iZotope Spire Studio review: 'Record anywhere' really means anywhere

It's not often you come across really rad smart music accessories, and the Spire Studio is a breath of fresh air and a humongous step in the right direction for the future of mobile recording. Stop recording sloppy demos with your iPhone's microphone and check out the Spire Studio. Just be prepared to fork over some dough (especially in Canada — yikes!).

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A studio in the palm of your hands

That's a literal statement. Think of a pack of rewritable CDs you can buy at any electronics store. That's basically the size of the Spire Studio, but the Spire's diameter is even smaller, so it really fits in the palm of your hand. It's magnificent what such a small thing can do. And, you just have to charge it up and you have yourself a cable-free mobile studio, so you can take it to the park or wherever your travels may lead you, and it'll work for 4 to 6 hours, promises iZotope.

It really fits in the palm of your hand.

You have everything you need to start recording: two rear inputs that double as XLR and quarter-inch jacks (including phantom power for your mics that need it), simple record and play buttons, a "Soundcheck" button, a "New Song" button, and a headphone volume button.

Download the Spire app for iPhone (sorry, Android users, including myself), connect to your Spire via Wi-Fi, and you're ready to go. The best part is that, if you've forgotten your phone, you can just record right to the Spire, and it'll sync up with the app the next time you connect. That's gold, Jerry. Gold.

How it works

The Spire is about as straightforward as you could hope. You quite literally turn it on, and hit record. Or, you turn it on, connect with the app, and hit record. That's really all you need to know to get started. The built-in microphone is excellent. I recorded acoustic guitar, vocals, and even drums, and they all sounded great. Thanks to the magical Soundcheck button, your levels are automatically set — you hit the button, play for 10 seconds, and boom. You can also manually set your levels, which I actually liked a little better for drums, but do what sounds best to you. I was actually very pleasantly surprised by how well the Spire balanced out the drum kit, and there was virtually no clipping — and that's in an echoey, unfinished basement at that.

The Soundcheck button is magical and creates an excellent balance.

You'll probably want your own metronome if you want to record to a click track with drums (or an awesome pair of noise-isolating headphones), but other than that, it works well.

You can record up to eight tracks in a single session, so you can lay down drums, then plug in headphones to lay down guitar and bass, and then do up your vocals. I like recording acoustic guitar and vocals the best. Hit the soundcheck button, play and sing a bit together, and it ends up perfectly balanced — it's glorious.

You can add recording effects before you hit record to change the shape of your sound, and if you're plugging electric guitars in directly, you have your choice of a couple amps, where can alter tremolo, reverb, brightness, and other cool settings.

The "Acoustic Shaper" effect is pretty awesome, adding a lovely, almost haunting reverb, which you can crank or turn down to your pleasure. I did a quick cover of "Ache With Me" by Against Me! and was able to get that cool, reverby "ch-ah" breath sound with it. It's cool enough when you can record your own rough songs ideas on the fly, but when you can do covers and actually full-on emulate recordings, that's rad as hell.

Electric instruments

Electric guitar is a bit of a sticking point for me when it comes to the Spire. I first tried with my Epiphone ES-339, which has two humbucking pickups, and even clean it was too much for the Spire (even after using the Soundcheck setting). It was a little overblown and distorted.

Stick with delay pedals — OD and distortion are gonna ruin your signal.

I then tried my American Standard Strat, which has humbuckers on the bridge, and clean was gorgeous, even with the tone switch in fourth position, and I even added the Hot Tubes side of my EHX Hot Wax overdrive pedal, and that wasn't too bad, but once I kicked in the Crayon side and added more distortion, the signal was fully distorted. I also tried to get a dirty sound with my Super Badass distrotion from Dunlop, and that signal was also overblown, even after soundchecking and turning down the volume knob on my strat.

So I'd say stick with delay, trem, and other non-distorting effects pedals if you don't want a muddy tone. Or, even better, just plug in a microphone and mic your amp instead.

A solid app with a couple caveats

The Spire app is wonderfully straightforward and makes excellent use of 3D Touch. When you're trimming a track, if you firmly press the slider, it'll play the part of the track you're at, so you can trim with precision. The only downside is that you can't slide the tracks at all, so if you're recording multiple tracks, you'll want to get things perfectly in time (where the metronome feature comes in handy!).

The other minor annoyance is the inability to listen to audio from your iPhone when you're recording with the Spire unit itself. Say you'd rather lay down drums after your record guitars — you'd have to plug headphones into the Spire unit in order to hear playback. It can be done; it's just a little cumbersome.

You can trim, mix, and even export individual tracks to tweak them in other apps.

The Mix section is really cool, since you can mix each track the way you'd like it, and even set the fade right or left. You just can't adjust the mix for certain parts of each track; you set the level for a particular track, and that's how it's set for the whole song. That being said, if you export individual tracks to another program, you can adjust them there. The Spire is really about just getting your ideas down to turn them into perfection later on.

Sharing is caring and easy as pie

One of the best features of the Spire Studio is just how easy it is to share your recorded projects. You can simply AirDrop your stuff right from the iPhone app to your Mac, which is ridiculously convenient, or you can email files, send them as texts, send 'em straight to social media or SoundCloud, and even export the individual tracks to work on them after in GarageBand or wherever you like to tweak your music. That makes the the Spire the perfect demo tool.

Celebrity endorsements

I don't usually care to much when a celebrity hypes a product — they're usually paid quite well, and I don't tend to trust anyone's opinion when money's involved.

That being said, one of my absolute favorite musicians (Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!) recorded a fun song using a Spire Studio, and I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me want a Spire of my own just a little bit. Check out "Park Life Forever" in Spire's video below. It's a fun behind-the-scenes look at Laura Jane recording using the Spire, while chatting about the tune's inspiration. "Park Life Forever" is a far cry from "Baby, I'm an Anarchist," but it's a cute, happy way to showcase the Spire's spur-of-the-moment spirit.

And here's the full making of video, where you can watch Grace record the whole tune:

If that's not the most wholesome thing you've seen today, then I don't know what is.

How much?

For $349 US, you get a full-on studio that fits in your backpack. Edit on the fly, record, effects, the works. The app is free to download as well. It just sucks living in Canada right now, where this thing costs me upwards of $500. I feel like that's a bit of a tall order, but if you're a serious musician, then it's likely worth it to you.

Should you buy it? Hell yes

The longer I play with the Spire Studio, the more I absolutely love it. It's incredibly convenient when you have a random idea for a tune and you can just go grab it, pick up an acoustic guitar, and lay it down on the fly. No need to plug it in (provided it's charged), no need to turn on a computer, hell no need to even pick up your phone if you don't want to add any effects or anything. Just soundcheck, play, boom.

If you want a super convenient way to do up demos and even create full songs, with built-in effects, mixing, and more, then yes, you should pick up a Spire Studio for yourself. It's convenient, multi-faceted, and just as great as you'd hope.

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Mick Symons

Mick is a staff writer who's as frugal as they come, so he always does extensive research (much to the exhaustion of his wife) before making a purchase. If it's not worth the price, Mick ain't buying.