USB2.0 vs Firewire 800

Discussion in 'Digital Audio' started by msb65, Feb 27, 2009.

  1. msb65 macrumors member

    Sep 17, 2008
    Hi Everyone,

    Here is some pertinent background info:

    1) I am a longtime musician interested in learning how to do some home recording. The type of recording will vary from just me and a guitar, to me drumming, to me and my band. In other words, given the situation I will need to be able to record 2 - 6 tracks simultaneously.

    2) I am in need of a new mac laptop.

    Regarding #1 I believe I need to get a suitable audio interface. As I understand it these typically use either USB2.0 or Firewire 800 to transfer data. From my internet searching I have also come to understand that there are arguments for and against either technology. My initial impression is that more people favor Firewire 800. However, all the posts I have read are a few years old, and rarely identify whether they are comparing USB1.0 or 2.0 to Firewire 400 or 800.

    Could somebody please explain to me which technology is better for home recording, and why? Given current processor speeds etc. is there really even a difference? The reason I ask is that I do need a new laptop. I would love to get a MB, but of course they lack Firewire.

    Any help is greatly appreciated!

  2. Teej guy macrumors 6502a

    Aug 6, 2007
    I think they would be comparing USB 2.0. I don't know of any USB 1 audio devices.

    It seems that the fact of the matter is that USB just can't hold sustained data transfer like even Firewire 400 can, and therefore Firewire allows for more tracks, more reliability, and better performance.
  3. msb65 thread starter macrumors member

    Sep 17, 2008

    Thanks for the reply. I read that as well. Is there a particular firewire audio interface that you could recommend that has good OS X drivers?
  4. nick9191 macrumors 68040

    Feb 17, 2008
    Both Firewire 800 and 400 are faster than USB 2.

    USB 2 can reach upto 480mbps, whereas Firewire 400 can only reach 400mbps, however USB 2 can never reach nor sustain its theoretical speed. Firewire 400 uses a dedicated controller and even though theoretically USB should be faster, it is not. Firewire 800 runs at 800mbps, twice that of Firewire and USB2. Firewire 800>400>USB.

    USB 2 relies on the system speed itself, so a USB 2 port on say, an old Powerbook would be considerably slower than a USB 2 port on a new Macbook Pro. So USB 2 has gotten faster over the years, now coming up to Firewire speeds despite it being the same port.

    USB 3 is due out next year, and sad to say it looks like Firewire is toast when that time comes.
  5. Jolly Jimmy macrumors 65816

    Jolly Jimmy

    Dec 13, 2007
  6. msb65 thread starter macrumors member

    Sep 17, 2008
    So it seems that for recording audio you need the data transfer technology to be fast as well as capable of sustaining that speed. As I understand it Firewire wins both of those categories compared to usb. I have yet to witness a complete endorsement of either technology for this application though...

    Should I perhaps consider using a different transfer method? PCI (although I am not familiar with that at all). I don't mind shelling out a bit more money if I know it will be reliable.
  7. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    If you are talking about two channels of audio your data rate is very low. Audio runs at no more than about 1.5M bits per second. USB is 480M bits per second. A signle Guitar and mic is not going to stress a USB audio interface. But 16 tracks of 24-it audio is different. And you have to remember that the FW400 cable is shared by the disk drive and the audio and that in a typical session yur are reading pre-recorded tracks off the disk, audio data from audio interface and writing data back to disk all at the same time. But even so, two channels of audio does not break USB.

    You are going to have to start small and work up. recording six channels of audio requires a real studio with acoustic treatments, head phone distribution, good mics and mostly an experienced engineer. Get there by taking baby steps and figure your first audio interface will not be your last. So, buget $200 or $300 for you first one (with two audio channels) and figure you will need 10X that budget for the one that can handle the full band but that is a couple years off.

    I'd advise the same to a beginning piano student. "Hold off on the Steinway Grand" Get something a bit less expensive to learn with and trade up as your skills develop. If you plan it right the beginner keyboard will continue to be useful even after you buy the Grand Piano as it can do things the grand can't (practice with head phones at night, fit inside a car,...) Same here a basic 2x2 interface and a sure SM57 mic will continue to be useful, even after to buy that rack of studio equipment. The trick is to start small with a planned growth path.
  8. barkmonster macrumors 68020


    Dec 3, 2001
    Always go the firewire route for external recording drives. Digidesign recommend Oxford based firewire controllers, infact people using other brands of firewire controller in external drives have had problems with performance.

    USB can't simultaneously read and write like firewire can and that's the route cause of the problem.

    From personal experience with an Mbox 2, I'd rather have a PCI card like I used to under OS 9 or a firewire based interface. I know it's digidesigns' lousy drivers, I struggle to manage more than a few stereo tracks with a recording buffer of 2048. I managed sessions with no software synths and a few basic dynamics plug-ins under OS 9 on a beige G3 with buffers of 1024 and it could go as low as 512 on simpler sessions that still need to go to 2048 with the Mbox just to play back.

    I think USB performance of audio devices is linked to CPU speed or something. It's the only explanation I can think of
  9. Benguitar Guest


    Jan 30, 2009
    It also could be a repeat of Vista, judging by the amount of machines out now that have USB 3 (none) when it is released it shall be VERY unpopular, because only a few select machines will have the technology to use it.

    FireWire 800 is what I suggest going with. :cool:
  10. pkoch1 macrumors 6502a


    Oct 3, 2007
    How do expect machines to have USB3 when it hasn't been released yet?
  11. tommusic macrumors newbie

    Apr 17, 2009

    Heya, kinda on the same subject so I thought I'd ask you guys, any advice would be really appreciated -

    I have a macbook (it has one firewire port) I'm looking at getting m-powered protools and a profire 2626 interface from m-audio. I have checked all the specs and this should be fine, however.....

    I've read a lot, and it seems a lot of people suggest you shouldn't record onto your integrated hardrive - why?

    What do I need to get instead?

    and I only have one firewire port so If I use that for my interface, then I can't use it for an external hardrive :s ....?

    I'm slightly confused! Any help would be greatly appreciated, thanks, Tom
  12. barkmonster macrumors 68020


    Dec 3, 2001
    buy a drive enclosure on eBay with an Oxford chipset, no other HD controller is any use, then add any bare 7,200rpm drive with a 10ms or faster access time and and you've got your own firewire drive that Pro Tools M-Powered or LE will play nicely with.
  13. tommusic macrumors newbie

    Apr 17, 2009

    hey barkmonster, I'm afraid I'm not really that clever! I've never even heard of an oxford chipset haha:s Any ideas a little more basic? Can I record onto my macs internal hardrive?
  14. barkmonster macrumors 68020


    Dec 3, 2001
    It's possible to record onto your system drive but it won't be able to play back that many tracks before it starts throwing up buffer errors and that kind of thing.

    The OS uses the system drive for virtual memory and most laptop drives are 5,400rpm with slow access times to save on power. It's best to always record to a dedicated audio drive of 7,200rpm or higher so the drive you're recording to isn't being accessed by other background tasks at the same time.
  15. michael.lauden macrumors 68020


    Dec 25, 2008
    you will be fine with a USB interface. i have recorded MANY bands with an edirol interface through USB.

    16 simultaneous tracks? i don't think you need more than that EVER.

    Stereo Mic Guitars = 4
    Bass DI = 1
    Drums (front/back Bass, 3 for toms, snare, 2 over heads, hi hat+ride)= 9
    Vocals= 1

    that is exactly 16 - aaand you wouldn't really benefit from live mic'ing with 16 mics. talk about phase issues.

    if you can - go with USB you WONT experience an issue
  16. barkmonster macrumors 68020


    Dec 3, 2001
    Correct if you're talking about the means of connecting an audio/midi interface, apart from the CPU overhead on very slow systems, USB is fine but below is a quote from DigiTechSupt on the Digidesign User Conference regarding drive compatibility which is the point I was making:

    you can read more here:

    (Pro Tools MP Setup and General Troubleshooting)


    (General Troubleshooting - Pro Tools LE and HD on Mac OS X)

    The quote is taken from both threads as it's basically the same information regardless because Pro Tools LE and M-Powered have the same requirements.
  17. tommusic macrumors newbie

    Apr 17, 2009

    Cheers guys, so as I only have the one firewire port on my mac - should I use this for the interface or the external audio hard drive? Does the harddrive have to work with firewire or is usb ok, (I have a 500Gb usb harddrive)? Can you recomend a usb interface which has eight or more inputs andf works with m-powered protools? Thanks for you help
  18. SigmundFraud macrumors member

    Jun 11, 2007
    Many FW audio interfaces and most FW HDs have a 2nd FW port. One of the advantages of FW is the capacity to daisy-chain. USB vs FW for consumers using a few tracks simultaneously is overstated. Even the vital need for an external HD is overstated, but if you're planning on multiple recording and playing tracks simultaneously it might be a good idea. I've never heard about the Oxford controller business, but it would be worth looking at how much difference it makes to real-world applications. In my experience, theoretical speeds far exceed anything necessary for audio, while the real-world of fragmented read-writes of audio sometimes stresses large, multi-track recordings. Remember, stereo CD audio is about 1mbps so there is quite a bit of headroom with drives and interfaces, even if you start thinking 24/96 with multiple tracks (about 2mbps/mono track). I always suggest starting modest and pushing till you need the next step up. A good FW interface and your system drive might be okay for modest home stuff, adding a FW or USB drive if it gets hairy.
  19. barkmonster macrumors 68020


    Dec 3, 2001
    "Realworld Applications" mean nothing when you're intending to use ANY flavour of Pro tools. It's fussy as hell about what you record to, hence the official recommendation by digidesign to avoid recording either a USB drive because of it's limitations or to the system drive.

    I can drag any large session I want off my dedicated audio drive to the system drive, try and play back and instantly get errors and I'm on desktop with all 7,200rpm drives. A laptop with a 5,400rpm drive would be just as bad, if not worse.

    It would be interesting to see how a system with a large SSD as the system drive performs recording to only the system drive because of their incredible random access times and virtual RPMs of 20,000+ but in real world terms with standard drives, a 7,200rpm firewire drive is the only option for laptops or closed systems like the iMac or Mac Mini
  20. axelnova macrumors newbie

    Apr 18, 2009
    London, England
    it's definitely good practice to record audio to a drive other than your system drive - it's recommended by all the major manufacturers (including digidesign)

    think of it like this - if you are streaming audio, recording audio and accessing applications all from the same drive, your HD head has a hell of a lot of work to do flipping backwards and forwards all over the place. not only does this limit the amount of tracks you are likely to be able to record to and play back from at once, but means your HD is under unnecessary strain. by having a system hard drive and an audio hard drive, it keeps those processes seperate, improving performance
  21. desiringGod macrumors regular

    Feb 15, 2008
    I was in a similar situation. I wanted a new Mac, but the lack of FW would keep me from doing everything that I wanted to do on the Alum MB. The MBP was too expensive, so I went the cheap route.

    I bought one of the new white macbooks, which has the same parts as the Alum (except for DDR2 ram on the white vs DDR3 ram on the Alum) and has FW400. I actually bought a refurb and was only $849. So little money invested into it if it doesn't work well.
  22. barkmonster macrumors 68020


    Dec 3, 2001
    That's precisely what I'm planning on doing at some stage.

    The only mac I can afford and upgrade easily that still plays well with Pro Tools is the White iBook because of it's user accessible HD bay and firewire port.

    I know it would a "bit at a time" thing but by this time next year I hope to have:-

    1. An Mbox Micro - It works out £30 or so more than simply buying the PT8 upgrade alone and would come in handy for portability. I don't really record anything myself, it's all software synths and HD recording.
    2. A White Macbook (I've seen the 2.4Ghz one used for £650)
    3. A 64 or 128Gb SSD as the system drive - Lightning fast booting, app launching and most importantly for software synths, patch loading. Who knows, this time next year they could be cheap enough for a 256Gb drive to be an option.
    4. A firewire external drive with the oxford chipset to record to.

    It would be the perfect setup for me, I could have my existing keyboard, mouse and monitor on a KVM so I can just hook it all up as second display when I'm at home and use my Mbox2 for monitoring Pro Tools LE, throw the Macbook, iLok, firewire external, Mbox Micro and a nice pair of monitoring headphones in a laptop bag and I've got the perfect portable set up.

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