Summer NAMM 2006: NAMM in the Heart of Texas

Braving near-100 degree temperatures, more than 17,000 registrants attended NAMM Summer Session 2006 in Austin, Texas, self-proclaimed live music capital of the world.
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Braving near-100 degree temperatures, more than 17,000 registrants attended NAMM Summer Session 2006 in Austin, Texas, self-proclaimed live music capital of the world. Unlike January's NAMM show in Anaheim, which just gets bigger every year, this year's summer event had 14 percent fewer attendees than last year's show in Indianapolis. Compared with previous shows, the atmosphere was relaxed but upbeat for crowds of musicians, most working as music store owners and employees, gear manufacturers, factory reps and distributors, product developers, or journalists. Plenty of new products were on hand, and many companies that didn't make an appearance last summer exhibited their wares in Austin.

NAMM Summer Session 2006 took place from Friday, July 14 until Sunday, July 16 at the Austin Convention Center, with abundant sunshine on all three days. This year's show, the very first to be held in Texas, had all the trappings of previous Summer NAMMs, such as special concerts, the World's Fastest Drummer competition, the John Lennon Educational Tour bus, and NAMM University sessions. After-hours concert performers included local blues legends Jimmie Vaughn and Monte Montgomery.

Recognizing which products generated the most enthusiasm has never been a problem at NAMM. Just talk to the other attendees, and you're sure to find out what gets them excited. For some people it's a totally new concept, and for others it's an innovative upgrade to an existing product. Other times the excitement springs from the growing anticipation as a previously announced product nears its ship date.

Hybrid Technology

Alesis introduced two software and hardware bundles that make it easy to get started with podcasting. The USB Podcasting Kit ($299) includes a MultiMix 8USB mixer, a dynamic mic with a desktop stand and cable, and Cubase LE. For $100 more, the FireWire Podcasting Kit upgrades the mixer to a MultiMix 8 FireWire. Both kits feature a dedicated application for creating and managing podcasts and a 30-day trial subscription to Cyber Ears, an online service for distributing your podcasts.

A startup company called Bili takes a new and economical approach to displaying sheet music. Footime ($142) bundles Bili's software for creating and displaying PDF scores with a portable stand for your laptop computer and a footswitch that turns the onscreen pages. You can also buy the footswitch ($59) or the software ($99) alone, or the footswitch with the laptop stand ($99).

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One of the coolest products in Austin had already been announced, but actually seeing it in operation was quite impressive. Liquid Mix ($1,099) is a combination of hardware and software from Focusrite that emulates classic EQs and compressors. It allows you to add features to the emulations; if Liquid Mix is modeling a 4-band EQ, for example, you can insert additional bands, or if a compressor lacks attack and decay parameters, you can add them at will. It is currently shipping for Mac OS X, and a Windows version should follow early in Q4.

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The most unusual-looking keyboard at Summer NAMM had to be the TonePort KB37 ($404), a new device from Line 6 that pairs a USB audio interface for guitarists with a 37-note MIDI keyboard controller. The KB37 comes with GearBox modeling software, which emulates 23 guitar and bass amplifiers, 30 effects, and 6 mic preamps. Featuring two XLR mic inputs with phantom power, an input for guitar or bass, stereo line ins and outs, S/PDIF out, analog VU meters, and more, the TonePort KB37 should be available before November.

Some of the biggest news from Line 6 was the announcement of GearBox Silver ($419) and GearBox Gold ($699) Bundles, due in October. Both packages include GearBox software, a small metal USB guitar interface, and a Mac AU and Windows VST amp- and effects-modeling plug-in, giving guitarists the sound of the Pod XT and then some. The Silver Bundle contains models of 18 guitar amps, 24 guitar cabinets, 5 bass amp and cabinets, 6 mic preamps, and 30 classic effects. The Gold Bundle delivers models of 78 guitar amps, 24 guitar cabinets, 28 bass amps, 22 bass cabinets, 6 mic preamps, and over 80 effects.

Later this summer, you can get your hands on the Mac- and Windows-compatible GuitarPort XT ($139). The package bundles a GuitarPort interface with GearBox software, which is currently available as a free download for current GuitarPort owners.

Line 6 also announced GuitarPort RiffTracker 2 ($265). Now for the Mac as well as Windows, GuitarPort RiffTracker 2 is a complete system for recording guitar that includes Sonoma Wire Works RiffWorks 2 and GearBox modeling software, along with a GuitarPort. RiffWorks 2 features InstantDrummer, online collaboration capabilities, and one-click podcasting and webcasting. If you already own compatible Line 6 hardware, you'll be able to download the software for $99 by September.

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M-Audio is branching off into digital DJ technology with a new division called SynchroScience. The first SynchroScience project is the Conectiv ($299), a 4 x 4 audio interface and multi-effects processor that includes a DJ performance application for the Mac and Windows called Torq. The Conectiv is powered by USB and features dual phono preamps, a 1/4-inch dynamic mic input, and 16-bit, 48 kHz sound. Torq lets you beat-match, mix, crossfade, and cue MP3, AIFF, WAV, WMA, and AAC files. It also supports VST plug-ins and has a performance recorder and a 16-slot sampler. Together with a laptop computer, the Conectiv and Torq can replace an entire DJ hardware rig and stacks of records or CDs.

For guitarists, M-Audio introduced the Guitar Box ($495) and Guitar Box Pro ($695), each pairing the Black Box guitar processor with Pro Tools M-Powered and a large assortment of plug-ins for Windows and Mac OS X. In addition to 45 DigiRack and Bomb Factory plug-ins, Guitar Box adds $1,680 worth of premium plug-ins, and Guitar Box Pro adds $3,810 worth of premium plug-ins.

The Software Side

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It has become a Summer NAMM tradition that Ableton sets off a solid buzz by unveiling the next generation of its flagship digital audio sequencer, Live; this year was no exception. Live 6 adds to its roster of creative capabilities with new features such as custom instrument and effects racks, video support, and new project management tools. You can edit frozen tracks without thawing them first and drag-and-drop QuickTime movies into Live 6's Arrangement View. The boxed version comes with SoniVox's Essential Instrument Collection, a sample library that furnishes multisampled keyboards, guitars, bass, voice, and orchestral instruments. Live 6 will be available in September for $599, with a public beta beginning soon.

In addition to Live 6, Ableton was showing a multisampling plug-in for Live called Sampler. It will import data from popular formats (such as Akai, GigaStudio, and EXS24) and provide tools to transform sounds into something new. Its multimode filter can seamlessly morph from one filter type to another, and you can polyphonically modulate parameters such as loop position and start point in real time. Sampler also has a dedicated modulation oscillator, three LFOs, five envelopes, and more.

Audio Impressions, a software and soundware developer that made its first appearance at this year's Winter NAMM, introduced DVZ RT ($TBA). Slated for release in January, DVZ RT combines DVZ Realtime Orchestrator, mic-bleed emulation, and innovative sample-remapping technology. DVZ RT makes it possible for a single player to realistically re-create the sound of an entire orchestral section in real time. DVZ RT will be the platform for soundware such as DVZ Strings Library, which will allow you to control articulations on the fly and change the size of the sampled orchestral string section as you play.

Although FXpansion had a booth at NAMM, its representatives had no new products to show. However, they at least mentioned that computer musicians could look forward to the next version of its software groove machine, Guru 2, and some new expansion packs for the virtual drummer BFD.

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NexSyn, from virtual-instrument developer KeyToSound, is a true-stereo soft synth featuring 4 GB of sampled waveforms, 16 filter types, 3 LFOs, 8 effects, a 16-step arpeggiator, and a 6 x 12 modulation matrix. NexSyn has an integrated online browser that allows users to upload and download patches to and from their NetNotes accounts. To get a taste of KeyToSound's synthesis engine, you can now download Remedy, a free AU and VST synth plug-in for Windows and Mac OS X.

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Legendary record producer Roger Nichols was on hand to demonstrate several new plug-ins for the Mac and Windows from Roger Nichols Digital. In partnership with Elemental Audio, Nichols has expanded that company's line of plug-ins and added his session-tested presets. The EQ plug-in Uniquel-izer ($249) lets you customize equalization curves in fine detail. For mastering applications, Frequal-izer ($249) gives you surgically accurate EQ by allowing you to specify complex Finite Impulse Responses. Dynam-izer ($249) is a compressor that divides audio levels into color-coded zones, and Finis ($249) is a brick-wall limiter designed for mastering. A suite of six plug-ins called Inspector XL ($299) furnishes a variety of audio-analysis tools. Roger Nichols Digital plug-ins support AU, RTAS, and VST formats.

Many NAMM attendees were blown away by a sample-based soft synth called AIR, which stands for Ambiences, Impact, and Rhythms. AIR is the brainchild of a promising new company called Sample Logic. AIR will retail for $299 and should be shipping for Mac OS X and Windows by mid-August, most likely making it the first available software built around Native Instruments Kontakt Instrument 2.

SoniVox is a new name for the company formerly known as Sonic Implants. In January, I got a glimpse of SoniVox's sample-based virtual instrument Muse ($495), and it's finally nearing completion. Muse is based on Tascam's GVI sampler plug-in. Its sample library has grown to more than 40 GB of content that covers all the bases, from hip-hop to symphonic, with a comprehensive selection of instrumental sounds. Judging from what I heard, Muse could set a new standard for all-in-one sample players. The Windows version is expected later this summer, with a Mac version following in the fall.

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Steinberg announced WaveLab Studio 6 ($399), which is good news for PC users in search of a versatile multitrack waveform editor. This Windows-only application is practically identical to WaveLab 6, but without that program's surround and DVD-authoring capabilities. Steinberg expects WaveLab Studio 6 sometime in the third quarter.

Steinberg's virtual drummer Groove Agent is due for an upgrade in September. Groove Agent 3 (Mac/Win, $299) comes with a larger sample library and new features such as automatic fills, alternating hits, additional styles, and the ability to import samples from other formats. A Special Agent function will realistically model studio drummers based on actual recordings, and Dual Mode will simulate two percussionists playing simultaneously.

Steinberg also launched Cubase SE1 Value Added Package ($149) for Windows and Mac OS X. This entry-level software suite comprises Cubase SE and a selection of VST instruments: D'cota SE, HALion SE, Groove Agent SE, The Grand SE, and Virtual Guitarist Electric Edition SE. Available now, Cubase SE1 VAP offers numerous upgrade paths.

Veteran synthesists were particularly thrilled to hear that Synthax was about to deliver Terratec Producer's Komplexer (Win, $349). Komplexer is a VSTi that emulates the Waldorf MicroQ, a classic wavetable and analog synthesizer. This VST instrument can import MicroQ patches, and it features an onboard vocoder.

Hardware Store

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MIDI drummers will appreciate the ControlPad ($299), an 8-pad USB/MIDI percussion controller from Alesis. On the rear panel are two trigger input jacks and inputs for a kick pedal and a hi-hat pedal. The ControlPad pairs nicely with the Trigger I/O ($249), a percussion interface that converts trigger signals to MIDI Note messages. Its ten inputs accommodate triggers on acoustic drums or cymbals, as well as electronic drum pad triggers from a variety of manufacturers.

A modest but nonetheless handy and ingenious product is the Audioskin Cable Organizer ($16), which allows you to collect loose cables and zipper them together with a twist of the wrist. Audioskin expects the Cable Organizer to be available before the end of summer.

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Hardware manufacturer CME was out in full force to announce the immediate availability of several products. One of the coolest was the Bitstream 3X ($399), a unique programmable MIDI control surface with an 8-track motion sampler, 35 knobs, 16 buttons, 8 sliders, a crossfader, a joystick, and an infrared beam controller. CME calls the tabletop device a 3-axis controller; the joystick controls the x-y axis and the infrared beam controls the z axis.

Also very cool is the WIDI-X8 ($249), CME's full-duplex wireless MIDI/USB interface. It comprises two identical halves, either of which can be in MIDI or USB mode to receive or transmit data. With both in MIDI mode, one can transmit data from your MIDI keyboard and the other can pass it on to your connected synth modules. In USB mode, your computer can connect wirelessly with USB devices. With one half of the WIDI-X8 in USB mode and the other in MIDI mode, you can wirelessly connect a computer to your MIDI devices. CME says that the system's maximum unobstructed range is 262 feet.

Four products in CME's Matrix series, first shown at Winter NAMM, are now shipping. These include the Matrix X ($109), a USB audio interface with a mic and guitar preamp, a 5-channel mixer, and two headphone outputs with separate level knobs. If you need a 4-channel headphone amp, the Matrix Y ($109) has an advantage: a built-in talkback mic routed to the headphone outputs.

CEM's VX series of keyboard controllers are shipping, too. The 49-note VX5 ($899), 61-note VX6 ($999), 76-note VX7 ($1,199), and graded-hammer-action 88-note VX8 ($1,299) each have 12 trigger pads, 9 motorized faders, and an expansion bay. Plans are underway to eventually offer Creamware synth-modeling expansions for all four models. Also on hand was the U-Key Mobiletone ($229), a 49-key controller with a built-in 64-note polyphonic sound module.

As usual, Digitech was there to show its recent advances in guitar amp-, speaker-, and effects-modeling technology. The Brian May Red Special (available now for $299) joins four other Artist pedals and emulates signature tones from classic Queen recordings. It even has a Model knob, which revoices your guitar to sound as if it has Burns Tri-Sonic pickups.

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Continuing Digitech's successful RP Series of modeling guitar processors, the RP150 ($159), RP250 ($229), RP350 ($309) are multi-effects powerhouses that give you 77, 89, and 118 models, respectively. With four times the processing power of previous models and quick access to 30 tone libraries and 30 effects chains, all three units also contain a built-in drum machine and a chromatic tuner. The RP150 and RP250 should ship in September, with the RP350 to follow in October.

Digitech rounded out its NAMM offerings with the CF-7 Chorus Factory ($149), a rugged stompbox that models seven classic chorus effects units. It incorporates the same Audio DNA2 processor as the RP series and should be in stores by October.

Line 6 has expanded its popular line of amp-modeling processors to include the new Floor Pod, available in September for $279. The Floor Pod is an affordable processor with a built-in foot controller, 12 models from the Pod 2.0, and seven effects types (two available simultaneously).

Just like Winter NAMM, the big draw at the Open Labs booth was the MiKo, but the latest instruments from the Austin-based company are redesigns of its flagship keyboard workstation. The NeKo SE ($3,595) is the second-generation standard edition, and the NeKo LX ($5,995) is the second-generation luxury edition. Both models feature Windows XP, a 15-inch touch screen, interchangeable control modules, five PCI slots, and the Openscape sound library.

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The FaderPort ($229), a desktop USB automation and transport controller from PreSonus, works with any Mac or Windows recording software. This desktop device has a single touch-sensitive 100 mm fader, a pan knob, buttons that offer complete transport and navigation functionality, and a footswitch jack for punch-in and -out recording. The FaderPort is expected to ship later this summer.

For recordists who want to interface Roland gear with their computers, Presonus introduced the V-Fire ($TBA), which converts Roland's proprietary R-Bus format to the more universal FireWire. The V-Fire has two FireWire ports and can handle 16 channels of 24-bit, 96 kHz audio, thanks to two R-Bus ports. It comes with a software control panel for Windows and Mac OS X.

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One of the big hits of Summer NAMM was from Roland, who introduced the Boss Micro BR ($319). Only slightly bigger than an Apple iPod, the Micro BR is a portable MP3 studio with 32 virtual tracks. It records in stereo and plays back four tracks at a time. It features a multi-effects processor optimized for guitar, a tuner, time-stretch capabilities, and 293 onboard drum patterns. It uses Secure Digital cards for data storage, and its USB port lets you exchange data with your computer. The Micro BR is slated for a November release.

Another Roland introduction was the Boss RC-2 Loop Station ($284), a compact stompbox with the same form factor as most Boss pedals. The RC-16 boasts 16 minutes of recording time, 11 internal preset locations, and loop quantization. It should also ship in November.

Roland also exhibited three new additions to its Cube line of portable guitar amps, due out in October. The Cube-15X ($139) is a practice amp with a headphone output, and the Cube-20X ($219) delivers COSM-based effects. With enhanced expressive control thanks to the Dyna Amp feature, the Cube-30X ($299) gives your electric guitar the ability to simulate an acoustic guitar. All three Cubes have auxiliary minijack inputs and allow maximum gain at low volume levels.

Another attractive offering from Roland was the PM-30 Personal Monitor ($949), a 200W, 2.1-channel system that has a 12-inch woofer with tweeter, two 4-inch satellite speakers, and proprietary DSP processing. The PM-30 is optimized for V-Drums and should be available in September.

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Sony announced that the MZ-M200 Hi-MD recorder ($439) will soon replace the MZ-M100, first introduced at last year's Summer NAMM. The MZ-M200 upgrades its audio interface to USB 2.0 and can record and play discs in both Hi-MD and standard MD formats. Improved ergonomics offer larger buttons for basic operations, an overload indicator, and a manual recording level control.

Sony's new MDR-7509HD headphones ($265) have been designed for studio engineers and musicians recording high-resolution audio. Their frequency bandwidth extends as high as 80 kHz to reproduce the entire range captured by 24-bit, 96 kHz recordings. The MDR-7509's circumaural design allows comfortable, extended use without aural fatigue.

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Source Audio was demonstrating its HotHand motion-controlled guitar effects. Its latest product is the HotHand Phaser/Flanger ($299), which features seven phaser and seven flanger effects. A HotHand ring is included, and the unit is due to ship this summer. Source Audio is currently developing a wireless option for HotHand effects, which it expects to ship next year for about $100.

Over in the SynthAx booth, the Tronical Power Tune System ($899) was generating a lot of excitement. With Power Tune installed, your guitar will instantly tune itself at the press of a knob. It was definitely the hit of the winter show in Anaheim, and nonstop demonstrations definitely wowed the crowds in Austin. The big news was that the Power Tune System will finally begin shipping in September for a variety of Fender and Gibson guitars.

Way over in the corner of the convention hall, Xpresense was demonstrating the Wireless Audio Gesture controller, better known as the WAG ($399). The WAG lets you control effects devices simply by wiggling your finger. It comprises a base unit that combines a wireless receiver with an effects controller and a ring that slips onto your finger and comes in eight sizes.

Of Mics and Monitors

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Audio-Technica has revamped its entire Artist Series of microphones for live performance and recording. The line includes redesigned and updated models as well as some all-new mics. The AT410 ($169) and AT610 ($249) are dynamic mics for vocals, and the AT710 ($299) is a condenser vocal mic. Instrument mics include the AT250 ($329), a condenser mic, and the dynamic AT650 ($169). The ATM350 ($449) is a clip-on condenser that comes with a gooseneck mount and another mount for violin. The AT250DE ($549) kick-drum mic has both condenser and dynamic elements, and the AT450 ($369) is a side-address condenser for instruments. All are just becoming available now.

Audix was showing its new VX-5 ($299), a handheld vocal condenser mic. The VX-5 has a supercardioid polar pattern and is suited for live, broadcast, and studio applications.

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Mic maker CAD was in Austin with its new Trion series of studio microphones. The Trion 8000 ($399) is a dual-diaphragm tube condenser mic with three selectable polar patterns. Another multi-pattern model, the Trion 6000 ($299), is a solid-state condenser with highpass filter and attenuation switches. And CAD's first ribbon microphone, the dual-element Trion 7000 ($259), has a figure-8 pattern and a pronounced proximity effect.

M-Audio fired another volley in the subwoofer wars by unveiling the BX10s ($499), an active low-frequency monitor with reportedly accurate response down to 20 Hz. A subwoofer-defeat footswitch lets you instantly compare mixes with and without a subwoofer. The BX10s has a 10-inch composite driver and a 240W internal amplifier, and it's a good match for M-Audio's BX5a and BX8a active reference monitors.

For more personal monitoring needs, M-Audio also previewed its line of in-ear reference monitors. The IE-10 ($129) earphones offer 26 dB of isolation, and the dual-driver IE-20XB ($249) deliver extended bass response and 16 dB of isolation. For full frequency response and 26 dB of isolation, the IE-30 ($299) earphones are the top of the line.

And Audio Interfaces

Audio interfaces were more plentiful than ever at the Austin show. Alesis showed two new audio/MIDI interfaces, the iO|14 ($499) and the iO|26 ($599). Both are tabletop FireWire devices that handle 24-bit, 192 kHz sound for Mac and Windows computers. The iO|14 has four combo mic/line inputs, an ADAT Lightpipe input, coaxial S/PDIF I/O, and stereo balanced 1/4-inch outputs. The iO|26 has eight combo mic/line inputs, two Lightpipe inputs, coaxial S/PDIF I/O, and eight balanced 1/4-inch outputs. Two of the iO|26's input can accommodate guitar signals, and two others offer a switchable phono preamp.

From CME, the Matrix K FireWire ($199) and Matrix K USB ($179) are compact audio interfaces that can handle 24-bit, 192 kHz sound. Each supplies a mic/line/guitar combo input with phantom power, stereo line in and out, and two headphone outputs.

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Mackie has begun delivering the Onyx Satellite ($519), a portable FireWire recording system unveiled at Winter NAMM. The Onyx Satellite comprises the Satellite Pod, a versatile and portable audio interface you can remove from the Satellite Base Station, which supplies AC power, additional I/O, and talkback and monitor functions. The system ships with Mackie Tracktion (Mac/Win) and supports 24-bit, 96 kHz audio.

M-Audio introduced the ProFire LightBridge ($499.95), a FireWire audio interface. It offers as many as 32 channels of ADAT Lightpipe I/O, stereo coaxial S/PDIF I/O, word-clock I/O, and MIDI I/O, making it ideal for integrating with a digital mixer or an A/D/A converter. The ProFire LightBridge supports 24-bit audio at frequencies up to 96 kHz.

Baton Rouge-based preamp pioneer PreSonus announced the immediate availability of the DigiMax FS ($799). This 8-channel mic preamp has combo XLR/TRS inputs, balanced direct outputs, word-clock I/O, and TRS inserts on all eight channels. But its most unique feature is 8 channels of dual-SMUX 96 KHz ADAT Lightpipe I/O, making it ideal for expanding digital audio interfaces and mixers.

Prosonus' FireStudio ($899), first announced at Winter NAMM, will be available in August. The FireStudio is an 18 x 18 FireWire recording interface with 8 mic preamps, 8 channels dual-SMUX Lightpipe I/O, stereo S/PDIF, and MIDI I/O. It comes with Cubase LE, Acid XMC, and a collection of loops and samples. An optional surround-capable desktop controller called the Monitor Station Remote ($199) features master volume control, talkback, input and speaker select, two independent headphone outputs, and additional functions.

SynthAx announced that the RME Fireface 400 ($1,199) has begun shipping for Windows, and Mac-compatible software will be forthcoming. The Fireface 400 gives you eight analog inputs and outputs, two mic preamps, ADAT Lightpipe I/O, AES/EBU-compatible S/PDIF, and 32 MIDI channels. It also has a software-controlled internal mixer and supports 24-bit, 192 kHz sound.

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Tascam exhibited two new audio interfaces, the US-122L ($199) and the US-144 ($269). The US-122L replaces the US-122, swapping the old unit's USB 1.1 port for high-speed USB 2.0. The US-122L is more compact and supports 24-bit, 96 kHz audio. The US-144 adds S/PDIF I/O and a separate level control for headphones. Both have two XLR mic inputs with phantom power, two 1/4-inch line inputs that can accommodate guitar signals, two 1/4-inch line outputs, and 16-channel MIDI I/O.

Yamaha attended Summer NAMM this year and displayed the GO46 Mobile 24/192 ($449), a portable FireWire audio/MIDI interface. The bus-powered GO46 is now available and has optical S/PDIF I/O, two combo inputs with 48V phantom power and independent level controls, a headphone output with its own level control, two TRS inserts, and four 1/4-inch outputs. It offers AC-3 and DTS compatibility and comes with a Mac and Windows software suite that includes Cubase LE, Amplitube LE, T-RackS EQ, and four Steinberg instrument plug-ins.