An introduction to guitar interfaces for iPad and iPhone
Updated: Feb 25
We are more mobile than ever in human history, and aspiring musicians are no exception - since minestrels took their acoustic guitars on the road. Over the past 15 years smartphones and tablets changed the way we record and play music. This article will cover most of the well known guitar interfaces for the iPad/iPhone platforms. A future article will be targeted at the actual software used to play and record music on these platforms.
This is a crowded space but I'll set a few goals that made my search easier:
• Budget of around $100˜$200. So we won't touch the more professional options, but rather the ones you would take to the beach or on a camping trip should the recording mood strike you
• Digital interface (duh) to the 'modern' lightning iPad interface (note: some might still have cables or adaptors for older iPads with the 30-pin connector)
• At least one instrument level input for your guitar
• Preferably a gain control on the device itself
• Portable ('fits into a coat pocket') and light
The usual suspects
These will most likely surface if you do a web search:
Line 6 SonicPort
IK Multimedia iRig
How the testing was done
Feature and test spec comparison was done by analysis. I basically trusted the manufacturer's claims.
The test setup for performance had the following signal chain:
Guitar -> Interface under test -> iPad -> Amp/Effects simulation software -> headphone or speaker output -> Speaker
The test setup for recording had the following signal chain:
Guitar -> Interface under test -> iPad -> Amp/Effects simulation software -> recording software -> headphone or speaker output -> Speaker
The test gear below was used during the tests:
Guitar(s): Ibanez JS2450 and Gibson SG Standard T 2016
iPad: Pro 10.5
Software: Ampkit+, Amplitube, Mobile Pod Pro, Bias FX, Garage Band
Speaker: Marshall Stockwell
The software performance obviously has an impact on the test and is not the subject of this article, therefore a lot of the testing involved A/B switching between the interfaces. No I had no magic box for switching, so yes the fact that it takes a while to disconnect one interface and connect the other has influence as we tend to 'forget' what it sounded like on the previous one.
But some results were pretty obvious.
• Apogee JAM 96kHz for its low noise, low hiss pristine audio quality
• IK Multimedia IRig HD 2, had noticeably more hiss and artefacts on the audio it delivers, even with multiple settings (gain, volume) and guitars used
• Sonic Port, not far from IRig HD 2 in sound quality however there is only a 48 kHz variant available. No info if a 96 kHz version will ever be launched
Stability and Compatibility
Unsurprisingly, a close tie as these units don't have much more than a few controls and an ADC, so there's not much to crash apart from how stable it is when communicating with the iOS. I was running iOS 11.2.x and had virtually no issues. They seem compatible with any CoreAudio apps so GarageBand or equivalent plus most of the amp modelling and guitar effects software in the App store should work.
Ease of Use
Setup of all these units is seamless. iOS and the software used recognises them as audio interfaces as soon as you plug in.
Inputs and Outputs, Controls
• Both Line 6 Sonic Port and the IK Multimedia iRig HD 2 have more input and output options. The iRig HD 2 has an input for the guitar, a direct output for an amp and a direct output for headphones. The Sonic Port has technically 2 inputs and 2 outputs as it can also take a line input (CD player perhaps?) in parallel with the guitar.
• Apogee JAM at the bottom here, as it's just in for the guitar and out to the iPad - This means that you cannot use it with an iPhone that doesn't have a headphone output (like the iPhone X) as you would have to use wireless headsets and cope with latency issues
We geeks like our buttons and tweaks, but sometimes less is more. The Apogee JAM and the Line 6 Sonic Port have just gain controls. The cool factor on the IK Multimedia iRig HD2 is that it allows you to control the headphones level, and it allows you to decide if the amp output receives a direct sound (so before any iPad software effects are applied) or the processed sound from the iPad. Pretty sweet.
iRig HD 2
• High definition digital guitar interface for iPhone, iPad, Mac and PC
• High-quality instrument-level 1/4" Hi-Z input jack
• Detachable cables for Lightning and USB included
• Preamp input gain control
• Headphone output with preamp and level control
• 1/4" Amp Out jack with switchable output “FX” and “Thru”
• High-quality low-noise, high-definition guitar preamp