What’s up Gear Mortals? Trey Xavier here. Today we’re taking a look at the iZotope Spire Studio, a recording device with 2 inputs and an onboard condenser microphone, that you can run using your iOS or Android device. It allows you to record and “mix” (volume and panning) up to 8 tracks with onboard effects and amp modeling.
Let’s start by talking about iZotope in general. These wizards make software that I use every single day, and it is black magic if I’ve ever seen it. Their DeNoise, DeReverb, and DeClick plugins (from their RX Suite) are invaluable tools for audio, especially for video audio, when sometimes the audio you captured can’t be re-tracked and needs repair. Not to mention their Ozone mastering software. Their plugins are untouchable, and used by hacks like me and Hollywood professionals every single day to make miracles happen.
The Spire Studio is their first foray into the world of hardware, and although it has some cool features, at the end of the day it’s left me asking why they’ve left the safety of a field they dominate to dabble in physical products.
To understand why I feel this way, we need to take a look at what the Spire does and how it operates, and the kinds of choices iZotope has made along the way – and then compare it to the alternatives. The main selling point of the Spire is its simplicity. It’s mostly very easy to use, and once you get the hang of how it works, you can get up and running very quickly. The controls on the face of the Spire are pretty intuitive, with a cool touch strip for adjusting output volume and track levels, and big friendly Play and Record buttons for idiot-proof functionality. There’s two combo jack inputs on the back, and two headphone outputs so you can record with a friend.
The Soundcheck function sets the input gain level automatically, just hit it and start playing as loud as you’re going to and it will keep you from clipping the input (on almost anything, drums up close were a problem). Once again, trying to idiot-proof the process. Set the metronome with a couple taps, and away you go. The Spire syncs with the app over wi-fi so you’re recording to the Spire’s internal hard drive, but the tracks are also on your device so you can edit (kinda) and mix (sort of) them.
But for me, that’s where the features end. Once you start recording, you come up against the unit’s hard limitations. 8 tracks per song isn’t much, especially considering it’s an entire dedicated piece of hardware. There are a whopping total of 3 internal amp sims – an AC30, a Twin, and a bass amp of some kind. These and the effects that come included (mostly ambient and time-based effects) print to the track when you record them, so (as Stewie says in an episode of Family Guy) “Once it’s in there, you can’t get it out.”
The track editing is extremely limited and not very easy, as the automatic zooming in and out doesn’t let you set a level of zoom and leave it – it zooms when it wants, to one level, and then zooms back out when you lift your finger off. This makes accurate cutting and punching in nearly impossible and very frustrating.
The microphone on the front of the device sounds great, there’s no question about that. I made the mistake of slathering my vocal in the “Warm Vocal” effect, which after mixing left me with way too much reverb (there’s an adjustment level for it, but once again, if you set it wrong during tracking, you’re stuck with it. But otherwise I would have had a pretty solid sound to work with. But I think their claims of “Sound like a pro with studio-quality, built-in microphone” may be a bit strong.
I also encountered a fatal error that left me stunned and beyond frustrated – more than halfway through recording the demo for the video, I watched my song file disappear before my eyes. I literally saw the song title disappear off the main page with no prompting from me whatsoever, I wasn’t even touching either device at the time. Luckily, I’d backed up the project to the cloud about 20 minutes before, so I didn’t lose absolutely everything – just a lot.
I wouldn’t condemn the Spire studio entirely on the basis of this single event of what I’m sure is just a glitch that most people won’t experience, but I did nearly throw it into a wall and give up on the review entirely.
As a mainly rock and metal guitarist, I was also bummed at the lack of any kind of high gain amp sim in the bunch. Really, just having 2 guitar amp models that serve the same function is a bit lame, and I hope a future firmware update will bring in a couple more. There are no drum loops or the ability to create drum tracks anywhere in the Spire or its app.
All in all, what I’m looking for now is a very compelling reason why I should use this over a mobile interface and the Garage Band app (32 tracks, a plethora of amp models, MIDI, libraries chock full of samples and drum loops, virtual keyboard, non-printing effects, etc.). Why do I need to record to a separate piece of hardware if I have to use my device to control it anyway? What’s the advantage to having a bulky thing when you can’t do everything on it by itself? Mobile recording is ludicrous right now, you can do sooooo much on just your device, I would expect for something standalone to at least consider competing with that.
Had they simply added a plug to allow the Spire to be used as an interface, we’d be having a very different conversation, although I wouldn’t use it for its internal recording capabilities or the included app, but instead as a gateway to the many, more powerful mobile DAWs on the market. An interface with a built-in, high-quality microphone starts to approach the value that the asking price of $349 promises, but not for an all-proprietary ecosystem that’s this limiting. The wireless aspect is a selling point that they’ve really been hammering on, but in this case it seems to actually hamstring the functionality of it, and I don’t really think it being wireless is in any way important or cool since it’s virtually chained to your device anyway.
Of course, I’m not dumb – this isn’t meant as an alternative to going to Sphere and spending $2k a day with a professional engineer and a million dollar room and mic locker. This is for making songwriting demos remotely, quickly, and with as little hassle as possible. I can dig that – but when you’re forced to use your device with it anyway, and with so many alternatives that do that same thing better and cheaper, who is the Spire actually for?
I’ll be waiting for the Spire 2 to add a USB cable connection and the ability to record straight to it without needing to use a device before plopping down my hard-earned tree fiddy.
You can learn more about the Spire on the iZotope website here.