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The Portable Performance

7/1/2011

Fig. 1 The mic''s body is a little larger than some typical stage mics, but remains very portable.

Fig. 1 The mic''s body is a little larger than some typical stage mics, but remains very portable.

It''s summer, which means many things to many people—including casual (and not-so-casual) outdoor performances. Whether you''re just gathering to gig with a few friends, performing at the local bar or restaurant on Saturday night because they know you can draw a crowd, DJing at parties, or hitting the road for gigs, summer''s a great time for playing music.

But given today''s economic realities, to be successful, you need to be fast, efficient, and seeking new performance venues that you may not have previously considered. I know one musician who''s found a lucrative sideline playing at art openings, with the constraint that he has to be able to set up and tear down fast, and take up virtually no space; another has an act in a “Sunday in the Park”-type series, and it''s already paid off in terms of getting him additional gigs.

Thankfully, there''s plenty of gear that accommodates this new way of gigging—portable P.A.s you can stuff in a sedan, compact but powerful laptops, audio interfaces that fit in your pocket, keyboards you can sling over your shoulder, and much more.

The days of the portable performance are upon us, and if you''re moving into that brave new world—or just thinking about it—here are a few tools that make it easier than ever.

LINE 6 XD-V70 DIGITAL WIRELESS MIC
Reliable wireless operation with a multiple-identity dynamic unit

Wireless mics have a lot going for them: You can stroll into the crowd unencumbered by wires, pass the mic around to fans, and generally, have a lot of fun with not being tied down—when they work, of course. Between dead batteries, fades, drop-outs (meaning the RF, not dropping the mic—although that can be an issue!), and receivers that don''t really receive, economical wireless mics sometimes have a less-than-stellar reputation. And that''s why I never used one, until I had a chance to check out Line 6''s XD-V70—my first experience with a digital wireless mic. Now I''ve become dependent on it.

Fig. 2 The receiver is solidly built, and easy to set up.

Fig. 2 The receiver is solidly built, and easy to set up.

WHAT IT IS
This is no toy; it''s a solidly-built dynamic mic (Figure 1), with several advanced features. You can unscrew the top and replace the capsule with various models from Heil and Shure. The XD-V70 uses the 2.4GHz band, so you won''t get interference from broadcasters or other high-power RF transmitters. Although this frequency is used by wi-fi, Bluetooth, and some wireless phones, the XD-V70''s signals are encoded using a different protocol, and it ignores other signals. It also spreads the signal over multiple bands and then reassembles it for redundancy, thus preventing dropouts.

PORTABILITY FACTOR
Well, it''s a wireless mic . . . duh. Can''t get much more portable than that. As to the receiver (Figure 2), while it''s solidly-built, it takes up little space, although of course it needs a cable to go back to your mixer or portable PA, and an AC outlet for the adapter. The carrying case for the mic is durable, well-padded, and has space for backup batteries (two standard AA types). The mic''s barrel is a little larger than a Shure SM58, but I don''t find it uncomfortable to hold.

SPECIAL SAUCE
It''s digital. So what? Here''s what: If you go out of range—which is up to several hundred feet with this sucker—it just stops. No noise, hiss, artifacts, or issues: Either it''s happening exactly as expected, or it''s not happening at all. It also models several different mics, so if you''re used to working with an A-T AE4100, Shure SM58 or Beta 58, E/V N/D767, or Sennheiser e835, you''ll get the sound you''re expecting; the models are surprisingly realistic when A/B''ed with the original. This sounds like a great idea, but at least with my voice, the native Line 6 capsule sounded best, so overall I found modeling to be of limited use. However, you can also consider the modeling as potential EQ if you want a brighter or darker sound, which could make it easier to tailor the sound for something like a portable PA if you habitually equalize your voice and the PA restricts you to something like a high and low shelf. Also note that there are no pops or clicks when you turn the mic on or off—a simple, but useful, talent.

CONCLUSIONS
The XD-V70 works reliably, sounds great, has excellent build quality, and made it so I no longer look at wireless mics with doubt and suspicion. It definitely costs more than entry-level analog models, but easily justifies its price tag.

Fig. 3 The four knobs near the middle of the front panel are all about realtime control.

Fig. 3 The four knobs near the middle of the front panel are all about realtime control.

M-AUDIO VENOM SYNTHESIZER
It''s not just portable, it''s engineered for performance applications

Before the EQ/EM merger, EM ran an online-only Venom review in January 2011, approaching the evaluation from a synthesis/studio standpoint. So it''s time for the other shoe to drop, and cover the other—and some would say even more important—part of its split personality: live performance.

First, what makes for a live performance keyboard? It sometimes seems that simply means, “you can lift it.” But Venom made this roundup because there are several design decisions that were clearly intended to optimize its operation in a live performance context. Given the price, tradeoffs must be made—but M-Audio made sure those tradeoffs tilted in favor of live performance instead of following the workstation paradigm.

WHAT IT IS
Venom is a compact keyboard (Figure 3) that eschews the obligatory sequencer and zillions of voices in favor of a simpler synth philosophy for live performance. There are only 12 voices—a small collection by today''s standards. For performance, though, you do have only ten fingers. You might think Venom''s multi-timbral mode (four timbres) would stress out the voice count, but the way it''s intended to be used, this isn''t as big an issue as it might appear because you''ll often use one or more timbres for a limited number of voices (e.g., bass, drums).

Surprise: It''s almost like a DJ machine, too. You can wind up the four voices with drums (there are lotsa included drum sets—if nothing else, this is a great drum tone module), nasty synth bass, some cool arpeggiated figure (yes, there''s a sophisticated arpeggiator), and then play a lead line on top of it.

Fig. 4 The Vyzex editing software is not a “bundled bonus,” but an essential part of the package.

Fig. 4 The Vyzex editing software is not a “bundled bonus,” but an essential part of the package.

PORTABILITY FACTOR
Venom has a four-octave keyboard, and is easy to carry. The case is plastic; don''t drop it—but this construction does keep the weight down. The wall wart (no internal power supply) also reduces weight, but it''s a good idea to carry a spare—just in case.

SPECIAL SAUCE
Much has been made of Venom''s ability to produce nasty, dance/industrial/electro-oriented sounds. That''s true, but it can make conventional synth sounds as well—what you won''t find are pianos, French horns, and other ROMpler-type instruments.

One of the most clever design decisions is conceding that you won''t be able to program everything from the front panel, so it doesn''t even try. Instead, you get the superb Vyzex cross-platform editing software (Figure 4) so you can tweak sounds, big-time, then bring the synth to the gig and use the four easy-to-grasp knobs and button (along with arpeggiator, transpose buttons, pitch bend and mod wheels, etc.) to perform realtime performance moves with six banks of strategic parameters. This cuts down on one of the biggest expenses—hardware—without limiting your ability to shape sounds offline.

And this frees up bucks for generous I/O: mic and instrument inputs, RCA external audio in (for CD players etc.), 5-pin MIDI in and out, stereo audio out, expression and sustain pedal ins, headphone out, and even a USB audio/MIDI interface.

CONCLUSIONS
Another synth? No. This is a performance instrument with a personality, and it''s a personality I really like. I haven''t had this much fun with a hardware synth in a long time, and the price is certainly right.

Fig. 5 No, this photo hasn''t been cropped; the screen is actually that thin.

Fig. 5 No, this photo hasn''t been cropped; the screen is actually that thin.

APPLE MACBOOK AIR
The next-generation laptop makes the live performance cut

I hadn''t paid much attention to the MacBook Air. It looked like a glorified netbook, which certainly has its place . . . but wouldn''t you need a MacBook Pro if yowu were a performing laptop musician? Not any more, because it seems Apple injected an iPad with MacBook Pro steroids—and if you''re looking for a truly portable live performance computer experience, the MacBook Air is tough to beat.

WHAT IT IS
MacBook Air is the smallest, most portable computer in the MacBook line and offers models with 11" and 13" screens; this review covers the 13" model shown in Figure 5, which I''d strongly advise for stage use.

Fig. 6 The body is really thin. How thin? This thin.

Fig. 6 The body is really thin. How thin? This thin.

When the original MacBook Air was introduced, the lack of an optical drive was considered a serious limitation, but with the new model having dual USB 2.0 ports (one on each side—see Figure 6) and with so much software being downloadable (and no program in recent memory requiring periodic CD insertion as copy protection), the point is moot and the result is one less mechanical concern. MacBook Air has Apple''s famous industrial design, but it also benefits from aluminum unibody construction; it''s not just a pretty face, but a comparatively tough one that weighs in at 2.9 pounds.

PORTABILITY FACTOR
The processor is an Intel Core 2 Duo processor—same as the original MacBook Air—which is powerful enough for guitarists to run amp-sim software with sufficiently low latency (I had no problem running Guitar Rig), or keyboard players to load up a bunch of virtual instruments as well as MainStage 2 (which it can also run). If you have downtime in the hotel room, yes, you can run Logic 9 without hiccups and as expected, GarageBand comes pre-installed, although Logic Express can be pre-installed optionally at extra cost. Native resolution is 1,440 x 900 pixels (16:10), which is fine for most music programs.

SPECIAL SAUCE
Don''t like hard-drive whine? MacBook Air is built around Flash memory, so there are no moving parts and there''s no noise (other than when a fan kicks in under heavy use), making it tempting for studio as well as stage—and there''s no waiting for a hard disk to spin up, either. Solid-state memory is also far more rugged than a hard drive, which is important for mobile musicians; I''ve played gigs where the bass/sub was so loud that laptops literally bounced on the table, which does not make hard drives happy. And taking a page from the iPad, the trackpad is multitouch. That doesn''t mean your applications can take advantage of it yet, but the capability is there for when they do. The one bummer: no backlit keyboard—I guess you''ll need to dedicate a USB port to something like a Mighty Bright USB LED light.

CONCLUSIONS
As with most Macs, you can configure the MacBook Air within certain parameters—1.86 or 2.13GHz processor, 128 or 256GB of Flash RAM, 2 or 4GB of system RAM. For performing you''ll probably want 4GB of system RAM and if you can swing the bucks, 256GB of storage; this of course raises the price of entry. Still, I was quite surprised by the level of performance from this Lilliputian computer. They say small is beautiful, but in this case, it''s powerful enough (and the build quality inspires enough confidence) for live performance and DJing—and those are pretty demanding tasks.

Fig. 7 It''s hard to believe this keyboard weighs only 15 pounds, but it does.

Fig. 7 It''s hard to believe this keyboard weighs only 15 pounds, but it does.

CASIO CTK-7000 PORTABLE KEYBOARD
It can''t make up its mind what it is . . . which is a good thing.

Synthesizer? ROMpler? Workstation? Songwriting tool? One-man-band keyboard for the local Holidome? Soundtrack generator? Live performance keyboard for people so hip they mock people who think Casio is unhip? Answer: All of the above. This is one of those head-scratchers where first you wonder how they fit all that stuff in there, then you wonder who at Casio will get fired for setting the price.

WHAT IT IS
The CTK-7000 (Figure 7) is the 61-key version of the semi-weighted, 76-key WK-7500, but the feature set for both is identical. There are 800 onboard tones, 64 notes of polyphony, and 250 rhythm patterns built in, but the rear panel gives clues about what''s going on here: 1/4" dynamic mic in, 1/4" instrument in, 1/8" jack stereo line in, 1/4" stereo headphone out, 1/4" left and right outs, 1/4" sustain/assignable pedal jack, and USB port for cross-platform audio/MIDI data transfer.

Fig. 8 The larger-than-expected display makes navigation relatively easy.

Fig. 8 The larger-than-expected display makes navigation relatively easy.

At heart, the CTK-7000 is an arranger keyboard. There, I said it. But this isn''t just for playing “Blame it on the Bossa Nova,” although I suppose you could if you wanted. For songwriting, you have instant backing tracks that make it easier to come up with melody lines and lyrics; I use arranger keyboards to do soundtrack beds in genres where I don''t normally go. (Don''t tell anyone.) They can also give you ideas at the press of a button.

PORTABILITY FACTOR
Two words: 15 pounds. Three more: Batteries or AC. Four more: Two built-in speakers. Yes, you can take it to the beach, or on top of a mountain, and hear what you''re playing on speakers or headphones. Furthermore, you don''t have to bring along a control surface, as there are nine sliders for realtime control—specifically, mixing sequencer tracks or playing with the organ sounds'' virtual drawbars. By the way, if you crave 76 keys, the WK-7500 weighs only 19 pounds.

SPECIAL SAUCE
The CTK-7000 can record your mic or instrument input along with the sequencer''s backing tracks to an SD or SDHC card (2 to 32GB), so if you do hit songwriting pay dirt, you can catch that inspiration fast. The sequencer is no slouch, either: 16 tracks, along with a system track for recording style and chord changes if that''s your thing. Nor are you limited to recording, as there are multiple editing options—including event note editing down to individual notes—and a decent-sized backlit LCD (Figure 8), along with a transparent operating system, to facilitate tweaking.

A second 8-track pattern sequencer lets you create patterns (with six sections—intro, end, variations, etc.) if you want to go one better than a drum machine backing and do custom arrangements.

CONCLUSIONS
Go ahead, make your Casio/arranger keyboard/built-in speaker jokes. They''ll be funny until you actually get your hands on one of these. No, it''s not necessarily going to replace a big-bucks workstation, but the amount of performance capabilities packed into a keyboard at this price and weight is further proof that as long as you''re not buying food, gasoline, clothes, or an education, your dollar can still go pretty far these days.

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