Any recording artist worth their salt has spent a lot of time in a garage mumbling into a $20 microphone connected to a TASCAM PortaStudio. The PortaStudio is a 4-track recorder based around the humble cassette -- the iPod of yesteryear. Belkin has taken it upon themselves to update the PortaStudio's tired, Wired for Sound antics with a brand new, iPod-friendly version.
Despite its promise, first impressions aren't favourable, as the device looks like a 6-year-old's constructor set. But any doubts quickly dissolve when you realise the device is tougher and more professional than it looks. Of course, the focal point is that iPod dock, and the TuneStudio comes with a couple of spacers to allow it to work with different iPods.
The layout of the mixer should be familiar to most musicians and podcasters, with a row for each of the four tracks, an effects section and a friendly level meter immediately below where the iPod sits.
All the buttons feel fairly rugged, but the volume and tone controls do wobble a little if you apply enough pressure. The potentiometers beneath the knobs are plastic and not metal, so road-ruggedness is not assured. Our only other issue with the design is that the "Peak" light on each track isn't visible enough, and so it's easy to push each channel to distortion.
Despite its portable looks, the mixer runs off a power adaptor only. This is a shame as batteries would have added to its usefulness.
At CES 2008, every second iPod dock was a DJ-style mixer, but the Belkin TuneStudio is a lot more professional and grown-up than what were essentially toys. For starters, the Belkin offers a USB output in addition to its iPod dock. Plug it into a Windows PC (or Mac) and the operating system will recognise it as a USB soundcard. You can then use it with whichever audio recorder you like. Of course, while it doesn't come with a low latency ASIO driver you can download the ASIO4All application for use in Cubase or Ableton Live. The USB driver only has two tracks (stereo), though.
In addition, the TuneStudio has several features you won't see on other USB sound cards for the price, including phantom power -- which many studio-quality mics use -- and an onboard compressor.
The two phantom-powered channels make this mixer very versatile, and expand your options to include three mics or three instruments, or a mix of both. The fourth channel accepts stereo RCA plugs only and can be used to add a CD player or an external mixer.
The mixer supports the following iPods: the 80GB and 160GB Classic; the second and third generation Nano; and the fifth generation iPod video. Until Apple sorts out the iPod Touch and enables disk use it's off the list unfortunately.
We enjoyed using the TuneStudio: it's big and friendly and is capable of semi-professional results. It certainly sounds better than what you can get out of a TASCAM cassette recorder.
Forget multitracking onto the iPod -- the Voice Memos application built into the player won't support it: it's Stereo recordings only. The device is only useful in this incarnation when you want to record a band, or group of speakers, at once. So bedroom guitarists looking to make demo tapes need not apply.
We made several recordings directly to iPod and due to the limitations of the Voice Memos application we could only record it live -- there's no overdubbing capability.
The recorder is capable of quite a bit of headroom, with a relatively good signal to noise ratio of 90dB. We also found it wasn't susceptible to buzzing interference from computers as some cheap mixing desks can be. While the sound quality will depend on your microphones and instruments we had good results with a Rode NT1000.
Where the TuneStudio comes into its own is as a USB mixer, and we think this is what most musicians will use it for. Connecting it to the PC is a snap, and though the name that the ASIO4All driver gave it was incomprehensible -- a long string of numbers -- we were able to use the Belkin in Cubase with no lag or dropouts.
We also tested the compressor, and it did a good job of compressing a voice and acoustic guitar without adding any extra noise.
While there are may be an intimidating amount of knobs -- particularly in the playback section -- the manual is very good and also gives tips to newcomers on EQ and microphone placement.
The iPod dock section leans towards the gimmicky, but the mixer itself is excellent. If you're looking for a easy-to-use USB mixer which is also able to make impromptu recordings on the go, the TuneStudio is an excellent choice.