Thinking 3 Years Ahead
First off, I want to say that it does no one any favors to recommend you short-term, crappy solutions that ultimately cost you a lot more money. The only problem is this does require more cash outlay in the beginning. Not everyone wants to commit to a good car, so often times they settle for a cheaper one that works half the time. My experience has shown me that the crappy car is almost always more expensive than the good car IF you are smart about how you buy that “good” car.
The same applies to audio interfaces. So let’s get on with it.
If you are to hop into home recording, the first thing you really need to think about is the audio interface. When it comes to the interfaces with 8+ channels, I believe I have found the ultimate solution, although slightly unorthodox. First, let’s talk about a few issues/requirements.
Rock Solid Reliability
If you are cussing your interface, you aren’t recording. If you put an experienced dude’s head on the chopping block and forced him to recommend a rock solid interface that works reliably day in and day out, he’s going to get nervous. Why? Because it sometimes takes a while for a person to work all the bugs out of their system. (For more info on that see Killer Home Recording: Setting Up .)
Generally speaking, a reliable interface is kinda like a hitter in baseball. If they actually function 40% of the time (batting .400) they end up in the Hall of Fame. It’s not THAT bad with audio interfaces, but interfaces that work 99.99% of the time are hard to come by.
The only one company that I feel comfortable fully endorsing is RME. There are other good companies and maybe even a few great ones. However, based on my experiences they’ve stood out as being superior.
Low CPU Usage / Low Latency / Direct Monitoring / Extreme Routing
Not all interfaces are created equal in the latency department. There are companies out there, usually those hitting a lower price point, that have drivers that don’t run so well. They won’t run smoothly at 64 or 96 samples. You’ll find that these interfaces that can’t handle ultra-low latency tend to use more CPU power. This means less horsepower can be given to virtual instruments and plugins.
Most interfaces have direct monitoring, but not all have dedicated mixers for every channel so you can craft individual mixes for every band member (I rarely do this, btw, but when I need it I NEED it!) The ability to create very specific mixes goes much further than headphone mixes. It allows you to send specific signals to specific outputs. This is a very general description, but I’m positive it’s one of the most valuable features on an interface. When you need to send a signal to X and you can’t, you have a problem. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t hype well in the magazine ads but is absolutely crucial to having a great interface.
Basically, I recommend an interface with a solid foundation in both the hardware and software department.
Inexpensive In The Long Run
This is the biggie. If you buy a $600 interface now and you stick with home recording (either as a serious hobby or maybe you even make a few bucks) you will outgrow it. It will have all the features to get you started and you may be lucky enough to get decent reliability and okay sound, but I can’t recommend this route. If you take this approach and end up tearing your hair out, I look like a jerk.
So…I always recommend thinking three years ahead with any audio purchase. A piece of gear that’s great for 3-12 months but ends up collecting dust or being tossed on Ebay is too damn expensive.
If you can get rock-solid reliability, low cpu usage, low latency, direct monitoring, and extreme routing in your interface you are set. You are flat-out kicking butt and there are few interfaces that fit this bill, btw.
Where Is Sound Quality?
I didn’t list sound quality and I’ll tell you why. Sound quality in your first audio interface is kinda like speed in a car. Every new car can do 70mph. From an ultra-practicality standpoint, you never really NEED to go faster than that (although who’s ultra-practical????). Every audio interface I’ve ever heard will do the 70mph equivalent.
What The Hell Does That Mean?
It goes like this. A college kid who needs to get to school is broke and just needs transportation. A Formula One driver is going to be pissed if his car is 1mph slower than the competition. The tolerances are dramatically different depending on where you are driving and in what context.
I think every interface I’ve ever heard is more than adequate for the college kid or the guy on the budget who just needs to get to work. As you transform your needs towards the cream-of-the-crop F1 driver, maybe a Honda Civic isn’t going to work anymore. I remember a Top Gear episode where a Formula 1 driver took a new Ferrari out for a spin and later said it wasn’t really all that fun. So perspective is HUGE here.
So, your typical 8-channel interface in the under $600 category is going to work for anyone with modest needs who isn’t really expecting to sound better than the latest Mutt Lange production tomorrow. Mutt is most likely working in a room with a $300,000 console, $100,000 in outboard gear, and $200,000 in microphones. So do the math. A $1,000 8-channel interface isn’t going sound anywhere near the tip-top league either, but it will be a notch in that direction.
The price of going from a Civic to an Enzo is exponential. If you are driving an Enzo on a gravel road, it’s still only going to go about 30 mph…just like the Civic. If your rooms, instruments, and performances aren’t kick ass, any benefits from the Enzo-caliber interface are moot.
Sound Quality / Price In The Long Run
Most interfaces suck when it comes time to upgrade your sound quality. If/when you decide you want a bit of boost, you are flat-out stuck. There is one exception. The interfaces that give you multi-channel digital I/O allow expansion without total replacement.
Even if you don’t think you’ll be expanding any time soon, if you are anything like me you are TERRIBLE at predicting your own future.
Taking this even further, it’s my opinion that the interface with only digital I/O is the best long term solution…….
When PCI Isn’t An Option
The PCI option has been great for a long time. However, I only rate it a few percentage points more reliable than Firewire and USB options. Now that PCIe is dominant, the days of PCI are numbered.
Some computers don’t have any additional PCI slots. So that forces a person to look towards USB or Firewire options. Note: Laptops are never my preferred tool for the job unless I’m on an airplane or something. For you guys who bought a high priced computer with no expansion slots, it may be time to rethink your life a bit. (Har har, you know who you are!!!)
The truth is, I’m not aware of a Firewire or USB solution that meets my criteria at anywhere near the $300-400 ballpark a person can snag a RME HDSP9652. That little guy just happens to be the steal of the century in my opinion. He’s an exception to the rule.
There are interfaces out there that are stripped down, totally modular ADAT in/out gadgets, but I can’t think of one I feel comfortable recommending off the top of my head. (Either the company that makes them is not reputable enough for me to stake my reputation on or the company is usually reliable and I’d need to use the thing before recommending it here.)
If my life changed and I had to go with Firewire and USB I guess I’d have to ditch the main premise of this article…..going fully modular.
I’d take a strong look at the RME interface that meets your needs that happens to be fairly expensive USED on Ebay. The “used” part is very important here. You MUST find an interface with a high resale value. Most of the RME interfaces do have a high resale value, which is not something I can say for many other companies. The resale value tells you almost everything you need to know.
For anyone on a budget, I can’t say enough how important it is to get an interface that you get to use for free in the long run. For a greater understanding of this concept, head here: How To Waste $10,000 On Recording Gear You Don’t Like
Back to PCI …..I’m Gonna Seem Like A Whack Job
It’s my view that if a piece of gear can be obsolete, it needs to be avoided, when possible and when realistic. In terms of the interface, most guys are going to recommend a Firewire or USB 2.0 contraption that has all kinds of features built in.
In every interface I’ve owned or used, I’ve found some kind of limitation that made their built-in features less useful than is implied in the ads. One great example that comes to mind is the, otherwise outstanding, Yamaha MR816. It came with onboard DSP effects. Cool! You just can’t use them and the S/PDIF digital inputs. YUCK! This kind of thing happens, to varying degrees, more than you think for everything from headphone signal routing to effects to having less I/O than you thought you had.
So What Is My #1 Interface Recommendation
My number one recommendation for an audio interface is the RME HDSP9652. When you look at it, you are going to be disappointed and may even scratch your head. Why? It doesn’t do much. It’s just damn good at what it does.
What does it do?
- It’s extremely reliable
- Low latency
- Excellent drivers
- Total routing possibilities
- It doesn’t use Firewire or USB2.0, which I actually consider to be a slight benefit
- About as not-obsolete as you can get
Here’s where it gets a hair tricky. For this, I apologize. Beginners are going to prefer more simplicity. BEFORE YOU DO….HANG ON! I’m 100% positive that the additional time needed to figure out your setup will be entirely outweighed by all the benefits.
You will require a headphone amp. If you want reverb during direct monitoring (and don’t want to deal with potential latency issues…..see this Latency As Vocal Producing Obstacle Part 2 ) you’ll want a hardware reverb. Most importantly, the RME HDSP9652 has no analog ins and outs. This means that if you buy it and nothing else, it won’t do a damn thing. You must have external ADAT or S/PDIF converters. PERIOD.
Great Bang For Buck Options
I’d go with Ebay for both of these. You could definitely skip the reverb if you can live with predelay on your reverb plugins. I rarely recommend Behringer for anything, but their headphone amps have been outstanding for me.
Reverb: Kurzweil Rumour
Headphone amp: Behringer HA4700
Using Modular To Your Advantage
Are you looking for a Honda Civic, Ferrari Enzo, or F1 car equivalent? It doesn’t matter with the HDSP9652. Why? Simple. You can swap out whatever external converters you wish. It’s as simple as unplugging one ADAT cable and plugging it into another gadget and setting one as the Master Wordclock. Done.
For example, I used a couple of Behringer ADA8000s for coverters. (Not bad converters, not good preamps, great bang for the buck, but they aren’t as good as my Apogee AD-16x and (2) DA-16x. No shit!) When I upgraded to the mentioned Apogees (that upgrade set me back $6,500) I didn’t have to touch the interface. Dumping/wasting that much dough on super converters is something that took me nearly 10 years of pro recording. Before that, I was doing alright with lesser converters. (Note: I did rely on my Mytek AD96 via S/PDIF for two input channels for about five years.)
So I don’t expect many of you to be upgrading to ultra converters in the quantity described this decade, it’s nice to know that your good ol’ rock solid interface just keeps on going. I didn’t even have to think about it!
External ADAT Options
Super Tight Budget Options
The Behringer ADA8000 will get you 8ins and 8 outs. The converters stack up great against any stock interface in the under $1000 department. The pres aren’t so great. For less than $200 on Ebay one of these will take care of you stereo outs, headphone outs, and have a few left over. You could add external pres to this and not be hurting a bit. (This is what I did for a while.)
The M-Audio Octane ain’t no Neve, but at $600 new (much less on Ebay) it’s a nice bang-for-the-buck 8-channel preamp with ADAT out. I do like the pres better than pres I’ve heard in < $600 interfaces.
The Presonus D8 isn’t a bad sounding unit either. It’s in the $400 ballpark new. Presonus swears these are the same pres in the Firestudio, but I’m positive the low end was dramatically cleaner they had less of the megaphone thing.
High End Options
There are many 8-channel preamp options and most of them aren’t going to be ultra-high end pres. Off the top of my head, (2) Focusrite ISA482 preamps with optional AD converters would be a killer 8-channel setup for about $3000. Those are top-notch pres (although I’ve not used the converters). They are in the big boy league, although they are clean.
Other than that, you’ll have to look around at various AD converters. I went with the Apogee AD-16x and it does sound great. It’s an “alive” sound which I really dig. That’s (2) ADAT channels for a total of 16 ins. I’ve not experimented too much with high end converters in the ADAT variety so I’m not going to say much here.
Of course, external preamps is beyond the scope of this article. Make sure you check out the 4-channel pre discussion here: Who Needs Fancy Preamps?
The super secrets to an effective, ultra-reliable recording rig.
#1 – Buy a used interface with high resale value.
#2 – Don’t cut corners on a budget interface.
#3 – Go with an interface with as few features as possible other than your required I/O (ins and outs).
#4 – Go with modular individual components. Go cheap on the headphone amp, go with a reasonable preamp / converters combo (preferably ADAT). If you get rich, blow a ton on preamps and converters after you have awesome studio monitoring and great rooms.
#5 – Make SURE you have direct monitoring options for your vocals PERIOD. I won’t ever go back to monitoring vocals from within the recording software, regardless of its convenience. EVER!
#6 – Maybe consider just watching football on your weekends and skipping this whole stupid recording thing. Har har!