iPad accessories have seemingly reached a tipping point in the music production market in the past year. Major audio gear sites like Sweetwater now feature "iPad" as one of their major product categories right alongside DJ, guitar and computer recording. There are even concrete subcategories forming within this world to separate things like guitar jacks and keyboards from the more multi-functional docks and interfaces. One of the more interesting recent announcements in the studio-centric genre was the iTrack Solo, a two-channel compact external audio interface made by Focusrite. We were intrigued by the form factor and price, and when we read that the iTrack Solo has the same preamps as Focusrite's flagship Liquid Saffire 56 interface (which retails for $1299), we had to get our hands on it.
At first glance, the iTrack Solo is reminiscent of another of Focusrite's products, the Scarlett 2i2. The design is very similar, especially on the front panel, where two inputs are paired with LED-ringed gain knobs that provide a visual display of the incoming signal. To the right of the inputs is a large volume knob identical to the one on the 2i2, and on the iTrack this knob controls both the 1/4" headphone jack on the front panel and the RCA outputs on the rear. The iTrack is just about the same compact size as the 2i2 as well—at 6x4x2 inches the only difference is the width (the iTrack is smaller by an inch). It won't add too much weight to your bag either, as it comes in at just about one pound.
There are some noticeable differences between the iTrack and its more pro-grade Focusrite siblings, though. Instead of the convenient combo jacks of the Scarlett, which can accept both microphone (XLR) and 1/4" (TRS) cables, the iTrack provides one standard XLR input and one 1/4" unbalanced TS input. Further, the Scarlett's inputs can be switched to accommodate the source of the 1/4" input, so your gain range is useful, whether you're recording from a drum machine or directly from an electric guitar. This feature is missing from the iTrack solo—its instrument input is hardwired with a high impedance that's designed to record from a guitar or bass. The result of this is a design that strongly guides users into a pattern of recording a maximum of two separate sources using a microphone and an instrument like a guitar or bass directly.
So with that understanding, how does the unit perform? We tried it out with two different iPad models (the second and third gen), recording various sources into the microphone input using a Rode NT-1A (thanks to the 48v phantom power supplied by the iTrack Solo). Connecting the iTrack to an iPad with the included breakout cable was quite simple, but we were a bit disappointed with how short the cable was. It requires the iPad to be placed right next to the iTrack Solo, and the rigidity of the cable along with the length all but eliminates the possibility of picking the iPad up once it's connected. According to Focusrite this was due to an Apple regulation regarding noise interference for iPad accessories, and they have a list of suggested extension cables on their site for users who need a bit more wiggle room.
Once we got over that, we tried recording a handful of sources using a few different apps, including Apple GarageBand, Intua Beatmaker 2 and Native Instruments' iMaschine. Some apps, like Beatmaker or GarageBand, allow you to specifically choose which input to record from—which is essential for interfaces like the iTrack Solo, because in the apps that don't, you'll most likely be unable to use the instrument input. The quality of the preamp lived up to its reputation, with a sense of clarity and depth that we were unaccustomed to coming from an iPad. Monitoring using a set of professional headphones via the iTrack's dedicated headphone output made getting the sound we were looking for surprisingly easy.
There are a couple of other positive factors to the iTrack Solo. The first is the collection of software that comes bundled with it. The Lite version of Ableton Live 8 and a full version of Focusrite's Scarlett Plugin Suite are both included. You may wonder why they included two pieces of software intended for use on a PC or Mac for an iPad / iPhone device. The answer to that question provides a neat segue to the other nice feature of the iTrack. When using the iTrack with an iPad or iPhone, the USB port on the back panel provides power via a USB power adapter—but this port also allows the iTrack solo to be used as a USB-powered audio interface on the PC or Mac. Focusrite provides the necessary drivers on their website free of charge.
To sum it all up, we came away pleased with the iTrack Solo, but were left feeling like it was designed more for casual use than for professional music production work. The unbalanced RCA outputs and the feature-limited inputs seem like shortcomings when compared to its closest sibling, the Scarlett 2i2. These complaints may seem overly demanding until you take a look at the prices of the two and realize that the 2i2 actually costs slightly less (at $149 compared to the iTrack's current price of $159). If only Focusrite had put an iPad adapter port on the 2i2, we would be overjoyed with the possibility of such a flexible mobile audio interface. As it stands now, we were happy with the quality of the converters and would still recommend it to anyone who may fit into the microphone-and-instrument recording paradigm.