Welcome to the jungle
We are more mobile than ever in human history, and aspiring musicians are no exception. Over the past 15 years smartphones and tablets changed the way we record and play music. This article will cover most of the well known guitar interfaces for the iPad/iPhone platforms. A future article will be targeted at the actual software used to play and record music on these platforms.
This is a crowded space but I’ll set a few goals that made my search easier:
- Budget of around $100˜$200. So we won’t touch the more professional options, but rather the ones you would take to the beach or on a camping trip should the recording mood strike you
- Digital interface (duh) to the ‘modern’ lightning iPad interface (note: some might still have cables or adaptors for older iPads with the 30-pin connector)
- At least one instrument level input for your guitar
- Preferably a gain control on the device itself
- Portable (‘fits into a coat pocket’) and light
The usual suspects
These will most likely surface if you go to your local store or google the above:
- Apogee JAM 96 kHz
- IK Multimedia IRig HD 2
- Line 6 Sonic Port
How the testing was done
Feature and test spec comparison was done by analysis. I basically trusted the manufacturer’s claims.
The test setup for performance had the following signal chain:
Guitar -> Interface under test -> iPad -> Amp/Effects simulation software -> headphone or speaker output -> Speaker
The test setup for recording had the following signal chain:
Guitar -> Interface under test -> iPad -> Amp/Effects simulation software -> recording software -> headphone or speaker output -> Speaker
The test gear below was used during the tests:
Guitar(s): Ibanez JS2450 and Gibson SG Standard T 2016
iPad: Pro 10.5
Software: Ampkit+, Amplitube, Mobile Pod Pro, Bias FX, Garage Band
Speaker: Marshall Stockwell
The software performance obviously has an impact on the test and is not the subject of this article, therefore a lot of the testing involved A/B switching between the interfaces. No I had no magic box for switching, so yes the fact that it takes a while to disconnect one interface and connect the other has influence as we tend to ‘forget’ what it sounded like on the previous one. But some results were pretty obvious.
- Apogee JAM 96kHz for its low noise, low hiss pristine audio quality
- IK Multimedia IRig HD 2, had noticeably more hiss and artefacts on the audio it delivers, even with multiple settings (gain, volume) and guitars used
- Sonic Port, not far from IRig HD 2 in sound quality however there is only a 48 kHz variant available. No info if a 96 kHz version will ever be launched
Stability and Compatibility
Unsurprisingly, a close tie as these units don’t have much more than a few controls and an ADC, so there’s not much to crash apart from how stable it is when communicating with the iOS. I was running iOS 11.2.x and had virtually no issues. They seem compatible with any CoreAudio apps so GarageBand or equivalent plus most of the amp modelling and guitar effects software in the App store should work.
Ease of Use
Setup of all these units is seamless. iOS and the software used recognises them as audio interfaces as soon as you plug in.
Inputs and Outputs, Controls
- Both Line 6 Sonic Port and the IK Multimedia iRig HD 2 have more input and output options. The iRig HD 2 has an input for the guitar, a direct output for an amp and a direct output for headphones. The Sonic Port has technically 2 inputs and 2 outputs as it can also take a line input (CD player perhaps?) in parallel with the guitar.
- Apogee JAM at the bottom here, as it’s just in for the guitar and out to the iPad – This means that you cannot use it with an iPhone that doesn’t have a headphone output (like the iPhone X) as you would have to use wireless headsets and cope with latency issues
We geeks like our buttons and tweaks, but sometimes less is more. The Apogee JAM and the Line 6 Sonic Port have just gain controls. The cool factor on the IK Multimedia iRig HD2 is that it allows you to control the headphones level, and it allows you to decide if the amp output receives a direct sound (so before any iPad software effects are applied) or the processed sound from the iPad. Pretty sweet.
iRig HD 2
- High definition digital guitar interface for iPhone, iPad, Mac and PC
- High-quality instrument-level 1/4″ Hi-Z input jack
- Detachable cables for Lightning and USB included
- Preamp input gain control
- Headphone output with preamp and level control
- 1/4″ Amp Out jack with switchable output “FX” and “Thru”
- High-quality low-noise, high-definition guitar preamp
- High-quality 24-bit A/D conversion
- 96kHz sampling rate – the highest in its class
- Powered by the iOS device or USB
- Can be used with line level signals from synthesizers, keyboards and mixers
- Ultra-compact and lightweight – fits in your pocket, laptop bag or gig bag
- Comes with microphone stand mounting clip and Velcro strip
Apogee JAM 96 kHz
- Connect electric guitar or bass to iOS devices and Mac
- Studio-quality you can take anywhere
- Direct digital connection for up to 96kHz / 24-bit high-definition recording
- Discrete, Class A input delivers punchy, tube amp tone
- Apogee’s PureDIGITAL circuit design eliminates signal noise
- No setup required, just plug in and play
- Powered by iOS device or Mac (no batteries or ext. power required)
- Dial-in the perfect level with gain wheel and multicolor LED meter
- Works with GarageBand, Logic, and all Core Audio compatible applications
Line 6 Sonic Port
- 2-in/2-out audio interface with 24-bit/48kHz audio quality
- 1/4” guitar/bass input with 120dB of dynamic range
- 1/8” stereo line input
- 1/4” mono-stereo guitar/line-level output
- 1/8” stereo headphones output
- Works with GarageBand and other CoreAudio music apps
- Compatible with Line 6 Mobile POD app for jamming and creating guitar tones
- Powered by your iOS device—no additional power supply or batteries needed
- Includes detachable Lightning connector cable
- The iRig HD2 is the only one that comes with software. It allows you to download a basic version of Amplitube for iOS and Mac.
- Line 6 ‘tone’ can be achieved via the free download of the Mobile Pod App in the App store.
- Apogee does not have dedicated effects / amp modelling software for the Jam that I could find.
- These units normally come with an USB cable alternative meaning that you can use them on your mac too (check the box before you buy). It looks like the Apogee JAM 96 kHz has a Windows/Mac only variant so beware of that as well when you’re buying
- Sonic Port has an alternative (the VX) with embedded microphone – pretty cool !
- The Line 6 Mobile Pod software will work with any of the other 2 interfaces tested, not just the Sonic Port
- the Amplitube will also work with the other interfaces, not just the iRig HD2
- Apogee’s Maestro app is not designed to work with the Jam, but rather with the more professional variants One, Duet and Quartet (hang on to your wallet before you google them)
- Apogee Jam has an older variant (the ’48 kHz’ version) and you can probably buy an used one and it will still sound decent
- iRig has been around for a while. While previous versions of the HD (with less I/O) can be found, I would not recommend going back to their original one that used the analog mic input for the guitar signal – quality is very different
Since I value audio quality overall I went with the Apogee JAM 96 kHz. They’re up there in the professional market of audio interfaces competing with the likes of RME, UA, FocusRite and so on. And they’ve been around a while. If you don’t need the I/O and don’t care about not having headphones output on the actual device then this is for you.
If you do need the I/O then I would give the iRig HD 2 a go. I love Line 6 stuff and have a pedalboard by them myself. But it doesn’t seem that they have the same focus and range in mobile accessories for musicians as IK multimedia does. Plus here in Melbourne, Australia IK stuff is easier to find.
If you need mic inputs have a look at the Sonic Port VX variant (with mic) but also the higher end variants from Apogee, like the One and the Duet.
References and sources