With USB mics all the rage, it''s no surprise that USB instrument cables have begun to hit the market. A noteworthy example is the IK Multimedia StealthPlug ($129), which lets you plug in your guitar or bass through your computer''s USB port and comes with a generous software bundle. You get IK''s AmpliTube 2 Live, SampleTank 2 SE, and T-RackS, as well as Mackie Tracktion 2.1 and a collection of Sonic Reality loops.
The black StealthPlug is a little over nine feet in length and has a ¼-inch jack on one end and a USB connector on the other. It features an arrowhead-shaped plastic lump about ten inches from the ¼-inch jack, which sports a stereo minijack headphone output, two volume-control buttons—up and down—and an LED that glows green when the USB connection is active (the device supports both USB 2.0 and 1.0). The StealthPlug has a 16-bit A/D/A converter and is compatible with 44.1 and 48 kHz sampling rates.
The StealthPlug lets you plug your guitar or bass directly into your computer.
On the Mac, the StealthPlug requires no additional drivers. Like other USB class-compliant devices, just plug it in and it''s recognized instantly by the computer. It''s particularly easy if your recording software allows you to specify separate input and output drivers, such as with Ableton Live, or multiple drivers, like with MOTU Digital Performer. Set the StealthPlug as your input and keep your regular output driver settings so you can monitor as you normally would.
If your software allows you to choose only one driver for input and output, such as is the case with Apple Logic Pro, you can set up a Core Audio Aggregate Device in the Audio MIDI Setup utility. This device should have the StealthPlug specified as both the input and output, and your regular audio interface (or the Mac''s built-in audio) also selected as an output.
For Windows XP users (IK says it plans to release Vista drivers soon), the StealthPlug doesn''t have quite the same plug-and-play capabilities. First, you must install drivers before using it. A bigger issue is that the StealthPlug uses ASIO drivers, and the ASIO spec requires that the same device be selected for input and output. As a result, you have no choice but to monitor both the StealthPlug''s output and your recording software''s output through the cable''s headphone jack rather than your usual monitoring chain. You can either plug headphones into the StealthPlug''s minijack or patch a cable from the jack to your active monitors or monitor amp. If you are a Windows user, one advantage is that you get StealthPlug Control Panel software, which lets you see and adjust input gain, direct-monitor level, and output gain.
Another limitation, which is no fault of IK Multimedia''s, is that you can''t use the StealthPlug with Digidesign Pro Tools systems, because that software won''t allow you to use anything but a Digidesign (or M-Audio in the case of Pro Tools M-Powered) input device.
Acing Bass and Guitar
I tested the StealthPlug by recording guitar and bass parts in a number of recording applications, including Digital Performer, Logic Pro, Live, and Apple GarageBand, on my dual 2 GHz Power Mac G5 running Mac OS X 10.4.8. On my Pentium M laptop running Windows XP, I tested the StealthPlug in Cakewalk Sonar 6, Magix Samplitude V8 SE, and Acoustica Mixcraft 3. In all cases, the StealthPlug''s output was consistently clean (see Web Clip 1). It wasn''t as warm sounding as the output from a direct box through my audio interface''s converters, but the differences were minimal. I did have to adjust the latency settings in the various programs I was testing in order to get the best feel, but I was always able to find a comfortable setting except in GarageBand, which offers only two buffer choices.
Getting AmpliTube 2 Live bundled with the StealthPlug helps justify spending $129 for an input cable. Although AmpliTube 2 Live''s features are not as extensive as those on the full version of AmpliTube 2, it still has great-sounding guitar amp, bass amp, and effects models; a speaker simulator; and lots of presets (see Web Clip 2). It runs as a plug-in or as a standalone application. Like most amp-modeling software, AmpliTube 2 Live is processor intensive.
To me, the optimal use of the StealthPlug would be in a portable recording rig where you''re using only your laptop''s built-in audio. You could use the StealthPlug for recording your guitar and bass parts, and a USB mic for your vocals, and you would never need any kind of external audio interface. The monitoring limitations in Windows are a bit of a drag, but overall, the StealthPlug is a useful product that delivers what it promises.
Value (1 through 5): 3