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TechTalk: My Little Helpers

TechTalk: My Little Helpers

I remember the first time I heard the term “mobile apps.” It was 2005, in the pre-smartphone era when Mix editor Tom Kenny asked me to hunt down some candidates for a feature. After much searching, and trying to imagine the potential for portable audio companion apps that in large part hadn’t yet been defined, I found there wasn’t much that was useful or mobile. Now, I don’t go a day without using one or more as a helpmate for engineering, writing, teaching or just living life.

The app I’m most excited about these past few weeks is the new Aratechlabs Arapolarmic app for the iPad. It lets you use an iPad’s camera and display to monitor the directivity of microphones in real time. You just match the “real” mic’s orientation with a picture of it from the gallery, and once the app syncs, it displays a movable and scalable overlay of the polar pattern.

I’d been following the progress of the app, which at first was just YouTube videos, and was texting back and forth with Michel Guerra from Aratechlabs. The company’s name is part acronym, which stands for “Augmented Reality Audio Technology.” At first, the name set off my BS alarm until I got my hands on the app. It’s not so much for pros who understand polar patterns and how they shape the tracks we record. But for teaching, it is unparalleled in how it makes something largely imagined and invisible, tangible and instantly understood. Just last week I used it with a group of high school students in for a summer recording camp at The Blackbird Academy. You could see the light bulbs popping on as I moved the iPad around a Royer R-121 and explained how a figure-8 pattern captures the sound around the mic. “No Way!” Way.

Arapolarmic is not just the Philip K. Dick stuff, though; there is a page with full specs on each mic, output voltage graphs and polar diagrams across a number of frequencies, a picture gallery and more. As with early versions of anything, it’s sometimes clunky and the list of mics available on the app are limited. But having AEA, Audio-Technica, Audix, Royer, Beyerdynamic, EV, Lewitt, Mojave, Schoeps, Telefunken and Violet onboard for starters is pretty darn good. Teachers, keep your eyes on this one.

Last month I wrote about my switch from an iPhone to the new Galaxy S5, which means I had to find Android equivalents of all my favorite Apple-compatible audio apps. The good news for Android users is that there are some great, and mostly free, apps to be had. For example, when you’re tuning vocals and need the key of a song, the simple octave-and-a-third Perfect Piano is, well, “perfect.” It’s designed for giving piano lessons, but for key-hunting it works great, and even has the names of the keys and octaves if you’re not a player.

Echolalia is free and beats iPhone’s BPM hands down. It lets you tap or type in a tempo and gives you eight delay breakdowns in milliseconds, from a whole note to 1/128th note. The GUI is simple and fast, there are no ads, and you can easily change the delays to triplets or dotted notes.

RTA Analyzer from RadonSoft is free and usable as is, but RTA Pro (3.99 Euro) offers 40, 60 and 120 bands, permanent calibration, different peak-hold times, adjustable integration time, RMS/peak/frequency display options, and you can freeze and save the image. Of course you’re limited by the phone’s microphone but who knows where this will go? RadonSoft makes other useful apps including a spectral audio analyzer, a signal generator, and a noise and sweep generator.

ProAudio Tools is a decibel meter calibrated with a B&K Type 2236 Sound Level Meter. It has a flip screen option for better audio capture, selectable time responses, calibration function, and also offers the ability to show/hide common SP Ls. From the odds ’n’ ends department, PitchLab and DaTuner Lite are two tuners that can come in handy when the talent doesn’t come prepared.

Not to say that Apple doesn’t have some fantastic options also. Audio Tool from Performance Audio is a bundle of six apps that offers a decibel meter, tempo calculator, tone generator, sample/bit, drive space calculator, and an app that turns your iOS device into an ad hoc talkback mic with an on/off switch and more. It’s $1.99.

Having all these great tools in your hands while you teach, record, mix, overdub and communicate with musicians is a great way to offer more to the client, communicate with the next generation of engineers, and bring more tech to your sessions. And when you’re done, you can call a friend to tell them about your new portable audio toys.