Novation XioSynth 25
($549.99 list, www.novationmusic.com)
The internal sound chips on most laptops have only one purpose: to be immediately disabled (in Windows systems, do this via Device Manager) so you can use a real interface. In the past I’ve carried around a mini-keyboard controller and USB MIDI/audio interface, but the USB-friendly XioSynth is a better bet. It’s small, has XLR mic and instrument/line audio ins, stereo outs, and includes a fine-sounding synth you can play live, or record into an audio track in your laptop’s DAW. It’s plug-and-play, or you can install ASIO/Core Audio drivers (Windows/Mac respectively). If you’re playing the internal synth, you’ll hear it in the output—this is basically like zero-latency synth monitoring—although you can also monitor through your computer.
What really adds utility for life on the road is a template editor so you can create custom MIDI control surfaces for the 11 knobs (switchable as two banks), two-way joystick, and (yes!) X-Y control pad. There are also “hybrid” modes where you can use XioSynth as a control surface while it’s acting as a synth; when used purely as a synth, the knobs control synth parameters (a cool thing in itself).
The XioSynth comes with several controller templates, but many are for older versions of programs, so it’s good you can roll your own. And for those of you with big suitcases, a 49-key model is available.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Earphones
($199 list, www.audio-technica.com)
The other thing you need for a laptop is a quality set of earphones, and my preference is a good closed-ear type to block out the noise of airplanes, hotel air conditioners, or shootings outside the hotel (I don’t always stay at the Four Seasons). And as a veteran of tons of earphones, the ATH-M50 gets major kudos. It’s not particularly small or light, but the sound quality is about as close as you’ll come to bringing a quality set of speakers on the road.
The most surprising aspect to me is that the bass is really present, but without being “hyped”; I’ve even found these phones very useful for checking “bass reality” in studios where I don’t know the acoustics particularly well. The overall response is smooth, not peaky, and there’s enough isolation so that if I’m doing narration or vocals, there’s no bleed from the phones into the mic. I’d even go far as to say that if you need to mix something on the road, you can do it with these puppies (and you won’t get ear fatigue in the process).
Note that the lower part of the headband and the ear cups themselves are very well padded. This helps in terms of comfort, particularly because you’ll likely want to have the ear cups pressing firmly against your head to keep out noise and improve bass.
Bottom line: These are truly fine phones. But treat them well—they aren’t cheap.
($199.99 list, www.samsontech.com)
Although pitched to the singer/songwriter—which does make sense—this is the kind of interface I’d take to a trade show for editing show videos on a laptop, where I need narration, and sometimes, recordings from Minidisc of instrument sounds or interviews. The last few years I’ve been using a USB mic, but this goes one better: It’s a USB interface where you can choose mic in, instrument in, or stereo line in. It also has level controls for headphone/line out volume, mic sensitivity, and the instrument/line ins. There’s zero-latency monitoring in mono or stereo from the inputs, as well as the option to monitor playback from the computer.
The package includes a desktop mic stand and extension cables for instrument and headphones (a good idea, as their jacks on the GTrack are 1/8"), and USB. It’s class-compliant so there are no special drivers, and an optional shock mount is available.
GTrack is fairly heavy; I’d put it in my suitcase, not carry-on. Also if you use a Mac, try before you buy—some people have reported problems with MacBooks, while others haven’t. Nonetheless, the combination of a good-sounding mic, interface, mixer, and monitor, all in one relatively compact package, is very appealing. If I needed a MIDI controller and sounds I’d go for the XioSynth mentioned above, but for a pure recording device, the GTrack hits the spot.