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Studio in a Backpack — Part 1

Interfaces to Help Build an Ultra-Portable, Battery-Powered iPad-based Music Studio

Did you ever dream of a totally mobile studio, a compact setup that can fit in a backpack? A rig that you can carry with you virtually anywhere, and record and produce music, even where there's no AC power? Now, thanks to the audio capabilities of the Apple iPad, that dream is both achievable and affordable.

View other articles in this series...

In this article, I’ll show you what you need to make a mobile studio like that a reality. Same as your computer studio, your iPad (or iPad mini) mobile setup will require some outboard hardware devices and accessories, which I’ll discuss here. Although I’ll mention some specific products as examples, this is not intended as a buyers’ guide. Instead, it’s a more generic look at the type of accessories you’ll need to assemble your portable rig.

The power of suggestion

When the first generation of iOS devices came out (the iPhone was released in 2007 and the iPad in 2010), music apps were quite novel (an onscreen piano keyboard, an animated robot synthesizer, etc.), and the 16-bit audio quality was okay, and a big problem was how to get audio into the device other than using the built-in mono mic, which had pretty limited fidelity.

Harmonicdog’s Multitrack DAW app is one of several excellent recording apps for iPad.

Nowadays, 24-bit, 48 kHz quality is standard in the iPad world, and some audio interfaces allow even higher sampling rates. What’s more, you can record in stereo, or with two, three, four or more simultaneous inputs, given the right hardware and software combination.

Although the DAW apps for iPad typically have iPhone and iPod touch versions, screens on those devices are on small side for comfortably recording, editing, and mixing multitrack sessions. If you can live with that limitation, you could certainly setup a studio based on one of Apple’s smaller devices, using many of the same accessories that we’ll be describing in this article.

For that matter, you could also put together a mobile, battery-powered setup based around a laptop instead of an iOS device. But here we’ll be focusing on an iPad/iPad mini studio, which offers a less expensive and smaller option to a laptop, and a different type of workflow due to its touchscreen interface.

The ins and outs

I’ll start with one of the key components of your studio: your audio interface. For ultimate portability, you’ll want one that’s bus powered — that is it gets its power from your iPad. That way, you can record without AC as long as the charge on your tablet holds out.

You’ll want an interface that supports XLR mic inputs for vocals and instrument miking, and 1/4” instrument inputs for directly connected (DI) guitars and basses. If you’re going to be playing virtual instruments, you’ll want MIDI support as well.

There are quite a few interfaces now offering iOS support, ranging from pocket-sized units like the Apogee One for iPad and Mac ($349, audio only); to the IK Multimedia iRig PRO ($149, audio and MIDI); to a tabletop device like the Roland UA-22 Duo-Capture EX ($199, audio and MIDI) or Focusrite iTrack Solo ($119, audio only); or even a dock-style product that can be battery powered such as the Behringer iStudio iS202 ($99.99, audio and MIDI); to name just a few. Which type is best for you depends on your needs and budget.

Using a class-compliant USB audio interface designed for use with a computer is another option. Most will work with an iPad via one of Apple’s adapters that convert the device’s dock connector to USB. Use the Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter ($29) for Lightning-equipped iPads (iPad 4th Generation and later), or the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit ($29) for older iPads.

The Alesis iO Dock II is an example of a"dock-style" interface that the iPad connects directly into. 

Not all USB audio interfaces can be bus powered from an iOS device, however, it depends on how much power they draw. That aside, going the adapter route opens up a lot more possibilities in the interface department. If you need more than two simultaneous inputs, a multi-input USB interface through an adapter may be the best way to go. Just be sure that your iOS recording app will support that many inputs at once.

In the next installment, I’ll look at other hardware you’ll need for your mobile studio, including keyboards, monitors and more.

Next article in this series:
Studio in a Backpack - Part 2 →
  • namnibor 10 posts
    New AFfiliate
    Posted on 06/07/2014 at 12:08:18
    Have an all hardware studio but only bought an iPad 2 last year *JUST* for Waldorf Nave Synth. Now, I have the Behringer iS202 iPad Dock that is actually very nice and like the battery capability or when A/C connected it charges iPad. I also prefer the Behringer iS202 because all the major volume/level controls are on left front panel.
    I use a Keith McMillan Instruments QuNexus keyboard for its great expression that you just cannot get touching the iPad as far as after touch and modulation via movement of fingers. However, I do have a battery powered 25 full sized key Behringer U-Control MIDI keyboard that does not have after touch, but hate "mini keyboard keys" (the QuNexus is a whole different type of keyboard so different positive thoughts there), and I actually use the 4 track recorder that's built-into the Waldorf Nave App when going outside in nature, and then headphones, of course. I can then back home connect iS202 to play that audio into my Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 or will use sounds to make samples from by dropping into Izotope IRIS and then format those samples for my Radikal Technologies Spectralis 1, which is a new instrument this year for me. Endless possibilities. I have bought AudioShare and other MIDI Apps for iPad but honestly, have not taken time to learn how that works. I will eventually, but I primarily work in audio and use Reaper DAW. Waldorf Nave is truly a proper synth and incredibly deep and reason I find myself only using it. I may in future look into a portable power pack like the Tekkeon stuff for iPad as well as using it to go outside and play the Elektron Analog Four but as it stands, the length of provided power from my iPad 2 is just fine for what I do. Oh...I can also connect a microphone to iS202 and record ambient sounds out and about into Nave's 4 track recorder THEN turn that recording into custom wavetables...pretty cool time to still be alive and kicking:-)
    So, I actually treat Waldorf Nave and my iPad 2 inside the Behringer iS202 Dock as if it is a portable rack synth I can go everywhere with. I should note that the iS202 is the 30 Pin type and if I ever feel need to get newer iPad I will then possibly get the new Alesis iDock 2 but for now, the iPad 2 shows absolutely NO processor lag for such a deeply capable synth so being pragmatic, it just works for me.
    Looking forward to the Part 2 of this article.
  • Mike Levine 1066 posts
    Mike Levine
    Posted on 06/09/2014 at 15:13:24
    Hi namnibor,
    Thanks for your detailed response! It sounds like you've got a nice working setup figured out.

    I may in future look into a portable power pack like the Tekkeon stuff for iPad as well as using it to go outside and play the Elektron Analog Four

    I am also curious about what would be a good battery pack option. If you do end up getting one, please let us know how you like it.
    BTW, here's a link for Part 2: https://en.audiofanzine.com/getting-started/editorial/articles/studio-in-a-backpack-part-2.html.
  • rick.hunter.52 5 posts
    New AFfiliate
    Posted on 06/15/2014 at 17:06:43
    Good article but I would urge folks to avoid the Focusrite iTrack Solo as there's a technical issue with it when using it with iPads since the iOS 7 update. You'll find a thread about it on the Apple support forums (started by myself) but basically the issue comes into play when switching from instrument view to tracks view and attempting to play back the recording, a godawful distortion is heard. Attempts to fix this problem through either Apple or Focusrite have not been successful to date.
  • Mike Levine 1066 posts
    Mike Levine
    Posted on 06/16/2014 at 07:45:37
    Hi Rick,

    Thanks very much for pointing that out. Do you know if other users have had the same issue?

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