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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Tue, 26 May 2015

Gear review: The iRig 2 guitar interface to iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad

The iRig 2 guitar interface

Here's my short and not so sweet review of [IK Multimedia's iRig 2] guitar interface to the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and some Samsung Android devices.

The iRig 2 was floating around the office, and I figured that I'm a guitar player, I've always been interested in headphone-amp type solutions, and maybe this would enable me to play an electric guitar, with the aid of my iPod Touch 5th Generation, and leave amplifiers behind.

Here's the challenge: I play jazz mostly. I don't like distortion. Jazz guitar for the most part requires a lot of headroom but no distortion.

Can the iRig 2 handle it?

First of all, the iRig 2 is an inexpensive device. It's something like $39. That's cheap. So how much can you expect from it? How good is the onboard preamp?


Second, you can't just use this thing, I found out. It needs an accompanying app. Lucily there is an IK Multimedia app called AmpliTube and a Fender-branded AmpliTube app, both free with "in-app purchases," with non-free options available.

iRig 2 also works with Apple's Garage Band app for iOS.

I opted for the Fender app. I really like Fender tube amps. We have a 1970s Fender Champ that sounded great when it worked but now doesn't make any sound at all. I guess it needs a new tube (or three). And I love a Twin Reverb. Who doesn't?

But I wanted a clean sound. With headroom. Like a Twin Reverb with the volume low. Or any of the "popular" solid-state amps that deliver ultra-clean, non-muddy tone.

For my purposes, an app called AmpliSolid might have been a better fit.

But AmpliTube is what they have.

So I download the Fender AmpliTube app on my iPod Touch and plug in the iRig 2.

The iRig 2 is a simple device. It doesn't have a battery. You just plug it into the iPod Touch (or iPhone or iPad) headphone jack, plug your guitar cable into the appropriate input, start the app, and you're ready to play.

Of course without making all of those in-app purchases, or getting a more expensive version of the app, you have a limited tone palette. You get one amp with a few speaker cabinets, plus a tuner (surprisingly useful!) and a single effect, a noise gate (also surprisingly useful and effective).

Once I figured out how to twiddle the knobs, I was off and running.

I could play and hear amplified electric guitar in my Apple-supplied earbuds.

It sounded OK. Not great.

Maybe "OK" is not the word.

I'm sure for rock or blues playing, when you want a muddier sound, the iRig 2 and accompanying iOS apps are pretty good.

But for jazz tone, I'm not impressed.

I used my 1976 Gibson ES-175 guitar with medium-gauge D'Addario Chromes (flatwound) strings with .014 and .018 strings on top (for the high E and B strings) instead of the .013 and .017 supplied with the D'Addario set (I like heavy strings on this archtop guitar. It's pretty much made them.)

The guitar itself sounds great, both through an amplifier and even acoustically. It's not acoustically loud because it isn't designed that way, but let's just say it sounds really, really nice.

Through the iRig 2, the higher notes especially didn't sound right. The attack and decay just didn't sound like "me." I could hear the digital coloring of the notes.

The lower notes on the guitar sounded better. Except if I played too hard, or played too many notes at once -- you know, what they call a "chord" -- it muddied up really quickly, no matter what the settings were on the iRig or the iPod Touch's Fender AmpliTube app.

With it that hard to get a good jazz tone with lots of headroom, my interest flagged considerably.

I'm no expert, but when it comes to these computer-interface type of devices, you always hear about the preamp(s). Are they good? They often are not. I'm betting that in this device aimed at a rock-centric audience, clean, non-muddy tones are not a prime consideration.

And even without effects (OK, with just the noise gate), I wasn't getting the tone I wanted. And that mud with chords? Nope.

I might pull out the iRig 2 again, both with the Gibson archtop and my 1979 Fender Lead I solidbody to see what I can get out of it. There is a "thru" mode that is switchable on the device itself, but I'm not optimistic that using it will make up for the preamp issues.

There's just not enough hardware -- and quality hardware at that -- in iRig 2 to really produce a great guitar sound. Getting clean tone to the digital stage is crucial, and I don't think iRig 2 can do it.

And I'm not at all happy with what the digital side of AmpliTube does to my sound. It's just not what I like.

Going by first impressions, if I was trying an amplifier that sounded like the iRig 2, I wouldn't buy it.

And when it comes to getting my guitar sound into a computer for the purpose of recording, I have a feeling it's going to cost a lot more money to get the natural, clean sound I want.