Creativity on demand. It’s an interesting concept to ponder when looking at the diversity of iOS apps and hardware that focus on music creation in the mobile space. There are countless single purpose apps that democratize music creation, distilling the essentials into single serving applications that empower the least musical among us to create something magical. And Apple’s own Garage Band allows for multi track recording of real instruments that can be combined with any number of smart instruments and samples, making us all virtual composers. It’s an exciting time to experiment, wherever and whenever the opportunity presents itself.
As a musician and music producer, these tools and their professional counterparts allow me to capture my band’s ideas and turn them in to albums. And the new Apogee One is more than just an audio interface for the Mac and iOS. It’s an audio Swiss army knife whose mobility opens up a lot of innovative options whether in the studio or on the road.
Apogee has been making audio hardware used by professional musicians and producers for decades and their equipment is consistently recognized in the industry as some of the best around. The One benefits from Apogee’s pedigree and their historic attention to detail.
The device itself is a slim device dominated by a large control knob that when pressed allows you to select between the microphone, instrument input or device output and when rotated controls the input gain or output volume respectively. An indicator strip along the top informs you which function is currently selected, and a pair of three segment LEDs serve as an input or output meter.
A breakout cable attaches to the top of the unit that allows you to connect an external microphone or 1/4 inch instrument cable. A mini USB connector serves as the interface between the Mac or an iOS device. And the bottom of the One features a 1/8 inch stereo output for connecting to external speakers or headphones.
Inconspicuously located near the top of the device is an integrated condenser microphone which is not only quite capable of capturing great audio, it also speaks to some of the innovative use cases for the One that we’ll get in to later in the review.
When connected to a Mac or iOS device, the Apogee Maestro software allows finer control to all of the One’s characteristics. Users of Apogee’s other products will be familiar with Maestro, but suffice to say, it serves as a miniature mixer to control input and output mixing and set the device sample rate.
In the Studio
Using the Apogee One is a mostly plug and play affair. Once connected to the Mac, I fired up Logic Pro X and opened up one of my current project files. As a core audio compliant device, the Apogee One was instantly recognized and presented two inputs, reflecting the mic input and the instrument input respectively. Switching between the integrated mic or the dedicated mic input is accomplished within Maestro, selected either ‘Int Mic’, ‘Ext Mic’ or ‘Ext Mic 48V’ for microphones requiring phantom power. As you may have guessed, recording with both the internal mic and an external mic is not possible.
I normally use an Apogee Duet II in my studio for recording with my band, or a Presonus StudioLive 16.0.2 for multitrack recording, and while portable, that equipment is normally left in the studio for sessions. Wanting to record some acoustic guitar at home, I hooked up a Shure KSM32 studio mic and started laying down some takes. The sound quality was nearly identical to the Duet II, with the only major difference being the lack of Apogee’s Soft Limiter that allows you to push the input gain a little higher than normal. But Apogee’s A/D converters are as flawless here as in their other products with a noise floor that’s effectively nonexistent. I then switched to bass and recorded a few scratch tracks using a direct 1/4 inch connection with Logic’s amp modeling with some great results that may make the cut in the end.
Mixing in my home studio was equally pleasant as I was able to leverage the same A/D converters that I normally use at my bigger studio. Whether listening to playback on headphones or through my near field monitors, there was ample headroom and clarity that are so critical in making good mix decisions.
On the Road
If having an affordably priced and studio-grade preamp and A/D converter in your home studio sounds enticing, being able to take that package on the road is the Apogee One’s other killer feature. This hardware is designed to be portable. It’s USB bus powered and not terribly bulky, so you can throw it in your laptop bag and work on mixes or record tracks in the field with ease.
But there’s more to the Apogee One than straight up portability. First is iOS compatibility. The hardware can be used as an audio interface for any core-audio compliant app on the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. Separate cables are available for the 30-pin dock connector or for newer devices that feature the Lightning connector. The One can be controlled either via the control knob on the device or via the Maestro app, which functions similarly to its Mac-based counterpart.
As I mentioned at the top of this review, the One also features a studio-quality condenser microphone. When I read about the feature, I was incredibly dismissive. I thought including a microphone in a professional recording interface was a gimmick and not worth the added expense. But then I tried it out, and I can honestly say this microphone is better than it has any right to be. It’s warm and full sounding, outclassing Apogee’s dedicated USB and iOS-capable MiC. The preamps, with up to 63db of gain, have plenty of headroom to work with any kind of acoustic sound. Recordings of spoken voice in a mock podcast, or vocals or my acoustic guitar were faithfully captured and rendered in my recording software. There was more room sound than I was used to with pro-level studio microphones which could be dealt with by watching the amount of gain used and some post-production enhancements. An additional clip accessory can attach the One to a mic stand for use in a variety of scenarios. And having this caliber of microphone available on the go without having to haul additional gear will be a powerful addition to my arsenal.
The additional value doesn’t end here either. Put two AA batteries into the back of the unit and the One can provide phantom power to condenser microphones when used on iOS devices. The One can also serve as a headphone amplifier for listening to any audio on iOS, leveraging their excellent D/A converters to drive high end studio headphones. If you haven’t listened to your music collection without the benefit of a dedicated headphone amplifier, it can be an ear-opening experience. Here, the One bypasses the built-in Apple hardware and does all of the sound processing itself, resulting in plenty of gain to drive large diaphragm headphones and deliver an excellent soundstage.
The One isn’t perfect however. While it delivers incredible value because of its versatility, there are a few challenges to keep in mind when using the One. First, while you can simultaneously record from both the microphone input and instrument input, you cannot use both the on-board mic and microphone input at the same time. For example, it would be great to record both an acoustic guitar and a vocal performance in a singer-songwriter scenario, but the guitar and vocal performance would have to be tracked separately. And similarly, leveraging the onboard mic with a separate external mic eliminates stereo recording options as well, though this is less of a problem given the challenges of matching the sound characteristics of two different microphones. Musicians wanting stereo applications can look to the new Apogee Duet which equally supports Mac and iOS configurations, though in a less-portable package than the One.
Additionally, there are limitations on iOS that are more of a fault of that platform. While Audiobus has gone a long way towards solving many of these with other apps, Apple’s own GarageBand app is a constant cause of frustration for me. While the software instruments and smart instruments make it easy for anyone to create music, recording from acoustic sources continues to be more difficult than it needs to be. When using the One, it is possible to record from either the built in mic, an external mic or the instrument input, but not so much when trying to record a combination of a mic input and instrument input. GarageBand can only make a single stereo recording, which pans the two inputs to the extreme left and right and does not let you edit them independently. These limitations do not exist on any of the Mac software I tested with, including GarageBand and Logic for the Mac.
Overall, this is a serious piece of hardware for a serious musician who wants one of the best and versatile interfaces for their Mac or iOS device. That’s not to be an exclusionary statement, however, but when you consider the $349 price tag for a single-input device (or dual-input in a mic + instrument configuration only), it’s hard to ignore that there are less expensive options on the market. Though the competition isn’t going to have breadth of features nor the same quality in recordings. And if you consider that you’re getting not only one of the best and most portable recording interfaces made, it includes a more than capable condenser microphone, the One starts to look like a deal.