Category: Technology

Blog Entry, Technology

Audio Interfaces

OK so if you’ve been playing the home game I left your cords dangling at the end of that last post on ports. Time to grab your cable and stick it into something!! You’re thinking about sex again aren’t you? Ugh you people.. Audio interfaces people!!!! Lets talk dirty about those.

So what is an audio interface? Don’t I have one built into my computer? Why are you making spend more money on stuff?!?! So you have a sound board built into your computer most likely, but those are not intended to connect to musical instruments and professional microphones and equipment, so we need something to do that properly.

So what are we looking for when we buy an audio interface? Well that depends on what you are planning to do. Let’s take a look at a simple entry level interface and see what we have. I’m using a Presonus Audio Box as an example, but there are a number of other good ones out there, the Focusrite 2i2 comes to mind as well. You will see on the front there are two jacks on the front. It is a combination Microphone/Instrument jack so you can plug either into it. What is not on there is a Line input so you can plug keyboards or the such into it.

This is a good time to discuss the differences between them. Microphones typically use a type of jack called XLR. This is what it looks like:

So if you are planning on mic’ing anything you will need to be able to support that with the right connection. Now there are many different types of mics, which we will discuss in depth later. Some types of microphones require power, 48 volts to be exact which is why that 48v button appears. Depending on the manufacturer that also may be referred to as the much cooler sounding Phantom Power. Now what comes out of microphones is an extremely quiet signal, which means it needs to be amplified before it can be amplified, hence the term preamp.

Microphone preamps are a discussion all within themselves, and standalone preamps can run hundreds, thousands, into tens of thousands of dollars for some of the boutique preamps. Ever seen Sound City by Dave Grohl? If not you should, but one of the reasons that board sounds the way it does is because of the legendary Neve 1073 preamps in it. You are not getting that with a budget interface, what you are getting are transparent clean mic pres. What that means is that the microphone preamps don’t colour the sound of the microphones these days. The technology has come a long way and pretty well any audio interface you buy these days is going to sound light years ahead of what was made in the past.

Now back to that jack, see the whole in the middle? That’s for an instrument, as in a guitar. It’s called a Hi-Z plug. Looks like the same quarter inch cable that would plug into the back would plug into that. It would, but this is a great time to talk about impedance.

This a really geeky topic, but I’ll do my best to explain it using plain english. In an electronic circuit you need something to prevent electricity from moving. That is called the impedance, in the old days that number would vary and as a result sounds would change and it’s what would help give vintage equipment an identifiable sound. These days everyone sticks to defined numbers for consistency and so things will work the way they are supposed to. Microphones have a specific impedance, as do instruments like guitars and basses, as do external pieces of equipment like compressors and external mic pres.

Now there are pieces of equipment like a DI box that will let your guitar plug into your mic pres, but why add more equipment if you can have it right out of the box? So I would suggest looking for an interface that has a mic pre, a Hi-Z input for instruments and line inputs and outputs for other gear you may have. Another note here to complicate matters, consumer grade equipment like CD players and turntables, and things that have RCA jacks on them are not meant for pro audio grade line inputs, so if you are going to be using that, add those onto the requirements you need for your audio interface.

OK, the MIDI port on the back. Another should have, or must have if you are planning on connecting keyboards that use that. Most keyboards these days will have USB on it as well, but honestly I do find having Midi ports handy.

So you got stuff hooked up and you want to play. Let’s talk about some of the other things going on with audio interfaces. In this case that little knob called mixer, which has input or playback. This will hearken back to my last post and the nasty little subject of latency.

Latency is the time it takes your system to receive the signal, send it to the computer, process it, and then send it back. If it’s low, you won’t notice it, if it’s not, you will hit a note, and then a split second (or longer), you will hear it. Obviously this can be a horrible thing. To mitigate that manufacturers add a mix signal so you will hear what you are playing as you play it by using the signal before it gets sent to the computer. Totally reduces latency but you will not hear the processed signal (so think if it’s a guitar and you’re adding distortion, you will hear the dry undistorted signal).

I have found this problem to be most prevalent in USB devices on Windows. More often than not it can be resolved by properly tuning a system, but it depends on your setup.

That’s the basics. Now things to consider are. Are you planning on expanding in the future? Under Windows you are limited to one interface at a time if it’s USB. With Firewire and Thunderbolt you can daisy chain interfaces that support it. So I have an Apollo, and an Apollo Twin, they connect to each other, and one cable to the PC(or Mac) and I have one big Apollo unit. Likewise I have a pair of firewire Presonus 16.4.2 mixers that connect to each other and then the computer to form one big 32 channel mixing board/audio interface. So you may want to see if you’re units can be daisy chained, or if they support ADAT. What is ADAT, why let me tell you.

The ADAT standard was created by Alesis as a digital replacement for analogue tape and stands for Alesis Digital Audio Tape. Back then they used VHS tapes to digitally store the audio data. The tape part has disappeared but the tiny optical connectors stuck around and is still widely used today for expansions of digital audio interfaces. Initially there ADAT maxed out at eight channels of 48khz 24 bit audio, but through a process called SMUXing (basically using two ADAT ports) you can achieve 8 channels at 96khz 24 bit, or 4 channles at 192 Khz 24 bit.

If your interface supports ADAT, you can then use something like a Focusrite Octopre to add 8 additional channels of audio to your interface.

Damn, that’s a lot of information. Now some advice. I’ve gone through a ton of different audio interfaces, mistakes were made. For me personally I find myself using my Universal Audio interfaces the most, however if you are just starting out, you DON’T need a high end interface. As a matter of fact I would argue you are better off getting something inexpensive and learning how to get the best sound out of that. As mentioned earlier audio interfaces these days are light years ahead of what was offered in the past in terms of sound quality so you can get an amazing sound out of pretty well anything you buy these days with a little work.

What you should keep in mind is what you plan on doing with it. If you are in a bedroom recording yourself a two channel interface should be enough. If you are a drummer you should really start at eight channels and make sure you have an ADAT expansion port on the back to add additional channels of audio should you need it. Regardless get in there and start recording….. Oh wait! You need software for that, which means next up DAW software!


Any Port In A Storm

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.

USB 3.0

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.

Blog Entry, Technology

Let’s Talk Tech

It’s kinda funny that I’ve focused on audio talk and remixes but never get into what I actually make a living at and how it relates to audio. So as you may or may not know I’ve worked in IT for 20 something years. I love technology in all it’s various forms and in particular as it relates to the arts, even more specifically the audio arts. It’s one of the areas that two seemingly disparate disciplines combine to make beautifully awesome things.

Enough of that, some of the guys that I play in a band with have been asking about how to put together their own studios at home and have asked for advice. I got me thinking I should probably share some of what I’ve learned over the last couple years as it relates to the music production process. I’ll start in the most place which is the computer.

The computer, what do I go with? Mac or PC? Why? I will tell you in my particular case I use both. That might not be an option for most people though, both have their strengths and weaknesses, so I’ll tell you my experience with both and what I’ve discovered during this process.

Come from a business IT background, I have more than a passing knowledge of Windows based machines so that’s where I started. The PC world offers really great bang for the buck, and you can get into the game fairly inexpensively. Pretty well any modern PC you buy will allow you to hook up an audio interface (we’ll get to those separately) and start recording music.

Now, having said that, recording a few tracks one or two at a time is easy, but recording more at a time, while listening back, and adding effects to each of those tracks, and or groups of tracks, and then mixing them can require substantially more horsepower. So let’s break down what you need to worry about, and this applies to both Mac or PC based computers.


The CPU or processor. Intel or AMD? Honestly either these days will work fine. My suggestion when it comes to this stuff is to try and get and least a mid level processor. You will need the horsepower when it comes to adding plugins. If you’re new to this world, don’t worry, we’ll get to explaining what plugins are as well! For my mac, I’m using a mini with a 6 six core I5. My audio PC’s are a 6 six core I7 laptop and an older 6 core Xeon workstation.

Let’s talk about those CPU descriptions. Intel has a number of processors, their consumer line is currently referred to as their Core series, so Core I3, I5, I7, I9. The 3 being entry level, 9 being beast gaming processors. An I5 will provide you very acceptable performance, if you suspect you will be doing a lot of manipulation of lots of tracks, you may want to set your sights higher, there is of course a cost associated with that though. AMD similarly has their Ryzen 3, 5,7,9 and Threadripper lines. I would start at the 7 line for those.

Now, that Xeon I mentioned? Here’s the thing, Xeon chips were/are aimed at the server and workstation market. Meaning they are by design, monsters. That Xeon I picked up was a used 2012 HP Z420 workstation, I added more memory, a SSD, and for $700 total I had a machine that benchmarked almost identically to a $2k gaming machine I built in 2017 with consumer components. If you are technically minded, I would tell you to look into used Xeon based machines, you can create an absolutely killer audio rig with that stuff (here’s a great article on building a 32 thread monster really inexpensively).


Now, memory. These days we measure in Gigabytes, 8 being what I would consider the minimum, 16 is really the sweet spot, 32 if you are doing a ton of tracks.


Storage. Back in the day we used mechanical hard disks, they were slow and prone to other issues compared to today’s SSDs (Solid State Drives) with no moving parts. Computers are sold with both. Don’t cheap out here, spend the money to get an SSD for your operating system and for you plan to record/mix from. You can (and should) get an external drive for archiving and storing data you don’t use on a day to day basis, but believe me when I say this is the choke point a lot of the time and it’s well worth doing it right. You can get 500 gig SSD’s these days that should be enough to keep you happy. Unless you are planning on using large virtual instrument collections, which we will also get to, and will also require larger drives.

Ports, that is going to be my next topic of conversation, but these days USB is king in terms of availability, to confuse the issue there is USB Type C which is newer, faster and better, but there is not a lot of product available for it, yet. There is also Thunderbolt, which in terms of performance (and price) is at the top. Firewire is dead in terms of the mainstream, but still very much alive in the audio world, and for good reason, but we will have that discussion next time.

The Big Question

Now Mac or PC? Here’s what it boiled down to for me. ASIO vs Core Audio. Those are the two components that allow access to your audio interface. ASIO (Audio Stream Input Output) for Windows, and Core Audio for Mac. They dictate what interfaces you can use, how quickly you can access their features and how you work with external equipment.

Initially I used a Windows based machine and I will tell you first hand, dealing with ASIO was a nightmare. I had huge problems with latency (the time it takes for sound to be captured, processed and then output back to the interface), stability, and compatibility. For me the biggest issue was one brand at a time. You can not use a Presonus unit and Focusrite unit (for example) at the same time, it’s one or the other. We can get into complex tricks to get around this later, but essentially if you want to record large track counts at the same time you are tied to one vendors products.

Now to be fair, using one brand is going to be fine for the VAST majority of people. I love tech and toys and want to push the limits. So unless you are planning on running a crazy setup of equipment chances are you will never run into the problems I had. The big selling point for Windows based machines is bang for the buck. You can get a WAY more powerful Windows machine for less money than you could for a Mac.

Which brings us to the Apple Mac and Core Audio. Core Audio lets you basically plug and play, combine interfaces to make one giant monster. It is fast, stable and honestly painless to work with. For tracking (recording) a band, and a very good chunk of my mixing it is my go to. That being said when I get into crazy 100 track plus sessions I move to my Windows machine because it is more powerful.

Could we just have the answer already?

So what in the end would I recommend? Almost every article I’ve read, says the same thing, go buy what you’re comfortable with, ya great thanks for that 😉 I’ll take a different route, if you want less problems, and can afford it, get a Mac, the best that you can afford. If price is an issue, or you want more than just an audio workstation, or you want to maximize what you get for your budget go with a PC. Or get both, problem solved 😉