphasis on ease of use, and reduces the highest "S" frequencies.
There are four doubling choices:
* Octave higher
* Octave lower
* Group (octave higher and lower)
* Unison, which is more like traditional doubling
Volume, pan, dry/wet, and delay round out the available roster of controls.
This does pitch correction, and like the harmony options, you need to tell it key and scale (again, eight options) although you can also just set it to chromatic and quantize pitch to the nearest semitone. The “snapping” process can be soft (least noticeable), medium, or hard for that warbly effect used so much in dance and hip-hop.
An X-Y touchpad changes pitch (up to an octave higher or lower) on the vertical axis, and formant on the horizontal access—giving you anything from Darth Vader to the Munchkins and of course, everything in between. There’s a noticeable delay, even with the ultra-low latency mode, but given the unusual nature of the effect I don’t think this is something you’d be using a lot for real-time singing on stage—it’s more of a special effect.
I’d call these more “stompbox effects” than studio effects; they’re basic versions of common effects. Effects that have sync can sync to the internal metronome, but note that this has a tap tempo feature so don’t need to know the tempo in advance in order to have effects that sync to the music. Here are the controls for the various effects.
This virtual multitracker uses a cassette graphic to indicate transport motion—I wonder how many people buying iRig Mic will even know what a cassette is? Anyway, you can slide the mixer on the bottom to reveal four volume faders, four panpots, and four insert effects that apply whatever you’re using the track. You can record-enable one track at a time, enable mute or solo, and bounce all tracks to track 1.
Once you’ve finished, you can export your song via fie-sharing, e-mail, or as a song to the Song player. And this works bi-drectionally: You can send a Song to any recorder track, and add overdubs to it.
As if digital technology in general hadn’t lowered the barrier to getting into music, devices like the iPad take this process one step further. Think about it: A mic, a dozen effects, a four-track “cassette” recorder, and a phrase trainer for under $80—the value is off the charts. This could sound half as good as it does, and still be worth the bucks.
Overall, iRig Mic is far better than I would have expected at this price. IK has tailored the effects to work well with the mic, and yes, you really could do gigs with it—and sound good doing so (check out these audio examples). Don’t expect miracles - but conversely, don’t underestimate what this powerful little setup can do.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.