Recording a direct electric guitar signal using your computer isn't always as direct as you might expect. Because guitar pickups produce a high-impedance
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The SoundTech LightSnake lets you connect your guitar, bass, or keyboard directly to a USB-enabled computer, without the need for a separate audio interface.

Recording a direct electric guitar signal using your computer isn't always as direct as you might expect. Because guitar pickups produce a high-impedance output, you'll usually need a preamp to boost their signal to line level. You'll also need an audio interface to deliver that signal into your computer. Guitarists, especially those who prefer mobile systems, want simple alternatives that sound good.

Some manufacturers have tried to simplify direct recording by producing guitars with USB ports. USB guitars have onboard analog-to-digital (A/D) converters and send digital audio streams directly to your computer. For the vast majority of guitarists who don't play USB guitars, SoundTech makes the LightSnake Guitar/Keyboard USB Cable ($69.99). The LightSnake lets you plug your guitar (or any other instrument with a mono ¼-inch output) directly into your USB-equipped computer, with no additional hardware needed.

On one end of the LightSnake is a ¼-inch TS plug, and on the other end is a USB plug; both are molded into the cable. Inside the USB plug's housing is a 16-bit, 48 kHz A/D converter that's also 44.1 kHz compatible. To ensure a strong signal from your guitar pickups, the high-impedance (1 MΩ) analog circuitry boosts the signal by 20 dB, bringing it up to line level before conversion. The plugs at either end are fitted with green LEDs that flash when the cable is connected, indicating that the cable is operating properly.

Because the LightSnake is a plug-and-play, class-compliant USB audio device, it doesn't require any drivers when used with Mac OS X or with Windows 98SE or later. The cable ships with ASIO drivers for older versions of Windows that don't offer class-compliant support. It also ships with a CD-ROM containing demo versions of Sony software for Windows, including Acid, Sound Forge, Vegas, and others; no Macintosh demos are included.

Light Speed

No matter what audio interface you use, latency can be a problem when you monitor your guitar through software. To circumvent that issue, SoundTech allows you to directly monitor your signal before it is digitized. The first-generation LightSnake cable (the kind I received at first) ships with a separate splitter that has a ¼-inch plug and two µ-inch jacks. You insert the splitter's plug into your guitar, the LightSnake's ¼-inch plug into one of the splitter's jacks, and a connection to your guitar amplifier into its other jack. The second-generation LightSnake cable doesn't include a separate splitter; instead, the splitter is integrated into the cable's ¼-inch connector.

I applaud SoundTech for offering a direct monitoring option to get around the latency problem, but monitoring directly from the dry guitar isn't practical if the sound you want to hear is being processed by software. Luckily, I found that by adjusting the buffer in my audio software to 64 samples, I could achieve a latency low enough to avoid distraction. Higher settings resulted in too much latency, and lower settings compromised the signal with crackles and pops.

Some software doesn't allow you to specify separate input and output devices, which might mean that you couldn't use the LightSnake as your computer's audio input without losing its audio output. However, Mac OS X users can create an Aggregate Device in Audio MIDI Setup, assigning the LightSnake as the input and another device (including built-in audio) as the output. Windows XP's Control Panel lets you independently choose an input and output for class-compliant USB devices.

Light and Sound

My initial experience with a first-generation LightSnake cable was abysmal: I heard more noise than signal. I figured something must have been wrong, especially because SoundTech says that a Host Side Data Loss (HSDL) noise-reduction system was built into the cable. After some investigation, the company discovered that a flaw in manufacturing had affected some of its first-generation cables. SoundTech sent me a second-generation LightSnake, which was far better. The signal was strong and clean, and the HSDL noise reduction was definitely effective. Both of my electric guitars sounded quieter through the LightSnake than they would have through a tube amplifier.

The LightSnake cable won't appeal to guitarists who need 24-bit audio, high sampling-rate precision, or specialized low-latency drivers, or to anyone who prefers boutique microphone preamps and high-end A/D converters. But it does offer a simple, effective, and affordable 1-cable solution for getting guitar or other instrument signals directly into your computer. For those reasons, the LightSnake is worth looking into.

Value (1 through 5): 3