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Part 4: Interfaces and soundcards

Published: Mon October 16, 2006  News Feed

So you now have your computer, some software to make some music, some instruments to make the sounds for it and some controllers to help you play and record. You’re ready to make music, right? Nearly… First there’s the small matter of finding the right way of getting sound into and out of your computer. Why would you want to get sound in, you might ask. Well, what if you want to record yourself singing along to some of those lovely software instruments you now have installed? Or what if you want to add some real guitar playing as well? Maybe you are part of a band and want to record each member’s individual playing into your computer so that you can use your software to correct timing and tuning? In short there are lots of different reasons to get sound or audio into your virtual music set-up and one big reason to get it out – in order to hear the finished results of your music production! Yes, while your computer may have internal speakers or even an earphone socket, you’ll eventually want to hook it up to some decent studio monitors so you can hear it in all of its undoubted glory.

So you will need an interface with both inputs and outputs, but once glance at the Dolphin website will reveal literally hundreds of them over lots of different and seemingly confusing categories. In fact this is potentially the most baffling area of computer music making but, don’t worry, because as with most computer related malarkey, it’s only complicated because there’s a whole list of jargon, seemingly only invented for those ‘in the know’ to look smugly down upon the rest of us.

While you can buy all sorts of different shapes and sizes of interface, some bundled with software, some with on board sounds and others complete with extra processing power, the simple fact of the matter is that there are only a couple of things you initially need to know when selecting an interface: the number of inputs and outputs you require and the type of interface connections you have supplied with your computer…

Interface connections

So it’s time to look around the back and side of your computer – failing that check the instructions. So which interface type do you have? Is it PCI, USB1.1, USB 2.0, FireWire or PCMCIA? You should have at least one of the above – maybe you have several! Most modern Macs and PCs come with a wealth of USB ports and many also come with FireWire options too. Tower PCs are usually PCI based and laptops often have PCMCIA card slots.

So what do all of these terms mean? In short, nothing – don’t worry about them too much! All you need to know is that they are mostly related to the speed of the interface connection and that the higher the speed the less issues you will have when transferring audio in and out of your computer. USB 1.1 (often simply known as USB and standing for Universal Serial Bus) is the slowest, allowing for less than a couple of megabytes (MB) a second for transfer. FireWire is faster, allowing up to 50MB/second and USB 2.0 allows up to 60MB/second. These are the most common ports found on computers and an important fact to note is that USB2.0 devices will work on USB 1.1 ports although at the lower 1.1 speed. Also USB 1.1 devices will work in USB 2.0 ports although they won’t work any quicker for doing so. Another point is that these connections are usually plug n play meaning that you plug your external interface in and it will more often than not work straight away (however I’m not going to be led into saying ‘always’ as in some instances you may need to load appropriate software or drivers that should be supplied with the hardware).

PCI slots are of a larger variety and usually found on tower PCs. The hardware that plugs into these bays usually requires software (at least a driver) to inform the computer of a hardware presence but the advantage is that the hardware interface is, more often than not, incorporated more into the computer and won’t necessarily have a bit of hardware dangling from it on a lead (although, again, not always!).

Finally PCMCIA cards are hi-spec’d interfaces usually found on laptops and there are many quality interface available for these although not all are plug n play.

So are you still with me, and do you now know the kind of interface you require? I’ll assume that the answer to both of these is ‘yes’. If not take five and go and read your computer’s instructions. Don’t worry if you’re still confused. Like I say, all you need to know is the interface type and the number of ins and outs you need and it’s down hill from now on. Now, about those ins and outs…

How many do I need?

If you are simply a musician who records a few things into your computer – maybe the odd vocal or guitar – you are only really looking at a pair of inputs. It’s only when you are recording multiple inputs simultaneously – like recording each member of a band or orchestra – that you really need any more. The reason is that once you have recorded that vocal, you can then record the guitar afterwards on top of the vocal as a multitrack on another audio channel. Multiple input cards let you record across a multitude of audio channels simultaneously. They cost more but you can now get a lot of bang for your buck. Another reason you might need more of these inputs is if you are using an older hardware-base set-up comprising synths, sampler, maybe a drum machine that you want to control with your sequencer but record all of the outputs simultaneously back into your computer.

Whatever the situation, only you will know the number of inputs you need. As for the number of outs, well, two is normal for your stereo monitors but you may need more for extra monitors (in another part of your studio i.e. the live or control room, perhaps), external signal routing and processing, or if you are experimenting in the field of surround sound.

Luckily, just about every combination of ins and outs is available at Dolphin and there are hundreds of cards to choose from. So many in fact, that…

I never knew there were so many!

Yes, one quick glance under the soundcards section here

…and you realise that Dolphin do rather a lot of interfaces for all the types that we’ve discussed. It is, you could say, a competitive market. Now, in the previous sections of this ever expanding computer music guide I have listed the merits of pretty much everything Dolphin have for sale. This time, however, that would be madness. For a start the guys at Dolphin wanted this report in before the year 2018 where interfacing technology will probably have moved on to USB 7.0 or MoltenWire (I made those two up, by the way, but see if my predictions come true by coming back here in 11 years time!). So rather than list everything available I will look at each of the different categories and pick out a few notable interfaces within each one so that you can get an idea of what’s out there and what you can expect to pay.

Before I do that, a quick note on channel strips. ‘Channel strip’ is a term originally derived from the analogue mixer commonly once found in studios across the land. Each mixer had several channels that you plugged individual instruments into. Each channel would typically have things like EQ, gain, mic pre connections and often a lot more. As computer music technology has swept all before it and as people switched from hardware to software, the humble analogue mixer has been wiped out – less hardware means less things to plug into a mixer. However, a digital environment can mean a cold and clinical sound, so some interfaces have been developed to represent individual strips of mixers – called ‘channel strips’ for obvious reasons – to help warm up the input sound, and can offer EQ, gain etc to your signal. Many of the interfaces discussed below can also be described as channel strips but don’t let the term confuse you – these are still merely ways of getting signals into your computers, albeit with a few bells and whistles added.

Finally, before we throw ourselves into the products, Dolphin have one more neat feature that you might like to try – an interface selector here

Answer the simple questions and you will be directed towards the products that Dolphin sell. Until then, here’s a selection of the biggest, best and baddest (in the, er good sense, I mean).

PCI perfection

The E-mu Proteus X (£95.99) is – and we’ll be saying this with a lot of cards – so much more than a simple interface. On top of the stereo analogue and digital ins and outs you also get some great software and sounds and you can easily operate the whole lot as a standalone or VST instrument sound module. E-mu also offer an extensive range of other PCI cards including the 0404 (£69) and 1212 (£129). The M-Audio Delta 1010 (£134.99) is a bit of a classic card for signal routing offering eight analogue ins and outs (so supports surround) plus digital i/o and mic and line pre inputs. Creamware’s SCOPE range (up to £2850) is perhaps the ultimate in PCI interfacing. Not only do you get a whole array of breakout inputs and outputs but you also get power on the cards to run an entire virtual studio. More on this when we look at external power boxes later in the series. M-Audio’s Audiophile (around £300) series of cards are great interfaces but also throw in Pro Tools M-Powered software into the mix so offer the cheapest routes to joining that exclusive club of pro users! Terratec’s range of cards is also extensive, including the Phase 28 (£104.99). With two inputs and eight outs it’s designed to be as flexible with the guts of your music system as you could ask for, although surround sound is the obvious choice. Finally the Apogee Symphony (£699) is a very high quality PCI Express based card which means it can be used on the newer high-speed, high-bandwidth PCI standard.

PCI Breakout Systems are ideal for tidier (read professional!) set-ups where you don’t want to be kneeling behind your computer fiddling with wires, as they offer breakout boxes that sit in your rack or on your desktop offering easy access to controls, connections and displays. The Terratec Phase 88 (£199) is a prime example with all the PCI business neatly sitting away from a neat desktop box with the eight ins and outs. M-Audio also feature a good range of such boxes like the Delta 66 (£105.99) with four analogue ins and outs (plus a couple of digitals making up to six). As usual, pay more and get more connections. MOTU’s 24 i/o Core System (£1,069) has no less than 24 analogue inputs and outputs and you can chain them together for up to 96 ins and outs – orchestra recording here we come! Echo have been making soundcards longer than most and their Layla (£279) and Gina (£164.99) are both in their third generations and all the better for it. The former has eight analogue ins and outs plus plenty of digital connectivity while the latter has two ins and six outs in a more compact desktop box.

FireWire fun

FireWire interfaces are also plentiful at Dolphin. The cheaper models include the M-Audio FW 410 (£234.99) which features flexible routing within its four-in and 10-out architecture. The Presonus Firebox (£219) is a tiny but powerful interface with two mic/instrument preamps and six outs. The Edirol FA-101 (£289.99) is one of the most powerful interfaces within this price range offering a massive 10-ins and 10-outs in a rugged box. Stepping up a gear and you get the MOTU 828 MkII (£540) which has a massive 20-input/22-output spec which – on top of offering huge simultaneous recording options – also enables huge routing flexibility allowing you to add external processing to the signal path pretty much wherever you wish! With the Digidesign MBox 2 (£559) you are starting to get into full production territory as the interface comes with flexible routing and a whole bunch of processor plug-ins. Focusrite’s Saffire series (starting at £229.99) also ups the ante offering some great processing for your signal and a full production environment. Like we said back at the beginning, many of these are ‘so much more than just interfaces’, and that’s even before we hit the top end of FireWire interfacing. With the Digidesign Digi 002 (starting at £999) you get an interface, a suite of software and a controller all in one. M-Audio also weigh in here with the Project Mix I/O (£749) which again resembles a sophisticated mixer and again offers all the signal routing you could ask for plus effects and control. Also offering the appearance and advantages of an analogue mixer (but all the benefits of digital interfacing) is the Yamaha 01X (£729) which, with its MLAN technology, has been designed as the heart of an audio/MIDI set-up.

USB 1.1 and 2

USB interfaces tend to start a little cheaper and come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the notable ones include Mackie’s Spike system (£119) which offers SHARC processing (extra hardware clout) and software in the form of the rather great Tracktion 2. One of the better hardware/software combis is Steinberg’s System 4 (£199) which contains a USB MIDI/audio interface and Cubase SL3, a fully functioning sequencing package. For portability, Tascam’s US interfaces (starting at around £120) are very neat solutions, and also billed as a mobile solution is Lexicon’s Lambda (£149). One of the more unusual USB interfaces is M-Audio’s Black Box which has effects, amp modelling and drum tracks all in one unit, and is ideal for guitarists. The Edirol UA-4FX (£99) is a bit more standard but does feature some neat signal processing to help nudge up the quality of both input and output signals.

Native Instruments might be well regarded for their software but with Audio Kontrol 1 (£199) they are signalling a move into hardware. It’s a neat interface complete with three of the company’s software packages. E-mu are also well represented in this category with a couple of cost effective solutions in the shape of the 0202 and 0404 interfaces (£97.99 and £149 respectively). They are simple interfaces but feature quite a lot of hands on action and a great bundle of software.

That’s it for interfaces. Like I said above, this is by no means a complete list and rest assured if your needs are not satisfied by what I have discussed above then you will doubtless find a solution on Dolphin’s website.

Next Step...

The Dolphin Music Beginners Guide To Computer Music by Andy Jones

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