Every since it was first announced, the prospect of WaveMachine Lab’s Auria has attracted a lot of excited discussion online. Well, now it is here (launched on the iTunes App Store on 17th July) and, even with only a few days of experimentation with the app, I think it is safe to say that Auria is, quite simply, a game-changing app for musicians wanting and willing to embrace the potential of music making on the iPad.
Garageband on the iPad has bought DAW (digital audio workstation) technology to the masses. As well as being accessible to the consumer-level user, in the right hands, it is also a very capable recording tool. It is brilliant… but it’s not (yet, at least) what you might call a ‘professional’ level DAW. In Auria, however, WaveMachine Labs are obviously trying to create just that. Have they succeeded? Let’s find out…. Oh, but a word of warning; this is a biggie so get ready for the long haul. Hopefully, you will think it well worth the effort
First things first; Auria is a DAW in the traditional sense of the meaning in that it allows you to record, edit and mix audio only. At present, there is no MIDI support or virtual instruments included – if you want synth sounds, then you record then as audio into the app. In essence, you can think of this first release of Auria as something similar to one of the mainstream portable digital multi-track recorders made by the likes of Tascam or Zoom minus the audio inputs (you get to choose your own audio interface) but with the advantage of a sizeable touchscreen interface.
It provides a maximum of 48 tracks of simultaneous audio playback and, given a suitable external audio interface with an appropriate number of inputs, can record up to 24 tracks at once (these numbers apply to the 2nd and 3rd generations of the iPad; they are reduced on the original version). These numbers are impressive and, frankly, until you see it working, it is actually difficult to believe that it might be possible in a device as compact as the iPad. But it is possible…. as the three demo projects that are available (one comes pre-installed and a couple of others are downloadable from within the app) demonstrate quite clearly. This kind of audio track count means that you could take on serious recording projects and is comparable with what you might attempt on a mainstream desktop DAW (Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools, etc.) or in a quality recording studio.
The virtual mixer is fully featured and, aside from the individual audio tracks, also includes subgroup channels, two aux sends (for global effects like reverb and delay), a master output channel and access to a range of suitable effects including EQ, compression, limiting, modulation, reverb (and, amazingly, a convolution-based reverb) and delay. All these effects are essentially VST plug-ins but specially ported by their manufacturers to work within iOS. There are others already available for purchase via the in-app store to expand the collection. Mixer and effects parameters are also fully automatable.
And just like a desktop DAW, Auria also features a timeline-based editing environment where you can move, cut, paste, copy, delete and trim your audio, add fades, change the gain and other basic editing tasks all via the touchscreen. And if you have lots of tracks and lots of effects running and the iPad does start to puff a bit, there is also a ‘track freeze’ function (again, as found on mainstream desktop DAWs) so you can free up resources and keep the session developing.
In feature terms at least, Auria is a considerable distance ahead of anything else currently available for multi-track audio recording on an iOS device. So, does it all work?
Clearly, if you are going to use Auria, you have to get audio both in and out of the iPad. Auria works quite happily with the iPads own mic/headphone outputs and, if you are just sketching a few ideas out, this is a very convenient – and perfectly adequate – way to go. However, if you want to make high-quality recordings, then some sort of 3rd-party audio interface is going to be required.
Usefully, WaveMachine Labs have a list of devices they have tested for compatibility with Auria on their website and users are also posted their own experiences on that front via the forum pages. These include the Alesis IO Dock, units from the Focusrite Scarlett range, Apogee Jam and the Sonoma Wire Works Guitar Jack amongst a good number of others. All these connect to the iPad digitally through the dock connector (either directly or via the camera connection kit) but other devices that use the iPad’s own audio connections should also work.
While there are a number of additional windows that pop open for particular tasks, Auria is essentially built around two main views; the Mix window page and the Edit window. As shown in the various screen shots, the implementation of the virtual mixer follows a fairly traditional styling. From bottom to top, each of the standard audio channels include mute and solo buttons, a fader, pan knob, two aux send level knobs, a subgroup setting, buttons for engaging automation read and write, a record arming button and, at the top, an FX button. Tapping the latter opens up a panel for the channel strip effects section including EQ and compression – more on this below.
If you rotate the iPad into portrait orientation, the mixer flips around. You see fewer tracks at once, but the fader throws are longer – great for making more detailed moves when automating levels in your mix.
Auria’s other main view is the Edit window. This shows a familiar (well, familiar to anyone who has used a mainstream DAW) timeline-based view of the audio waveforms arranged by track. You can access key track level controls from here (mute, solo, FX, automation) and the usual iOS swipe, pinch and spread gestures allow you to move horizontally or vertically through the track view and to zoom in and out. Standard editing tasks that you might execute with a mouse or key commands on a desktop DAW are also achieved entirely through touch control.
Whether in the Mix or Edit window views, a number of controls stay permanently available along the top of the screen. These include the buttons to switch between these two views, undo/redo buttons, access to the Menu, Edit and Process drip-down menu options (the latter two only appear in the Edit window as they apply to waveform editing tasks), buttons for track grouping and setting locators and a fairly standard set of transport controls. On the far right, tapping the Transport Option button allows you to specify the time format for the timeline. For musical projects, bars/beats is the obvious choice but sample, SMPTE and min/sec options are also available.
What is striking about the overall appearance of Auria is that, despite there being plenty going on on what is, in comparison to most laptop and desktop screens, still a fairly modest screen area, the interface doesn’t seem too cluttered and, unless you have fingers the size of jumbo sausages, the controls are easy enough to operate without tripping over yourself. What’s more, in going for a very traditional ‘virtual’ mixer, the working environment feels immediately familiar. Indeed, having created a blank project to begin my own testing, it wasn’t until I’d recorded half a dozen tracks and began to explore the editing functions, that I even opened the PDF manual to check how something was done. I suspect that anyone who has worked with a half-decent hardware recording setup or one of the mainstream desktop DAWs will find the initial learning curve with Auria almost non-existent. That is a big plus as new users ought to be able to get straight down to work and WaveMachine Labs deserve a pat on the back for that.
That said, once you begin to dig in a little further, you also discover that there is plenty of depth to the app. In this regard, the manual – which is accessible directly from within the app – is excellent and explains the key features and functions in a clear and concise manner. The manual includes useful discussions on maximising the iPads CPU/RAM resources and working with external audio interface hardware.
Hardware interface issues aside, once you have an audio signal getting into Auria, the recording process is both straightforward and painless. While I wasn’t able to test the apps simultaneous 24-track recording capability, in laying down mono and stereo tracks, the app performed flawlessly. Provided you have patched the appropriate hardware input to the required audio track via the Input Matrix window (accessible via the Menu button), as soon as you arm the track, you can monitor your signal via Auria to check the input levels. Incidentally, depending upon the capabilities of your audio interface, you can toggle software-based input monitoring off in Auria if you want to monitor directly via your interface and avoid any latency issues.
After that, it’s just a question of tapping the record button within the main transport controls section and away you go. Again, if you have any experience with another DAW or a hardware multi-tracker, this will be entirely intuitive – no fuss or flap – the job just gets done. And once your have finished recording a track, a quick tap on the Edit window button and you can see the waveform view to check everything looks OK.
Auria includes a number of other useful standard options for the recording phase of a project. There is a handy metronome that can be used to keep everyone in time. There are also locators that can be set so you can mark positions for an auto-punch in if you want to ensure recording drops you in and out at exact positions along the timeline. Tracks can also be bounced if required so, if you need more than 48 tracks (!) or, more likely, find yourself running out of CPU resources, you can bounce down those 20 tracks of guitars to a stereo pair to keep things flowing.
If you tap and hold the record arm button for a track, a small pop-up menu appears. This provides access to the Input Matrix but also to both a record level control (so you can set the input level in Auria if you don’t have suitable control via your audio interface) and an option to ‘record effects’. This latter option allows you to record your track ‘wet’ with any effects that are applied printed as part of the recording. Most of the time this will be left off allowing you to tweak any effects levels later as part of the mx process but it is useful to have the option if required.
Cut and paste
Once you have captured your recordings onto the necessary tracks, Auria then provides plenty of editing options via the Edit window. All the standard functions you might expect are present so you can trim, copy, cut, split, add faded/crossfades and move sections of recordings as you might expect. The only difference to a desktop DAW is, of course, that all this is done with your fingers. This does take a little adjusting to but, 10 minutes into my first project, most of these general tasks already felt comfortable. The ability to zoom in and work up close with a specific section of a waveform makes these processes much easier.
If you want to perform operations on several objects at once, the Edit window includes a multi-select tool (located top-left just under the Mixer and Edit buttons). Tap this once and you can then select multiple objects and, if you want to lock a selection, a double tap on the multi-select tool will do the trick.
Located in the same strip as the multi-select tool is the Snap menu. This allows you to move objects along the timeline or between tracks more easily (although you can turn the snap off if you do wish to move things entirely freehand). Do note however, that the Snap menu options are linked to the Transport Options – the latter need to be set to bars/beats if you want the Snap options to be linked to the musical grid. The Process menu provides options for gain adjustment, normalising, DC offset correction, reverse, silence and cross-fades. Again, these are all easy to use and provide good results.
Auria doesn’t perhaps have all the editing bells and whistles that the top-of-the-range desktop DAW versions of Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools, etc. might have but all the most important and commonly used functions are there. You might think of this as the sort of editing feature set that one of the cut-down versions of these desktop DAWs provide and, while this a reasonable comparison, users should also bear in mind that that this can be seen as much as a positive as a negative – no software bloat with features that, 99 days out of 100, you never use and that simply clutter up the working environment. In short, for basic editing of your audio multi-track recordings, Auria has all the essential tools to get the job done.
All mixed up
With up to 48 tracks (24 on the 1st generation iPad), 8 sub-groups, two aux sends and a master stereo channel, Auria packs a lot of mixer into a compact software format. Most of the controls on the mixer channels (pan, fader, mute, solo) are self explanatory but one or two are worth making a few additional comments about. For example, tapping the ‘scribble strip’ area at the bottom of each channel opens up the standard iPad keyboard so you can enter or edit the channel label. This is useful to keep track of what instrument is where in your mix but particularly useful for the subgroup channels as these labels then appear in the pop up menu that is accessed by tapping the subgroup setting for individual channels. The eight subgroups provide plenty of flexibility to group sets of individual tracks together (a drum group, a guitar group, a synth group, a lead vocal group, etc.) so that you can adjust the group level, or apply effects processing at the group level, when mixing.
To keep things tidy and compact, other channel-level processing is not visible by default but a quick tap of the FX button at the top of each channel opens up the Channel Strip window for that channel. This lets you access the expander, EQ and compressor sections and, as shown in the example screen shot, these are actually very well featured and give the user plenty of control. This is quite a busy window but quite an important one as it also contains the four insert effect slots for the channel (located on the right). Tapping one of these displays a list of possible insert effects that are available. These are shown in the screen shot and include delay, modulation and reverb.
Amazingly, there is also an automatic tuning plug-in included. Mu Technologies ReTune is probably not quite in the same league as Antares Autotune or Celemony’s Melodyne but the company do have a pedigree in vocal processing plug-ins (I reviewed their Mu Voice vocal harmony plug-in for Sound On Sound magazine back in July 2008). As a bundled plug-in here it is nothing short of remarkable and, while it will not turn the totally incompetent singer into a pitch-perfect superstar, for a touch of pitch correction to an already decent vocal – or for some automatic harmony generation – it does a pretty good job. Combine this with the already very flexible EQ and dynamics options and, in an iPad-based DAW, this is seriously impressive stuff.
The Channel Strip window also includes the SAT button (which adds a little lit of analog/tape-style warmth to a sound) and you can also toggle on a display of the aux and pan controls so, once in this window, you can do pretty much any mixer function on the individual track without going back to the main Mixer window. The final button worth pointing out is the snowflake-shaped Freeze button. Track freezing – which essentially renders the track with all its effects as a new audio file and then uses that in playback, switching off all the effects within the channel to save CPU resources – is now common place in most DAWs. However, given quite how much functionality and the track count MachineWave Labs are packing into the iPad in Auria, it makes good sense to see it implemented here. If you need to revisit a channel to tweak it further, you can, of course, unfreeze it, make your changes, and then freeze the revised version.
The Subgroup and Master channels also feature dedicated channel strip effects although they provide a different configuration of effects than on the standard channels – the PSP Masterstrip – that includes a buss compressor and limiter. Again, this is all very well featured. If you tap the Aux FX button on the Master channel, this allows you to specify which effects are to be inserted in the aux-send loops. The obvious candidates here are reverb and delay. Again, much to my surprise, this list also includes a convolution reverb. A few years ago, this kind of processing was rare even on a desktop DAW environment; they were expensive and CPU hungry. Well, they still are CPU hungry compared to a standard reverb plug-in so you might want to switch to this plug-in just for a final mix, but having access to a quality reverb is a big plus.
If that wasn’t already enough, Auria also includes a very useable mixer automation system. Automation data can be created in two ways. First, if you enable automation writing for a channel (via the W button towards the top of each channel), any Mixer control movements that you then make during playback will be recorded. This includes changes within the Channel Strip effects for the channel. You can write-enable multiple channels if you want to record all your fader movements while mixing.
Second, providing you zoom in far enough, an automation drop-down menu appears in each channel within the Edit window also. This displays the automation data as standard envelopes along the timeline and you can both create and edit automation data using the touchscreen from here. Tapping and holding will either grab an existing control point or create a new one. This works well enough but it is one of the few areas where the touchscreen interface is perhaps less intuitive than using a mouse on a desktop as, for detailed movements, your finger rather obscures your view while moving the control points. That said, the functionality is impressive and does become easier with just a little practice.
Quart from a pint pot
In tablet computer terms, the iPad’s screen is top-of-the-range for size and resolution but, in recording studio terms, Apple’s device represents a very compact piece of equipment. Trying to squeeze the functionality of a professional-level DAW into something that small is very much like trying to get a quart out of a pint pot. While these were, therefore, probably obvious design decisions, the inclusion of the channel freeze function (which can free up CPU resources), track bouncing (ditto) and the ability to use Subgroup channels (so, where appropriate, you can apply effects at the group level rather than at the level of all the individual channels, keeping CPU loads down) are all features that help make this possible.
Usefully, Auria also includes a compact Performance Meter feature as part of the Mixer window. This can be enabled from the Settings option of the main Menu and, once switched on (it is shown is some of the earlier Mix window screen shots), tapping it cycles through meters showing CPU, disk, battery, memory and free space information. If you start adding lots of insert effects (and, in my testing, the big hits were the convolution reverb and ReTune) then, of course, you can soon rack up the CPU usage – although Auria is generally polite enough to tell you when things are getting critical – but what is genuinely surprising is quite how many tracks and effects you can get running at once and still experience smooth operation.
As a bit of icing on the cake, if you have two iPads running Auria, the app has a feature called AuriaLink that allows you to link two instances of Auria together via Bluetooth. The projects on each iPad will play in sync. In theory, therefore, you could have a project with 96 audio tracks running together although how practical that might be is difficult to judge given that there may well be a small amount of latency involved in the Bluetooth connection. Still, it is nice to have the option and this would mean the processing load could be shared between the two devices.
On the move
There are numerous stages in a projects evolution when you might need to get audio in or out of your DAW and Auria’s file management options provide enough flexibility to do the most obvious tasks; backing up projects, importing or exporting audio to/from the iPad to a desktop computer, moving audio to/from other apps or using SoundCloud and DropBox to move materials via virtual storage are all well catered for.
Typical tasks such as copying some drum loops into Auria proved to be a straightforward two-stage process. First, iTunes File Sharing was used to move the required loops to the Auria Documents and, after then syncing, within Auria, these can be imported into the current project via the Menu > Import Audio option. Multiple files can be imported in a single operation. This all worked a treat and, if you like to build drum parts from loops, is very easy to do.
Auria also supports AAF (Advanced Authoring Format) that is a common standard (although, for a ‘standard’, it actually shows some variations!) for major desktop DAWs and allows you to import/export complete mix projects to/from Auria and whatever desktop DAW you might use. So, if you are working on a mix in (for example) Cubase or Logic, and you want to keep working on it while away from your home base then, in principle, you can simply move it over to Auria and take your iPad with you. I didn’t get an opportunity to fully test this during my review but I can see this being very appealing to musicians/producers/mix engineers who spend a lot of time on the move and want to work on mixes in their hotel rooms or while in transit.
What, no MIDI?
Earlier, I made a comparison between Auria and a hardware-based digital audio multi-tracker as made by the likes of Zoom or Tascam. I think this is a more accurate comparison than with Cubase, Logic or other major DAWs because Auria, like the majority of hardware-based recorders, doesn’t provide MIDI support or access to virtual instruments. At present, while it is undoubtedly an impressive piece of recording/mixing software, Auria is an audio-only recording environment. If you want synths, then you need to record their audio outputs into Auria or create the parts elsewhere and import them into Auria.
That said, Auria does support Korg’s WIST connectivity (see the iMS-20 review for a discussion of this) so, if you have a WIST-compatible music app, you can sync its playback on a second iPad to Auria. WaveMachine Labs have, however, already stated on their website that they hope to bring MIDI and/or virtual instrument support into Auria at some stage. Even if this was in the form of a drum sample playback device and a single decent virtual synth, it would make an already impressive DAW even better and open up Auria’s appeal even further.
What’s in store?
While the current feature list is impressive enough for an iPad-based DAW, if you want to add more – particularly in terms of effects options – there is already the Auria Store with some very tempting in-app purchases. Aside from some sample projects (free) and a small number of additional IR files for use with the convolution reverb, there are six additional plug-ins available (as shown in the screenshot). I can easily imagine those who purchase Auria and find themselves getting serious use out of it wanting to add these to their system. For guitar players such as myself, OverLoud’s THM guitar amp sim plug-in is an obvious example. With ten amps and a varied combination of cabs, virtual mics, some 13 virtual pedals and 8 rack-based effects, this looks very well featured. To be able to lay down your electric guitar tracks entirely within Auria is an appealing prospect.
Wavemachine Labs own Drumagog 5 plug-in – a drum sound replacement tool – is also available and I suspect the list of additional plug-ins within the Auria Store will grow quite rapidly once the Auria user base becomes established and plug-in developers can see a market in porting across to iOS.
These effect plug-ins are not, however, the end of what is in the store. I must admit, I did a bit of a double take when I saw the single entry in the ‘add-on’ category – a video import option. Yep, for a few extra quid ($/€), you can add a video window to Auria. As someone who has worked with scoring to picture for a number of years, the prospect of being able to do that on something like an iPad, frankly, beggars belief. Video can be imported via iTunes File Sharing and the playback options support different SMPTE frame rates. Video playback can be switched between a small window or fullscreen. Once you have your score finished, you can also export a video with your new audio in place. To see this functionality available on an iPad is astonishing.
If you have stuck with me so far then you will have gathered that I’m more than a little impressed with Auria. WaveMachine Labs have attempted something very ambitious here – the key features of a pro audio-only DAW in an iPad app – and in almost every regard, it is difficult not to be very impressed with just how well they have delivered on that ambition.
That’s not to say it is perfect. While the app performed flawlessly for me during testing, early adopters on the WaveMachine Labs forums have reported occasional glitches. What is perhaps surprising is that most of these, frankly, seem to be of a relatively minor nature and the responses from the company appear overwhelmingly positive and encouraging in terms of dealing with these issues and offering their users support.
So, where are we at here? In an iOS context, quite simply, Auria has just raised the bar in terms of what is possible for recording music in a mobile environment. For serious musicians wanting to get the best out of their iPads, Auria is a game changer. In app terms, it is expensive but, in terms of the features it offers, at the current price (£34.99 and the equivalent $/€ price) it is an absolute bargain.
Auria is brilliant, amazing and jaw dropping as it stands – recording junkies should just buy it and enjoy. I’m already smiling at the prospect of where WaveMachine Labs might take us with future updates.
http://www.musicappblog.com by John