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Line 6 Tone Port UX2

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This thing is so cool I’d almost have bought one just to keep it as a desk ornament. This having been said, the Line 6 Tone Port does what it says on the box to a degree just this side of godlike. If you need the functionally described on its box – to wit, a high-end recording interface for a computer – this is the bit of plastic to spring for.

In its simplest sense, getting sound into a computer should be no more involved than plugging a microphone into your sound card. While this works, the results will probably be reminiscent of the acoustic quality of a circa 1963 telephone that’s been left out in the rain for a couple of decades.

The Line 6 Tone Port provides a high-quality, no-latency sound import with all the toys. You can plug an electric guitar into it, or connect it to a serious condenser microphone – it’ll even supply 48 volts of phantom power through its two XLR connectors. It has a headphone jack, an S/PDF digital output jack, line-level inputs, line-level analog outputs, a monitor input and two foot switch connectors. Perhaps its nicest gadget, however, is its pair of old-style analog level meters, rather than a string of LEDs or a liquid crystal display to indicate its signal level.

The sound quality of the Tone Port is unimpeachable – you’d never know it was digital. It features 24-bit digital to analog and analog to digital converters with in excess of 100 decibels of signal to noise ratio and dynamic range. Its sound is better than that of a compact disc.

There is one minute catch in this – the Tone Port really wants to be plugged into a USB port hosted by your computer, not a USB hub. The extra time required for a hub to process data going through it – the “latency” of the device – makes a difference to this application.

The Tone Port hardware installs with drivers to make it look like Windows sound playback and recording devices, analogous to a conventional sound card. As such, it can be used with any recording software that knows how to listen to and send sound to standard window audio devices. I use it with Sony Acid.

The Gear Box software that installs with Tone Pro is genuinely superb. It will allow you to select the recording source from the Tone Pro, and apply an inexhaustible selection of effects to whatever’s plugged into the box. It comes with a rich library of guitar pedal effects – ranging from the laudably subtle to the deplorably weird – and it has an on-line library through which you can quickly locate and download additional effects from a user-contributed forum. You can also create your own effects and save them to the software’s library.

Aside from working well, Gear Box looks extremely slick. Its controls are beautifully executed simulations of the knobs, switches and panels of a selection of vintage amplifiers. Admittedly, they lack the ragged duct tape, staples, cigarette burns and exposed wood of the vintage amplifiers of my experience, but they’ll still make you feel like you’re back in a seedy bar playing for drinks.

Perhaps because of its retro apprehensions, the Gear Box software has a learning curve measured in minutes. Everything does exactly what it looks like it should, and while it comes with a competent, exhaustive help document, you’re unlikely to need it unless you want to do something unusual with the software.

Gear Box also includes an electronic tuner, a metronome and a set of synthetic level meters that duplicate the function of the real level meters on the Tone Pro front panel.

Finally, hitting the street and about 140 dollars, the Tone Port isn’t even particularly expensive – there are several comparable boxes that do significantly less for a lot more money. They don’t look nearly as retro and funky, either – the Tone Port has retro and funky turned up to eleven.

Of all the computer peripherals in the known universe, this one is certain to ensure that no productive work gets done anywhere near a PC it’s connected to.