Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch have already proven themselves as handy tools for guitarists, with apps that cover everything from chord dictionaries, to high-end string tuners. The AmpliTube iRig from IK Multimedia aims to further cement the iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad as an indispensable part of every guitarist's kit, transforming these devices into virtual practice amps.
What it is
The AmpliTube iRig is a two-part system, consisting of a free app and a reasonably priced $39 headphone jack adapter. While the app is clearly the most sophisticated part of the system, the adapter solves the foremost practical concern of how to connect your guitar to your iPhone, as well as your headphones.
There are no adjustments to be made on the adapter--only a 1/4-inch instrument cable input, a minijack headphone output, and a connected 3-inch cable that runs to the headphone jack on your device. All input gain control is made on the instrument itself, or within the app, and all headphone volume is controlled using the rocker switch on your iPhone, iPod, or iPad. We wish the iRig hardware included some sort of integrated preamp to even out the differences between guitars with active or passive electronics, but for $39, we'll make do.
With the iRig headphone adapter handling all the input and output concerns, all the really juicy features are found within the app. A tabbed menu across the top of the app jumps you among a tools page (tuner, metronome), three separately assignable effects, virtual amplifier options, a playlist for songs you've added, and a storefront for purchasing additional effects.
Just like IK Multimedia's AmpliTube PC software, each of the effect and amp configuration pages are present using realistic graphic representations of the hardware being emulated. When you load up a flanger effect stompbox, it looks just like a miniature stompbox, complete with knobs, switches, LEDs, and little cable jacks. Similarly, the selection of virtual amps is visually distinguishable as Fender or Marshall, even though they don't explicitly bear the brand name. With each amp, people can select among various speaker cabinet types, change between microphones (condenser/dynamic), and adjust amp settings such as gain, EQ, presence, reverb, and tremolo.
There are nine presets included with iRig, accessible from the bottom-left corner of the app, which combine effect and amp settings for common tones (clean, distortion, overdrive). These nine presets can be overwritten with your own custom configurations, and there are spaces for up to 36 custom presets. Presets are easy to create with a simple press and hold, but they're only labeled numerically with no way to add any kind of useful text to distinguish one preset from another.
If you're ever confused over a particular feature of the iRig app, a help guide is accessible by tapping the question mark icon in the top-left corner. In addition, a setup button at the bottom of the screen offers control over playback latency (the delay between when you hit a note, and when you hear it), feedback management, and an Auto Sleep option that allows the app to go to sleep when not in use. Latency can be switched between Low and Ultra Low, with the latter option squeezing the processing buffer for tighter response time. On our third-generation iPod Touch running iOS 4, we noticed no discernible latency with either setting; however, the slower processor of the second-generation iPod Touch or iPhone 3G may require some latency adjustment. The feedback setting is used to prevent any of the effect or amplifier emulations from distorting to the point of feedback, thus preventing you from sounding like Jimi Hendrix, and probably saving some of your hearing.
The AmpliTube iRig offers good sound for its price, and offers a staggering amount of flexibility. If you're a guitarist who already owns an iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch, spending $39 to turn it into a high-tech practice amp seems like a no-brainer. The closest solution that rivals it is the $79 Line6 Pocket POD Express, a standalone product with no integrated music player, tuner, or metronome.
Putting value aside, keep your expectations in check when it comes to the AmpliTube's sound quality. When we A/B tested it against the $130 JamVox system (arguably an unfair comparison, but in the ballpark) it was easy to discern where the iRig sonically fell short in clarity, dynamic range, and emulation quality. Like any guitar product, sound quality is in the ear of the beholder, but we think it's fair to warn that AmpliTube iRig can't hold up to software emulation solutions in the $100-and-up range, such as Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, POD Farm, Waves GTR, or even the AmpliTube PC software. That said, until someone finds a way to put Guitar Rig in your pocket, iRig has the priceless advantage of portability, with no batteries required.
There are some nitpicky improvements we'd like to see, aside from preset labels. We understand that IK Multimedia may be wary of deafening its customers, but we're disappointed with iRig's restrained volume. Guitarists and bass players with active pickups may have better luck with the app's limited headroom, but we had to put our iPod at full crank to muster a decent signal from both our Fender Stratocaster and Hallmark 60 Custom.
But if we could request only one feature for the iRig, it would be a recorder. It's fine to plug in your guitar purely for the purpose of rocking out and honing your chops, but should inspiration strike, it's nice to have a way to record song ideas. The proposed recorder wouldn't need to multitrack, or even record in stereo--just offer a way to save song ideas. If iRig can fold in recording, it can evolve from a weekend warrior guitar amp into a broadly useful tool for guitarists to both create and rehearse songs on the go.
To hear a brief demo of the AmpliTube iRig in action, here's a recording we made using both clean and distortion settings, recorded to a Macbook. Disclaimer: author is not a rock star.
AmpliTube iRig test:
For the sake of comparison, here's a similar recording made using the $130 Vox JamVox system.