Guitar players can be a bit of a traditional bunch at times. Vintage guitars are highly prized (and highly priced) and classic amps highly sought after. However, while there are probably lots of guitar players for whom digital amp modelling – in hardware or software – is something of a ‘I’m not going there’ subject, there are now a couple of generations of players who have grown up with the likes of Line 6, Zoom, Roland and a host of other mainstream guitar amp manufacturers who have embraced that technology.
And, of course, that same amp modelling technology has found its way to iOS. So much so that, if you want a guitar amp sim app, then you are spoilt for choice as there are some excellent options with the likes of BIAS, Jam Up, AmpliTube, AmpKit, Mobile POD, ToneStack, Stompbox and Flying Haggis that offer something for pretty much everyone at a range of different prices.
To use any of these apps to their full potential, however, you need to get a good quality audio signal into your iPhone or iPad. You can do this via your iDevice’s mic/headphone combi jack and products such as the original IK Multimedia iRig and the AmpKit LiNK provide a very cost-effective way of doing just that.
However, for slightly more money, you can also buy into much better audio quality using a device that connects to your iDevice’s docking port. I’ve reviewed a number of these products aimed specifically at guitar players in the past; the IK Multimedia iRig HD, the AmpKit LiNK HD and the Line 6 Sonic Port. All of these currently sell for around the UK£70 (or equivalent $/€ price). Equally, I’ve looked at IK Multimedia’s iRig Pro that provides a compact guitar input/mic input/MIDI input device in a similar format at a slightly higher price (c. UK£100).
Put JAM on it
There are other products that are also in this niche. One of those is the Apogee JAM and, while this unit has been around for a while, I have not got around to rustling up a review unit. Thankfully, courtesy of Richard Poll at Sonic Distribution here in the UK, I’ve now got hold of a test unit to give it a try. In terms of audio I/O devices, Apogee have a reputation for building quality – often ‘high-end’ – products. However, they now also have a very stylish range of devices aimed at the iOS musician.
The Apogee JAM 96k; compact, study, stylish and delivering high-quality audio.
There are actually two versions of the JAM; one that offers audio input up to 48kHz/24-bit (street price around UK£75) and the slightly more expensive JAM 96k that, unsurprisingly, offers audio up to 96kHz/24-bit (street price c. UK£100). My own personal take on higher audio sampling rates (that is, anything above 44.1kHz/24-bit) is overkill when it comes to recording on an iPad (or, indeed, in most home/project studios) but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from the higher quality audio input potentially offered by the hardware even if you only capture any subsequent recordings at somewhat lower sample rates.
That said, for the purposes of this review, I was supplied with the JAM 96k. This is a very compact (the longest edge is just under 10cm in length) and stylish device with a metallic body and two plastic end pieces. At one end you get the proprietary connector to link to your iDevice while at the other is a standard 1/4” guitar jack socket. The only other hardware features are a rotary gain control on the right side and a single multi-coloured LED that tells you when the device is plugged in and gives you visual feedback for setting your input signal level.
The JAM is provided with three cables all of which feature a connector for the JAM itself at one end while at the other you get USB, 30-pin dock and Lightning dock. You can therefore use the JAM with a Mac (not a PC as far as I can tell), an older iDevice or one of the newer Lightning equipped iDevices.
If you look back at the iRig HD review, the basic physical features and set of three cables supplied with the JAM provides a very similar configuration. If anything, the JAM, with its shiny metallic body, perhaps feels just slightly more study and swish. Anyway, it is very compact, would easily slip into your pocket or guitar case and seems robust enough to deal with being transported about. Don’t run it over or drop it from the 5th floor; otherwise it ought to give good service in normal use for a long time.
Getting the JAM connected is simplicity itself and, as the unit doesn’t provide audio output (just input), you can simply plug in your normal headphones to your iDevice for personal practice or hook it up to some powered speakers and/or studio monitors so you can hear the end results. Incidentally, this is also the case with the iRig HD and iRig PRO, although the Line 6 Sonic Port does bring audio back out through the unit. Either way, it is easy enough to monitor what’s going on or pass the audio output on to somewhere else if required.
The JAM 96k worked without any issue with both my iPhone 5 and iPad Air and with a range of different iOS music apps.
In terms of audio quality, the JAM 96k didn’t disappoint. I auditioned it using a number of different guitar amp sim apps and the results were consistently very good indeed. Providing you take good care of the rest of your audio signal chain, the JAM 96k will capture your guitar output signal and deliver it fully intact into whatever software to have running on your iDevice. The gain control offers more than enough level control to deal with a range of different guitars (different pickup outputs, etc.).
Recorded as a dry DI signal into Cubasis, the JAM 96k’s audio was full and very clear indeed. For the purposes of this review, I didn’t try the unit plugged into my iMac via USB but, if the audio quality produced via my iPad is anything to go by, then I’d have absolutely no problems using this interface as a means for recording guitar parts in my own commercial projects. It is very good indeed.
Do you want JAM on it?
I didn’t have my iRig HD to hand when testing the Apogee JAM 96k (it’s packed away already in preparation for a move that regular readers here will already know about) but I did do a side-by-side with my iRig PRO. Both sounded very good – and, of course, the iRig PRO has the added versatility of a phantom powered mic input and MIDI input – but while the differences were pretty minimal, I think I’d just give the JAM 96k a very slight edge as a guitar input. It’s subtle but, to my ears at least, the JAM’s output was just slightly fuller and with a touch more detail. That said, banged through a virtual Marshall stack with the gain wound up, you would be hard pushed to really tell a difference. Given their very compact format, both devices do a stellar job.
The unit is supplied with three diffeent cables so it will work with your Mac via USB or with 30-pin or Lightning-equipped iOS devices.
Given the combination of build quality, audio performance and the very compact format, I’d have no hesitation in suggesting the Apogee JAM 96k for an iOS owning guitar player looking to get an easy-to-use, compact, yet high-quality guitar input for their iPhone, iPad or Mac. Perhaps my only qualifier to that comment would be based upon whether you are also a die-hard Line 6 fan and want to use the excellent Mobile POD app as your iOS guitar amp sim of choice. That app only works with Line 6’s own Sonic Port hardware.
The Apogee JAM 96k performed flawlessly for me and, if I didn’t already own similar devices for doing this job that are adequate for my own personal needs, then I’d happily stump up the asking price for this unit. Indeed, if I was just looking for a guitar input – as opposed to something with a wider range of connectivity options – I’m pretty sure the Apogee JAM would currently be at the top of my personal shopping list. It is a touch more expensive than the obvious competition but this is a class act. Very easy to recommend :-)
This is the second of a two part head to head review of iRig and AmpKit LiNK, arguably the two primary guitar (or other line level instrument) interfaces for the iPad (of the ones that use the headphone socket).
In Part 1 we set out the use for these interfaces and compared the basic dry signal passed from a guitar via these interfaces and the Clean Amp settings in the two iPad apps that partner with these devices, Amplitube and AmpKit.
In Part 2 we are going to ramp up the gain and continue to compare the performance of these two guitar interfaces. Read on to find out what happens as the volume gets louder...
The next thing we are going to look at is the Crunch preset in each app with both guitar interfaces. In Amplitube it is Preset 1 - 'Mild Crunch' and 'Captain Crunchy' in AmpKit.
The Crunch Amp in Amplitube
If you listen very carefully you may hear that the AmpKit LiNK provides a slightly clearer, less muddy sound than the iRig. This was the case in both apps, and there is a definite small volume lift when using the battery powered AmpKit LiNK over the non-powered iRig.
This has an effect on the tone of the guitar which becomes more evident, although still slight, when using a bit more gain.
Here are a couple of samples.
iRig into Amplitube - Crunch
AmpKit LiNK into Amplitube - Crunch
Finally, we stopped playing nice and opened up the screaming distortion and high gain amp models to see what these interfaces could do. Apart from make a lot of noise (thank goodness for the headphone out) this part of the test showed the key issue with these type of guitar interfaces - susceptibility to screeching feedback, apparently due to crosstalk from the close proximity of microphone and audio out circuits (or something similar).
If you have ever stood in front of a guitar amp with full bore distortion dialled in you will a) know just how much fun this is and b) know that you are walking a fine line between cutting tone and screeching, eardrum shattering feedback.
When on the high-gain settings in Amplitube we really didn't have any feedback problems from either guitar interface until we introduced a Distortion stompbox and a Fuzz pedal on top of the Metal Amp setting. The AmpKit LiNK seemed to be more resilient as we increased the gain, drive and volume controls in Amplitube, although not by a massive amount.
The real difference came when we switched to the high-gain Peavey-type amp in the AmpKit app. As soon as we plugged the iRig in to AmpKit with the 'Killing the King' preset engaged we almost blew our eardrums out through audio feedback.
We had to reduce the Input gain from the iRig all the way down to about 19% and the Output gain down to around 23% before we could take our hand away from the strings without feedback. This was with the 'Noise & Feedback Filter' set to 60%, meaning a serious lack of sustain (this filter cuts the audio signal as soon as it detects interference or feedback, which means cutting off notes instead of leaving them to ring out).
With the AmpKit LiNK interface, plugged into the AmpKit app and the same raucous amp setting as we had before, we were able to set the Input Gain at about 38% with the Output Gain around 50%. The Noise & Feedback Filter was pared all the way back to about 15%.
This gives a much more biting and responsive tone with longer sustain, but we still had to fine tune the settings and fiddle quite a bit before we could reduce the feedback to acceptable levels and even then it was not entirely gone.
AmpKit App Metal (Killing the King) Preset with Gain settings
Overall then, we have to say that the AmpKit LiNK does a much better job of fighting off the feedback for longer with extremely high-gain settings, which the AmpKit app has in spades being modelled on the raunchy and particularly Metal oriented Peavey and Mesa Boogie amps.
These samples were played after adjustments were made, because we guess you know what feedback sounds like. They are a bit louder so you may want to drop the volume a bit, especially if you are listening via headphones.
iRig into Amplitube - Metal Amp + Distortion
AmpKit LiNK into Amplitube - Metal Amp + Distortion
iRig into AmpKit App - 'Killing the King' Preset
AmpKit LiNK into AmpKit App - 'Killing the King' Preset
One noticeable difference between these two interfaces is the length of cable and the socket positioning. The cable that leads from the iRig to your iDevice is very short. This means that it is a little bit awkward when a fairly heavy guitar cable is connected and can pull on the iPad making it unstable if on a stand or stood up in a case, especially if you have the iPad's Home button on the left.
The iRig also has the headphone cable on the opposite side to the 1/4" connecter where your guitar cable plugs into, so that you have cables going in two directions, which again can be annoying.
If you set the iRig up carefully before you start it is not too bad, but the AmpKit LiNK wins out here, although slightly heavier and with a larger form factor (probably because of the batteries) the AmpKit LiNK has a much longer cable to plug into your iDevice which means you can lay it on the desk or table next to your iPad.
There is still the danger of pulling the AmpKit LiNK and toppling the iPad, but with both connectors (1/4" and 1/8") on one side, opposite the cable to your Device, cable routing is a lot less problematic.
The prices are similar for both interfaces, iRig retails for about $40 (£25) and AmpKit LiNK for around $30 (£29). The price difference seems to be because the iRig is produced here in Europe so the AmpKit LiNK ends up being cheaper in the US.
As we said at the outset, we are not audio specialists so you may get varying results but we were impressed by the ease of use of both interfaces and the results.
The AmpKit LiNK will need batteries to work, although they seem to last quite a long time. It could leave you stuck though if you are away from home and have forgotten to bring spare batteries with you.
If you are primarily going to use IK Multimedia's Amplitube we would recommend either IK Multimedia's own iRig or Peavey/Agile's AmpKit LiNK.
We think they are both brilliant ways of getting your guitar (or other line level) signal into the iPad, but...
**Our overall winner of this head to head comparison is AmpKit LiNK.**
We would recommend the AmpKit LiNK for the most compatibility, especially if you are primarily going to use the AmpKit app with the high-gain amps (which by the way sound amazing!).
Whilst we would not say that AmpKit LiNK eliminates feedback, we think the circuitry inside it does reduce the effect when using high-gain settings in any app. Just be sure to keep a few spare AAA batteries in your guitar case.
So that's it, we hope you found this review useful. You can hear all of our samples from both Parts of this head to head test in one place by visiting this SoundCloud Setlist (it should work on your iPad once you get there).
If you have anything you would like to add or if you would like to let us know your experience of using iRig, AmpKit LiNK or any of the guitar amp simulation apps, please leave us a comment below.
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