Hallelujah! I found it. An iPad dock that works with contemporary iPads! The Focusrite iTrack iPad Recording Dock! I admit, I totally missed out on the start of the iPad dock movement. Didn’t even know they were a thing, despite walking past them umpteen times on the way back to the rental counter in my neighborhood fantasy factory/music store.
Spending part of the summer in Germany and packing only carry-on, I knew I was going to do some recording, so packed up were a guitar interface and a stereo mic that plugs into the Lightning connector of current generation iPads and iPhones. It worked, but it was clumsy. I survived on borrowed instruments, including the world’s heaviest Stratocaster-style guitar — likely a product of former East Germany and possibly made entirely of lead. Tracking required changing interfaces and trusting monitor duties to headphones, always a risky proposition. It can be done. I came away with partially completed songs, but nothing fully developed, deciding that the improvised nature of tracking this way was just too random.
I packed an iPad Air. When I first saw the iPad docks offered by Behringer (Review) and Alesis (Review), my excitement went through the roof. Just what would have made the process so much easier. In concept anyway. It turns out that the Behringer doesn’t support non-30-pin iPads, and while the Alesis does, anything after Generation 4 doesn’t really fit.
Then I found the Focusrite iTrack Dock. It’s compatible with (almost) any Lightning connector iPad and it’s the most compact and transportable of the bunch. Putting the iTrack through the paces shows it’s worth packing.
The problem that doomed the Behringer and Alesis designs was the three-sided cradle concept. When Apple started changing sizes and connectors, it instantly kills any design built around dimensions. Focusrite’s solution is a beauty. Two-sided cradle with a sliding multiple position Lightning connector. It’s one of those solutions that seems so obvious it’s a wonder other manufacturers failed so badly.
The iTrack is barely larger than an iPad Air. The sliding connector is part one of the versatility solution. The second is the fact that the cradle cups the tablet only along the bottom edge. Sliding into the slot from the right, the tablet presses onto the connector on the left side of the cradle. An iPad Air hangs over the top and right sides. It’s not as secure as a three-side cradle, but it permits flexibility. There’s a recessed space on the surface of the iTrack into which a slip mat fits, giving a friction hold with the back of the tablet.
So finally we have a dock that takes contemporary iPads! Connections are on the back panel and controls lay on the left side of the tablet. Here’s what the iTrack offers:
Rear face, left to right:
- Power supply socket
- On/off switch
- USB MIDI port
- Stereo monitor outputs
- Input 2 XLR mic and ¼-inch line inputs
- +48V Phantom power button
- Input 1 XLR mic and ¼-inch line inputs
- Hi-Z Instrument input on Input 1
Top face, left side, top to bottom:
- Power and 48V indicator LEDs
- Gain 01 and 02 rotary knobs
- Direct monitor button
- Headphone volume knob
- Monitor level knob
There’s also a headphone jack all by its lonesome on the right side, conveniently not routing the headphone cable across your business area, as so many mixers do.
From an app standpoint, the iTrack is Core Audio compliant, so it gets along with most apps that are also use Core Audio, a standard for the iPad platform.
My only complaint here is that there’s not Mac or PC connectivity. While it’s not an intended use for the iTrack’s design, a connector to a software DAW would be fun to play with.
Check out the Focusrite video of Gavin James recording with the iTrack, and you’ll see how elegant a solution this is for demos, songwriting and general recording duty:
Here’s where it gets good. Focusrite is the name behind the Scarlett line of USB interfaces, known for their quality sound and digital conversion. Well, guess where the guts of the iTrack come from? These are some sweet sounding preamps in this here dock.
There is a known issue with iOS 9.2 that causes intermittent clicks and pops, like buffer overrun noise, occurring on recordings. The problem was solved with the iOS 9.3 update.
Otherwise, I had no issues with the sound quality, nor did other users. In fact, the sound outweighs the price substantially. The iPad Air is capable of pretty darn good audio quality, and with Focusrite handling the input, the wow factor is there. This is good sounding gear.
A number of negative reviews talk about dropping the iPad out of the iTrack or breaking off the connector. While the iTrack has some vulnerability there, anyone using this device with enough disregard to dump the tablet or snap off the connector may not be temperamentally suited for the recording process. The iTrack has a gentle incline and though the larger iPads overhang, it’s far from precarious. This is a stable tabletop unit. I wouldn’t be taking it out on tour, but it will handle reasonable use in a home studio, which is obviously its intent. This is a heck of a piece of gear for under $200. However, it’s under $200. I’m sure crash testing didn’t enter Focusrite’s mind. The build is reasonable for its price and the quality of the electronics surpasses the price.
One caveat: The Apple 12.9” iPad Pro changes the scale again. This tablet is the only current model that doesn’t connect with the iTrack on the cradle bed. It’s possible to purchase adapter cables to extend the reach of the iTrack. These extension cables do indeed work but are not MFI certified (Made for iOS), so official support for the larger iPad Pro.
Given that the Alesis dock scored amazingly low in user reviews (including mine), and Behringer did better but not by much, there was the passing thought that maybe iPad dock users are just vicious types all around, despite the fact their opinions matched my findings for the most part.
With an average score about 4.5 out of 5 stars, there’s lots of love to be had among iTrack users. This supports my impressions as well.
One very nice feature of Focusrite iTrack iPad Recording Dock can be found in the user reviews on Amazon. All the bad and ugly reviews received a personal response from Chris Ready, Customer Experience Manager at Focusrite Novation. If you need a lesson in how to do customer service the right way, read through Chris’s responses. They’re reasonable, helpful and informative. Focusrite seems to be that rare commercial entity: an honest company that cares about its customers. If that doesn’t give you warm fuzzies, your heart is harder than mine, and I’m rated at least a cubic zirconia.
One more negative iPad dock review and I may have given up all hope for a sunny future for humanity. Then came the iTrack. This device is certified by Apple as Made for iPad, and it really is. All the promise of extended connectivity, device compatibility and solid performance is fulfilled here. It’s even reasonably priced.
I won’t quite call this a game changer, however for simple and professional results, the iTrack delivers. This device is the real thing. Recommended.