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Cons(train)ed music: a kit for the traveling ambient artist

After an intense year and a half (pandemic, work, other personal stuff) I needed a vacation. I booked a trip on the Amtrak Empire Builder to go from Seattle to Milwaukee and Chicago. Because of persistent low-grade burnout, I wanted to use the considerable time I’d have offline to work on creative projects including music and writing. This is a brief writeup inspired by The Setup that talks about what I brought with me in an effort to travel relatively light.

One of the centerpieces to the setup is the Zoom H6, which is a lovely handheld recorder. It comes with a very nice XY mic “capsule” for stereo imaging and supports up to 6 inputs in multitrack recording. One of the nice things about the H6 is that it not only serves as a multitrack recorder, but also can act as a USB audio interface that supports either a multitrack setup (6 in/2 out) or a stereo mix (2 in/2 out). Battery life is also great, and mine is powered by rechargeable batteries. Setup is mostly a breeze, although I stashed a PDF copy on my devices for reference in case I got stuck. I also have a cheap but somewhat sturdy table tripod that came with a webcam that I brought to elevate the H6 when I need to. I have a couple of inexpensive windscreens to go over the XY mic, and house the whole thing in an Analog Cases GLIDE case for the H6.

I also wanted to pack a durable and light keyboard controller to use with virtual synthesizer setups. When I first started acquiring modular gear a few years back, I bought a KMI QuNexus keyboard controller because of it’s versatility (USB MIDI and CV support, velocity, other control signals). While KMI makes a lot of claims about its durability, I’m not the kind of person who would intentionally run it over with a truck or spill a beer on it. However, the durability comes at a price - the rubber keys are not always intuitive or respond, and getting used to how it’ll respond in terms of velocity is hard to learn. The QuNexus nonetheless is a great compromise - it’s light, will handle reasonable wear and tear even while traveling, and is small enough to fit into a backpack.

While I’m used to working in REAPER to do most of my recording, I wanted to avoid bringing a laptop because they’re heavy and often of marginal utility. In it’s place, I brought my well-worn iPad Air 2, a 2014-era model. While it’s not the slickest model, its performance is adequate enough to run some of the software that I chose to use on the trip. The reviews of recent versions of Auria and Cubasis didn’t seem promising enough to plonk down $40-$50 for a pro-style DAW, but I’ve been happy with my alternatives. My software kit includes miRack, an iOS port of the open source VCV Rack virtual modular synthesizer. miRack is not a full replacement for VCV Rack in part because modules also need to be ported, so I’m missing some of my favorites that I use while at home. In addition, I use AUM for routing, mixing and processing audio sources, Audiostretch for looping and sampling, and even GarageBand in a pinch. In addition to the iPad itself and the music software, I also have a Logitech K380 Bluetooth keyboard and use Ulysses and Working Copy to update my website. I use the iPad Camera Connection Kit to plug USB devices like the Zoom H6 and the QuNexus into my iPad; with power coming in to the included Lightning port, it’s a good alternative to traveling with a powered USB hub. I can also offload recordings from the H6 to the iPad for further editing, processing and the like when the recorder is put into its SD card reader mode.

Listening is obviously important for working on music while the train. For listening while recording and playback, I have a set of Shure SE215 in-ear headphones, which are light, easy to pack, and provide good enough isolation for me. For phone calls and more casual listening (i.e. not recording/monitoring) , I also have a pair of Jabra Elite Active 75t Bluetooth earbuds. Most of the rest of the gear like cables, chargers, and the like don’t require a whole lot of detail to mention, but I will note that audio and USB cables seem to be the most flaky part of the setup. A USB battery pack, a battery charger for rechargeable batteries, audio and USB cables, and a few various small noisemakers go into a Thule Subterra PowerShuttle case, and phone chargers and other small cables go into a (sadly discontinued) tiny REI toiletry bag.

The end result is that I have a fairly lean setup that I can pack into my daily-carry commuter-style backpack with room to spare for snacks, sunglasses, and the like. I’m still getting the setup ironed out, and I’m sure I’ll develop stronger opinions over time, especially on cables. In the mean time, it’s been a joy to set bits of this up in my roomette, in the observation car, or on fresh air breaks to capture sounds of train yards and small towns across the country. I’m hoping to simplify further and have things feel more natural, but that will come in the future.