Using a Looper for Solo Gigs

I had a very nice discussion with Tim (didn’t get his last name) at restaurant in Darling Harbour Saturday, Sydney Australia, Oct 12, 2013. He was doing an afternoon solo gig. Tim is a bass player, but seems pretty well rounded. He played a combination of acoustic guitar and a uBass leveraging a looper, along with his vocals. We discussed his approach and best practices for using a looper live which are summarized below. This entry summarizes some of the points of our discussion, and a bit more thought I put into afterwards.

A looper is like adding another instrument, one you are playing along with other instruments. It takes a lot of practice to get good at using a looper. The key skills are starting and stopping accurately, on the beat, and using the loop layers effectively to add to the performance, and not clutter it. I hope you find these best practices helpful. Let me know if I missed some.

1. Using a looper requires careful selection of the songs – they must be amenable to looping as described in some of the other best practices. Not all songs are good candidates for looping.

2. Avoid songs where the only practical thing to loop is the verse, not the chorus. This tends to make the chorus fall flat instead of being a crescendo as is usually the intent.

3. Pick songs that are relatively simple. Complex songs are hard to manage with a looper as there’s too much going on already, and the looper can become a distraction that inhibits the rest of the song.

4. Keep the loops really short, ideally four bars or so. This minimizes the time required to create and/or layer loops.

5. Don’t dedicate too much time in the song creating the loop layers. Five minutes to create the loops for a three minute song doesn’t make sense.

6. Create the loop at the beginning of the song, introducing each instrument in a layer as part of the song introduction.

7. Alternatively, create a verse or chorus loop while doing the first one, while singing the vocal, so the audience never notices the creation of the loop and it adds no time to the song.

8. Don’t run the loop the whole song. Turn the loop on and off to give the song some dynamics and flow. Keeping the loop on too long can become distracting, and makes the songs sound thin when the looper is off or when starting the next song. The sound needs to be relatively consistent within and across songs.

9. Keep the loop layering simple – no more than three layers usually. More takes to long, introduces more chance for errors requiring undo or loop creation restart, and can make the overall sound distracting as it clearly isn’t coming from the performer.

10. Practice starting and stopping the looper to ensure good loop timing.

11. Starting a loop creation directly off a count-in can be tricky. Practice this. But often its better to start the song intro without the looper and then create the loop after the song is in progress, the tempo is set, and you’re in the song groove. This will make it easier to be more accurate with the loop start and stop times.

12. Work out the arrangement of the song ahead of time and lay it out in your SongBook. Don’t try to do the arrangement and loop planning live. Have it worked out ahead of time what will be looped, when and with what content, and when the loop will be on or of.

13. Avoid creating multiple loops in the same song (which requires a loop reset). Its too distracting.

14. Rehearse with the looper, practicing exactly what you planned to perform. A looper is like learning another instrument and takes practice all by itself.

15. Use loops mostly to provide a background instrument for solos. This keeps the song consistent since the loop is the same thing you were playing during the vocal with the solo guitar replacing the vocal.  The song will have a coherent and consistent structure and sound without the loop adding a lot of unexpected and inconsistent content.

16. Be consistent. Your performance is a conversation with your audience. You can move from tension and release within and between songs, and reinforce this with the looper as another instrument. But if you use a looper in one song, use it consistently in similar songs for continuity of the sound. Don’t perform with no looper on one song, followed by five layers of loop on the next similar song.

17. You have to somehow synchronize the start and end of a loop, and anything you add to a loop, either with overdub or multiple loops. If you have a foot pedal, then you can start and stop the loop while keeping you hands free to play. This can take some practice, especially for establishing the tempo for the first loop. But it works best and requires the least amount of loop reparation time. A good looper (like Loopy HD) can even determine the tempo from the first loop, and establish the number of measures in order to support changing the length of subsequent loops.

If you don’t have a foot pedal, then you need some way of getting the loop started and stopped at the right time. This usually requires:

  1. setting the loop tempo
  2. setting the loop length so it can stop automatically
  3. doing a count-in to synchronize your playing with the start of the loop
  4. Using a click or metronome with the loop to keep tempo

That’s a fair amount of setup for the first loop. After that, you have more flexibility on subsequent loops since the existing loop is essentially providing the count-in synchronization, and you’re free to start the overdub anytime that is convenient.

If you’re using multiple loops, and they can have different lengths, then more setup is required between the loops. Subsequent loops are generally whole-number multiples of the initial loop in order to ensure synchronization. So keeping the initial loop very short, even just one measure, makes it easier to add loops of different lengths.

If you’re using the looper in Apple MainStage 3, note the following:

  1. The metronome doesn’t necessarily start on the one. Rather it appears to be running all the time, and you just turn its audio on and off.
  2. Pressing the count-in button in the Looper will count in up to one measure. The count-in starts when you press record and the beat is determined by the metronome. So if the metronome is on the 3rd beat of a measure when you press record, then you’ll only get 1 beat of count-in.
  3. The metronome needs to be on for the count-in to be meaningful, and to provide something to sync with since the looper should be syncing to the beat and stopping at the end of the bar of the last measure.
  4. When sync is off, and there is no number of measures set, the following happens:
    1. pressing record starts record and play
    2. the next press of record sets the end of the loop, but does not turn off record
    3. to set the loop end, turn off record and turn on playback all at once, press the play button while recording
    4. press record again to turn on recording anytime while the loop is playing back to add additional layers. Record can be turned on or off anytime during the loop playback and does not restart the loop. Playback simply continues
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5. Creating a Project: Using Project Templates

In our last entry we discussed how to get input into the GarageBand on iOS. With that somewhat complex (and possibly expensive) problem behind us, we’re ready to create a project and start recording a song.

Projects are where you do the work of arranging the song, choosing instruments, recording tracks, editing and mixing. That’s basically all the rest of the things you need to do to produce a song. The big things that are left are mastering to produce a final product that includes content from multiple projects or songs, and distributing the results.

In this blog entry we’ll look at various approaches to creating a project, including the use of project templates to speed things up and save work. We’ll look at song layout and different approaches to recording songs: either a section at a time, or by laying down more complete or even free-form tracks.

Creating the Project

Each song is created in its own project, what GarageBand calls a Song. Most DAW’s use the concept of a Project since there are many things you might record besides songs. So we’ll use the terms interchangeably when referring to GarageBand.

When GarageBand starts up, it usually picks up where you left off. That’s very convenient, but can sometimes be confusing to new users. To create a project, you need to be viewing the song list. If you’re in a song, you get back to the song list by pressing the My Songs button.

To create a new song, press the + button. You are presented with two options, New Song or Duplicate Song. Press New Song for now, we’ll look at using Duplicate Song later when discussing templates.

GarageBand immediately presents you with the Instruments selection page where you select the instrument for the first track. Let’s pick Smart Drums as that’s a great way to lay down a quick drum track we can use to set the tempo and guide the rest of the tracks.
Next you will want to press the puzzle piece button to edit the song sections. We’ll cover this more below when discussing different ways of laying out and recording songs. So for now, just use the default Section A with 8 bars. Next select the Drum Machine you want to use. I like the Vintage kit or the Classic Studio Kit to use for a drum backing track as the drums are fairly simple and clean, making the track easier to follow. Select a few drums and arrange them for intensity (up/down) and complexity (left/right) until you get a rhythm that seems to fit the song, and provides a good solid rhythm track. Keep this simple as simple tracks are easier to follow when recording other live tracks.

Make sure you set the tempo and time signature correctly before going any further. This is another good use of a simple drum rhythm track. It gives you something to play and sing along with to be sure the tempo is right before recording any other tracks. It is very hard to change tempo once analog instrument tracks have been recorded. Some DAW’s do support temp changes and will stretch the audio to fit the new tempo without changing the pitch. GarageBand on iOS doesn’t support this. And it can only be done to a very limited extent without starting to introduce distortion. So its best to get the tempo right before recording anything.
Now press the rewind button to make sure the play cursor is at the beginning of the section and press record. GarageBand will record the drum loop and stop recording and switch to playback when it gets to the end of the 8 bar section A.
This might be a little surprising. If you forgot to set the section length to the right number of measures, or you didn’t have Automatic section length turned on, then recording will stop when the cursor reaches the end of the section. This may not be what you intended. But it is convenient for getting the initial drum section recorded as we can easily loop the drum track in the other sections.

Now you can go to the tracks view to see what got recorded, and get ready to create and record the rest of the tracks, using the drum track as a guide for different song sections, tempo and when the song ends.

Using Project Templates

GarageBand for iOS does a great job keeping the song creation process simple and easy to do. But there can be a lot of repetitive activities that are the same from song to song, especially for the same band. Most DAW’s support project, track, instrument and effects templates that you can setup for common recording needs. Templates have everything already setup so you are ready to pick a track and start recording. They can save a tremendous amount of time in setup and management of projects.

GarageBand doesn’t support templates directly, but you can simulate them by creating what we’ll call “template projects”. Essentially these are projects you create that have a drum track, and all the other tracks added with instruments selected for a particular recording situation. Say you have a band, and most of your songs will use the same instrument and vocal tracks. Why not create those tracks once, and then reuse them for each new song?

To do this, start with the simple drum track you created above. Now add tracks for each instrument you want to record, but don’t actually record anything in any of the tracks. GarageBand will let you switch to the track view from a selected instrument as long as there’s at least one track in the song. That’s our drum track. The label for the track depicts the instrument you chose for the track. You can’t change this label. But once you’ve recorded something in the track, you can relabel the region itself. You can use the region names give the tracks more reasonable names, indicating what actual instrument is being played and/or by whom. My project templates have mostly audio input tracks that all look like microphones and are labeled “Audio Recorder”. So I can’t tell the vocal tracks from the acoustic guitar tracks. And some of these tracks may be configured specifically to what is being recorded. For example, some might be configured as mono and others stereo. Note that with Audio Recorder set to stereo, and careful separation of the inputs, you can record two things at a time in GarageBand, and use only one track. You can use the Pan control to somewhat control their relative volume. But these will be essentially hard-panned left and right, so you’ll need to choose instruments appropriate for that positioning in the sound stage.

Now save the song and change its name to My Template or something that indicates what the template is for.
To use the template, go to the My Songs list, scroll to the desired template and long press the the song project template until it starts wiggling. Then press the duplicate button (+ in a square) to create a copy of the template. Next, long press the name of the template copy to set the name of the new song project. You now have a new song with an initial drum loop and all the tracks setup that are appropriate for that song. This can be quite a time saver. Now just set the tempo, adjust the song layout, and you’re ready to start recording tracks. Depending on the song, and the drum track in the template, you may have to redo the drum track to something more appropriate. That’s part of the reason for creating very simple drum tracks in the template – they’re more reusable in other songs as a simple rhythm backing track to augment the metronome while tracking.

Workflow: Section at a time or track at a time

Before recording much beyond the initial drum loop like we did above, you need to plan the layout of the song. Typical songs have an intro, some number of verses and choruses, perhaps a bridge between different parts, and an outro or ending. There are three different approaches to laying out a song. Each has advantages and disadvantages and one may be more appropriate for a particular song than another.

1. Free Form Layout

In free form layout, you will often turn off or delete the drum layout track, and turn off the metronome. Then you create a single section for the song an set the section length to Automatic (on). Finally, you pick an instrument like an acoustic guitar or piano and play the whole song start to finish. The length of the section is automatically set to the length of this track.

This is the way analog recording with at tape machine was always done. You may have had an external metronome to keep tempo, but the layout was often done with a “layout track” that established the different song sections and tempos, and is used as a guide for the rest of the song. This track may or may not be included in the final mix, so its not necessary for it to be mistake free – only that it keeps the desired tempo and has the song sections the way you want them.

This can also be very liberating because you’re not bound to a strict tempo or measure boundaries. But this freedom comes at a hight cost when you start adding tracks and editing later on. If the song is not following a metronome and/or rhythm track, then the measure boundaries aren’t meaningful. This makes region selection difficult when you need to edit later on because the tracks don’t lineup on measure boundaries.

Free form is however useful if you’re recording a number of instruments at the same time, and there’s a lot of interaction between the musicians that requires flexible tempo, pauses, etc. In some DAW’s you can record a video of a conductor while the audio recording is being created so the conductor is available to direct subsequent tracks.

2. Track at a time

The next technique is to record a complete track, but following sections you laid out ahead of time, and using fixed tempo with a metronome and/or drum track to ensure the recording is on measure boundaries. Using this approach allows you to plan out ahead of time the different sections of the song, but still play the whole track all they way through with each instrument. After laying out the song sections, make sure you select All Sections in the Song Sections list or recording will stop at the end of the current section.
When you are recording, you can see the section labels in the timeline to help guide the musician. The labels are very dim and hard to see, but they are there. Remember you can also drag down from the timeline in the instrument recording view to see the track you are recording, and adjust its volume, solo or mute.

A GarageBand song can have a maximum of 26 sections (Section A through Z), with a total maximum length of 320 bars. Each section is 8 bars by default. Tap the information button to change the number of bars. The last section of a song has an Automatic button. Automatic means this section will continue to record until you press stop (or reach the 320 bar limit). The length of the section is determined when you stop recording. Turn off Automatic in order to manually set the number of bars for the last section. You can also duplicate and rearrange song sections. This is particularly useful when building a song a section at at time as described next. But its also useful for duplicating the drum sections you may have created for verse and chorus sections.

You can also start with a single Automatic section, record a scratch or layout track, and then go back and create the individual sections based on the layout track. Each new section will slice the layout track at its length. Just select All Sections, and change the length of the layout track to expose the original length so you can create the next section.

Once you have the song sections laid out, you can select each section in the song sections (or arrangement) list, and record different drum patterns in each section. Adjust the drums, volume and complexity in each section to fit the section of the song. This establishes a good starting point for the rest of the tracking.

3. Section at a time

In this approach, you record each section of a song independently, then you can duplicate and rearrange sections to change the layout after the recording has been completed. DAW’s like RiffWorks make great use of this technique to very quickly create songs. The benefit is that you only have to focus on getting one section at a time right. And then you can duplicate that section as many times as you need it to complete the song. Use this on instrument tracks that repeat in different sections of the song to quickly build up the song. Then the final vocal or lead instrument parts can be done a track at a time as described in the previous section.

This approach is fast and easy, but has some drawbacks.

  • It may be hard to get a sense of the whole song doing a part at a time. You can minimize this effect by combining approaches 2 and 3. Use section at a time to get instruments recorded that are background or rhythm section instruments that don’t change much in similar sections (verse, chorus, etc.). Then use track at a time to record the vocals and solo instruments that need more flexibility within similar sections.
  • The sections can all sound the same. Address this by using the same technique as the previous item, record the main instruments and vocals using track at a time and the less important instruments section at a time.
  • Transitions from one section to another may be more noticeable since they were recorded at different times, in a different position, with slightly different timing, different mic placement and settings, etc.
  • Counting out the measures can be a pain – sing the whole song agains the drum track to be sure you got the layout right before proceeding.
  • You have less content to choose from when editing. Its often easy to fix an error in one section by copying content from another section that doesn’t have the error.
  • You hear the same mistakes over and over in the song.

Section at a time is a very good way to get a song laid out and the initial tracks recorded very quickly, especially smart drum sections. You aren’t spending a lot of time performing the same content over and over. It provides a good foundation for the more important instrument and vocal tracks that often come later.

The important thing is to make sure the tempo, time signature and layout sections are right before recording anything beyond the initial drum sections. Recovering from incorrect song tempo or layout can result in a lot of very difficult editing and a poor result. Planning ahead of time here can save a lot of problems, disappointments and poor compromises later on.

4. IO Devices: Getting sound into the iPad

IO devices for iPhone and iPad have substantially improved in the last year. The introduction of iPhone4 and iPad set mobile recording back somewhat because of the elimination of the stereo analog inputs on the dock connector. Then the iPhone5 changed things again with the Lightening connector. A lot of microphones created for the iPhone, like the wonderful Blue Mikey 2.0, are not compatible with iPhone4 and beyond, or iPad. Its taken a while, but there is now a very good selection of devices that support multiple inputs, different devices, have very good quality and are quite affordable. Most also work with any laptop computer too. Choosing a device depends on what sound sources you are going to be recording, and where you will be capturing the tracks.

The iPad and iPhone have introduced a whole new approach to mobile multi-track recording, making it practical to use mobile platforms for nearly complete music production and distribution. This is fantastic especially for hobbyist and traveling musicians. It is now possible to record tracks at the moment and in context almost anywhere, anytime, enabling the capture of musical ideas that would often have been lost in the past.

But on to IO devices. An important consideration is to maintain portability. You likely have your phone with you all the time. Recording is a bit like photography. The best camera is the one you have with you when you need to take that fantastic picture. So the initial focus on iOS IO devices should be to maintain the mobility of the platform. Otherwise you’re better off using a laptop or desktop DAW system with a multi-channel IO device. They don’t cost that much more, most of us already have one or more computers, DAW software like Reaper is getting much less expensive and more stable and capable, GrageBand for Mac is now free, and there’s a wide range of inexpensive USB and FireWire devices to choose from. But these platforms aren’t that mobile, or easy to use when you are both the performer and the recording engineer.

GarageBand on iOS only allows recording one track at a time in either mono or stereo. This has lots of implications for how you do tracking that will be covered in later posts. But it also has an impact on what IO device you choose. Auria, Cubase and MultiTrack do support recording as many as 24 separate inputs simultaneously using a Tascam US-800 or similar USB audio device, and the camera connection kit. So there are other options. But we’ll focus on the simpler, more mobile devices that are consistent with recording one track at a time.

Most of us will be recording sources such as:

  • Acoustic instruments in either mono or stereo
  • Vocals
  • Electric guitar
  • Bass guitar
  • MIDI keyboards or other tone generator devices

This requires an IO device that can support:

  • Mono and stereo microphone input
  • High-impedance 1/4” guitar input
  • MIDI input
  • Stereo line input

There are devices that support all three of these requirements. But you may find that for mobile recording, it may be useful to use a different input device for microphone, guitar and MIDI in order to keep the devices small, portable, low-power and battery friendly. I’ll start with the simplest, most portable devices, and work up to the more full-featured, covering the pros and cons of each.

Microphone Input

Tuscam provides the iM2 and iM2X stereo mics for iPhone and iPad. This is a really great choice. Both provide mono or stereo recording, the ability to position the microphones to the front or back, have a built-in limiter, support an external gain control, support USB charing while recording, and are very light but with good construction quality. I did some testing of the iM2 mic in comparison with others, including an AT-4047 LDC mic and the iM2 compared very well. Its missing a bit in the low end, but not bad, and that’s not always a bad thing for vocals or acoustic guitar.

However, there are some problems. The first is that both use the 30 pin dock connector and therefore require the 30 pin connector to Lightening adapter to use on iPhone5 and beyond. This isn’t really a problem as it moves the mic a bit further from the device providing more convenient use. Second, the iM2 does not have a headphone monitor output, rather it relies on the headphone jack already on the iOS device. This is a good choice since the jack is already there and we use it constantly. But GarageBand may sometimes get confused about what output device to use. If the headphones are plugged in and you plug in the iM2, the headphones are deactivated. The work around is to plug the iM2 in first, then the headphones, or just unplug the headphones and plug them back in to reset the audio output.  By the way, use caution when recording with earbuds, they tend to leak into the microphone. Its better to use noise isolating, closed back headphones. And don’t use earbuds or headphones with an in-line microphone – this will take priority over any mic plugged into the Lightening connector.

One more thing to watch out for, the current Tascam PCMRecorder app stops recording when the iOS device screen goes to sleep. So you’ll miss content unless you keep the screen alive. These apps should all have options to suspend screen sleep while recording so you can watch input levels and have immediate access to the stop button when recording is completed.

Another option is the Mikey Digital from Blue Microphones. This mic supports automatic gain control has a clipping indicator, and a 3.5mm aux-in jack for recording from stereo devices. Both the iM2 and Mikey Digital have a USB pass-through for charging while recording. This is useful for iPhone since recording with a mic results in high power demand and short battery life. A somewhat more expensive option is the Rode iXY. The iXY supports 24 bit recording which is important for increased dynamic range and typically lower noise. However, GarageBand currently only supports 16 bit recording so you won’t get that advantage unless you use something like Auria.

All of these microphones are small enough to have with you all the time for jam sessions, practice sessions, or those times when you go sit by the water playing guitar and get that great new idea.

Next up are the somewhat larger table-top microphones such as the Apogee Mic or Samson Meteor. These microphones generally have a larger diameter sensor and therefore have better bass response. I have both and they also sound great and compared well with the AT-4047. Both have the advantage that you can plug it directly into the iPad camera connection kit, for a simple mobile platform. Unlike the iM2, the Apogee Mic or Meteor is not physically connected to the iPad or iPhone so there’s more flexibility for mic and iPad positioning while recording. Another benefit is the these mics also work with any computer having a USB input.

The Meteor is mono only, and unfortunately, unlike the Apogee Mic, doesn’t have an external gain control. Until iOS 5, and the GarageBand 1.1 update, the mic was too hot and there was no way to control the mic gain using iOS. The only way to avoid clipping was to move the mic further away which introduces noise into the track and more room effects. GarageBand 1.0, and at this time, all other iOS recording applications have an input gain control, but it only controls the input gain of the iOS device, not the gain in the Meteor mic. GarageBand 1.1 and beyond fixes this. The gain control on the mic input recognizes that the Meteor USB mic has internal gain control and actually adjusts the gain in the mic, not just the gain in the iOS device. You can see the difference by looking at the clipping light on the Meteor mic. With other applications like MultiTrack or Meteor recorder (not related to the Samson Meteor mic), you can turn down the input, but the mic still clips and the sound is still distorted. With GarageBand 1.1, when you turn down the mic input, the gain in the Meteor mic is actually reduced and the mic will no longer clip, same as with Mac OS X. This eliminates the need to have an external gain control on the mic, but requires the apps to support USB mic drivers. Fortunately, since iOS7 these mics now also work with the iPhone since the camera connection kit is now supported by iPhone.

A great option might be the Apogee Mic or the Spark Digital from Blue Microphones. These both have external gain controls which are easier to use than changing the gain in the GarageBand input dialog anyway. Generally the clip light on the mic corresponds to clipping in the app. And the Apogee Mic just sounds fantastic.

Another option, especially useful if you already have good condenser mics is to use something like iRig Pro which supports XLR input with phantom power, as well as a 1/4″ hi-Z input for guitar and a MIDI input. This is a good all-around device that has good quality construction and is very convenient.

One last thing about microphones, for vocals, you need to use a pop filter. The mics don’t generally come with one, so you need to get something separate. Any music store will have something that will fit over the mic and provide some protection. Be sure to use one for all vocals.

Guitar Input

There are two ways to get electric guitar into an iOS device. The simplest and least expensive is through the device’s headphone/microphone jack. Devices like the AmpliTube iRig from IK Multimedia fit into this category. These devices are very susceptible to feedback, are generally quite noisy, and suffer from the 200Hz high-pass filter built into the microphone input jack. I don’t find these devices useful, especially for bass guitar, so I won’t cover them further.

The other class of devices are those that plug into the iOS dock or Lightening connector. Devices like the Apogee Jam and iRig Pro fit into this category. These devices have to have their own analog-to-digital converters and a USB interface, so they require power and can be relatively expensive. But the Apogee Jam works perfectly and is highly recommended. Jam also comes with a separate cable that works with any computer having a USB input. All the popular guitar amp simulator applications including GarageBand, AmpKit+ and JamUp work  with the Apogee Jam. These are all good apps, especially JamUp and the companion app, Bias.

I like the guitar amp simulators that are in GarageBand, but they’re not the best. JamUp is great too. You can easily use JamUp with GarageBand using AudioBus. Hopefully JamUp will support IAA soon.

I also sometimes use a Line6 Pocket POD to get guitar into iOS. You can use this with the Apogee Jam, or any other device that supports guitar or stereo line input. The Pocket POD is based on the original Line6 POD 2.0 tones. These don’t compare with the latest Line6 simulators like the POD HD series, but they do sound better than the amp simulators built into GarageBand. So that’s an option if you have a Pocket POD. The Pocket POD also has a “CD input” so you can plug the output of your phone directly into the POD to play along with tracks from iTunes, or jam against backing tracks using OnSong or SongBook. This is very useful and sounds great.

GarageBand doesn’t currently have a bass amp simulator, so you need to use something external or record direct. It is not uncommon to record bass direct. But unfortunately, GarageBand for iOS also doesn’t yet have track or master EQ, so there’s not much opportunity to adjust the bass tone. You can use an external preamp like a bass SansAmp, but that tends to make the platform more complicated and less mobile. I use a Carvin 5-string electric bass or a Dean fretless acoustic bass guitar (ABG) for bass. Both have active electronics and provide a great sound direct into any device. I also use the bass amps in JamUp if I need one, through AudioBus.

MIDI Input

iOS has introduce CoreMIDI support and there are a number of devices that support it including iRig Pro, iRIG MIDI and Line6 MIDI Mobilizer II. Note that the original MIDI Mobilizer does not support Core MIDI and won’t work with GarageBand. These devices are straight forward, and easy to use. iRIG MIDI has support for MIDI Thru. Both support MIDI 5-pin input and output.

Many modern keyboards support USB output, and these will work directly with the iPhone and iPad using the camera connection kit. For example, the Akai LPK26 USB keyboard plugs directly into the camera connection kit connected to an iPad and requires no external power source. Of course that’s a pretty small keyboard so it may not be adequate for all applications.

Other USB keyboards may require a power source or a USB hub. You can provide such a power source easily by using Velcro to attach a simple powered USB hub to the keyboard, and then connecting the output of the USB hub to the camera connection kit. This has the advantage of supporting more than one device such as the Blue Yeti microphone and the M-Audio KeyRig 49. So I highly recommend getting a keyboard controller that support both USB and MIDI outputs for more flexible connections.

For other sound sources such as tone generators, you’ll need a stereo analog input to a stereo track. Unfortunately there aren’t too many highly mobile options for analog stereo input into iOS devices at this time. The Mikey Digital might be a good option.

All-in-One Solutions

The above solutions are all separate devices, and most are mono. Another approach is the more traditional one or two-channel USB audio devices. There’s a lot to choose from here since the USB audio devices that work with most computers will also work through the camera connection kit. Many require separate power, especially when used with the iPhone. I’ll only cover two that have some unique characteristics: the ART USB Dual Pre, and the Alesis iO Dock. Both of these devices maintain mobility while allowing more flexible input/output options and the ability to use your existing microphones. They are less portable than the options described above, and is boarding on a solution that’s not that different than using a laptop and DAW. But this might be a good intermediate solution especially if you want to use your existing microphones or need stereo input.

The ART USB Dual Pre is a typical 2-channel USB audio device. It has everything you need for mic, guitar and stereo inputs and outputs for iPad and it can have external power, but doesn’t require it. The Dual Pre can be powered directly from the iPad camera connection kit, making it a reasonably mobile platform. The Dual Pre also has a separate preamp built-in that can be powered by an internal 9-volt battery if needed. The Dual Pre has no MIDI input though, so you’ll need to have one of the other solutions describe above if you need MIDI.

The Alesis iO Dock is an a good option for the iPad. It provides all the capabilities you’d expect from a two-channel USB audio/MIDI device in a form factor designed for iPad. I won’t go into all the features and benefits because they are well documented on the Alesis web site and in many great reviews. I have had great success with this device, but it hans’t been trouble free. I find the iO dock sometimes suffers from significant digital noise and has to have its power cycled to clean up the sound. This has resulted in some lost recordings – see the next section on direct monitoring. Another problem is that the iO dock only supports 5-pin MIDI, not USB MIDI. So my small, light-weight USB-only keyboard controllers won’t work with the iO dock.
The iO dock might be ideal if it:

  • Supported battery operation. It has to be connected to an AC power source significantly limiting its mobile capabilities.
  • Provided audio input/output from the USB connector so the same device could be use with a laptop computer for USB audio IO.
  • Supported USB MIDI input, not just 5-pin MIDI connectors
  • Had a mono switch for better direct monitoring during tracking, currently direct monitoring puts the source on only one side.
  • Supported Lightening connector and iPad Air

The Dual Pre works well with GarageBand since it is also limited to 24 bit. Some research may be required to determine what’s best for you. The Roland Duo-Capture EX looks good, but check the reviews before purchasing.

Direct Monitoring

Direct monitoring is the ability to monitor the recording input source directly instead of having to go into GarageBand and back out. Direct monitoring has the advantage of no latency. Latency is the delay you hear between the original sound source, and what is played back in your headphones through the IO device, iPad and software. Latency isn’t as much of an issue as it use to be since IO devices, digital input channels such as USB 2.0, computers and mobile devices are much faster than they use to be. But it can still be an issue, depending on the application.

Of course you can’t use direct monitoring if you need to hear the input as processed by the application, say an electric guitar amp simulator or a MIDI virtual instrument. But you can use direct monitoring for acoustic instruments and vocals.

Direct monitoring is generally preferred because it has no latency, but not always. I have had quite a bit of trouble recording with the Alesis iO dock and the Meteor recorder app. The input often gets distorted or filled with digital noise. To be safe, it may be better to avoid direct monitoring so that you are hearing what’s actually being recorded, not what you hope is being recorded. I had to redo a number of tracks because I used direct monitoring and they didn’t get recorded properly.

Another problem with direct monitoring, at least on the iO dock, is that source is only in one ear. I find that tracking is best done with mono monitoring so you hear the same thing in both ears, and you can more easily notice phasing problems.

Some devices such as the Samson Meteor mic can only support direct monitoring as there is no way to turn off the mic. That’s generally not a problem since you’d expect to always want to do direct monitoring with a mic. But note the potential issue with recording problems noted above. I’ve never see those problems with the Meteor mic though. So maybe its only a problem with the iO dock.

Conclusion

This was an long post, and there are many more options I didn’t cover. But this should be enough to get you started, and to avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve experienced in getting sound into iOS devices. It is truly an exciting time when we can have a full-featured multi-track recording device in our mobile phone.

Now that we can get sound into GarageBand, the next post will cover creating projects and doing the song layout in preparation for recoding that sound.

3. Preparing for the Session

A recording project generally follows a process similar to one described by Joe Gilder over at homestudiocorner.com:

  1. Pre-Production
  2. Recording
  3. Editing
  4. Mixing
  5. Mastering

As you can see in the first entry, this blog essentially follows that same process, with a focus on using GarageBand on the iPad to perform the activities in each step. Joe provides a great summary of the pre-production steps so I won’t repeat them here. Rather I’ll highlight some key points and provide some hints that may be helpful down the road.

The primary purpose of preparation is to reduce future work and minimize the impact of early choices on future flexibility. For example, if you don’t have a rough draft of a song when you start recording, then you might not know how long the intro is, where the verses and choruses go, how many they are, etc. As a result, you may spend a lot more time editing as you copy and paste items to create missing verses, or you have to go back and do new takes to get missing material. This can add a lot of work to the session that can be easily avoided with a little planning.

Here’s some simple ideas on preparation that you may find helpful that could significantly reduce the overall time and work required to get a finished recording project.

1. Sketch out the project contents

This is relatively simple, but does require some thought. Working with the other project members, determine the content of the project. This could be simply the list of songs that will be included. But you might also want to think about what story you are trying to tell, or what effect you want to have on listeners. This could impact the choice of songs as well as their order. If you’re going to produce a CD, you might also want to sketch the front and back cover, and have a rough outline of the CD liner notes. Similar ideas apply to Web distribution. This information can help set a context for the whole project, ensuring the parts fit together and reinforce each other in a consistent way to deliver the intended result.

You might find it helpful to use apps like Evernote and Skitch to capture song lists, notes, CD sketches, etc. This information can then easily be shared with anyone on the Web to enhance collaboration between team members and maintain documentation for the project.

2. Create a layout track for each song

We’ll cover the details of creating songs from templates and recording tracks in subsequent blog entries, so we won’t cover those details here. What you want to do is create a layout of the song that everyone can follow when recording the keeper tracks. This can a single mono track that has just acoustic guitar or keyboard and vocal. Or you can record the whole band using a stereo mic. The purpose is to establish the tempo, determine the intro, verses, choruses, outro and any other parts of the song arrangement, and provide something for other musicians to go by when they record their tracks. Be sure to record this guide track with a metronome, click track, and/or drum loop to provide a steady beat, and ensure that all subsequent recording is aligned with the measures in a track. This will make future editing and comping a lot easier.

3. Sharing the project

Once the guide tracks are recorded, you can export them to iTunes so all participants can listen and practice their parts in preparation for recording.  At this point you may discover that after listening to the song for a while, the tempo is wrong, or the arrangement needs to change. The sooner these changes are discovered and made, the less impact they have in the rest of the recording and production process.

Again, capturing notes in something like Evernote provides an easy means for others to make comments on each song that can be easily shared. This not only reduces future work, but can have a real positive impact on the end result.

4. Get everything ready for recording

Now that the song tempos and arrangements are completed, the guide tracks are done, and everyone is familiar with the songs, you’re ready to prepare for recording. This means getting your recording room organized, choosing the microphones to use, and making sure all the input devices are working. I include this in the preparation section because you may find some things don’t work as expected. You don’t want to be trying to figure out why you’re not getting any input from some device with a lot of people standing around waiting to record. So its better to try everything out ahead of time to make sure everything works and is ready to go.

The next blog entry will go into more detail on choices for IO devices and getting sound into the iPad.

2. The Musicians

Music is first and foremost about the song and its performance. The performance can be seen as a collaboration among a group of musicians, and secondarily, the producer and recording engineer. Using a modern DAW you can easily create great music by yourself. But the real joy in music, that spark that makes us sit up and listen, comes from communication and interaction with other people that adds a new dimension to the music. If you create all the tracks by yourself, then your own individual musical or performance quirks tend to get magnified as they are reinforced in track upon track. Having other musicians contribute adds some randomness to the mix that prevents particular things from standing out too much, and gives the music more life.

But creating this musical vibe requires an environment for creativity and collaboration where musicians can interact and stimulate each other. The results can be unexpected, and sometimes pretty raw. But the outcome can produce some real jewels. However, this might required some time, with multiple takes to capture the best performances and recording setup.

This can be a challenge for GarageBand on the iPad because there are only limited tracks, and multiple takes in a track are not yet supported. But you can capture different takes in temporary scratch tracks and then use copy and paste to comp tracks to create a final result. What we want to be able to do is to send this song as a template to a number of different musicians so they can work on them individually. Then as they deliver their results, you will comp the tracks from the different projects to create the final mix. Here’s how. As a starting point, let’s assume you have created a song project, set the tempo and key, have a layout track, and a number of other instrument and vocal tracks. What you want to do is copy this project so you’re sure to have the same tempo, and the tracks will properly line up and sync. Next delete as many tracks in this copy as you can, keeping the layout or drum track, and any other tracks needed for monitoring. Record additional tracks or takes in this project. Repeat as much as needed in order to capture all the required tracks and takes. We’ll cover how to comp these tracks together into the final result in a future blog entry.

What you’re trying to do is deliver that “live” feeling to the listeners to add a new dimension to the music. Make sure everyone is comfortable and everyone can see and hear everyone else.

Another good tip is to avoid too much clutter. Nothing takes the creativity and joy out of a music session as much as tripping on wires, mic stands or music stands and dinging or breaking a treasured instrument.

1. Mobile Recording With iPad and GarageBand

Music creation and production use to be the domain of the recording studio and production companies. And it was an expensive and time consuming process. As a result, the music we got to hear is highly selective and processed, controlled by a fairly small number of people, and focused at specific target groups to maximize shareholder revenue.
Some great music has resulted from this process. But Globalization and the Internet have created some real challenges for the music industry from simple file sharing to loss of control of the creation and production process. As a result, the industry is struggling to come up with new models for how to restore and expand revenue streams.
All this could be a real problem for the music industry, but it could also be a benefit for the rest of us. Have you noticed that local live music isn’t what it use to be? That concerts are now really expensive and less accessible? That the most popular artists are reaching their golden years? All that might have to do with economics, aging baby boomers, iPOD generation, and social change, but it could also reflect a change in our approach to music. Music doesn’t seem to drive our lives the way it once did. I often go to parties or social gatherings of various sorts and there will be live music. But no one seems to be paying much attention anymore. The music just doesn’t seem to be connecting as much as it use to. Maybe that’s because most people listen to music privately with earbuds while doing something else. Music isn’t so much a shared experience anymore.
Any challenge is also an opportunity. In this case, maybe we need to exploit new technologies and mechanisms for creating, producing and distributing music to reconnect people to music. One possible way of doing that is to bring the music back to the people. To get it out of the hands of just the record producers trying to develop markets driven by specific focus groups, and reintroduce chaotic creativity and interaction that can drive innovation and new opportunities.
One way to achieve that is to leverage modern hardware and software platforms to make music creation, production and distribution easy, available to almost anyone, and at low cost. That’s likely to have variable results, but it might help discover things we couldn’t have anticipated – from styles, to new electronic software-based, multi-touch instruments, to hidden creative genius that just wasn’t lucky enough to “make it” in the closed world of the record industry.
This series of blog entries is an attempt to provide some practical approaches to developing mobile music. We’ll be focusing on the iPad and Garageband because these products are particularly effective for mobile music. But we’ll be covering some other things where needed to fill in some gaps and look at alternatives. The series starts with you – the musicians, and will progress through the process of getting your creative inspirations recorded, mixed, mastered, produced and delivered to the community. We’ll be looking at:
  • The musicians: establishing effective collaboration among a group of potentially distributed musicians
  • Preparing for the Session: Getting things setup for the recording session
  • IO Devices: Getting sound into the iPad
  • Creating A Project: Creating projects and project templates to make things go faster and easier
  • Song Arrangement: Using song sections and layout tracks
  • Tracking: Some best practices and resources for producing quality recordings
  • Collaborative Recording: Capturing tracks from people anywhere in the world
  • Correcting Mistakes: Punch and take recording in GarageBand (sort of)
  • Editing: Making changes after the musicians are gone
  • Mixing: Best practices and resources for mixing and effects processing with focus on GarageBand on the iPad
  • Mastering: Putting it all together and dealing with mastering effects
  • Distribution: Getting your music out there through Web distribution
  • Wrap up: What we did and what to do different next time – your chance to contribute
  • Garageband Extensions: Some suggested new features and capabilities
This is a lot to cover, so completing the series might take a while. But it should be fun, and a great way for us to share ideas and experiences. Feel free to comment about things you’ve discovered and I’ll periodically update the content to include other ideas.
So let’s get started! I hope you find this series helpful, and that the end result is we will all have great new music to share in this new open world we find ourselves in. Happy recording!

Best practices for performing with a looper

I had a very nice discussion with Tim (didn’t get his last name) at restaurant in Darling Harbour Saturday, Oct 12. He was doing an afternoon solo gig. Tim is a bass player, but seems pretty well rounded. He played a combination of acoustic guitar and a uBass leveraging a looper, along with his vocals. We discussed his approach and best practices for using a looper live which are summarized below.

A looper is like adding another instrument, one you are playing along with other instruments. It takes a lot of practice to get good at using a looper. The key skills are starting and stopping accurately, on the beat, and using the loop layers effectively to add to the performance, and not clutter it. I hope you find these best practices helpful. Let me know if I missed some.

1. Using a looper requires careful selection of the songs – they must be amenable to looping as described in some of the other best practices. Not all songs are good candidates for looping.

2. Avoid songs where the only practical thing to loop is the verse, not the chorus. This tends to make the chorus fall flat instead of being a crescendo as is usually the intent.

3. Pick songs that are relatively simple. Complex songs are hard to manage with a looper as there’s too much going on already, and the looper can become a distraction that inhibits the rest of the song.

4. Keep the loops really short, ideally four bars or so. This minimizes the time required to create and/or layer loops.

5. Don’t dedicate too much time in the song creating the loop layers. Five minutes to create the loops for a three minute song doesn’t make sense.

6. Create the loop at the beginning of the song, introducing each instrument in a layer as part of the song introduction.

7. Alternatively, create a verse or chorus loop while doing the first one, while singing the vocal, so the audience never notices the creation of the loop and it adds no time to the song.

8. Don’t run the loop the whole song. Turn the loop on and off to give the song some dynamics and flow. Keeping the loop on too long can become distracting, and makes the songs sound thin when the looper is off or when starting the next song. The sound needs to be relatively consistent within and across songs.

9. Keep the loop layering simple – no more than three layers usually. More takes to long, introduces more chance for errors requiring undo or loop creation restart, and can make the overall sound distracting as it clearly isn’t coming from the performer.

10. Practice starting and stopping the looper to ensure good loop timing.

11. Starting a loop creation directly off a count-in can be tricky. Practice this. But often its better to start the song intro without the looper and then create the loop after the song is in progress, the tempo is set, and you’re in the song groove. This will make it easier to be more accurate with the loop start and stop times.

12. Work out the arrangement of the song ahead of time and lay it out in your SongBook. Don’t try to do the arrangement and loop planning live. Have it worked out ahead of time what will be looped, when and with what content, and when the loop will be on or of.

13. Avoid creating multiple loops in the same song (which requires a loop reset). Its too distracting.

14. Rehearse with the looper, practicing exactly what you planned to perform. A looper is like learning another instrument and takes practice all by itself.

15. Use loops mostly to provide a background instrument for solos. This keeps the song consistent since the loop is the same thing you were playing during the vocal with the solo guitar replacing the vocal.  The song will have a coherent and consistent structure and sound without the loop adding a lot of unexpected and inconsistent content.

16. Be consistent. Your performance is a conversation with your audience. You can move from tension and release within and between songs, and reinforce this with the looper as another instrument. But if you use a looper in one song, use it consistently in similar songs for continuity of the sound. Don’t perform with no looper on one song, followed by five layers of loop on the next similar song.