FIG. 1: The TonePort UX2 USB interface lets you plug in guitars, microphones, line-level effects, and send the output to either analog or digital gear.
Several years after its release of GuitarPort, Line 6 has released its next generation of USB guitar processors — the TonePorts. Currently offered in two versions, the UX1 and UX2, the TonePorts each have a hardware front end that interfaces with a software processing rack of Line 6 guitar, amplifier, cabinet, and effects models. The TonePorts have significant new features, including one or two XLR microphone inputs with phantom power and, in the case of the UX2, a S/PDIF output.
The design of the TonePort system allows the UX1 and UX2 to straddle the middle ground between outboard hardware processors and software plug-ins. Your guitar signal passes through a hardware input and is then sent to your computer through USB, where it is processed by the GearBox software. Next it is routed to the recording software of your choice, and then back to the TonePort for monitoring.
This setup lets you monitor your signal through GearBox with minimal latency while setting your host software's buffer at a high level. That results in better host performance than you could achieve with a plug-in, which would require a lower buffer setting to avoid excessive latency.
The UX2, which has more I/O options than the UX1, is the focus of this review. The UX1's features are summarized in the sidebar “A Brief Look at the UX1.”
Ports of Tone
The front panel of the UX2 (see Fig. 1) has two XLR microphone inputs and a button that globally turns on the phantom power. There are no pad switches. You get two ¼-inch instrument inputs: a high-impedance Normal input for passive electric-guitar pickups and a low-impedance Pad input designed for active pickups.
The UX2's twin VU meters light up when the interface is connected to a USB port and can display the input, send, monitor, or output level, depending on which is selected in the GearBox software. The meters do not have a numerical scale on them, just Min and Max notations. There is a clipping LED for each meter to indicate peaks. The front panel also has a ¼-inch headphone jack.
The rear of the UX2 has two unbalanced ¼-inch line inputs for line-level signals such as mixers and keyboards. Next to those are two ¼-inch jacks for standard momentary or toggle footswitches. You also get a ¼-inch Stereo Monitor In jack, which allows you to plug in and monitor external audio sources, and a pair of balanced ¼-inch analog output jacks.
The S/PDIF output operates at either 24-bit, 44.1 kHz or 24-bit, 48 kHz. Line 6 considers the TonePort to be 96 kHz compatible because the audio driver can upsample the audio to 96 kHz, but the S/PDIF output remains at the original 44.1 kHz or 48 kHz sampling rate. I would have preferred real hardware options for 88.2 kHz and 96 kHz.
If you connect the S/PDIF output to another digital device, the UX2 must be the clock master. That's because there is no S/PDIF or word-clock input on the UX2 to establish sync with another digital unit. I was disappointed by that, because I prefer using the more precise clock on my other digital audio gear. Nonetheless, the S/PDIF output is useful for standalone recorders, DATs, and other devices. The S/PDIF jack always outputs the same signal being sent to the analog outputs.
FIG. 2: This photo shows the top and rear panels of the UX2. There are knobs to control mic gain, headphone volume, and output volume.
The top of the UX2 has four knobs (see Fig. 2): the Mic 1 Gain and Mic 2 Gain knobs give you 50 dB of adjustable gain. Near the headphone jack is the Phones knob to control headphone volume. Behind the Phones knob is the Output knob, which adjusts the volume at the analog outputs.
Getting in GearBox
The GearBox software acts as the control center for the UX2 hardware (see Fig. 3). All of the TonePort's audio processing happens inside GearBox. Signals input through the UX2 get sent directly to GearBox. After that, the program sends them to the UX2's audio driver and analog outputs. The audio driver has four sends and one stereo return. The recording software that you're using, be it the included Ableton Live 4 Lite (Mac/Win) or any other recording software, then selects the four recording sends of GearBox as its audio input device.
FIG. 3: The UX2 includes Line 6''s GearBox software, which offers control over the TonePort hardware and access to Line 6 amplifier and effects models.
The UX2's monitoring scheme, called ToneDirect monitoring, lets you hear your guitar signal after GearBox processes it but before it has passed to your recording software. The latency is not as low as you'd get on a device that has direct hardware monitoring, but it's low enough (it was an acceptable 10 ms on my system) to let you set a high buffer in your host software.
GearBox allows you to address the UX2's inputs in a variety of ways. You can plug in two simultaneous mic or line sources, plug in one instrument and one mic, or input a single instrument, mic, or line-level source. You can't use both instrument inputs simultaneously. If you plug instruments into both, only the Normal input will be heard.
When using one of the dual-input configurations, you can choose the Dual Mono option, in which GearBox processes each signal separately. One signal is sent from send 1-2 and the other from send 3-4. I wish that GearBox had software returns so that you could route recorded tracks from your host through GearBox's processing.
GearBox has knobs to adjust the monitor signal to the TonePort, the record signal to the recording software, the pan position of the recording signal, and the master output volume to the UX2. There is also a handy button to boost the signal to your recording software by 18 dB. When the level going into my recording software was too low, I was able to fine-tune it by engaging the +18 button and lowering the record-volume knob. Also useful is the Mute Line Outs button, which shuts off the signal from GearBox to the UX2.
Another nice GearBox feature is its hum-reduction algorithm, which operates using a simple Learn button. Although I didn't have significant hum in my setup, it silenced the little that I did have.
If the UX2 is your only audio interface, you can hook it up to your audio monitors and hear the input signal from the UX2 and the output of your audio software. If your speakers are already hooked up to another audio interface, you can connect the UX2's outputs to the inputs of that interface and use its direct-monitoring capabilities. In my case, I have my studio monitors connected to an RME Fireface 800, so I monitored the UX2 by connecting its S/PDIF output to the Fireface's S/PDIF input.
If you run Mac OS X Tiger, you can use the Audio MIDI Setup utility to create an aggregate device made up of the UX2 and another audio interface. That will allow you to record the input signal from GearBox into your host and monitor it through the software of that other interface. I tested an aggregate device in Apple Logic Pro 7.1, recording my guitar through the GearBox software and monitoring the signal through the analog outputs of my Fireface 800, and it worked like a charm.
Stomp Your GearBox
GearBox also lets you configure the UX2's two footswitch inputs. You can set both to control either GearBox or your audio software, or you can assign one footswitch to each. When used to control GearBox, a footswitch can be assigned to control the tap tempo function, toggle individual GearBox effects on or off, activate the tuner, advance presets, or mute some or all of the recording sends.
When used to control audio software, each footswitch can be set up to send a variety of MIDI CC messages or to send Mackie Control or MIDI Machine Control transport commands. When used in that way, the TonePort shows up as an available MIDI or control-surface input in your host software, depending on how you've configured the footswitch in GearBox. Simply select it as a controller or MIDI destination, and you can use the footswitch with your host.
Currently, Line 6 doesn't ship the UX2 with printed documentation. But plenty of useful information is offered through GearBox's Help menu and on the Line 6 Web site.
All About Tone
GearBox has dozens of models of classic amplifiers, speakers, stompboxes, and even mic preamps. Many of the models are from the PodXT processor. The effects cannot be freely placed in the chain, but most offer pre and post switches to allow them to be placed either before or after the speaker cabinet. You can also buy extra model packs from Line 6, including the rest of the PodXT sounds or packs of classic models, metal models, and effects models.
Line 6's models range from fair to excellent, and this batch is no exception. Of the classic amps offered with GearBox, I like the Plexi and Brit J-800 models the most. I'm less enthused about the Fender models, which seem a bit duller than real Fenders I've owned. But I really like the Line 6 originals such as Chemical X and Spinal Puppet.
GearBox's mic preamp models are designed for use with incoming mic signals. They offer pleasant warmth and color, but don't expect them to turn the UX2's preamps into Neves or Avalons.
Of the sounds in the optional model packs, the amp models in the Metal Shop collection, such as the Bomber Uber and Diety, are punchy yet retain the sound of the guitar. From the FX Junkie pack, I was particularly inspired by effects such as Phaze Eko and the flangers and choruses (see Web Clip 1).
Arriving at TonePort
There's a lot to like about the UX2. It's affordable, it gives you a number of I/O options, the GearBox software is easy to use, and the model collection sounds good and is expandable. Sure, there are some features that I wish Line 6 had included, such as S/PDIF input and trim knobs for the instrument inputs. But at its current price, it's hard to complain.
If you're in the market for a stereo USB interface that offers instrument and microphone processing, the UX2 should be on your short list.
Orren Merton is the author of Guitar Rig 2 Power! (2006) and Logic Pro 7 Power! (2004) and the coauthor of Logic 7 Ignite! (2005), all published by Thomson Course Technology.
TONEPORT UX2 SPECIFICATIONS Analog Inputs (2) XLR mic; (1) high-impedance, unbalanced ¼" TS instrument; (1) low-impedance, unbalanced ¼" TS instrument; (2) unbalanced ¼" TS line; (1) ¼" TRS stereo monitor; (2) ¼" footswitch Analog Outputs (2) balanced ¼" TRS, (1) ¼" TRS headphone Digital I/O (1) USB, (1) S/PDIF output Maximum Mic Gain 50 dB Signal-to-Noise Ratio guitar in to USB: 110 dB; mic in to USB: 107 dB; line in to USB: 109 dB; USB to analog out: 107 dB Dimensions 10" (W) × 3" (H) × 6" (D) Weight 1.38 lbs.
USB recording and modeling interface
PROS: High-quality modeled sounds. Intuitive GearBox software. Hum noise-reduction feature. Programmable footswitch jacks. Expandable sound set. ToneDirect monitoring allows high host-software buffer settings.
CONS: Can't process recorded tracks in GearBox. UX2 must be digital clock master. Can't use both instrument inputs simultaneously. No trim knobs for instrument inputs.
Guide to EM Meters
5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed
EASE OF USE...4
A BRIEF LOOK AT THE UX1
The TonePort UX1 ($175; see Fig. A) is the little brother of the UX2. It offers a single mic input (with a mic pre) and a single high-impedance instrument input. Like the UX2, it provides stereo balanced TRS outputs, a ¼-inch stereo monitor input, and unbalanced ¼-inch line inputs. However, it doesn't have the S/PDIF output and footswitch jacks.
FIG. A: The TonePort UX1 doesn''t sport all the I/O of its more capable sibling, but it offers the same GearBox software.
The GearBox software is the same for both the UX1 and UX2, so both devices can access the same included DSP and (optional) model packs. For the home recordist who doesn't need the additional inputs and outputs of the UX2, the UX1 is worth looking at.