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Studio mixing desk
Image: Fotolia/DWP

Multitracking on the go

Zulfikar Abbany
June 13, 2013

There are hundreds of music apps, but what's the use if you can't link them up and record them? Cubasis and Auria make audio recording all the more portable. But which is best? Here's our review.

https://p.dw.com/p/18ojN

Time was when a portable music studio came in the shape of a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. It had four inputs, five faders (including the master track), and one slot for a C-90 tape. All this was about the size and weight of a large hardback book. Time was… a long time ago.

These days, you can walk around town with a full 48-track recording environment tucked into a neat Manila envelope. In fact, I walk around with two 48-track recording environments: Cubasis and Auria.

The past few years have seen hundreds of mobile music making apps come onto the market - from known names, such as Korg, Yamaha and Moog to younger software developers, such as Yonac, with its Magellan analog modeling synthesizer, Propellerhead and Audanika.

Getting hooked

All these apps are a lot of fun. But if you are a professional musician or producer, or even a hobbyist, who wants to record multiple tracks of sound - featuring drum rhythms, basslines, harmonies and melodies - you have to be able to route them somehow. And the most popular way to do that at the moment is with an app called Audiobus.

Screenshot of Audiobus audio routing software for iPad
Image: Audiobus Pty. Ltd.

Audiobus only routes your music - it doesn't record it. For instance, you can combine three sound sources - different synths and drum machines - and send them through a filter. And if you want to record that sound, you have to route it to a digital audio workstation (DAW). There are two good low-cost options in Blip Interactive's NanoStudio and Apple's GarageBand.

But if you're looking for something a little more professional, you will have to spend a bit more money - about $50 - but for that, you get a whole lot more power.

Screenshot of Cubasis digital audio workstation (DAW) for iPad von Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH
Image: Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH

When I'm producing incidental music for DW's science and technology show Spectrum, I tend to start my projects in Cubasis (above). Its user interface is visually more pleasing - and more importantly, it seems to be more intuitive than Auria's, which is far more complex as you can see below.

Screenshot of Auria digital audio workstation (DAW) for iPad WaveMachine Labs, Inc.
Image: WaveMachine Labs, Inc.

Easy on the eye

Up close on the iPad, the Auria interface appears to have a slightly lower resolution than Cubasis'. You can't quite tell from these images, and perhaps it's just on my 3rd Generation device, but Auria looks a little clunky to me. At any rate, the edges of some of the graphics appear pixelated, less rounded and smooth. You might say this makes it the more serious app - that the focus is more on the sound than the looks. And certainly, Auria's looks have no influence on the quality of its sound. Auria supports professional sample rates of 44.1 KHz, 48 KHz and even 96 KHz, while Cubasis only supports CD quality 44.1 KHz - not the higher, state-of-the-art sample rates that modern digital recording demands. But this graphics issue does influence my willingness to work with Auria. Aesthetics are a superficial yet important aspect. I'm also not sure why Auria opens with the mixer first, rather than my tracks. When I'm recording in a DAW, the first thing I want to see is my tracks.

Screenshot of Auria digital audio workstation (DAW) for iPad WaveMachine Labs, Inc.
Image: WaveMachine Labs, Inc.

Then, there's the issue of connectivity. When you use the apps with Audiobus, Cubasis tends to recognize your inputs quicker - and again more intuitively - than Auria.

In Auria, you have to go the extra step of opening a separate window called the Input Matrix (as above) and select Audiobus for each of the instruments you want to hook up to it, and that on each and every track.

Meanwhile, in Cubasis, your input shows up in one of the dropdown tabs to the left of the relevant track. Sometimes I've had to nudge the system, so to speak, but it's just so much easier to have everything there on the one page.

Screenshot of Cubasis digital audio workstation (DAW) for iPad von Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH
Image: Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH

Simplicity and sychronicity

Recording audio in Cubasis is also a simpler affair. In Auria, you have to remember to flick on the Record tab. Whereas in Cubasis, if I've just added a new instrument via Audiobus, the corresponding track is automatically record enabled. And if you forget to switch off the Record tab in Auria, you won't be able to hear what you've recorded. So, it's a bit fiddly. This might sound like a small gripe, like the visuals of the two user interfaces, but you have to remember that we're talking about mobile apps that you will want to use on the go - and for that, they have to be as simple, pleasing, and intuitive as possible - as well as powerful.

Screenshot of Auria digital audio workstation (DAW) for iPad WaveMachine Labs, Inc.
Image: WaveMachine Labs, Inc.

When it comes to editing your audio, both apps work a treat. It's a simple case of tap 'n' slide. Both Auria and Cubasis let you do all the things you would expect from a DAW - such as moving or splitting tracks, cutting and copying, and adding fades and effects - with just a few moves. And because it's all integrated in the one device, without the need for extraneous cables, there's virtually no latency - no lag between the various components.

Screenshot of Cubasis digital audio workstation (DAW) for iPad von Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH
Image: Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH

Effects processing is where Auria wins hands down. The possibilities for modulating sounds are far greater than in Cubasis, which only offers stripped back sliders for reverb, compression and other standards. Auria's out-of-box effects panel is clearly aimed at the sound professional, who understands the science of audio frequencies. It is also linked to a shop, where you can buy all manner of third-party professional effects.

Screenshot of Auria digital audio workstation (DAW) for iPad WaveMachine Labs, Inc.
Image: WaveMachine Labs, Inc.

And this is where I tend to end up - not in the shop, but in Auria. To get there, I have found the easiest method is to switch the inputs in Audiobus and play my track from Cubasis straight into Auria. I have also used the AudioCopy/Paste function - which works like a clipboard between associated audio apps - and means you can transfer the individual tracks as "stems." This involves a few more steps, and I prefer the simplicity of playing the sounds straight in. And when I've lined everything up in Auria, I mess around with the audio - I chop it up, move bits around, work on the arrangement, and add effects - before I do a final mixdown.

Getting heard

Now, of course, once you've mixed your piece of music, you will want to play in on other devices or share it. Both Auria and Cubasis offer similar options. Cubasis will allow you to export stems for use in Steinberg's desktop DAW, Cubase. But you can also mixdown your track as a WAV file and share it, for instance, via email or Dropbox. Likewise, Auria exports to Dropbox, it uploads to SoundCloud, and it also exports (and imports) the AAF file format, which is compatible with professional desktop DAWs like Logic and Pro Tools.

Both apps do much more than I have been able to cover here. So, I recommend you check out their respective websites for the full specifications. I will say, however, that for a hobbyist, who likes to make music on the fly, the simplicity of Cubasis means it's far more fun than Auria - it also comes with a few built-in instruments and does MIDI, which Auria does not. But there's no doubt that WaveMachine Labs have packed more under Auria's hood than meets the eye - for instance, using Apple's Camera Connection Kit, you can hook up a professional USB audio interface and do some serious live recording. But that depends on whether your iPad can handle the drag on its processing power. And in this regard, I have a sneaking suspicion that both Auria and Cubasis are ahead of their time.

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