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Sound Advice

Choosing a USB Audio Interface by Alec Watson

Computer recording keeps getting easier and more accessible.

Just a few short years ago, in order to do any “real” recording, one needed some kind of expensive internal controller card (and the guts to break open their computer to install it), a digital converter, and some good outboard microphone preamps; and we’re not even touching on the gear necessary to monitor your music. Today, there are so many choices for getting pretty darned good audio into your computer (at a good price) that it has once again become a little confusing when it comes to making the right choice. In fact, I was “Ebaying” last night and found a “Professional Engineer” who is willing to sell you his thoughts on purchasing the “right” USB audio interface. Not that I want to go denying dude his Ebay income, but as a little gift from CM to you, save your $16 US, (you can apply it to your new interface) here is what you need to know…

USB or Firewire?
I am almost certain I am going to get some hate mail from some better informed tech guy as to why I am wrong, but the honest truth is – it doesn’t really matter. That said there are a few considerations. No, USB and Firewire aren’t going to sound any different, but there may be some usage differences. If you have a computer that has all sorts of USB peripherals plugged in – printers, hard drives, card readers, USB Coffee Maker … and you have a Firewire port sitting empty, then it would probably be wise to go with a Firewire audio interface; you will never receive the dreaded “USB device not recognized” message AND you are likely to be able to achieve lower latencies due to less bus traffic … if that sounds like a bunch of techno crap, apart from the fact that it is (techno crap), rest assured I will explain it later so that you too can impress your friends!

On the flip side, I would tend to go with a USB interface if I was using it with my laptop. Yes, my laptop does have a Firewire port, but it also has six USB ports. A lot of the USB interfaces run off the power supplied by the USB port and as I don’t have a lot of USB peripherals plugged into my computer and I don’t want to carry a wall wart (power adapter) around with me, the USB interface is likely the more robust choice when it comes to powering external devices from my laptop.

Latency – What The Heck Is It And Why Do I Care?
Between the manufacturers of the USB audio interfaces there is a lot of hype about latency. Latency, in practical terms, is the delay that occurs between the moment your audio enters the interface, travels to the CPU (the main processing chip in your computer), is processed (effects and/or EQ that are applied to your audio), and then returns to your USB audio interface to be played by your speakers or headphones. Some USB interfaces have lower latencies than others; for me, however, any latency is too much! I prefer to “direct monitor”; most interfaces achieve zero latency times through this process. Direct monitoring really means that the USB interface is really splitting the audio into two paths, one path goes to your computer, the other goes directly to your headphones; the result is zero latency. The drawback is that you won’t be able to hear your vocal or guitar etc. with any of the cool effects that your computer can apply to them. For me, I would rather hear my voice dry than gooped up with effects and late.

Alec Watson is a Producer/Engineer that lives in Reno-hell Vancouver Island. He can be contacted at alec@alecwatson.com.

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