Read the full article
This article was originally published in issue #28
To read the article in its entirety, view the digital magazine
A couple of years ago I gave-in to my inner child and bought a Tablet. I honestly thought I was buying a toy that I would play with for a couple of weeks then lose interest in. How wrong was I? As it turns-out I do all my mail and diary work on it, I use a Bluetooth keyboard to write on it when I’m away from home, I watch movies on it, read books on it, all my magazine subs are on it - my Laptop has barely left the house in a year. What I don’t do is make music on it; I bought an Android device, which has pretty well guaranteed that I’ve stayed free from the temptation of hundreds of iOS-only music related apps that iPad users have access to. So, when I was asked if I wanted to review the Focusrite iTrack Dock I said “love-to, but sadly I can’t” and got-on with some proper work.
A few days later a box arrived with an iTrack Dock in it, and a while later another box with a loan iPad arrived. OK - they got me.
Confession time; when I read the spec for the iTrack I thought I was looking at a device that needs an iPad to work. Again, how wrong was I? Certainly there is studio and live-sound equipment available today that does exactly this, mixers that use the iPad for control etc., but this isn’t one of them - the iTrack Dock is the other edge of the sword, it’s a device that makes your iPad work better. (Note that you need a 4th Generation, iPad Air, iPad mini or iPad mini/Retina display with iOS 6 or later).
If you want to record good quality audio on your iPad you need a recording app and some kind of hardware to get sound in and out of it. There are a fair number of hardware options available, this one just happens to have the name of a highly respected pro-audio manufacturer on it, so let’s take a look at the Focusrite iTrack Dock.
The iTrack is a desk-top docking station with a footprint about as long as, and a bit narrower than, a typical magazine (remember them? - Ed). The case is all plastic, and bearing in mind that it’s a dock rather than a plug-in interface this seems like a reasonable choice. The main part of the sloped front panel is the docking area (I used with an iPad mini which is a perfect fit) with a panel to the left containing pair of gain controls for the inputs (with Focusrite’s marvellous multi-coloured Halo surrounds to indicate level), direct monitor button, and headphone and monitor level knobs. On the back panel are dedicated instrument/mic/line sockets for channel one, mic/line for channel two, shared phantom power button, balanced monitor outs on TRS jacks, USB MIDI (for an external class compliant instruments and controllers), a socket for the external power supply and an on/off switch (there’s also a security lock socket but given that your iPad is going to be sitting on top of the dock you’ll want to be careful where you leave it anyway). It’s worth to note that the iTrack will power the iPad - it can’t be powered BY it!
Docking the iPad gave me the only concern that I have about the unit. To accommodate different sizes of tablet the iTrack has a sliding connector tab, and that Apple Lightning connector is small and fragile looking, so it might have been better if there was some sort of positive locating or locking mechanism for the iPad. In fairness Focusrite can’t do much about the design of the Lightning connector, and once the supplied flexible plastic spacer (to accommodate the thinner iPad Air and mini models) is in place and the connector is aligned with the correct arrow marking, it’s an easy slide-in and doesn’t seem to stress the connector at all. In any case I had no problems and it worked flawlessly for me.
The review! Given that this is “a device that makes your iPad work better” it’s actually quite difficult to review the iTrack Dock on its own because it just sits there and does its job whilst the exciting stuff occurs on the screen. I tested it with Focusrite’s own Tape app and with Apple’s Garageband DAW and in all honesty, after a couple of minutes I stopped noticing that I was using a multi-component system; the iTrack, iPad and app just blended into one easy-to-use package. As I used it I made a list of limitations, and on reviewing the list realised they were all limitation of the apps rather than of the iTrack itself. I will say that the pres are surprisingly good (perhaps not that surprising given Focusrite’s heritage) and quiet with plenty of gain for most uses (up to +46 dBu), that the 96K/24 bit converters do everything that they need to, and that the unit plus iPad is heavy enough to stay in place on my clear bit of desk when it’s got a full set of cables attached.
Do you need one? That really does depend. Do you want to use your iPad for desktop recording/mixing and have you got an app that does what you need? If you do, and you want to add significantly better audio quality and improve your workflow with an easy to use interface with real dedicated knobs, then certainly you should put an iTrack Dock on your list of devices to try.