You wouldn't necessarily associate Griffin Technology with the latest and greatest in music technology, but having teamed up with Frontier Design Group -- developers of the iShred LIVE virtual guitar effects app -- Griffin has released one of the first accessory pedalboards to complete your virtual guitar effects setup. With the advent of virtual guitar effects on mobile devices, it was only a matter of time before a foot controller pedalboard arrived (logically imitating the traditional setup), allowing your feet to do the effects switching and leaving your hands on the guitar to get on with the business of playing.
Before I jump into the review of the Griffin Stompbox (US$99.99), allow me to briefly explain how a traditional electric guitar setup works for those of you who aren't guitarists. First, you have your electric guitar. This guitar is plugged into an amplifier. However, many guitarists enjoy, love, desire and lust after guitar effects that improve and alter the tone and sound of their guitar. These effects come in the shape of digital and analogue pedal effects, or more effectionately referred to as pedals or stomp boxes. They are called pedals because they are turned on and off using your feet -- naturally, your hands are too busy playing the guitar.
Traditionally, these pedals are expensive, and when many are used together, they are placed on a "pedalboard." Because many guitarists love to have as many pedals as they can get their hands on, these pedalboards are heavy and rather large. That's where devices like the iPad and iPhone come in. Virtual guitar pedal effects apps have been developed to mimic these traditional pedals, at a fraction of the cost and physical space and weight of traditional pedal effects. However, one problem with these virtual pedals has been that they are, well ... virtual. You've had to use your fingers to turn on and off these effects when traditionally you'd use your feet. You can't stomp your iPad with your feet! As a result, users of virtual effects have had to stop playing their guitars to change their virtual pedal effects -- this is a bad thing for guitarists. That's where Griffin's Stompbox comes in.
The Stompbox itself feels sturdy and well constructed. It rests solidly on the floor and is easily pushed around, but it stays in place when you're using it as intended. It's plastic feel doesn't imbue a sense of high quality, but neither does it feel cheap or like it's about to fall apart. I have no doubt that it will be able to handle its fair share of knocks, drops and bumps. The four foot switches are metal and pleasing enough to push, but they don't click in or out. It's just a downward compression that pops straight back up again. Four accompanying LEDs light up brightly and clearly to indicate when a switch is activated. A 1-meter cable leads from the Stompbox to connect to your iPad's dock connector (I used an iPad for my review, but of course you can use a compatible iPhone or iPod touch). The cable is durable and strong. On the back of the Stompbox is 1/4'' input socket for a volume or expression pedal.
Accompanying the Stompbox is Griffin's GuitarConnect cable ($29.99), used to connect your guitar to your iPad's headphone socket. A nice touch on the GuitarConnect cable is that the output socket, for an amp or headphones, is at the guitar end, not the iPad end. Meaning you have less wires crossing over your guitar, particularly if you're using headphones.
Connecting the Stompbox and GuitarConnect cable to my iPad and guitar was easy enough. However, straight away I noticed two problems. First, while the GuitarConnect cable solidly plugged into my iPad, if I knocked it or moved it just a bit it produced an unsavory crack and pop in my speakers, suggesting that perhaps something wasn't as tightly wired as it could be. However, this could be a one-off problem that just happened to be in my review unit. That aside, I didn't notice any undue hum or buzz. Overall, everything sounded very clear and full-sounding.
The second problem I encountered is that you can only use iShred Live (the app designed to work with the Stompbox) in portrait mode. It doesn't work in landscape mode. Thinking of using the Stompbox in a musical setting, I immediately went to place my iPad on a music stand in landscape mode. You can imagine my disappointment when I realised it didn't work. And obviously, the iPad won't rest upright in portrait mode with a rather large dock connector cable plugged into the bottom of it. So that leaves two options, place the iPad on a flat surface like a table or the floor (not ideal) or buy the Griffin (or other brand) iPad mic stand mount. (Editor's note -- the IKMultimedia iKlip for iPad/iPad 2 ($39.99) attaches the iPad securely to a mic or music stand.) It's not a huge problem, but surely when most other apps work in both portrait and landscape mode -- including other virtual guitar effects apps -- you'd expect iShred Live to be able to do the same.
That aside, the StompBox performed well in conjunction with the iShred Live app. With four banks each containing four channels, totalling 16 fully customizable presets, I had no difficulty working my way round iShred Live's selection of effects, metronome, tuner, recorder and song selector using my feet. There was a short learning curve involved.
To activate a bank, simply hold down the respective foot switch. To turn on or off a channel, simply tap the respective foot switch. To exit a bank, hold down the foot switch for the bank you wish to enter next. Just make sure you tap that foot switch dead on and with a consistant pressure. I found that the Stompbox was quite particular about activating a foot switch. A light tap won't do it; you need to be firm and precise, which is probably a good thing.
One thing that I wasn't expecting was the intelligent use of the Stompbox's LEDs, which was a pleasant surprise. Of course, they light up when you activate a channel or bank, but enter something like the tuner and those lights become a whole lot more significant. With the tuner turned on, the LEDs indicate if a string is flat or sharp by only lighting up on the left or right side of the Stompbox, and the two center LEDs shine consistantly together to indicate that you've hit the right pitch.
Once I got my head around the Stompbox, I'm pleased to say my attention focused on playing the guitar, with the Stompbox simply getting the job done with no distractions.
While the Stompbox draws its power from the iPad's battery, I'm happy to say I noticed no dramatic increase in the loss of battery charge. However, with the Stompbox plugged into the iPad, there is no way to charge the iPad. If you're planning a day long rehearsal, it goes without saying that you should make sure your device is fully charged.
Griffin's website says that the Stompbox will work with other Stompbox compatible apps. However, it doesn't say what these apps are. I know that the Stompbox is compatible with QScript, a text prompter app, but aside from that, I've not seen anything else. I'd love to see the Stompbox working with other virtual guitar effects apps, but whether that will happen is anyone's guess. It would be disappointing to see each major music software developer introduce their own unique pedalboard accessory, tying the users pedalboard to a specific app.
At $99,99, the Griffin Stompbox isn't particularly expensive -- in fact, it's one of the cheapest virtual effects foot controllers out there -- but when users are paying less than a dollar to buy a pedal effect on their iDevice, it's a big jump to fork out a hundred bucks for an accessory. But then again, the Stompbox does complete the guitar setup circle, bringing pedal effects back to your feet where they should be.
Is the Stompbox worth getting? I think if you're a guitarist who has invested in the virtual effects setup on your iDevice, you'll be extremely pleased with what the Stompbox has to offer. If you're a guitarist running a traditional setup and have been holding off getting involved with the mobile device effects scene while waiting for a pedalboard like the Stompbox, I think you'll be intrigued by the Stompbox. You might want to hold off and investigate the next generation of pedalboards to come.