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iRig Mic: A hands-on review of a hot iOS accessory

If there's one group that has taken to the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch in a big way, it's the worldwide community of musicians. From amateurs who just want to play with making music electronically to professionals who have recorded albums on iOS devices, musicians love the way they can take advantage of the light weight, power, and music-related apps that have been developed for the iOS platforms.

IK Multimedia has come to the rescue of musicians who wish to use their iOS devices to perform and record music with a number of cool and useful software and hardware products. At Macworld Expo 2011, I had the opportunity to interview Starr Ackerman of IK Multimedia about these products including one that hadn't yet been released: the iRig Mic (US$59.99).

The iRig Mic is a high-quality handheld condenser microphone that can be used with any iOS device for audio input. Whether you're using it to record a video interview with an iPhone 4 or iPod touch, or to record vocals for your latest GarageBand song, the iRig Mic is a great asset for musicians and podcasters who want to improve their audio.

The pickup pattern for the iRig Mic is cardioid (unidirectional), so it does not pick up sounds arriving from the sides or rear of the microphone. When recording interviews, for instance, the interviewer will need to point the mic at the person who is speaking in order to optimize the recording.

In the package

In the package you'll find the mic with a 6-foot cable that ends in a plug that uses a standard 3.5 mm minijack to connect to your iOS device. That plug also has a headphone jack for monitoring sound as you record; this requires an app that allows you to monitor while recording like GarageBand for iPad ($4.99) or IK Multimedia's own series of applications.

The company's apps include free trial versions of VocaLive, AmpliTube, and iRig Recorder. I wasn't able to test the latter, as it was not available in the App Store at the time this review was written. VocaLive ($19.99) is designed for singers and not only processes vocals in real time, it also records up to four tracks. It's an impressive app for vocalists, with warm-up tools, a metronome, and a dozen professional vocal effects. AmpliTube ($19.99) is designed for guitar and bass players, who can also use the iRig to record tracks before adding vocals with VocaLive. iRig Recorder is designed to be a basic recording and processing app.

The iRig Mic is very sensitive, so the company thoughtfully provides a clamp for use with a microphone stand. Since musicians might want to keep the iRig Mic looking new for a while, IK Multimedia also throws in a zippered storage bag for protection.

Recording with an iPhone

I tried the iRig Mic with two iPhone apps: VocaLive and the fun Aria Karaoke app. The latter is a blast with the iRig Mic, as you can listen to the backing track while belting out your favorite songs. Aria Karaoke is free; you pay $1.99 per song for the backup music and lyrics. Don't worry, I won't make you listen to my recordings of Steely Dan songs...

VocaLive is a rather full-featured and complex application, and it took me a bit of time to make sure that I wasn't accidentally throwing a sound effect onto my voice recording. There's a nice export function that made it simple to email the final recording in compressed format to my Mac. That would be handy for reporters or bloggers who need to get interview audio to another person quickly.

Using VocaLive, I recorded a sample of text from this post using the iRig Mic and the built-in iPhone 4 mic. Here's the built-in iPhone 4 mic:

and here's the same text with the iRig Mic:
While the built-in mic sounds louder, there's also a lot more noise being captured and a slight amount of echo that could be annoying. Between the two, I'd definitely use the iRig Mic for recording podcasts or interviews. Using some of the built-in tools of VocaLive such as the De-Esser (which reduces sibilance), it's also possible to make recordings that sound very professional.

Recording with an iPad

My experience using the iRig Mic with the iPad and GarageBand was initially very odd. For some reason, when I'd hook up the mic and fire up GarageBand, I was picking up what I thought was background noise. When I took off my headphones, I realized that it wasn't background noise -- the mic was actually picking up AM radio signals from a local "blowtorch" station with a 50,000 watt transmitter. This went away when I took my hand off of the iRig Mic, so there's another good reason to use a microphone stand.

As with the iPhone 4, I recorded the text sample with both the built-in mic and the iRig Mic. In this case, the iRig Mic seemed to be more noisy than the built-in iPad 2 mic. On the other hand, Garage Band is probably optimized for recording from the internal mic and most likely does some filtering that isn't present when recording with an external microphone. The iRig Mic recording sounded much more realistic to me, while the iPad 2's mic seemed to be a bit flat.

Here's the text being read with the iPad 2 built-in mic:

And now the same recording from the iRig mic:

Conclusion

From the standpoint of someone recording voice from a mobile device like the iPhone 4 or the iPad, the iRig Mic does a very capable job at an affordable price. Since I'm not a musician, I cannot vouch for the capabilities of the iRig Mic for music vocals -- for that, my colleague and pro musician Matt Tinsley will pick up the reins and write an upcoming review of his experiences with this hardware.

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