Not that long ago – before the world went digital – musicians wishing to record a demo for record companies or concert promoters would need to spend the equivalent of a month’s wage on a four-track cassette-based Tascam or Fostex ‘Portastudio’. Recording on them was a right rigmarole that required lots of fiddly knob twiddling and panning of signals in order to overdub new instruments. Despite being portable, they still required a power outlet nearby and extra cost in the form of microphones and effects boxes. Worse, because everything was recorded to a tape just 3.81 mm in width, each overdub of a new instrument or vocal lowered the sound quality considerably. But they were still a godsend for song writers and bands just starting out and de rigueur for demo making.
Of course, it’s an altogether different kettle of fish today. Now you can record with your laptop, a decent mic, an audio interface and a good DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) like Logic Pro, Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Cubase, Reaper or even Apple’s free Garageband. But what if you wanted all of this in a simple do-it-all package small enough to fit in shoulder bag? Enter the new Spire Studio multi-track recorder from iZotope.
This circular lump of weighty splendour will record eight multi-tracks one after another with a few simple button presses. It works on both mains and battery power so you could feasibly record a new 8-track demo in the back of a tour bus, in a hotel room, on the beach or halfway up a mountain. At a shade under £350, it’s a veritable shoo-in.
Spire Studio review: design and features
The Spire Studio is about 3.5-inches tall and 4.9-inches wide and weighs just under half a kilo (450g). Granted, it’s not the most streamlined shape to carry around but it will easily fit in a shoulder bag or hand luggage. Nevertheless, that wedge-shaped, trunk-like design is genuinely useful since it ensures that the unit’s control panel and built-in microphone faces the user for easy access when placed on a desk or a forest floor, and that can be considered a bonus when your movement is restricted by a guitar in the lap or cello between the legs.
The interface itself is stripped to the bone and is an utter doddle to navigate. In fact it only has five buttons on it – New Song, Soundcheck, Volume and two huge record and play buttons. The circumference area is comprised of a touch-sensitive circular LED pad that serves as a VU meter (volume unit), a guide to the amount of tracks used and a means for raising or lowering the monitoring levels in your headphones.
The Spire Studio comes with its own built-in, front-mounted omnidirectional condenser microphone for acoustic instruments and vocals, two headphone mini-jack inputs for monitoring and a pair of professional XLR inputs (with phantom power) on the rear for high-quality condenser mics, electric guitars, keyboards and drum machines. It works best when used in cahoots with the free iPhone, iPad or Android app but it can also be used in basic form without the app. However, you’re advised to always use the app because it allows you to add effects like reverb and echo to the instrument or voice as they’re being recorded. The app also provides access to Spire’s admittedly limited but handy track editing feature.
Spire Studio review: How it works
Izotope's principal concept behind this system was to provide musicians with the wherewithal to record up to eight different instrument or vocal tracks without having to jump through a surfeit of technical hoops. In that respect, the designers have pulled off a doozy because this thing is so easy even a three-toed sloth could use it.
To start recording, simply connect the Spire to the app via its own closed-circuit wi-fi, select an effect from the app’s wide range of reverbs, amp models and delays, hit the Spire’s ‘Soundcheck’ button and play a few chords or sing near the mic so it can establish a peak level without creating distortion. Now hit the big record button on the top, listen out for the two-bar count-in (you can select 4/4 and 3/4 count-ins) and start playing. And that’s it, track one done.
For tracks two and onwards, follow the same sequence and each part is recorded in turn on a different track. The finished song can then be trimmed in the app (easier on a tablet than a phone) and the individual tracks’ volumes and panning adjusted before exporting the song in full-fat WAV form. Best results are achieved with a basic knowledge of recording processes, a decent standard of musicianship and, of course, a creative mind.
Spire Studio review: performance
The Spire Studio’s built-in microphone is excellent for the price and perfectly acceptable for vocal and instrument recording – it’s certainly sensitive enough to capture most nuances of a recording – but it can’t compete against a high-quality third-party condenser mic like a Neumann or a Shure. Thankfully, iZotope’s tech bods have addressed that issue by including a pair of rear XLR inputs and a phantom power button for boosting mics that require it. These same inputs will also accommodate a standard electric guitar jack.
The effects that come with the app are remarkably varied and infinitely adjustable. However, you can only add them to the instrument or vocal being recorded and not after the event. Also be aware that each following track you record will adopt the same effect, so be sure to change the effect or turn it off if you don’t want the whole song to be swamped in echo. The editing software on the app only allows you to trim individual tracks but you could always export the song to a desktop DAW for more comprehensive editing.
One of the best things about this recorder is that it also runs on a built-in lithium ion battery which provides an exceptional four to six hours of use on a full charge – more than enough time to record an opus in the woods.
Overall sound production is excellent. As long you have a decent sounding instrument and voice and you hit the Soundcheck button first, it’ll produce exceptional results every time. It won’t necessarily replace your current DAW recording system with all its bells and whistles but as a means for getting an idea down on ‘tape’ quickly and efficiently, it rocks on all fronts.
Spire Studio review: verdict
iZotope’s Spire Studio is a brilliant time-saving tool for songwriters and bands, or indeed anyone who wants to produce very decent multitrack recordings on the fly. Simplicity is key when multi-track recording because the last thing you want when a new song idea is going round the head is faff about with complex recording equipment. It only takes one distraction for that possible hit song or tune to evaporate from the mind as quickly as it materialised.
In this respect, the Spire Studio is nothing short of nirvana for musicians and, for the price, the most groundbreaking, simple and powerful multi-track recording device currently on the market.
Right, must dash – got this stonking riff going round the brain and I have just the thing to bring it to fruition. Instantaneously.