Portable Recording Studio

For the past couple of years or so I have been playing a Native American flute.  Earlier this year my wife pointed out that she preferred the sound of a clarinet to  the flute. I had no objection to learning to play the clarinet but didn’t own one. During a break at work I mentioned this to a co-worker. She told me that she still had the clarinet she had played in high school. She hadn’t played it in years but didn’t have the heart to just donate it to Goodwill. She wanted to give it to someone who she knew would put it to good use and offered to give it to me. I eagerly accepted her offer, took the clarinet to a local music shop and had it refurbished. I took a few lessons and have been playing it now for about six months. 

During this past six months I’ve worked out a couple of original tunes and thought it would be fun to record them…this is where the portable studio comes in. I play in our basement so the sound doesn’t carry too much and disturb the rest of the family. I didn’t particularly want to drag my MacBook down to the basement every time I wanted to record something. I thought recording on my iPad using GarageBand would be ideal. All I needed was a way to connect a mic suitable for recording the clarinet to the iPad. There are mic solutions such as the iRig mic to connect a mic to an iPad; however, they aren’t really suitable for recording a woodwind instrument. What I needed was an XLR Condenser mic. These are the kind with the larger metal three pronged connectors. The cable for an XLR condenser mic will not fit an iPad without some type of adapter. 

I had a cable that plugged into an XLR mic I had laying around (I have no idea where it came from) and had what appeared to be the correct (1/8in) connector for the line-in on my MacBook and iPad. I tried it. The sound was so quiet it was useless…more research.

A condenser mic, I learned, needs a pre-amp and “phantom power”. Apparently the way these mics work requires a little bit of power to be fed to the mic. My research turned up a handy little device, the Tascam iXZ Mic & Guitar Interface. It appeared to meet the requirements, got good reviews and only cost about $35.00. Bingo. My little portable studio was coming together; one XLR condenser mic, an XLR to XLR cable and the Tascam iXZ. I gave it a try on my iPad. Some of the notes sounded great, others didn’t…more research.

After reading about how to mic a clarinet I learned that you don’t put the mic at the bell. Most of the sound comes out of the holes along the upper and lower joints…the side of the clarinet where you place your fingers. It also needed to be about two feet away in order to get the whole tone range. Twenty-five dollars later I had an inexpensive tripod mic boom I could position exactly where I needed it. I tried again. Success! I got a great recording onto my iPad.

GarageBand on the iPad is great for recording and doing a little bit of editing but to really do it justice I needed to move the project file to GarageBand on my MacBook….iCloud to the rescue. GarageBand for the iPad supports iCloud. I turned that option on and voila, the project inherited the little cloud icon. However, back at my MacBook I couldn’t find the file. All the help at the Apple site indicated I should use iTunes. I try not to connect my iPad via a cable and iTunes so I wanted to find an alternative…more research.

I learned that iCloud uses a Mobile Documents folder in the ~/Library folder on a Mac to sync documents (LINK). Sure enough, after exporting (iTunes -> GarageBand) from the iPad with the project enable for iCloud (LINK), I found the file. When I opened the file in GarageBand on my MacBook it made a copy instead of working with the file I had exported. I edited project and wanted to add more tracks. I thought I would be smart and simply copy the version of the file I had been working with on my MacBook to the Mobile Documents folder. After copying the file, I looked to see if it would appear on my iPad…it did! Yea. When I attempted to open it I got a message indicating it was either corrupt or wasn’t a GarageBand file…Boo! More research.

It turns out that the project files for GarageBand on OSX and iOS are different because they have different capabilities. My researched show that there is a way to move the GarageBand file from the Mac to the iPad. It involves editing the project file and the .plist file (LINK). This worked, Yea!

Now I can record tracks on my iPad, move the project to my MacBook, edit the project, move it back to the iPad to record more tracks, etc. With all that done I realized that it would probably be much easier to add voice tracks directly from my Mac. I plugged the iXZ cable into the line-in port and tried to record in GarageBand…no luck…more research.

It turns out that the headphone jack on a Mac is setup the same way they are on an iPad or iPod. They can take a headset with a mic (LINK). I plugged the iXZ interface into the headphone jack, adjusted the setting in the System Preferences and it recognized the external mic.

Here’s a summary of my portable recording studio:

1. iPad with GarageBand for iOS

2. Tascam iXZ Mic & Guitar Interface

3. XLR condenser mic (Large Diaphragm for voice or instrument style for recording instruments)

4. XLR to XLR cable to plug the mic into the iXZ interface

5. An “On Stage Stands” tripod boom mike stand.

6. MacBook Pro with GarageBand.

7. Headphones with (1/8″ connector). It plugs into the headphones jack on the iXZ interface.

This setup will work ideally for doing podcast as well. I hope some of you will find having all this information in one place useful.