Review: iZotope Spire Studio - EMusician

Review: iZotope Spire Studio

A portable recording rig with studio-quality sound
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Spire Studio is a multitrack recording system that combines a hardware base unit with an iOS app—linked by a dedicated WiFi signal—and offers up to 8 tracks of 24-bit, 48kHz recording. Controlled mainly by the app, the system automatically sets input levels and provides mixing, effects, and numerous options for exporting and sharing your music.

Spire Studio combines a
 hardware unit and an iOS app to give you a portable, high-quality multitrack recording environment that can be used anywhere.

Spire Studio combines a  hardware unit and an iOS app to give you a portable, high-quality multitrack recording environment that can be used anywhere.

The hardware portion is small enough to fit in a backpack and, in conjunction with your mobile device, provides a powerful and portable recording rig. It is equipped with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with a four-hour capacity, and can also be powered from the included AC adapter.

Because iZotope created the product with musicians in mind—presuming that many of them will have little recording experience—the Spire Studio’s features have been simplified. That said, the astonishing sound quality will appeal to serious recording musicians looking for an on-the-go setup or a scratch pad for getting ideas down, quickly.

THE MASTER CYLINDER

The top panel on the Spire Studio hardware device has a stepped, touch-sensitive display around the circumference that lights up with status indicators for various functions such as headphone and microphone level, and track activity. The five buttons provided include Play and Record in the center, and New Song, Soundcheck (the automatic level-setting feature, which I’ll discuss later in the review) and Volume, below.

At the edge is the built-in omnidirectional, mono condenser mic. The sound quality of recordings made with this mic is one of the most impressive aspects of the Spire Studio. I recorded acoustic guitar, Dobro, vocals, and shaker through it and was blown away by the quality. It has plenty of gain and is surprisingly quiet. For recording song ideas, demo vocals, and acoustic instruments, it’s more than up to the task.

Fig. 1. The two combo jacks on the hardware
 unit’s rear panel accept instrument input or mic input. A single switch turns on the phantom power for both channels.

Fig. 1. The two combo jacks on the hardware  unit’s rear panel accept instrument input or mic input. A single switch turns on the phantom power for both channels.

You can also connect instruments and external mics to Spire Studio using the two combo jacks (with preamps developed by Grace Design) on the back panel (see Figure 1). Here you’ll find a phantom power button and one of two 3.5mm headphone jacks. (The other is located around the front, below the microphone grille). The lighted power button also functions as a battery status indicator.

Your recordings are saved to the hardware unit’s internal memory, which has a capacity of six hours of recording time. You can archive projects onto your mobile device or computer before deleting them on Spire Studio if you need to free up space.

GET WITH THE PROJECT

The Spire Studio app is a free download from the Apple Store, and it runs on an iPhone or iPad. To wirelessly connect it to the hardware unit, go to the Wi-Fi settings screen on your iOS device, and you’ll see Spire Studio pop up as a network. Select it and connect to it, and then launch the Spire Studio app.

The first page you see, Projects, is one of four on the app. It lists the Projects you’ve created, and lets you launch, preview, or delete existing projects, as well as create a new one. You can also import audio files into Spire Studio, and they’ll open as new Projects. Supported formats include AIFF, WAV (stereo only), m4a and mp3.

Fig. 2. Screenshots from the app (clockwise from left):
 Mixing page, Record page, Tempo page, and Record page with export options revealed.

Fig. 2. Screenshots from the app (clockwise from left):  Mixing page, Record page, Tempo page, and Record page with export options revealed.

When you tap the name of one of your Projects, or hit the + button to create one, it opens the Record screen (see Figure 2). Here you can initiate recording and playback. It shows only one track when you first open it for a new project, but as soon as you finish recording on it, a second track pops up below it. Once you’ve finished recording on that, a third one pops up, and so forth, up to the limit of eight tracks.

The tracks appear as horizontal lanes that display waveforms during recording and playback. Tapping on a track selects it, and brings up an input-level meter on the far left. Selecting that reveals input-level control and buttons for three recording options: Recording Effects, Soundcheck, and Monitoring On.

Soundcheck is an optional, automatic level-setting feature that is also accessible from the hardware unit. Click on it, and you get a screen asking you to play at the loudest volume you’ll produce for the track. When you play, Spire Studio automatically adjusts the input level to an appropriate setting. This is the most musician-friendly aspect of the device, allowing you to get up and recording quickly without having to worry about unwanted distortion on your tracks.

The Monitoring On feature lets you monitor a track’s input in the headphones without affecting playback. The Recording Effects option includes seven effects. Three of them are amp models: a clean Fender-like amp with tremolo and reverb, an AC30-style amp with tremolo, and a bass amp. All have simple EQ, and the AC30 and Bass models have Drive controls.

The other effects category, Spaces, has four ambience effects, featuring reverb or delay. They all sound good in their default settings, but you can alter them as needed by tweaking their parameters.

There are no user-accessible compressors or standalone EQs, but the tracks sound as if they are being automatically compressed and EQed. Tracks you record have a finished sound to them. That said, it would be nice to have the option to turn this type of processing off. If you are planning to export the tracks to your DAW to finish your song, you might not want them pre-processed.

It is important to note that Spire Studio’s effects are only available on input; you cannot add them to a track during mixdown. If you select an effect for a track, it gets recorded along with your voice or instrument, which forces you to commit to a particular effect and setting in advance if you want to use it.

Using the Tempo screen, you can set a metronome to play while you record, select the tempo, and choose between 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 and 1/4 time signatures. With the metronome turned on, you get a count-off, both visual and with the click sound, before recording starts.

The app offers only rudimentary waveform editing. From the Recording screen, you can set an edit point with the playhead, and then trim everything to the left or right of it. There is no cut, copy and paste editing, which is disappointing, and very limited zooming of the waveform display.

MIX BY NUMBERS

The Mixer screen in the Spire Studio app is conceptually similar to the Visual Mixer plug-in in iZotope’s Neutron 2. Each track is represented by a numbered circle, which you can drag up or down to change its volume and side to side to change its panning position. The mixer is very easy to use, and it makes level setting and panning very intuitive. You also have the option of muting individual tracks and changing tracks that have been converted to stereo by the effects to mono.

Once you’ve finished mixing, Spire Studio offers plenty of options for exporting your files. You can export the entire mix as an M4a file, or send it to Sound-Cloud or another music app on your mobile device, or share it to another Apple device using AirDrop.

Conveniently, you can export individual tracks as 24-bit WAV files, which makes it easy to continue working on a song in your DAW, which you’ll probably want to do if it’s a serious project. You can also export a Spire Studio project file (.spire) for archiving.

INSPIRING SPIRE

With Spire Studio, iZotope has done an excellent job creating a compact and portable recording system that lets you capture high-quality tracks, anywhere. Musicians who are used to working with a DAW may find the interface is more simplified than they would like. The inability to add effects in the mix is the most significant limitation.

With its software products such as Ozone and RX, iZotope releases tiered versions with different levels of functionality and price. It might be worthwhile to do something similar with this product. I’d love to see a “Spire Studio Advanced,” which had features that were directed towards experienced recordists.

Nonetheless, iZotope delivered what it promised with Spire Studio, in large part due to the quality of its built-in mic and automatic level setting and audio processing features. Together, the hardware and iOS app make for a powerful portable-studio rig that lets you capture ideas quickly but with high enough fidelity that you’ll have no problem using the tracks in your DAW when you want to develop your projects further. Kudos to iZotope for releasing yet another innovative product.

Mike Levine is a composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from the New York area. Check out his website at michaelwilliamlevine.com.

STRENGTHS

Portable. High-quality multitrack recording. Automatic gain staging. Great sounding built-in mic and effects. Seamless WiFi connectivity with iOS app. Phantom-powered preamps.

LIMITATIONS

Effects can only be added on input. Rudimentary editing features.

$349
iZotope.com