Audio Week: Recording a Band with Your Smartphone

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Many years ago, you would need a large mixing console and a big tape machine (or robust computer) if you wanted to multi-track-record a band with the members playing simultaneously. However, technological and engineering advances have completely changed that. Now, you can do it with an audio interface and your smartphone! Why a smartphone, though? Well, maybe you have a smartphone, but not a computer. Perhaps you’d rather lug around a lighter load when traveling for remote recording gigs. Either way, downsizing your recording setup is an attractive option worth investigating, and companies like Apogee, Focusrite, Shure, Zoom, and others make gear that make it possible.

An All-In-One Solution for iOS Users

If you like the concept of traditional consoles and desire something somewhat compact, the Zoom LiveTrak L-20 presents a slick, all-in-one solution for users of Apple iOS devices. Though it looks like a traditional analog mixer at first glance, advanced digital functions are in plain sight. Just connect microphones and instruments to the LiveTrak L-20, then plug the L-20 into your iPhone via an appropriate adapter. This Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter would do the trick, assuming that your iOS device has a Lightning port. Next, set the L-20 to Audio Interface mode, plug in its power supply, then power it up. A 20-channel mixer hooked up to your iPhone; how cool is that?

Zoom LiveTrak L-20 - 20-Input Digital Mixer & Multitrack Recorder

Since the LiveTrak L-20 gives you 16 mic preamps with XLR-1/4" combo inputs (the first two can accept Hi-Z instruments) and two stereo channels with 1/4" and RCA inputs, you can easily use it to track a full band unless you start double-miking every source. Each channel sports console-style controls—a gain knob, a fader, a multi-segment meter, and solo and mute buttons—while a dedicated section after the last channel lets you adjust 3-band EQ, low-cut filtering, panning, polarity, and more for any selected channel. The first 16 channels also offer single-knob compression for easy control of wild dynamics.

You’ll need several headphone/monitor mixes so that each band member can hear a nice blend of themselves and the others, and the LiveTrak L-20 makes the entire process a breeze. Each of the six 1/4" monitor outputs can be sourced from the master or an individual mix, and may be assigned as a stereo headphone feed or a mono line out to drive a stage monitor. Plus, extra jacks are provided for the main stereo outputs and a personal headphone out for you.

What if your phone dies or short-circuits upon being doused by a frothy beverage? No problem! The LiveTrak L-20 can record to an SD card with no host connection required. That’s a great safety net to have, just in case.

A Component-Based Setup for iOS/Android Users

Android users have not been forsaken; there are other options for them and the iOS crowd, too. Many recording setups found in personal and project studios are centered around a multi-channel desktop audio interface, so let’s explore that. The Arturia AudioFuse Studio (compatible with Mac/Windows and iOS/Android) and the Apogee Electronics Quartet (compatible with Mac/Windows/iOS) are exactly like what you see in small studios and mobile recording rigs around the world; portable audio interfaces that handle everything from analog and digital I/O to MIDI and monitoring. Each one has four mic/line/instrument inputs, but that won’t be enough to track a band.

Arturia AudioFuse Studio 18 x 20 Audio Interface with Bluetooth

Thankfully, the Quartet and AudioFuse Studio have a sneaky little trick to slip around that road block. Often overlooked and underappreciated are their ADAT optical ports—eight more inputs just waiting to be used. Wait, they’re digital and don’t have mic preamps. Hmm… if only there were external preamps that could plug into those optical ports. Well, you’re in luck, because there are!

The ART TubeOpto 8 and the Focusrite Clarett OctoPre are prime examples of what you need. Each has eight mic preamps and a built-in A/D converter with an ADAT optical output, perfect for plugging eight more mics into the Quartet or AudioFuse Studio with a single TOSLINK optical cable (available separately). Though both devices achieve that goal, I’d like to point out some notable differences. As you can tell by the name, the TubeOpto 8 does indeed have tube circuitry, while the Clarett OctoPre is solid state with selectable emulation of Focusrite’s legendary ISA preamps. The ADAT output of the TubeOpto 8 is compatible with 44.1 or 48 kHz sampling rates, whereas the Clarett OctoPre has three sample rate modes—eight channels at 44.1 or 48 kHz, four channels at 88.2 or 96 kHz, or two channels at 176.4 or 192 kHz. The Clarett OctoPre also has an insert point per channel to accommodate analog outboard gear such as compressors or equalizers.

Focusrite OctoPre Eight-Channel Preamp with 24-Bit/192 kHz Conversion and ADAT I/O

So, with the TubeOpto 8 or Clarett OctoPre connected via ADAT optical to the Quartet or AudioFuse Studio audio interface, you’d have 12 mic preamps. That would suffice for tracking a band if you’re shrewd with your mic choices. One warning though: any time you have multiple digital devices connected digitally, they should be following a single clock source to synchronize their sample rates. Since the 8-channel preamp would be sending digital signal into the audio interface, the easiest sync method is to set the audio interface’s clock source to external ADAT. However, if you prefer to use the internal clock of the audio interface, then the word-clock output of the audio interface should be connected to the word-clock input of the 8-channel preamp. After doing that (use a 75-ohm BNC cable with the Quartet or a 75-ohm BNC to coaxial cable with the AudioFuse Studio), change the 8-channel preamp’s clock source to external wordclock.

Now, for the issue of headphone mixes. Connect two outputs from the audio interface into a multi-channel headphone amp, such as the Samson QH4 with 1/4" TRS cables. The QH4 can drive four sets of headphones independently of the audio interface’s headphone output. Granted, this means that each band member will hear the same mix, but at least they’ll have separate volume control.

Samson QH4 4-Channel Headphone Amplifier

Each of the aforementioned devices will need to be connected to an AC power source, so don’t forget a power strip and an extension cord. Also, the Quartet comes with a USB to Lightning cable, while the AudioFuse Studio will require one (or an Apple USB to Lightning camera adapter).

Many Microphones

Lastly, you’ll need some microphones. You can take the easy path by purchasing the Shure PGADRUMKIT7 (a bundle of seven mics and XLR cables) for use on the drum kit, a couple of Shure SM57s for guitars, an AKG P2 for bass, and this absolutely cool-looking Heil Sound vocal mic. Alternatively, you could pick your own mics. Before assembling your mic locker, I recommend reading this article by my colleague Nicholas Messitte; it gives highly valuable insight on how to appropriately pair a microphone with a sound source.

Shure PGADRUMKIT7 7-Piece Drum Microphone Kit

Conclusion

I hope this opens your eyes (and ears) to some intriguing new possibilities for recording bands. If you’re interested in expanding your knowledge, fine-tuning your workflow, or figuring out what gear to get, visit B&H’s Audio Week page to read tutorials, comparisons, and buying guides about audio for video, podcasting, live sound, music recording, and more.

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