Review: Sonuus i2M Musicport

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Readers of my blog may recall a recent post, where I lamented the apparent lack of options for a portable, affordable and usable MIDI-guitar solution

One surprising omission from my list, was—ironically—a product which I was already aware of. Sonuus (creators of the G2M guitar/pitch-to-MIDI converter app for iOS, which I basically wrote was the “least worst” such app I’d tried!) are perhaps better-known for their hardware guitar-to-MIDI interfaces, such as the G2M and B2M. In 2011, they launched a USB-based version, the i2M Musicport, which combined pitch-to-MIDI with an audio interface, into a single device.

I’m not quite sure why I didn’t consider the i2M in my earlier article. I think it is most likely because until recently, the device was comparatively expensive—around £110 in most UK online retailers that stocked it—and therefore outside my pretty threadbare budget. However, a couple of months ago, Sonuus’ own online store cut the price on the i2M quite dramatically, to £69, which certainly grabbed my attention. Then, last month, when I spotted a Sonuus ad on Facebook, promoting a short-time extra-special offer for an i2M for £50… :-)

Out of the box

The i2M package is no whopper, coming in a small cardboard box containing just the i2M, a quick-start guide and a USB Type A-to-Type B cable (i.e. the type you’d usually use with a USB printer). A small nitpick at this stage: because it has to be folded into the i2M’s pretty cramped packaging, the USB cable has some rather nasty kinks in it. The lead looks quite solid, and so I am not that concerned about whether the kinks would damage the wires inside, but the cable looks a bit of a mess once unfolded. I hope it will straighten out given time, but in the meantime I bought a retractable USB A-to-B lead, which fits more easily in the guitar gig-bag. Your mileage (and concerns about quality) may vary.

The Type A end of the USB cable connects to your computer, and the Type B plugs into one end of the i2M, which looks like a cuboid black box just under an inch square (with angled-off edges) and about 3-4 inches long. The other end of the i2M sports a quarter-inch jack socket; no prizes for guessing that this is where one end of your guitar cable goes ;-)

In other words, the i2M bears a physical resemblance to some other compact digital guitar interfaces on the market, such as IK Multimedia’s iRig HD and (in size and rough shape) Apogee’s JAM). Although the i2M, until recently, cost more than most of these devices, Sonuus’ own recent special offers on the i2M have brought the price down to rough parity, meaning that at time of writing at least, Sonuus’ offering is well worth a look—particularly, with the extra special trick it has up its sleeve…

The i2M is class-compliant both as a MIDI and audio interface over USB, meaning that it is “plug-and-play” on Mac (I won’t be covering Windows, as I don’t own a WinPC). If you register your i2M at the Sonuus website, you can then download a Mac or Windows app which will let you configure the settings on the i2M, and save “patches” for different instruments or playing styles. There’s also a firmware updater app for keeping your i2M abreast of Sonuus’ latest software improvements for their device, though in most cases I’ve found this redundant, as you can update the firmware directly from the aforementioned i2M editor. (If I were being really “picky”, I can think of at least one other platform that I wish these apps were available for… but fortunately we have a Mac at home, so I can live with things as they stand.)

In this review, I want to look at how the i2M works with a platform which I believe it was not specifically designed to support, but thanks to its class-compliance, it does anyway: iOS, and in particular, the iPad.

i2M and the iPad

Photo of Ministar Testar guitar, iPad and Sonuus i2M

Ministar Testar, iPad and Sonuus i2M

I’m not going to write a “primer” for music-production on Apple iOS devices here, but I’ll “frontload” the good news: the i2M works quite happily with the iPhone and iPad. Owners of these machines will need Apple’s USB-Lightning “camera adapter” on the “computer” end of the USB cable, to connect the i2M and the iDevice. However, I’d hazard a guess that musicians using an iOS machine for recording and the like, are likely to have invested in this adapter already. (If not, a nugget of advice: invest the money and get the actual Apple USB-Lightning adapter. Just trust me on this.)

“Seasoned” iOS musicians may well be asking at this point: does the i2M need a powered USB hub between it and the iDevice? (Many USB audio and MIDI devices do, as the iPhone and iPad often can’t deliver enough power to the device to make it work, so a powered USB hub has to be used.) Good news: no powered hub is required—the iDevice recognises and powers the i2M with no trouble whatsoever. This means you can be “off-grid” with your iPad, i2M and instrument, and still be able to record even if there’s no power-socket within reach.

So, connect your devices in this order:

  • Instrument
  • i2M
  • USB cable
  • USB-Lightning adapter
  • iPad

If all is well, the grey “Sonuus” logo along one “face” of the i2M glows red, then bright-green or orange (I like that, myself), and you’re ready to go. The iPad recognises the i2M as both a CoreMIDI and CoreAudio device—I checked the available interfaces in Multitrack DAW (audio) and MIDI Monitor (MIDI), and “i2M Musicport” showed up in both. You do not have to use both of these if you don’t want or need to—the i2M can act as a standalone audio or MIDI interface, or both in tandem.

A note in passing about the glowing “Sonuus” logo: this is not just for cosmetic purposes, but informational. The colour of the logo, and whether it is flashing or not, means the following:

  • Green (steady): MIDI settings patch 1
  • Green (flashing): MIDI settings patch 2
  • Orange (steady): MIDI settings patch 3
  • Orange (flashing): MIDI settings patch 4
  • Red (when playing instrument): Input level too high (clip)

I understand that “continuous red” indicates a problem with the i2M, but thankfully haven’t encountered this yet!

The i2M can store a wide range of customised settings to suit your MIDI-guitar playing—I don’t have room to explain these options in depth, but they encompass the likes of pitch-bend, transpose, MIDI channel, program-change and continuous-controller (CC) messages, and so on. These settings can be organised via the aforementioned editor application into four “patches”, or combinations of settings—these patches are grouped into two banks of two (“green”, or 1 and 2, and “orange”, or 3 and 4). I have set up my patches as follows:

  1. Un-transposed with no pitch-bend
  2. Un-transposed with pitch-bend (i.e. for soloing)
  3. Transposed down one octave, no pitch-bend (for playing synth-bass parts from guitar)
  4. Optimised for playing MIDI from bass guitar (rarely used)

You have a few options for switching patches on the i2M. One is the small button to the bottom-left of the “Sonuus” logo; this has a quirky mode of operation, but easy to get the hang of. A short press of the button will toggle between patches 1 and 2 (green), or 3 and 4 (orange), depending on which bank (green or orange) you are currently “in”. To switch banks, hold down the button for two seconds, or until the light changes colour from green to orange (or vice versa). This sounds confusing, but I find it helps if you think of the patches/banks as a 2×2 grid:

1 2
3 4

If this approach strikes you as a bit “fiddly”, you can also switch patches on the i2M via MIDI program-change messages. You can set a program-change ID number for a patch using the editor application, and send these messages to the i2M either from the editor itself (if the i2M is connected to the same computer running the editor), or from another MIDI sequencer or device connected to the same computer.

One other MIDI CC message the i2M can respond to, is “hold/sustain”, which means you could use a sustain-pedal to “hold” notes once played from the i2M. I find this option almost indispensable with my Roland MIDI-guitar setup, so it is welcome to see Sonuus implement it with the i2M. The only catch is that the sustain-pedal needs to be connected to a device which will actually send out the MIDI “hold” message. A keyboard is the obvious candidate… except I’m unlikely to have one when using the i2M, in which case a “pedal-to-MIDI” interface would be ideal. I’ve only found one such device—the MIDI Expression, which costs about £30 and can be ordered online from the US—so add that to my wishlist for the New Year :-)

In use

I thought I would have a go at creating a “demo” track, to show what the i2M is capable of “out of the box”. At time of writing, I recently participated in NaSoAlMo 2014, and for my album for this challenge, I wanted a little instrumental interlude to go roughly at the halfway point of the track sequence.

And here it is:

“Fog On The Teign” (if I need to, I’ll explain the pun another time…) was recorded, mixed and mastered entirely on an iPad, with my Ministar Testar electric “travel guitar” and the i2M. With one exception, all the tracks in the piece are either electric guitar parts recorded via the i2M as an audio interface, or MIDI instrument apps triggered via MIDI messages from the i2M. Here’s the full run-down:

  • Lead and accompaniment electric guitars, played through BIAS and JamUp Pro XT (amp-simulator/FX apps) respectively;
  • Flute and strings Mellotrons (guitar and i2M, triggering Super Manetron – the flute ‘Tron was recorded simultaneously with the lead guitar, the i2M doing “double-duty”!);
  • Bass synth (iFretless Bass, “played” by the guitar and i2M);
  • Organ (Galileo, triggered via SoundPrism Pro (and Galileo’s own onscreen keyboard for the coda). I couldn’t use the guitar and i2M for this part, as the part involves chords and the i2M is monophonic.)

Bearing in mind that at this point, I hadn’t started adjusting any of the i2M’s settings to suit my needs, I think the device really did a pretty good job with regard to the MIDI-tracking. Admittedly, the MIDI parts are not that complex in this piece, and I was taking care to play as “cleanly” as I could, but there are only a couple of minor “glitch” notes in the MIDI tracks, and I left them in for the sake of “honesty” in this demo (not that I could’ve removed them anyway, as these are audio-recordings and not MIDI sequences). No prizes for finding them all… :-)

Getting the best MIDI tracking

It’s quite common for guitarists to try MIDI-guitar systems, who then find the results are perhaps not what they were hoping for. I should mention at this stage, that I have owned a Roland-based MIDI guitar “rig” (a GI-10 guitar-MIDI converter, and Steinberger guitar with Roland GK2 divided pickup) since the late-1990s, so I feel I have an above-average level of experience with “guitar-synths”. This means I have learned a few “tricks” which help me avoid some of the pitfalls (one of which being, that playing a guitar synth like a regular guitar can lead to some undesired sonic-effects).

I’m not going to do a detailed side-by-side comparison of my Roland GI-10 and Sonuus i2M here, for various reasons—mostly, because of the considerable difference in price. A Roland setup, for example, requires a guitar with a dedicated Roland GK pickup system; the pickup alone costs more than the Sonuus i2M, and the current Roland guitar-synth unit, the GR-55, will not leave you with much change from £500.

With all the dedicated hardware, even my twenty-year-old GI-10 and Roland GK-equipped Steinberger provides more advanced MIDI capabilities than the Sonuus (the Roland kit is polyphonic, and in many cases tracks more accurately), but I’d say that such a comparison is unfair. The Sonuus has no dedicated pickup to assist it, but instead has to “listen” to a regular guitar signal—with all the potential interference that may carry with it—and parse relevant musical information from this signal with as little delay as possible.

With the above in mind, I must say I have been very impressed with the Sonuus i2M’s MIDI-tracking. It helps if you can give the i2M as clean a guitar-signal as possible—select the neck pickup (if the guitar has one); tone control down to zero (to reduce any harmonics which might “confuse” the i2M); mute unplayed strings where you can (or use a string-dampener such as the Buznut); and so on—and remember that the i2M is monophonic, so don’t feed it double/triple-stops, chords and the like, unless you’re seeking avant-garde effects (or just confused silence!).

Alternatives

In terms of alternatives: in the price-range of Sonuus’ products (particularly with their recent, extremely generous offers), there aren’t really any. As mentioned, a Roland GR55 and GK3 pickup would cost around ten times the amount I picked up my i2M for—on that measure, the GK3 on its own would set you back about twice as much. The Fishman TriplePlay MIDI guitar system (at around £350-400 in the UK at this time) is cheaper, but not by much—this and a Roland setup are technically superior to the i2M, but with the price differential I’d expect this.

From there, the only alternatives at anything approaching the price of the i2M, might be MIDI “guitar-type” controllers like the You Rock Guitar and JamStik, and they’re still around the £200 mark. They have their advantages, but if you want to play “regular” guitar via a hardware interface and control MIDI instruments with it, at the price of the i2M the only alternative is probably a digital guitar input (such as iRig HD; Apogee JAM; Fender SLIDE; Peavey AmpKit HD and so on), coupled with a pitch-MIDI converter app on the iDevice. There are plenty of them, but as I’ve written, many are simply awful, to the point of being unusable (Sonuus’ own G2M app, ironically, being the “least-worst” in my anecdotal experience).

In fairness, it should be mentioned that most of the other digital guitar interfaces available have iOS device cables included in the package, and many of them add further features such as 24-bit recording. Furthermore, the i2M’s audio capability is “only” 16-bit, so guitarists who know they require a 24-bit recording device, should be aware of this. (It’s not currently a concern for me personally, at least with the recording I tend to do.)

Summing up

So, after all the above: can I recommend the Sonuus i2M Musicport?

If your use-scenario is similar to mine (go-anywhere-capable guitar-recording, with monophonic MIDI-playing capability, with guitar and iPad/iPhone): most definitely. As long as you are aware of its limitations—single-note MIDI; the need to adapt your playing for best results (as with most MIDI-guitar solutions); 16-bit audio—and these are not show-stoppers for you, then the i2M is an extremely useful device to add to a mobile-recording setup, and especially if you can take advantage of a good offer, highly cost-effective as well. The i2M is compact, versatile and reliable, and I for one would want to replace it ASAP if for some reason I lost the use of it.

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