Review: Belkin TuneStudio
The introduction of the fifth-generation (5G) iPod brought not only the ability to watch video on Apple’s portable media player, but also the option to record CD-quality (16-bit, 44.1kHz) audio with an add-on microphone. This capability was later inherited by the full-size iPod classic and the diminutive second-generation (2G) and third-generation (3G) iPod nano. Belkin has taken advantage of this recording feature to construct the $249 TuneStudio ( ), a four-track mixing console that works not only as a USB audio interface, but can also record to and play back from a 5G iPod, 2G or 3G iPod nano, or iPod classic that’s slipped into the TuneStudio’s iPod dock. The TuneStudio works as advertised, though some may wish that it were a bit more flexible.
Controls and construction
The TuneStudio looks much like a traditional four-track mixing console. You’re offered four input channels. Channels one and two include both quarter-inch inputs (guitar plug) as well as XLR inputs, with separate gain knobs for these latter two channels. Phantom power (+48V power that some microphones require to operate) is also available to these two channels. Channel three offers left and right quarter-inch inputs. And channel four provides left and right RCA inputs. Output is confined to two quarter-inch monitor jacks and a quarter-inch headphone jack (a 1/8-inch miniplug to quarter-inch audio adapter is included in the box to assist those whose headphones lack a quarter-inch jack).
The board also includes a USB port, a power button, and a Recording Menu button that brings up the recording screen on 2G iPod nanos and 5G iPods (although the TuneStudio also works with the 3G iPod nano and iPod classic, this button has no effect on them). There’s also a Compressor button that, when pressed, ensures that audio is within the recording limits of the iPod (and to make quieter sounds louder without also increasing sounds that are already loud). You can operate the board without the compressor but you’ll need to keep an eye on the meters so you don’t overdrive the audio going to the iPod. A knob below the Compressor button allows you to control how much compression is applied.
Speaking of knobs, the four channels bear the kind of knobs you’d find on inexpensive mixers: Level, Pan, and separate Low, Mid, and High EQ controls. There are individual level knobs for headphone and monitor playback as well as a master level knob. Two knobs allow you to control the volume coming from the iPod and from the USB interface. With another knob you can mix the proportion of iPod level to USB level.
Not surprising for a $249 mixing board/USB audio interface, the TuneStudio feels a little cheap. The knobs give the impression that they could break off with slightly rough treatment and they don’t turn in a completely fluid way. Given that, this is not a device to carelessly throw into a backpack or computer bag.
Likes and limitations
When I was a younger man, struggling with tape-based four-track recorders, I would have killed for something like the TuneStudio. The audio it produces is clean and its board offers plenty of gain. Having the ability to plug a few instruments into a mixer and record hours of CD-quality audio with the touch of a button is a real boon. And there’s unquestionably an advantage to a recording device that doesn’t require you to be connected to a computer and one that lets you record to a storage device as capacious yet portable as the iPod.
But I’d like more.
To begin with, the board offers no way to insert effects. If you want to apply effects to your guitar or reverb to your voice, you’ll need to do it before it gets to the board, if you’re recording directly to the iPod, or add it when you mix your project in the editor on your computer.
While the board features two-to-three usable inputs for guitar players and vocalists, I’d like to see greater love for keyboard players. Specifically, how about a couple MIDI ports so that when you use the TuneStudio as a computer interface, keyboard players (or drummers with MIDI controllers) can be recorded at the same time as the other members of the band (and without taking valuable audio inputs in the process)?
And while I’m on the subject of recording multiple inputs, it’s a little strange that a multi-channel mixing board that contains a USB interface doesn’t support multi-channel recording on a computer. Plug the TuneStudio into your Mac, fire up GarageBand, choose the TuneStudio as your input source, and you’ll discover that you can record on only two tracks—Left and Right—simultaneously. This is fine if you’ve got a guitar plugged into Channel one, a microphone connected to Channel two, and split each channel to a separate GarageBand track, but then Channels three and four are going to waste. A driver that allows recording to four tracks at the same time would be welcome.
Macworld’s buying advice
The TuneStudio is an affordable and reasonably-portable solution for those interested in limited live recording of a couple instruments or for sketching out ideas. Its ability to record to an iPod rather than requiring a tethered computer will be appreciated by those who lack a laptop (or don’t want to have to tote it to every session). If its limitations are, in your opinion, no limitation at all—you don’t require scads of channels, multi-channel output, or MIDI—it could be a useful audio companion.