iRig Acoustic Stage - REVIEW

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17 May 2017

iRig Acoustic Stage - REVIEW

I've been getting a number of emails asking about ukulele amplification lately. So hot on the heels of my last look at a ukulele pickup, I'm pleased to bring you another option in the form of the iRig Acoustic Stage.

irig acoustic stage

I suspect iRig will be known to a few of my readers as the people behind the digital interface for connecting an audio output from a ukulele (or guitar) and plugging it into a tablet or smartphone for recording in an app. It's produced by IK Multimedia, an Italian based company that make a wide range of music production and recording gizmos.

The Acoustic Stage is essentially a very small sound hole microphone and associated pre-amp box that works as a microphonic pickup to run to your amplifier, PA or mixing desk. Incidentally they also market the microphone part of this only with an adapter for use with a smartphone or tablet that comes without the pre-amp box. If you want to plug into an amp, mixing desk or PA, then this is the version you would need.

When it comes to amplifying a ukulele, you generally have two main options, the piezo pickup strip or pad or the use of a well placed microphone in front of you. The piezo systems have the benefits of allowing you to move around freely and can be more feedback resistant, but on the downside can often sound somewhat artificial and 'electric'. The microphone option gives a much more faithful airy acoustic tone reproduction, but of course it requires you to play facing the microphone at all times and can be a bother with feedback. The iRig Acoustic stage aims to offer the benefits of both. A microphone that doesn't require you to stay in the same place at all times. And it does that by attaching a small microphone to the sound hole of your instrument. Naturally it also means that you are not carrying around much bulkier microphones and mic stands either.

(An initial note here - because of how the microphone part attaches, this will require a ukulele with a traditional shaped sound hole. I suspect it 'could' fit on to F holes, but if your ukulele has odd slotted sound holes, or small soundholes (like on Applause ukes), I suspect you may be out of luck here. Likewise, I can't see how this would attach to a resonator either. Still, for the vast majority of ukuleles, this will work and I am merely mentioning this here as I know if I don't I WILL get asked)

irig acoustic stage microphone on ukulele

The microphone itself is mounted in the thin, plectrum shaped plastic housing that hooks on the edge of the soundhole. As these are made for guitars as well as ukuleles. I was a little worried that the thin top of a ukulele may make it too loose, but I personally didn't have an issue with my first test uke (an Omega Zedro with a very thin solid top). I tried another ukulele used for the photos, a thin topped Martin Soprano and that had no issue either though it was certainly a bit looser. Finally I attached it to a solid Pono gloss concert that I used in the sound test and video and that was about as loose as the Martin, but still useable and not rattly.  I suppose that 'some' ukuleles may cause an issue however as this is specifically mentioned in the instructions. The answer in the manual is to narrow the slot with some tape. I can see that working, but it might be nicer if they made it adjustable, or provided a rubber insert to slip inside it. Still, a minor gripe I suppose as it simply wasn't an issue for me on three very thin topped ukuleles!

The microphone itself is very small which is great as it really isn't very intrusive at all when playing. The larger triangular shaped part is actually just the mount and the thicker microphone part faces inside the ukulele and out of the way of your hands leaving literally only a millimetre or two above the top of the instrument. The outer mounting also has a kind of soft touch plastic to it, so I can also confirm that I don't see issues with it damaging the finish on your instrument.  It also weighs next to nothing, so you should have no worries about something heavy on the body of your ukulele. And the reason it is so slim is that it uses a MEMS microphone (MicroElectrical Mechanical System). A MEMS microphone uses acoustic sensors layered on silicon wafers making for a very light and small solution compared to a regular diaphragm mic.

irig acoustic stage clipped to ukulele

The microphone element is then connected to the main unit with an ultra mini jack lead from where you then output to your amplifier or other systems with a regular ¼ inch instrument cable. The other advantage of this system is you are not plugging your instrument lead into the ukulele, rather into the box on your belt. In the worst case, if you snag your lead it will pull on the main unit and not on the ukulele itself.

That main unit is powered by a couple of (included) AA batteries and has a host of features for us to look at.

irig acoustic stage main unit inputs

There are two main features on the front of the unit, the large 'Cancel Feeback' button and the 'Tone' section. Dealing with tone first, this gives you three subtly different options of Natural, Warm and Bright, and each option can be set for either steel or nylon strung instruments (so essentially six settings in total, though I think they expect you'd leave it on the three nylon options for a regular ukulele). It's more of a digital signal processor than an EQ as there are no other EQ settings on this box other than these factory set ones. You can calibrate and tweak the options if you wish, but the manual suggests this is not recommended for nylon strung instruments. It might be nice to have a basic EQ option on the box, but I suppose you can always EQ on your amplifier or run it into an EQ pedal first. Saying that, this is a microphone not a piezo, so if it is faithful in tone as promised, there shouldn't necessarily be much need for EQ tweaks like there usually is on a piezo.

irig acoustic stage main unit volume and controls

The Feedback section is the really interesting one for me. You know how I mentioned above that microphones can be problematic with feedback? Well this comes with a solution to that. Play your instrument, and when you hear the howl of feedback building, hit the big red button and it notches out that frequency and cuts the howl out of the signal. Feedback though is a tricky beast as it often occurs on mutiple frequencies, and this is where this gets very clever. If you hear another howl, you just hit the red button again and it adds that to the frequency cut on top. And you can do that up to 10 times. Very nifty and extremely handy for on stage use (which I suspect is why it's called the Acoustic 'Stage').

We also have another ¼ inch jack input socket on the unit which offers yet another clever feature. If your ukulele already has a piezo pickup, you can hook your regular pickup output into this and then blend your piezo signal with the microphone signal using the 'Mix' dial. That's a really clever feature as I know a lot of musicians who like to do that and play a mix of a piezo signal together with a microphone in front of them. It basically gives you a best of both worlds mixing the more artificial sound of the piezo with the more natural sound of the microphone. Basically it's giving you options and it's not essential but a nice addition.

And one of my favourite touches is the regular mini USB port on the unit. Using this and a USB cable you can hook the unit to your laptop  / desktop and use it as a recording interface allowing you to put your chops directly and digitally into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation programme) such as Audacity, GarageBand, Logic etc. That is a brilliant addition in my book and almost worth it for that feature alone when you consider that a half decent audio interface can cost you the best part of what this unit comes in at. It's also worth noting that when it is conncected to a computer in this way, it runs off USB power, so no batteries are required to do this. Heck, if you already have a uke with a piezo, you could run that into the aux socket on this, ignore the microphone and just use this as your USB audio interface!

Elsewhere on the unit we have a phase switch which is always handy with pedals and pre-amps. Basically it allows you to switch the wave form of your output signal about face by 180 degrees to avoid it being in or out of sync with your equipment that can create unwanted wobbles in your sound. We also have a master level output knob that pleasingly can be pushed in to the unit when set to stop you accidentally adjusting it.

irig acoustic stage main unit belt clip

On the back of the box is a belt clip that can also be attached to your instrument strap if you prefer. And it also comes with a nice quality zippered hard case to carry it around in with separate compartments insde for the unit and microphone. And all of that is going to set you back an RRP of £99.  I will say right now that I think that is a superb price when you consider you are getting a microphone, a pre-amp, and a digital interface all in one box.

irig acoustic stage carry case

A word about the construction to start with. First of all the packagaing and presentation I think is rather wonderful. It certainly doesn't feel cheap and it has an air of opening an Apple product about it. The main unit itself is nicely put together. Not overly heavy, but not deperately cheap feeling either despite being made of plastic rather than metal. The buttons and dials work well and feel 'solid' and smooth. That Feedback button being so large is rather inspired as if you start howling mid song, it really is as simply as reaching down to it. You can't miss it. It was however disappointing to see that the jack sockets (or at least their outer surrounds) are plastic and not metal. In my experience, pedals and pre-amps that use plastic sockets are usually prone to the socket mounts breaking after continued use. I don't see sockets like this as being gig proof in the long term.

Another element of the use of plastic that worries me a little is the plastic belt clip and how difficult it is to remove it, which you will need to do each time you access the battery compartment. It's kind of stiff and I suspect might crack over time with repeated use. Plastic does that.

The whole thing is devilishly simple to get set up though. It will take you literally 20 seconds to clip this to your belt, the microphone to the sound hole and the jack into the unit and you are good to go. No taping or gluing required.

The mini cable connecting the microphone to the unit is however extremely thin and I think great care will need to be taken with that over time to ensure it doesn't break. It really is super thin. Saying that, the zippered hard case is excellent quality so as long as you look after your gear and put it away properly after use, you shouldn't have any issues. Still, in the process of putting it away twice as part of this review, I still managed to get it very tangled! I do wonder how this would stand up to regular gigging use. Working musicians tend to want their gear bombproof.

As for the sound, well it really is rather nice. Before the audiophiles chip in and point out that a MEMS microphone will never beat a high end condenser or ribbon mic, no, of course it won't. It's not one of those things and it's not trying to be. But it is still remarkably clean, open, natural and airy for such a small device. Certainly far FAR more natural sounding than a piezo option. In fact, I would suspect that if you played to someone blindfold that most would not be able to tell you were not playing into a regular microphone.

The tone selector changes the sound very subtly, but it does change and it was fun rolling through the various offerings. Even the steel strung settings sound ok to my ears, so I think personal experimentation is the order of the day here. I personally found I liked the Nylon / Warm setting best, but I suspect it may change with different instruments and different people. Some of the settings had my output sound too trebly for my tastes. It's nice that you have the variatnts to find the one that sounds most natural to you though and I certainly liked some more than others. Your mileage may vary.

Some of the initial concerns I had before using it are simply not there. For example, being a microphone I was concerned about what else it would pick up, but there is virtually no noise created by moving the cable around unlike that recent Kremona review I wrote recently. Really none at all. Even body noise from the instrument seems fairly minimal or at least manageable. Being a microphone, if you tap or rub on the body it will pick it up. It's certainly not intrusive or all that difficult to avoid though. And that microphone is directional into the cavity so isn't picking up other things around or in front of you very much. And believe me I did try. With no ukulele playing, if I shouted it picked up my voice a little - but then, any microphone will do that. So it's really no different to a singing ukulele player singing into a dynamic mic and having another microphone pointing at the ukulele - that one pointing at the uke WILL pick up some of the voice and the one you are singing into WILL pick up some of the ukulele.

The feedback button is remarkably good. On first turning the review model on, I had the amplifier close by and the volume set far too high. Cue instant howling feedback but I just tapped the button and it was gone. Bear in mind this was after having the thing in my hands for about 2 minutes total, but it just seemed so intuitive to reach out and hit the button. It cuts the feedback with no fuss and glows red to show it was active. I shifted position and played a few chords and one started some more feedback. Again, one button tap and it was gone. Excellent! One thing I would say here is that notching out frequencies degrades overall tone. The better approach to feedback of couse is to try to avoid it in the first place, leaving your tone as natural as possible without cutting anything. But issues do happen, particularly in certain venues and layouts and it's great to be able to immediately kill it mid set I think. And of course, if you do change position and think your feedback will be gone more naturally, you just hold down the feedback button and all the cut frequencies are restored. Nice.

Turning it off to retreat to my computer to test the USB and BOOM! BANG! A huge audio click / snap in the speaker. Ouch! To be fair, the manual does say to turn the volume down before disconnecting, but naturally I forgot.... as you do... If you did this on stage into an expensive PA and forgot about that you will face the wrath of the sound engineer!! So if you are the sort of performer who stupidly forgets to mute an instrument before unplugging sending a thud to the house speakers... (you KNOW who you are...) beware a similar 'no no' with this one.

Anyway, computer on, and Logic Pro X loaded up. I was truly plug and play. My computer (a Macbook) instantly recognised it as a new device and it worked instantly. Then it was just a case of selecting that device in Logic and it was good to go. I'm not a Windows user, but the box tells me it's compatible with XP, Vista, 7, 8 and 10 using the free ASIO4ALL driver. For Mac it requires OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard) or newer. And no, you don't need to use Logic, it's just what I had on my machine. Running it into something free like Audacity works too. I'd also note that the output over USB is pretty hot and if anything I needed to level it down on the computer. No complaints there as there is nothing worse than a weak input signal that you have to apply gain to and degrade the tone. In fact it's so quick to setup and easy to use for recording that in the duration of writing this review up I have recorded several sound samples with it for future reviews that I will include in Soundcloud links.

And it works just great. A really nice clear sound into the recording software, so no complaints at all here. Again, you can control the tone settings in this method  and blend in your piezo output too. Naturally, the feedback button is somewhat redundant if you are monitoring on headphones, but I suppose if you are using regular monitors, it's still there if you need it.

All in all, I still like this little thing a lot and think it could be a great solution for those wanting to go down the route of amplifying or recording their ukulele but don't want to start drilling or taping gizmos to the instruments nor want to spend money on microphones and mic stands. It really does work, and provides a surprisingly clear and faithful tone. Throw in the feedback control and the ability to hook it to your computer and it really shows its versatility. I remain a little concerned at the build quality of parts of it for relentless gigging use, but if you are a careful musician or want one of these for home studio use you should have no issues in that regard.  I just don't see it standing up to endless gigging.

Rampant audiophiles may say that it doesn't beat a high quality condenser, but I think that is missing the point completely. These will suit those people wanting to dabble in recording and amplifying more than professionals I guess, and at this price point, it makes it very affordable. Not everyone is looking to go out and spend hundreds on a condsenser. Add in the fact this will allow you to move around on stage rather than be stuck in front of your mic, plus the other neat features it offers like working as a USB audio interface, and this gets a recommendation from me... so long as you understand the issues.

Take a look at the video below to have a look and listen, and bear in mind this is a recording of an amplifier, so bear that in mind! The video is really only to show you the features and the feedback function. For that reason, there is also a couple of direct sound recordings of it running in to a computer on the 'nylon warm' setting - no other audio manipulation on the DAW, so this is before any tweaking you would normally consider. No reverb, no effects. It really is comparable to the amplified tone and listening to the samples will give you a better idea than the sound on the video.

Thanks to IK Multimedia for helping to arrange this review.

http://www.ikmultimedia.com


VIDEO REVIEW



SOUND SAMPLES







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9 comments :

  1. I have the older version without the pre-amp box. I have tried to use it for amplification but failed other than to get noise with extremely heavy feedback. It sounds like this model would solve this problem nicely!

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  2. Sounds Brill Barry!

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  3. Just a clarification in your post... the version of iRig Acoustic Stage with the preamp is needed for connecting to an amp/PA. The one without the preamp (aka iRig Acoustic) just connects to a iPad/phone. I think that's what you said, just wasn't clear which one you meant with the "this one"... the Acoustic Stage version does have a USB out, which could also connect to an iOS device or computer, so definitely the most flexibility.

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  4. Yes, that's what the review and video state - this is the 'Acoustic Stage' it's for connecting to an amp / desk or computer. the 'Acoustic' is the one for connecting to iOS - this isn't designed for that.

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  5. Thanks Barry,

    Think I have finally found a solution for amplifying my KoAloha without having to mod the ukulele.

    And I can use it on my other ukuleles too, excellent.

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  6. And I've gone ahead and ordered one.

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  7. Hi Barry,

    This might just be perfect for me to start out with!
    Do you think the musubi soundhole of a Koaloha is 'standard' enough?

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  8. I think it would be fine - you just might need to narrow the clip with some tape to hold it steady

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  9. This arrived about a week ago, and I really, really, like it.

    More natural than the piezo on my 8 string Kanilea.

    It sounds great through the small Roland Cube I have, and great fun just playing around with all the different effects the Cube has.

    On a more helpful note it fits my KoAloha KTM-00 just fine.

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