What You Need to Perform Live on Guitar or Bass with Your iPad or iPhone

By Ryan C. Williams, Mike Levine

If you want to record music on your iPad or iPhone, there are a few things you will need. You more than likely already own the guitar or bass you want to use as part of your guitar or bass rig. And, given the wide range of price and preference in these instruments, it’s just not practical to tell you to buy a specific type of guitar or bass.

And really, it doesn’t make too much of a difference which instrument you choose to use — they more than likely use the same quarter-inch instrument cable guitarists and bassists played through for decades. So in this case, pick up your axe — it’s ready to go.

Okay, so there might be a slight difference in instruments that use active pickups (that is, instruments that include a battery-powered preamp to provide an audio signal with a higher output volume) versus passive pickups (instruments that don’t include that preamp). Although you can debate the tonal qualities of these pickups, active pickups do tend to provide more volume and will give you a little more sonic options (and less extraneous noise) during the recording process.

The interface

You will need to decide how you connect that quarter-inch cable to your iPhone or iPad, though, as Apple has yet to make that connection standard. The question now is what kind of connection you wish to use:

  • Headphone jack: With this, your guitar or bass connects through an interface that plugs into the headphone jack of your iPhone or iPad.

  • Lightning or 30-pin connector: With this, your guitar or bass connects through an interface that plugs into the data connection of your iPhone or iPad.

Generally speaking, the interfaces that plug into the Lightning or 30-pin connector of your device provide much better audio quality than interfaces that go through the headphone jack. Because of the way headphone jack interfaces must be wired to allow a headphone connection as well, you may experience some noise or feedback as you play or record.

For casual playing or practicing, this noise won’t make much of a difference, and software will offer you options for dealing with feedback. For example, AmpliTube includes a No Feedback switch you can enable to prevent feedback, whereas JamUp Pro XT advises lowering the iPhone or iPad device output volume to reduce feedback.

If you record audio through your headphone jack, you can only record at 16-bit/44 kHz resolution. This resolution will work fine for practice or live playing, but you may want to upgrade if you plan on recording master tracks.

However, depending on the interface you choose to buy, you may not be able to power or charge your device while you’re playing. Power might not be an issue for an iPad you use only for playing and you remember to power it off between sets. But if you’re using your iPhone at night while you’ve been talking all day, power could present a challenge. So take a look at the following list as advice for the type of interface to purchase:

  • Casual practice and rehearsal: Go with a headphone jack interface or a data connection interface (charging or non-charging).

  • Live performance: Use a data connection interface that provides charging options.

  • Recording: Use a data connection interface (charging or non-charging).

As you might suspect, data connection interfaces (such as the iRig Pro HD) tend to be a little more pricey than the headphone jack interfaces (such as the original iRig). But for live performance and certainly for recording, the audio quality outweighs the price issues.

The apps

You’ll also need to choose the type of apps you want to use as part of your performance or recording rig. Most guitar-based apps (like AmpliTube, AmpKit, and JamUp) provide amp modeling and effects (with the option to purchase many, many more) in one location. Depending on how the apps interface with Inter-App Audio or Audiobus, you can also chain together multiple apps to create your ideal signal path.

The pedalboard

Unless you’re extraordinarily quick and can tap out settings on your iPhone or iPad between riffs, you need a foot-based controller to change settings while you’re playing. The kind of controller you choose depends on how you need to interface with your device and what audio interface you use.

If you already use the data connector for your audio interface, try a wireless or Bluetooth MIDI pedal to connect with your device. Luckily, iOS 8 makes such Bluetooth connections possible. Also, if you use a device like the Focusrite iTrack dock, you could connect a USB controller like the Keith McMillen SoftStep pedal to the dock and control the apps via MIDI connections.

Mapping the pedal controller to the app functions does take some time and effort to, but many apps use a MIDI Learn function that makes the control process easier. These steps vary depending on the controller, but they all follow the same basic pattern:

  1. Plug in the controller.

  2. Start the app.

  3. Engage the MIDI Learn function (process may vary depending on the app).

  4. Tap the control onscreen you wish to manipulate with the pedal controller.

  5. Press the control on the pedal controller you wish to use to manipulate the app.

  6. Save.

After you map all of your settings, you’re ready to go.

The speaker (or speakers)

You may already use amp modeling software on the iPhone or iPad, but the end of your signal chain must make your signal . . . even louder. You can use something as simple as a pair of headphones or a full-on guitar or bass amp. But every rig must include something that makes the sound you create with your instrument and process with your device.

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