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Music

The Portable Guitarist—Using iOS as a Live Rig

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Smartphones and tablets have become a huge part of our lives in recent years, with many people owning at least one of them. The iPad, in particular, continues to offer so much potential to musicians—which many have embraced.

Though guitarists, as ever, reluctant to do so. 

I mean, a guitar app might be alright for a bit of home practice, but you may question if you could really trust your live sound to something that perhaps costs less than a packet of strings. You may be unsure how it would work and why anyone would even try.

I started using an iPad, when playing live, a few years ago. Shortly after I first got it, I realised just how impressive the sounds were, which made me reconsider the amount of equipment I took to gigs. I thought that the iPad could replace much of this.

I’ve learned so much since then and, in a series of tutorials, I’ll share my experiences with you. I’ll show you what it takes to play live with an iPad as the core of your set-up - the gear that you’ll need, how to connect it up and to what, plus which are the best apps currently available.

Portability

All technology is vulnerable and even the most die-hard enthusiast will have to admit that valve amps are bulky and fragile. If it’s going into a truck, or you’re travelling by train or aeroplane, it will HAVE to be in a flight-case.

By contrast, an iPad could go into the front pocket of a guitar’s gig bag. It then becomes hand luggage; it’s close by, so damage is less likely to occur, and it’s at no further cost to your journey.

Versatility

If you already own an iPad, you’ll know it can do so many different things. On top of providing sounds, it can, for example:

  • Provide the setlist
  • Be prompter for lyrics and chords
  • Access the Internet—handy for so many reasons
  • Be extra instruments—perhaps one song in your set needs a keyboard part
  • Be the band—by means of backing tracks
  • Give you something to do when you’re sitting around waiting to play 
  • Provide background music between sets
  • Tell the time—crucial for that all-important New Years Eve gig

Adaptability

If you’re in a few bands, or you’re a session musician, you’ll need to produce a broad range of sounds. You may already have found that magic amp—and perhaps some pedals—that lets you be James Hetfield one minute, and James Taylor the next.

If not, having all of your tones on an iPad gives you any and every rig you need.

Furthermore, you can make changes or adjustments quickly, and then save the results for instant recall later on.

Cost

An iPad isn’t cheap and the more recent, or high specced it is, the more it costs. But when you look at the huge range of sounds it can produce, it starts to make more sense. 

Apps are cheap, and you can even link them together to create ever more complex tones.

To do the same with hardware amps and pedals would cost MANY thousands of pounds.

Flexibility

No-one is saying that you have to give up a beloved valve stack and football field-sized pedalboard, so don’t put them on eBay just yet. Though there are gigs where that monster rig just isn’t appropriate, or even a good idea.

For example, I hate gigs where you have to get on and offstage quickly—such as when there’s a number of different bands playing. It’s always a rush to get set-up, and it’s worse when you have to move for the next band. 

The last time I did this, however, I had all of my sounds on an iPhone, so I was on and off in seconds.

Most importantly, no-one in the audience knew I wasn't playing through a traditional amp set-up; in fact, a number of them told me afterwards how great my guitar sounded.

Future-Proofing

A purely hardware set-up is both difficult and costly to keep current. Technology evolves, and so do players—perhaps that cutting-edge pedal you bought two years ago now sounds dated. Or maybe your tastes have changed, and your rig no longer delivers.

But this doesn’t apply to apps. Most developers upgrade them fairly regularly, and usually at no further cost to you. Also, new apps tend to appear more often than new hardware, and at a far smaller cost.

Thanks to processing chips increasing in power, guitar apps have never sounded more realistic, and they’re just going to keep improving. 

Valve amps are brilliant—and I do own one—but you have to consider how much they are likely to improve.

Volume

Valve purists will tell you that nothing moves air quite like a cranked valve amp, and they’re right. The problem is that this involves high levels of volume, which is becoming less and less acceptable. 

Turning down the amp volume keeps the sound engineer happy, but the sound you had disappears.

By contrast, an iPad set-up gives you the tone you want at any volume, so everyone’s happy.

Conclusion

Traditional guitar set-ups aren’t going away any time soon, and nor should they. What I’ve demonstrated here is that there’s more than one way to create a live sound and that the iPad approach has many things to recommend it:

  • They’re easy to transport
  • Can perform a great many functions
  • Allow you to create any number of recallable sounds, quickly and easily
  • Represent a substantial saving over traditional hardware
  • Can be a better alternative for certain gigs
  • Can be updated and upgraded frequently and cheaply
  • Don’t rely on volume for tone

In the next tutorial I’ll look at the practical hardware you’ll need, plus how to connect it all up.

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