Belkin's TuneStudio Rocks the iPod Page 2


Wrong Assumptions

To be honest, I'm no instrumental virtuoso; I'm more of a songwriter who can play well enough to get a song's essence across. When I initially pitched the review to my editor, I assumed I'd be able to use the TuneStudio to create a demo song by layering a few guitars tracks, a bass line, and maybe a keyboard track, or perhaps several tracks of harmonized vocals. What I quickly found, though, is that TuneStudio doesn't allow multi-tracking, or "ping-ponging" between recorded tracks (to free additional tracks for recording), as most project studio recorders do. Instead, all the song's tracks are combined in the mixer and stored on the iPod as stereo Voice Memos. So you can't record, say, a great guitar track, then go back and redo a flubbed vocal. As a result, I found TuneStudio to be more useful for recording band rehearsals and live performances than for creating full-on song demos. It's also a great way to quickly record song ideas or riffs that might otherwise escape into the ether, and for making and recording podcasts. The good news is that all recordings are saved as high-quality 16-bit 44.1KHz .wav files.

To get a feel for how the TuneStudio really works, I decided to record some snippets of two work-in-progress songs I've recently been fooling with. I set up some of my gear - a Takamine acoustic/electric guitar and a pair of large-diaphragm condenser mics (a Rode NT1A and an Audio-Technica AT-2020) - in my master-bedroom bathroom, which has a cavernous walk-in shower that serves up a nice helping of natural reverb.

My intention was to record the guitar acoustically using both mics, but found I was getting some phase-cancellation issues due to mic-positioning limitations. Since the guitar has an under-saddle piezo pickup, I ran one signal from the guitar's pickup through an inexpensive tube preamp (which I've found helps smooth out the piezo's bark) and then into the TuneStudio's Channel 3 input. I also placed the AT-2020 mic about four inches from the guitar's soundhole, and ran the XLR cable directly into the mixer's Channel 1 input with the phantom power engaged. Since the track would be recorded in stereo, I panned the direct guitar signal to the right (with the indicator pointing at 9 o'clock) and the mic'd signal to the left (set at 3 o'clock). I then dialed in the appropriate amounts of gain, set each channel's recording levels, then turned up the master level control until it started to clip before backing it back down a few notches. Since I wasn't using any reverbs, delays or echoes, I decided against recording any vocal tracks (trust me when I say you really don't want to hear my vocals without a fair amount of processing).

Recording turned out to be a snap. Using headphones to monitor the recording, I popped my iPod Video into the cradle, turned on the TuneStudio and pressed the iPod Recording button. Once the recording option appeared on the iPod's screen, I simply pressed the click wheel and started recording, tweaking the EQ settings and sound levels till I was happy. Once everything was set, I deleted the first recording and created two new ones. Once they were completed, I simply connected the iPod to my computer, imported the tracks to my iTunes library, then dragged them to my desktop for emailing. (Actually, I recorded the tracks onto an iPod formatted for a Mac and I couldn't get my PC to recognize the iPod, but that's another story).

In sum, I found the Belkin TuneStudio to be very easy to set up and use, and the sound quality of the recordings I made was pretty damn good (click here to hear them!), though certainly not project-studio quality. Since I only recorded solo guitar, it would have been nice to have a friend or two stop by to record multiple instruments, but deadline pressures - and my recent move out of the city - precluded that. Still, I found the two phantom-powered channels did their job commendably - there was no discernable difference between the mixer's phantom power and that included in the outboard tube preamp I used - and the built-in compressor did surprisingly well without adding extraneous noise.

For many budding artists, though, the real selling point of the TuneStudio is its ability to double as a USB interface for more involved PC/Mac recordings, where editing and mult-tracking is possible. Just connect the TuneStudio to a Windows PC or G3 or G4 Mac using a USB cable and the computer will recognize it as a USB sound card. You then have the option of cutting and editing the tracks using the included Cakewalk software, or with another popular project recording/editing program, such as CuBase or Ableton.

Of course, I had a few quibbles. For one, I'd like to be able to record individual tracks, rather than just a single Voice Memo stereo track (I'm not sure why songs have to be stored as Voice Memos). That way you could overdub a single instrument while keeping other tracks intact. For another, the TuneStudio requires AC power; adding a built-in rechargeable battery would seem to be a no-brainer that would enhance its go-anywhere mentality and easy portability. And an extra headphone input or two would be nice, so others could monitor the mix while it's being recorded.

Still, at a street price close to $200, the TuneStudio is hard to beat. By harnessing the power and ubiquity of the iPod, it lets you make and share recording of band rehearsals, live gigs and song ideas with unprecedented ease. Add its ability to act as a USB mixer for computer-based home studios, and we fully expect to see a growing number of artists giving the TuneStudio the devil's horn salute before plopping down the money to take one home. We think the TuneStudio rocks.

To listen to James Wilcox's recording, click here. Note: This is just an MP3 file - the original WAV file sounded better.