Eew I can sense the excitement in the air, we’re talking about ports, where you stick stuff in and magical things happen. You’re excited right? Right? Be honest, after that intro your mind went to the gutter… Perv 😉
COMPUTER ports my friend, that is where we’re at today. How you connect your audio interface to your computer. There’s a bunch of flavors out there and I thought I would spend a little time on them. So let’s set this ship asail.
Slow Down Speedy
So let’s get a couple of fancy computer words out there first. We are going to be talking about speeds a lot. Bits and bytes, a bit is a single unit of measure, it’s a 0 or a 1. A byte is a bunch of bits, 8 of them to be exact. When we are talking about speeds for these connections we are talking about bits. So when I say 480 Mbps, it means 480 million bits per second, or 5 Gbps is 5 Giga bits per second (a gigabit is a 1024 megabits). Now speed can be deceptive, especially in USB, so we’ll talk numbers first and then I’ll explain why I said that.
To USB Or Not To USB
Ok, so USB comes in many different (and confusing) flavours. There’s USB 1.0, 1.1, 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, C, Type C and then Thunderbolt which is different but the same, so let’s make sense of this all for you.
USB 1.0 – 2.0
OK so that’s what most of us think of as USB. In some much older interfaces you will find them using the original USB 1.0 specification which allowed for 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps), then came 1.1 which allowed 12 Mbps followed by USB 2.0 which shot up to 480 Mbps. Generally speaking most USB audio interfaces use the 2.0 standard.
This is what a USB 3.0 cable looks like, USB 3 brought the spec up to 5 Gigabits per second (Gbps).
USB 3.1, 3.2 Type C
See that small end, that’s what USB 3.1 or USB Type C looks like. These can go in either way so they eliminated the “is this the right way” problem found in earlier versions of USB adapters. Speed wise, 3.1 is 10 Gbps and 3.2 doubles that to 20 Gbps. This is also where it gets a little confusing because Thunderbolt 3 uses a USB-C connector and can support USB-C devices, but USB-C ports can NOT support Thunderbolt connections unless identified as such. We’ll talk about that more in the Thunderbolt section.
Now back to that speed issue
OK, so I was talking about how speed was deceptive in USB. The majority of audio interfaces come with a USB 2.0 connection these days. You’re probably thinking, but Rob, 3.0 is like 10 times faster why not use that? Well because that’s not the case. I won’t get into the technical reasons, but I’ll explain it in a way that is much easier to understand.
Think of a car and a bus driving down the highway at 100 km an hour. They will both arrive at the destination at the same time, only the bus will have more people. That’s in affect what happens with USB. The data takes the same time to arrive to the destination, except as the protocol developed they managed to deliver more data in the same time as the previous revision. So really the only thing it offered was higher channel counts and as a result most manufacturers just stayed at 2.0.
Now 3.1 and above changes that but at this time there aren’t a whole lot of options available yet. Presonus has started selling a USB C line but I haven’t heard anything about it yet nor had a chance to play with them, hint hint Presonus 😉
Other USB Considerations
Now USB is what they call an un-managed protocol. Meaning all the devices on that bus kind of do what they want to and get noticed when they can. Generally speaking this isn’t a problem, but when you get into higher simultaneous channel counts you can run into problems with drop outs and glitches. I would say, going up to 8 channels, you’re good. I know Focusrite, Presonus and Behringer make USB interfaces that can be expanded to 16 channels, those are the ones I think of off the top of my head anyway. I haven’t had experience with those ones, but I would say if you want to go above 16, you’ll have to consider something other than USB 2.0.
In terms of price, availability and ease of use though, it’s really hard to beat devices based on these ports.
Thunderbolt. Sexy no? Maybe it’s just me. So the top connector is a Thunderbolt 1/2 cable. Thunderbolt 1 was 10 Gbps, Thunderbolt 2, 20 Gpbs. The bottom, USB-C? Yes and no. Thunderbolt 3. It uses the same cable but that fancy lightening sign on the cable and the port indicate it as Thunderbolt 3, with a whopping 40 Gpbs of transfer speed.
Thunderbolt is primarily used in higher end interfaces. I have a pair of Universal Audio Apollo’s that use it and I will tell you from first hand experience it is glorious. You can get high channel counts with negligible latency using these types of cables. If you’ve ever opened up a computer to install a graphics card, or something like that, this basically is one of those slots in cable form.
The downside of these are, in the Windows world they are less common, (Macs have had them for quite some time), and the devices that use them are more expensive. This however is one of those cases where you generally get what you pay for.
OK so Firewire is considered a “dead” standard. People have moved on from it, BUT it is still widely in use in the audio field. There’s a number of reasons for that that we’ll get into.
Firewire came in two varieties, 1394a which was 400 Mbps and 1394b which was 800 Mbps. While USB 2.0 was faster in theory, Firewire was used very widely because it was faster in practice. Firewire was a managed protocol which meant it controlled what was sent by what device and when. That meant no collisions along the wire and data got to it’s destination more reliably. Additionally typically would only plug their audio devices into the Firewire ports and everything else into USB.
Why should you still consider it? Well because there is a ton of really amazing Firewire based products on the used market (and some manufactures still build new Firewire interfaces) at really great prices. So you can end up with an exceptional product for a fraction of what it was originally worth.
Why should you not use it? Like I said it is considered a dead product so there’s no guarantees on how long companies will support it. It’s a bit of a gamble. But then again if you build a rig based on Firewire you can keep it at that software level until you are ready to move on. A lot of the equipment I own is Firewire based and I do love it, for what it’s worth.
Time To Dock This Ship
So we’ve covered off the different types of ports widely used today, time to offer up thoughts on what you should consider.
USB ports, anything you buy today is going to have one of these so it’s a no brainer. If you’re just getting into this game and learning, chances are you’ve already got what you need port wise covered.
Thunderbolt and or USB-C. If you want to get into high track counts, and high end audio interfaces. This is your game my friend. Mac’s come with these, as do some Dell and Alienware systems. This is a tough add on, so if you want to go this route get a system that has it pre-installed or a motherboard that has it built in or an option card available. No one makes a generic add on card for this type of port.
Firewire. I would recommend this if you are looking to buy higher end equipment at a steal, or to maximize bang for buck. Long term support can be questionable, but if you are ok with locking in at some point, not a bad way to go.