iZotope Spire Studio: Is this the simplest answer to 8-track portable recording?

iZotope’s Spire Studio is a compact, record-anywhere device. Although its main use is presumably for recording on the go, it’s also handy around the house for songwriting when you don’t want to fire up your main computer, as well as recording band rehearsals, school recitals, conferences, plays, business meetings, and of course, documenting police interrogations (okay, I’m kidding…but it would work well for that).

The gold standard for this concept was the original TASCAM Portastudio, which being analog, was so simple to operate that even a reasonably intelligent hamster could do it—although its portability was limited by being AC-powered. Spire works stand-alone from an AC adapter or the internal battery, but reaches its full potential only when paired with an iPad Air or iPhone 6 (or higher), running iOS 11 or above. There’s also an Android app that initially was very basic, but through a process of frequent updates, is reaching parity with the iOS version. Check here for current compatibility, and the feature set compared to the iOS version. Regardless, the Spire app worked perfectly with my cheapo Samsung J320, which isn’t on the list of supported devices—although it runs a supported operating system (Android 7 and 8; see Fig. 1).

Fig 1 Mac and Android
Figure 1: On the left, the Spire Studio running on an iPhone 7; on the right, Android OS 7.

Oh, and in the “don’t-believe-everything-you-read-on-the-internet” category, I’ve seen comments about how you can’t export files from the Android version. You most certainly can.

There are three main questions for a product like this:

  1. Does the performance and usefulness justify the not-exactly-cheap price (around $349 street)?
  2. Can you operate it at 3 AM, even after a lengthy bar crawl?
  3. Does it sound better than just recording into your smartphone?

Let’s get started.

SPIRE STUDIO BASICS

Spire doesn’t feel or act cheap. It’s substantial (1.2 lbs) without being heavy, has a big, circular track and level display (that doubles as a touch-capacitive control/display for playback volume), records/mixes eight tracks, and the buttons have tactile feedback instead of being something like membrane switches. The internal battery lasts at least four hours on a charge.

In addition to the built-in condenser mic, there are two rear-panel combo jacks (Fig. 2) for mic/line ins (despite the name, the mic ins work with guitar/bass). The preamps are from Grace Design, so they have an enviable pedigree.

Fig 2
Figure 2: The Amphenol combo jacks accommodate XLR balanced and TS 1/4” inputs.

There’s even +48V power and despite the 5V power supply, phantom power really is +48V—I measured it. Although the associated pushbutton glows bright red when enabled, I would have preferred a slide switch (it’s harder to enable something accidentally with a slide switch). There are both front and back 1/8″ headphone jacks, which is a welcome touch for collaboration.

WHAT’S COOL

There are quite a few really cool features. Note that for a couple of these, the Android version of the app needs to catch up (refer to the link above).

  • The “Soundcheck” function sets levels with a button push. Although there’s no manual way to set levels other than in the app, that falls under “who cares?”
  • There are useful, built-in effects (Fig. 3; three amps, five ambiences, five pedals).
Fig 3
Figure 3: The effects are fun, and iZotope added a few recently…so maybe there are more to come.
  • Spire records up to six track-hours of music before it runs out of memory.
  • The transport can loop.
  • The user interface is so transparent most sentient beings could probably figure it out (even at 3 AM, after a lengthy bar crawl). This is fortunate because there’s no comprehensive documentation.
  • The app’s built-in metronome is clearly visible and features different time signatures (Fig. 4).
Fig 4
Figure 4: The metronome offers tap tempo and four different time signatures. 
  • The internal mic sounds surprisingly good and captures well. It’s omnidirectional, which was the right choice because it can record groups of musicians more easily than a directional mic (and there’s no proximity effect).
  • You can export projects or a mix of the tracks. To export individual tracks, just mute the ones you don’t want to export, and export the mix.
  • The mixer paradigm (Fig. 5) is simple and elegant—drag circles that represent tracks up/down for level, left/right to pan.
Fig 5
Figure 5: Mixing is simple and clean, but effective.
  • Spire doesn’t get in the way of the song creation process. Although a zillion products say they’re easy to use, Spire actually is easy to use.

iOS AND ANDROID

I started with the Android app just to be ornery, tapped the getting started label, and was told Spire needed an update. I always find that kind of notice reassuring, because it means development is ongoing. Despite a false start while updating, the app really did make setup easy, and the completed update brought the Android app closer to parity with the iOS version. (Note: I may have found a glitch when switching between Android and iOS. I started a project on Android, and switched over to iOS, which recognized and opened the project. When I went back to Android, the project wasn’t visible, but was still available on the iPhone.)

You can use Spire without the app, which I consider a major benefit although of course, you get the full experience in conjunction with the app.

LIMITATIONS 

There are some Spire Studio limitations you need to be aware of, even though they aren’t really deal-breakers.

  • You can apply an effect only while recording; you can’t add effects afterward. Of course you can’t expect Spire to be a DAW (“and I want notation, a way to load VST instruments, pitch correction…”) but given that Spire is about capturing inspiration, I’d rather mess with effects after recording.
  • With either Android or iOS, Spire takes over the phone’s wi-fi. So you can’t open, say, Gmail on your home or Starbucks wi-fi, and send any files you just recorded—you have to use cellular data, Airdrop for Mac, or save the file somewhere in the bowels of your phone, quit Spire, re-connect to wi-fi, find the file, send it, disconnect from your wi-fi, and then let Spire take it over again. But there’s also an easy, universal option, and I’m surprised iZotope doesn’t emphasize that with either MacOS or Windows, Bluetooth file transfers to a desktop, laptop, etc. are simple, fast, effective, and don’t require disconnecting Spire from its app.
  • The battery is neither user- nor factory-replaceable—a limitation in much consumer gear of which I’m becoming increasingly intolerant, especially with something that costs $349. At least after a few years when the battery won’t hold a charge, you’ll still be able to run Spire from its AC adapter.
  • Editing exists, but is very primitive (you can trim sections that lie before or after a marker, delete a track, or mute it—that’s it).
  • Anything that depends on a particular operating system associated with a consumer device can get dicey if the app isn’t updated promptly. I’m not worried about iZotope remaining in business, but it’s a factor we need to keep in mind as we navigate the world of high tech.

CONCLUSIONS

The main competition is…well, there isn’t anything quite like Spire. The closest products I can think of are designed more for audio capture and then exporting, like the Zoom H4N and TASCAM DR-40L (which are limited to four tracks, as opposed to Spire’s eight), or small portable studio products like the TASCAM DP-03SD, TASCAM DP-008EX, or Zoom R8. However, these don’t include a built-in mic on the same level as the Spire, and aren’t designed quite as much with instant gratification in mind. Nor are they app-based, and given that the Spire app is a free download from the App Store or Google Play, you don’t have to take my word about its ease of use.

In fact, the app itself provides many of the goodies that are available when you connect to the hardware, and I’m sure some people will find it good enough for what they want to do—so why get the hardware?

There are several reasons. Spire Studio feeds high-quality audio to your mobile device and doesn’t do silliness like tie up your iPhone’s Lightning connector so you can’t charge your phone while working. Phantom power means you can hook up pretty much any condenser mic you want, and being able to feed in stereo line ins that also accept guitar-level inputs is much more valuable than being restricted to a phone’s onboard mic. Speaking of which, Spire’s omnidirectional mic is a far better option for general-purpose recording (and makes it easier to do mic placement) than a smartphone’s mic…and as you might expect, the hardware’s general audio quality is better than a phone. The hardware version also includes effects, two headphone jacks for collaboration, and let’s face it—it looks cool and vaguely friendly like it’s R2-D2’s pet.

Sometimes it’s hard to realize what a product can bring to your life until you’ve actually experienced it. I’m sure when the first TV remote came out, some people thought “what’s the big deal? I can just get up and switch the channel.” So it is with Spire Studio. We just accept that when doing songwriting with something microprocessor-based, you need to boot it, load a program, set it up to record, plug into your interface and check its routing, figure out why it’s not working the way it’s supposed to, and then finally start recording.

With the Spire Studio, you don’t even need to open the app to get started. Doing your first take requires four button presses: power on, new song, soundcheck, and record. Even with the time for Spire to wake up and do the soundcheck, you’re recording in under 30 seconds. After you get your initial flash of inspiration squared away, then you can open up the app and go further…although you might be surprised at how far you can get with just the hardware.

If you’re a songwriter who’s still upset about “the big one that got away,” Spire Studio was designed for you. So given that you can take it anywhere, what would be the best home for it? I’m putting it on my nightstand. I’ll never have to get out of bed and boot up a laptop when I get a song idea in the middle of the night!

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