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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Apple’s Lightning to USB 3 adapter brings iPad podcasting one step closer

While introducing the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro at Monday’s press event, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller made an aside about a new accessory, the $39 Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter:

This is a really powerful accessory, a USB [adapter]. Sure, it lets you plug in your camera, which many of us do, but because it’s powered, you can use a lot of powered USB devices. For example, you can plug in an Ethernet adapter to get on your corporate network. And for those of you who are podcasters, you can plug in a microphone and do your podcast right from an iPad Pro.

I’m a podcaster and an iPad Pro user, so I considered letting out a cheer in the small Town Hall theater, but didn’t want to be the only one. I looked down at iMore’s Rene Ritchie, two rows in front of me, just as he started to clap, and then I joined in. (We did it, everyone, we got podcasting on an iPad to elicit a cheer at an Apple event!)

It’s two days later and I’ve taken delivery of one of these adapters, and have given it a try. The short version is, yes indeed, it works as Apple indicated. But there are also a few quirks to be aware of—and this doesn’t remove all the roadblocks to using an iPad Pro as a dedicated podcasting machine.

Powering microphones and mixers

usb-adapter-close
USB supplies the data; Lightning supplies the power.

Though there’s been a USB-Lightning adapter for some time now, the issue with using a USB microphone for podcasting has been all about power. As Schiller indicated, most common USB microphones require more power than the iPad can deliver—and so they just won’t work if you plug them in to the adapter. One workaround people discovered for this was to attach a powered USB hub to the adapter, and then plug a microphone into the hub… but it was a messy solution.

The new adapter solves this problem by getting wider, adding a Lightning port right next to the existing USB port. This means that you can use a USB device while powering your iPad, which wasn’t possible with the old model. (I sometimes stream live podcast audio via an external USB device, but had to be sure that my battery was fully charged before I did that. Similarly, if you want to hook your iPad to your corporate Ethernet network, as Schiller suggests, you’d probably also want to keep your battery topped up while you worked.)

The power that comes to the adapter via Lightning doesn’t just power the iPad—it’s also feeding the USB device you attach to the adapter. When I first tried to attach audio devices to my iPad Pro, I learned an important lesson: If you want to get power out of the adapter, you’ve got to put power into it. When I attached my USB-to-Lightning cable to Apple’s 5 watt USB power adapter—the tiny cube Apple includes with iPhones—I had no success. When I switched to the larger 12-watt brick, though, everything started to work.

I was able to attach both my Blue Yeti microphone and an XLR-based microphone via the Sound Devices USBPre 2 USB mixer to my iPad Pro with no problem. Both showed up as inputs in Ferrite Recording Studio immediately. This all worked on my iPhone 6S, too—same adapter, same microphones, same result.

One funny thing I noticed accidentally is that when I removed the USB end of my Lightning-USB cable from the power adapter and plugged it into my iMac, it didn’t register the iPad as being present—the adapter seems to only use its lightning port as a source of power.

The USBPre 2 appears as an input inside Ferrite Recording Studio.

But we’re not there yet

So once the applause from Phil Schiller mentioning iPads and podcasting on stage dies down, where does this leave us? If you’re someone who wants to record a podcast in person using an iOS device and a USB mixer or microphone, you’re set. But most of the podcasts I do are conversations that are conducted over the Internet, usually using Skype. And for the iPad to be a viable device for those kinds of podcasts, Apple needs to update its software.

In short, the audio inputs on iOS need to be accessible by more than one app at a time. Right now I can make a Skype call on my iPad, or I can record my voice to a file on my iPad, but I can’t do both at once—the moment a second app wants access to the microphone, the first one has to give it up. Changing that one behavior in iOS 10 would be enough to allow me to travel and record podcasts without bringing my MacBook Air with me. (I can already edit podcasts on iOS quite well—I edited this week’s Incomparable on my iPad Pro, in fact.)

There’s more Apple could do here, like offer apps access to system audio or the audio output of individual apps, so I could record the sound coming out of Skype, as I do with Call Recorder or Audio Hijack on my Mac today. This seems less likely to happen to me, but I can still dream. (Skype could also adopt Apple’s existing Inter-App audio, allowing other apps to record its output, but this seems even less likely to me.)

(An aside: Yes, you can record remote podcasts entirely on iOS today if you use two devices, such as an iPhone and an iPad. One of them serves as your Skype device while the other one acts as a recorder. It’s really not an ideal situation, especially if you want to hear both your own microphone input and the voices of the people you’re podcasting with.)

It would also be helpful if Apple improved importing files from USB devices and SD cards. Right now iOS is a whiz at importing photo and video files from attached USB devices and cards, but it fails at other file types. I travel with an audio recorder that saves files to an SD card (and also can attach via USB)—but once I record audio there, there’s no way to transfer it to my iPad. It would be great if external media was accessible via standard iOS open and import sheets. Right now, if I want to travel and record something on my fancy six-track USB recorder, I am unable to work with those files on my iPad without the intervention of a Mac.

So there’s more work to do on this front, but this new adapter removes another barrier. Podcasters like me are now one step closer to the dream of doing it all on iOS. I hope Apple eliminates the final roadblock with iOS 10 this fall. Until then, my MacBook Air will be mandatory equipment whenever I’m traveling and podcasting simultaneously.

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