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 an AU$60 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. The developer also has a fully-featured version of the app for AU$23.99 which includes more sounds and options.
There are no adjustments to be made on the adapter — only a 1/4-inch instrument cable input, a headphone output and a connected 3-inch cable that runs to the headphone jack on your Apple 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 AU$60, 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 labelled 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 set-up 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 (in a bad way).
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 money to turn it into a high-tech practice amp seems like a no-brainer. The closest solution that rivals it is the Line6 Pocket POD Express, a stand-alone 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 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 a higher price 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 pick-ups 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.