Audio / Hands-on Review

iZotope Spire Home Recording Device: Creative Audio Problem-Solving

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iZotope is known for being adept at creating both creative and practical problem solving audio software; drop their name to a pro or home recorder, and they’ll think of their mastering suite Ozone, their problem solving restoration RX, or their mixing tool Neutron. The company has had no history making consumer hardware, until they announced the Spire, billed as a portable wireless recorder.

I was able to spend a week with the Spire in the comfort of my own apartment, away from the hustle and bustle of the B&H offices (where the product was demo’d for us by the reps at iZotope to learn its ins and outs). I wasn’t sure what place in my home studio, if any, the Spire would find. I’m more comfortable in front of Pro Tools, Logic, and a keyboard than I am dealing with making music on my iPhone, so I was very unsure how the Spire would work for me. Was I going to put the unit through its paces and report back via this article, or was I going to find it useful for me?

iZotope Spire Studio Wireless Recorder

I decided to focus this review on that aspect: what can the Spire do for someone who knows how to record and edit music? Is it simply a tool for beginners, or is there more to it to match the pedigree of its creator? (If you’re looking for a straightforward demo of the Spire, check out our video).

The Spire itself is appears to take some level of inspiration from Amazon’s Echo for its physical appearance, and this isn’t by accident; iZotope designed the unit to look at home living on your coffee table or bedroom nightstand, so it is close at hand for when inspiration strikes. It does blend into your home’s décor pretty quickly, and felt like a piece of home electronics rather than a recording device sitting on my living room side table.

You have two options for getting sound into the Spire, either the built-in omnidirectional microphone, or the two Grace Design, uh, designed, preamps. As you’d expect coming from Grace, the preamps are very clean and offer little in the way of character, rather giving you a pristine input for an external mics or 1/4" instruments you’re plugging in. 1/8” headphone jacks on the front and back for monitoring rounds out the I/O on the Spire. Plugging into the top rear input automatically disengages the built-in mic.

Grace Design FELiX 2-Channel Preamp & EQ with Blend

For a software company’s first piece of hardware, the Spire works remarkably as advertised. Once you go through the relatively painless process of installing the iPhone app (it should be noted, no dedicated iPad version is available) and registering, you just need to connect your iPhone to the wireless network the Spire creates for transferring the audio files from the device itself to your phone (in 24-bit/48 kHz fidelity).

While you don’t need to connect your iPhone to the Spire to use it to record (the device itself has 4GB of storage onboard), it makes everything easier and settings, such as the built-in track effects, accessible when they are not otherwise. The few buttons that are on the device itself are self-explanatory—New Song creates a new project, Volume allows you to adjust the volume, and Soundcheck automatically sets the input levels of both the inputs and the built-in mic based upon the levels being received.

The circular display also acts as a control panel and is used to adjust headphone volume and engage and disengage recorded tracks (each song can have up to 8 tracks). A few minutes into creating a song on it, the Spire’s layout becomes incredibly intuitive. New tracks are easy to create directly from the unit, as well as the app.

If you want to add any effect to the track (which is processed through the Spire hardware, in real time), simply slide right on the track in the app to get the list. While the effects sound excellent (no surprise coming from iZotope), the selection is a little humble at the moment, offering a few types of delay and reverb style effects, along with two guitar amp emulations (an inclusion I was very happy to see, because I’m a guitarist). Knowing iZotope, it is a safe bet this lineup will grow with app and firmware updates down the line. It should be noted you cannot just monitor with the effects in place—they print to the track, so you either commit to what you want or go in dry.

I spent some time putting the device through its paces. The built-in mic works quite well, and employs DSP distilled from iZotope’s Ozone plug-in suite to create a stereo track from the omnidirectional pattern of the mic (should you select that option, you can also select mono in the mix window, and more on that soon). It captured acoustic guitar reasonably well, but it helps that you can place the device close to you to get a more traditionally miked-up response.

While tracking vocals with the built-in mic are admittedly less ideal, this is only the case if you are looking to get “final takes” rather than get ideas or melodies down quickly. Unless you have a surface that is high enough to get near a standing singer, you are going to end up making some compromises, either with placement, or by having to sit while singing (which is less than ideal for “polished final takes”). However, I know many topliners and songwriters who are used to cutting their vocal melodies to their iPhone mic, and the Spire’s mic is head and shoulders a better tool.

Now that I had the ins and outs of the Spire down, I could evaluate its value as a tool for the established engineer. As someone whose main creation instrument is guitar, I’m used to creating melodies, counter melodies, and even potential vocal harmonies all on guitar, even if in the final production those sounds end up being played by synths, pianos, or performed as vocals. While I can get a basic idea down on my phone, I need to fire up my Pro Tools rig to compose any layering or additional work, and often it seems not worth the effort to start turning on gear to explore an idea that may not go anywhere.

I kept the Spire on my living room side table, where it came into play as an ideal middle ground between terrible voice memos on my phone and running my full recording rig just to flesh out ideas. The mic served just fine to record an acoustic chord progression, and the guitar amp emulations allowed me to noodle over a loop of that chord progression, headphones on one ear, while I relaxed and watched Netflix in the background. Within 30 minutes of laying down a simple guitar track, I had the skeleton of a song on my iPhone that I exported and revisited the next day with my full rig.

The Spire might seem like a simple toy to the more advanced engineer and producer, but that first glance misses the value the device has potential for: getting those elusive snippets of inspiration, and building on them easily.

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