Interface For iOS & OS X
Apogee's Jam is an audio interface designed to connect a guitar to an iPad, iPhone or Mac. Unlike most such devices, which utilise the bi-directionality of the headphone socket for input and output, and rely on the A-D converters in the host device, the Jam uses the dock port to connect and has its own on-board A-D converters. A further important distinction between the Jam and its competitors is that it has no audio output, so you'll need to connect headphones or speakers to the jack socket of the host device. The Jam requires iOS 4.3 or later and a Core Audio-compatible app, or Mac OS 10.6.4 or later if it's being used with OS X.
The small interface is supplied with two cables: one for connection to the iPad (or other iOS device), and the other for connection to a Mac. Although the cables are relatively short, they do free the Jam from needing to connect directly to the iPad, something that would put unnecessary strain on the socket and the Jam itself. Each of the cables locks securely into its respective socket, too, keeping it secure when you're playing.
The unit itself is very light, with a plastic body, and has a small plastic thumb-wheel on the side to control input gain. There's also a three-state LED indicator, a quarter-inch jack socket and a USB output socket. On the inside, the analogue to digital conversion circuitry operates at 44.1kHz, 24-bit.
As far as connection is concerned, there are some pros and cons to consider. In the favour of the Jam is the fact that the cables are detachable, so if one of them breaks, you won't need to replace the unit, unlike the competing iRig or Peavey AmpKit Link. On the other hand, if you forget the cable for your Jam at a gig, you're stuck. It's good that the jack socket itself has a solid feel that compares favourably with competitors.
The LED is useful in that it has three colours: blue means that the Jam is connected but not active, green means connected and active, and red means that the signal level has overloaded the input. Usefully, the green LED also gets brighter when a higher signal level is present.
Being able to alter the input gain with a rotary control is a major difference between the Jam and competitors. Guitarists will appreciate that turning down the guitar itself in order to adjust the input signal will change the tone of the sound. The Jam allows you to retain the full tone of your axe without overloading the input, which is great. There is also an 'Auto Soft Limit' built in, to help you by taming any accidental peaks in level.
The Jam worked flawlessly with all the apps I tried that support the iOS Core Audio protocol, adding no noticeable latency when I used a Guitar Amp track in GarageBand, for example. It's nice that the Jam has 24-bit converters, but note that GarageBand will reduce the word length to 16-bit. This can be proven by exporting GarageBand for iPad projects recorded with the Jam, via iTunes: the audio files will be 16-bit. When it's used with a Mac, however, 24-bit recordings are captured.
Where the Jam does score over the iRig specifically is signal-to-noise ratio. The iRig makes an audible fizzing noise, while the Jam, although not silent, has a much less intrusive low-level hiss. To be honest, I think that audio quality when recording guitars is a moot point anyway, as the source is fairly lo-fi! One small point against the Jam is that you can't use your guitar at the same time as outputting video from the iPad — the Jam does not function when connected to the dock-connector breakout socket on the Apple AV adaptor — so you'll need to use something like the iRig or AmpKit Link if you require simultaneous video mirroring.
Counterbalancing this criticism is the fact that you can use the Jam with all Macs, while hardware solutions that use the TRRS jack connector can only be used with Macs that have TRRS headphone sockets: those that support the Apple iPhone Headset and Microphone.
Although the Jam appears pricey compared to the competition, it is a well-executed design performing the intended task flawlessly. Given its built-in A/D conversion, manual level control and solid build, it certainly has the edge over the competition, in terms of both features and sound quality. Mike Watkinson
Apogee Jam, $99.£79.99 including VAT.
Recording Interface For iPad
As the number of iPad apps for music creation increases, it's inevitable that the number of interfaces will too. The iO Dock from Alesis is designed specifically with the iPad in mind, and the tablet slots into the device easily enough. A plastic adaptor is also included to let the iPad 2 work with the iO Dock.
Power comes from a 6V DC adaptor only, so you'll either need to be near a wall socket when you use it or buy an external DC battery pack (of the kind often used by video cameramen to power lights and other accessories). Although it isn't the most portable device, due to the power requirements, it does (unlike many iOS interfaces) charge your iPad while it's connected, which is very handy indeed.
I assume that the iO Dock's video output is designed to allow images to run at the same time as sound while performing live. During my review time, I didn't find an app that would let me do this, although video playback using YouTube and Safari worked. Do remember that this kind of analogue RCA composite video connection can't carry HD resolutions, so your video output will be less impressive than the display on your beloved pad.
For connecting instruments, there's a pair of 'combi'-style connectors that can take XLR or jack inputs, the second of which can be switched to high-impedance mode for direct connection of a guitar or bass. Phantom power is switched globally rather than per input, while another switch allows the balanced-jack monitoring outputs to be switched to direct monitoring of the inputs. MIDI input and output is provided both by standard DIN jacks and a MIDI USB port, while a footswitch socket is also available for additional control in compatible apps.
The built-in headphone amp is slightly 'darker' in tone than most, and is specified for headphones that are relatively difficult to drive. Using a pair of very sensitive IEMs, the volume was extremely loud once the knob was rotated sufficiently for the stereo tracking to settle, after the first 20 degrees or so of rotation. Because of this, an in-line attenuator (such as the kind you can buy for airline use) may be useful if you use sensitive IEMs for mobile monitoring.
The major benefit of the iO Dock is ease of use: there's simply nothing to it. With an app like Apple's GarageBand, you simply plug in and go: you'll find that everything works with absolutely minimal fuss. Similarly, apps like Nanostudio will play nicely with the iO Dock, allowing you to use a nice full-size keyboard with Nanostudio's included soft synth.
I did try to use the app with IK Multimedia's Amplitube Fender, but it wouldn't play ball. This is because the app is looking for input from the TRRS headset jack, while the iO Dock connects using the docking port. Do be aware that the app must be compatible with dock connectivity in order to function correctly with the iO Dock.
The quality of the preamps is perfectly acceptable, and just what you'd expect from an interface that's affordably priced but nevertheless provides two preamps. They're relatively clean and honest, and there's no obvious or excessive coloration or distortion, though of course they can't be classed as esoteric.
My only real issue with the device is the build material. The iO Dock doesn't feel like it'll fall apart, but it's a bit hollow and weightless. The plastic used is a little light, and the silver parts look and feel kind of cheesy in person. It's what you'd expect for something iOS related at this price, but that's more due to the current 'iOS premium' than the list price and build matching up. I also found the iPad 2 had a little 'play' to it when fitted using the adaptor, shifting up and down if nudged. The switches are OK for the price but, oddly, the knobs are a lot nicer, and have a satisfying and very consistent resistance.
It'd be useful to have a regularly updated list of compatible apps: at the moment, anyone looking to use the Dock with a specific app will need to email Alesis or the app developer in advance, or hunt around on the Internet to check for compatibility.
Despite some little niggles, the iO Dock is (for now) the simplest and in many ways the most convenient method of adding such easy-to-use and comprehensive I/O to your iPad. The 'dock' concept — and especially the lack of cabling, aside from the power cable — is a wonderful thing. If you're using one of the major apps with Core Audio, Core MIDI and dock connectivity, there's no simpler way to add a full complement of inputs and outputs to your iPad than buying the iO Dock.
Alesis iO Dock, $139.£139 including VAT.