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View Full Version : New audio interface: USB2 vs Firewire (or wait for USB3)?




7enderbender
Nov 5, 2012, 11:25 AM
Hello experts,

I'm looking to upgrade my current hardware and software in my little home studio. This will be my first Mac so naturally a lot of this feels like starting all over. I'm pretty much settled on the new Mac Mini i7 as it seems to be a good compromise between performance, price, upgrade options and a few other features that I prefer over the iMacs, for example that I get to chose my own screens for photo editing.

While I'm at it I want to get a better/modern audio interface and switch from Cubase to either Logic or Pro Tools.

So far I like the Focusrite options the best but now are trying to decide between the Firewire models and the USB2 models. I'm generally familiar with the differences and implications for each connection type. I'd be leaning towards the FW model and with the new Mac Mini that is still an option obviously. But I am concerned what will happen going forward. It seems Apple is (yet again) trying to kill Firewire as "old fashioned" without any alternatives on the horizon. I'm not in a rush and would be happy to wait with my upgrades a few more months if there are any expectations for reasonably priced USB 3 or Thunderbolt alternatives. But I don't see anything like this announced anywhere really.

So here we are again between technologies and us creative users are left hanging again. I mean, I'm not anyone who constantly switches and upgrades computers so I'd be fine with the Mini probably for a while and then maybe switch to a pro at some point (for which FW will hopefully still be available). But if I also go Mac with my laptop in a few months connecting a FW audio interface is already not really ideal. I know that you can hook it up with TB adapter but there seem to be issues with that and it just adds cost and quirkiness.

Yes, for my needs a Focusrite USB 2 interface will likely work, but then again I'd like to get as much safety and headroom for my money as possible. And the FW interfaces have a few other features that I like. But if I can't use it o the next computer (laptop or desktop) and start all over again I wouldn't be happy.

What are people's thoughts and experiences with this?



spoonie1972
Nov 5, 2012, 02:11 PM
FW400/800 is still probably your best bet, as it grabs and keeps the bandwidth it wants/needs to function.

The 15" quad-i7 macbookpro has a FW800 port on there... this is one of the reasons I didn't opt for the Retina. I feel its a step backwards in so many ways. I may be in the minority with these thoughts - but it seems that putting less and less functionality into something costing more is counter-productive. This way I can plug my MOTU in there w/o needing a hub, adapter or what have you.

I'm sure most/all audio interfaces will offer TB down the line - but they're not going to change their product life-cycles to do it.

I'm just holding off as long as possible waiting for a (hopefully) much much much improved and fast mac pro sometime in 2013.

neodrew
Nov 5, 2012, 02:45 PM
This morning, I read an article at Create Digital Music (http://createdigitalmusic.com/2012/09/the-thunderbolt-age-dawns-ua-ships-thunderbolt-on-apollo-more-to-come-where-it-makes-sense/) that had this to say regarding the future of digital audio interfaces:

In audio, at least, Thunderbolt appears a niche product for the most bandwidth-hungry accessories. Video is another story; we’re seeing some impressive options from the likes of Black Magic Design that should make Thunderbolt a must-have for anyone doing video. But audio is not nearly as big a consumer of bandwidth, meaning for the vast majority of applications, you can expect USB – and USB2, not USB3 – will remain the standard.

I tend to agree with this analysis. USB2 is good enough for a lot of digital audio and FireWire is a great option if you can use it. Though uptake of Thunderbolt has been slow so far for audio interfaces, it makes sense to me that it would be more cost effective to develop for the faster future, rather than to support multiple versions of USB.

Naturally, costs and market demands will help dictate the direction companies go, but from what I hear in the audio recording community, it seems to me that a lot of people are anxious for Thunderbolt interfaces, rather than USB3.

That being said, I've been using FireWire 800 for my projects, and I'm very happy with the results so far. I'd rather have Thunderbolt, since I'd kill for less latency, but for now, I'll stick with FW800 over USB2

7enderbender
Nov 8, 2012, 07:31 PM
This morning, I read an article at Create Digital Music (http://createdigitalmusic.com/2012/09/the-thunderbolt-age-dawns-ua-ships-thunderbolt-on-apollo-more-to-come-where-it-makes-sense/) that had this to say regarding the future of digital audio interfaces:



I tend to agree with this analysis. USB2 is good enough for a lot of digital audio and FireWire is a great option if you can use it. Though uptake of Thunderbolt has been slow so far for audio interfaces, it makes sense to me that it would be more cost effective to develop for the faster future, rather than to support multiple versions of USB.

Naturally, costs and market demands will help dictate the direction companies go, but from what I hear in the audio recording community, it seems to me that a lot of people are anxious for Thunderbolt interfaces, rather than USB3.

That being said, I've been using FireWire 800 for my projects, and I'm very happy with the results so far. I'd rather have Thunderbolt, since I'd kill for less latency, but for now, I'll stick with FW800 over USB2

Thank you very much for sharing that information and for the link. Interesting dilemma really and not untypical for audio it seems (or photography which is my other main application for this new computer): lots of demand for lower grade options that are deemed "good enough" by most and very little choice in the "prosumer" section for people with high standards yet more of a semi-pro budget. Makes sense from a marketing and sales perspective in fleeting digital product markets I suppose.

And I take it that even with Firewire and your nice looking setup there you're still battling latency based on what you said?

ChrisA
Nov 9, 2012, 11:12 PM
...
So far I like the Focusrite options the best but now are trying to decide between the Firewire models and the USB2 models. I'm generally familiar with the differences and implications for each connection type....

USB is fine for a few audio channels. It will do fine if you have two microphones and a pair of monitors and headphones. On the other hand if you have 16 inputs all at 96K samples per second you better have FW.

The problem is the grey area between.

The next question is the software. If using protools and building out a high-end studio the now have Thunderbolt based hardware.

I think you need to tell everyone about your usage before they can recommend something

paolo-
Nov 10, 2012, 02:36 PM
It really depends on how many channels you need. If you're need only a few, I'd go with a USB2 interface. They work well and will continue to do so. I wouldn't be surprised if your next mac or pc doesn't have firewire. USB3 and Thunderbolt don't seem to have been used much by the manufacturers yet.

fastlanephil
Nov 11, 2012, 10:22 AM
I use a Tascam US-122 MKll USB 2.0 interface. I paid $80 for it and it works for me.

Deasnutz
Nov 12, 2012, 03:09 PM
Find a quality brand interface on eBay or the like if you are not wanting to invest yet, USB3/tb won't help as much as solid drivers and software compatibility.

bwhli
Nov 14, 2012, 10:43 AM
I'd go for FW800.

neodrew
Dec 7, 2012, 10:09 AM
Thank you very much for sharing that information and for the link. Interesting dilemma really and not untypical for audio it seems (or photography which is my other main application for this new computer): lots of demand for lower grade options that are deemed "good enough" by most and very little choice in the "prosumer" section for people with high standards yet more of a semi-pro budget. Makes sense from a marketing and sales perspective in fleeting digital product markets I suppose.

And I take it that even with Firewire and your nice looking setup there you're still battling latency based on what you said?

Currently, my latency is running at about 6.5 ms, so I'm OK (I think), but I also think that a Thunderbolt writing to an 6GB SATA III SSD drive would result in pretty damn impressive numbers. Any Apogee users out there with their Thunderbolt products? What kind of latency numbers are you seeing?

7enderbender
Dec 7, 2012, 10:25 AM
Currently, my latency is running at about 6.5 ms, so I'm OK (I think), but I also think that a Thunderbolt writing to an 6GB SATA III SSD drive would result in pretty damn impressive numbers. Any Apogee users out there with their Thunderbolt products? What kind of latency numbers are you seeing?

Thanks for posting that. Honestly, that concerns me a bit. 6ms is what I'm getting currently on my 7 or 8 year old Pentium 4 with a USB1 Lexicon attached to it...

I know that that's not bad at all but I had hoped to see an improvement when shelling out 2K for a new computer (before software and audio interface upgrades...)

neodrew
Dec 7, 2012, 10:46 AM
Thanks for posting that. Honestly, that concerns me a bit. 6ms is what I'm getting currently on my 7 or 8 year old Pentium 4 with a USB1 Lexicon attached to it...

I know that that's not bad at all but I had hoped to see an improvement when shelling out 2K for a new computer (before software and audio interface upgrades...)

before I upgraded my laptop, I was averaging around 8 ms latency, so getting it down to 6.5 was nice, but I was honestly hoping for better. I'm really interested to see what kind of numbers Thunderbolt can produce with a good amount of RAM and a solid state drive

bjm2660
Dec 7, 2012, 10:51 AM
You could consider a hybrid connection; many of MOTU's interfaces support both USB and FW. They would support the DAW of your choosing.

Supposedly, MOTU's preamps are average, but their driver support is second to none.

My two cents.

(I'm not a MOTU user or investor.)

spoonie1972
Dec 7, 2012, 12:59 PM
You could consider a hybrid connection; many of MOTU's interfaces support both USB and FW. They would support the DAW of your choosing.

Supposedly, MOTU's preamps are average, but their driver support is second to none.

My two cents.

(I'm not a MOTU user or investor.)

Can't diminish how important solid drivers are. This is why MOTU and RME keep selling what seem to be uncompetitively-priced products.

I wish Echo had kept up the pace because they used to be in the same boat.

Boyd01
Dec 8, 2012, 09:07 AM
FWIW, I am running Logic Pro on a late 2011 MBA (1.7ghz i5, 4gb RAM, 256gb SSD) with an Alesis iO2 Express USB interface and Logic shows 6.9ms roundtrip latency using a 64 sample buffer. If I drop the buffer to 32 samples it shows 5.5ms latency but I have not tried using that setting.

fastlanephil
Dec 8, 2012, 11:41 AM
Besides the audio interface question you should plan on upgrading to the Fusion drive. 5400 rpm hard drives don't cut it except for lighter duty work.

ChrisA
Dec 8, 2012, 12:28 PM
Thanks for posting that. Honestly, that concerns me a bit. 6ms is what I'm getting currently on my 7 or 8 year old Pentium 4 with a USB1 Lexicon attached to it...

I know that that's not bad at all but I had hoped to see an improvement when shelling out 2K for a new computer (before software and audio interface upgrades...)

Is 7ms a problem for you. Most people can not here a 40ms delay and i've never heard anyone who claims to be able to hear 10ms

The delay is unavoidable and depend only on the size of the buffer. Yuo multiply the sample period times the number of sample in the buffer to get the delay. You can change thebuffer size but there is a practical minimum and I think you have reached it.

Just as a point of reference. 7ms is the time it takes sound to travel 7 feet. So the "lag" is comparable to what you get if you sit 7 feet from your speakers. Also it works out to be the same "lag" as in an acoustic grand piano. There is an about 7ms delay from when you play a not to when you hear it. Basically 7ms is tiny. Don't worry about it

Next question: How many audio channels? 2 inputs or 16 inputs?

Let's do some math. Assume 96K sample per second and 24-bit samples and one channel. That is about 2.3 megabits per second. Call it 3.0 Mbps per audio channel. Next, remember that USB 2.0 has the throughput of about 280 Mbps. This would mean you can send 90 channels of audio over USB 2.0 But really you can't. Practically you want to keep the usage to about 10% which means about 8 or 9 channels of audio can go over USB 2.0

This is why I said for two channels you care fine with USB, for 16 no. This includes the monitors and headphones too, not just the microphones and guitars.

Again, your latency is very good. It matches a Steinway grand piano, not bad.

7enderbender
Dec 9, 2012, 09:22 AM
Is 7ms a problem for you. Most people can not here a 40ms delay and i've never heard anyone who claims to be able to hear 10ms

The delay is unavoidable and depend only on the size of the buffer. Yuo multiply the sample period times the number of sample in the buffer to get the delay. You can change thebuffer size but there is a practical minimum and I think you have reached it.

Just as a point of reference. 7ms is the time it takes sound to travel 7 feet. So the "lag" is comparable to what you get if you sit 7 feet from your speakers. Also it works out to be the same "lag" as in an acoustic grand piano. There is an about 7ms delay from when you play a not to when you hear it. Basically 7ms is tiny. Don't worry about it

Next question: How many audio channels? 2 inputs or 16 inputs?

Let's do some math. Assume 96K sample per second and 24-bit samples and one channel. That is about 2.3 megabits per second. Call it 3.0 Mbps per audio channel. Next, remember that USB 2.0 has the throughput of about 280 Mbps. This would mean you can send 90 channels of audio over USB 2.0 But really you can't. Practically you want to keep the usage to about 10% which means about 8 or 9 channels of audio can go over USB 2.0

This is why I said for two channels you care fine with USB, for 16 no. This includes the monitors and headphones too, not just the microphones and guitars.

Again, your latency is very good. It matches a Steinway grand piano, not bad.

No, I understand all this and yes, my latency currently is surprisingly good given that I am on an ancient machine. My current limitations are elsewhere. Still, I had hoped to see some improvement there just for the hell of it - and because things tend to add up.
I am aware of the equivalent of say, 10ms and standing away from my Marshall stack so and so far. But I do hear and feel it. 10ms is probably perfectly fine - if nothing else adds to it, like any virtual amp simulation etc.
40ms would be more than noticeable. Acceptable in a live environment perhaps but not for recording in my opinion.

With audio signals this is all ok. I currently have more issues with Midi signals being delayed and limited number of tracks. I would expect to see a significant improvement with that no matter which of the new computers I end up buying.