Mobile devices have proven to be more than capable at two very important aspects in music production: digital storage and the user interface experience. It goes without saying that a smartphone or tablet can store audio as well as a computer, and touch screens have done away with physical keyboards and made swiping and pinching the new way to virtually slide faders, rotate knobs, flick switches, and press buttons. The fact that it fits comfortably in a compact format is icing on the cake.
But there’s one aspect of audio that can’t be completely mastered without a little external hardware help: converting the sound from your mic or instrument into the digital bits a mobile device likes to see. That’s where A/D convertors of all stripes compete for your attentions. One of the most appealing solutions I’ve seen comes in the form of the Focusrite iTrack Solo, a box just slightly larger than a guitar stompbox, and that puts dual inputs and the controls to manage them in a user-friendly array. Especially nice is that the iTrack Solo can work with either an iPad (via the 30-pin dock connector) or the USB port of a computer, and both cables are included.
The iTrack Solo has two front-panel inputs (XLR and 1/4") and can record two signals simultaneously, as long as one of them is an XLR and the other is a 1/4". This means it’s more for a singer-songwriter than someone looking to, say, stereo-mic an acoustic guitar. Both inputs include front-panel gain controls, and Channel 1 (with the XLR jack) has a switch (which lights up when active) for 48V phantom power. Also on the front panel is a large monitor volume knob, a direct monitor On/Off switch, and a 1/4" headphone jack (see Figure 1). The front panel is well laid out and labeled, except for the channel gain knobs, whose positions can be hard to determine because the indicator line is black—the same color as the knob itself. But behind the gain knobs is a ring that lights up green for signal presence, orange for maximum signal, and red for potential overload. This system is highly visible, intuitive, and works great.
Figure 1. The iTrack Solo’s front panel, including the helpful and large monitor level knob.
On the back panel are two line-level RCA outputs plus the two jacks for connecting to an iPad (Device Link) and computer (USB). (See Figure 2.) The iTrack is powered from the USB connection, so if you’re using it with an iPad, you must use the USB cable and included AC adapter. If you’re using the iTrack in an environment with no AC power source, you’ll need to work with a laptop. This arrangement works well, except that the iPad cable is short, stiff, and goes only in one direction (parallel to the back panel and in front of the USB jack). It restricts positioning the iPad, especially when held vertical.
Figure 2: The back panel has two RCA outs, plus iPad and USB connections.
The iTrack housing is constructed of rugged brushed aluminum, and the underside features four large rubber feet for secure placement on a flat or slightly inclined surface. The unit looks, feels, and operates professionally, and will stand up to the rough treatment sometimes subjected to mobile gear. You can focus on the care and handling of your iPad, because the iTrack doesn’t mind if you toss it into a bag from a few feet away. Also included with the iTrack is two computer software programs, Ableton Live Lite and Focusrite’s Scarlett Plug-in Suite (which includes a Compressor, EQ, Reverb and Gate; see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Included with the iTrack Solo is Ableton Live Lite and Focusrite’s Scarlett Plug-in Suite.
WORKING OUT WITH THE iTRACK
I tried the iTrack Solo both through my iPad using Garage Band and through my Windows computer using Cubase. The iTrack automatically routes Channel 1 (XLR) to the left channel of your iPad and the guitar to the right. The iPad audio output goes to both the headphone jack and rear RCA outputs.In the software, you can combine the signals to place them anywhere in the stereo field on mixdown. This works quite well, and if for some reason you want to reverse the arrangement (e.g., putting the mic on the right) on input, you can just flip your headphones around.
I checked my signal using a variety of mics, including, an Audio-Technica 4050, which has particularly low self-noise. For guitars, I plugged straight in with my Taylor 916 via a Radial PZ-DI, and used a Schecter Hellraiser C-1 Extreme with active EMG pickups, again because these signals are particularly high in signal to noise. Even with the iTrack’s gain controls past the 1:00 and 2:00 positions, the sound was quiet and transparent. The sound, for pure quality, equaled any of the high-end interfaces in my studio.
With everything hooked up and running, two aspects of the iTrack shine: The Direct Monitor switch, which eliminates the delay of hearing your input signals through the computer (called latency), and the large monitor knob. The Direct Monitor switch is a set-and forget convenience, which remains on during the tracking stage of recording. Having the large monitor knob allows for constant tweaking with relative ease, including—as in my case—from behind or looking straight down on the unit.
What also made the iTrack easy to work with was the gain structures of the two channels. Plugging in guitars and mics in rapid succession produced usable levels without much fussing and with the front panel controls all in the midpoints of their range. This is what you want, as it leaves you the most room on either side for dialing in level changes to suit your situation. The iTrack handled hot levels without the Gain LEDs going into solid red for the majority of the time. This behavior reminds you that you’re dealing with a Focusrite product, and that good engineering doesn’t stop just because the device is targeted for a mobile application. The iTrack frees you from riding herd over levels by giving you a wide working range, which allows you to focus on the music.
The iTrack Solo is a great little unit in a professional package boasting top-quality sound, good design, and easy interfacing with any DAW. True, it requires anAC power source, which may limit it from what many people associate with mobile iPad recording. But for a laptop, or where power is available but you still prefer to utrack wiyh an iPad, the iTrack Solo is a great solution for recording guitar, vocals, and most any two-channel source.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).