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Review: IK Multimedia StompIO

12/1/2008

FIG. 1: The StompIO is a solidly built floor controller featuring ten footswitches, seven knobs, five buttons, and two displays.

FIG. 1: The StompIO is a solidly built floor controller featuring ten footswitches, seven knobs, five buttons, and two displays.

If you're a discerning guitarist who records and performs with technological savvy, you've probably found the tasks of outfitting your effects for stage and studio to be separate endeavors. For live use, you may use a sophisticated hardware multi-effects processor to get your sounds underfoot, whereas in the studio, you may opt for plug-ins for their superior flexibility and sonic variety. But now some guitar-software manufacturers are seeking to bridge the software/hardware gap by introducing software-driven controllers that look and feel like conventional outboard multi-effects processors. These units are as at home on the floor as they are on the tabletop; it's just that they're tethered to a computer somewhere.

Massive Metal

No one has thrown as much heavy metal at this product category as IK Multimedia has with the StompIO (see Fig. 1), a foot-operated outboard controller for its Powered by AmpliTube software. This unit could be described as the Cadillac of software controllers — big, powerful, and luxurious. Yes, it's expensive, but it comes with everything you need: the entire line of AmpliTube software modules, an outboard expression pedal (I would have preferred that it was attached to the unit, but this arrangement does let you choose which side to put the pedal on), and a USB cable. All you have to do is supply the computer and the amplifier.

This review will focus on the StompIO itself rather than on the bundled programs that drive it, which are the Powered by AmpliTube modules AmpliTube2, AmpliTube Jimi Hendrix, Ampeg SVX, AmpliTube Metal, and X-GEAR. A hardware-only version of the StompIO package is available as an upgrade from IK Multimedia to registered owners of the above-mentioned modules and other selected IK titles for $799.

View from Above

The StompIO's front panel sports ten footswitches, seven knobs (a dedicated master volume and six assignable rotary encoders), two displays, and five buttons — one for activating the tuner and four for navigating the interface (paging and cursoring around the screens and parameters). All the front-panel controls are solid, large, and well constructed and will have no trouble standing up to the rigors of long-term stage use. A sturdy metal rod that spans the width of the unit acts as a convenient carrying handle, making me wonder why more multi-effects units don't include one.

FIG. 2: The StompIO offers impressive I/O options, including balanced and unbalanced stereo output pairs and a Class A preamp.

FIG. 2: The StompIO offers impressive I/O options, including balanced and unbalanced stereo output pairs and a Class A preamp.

The I/O on the StompIO is impressive (see Fig. 2). In addition to the power supply and guitar-input jack, there are six ¼-inch inputs for external controllers, a ¼-inch TRS input for the expression pedal, two ¼-inch stereo output pairs (balanced and unbalanced), MIDI In and Out, USB, S/PDIF out (RCA), a ¼-inch headphone out, and a ¼-inch direct out.

The CPU Connection

In addition to a controller, you can use the StompIO as the audio interface for your DAW; it handles up to 24-bit, 48 kHz audio. I used it successfully with Steinberg Cubase and Wave-Lab with no issues; I didn't even have to adjust the buffer for latency when multitracking in Cubase. Guitarists will be pleased to know that it has a 1 MΩ high-impedance input and a low-noise Class A preamp.

FIG. 3: X-GEAR, which ships with the StompIO, acts as a shell program to organize and control the other Powered by AmpliTube modules in your system.

FIG. 3: X-GEAR, which ships with the StompIO, acts as a shell program to organize and control the other Powered by AmpliTube modules in your system.

You can use the StompIO to control a plug-in within your DAW or in standalone mode (which you'd likely use in a performance situation), where you launch the shell program, X-GEAR (see Fig. 3), to organize your setups and the other Powered by AmpliTube modules. X-GEAR provides capabilities for creating your own setups, though it's limited in the stompboxes and amps it provides. Its greatest strength is as a shell to organize all the models from the other modules, providing an excellent palette for painting your sonic guitar-effects canvases (see Web Clips 1 and 2).

For studio use, you'd still invoke X-GEAR to organize your AmpliTube sounds, but you'd access it as a plug-in from within your DAW. Despite the big floor controller, you need a computer to run the StompIO; there is no internal sound-generating circuitry in this spacious box. So performing guitarists should understand that “standalone” doesn't mean you can load the StompIO with sounds and carry just the controller to the gig. You need a computer in tow.

Up and Stomping

Because the StompIO is the brawn to AmpliTube's brain, you first need to load into your computer all the software that ships with the controller. This involves installing, configuring, and registering the bundled software. I found the process to be smooth and glitch-free (including back-and-forth online communication). Once that was completed, the controller sprang to life, mirroring on its display the image appearing on my computer screen.

When using a floor controller, you will spend most of your life in either Edit mode or one of five Play modes. There are other modes, including Global and System, where you set input levels, define external controllers and set their ranges and curves, configure MIDI commands, and so on, and the StompIO's capabilities in these areas are deep and versatile. However, it's Play and Edit that will make or break your experience with any controller.

The good news is, the StompIO's Play modes are quite powerful, surpassing most hardware controllers on the market just in terms of flexibility and logic. The Edit mode served the software interface well, though not with quite the innovation that the Play modes offered.

Heavy Storage

The StompIO calls its memory locations Patches, and 4,000 are available, organized in 1,000 banks, each containing four selections (A, B, C, D). The display shows your location with three digits and a letter, as in 000A or 999D. Because the StompIO gives you so many ways to recall patches, you can effortlessly access hundreds of them, whereas on a controller with less versatile play modes, such as those that can only step sequentially through them, anything over 200 would be overkill.

The StompIO's five distinct Play modes all access the patches a bit differently. You can use the footswitches in Stompbox mode (where the switches turn the individual effects of the patch off and on) or in the other four variations that offer great flexibility in moving among, arranging, and previewing your patches. One of my favorites is Sequence, whereby you can create a predetermined sequence of patches — say, 000A, 127D, 962C, 004B, and so on — and move along the sequence by hitting the Bank Up switch.

There's even a Patch Browse function that allows you quicker access to your stored programs than you'd get through the computer. This is where the StompIO shines: it captures the best aspects of a hardware controller — using those tactile things called knobs — to create an experience superior to that involving a mouse and keyboard. Of course, the StompIO's display can't beat the computer screen for feedback or seeing all your parameters at once and in context, but for tooling around the patches, the StompIO's Play modes are very cool.

Playing Footsie

All the StompIO's knob and push-button operations have footswitch equivalents, and while they're not as fast as using ten fingers, it's nice to be able to replicate any knob change on the table with a foot press on the floor — and without bending over! You can use the StompIO to copy, move, modify, rename, and overwrite patches, all without even glancing at the computer. In this way, the StompIO behaves just like a traditional hardware floor controller; you're not even aware there's a computer behind it all. In practice, I would often put the StompIO on a music stand, which allowed me to work the front panel with my fingers. I did some serious editing this way, and when it was time for the StompIO to go back on the floor, I would use the footswitches to make any microtweaks. The handle was quite useful for all this shuffling between desktop and floor.

Getting around the StompIO interface is easy. Navigation is intuitive, and of course you always have the computer screen close by for orientation. There's a directional logic in the interactivity between the computer and the StompIO: you can make changes on the computer screen that would be on a different page on the StompIO, but the StompIO display stays put — it doesn't change. However, when you change pages on the StompIO, the computer screen follows suit. This makes the most sense and keeps you from getting disoriented while working with the controller, whose display is naturally more limited than the computer's.

Credible Editables

Dialing up a patch and editing it is immediate thanks to the six rotary encoders under the display. IK Multimedia calls these Patch Macros because they're assignable in each patch, and you can gang up to four parameters together on a single knob. Typically, you attach the most important parameters to these knobs. You might set up an amp panel configuration with the controls Gain, Bass, Mid, Treble, Reverb, and Volume going logically from left to right. From there, it's easy to tweak by hand to tailor your sound.

Once you start moving the knobs, though, there's nothing that tells you what the original setting was unless you reload the patch, which dumps your edits. I wish there were a visual cue when you passed through the preset value (other multi-effects processors do this), but it doesn't exist on the StompIO nor, surprisingly, on the computer screen. This wouldn't be an issue if there were a compare or A/B function, but there isn't.

One nice touch is that the knobs have velocity-sensitive ballistics: when you turn them fast, they jump far; turning them slowly advances parameters in tenths of an integer. As with any control surface, there are some operations better suited for knob twisting — such as patch browsing — which can be performed only on the StompIO and not the computer screen. So the StompIO acts as both a hardware controller for unique functions not available on the software, and as a floor controller.

Stomp Away

For its first foray into hardware controllers, the software specialist IK Multimedia has done an admirable job. The StompIO is elegant, ruggedly bulletproof, and a joy to navigate. I like having 4,000 patches. It means you never have to off-load your setups — or at least not for a very long time. This encourages editing.

My only reservations with the unit occurred when I took it out of the box: it has a large footprint compared with other multi-effects units, and a separate expression pedal. Almost everything after that met or exceeded expectations, and the StompIO has some innovative features that make working with it inspiring.

If you're thinking of immersing yourself in the world of software guitar processing for recording and want your gear to do double duty in a live setting, the StompIO provides unprecedented access and power to its software processing components. Cheap it's not, but there's no denying that this controller — and its flawless integration with all of the Powered by AmpliTube modules and X-GEAR software — is as close to one-stop shopping for your live and studio guitar-processing needs as it gets.

Jon Chappell is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home & Studio (Hal Leonard, 1999), Digital Home Recording (Backbeat Books, 2002), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

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