A handheld gateway to the world of home recording.
Doesn’t require a power supply or batteries. Works with any plug-in or DAW. Very simple interface.
Differences between preamp emulations are subtle.
Positive Grid Riff
It’s never been easier or less expensive to take part in the home recording experience. And Positive Grid’s newest entry into the interface market, called RIFF, exists at an impressive nexus of portability, functionality, and price. For around the cost of a decent overdrive, it’s a handheld audio interface that skips the bells and whistles for the sake of making a tool that just plain works.
The design is streamlined. The front of the unit is home to a backlit LCD screen and a multi-function push knob. There’s also a headphone output and audio input jack on the bottom along with an output jack on top next to a USB port. Setting up RIFF is a breeze. Apple Logic recognized the unit right away on my own computer, and because it’s powered via USB (or Lightning in iOS applications), you just plug in to your computer to power up. You can adjust four primary parameters: input gain, output gain, direct (which blends direct and processed tones coming from your computer for monitoring purposes) and tone, which cycles through three preamp emulations. The preamps are effective, though their overall effect and the differences between them can be subtle.
The recording quality of the RIFF is stellar. It handles 24bit/96kHz sample rates and there is little-to-no detectable latency. RIFF also comes bundled with the company’s BIAS FX 2 LE software for amp emulation, which makes RIFF a super fun way to practice on top of an incredibly handy recording setup.
Test Gear: Fender HSS Stratocaster, Fender Jazz Bass, Neural DSP Archetype: Cory Wong
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Time to level up from those wimpy computer speakers.
One of the most important aspects of your audio signal chain is how you hear your creations. For those dipping into the home-studio life, here are 10 entry-level options for monitors that balance power, portability, and price.
KRK Classic 5
Even with a 5" woofer, this two-way monitor offers a total of 50 watts of power with 30 watts driving the woofer and 20 watts for the tweeter. It has an optional bass boost, front-firing port, and dedicated high- and low-frequency adjustment controls.
Samson MediaOne BT3
Portability and wireless features are at the forefront of this design. Each speaker has a 3" woofer and 1" tweeter that offers 15 watts per channel. Around back you have Bluetooth capability, RCA inputs, and passive output terminals.
JBL 1 Series 104-BT
This set of monitors is powered by an integrated class-D 60-watt amp that distributes 30 watts to each speaker. With a 4.5" woofer it can kick out up to 104 dB SPL. It offers three sets of inputs (aux, RCA, and TRS) along with Bluetooth connectivity.
Aimed for entry-level music creators, this setup is a compact, 8-watt affair with dedicated treble and bass controls on the front panel along with a TRS mic input with level control. A built-in mixer makes playing along with backing tracks a breeze.
Kali Audio LP-6 V2
On the higher end of our collection is the latest iteration of the company’s LP-6 which is loaded with an 80-watt class-D amp along with a 6.5" woofer that can churn out a max SPL of 115 dB. Inputs include RCA, TRS, and XLR, and features include a series of dip switches that help tune the monitors to your specific space.
Presonus ERIS E3.5
These portable reference monitors offer a dead-simple control setup with an aux input, a headphone output, and a simple volume knob. They come packed with balanced TRS and RCA inputs. Even with a 3.5" woofer, a 50-watt engine pushes a peak of 100 dB.
If space is at a premium, these ultra-portable monitors combine a silk dome tweeter and a 3" woofer into an extremely affordable package. An easily accessible headphone jack is on front and a trio of inputs (TRS, RCA, and unbalanced stereo in) are featured on the back.
Alesis Elevate 5 MkII
Combining a high-precision driver with a custom-designed crossover, this pair offers 40 watts of power in a magnetically shielded enclosure to help with interference from video monitors. Rear controls include a switchable bass boost, RCA and XLR inputs, and a power switch.
Tannoy Reveal 502
A front-firing bass port allows for placement near walls and aim to keep the low-end in check. Inside is a 75-watt bi-amp design with a custom crossover that puts out 50 watts in the lows and mids and 25 watts in the highs. Naturally, it comes stocked with XLR, unbalanced, and aux inputs.
M-Audio BX5 D3
A 5" Kevlar woofer (bulletproof?) is the highlight of this affordable monitor set. The front panel is sleek and doesn’t offer any tangible control. All the inputs (XLR and TRS), volume control, and power switch are around back along with a toggle used to tune the monitors to your specific acoustic space.
With automatic level setting, an omnidirectional condenser, and a pair of phantom-powered XLR inputs, iZotope's latest puts a lot of recording power into your iOS device.
It just ... works. Very good mic. Easy to setup.
App is iOS only.
iZotope Spire Studio (2nd generation)
Since COVID upended the world, nearly every serious musician I know has become at least slightly better at recording. And that uptick in engineering interest may make iZotope's second iteration of the Spire Studio portable multitrack recorder worth checking out for those looking to strike fast when they're inspired. I was up and tracking less than three minutes after unboxing the unit.
Simply plug in your headphones, hit the soundcheck button, strum a few chords, and Spire automatically sets your recording level. The onboard omnidirectional condenser mic sounded impressively clear with my acoustic guitar, but you can also go direct or use your own mics via two XLR/1/4" combo jacks—which even feature 48V phantom power.
Tracking multiple parts was a breeze, as was editing, overdubbing, and mixing them right from the app.
But the real magic is in the free mobile app, which lets you control the unit from an iOS device. Tracking multiple parts was a breeze, as was editing, overdubbing, and mixing them right from the app. The visual mixer is an extremely nice touch. It allows you to control panning and volume by simply sliding around icons that represent each track. What's more, you can seamlessly export either a mix or stems that work in just about any DAW imaginable. All in all, while Spire might not be your go-to method for creating a final mix for the masses, it's a fast, intuitive, convenient way to capture and shape fairly sophisticated musical ideas before they fade from memory.
Test Gear: Cordobá DC-9, Neural DSP Quad Cortex
Four top speaker-emulators from Mesa/Boogie, Two Notes, Boss, and Universal Audio get the PG review-roundup treatment.
Guitarists have searched for ways to capture big amp tones at low volume since time immemorial, or at least for the last few decades. The quest became more urgent during COVID, as many of us needed to carve out sonic space for remote-schooled kids, telecommuting roommates, and housebound neighbors griping about loud music, not just on evenings and weekends, but 24/7.
Fortunately, solutions are legion: hardware amp emulators, faux-amp plug-ins, and—our focus here—load box/speaker emulators that let you capture the sounds of your favorite amps minus their usual volume. In fact, we're zeroing in on one particular type of product: load box/emulators that faithfully mimic the sound of a miked speaker via impulse responses.
Speaker impulse responses (IRs) are created by running a test signal through a cabinet and recording the results. The software then compares the raw signal to the sound that emerges from the speaker, and imposes the same coloration on raw, direct-from-amp tones.
Meanwhile, the load box makes your amp "think" it's connected to a speaker. (Running an analog amp without a speaker load is a quick way to destroy the amp.) The four devices examined here include speaker-out jacks, so you can play through your speaker at reduced levels if desired while simultaneously capturing the direct IR sound. All four offer attractive faux-speaker sounds. Beyond that, prices and features vary dramatically.
While we're specifically examining stand- alone devices, it's also worth noting that amp manufacturers—among them Revv, Fender, Victory, and Mesa/Boogie—are increasingly offering built-in cab IR tech, too.
During COVID, many of us needed to carve out sonic space for remote-schooled kids, telecommuting roommates, and housebound neighbors griping about loud music—not just on evenings and weekends, but 24/7.
About the Demo Clips
I recorded all clips using a ReAmp, so I could run the identical material through each device without having to worry about performance inconsistencies. Each device is represented by three clean tones and three distorted tones. All were recorded through a Carr Lincoln amp, a Vox-inspired boutique model. The test guitars are a pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster for the clean tones and an '80s Gibson Les Paul with retro-style PAFs for the crunchy ones.
Exercise caution when making direct sonic comparisons. The available models and effects vary from device to device. Also, since the Mesa CabClone IR+ has no effects, its clips lack the fattening compression and rich ambience of the rival examples. But CabClone users can easily add those effects within the DAW or at the mixing desk. Finally, remember that only the speaker/cab sound is under review, not the amp tone. Results vary immensely depending on your amp of choice. For example, you may not dig the vintage-flavored tube distortion heard here, but connecting a modern, high-gain amp would instantly yield modern, high-gain tones.
We'll proceed in ascending order of price.