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Getting started with computer-based recording confuses a lot of people. And one of the tricker aspects, when you're new to it, is the most basic: how do you get the sound of your bass into your computer? There are many answers to that question. One of the most popular approaches is to use a USB 2.0 or FireWire-based audio interface. Line6's TonePort UX2 takes the USB approach and provides all the functionality that most solo recording projects could want.
Ins & Outs
On the front, going from left to right, you have two XLR mic inputs, a phantom power switch, two 1/4" guitar/bass inputs, a pair of assignable VU meters, and a 1/4" stereo headphone jack. On the top, you have knobs for mic gain (one for each XLR input), headphone volume, and output (for external monitors, if you have any plugged into the back of it).
The headphone jack on the UX2 is actually one of its best features. The UX2 is, really, a sound card. And monitoring your tracks via the headphone jack on the UX2 uses Line6's ToneDirect monitoring technology, which does quite an amazing job of minimizing latency.
The back gives you an array of 1/4" jacks: right and left line inputs, two foot-switch jacks, right and left outs, and a stereo monitor in. There's also a USB out and a S/PDIF digital out.
The UX2, like the name implies, is designed for up to two simultaneous inputs. Essentially, you have your choice between running a single guitar/bass, a single mic, a guitar/bass and a mic, or two mics. Though there are two guitar inputs, you can only run one of them at a time. Essentially, they are like the high and low inputs on a single-channel amplifier. If your bass/guitar is passive, you choose the "normal" input. If your bass/guitar is active, you'll probably choose the "pad" (i.e. -10db) input. The XLR inputs have switchable phantom power. So you can run higher-end condenser microphones if you like.
The software that comes with the UX2 is called GearBox (available for WinXP, Vista, and OS X) and allows separate processing for each input. So it's quite possible to record a vocal (via an XLR input) and a guitar (via XLR or guitar input) at the same time. I haven't tried recording a band with the UX2, but the two XLR jacks mean you could hook up a set of condenser mics in an X/Y pattern and capture a room. (If you need to record more than two channels at a time, Line6 recently introduced the UX8, which gives you eight).
If the TonePort were only a USB 2 audio interface, it would still be a nice piece of gear. What makes it special, though, is the software that comes with it. GearBox, it turns out, is an incredibly useful application. The version of GearBox that comes with the TonePort is stand alone. It isn't a VST plug-in. It is designed to run alongside whatever recording software you use. (Just to complicate matters, TonePort does sell a plug-in version, in VST, AU, and RTAS formats called the "GearBox Plug-in.").
Think of GearBox as a virtual amp. It's more than that, actually. It simulates (or "models") a variety of different amps, cabs, and effects which you can mix and match to create the sound you like. And you can save those combinations as user presets that you can call up easily. It comes with a number of default combinations which you can use as the basis of your own tone, or you can start from scratch. Almost everything is tweakable. Finally, if none of this simulation business interests you, it can all be bypassed and you can take your unadulterated bass signal straight into your recording software. Here's a shot of my typical GearBox setup, simulating a Galien-Kruger head and a Hartke cab:
As you'd expect in the guitar-centric world, there are more guitar amp/cab combinations than bass amp/cab combinations. Still, there's a good selection of classic and modern bass rigs. There are amp models based on the Ampeg SVT, the Ampeg B-15A (a.k.a. "Flip Top"), the Eden Traveler WT-300, the Fender Bassman, and (my personal favorite), the Gallien-Kruger 800RB. You can tweak the knobs on each of these, so each amp model provides a lot of tonal diversity. And they do sound different. The SVT has that big rock grind. The 800RB is clean and modern.
For bass cabs, you have five choices: 1x15 "Flip Top" (Ampeg), 2x15 "Double Show" (Fender), 4x10 "Adam & Eve" (Eden), 4x10 "Silvercone" (Hartke), and 8x10 "Classic" (Ampeg).
There are also eighteen guitar amp models and twenty-four guitar cab models. If you play guitar, these are an added benefit. Nothing keeps you from trying them out on your bass. And it's possible to mix bass cabs with guitar amps and vice versa. So there are lots of tonal options, though I've mostly stuck with the bass amps and cabs.
Besides amps and cabs, each user preset has an effects chain. And you have quite a lot of flexibility here, in both the number and type of effects and their order in the signal chain. Each effect has settings that can be tweaked. You can easily take them in and out of the chain. The effect chain is saved along with your preset. So it's easy to put together combinations for different purposes. One of the "effects" even lets you pick a mic and choose its distance from your cab:
If the included models don't provide enough flexibility, you can expand the offerings via various expansion packs. These are usually $99/each. I'm eying the bass expansion pack, but the built-in models have, so far, provided me with enough options that I haven't taken the plunge.
GearBox also includes some convenience features to take a little of the pain out of your recording and practicing. There's a hum eliminator circuit which does a very fine job of reducing pickup hum. It doesn't have any user-tweakable settings. You just press a button and it takes a second or to to "learn" the hum pattern from the instrument you have plugged in at the moment. This means you end up running it each time you switch guitars or basses, which is a bit of a drag. I've found it does a great job of eliminating hum from my instruments.
GearBox also includes a digital tuner with a nice simulated-analog meter and LEDs. It's accessible at the touch of a button, and all of the amp/cab/effect settings are bypassed while you tune.
If you like to practice by playing along with mp3s, CDs, or wav files, you're in luck. The "Player" module of GearBox lets you dial up a backing track, set it's volume via a handy slider, and jam along. If you're trying to decipher a tricky passage, you can define loop points and zone in on it. There's also a feature for slowing down tracks to half-speed w/o altering their pitch, but I find it leaves too many artifacts to be very useful. If you need that functionality, you might want to check out a dedicated software product like Transcribe! Finally, if you'd prefer to practice to a click or to a simple drum beat, GearBox includes a metronome and a simple drum machine (the output from these is not passed along to your recording software. They're purely for practice).
The UX2 comes with a copy of Ableton Live Lite, which you can use for recording. I'm a huge fan of Live and use Live 6 for all my recording, but I find the Lite version too feature-limited to be of much use. But the free version, if you register it, does entitle you to the upgrade price on a full version of Live, which is quite a good deal.
The TonePort acts as a dongle for the GearBox software. When you launch GearBox, it checks to see if the TonePort is connected. If it's not, it'll tell you so and quit. GearBox only works with TonePort products, and the TonePort is useless without GearBox. This means you have to leave GearBox running whenever you're using the TonePort. It runs alongside whatever recording software you use.
GearBox (the stand-alone version that comes with the TonePort) is designed for recording wet. You can't record your bass dry and then try out different models on the same recording (a technique known as "re-amping"). Instead, you dial in the sound you want and then flip over to your recording software to lay down a track. You can, of course, use whatever effects your DAW provides, but GearBox isn't something you can use as a post-recording effect. If you need that functionality, you can pony up for the GearBox Plug-In, which works in your DAW like any other VST effect. But it's $200, which, I think, is a bit steep. People on the Line6 discussion boards often complain that TonePort owners should be given a price cut on the GearBox Plug-In. And I tend to think they have a point.
But I don't see recording wet as a weakness. The TonePort is designed to record real-world instruments. When I record in the real word, I dial in the sound I like and place a mic on my cab. I commit to the sound before I go to "tape." So TonePort/GearBox replicates what I would do anyway. But if you like to record instruments and then tweak on the tones in post (essentially, treating audio instruments like MIDI instruments), you may find this a limitation.
Though the effects chain includes both a volume pedal and a wah pedal, there's no inexpensive way to control these. They can be controlled by MIDI commands, but that requires a MIDI foot pedal and a MIDI interface. It would be nice if the UX2 had a dedicated jack for an expression pedal to control these parameters, as the KB37 and the UX8 do.
The UX2 cannot be run through a USB hub. It has to be plugged directly into the computer.
I've been fairly enthusiastic about the UX2 in the forums here at Bassplaying.com. And my enthusiasm for this hardware/software combo hasn't changed. I bought it purely as an audio interface. I didn't think I'd even touch the modeling features. I intended to stick with my old practice of micing my cab. But I found myself sucked in and amazed at the quality and variety of tones I can get with GearBox. And, since I'm not running a mic and I monitor through headphones, I can record in the middle of the night without bothering anyone. I also had no idea that playing along with mp3s using GearBox would be so much fun. Now it's become a regular part of my practice. In fact, I almost never plug into an amp anymore. My bass stays plugged in to the TonePort. When I want to practice, I fire up GearBox and put on my headphones. If I come up with something that I like, I fire up my DAW and track it. I find the combination of TonePort + GearBox + DAW means I capture more of my ideas now, instead of losing them entirely or burring them on practice tapes that I'll never review.
In short, I'd never go back to my old way of recording. If the TonePort died tomorrow, I'd order a new one the same day. I find it an inspiring and incredibly useful bit of gear.
[Get a Line6 TonePort UX2 in the new Music Hardware department of the Bassplaying.com Online Store.]
Line6 TonePort UX2