In 1979 Tascam freed multitrack music recording from its exclusive home in the commercial recording studio with the 20-pound TEAC 144 Portastudio, a device combining a 4-track cassette recorder with a mixing console and equalization in a single package retailing for $899. True to its name, the device offered portability, functionality and passable sonic quality at well below the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars that conventional recording consoles and multitrack tape machines cost. GRAMMY-winning artist Bruce Springsteen recorded his 1982 album Nebraska using the device.
Some 30 years later, Tascam's DP-004 Digital Pocketstudio, weighing 2.8 ounces and retailing at approximately $200, was part of a slew of palm-sized multitrack recorders and musical instrument interfaces, with similar units being sold by companies such as Korg, Roland and Zoom.
Reflecting the boom of the smartphone market, now the smartphone app is poised to become the next frontier in personal music production. With Google's Android third-party app platform still in development, Apple's iPhone has assumed the leading position in this legitimate new sector of the app market dedicated to professional and passionate hobbyist music production. With more than 8,000 apps retailing from $2.99 to $39.99, it's certainly a segment with potential economic heft.
Applications such as the Krasidy StudioApp, a 4-track digital recorder that lets users overdub instruments and vocals to preprogrammed beats and store finished songs, and Intua's Beatmaker, which contains 6 multi-touch pads enabling users to compose, record and trigger sounds from an extensive sample library, allow users even greater recording flexibility and control compared to older multitrack recording devices.
Introduced in July, IK Multimedia's AmpliTube iRig gives guitarists some of the sound and digital processing functionality of the company's professional AmpliTube guitar amplifier modeling software, and packages it with a hardware interface that allows electric guitars and basses to be plugged directly into an iPhone or iPad. Guitarists can create custom combinations of amplifiers and speaker cabinets, incorporate various effects such as chorus, flangers and delays, and practice with a metronome or recorded track.
GrooveMaker, IK Multimedia's first music recording app, has had nearly 1 million downloads since it was introduced a year ago. Most of the downloads have been the free basic version but they act as loss leaders, enticing buyers to more full-featured versions.
"I can see sections of music and electronics stores devoted to music [production] apps in the future," predicts Enrico Iori, IK Multimedia CEO. Using data from the National Association of Music Merchants, Iori sees the estimated 20 million-plus professional and hobbyist guitar players in the United States as a ripe new market for app-based personal music products. "The phone is the device that is always with you," he says. "Nothing can get you closer to the customer."
Saul Zonana, who has toured and recorded with artists including Adrian Belew, Crash Test Dummies and Lisa Loeb, uses the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer as a MIDI data archive and transfer solution, replacing larger, bulkier dedicated devices or laptops. "This eliminates the cost of paying for a piece of gear [in] airline baggage, and reduces wear and tear on expensive MIDI devices," says Zonana.
While many music production apps are based on professional products, the storage and processing capacity of a smartphone implicitly limits the performance of those apps. For instance, the keyboards on MooCowMusic's Band app have only a two-octave range. But when acting as controllers for other software, their functionality can be as comprehensive as a hardware control unit in many instances. Zonana also uses Saitara Software's AC-7 Pro controller app as a Pro Tools graphical user interface, in place of a hardware controller that would cost 100 times more.
Smartphone music apps seem to be catching on with both artists and producers in the studio. While making Leticia Wolf's debut EP in Nashville in 2008, producer/engineer Mark Hornsby used Sonoma Wire Works' Four Track, a 4-channel multitrack app containing a hardware interface. Wolf quickly recorded and e-mailed Hornsby a small vocal part to replace a Pro Tools session file that had become corrupted in his studio computer.
"She was away from the studio somewhere and I could have waited for another day when she was back in, but I figured, hey, let's try this," Hornsby recalls. He sent her a mix of the basic track as a .wav file; Wolf loaded it into the Four Track app on her iPhone, recorded the missing "ooh" sound and sent it back to Hornsby, who transferred it to Pro Tools and added it to the background vocal comp.
"The [backgrounds] are pretty heavily processed with other stuff, so the resolution of the file she sent me wasn't that critical, but it was certainly good enough for a background part," says Hornsby, who regularly uses apps for studio chores including setting tempos and tuning guitars.
Four Track is designed for anything from quick audio fixes to a repository for songwriting idea snippets or, as Los Angeles indie rockers the 88 did for their song "Love Is The Thing," recording an entire song.
The 88 keyboardist Adam Merrin says they were surprised how easy the recording process was: They gathered at the drummer Anthony Zimmitti's home, set up their instruments and played each part separately to a click track, and even filmed the process. Instead of studio microphones they used the iPhone's built-in microphone — the same one used to talk during phone calls. Only the lead vocal required a conventional microphone and phone-jack interface. Each individual track was uploaded to a computer and mixed inside Pro Tools.
"We did it all in a couple of hours," says Merrin. "You don't have to be an engineer. You don't even need a manual."
(Dan Daley is a freelance journalist covering the entertainment business industry. He lives in New York and Nashville.)