Sunday, 30 August 2015

Connectors for Audio Interfaces

Are you getting lost in the variety of connectors available for audio interfaces? In that case I would like to pull your attention towards a recent Sound on Sound article once more. The article ‘Making a Connection’ is found in the August 2015 issue. It compares the specs of different connectors. I’ll comment and add my own reflections in this post.

Some topics covered in the article

-       Bandwidth: the article addresses the difference between theoretical and actual bandwidth for connectors. (Ever found yourself in a FireWire vs. USB discussion?—this article brings technical clarity to the argument.)
-       Generations: what is backwards compatible? –and what are the grey zones you need to look out for.
-       Latency: Why your old FireWire devices may still be faster than many USB-devices and how USB3 is improving.
-       Thunderbolt: an overview over generations and current/ future development.

“For people buying right now, I’m afraid the market is in a state of flux as the various standards evolve.”
=Pete Gardner, Sound on Sound=

Thoughts and trends

When I held my first studio-job we were still recording on tape. In the early 2000’s I would book a studio if I needed to get things done. In the mid-2000’s I bought my first interface and the market has evolved a lot since then. Some trends right now are:

-       As the quote above states, the market for multi-track interfaces is more complex than before.
o   As higher track-count has developed for USB, it has taken market from FireWire.
o   The USB standard in particular, has very different performance between different generations.
o   FireWire is still very much in use on interfaces, but not much on computers. This makes compatibility to Thunderbolt important and the long-term future of the standard is uncertain.
o   PCIe is increasingly less relevant in the semi-pro market thanks to connectors like Thunderbolt, mostly the pro-market remains (notably, Avid).
o   Network plugs (RJ45) have become an important contribution to multi-track audio recording (through the Dante-standard). This is natural as it is found much more frequently than Thunderbolt across all brands and types of computers. Focusrite, a major name in FireWire-interfaces, seems to be making a transition into:
-  Network-plug (RJ45) for large-scale professional audio interfaces
-  While they still make FireWire-interfaces (and ensure its compatibility with Thunderbolt), these will probably be phased out over the coming years

Focusrite Clarett with Thunderbolt connectivity

Reflections and Prospects

I have been a huge fan of FireWire for a long time. It provides solid track-count and crucially, low latency. But does everyone need this low latency? The answer is, no. Low latency is needed if artists are listening to themselves through a DAW while recording. If you work mostly ‘in the box’ and hardly record acoustic performance you may be less interested in latency. Similarly, if you do live-sound recordings straight off a mixer, latency is not a factor you need to consider.

Another standard I have been a fan of is the PCIe; this is because of the high specs it can achieve. As you may have read on this blog before, I was very ambivalent about the new Mac Pro. It is an impressive computer indeed, but it removed the first-choice connector for professional studios entirely from Apple’s products. Connection to PCIe can still be obtained through an adapter (more things to buy and store). In Apple’s defence it could be claimed that it is these sorts of ‘leaps of faith’ that sometimes kick us out of the nest so to speak—and makes us embrace another and more modern way of working.

High-end Equipment with USB
When Yamaha released their new 01v96i some years ago they got much praise for the quality. However, the screen and menus seemed old and some of us were surprised of the relative low number of tracks you could record with it (I know this is subjective). Yamaha were clear that they had chosen the USB2 standard to provide good stability and compatibility with a range of computers. Yamaha have some of the most stable digital mixers on the market so the argument makes sense. The choice was still somewhat conservative. If Yamaha’s thinking remains un-changed in the future, we might see a distinction between mixers that can be digitally cascaded or have peripherals attached (ex: hard-drives on a Thunderbolt set-up), and those who can’t do this.

Mixers for Recording
Will all new mixers have multi-track recording-facilities in the years to come? No, I don’t believe so. We will continue to see capabilities from simple two-track USB-recording and up. Mostly because manufacturers don’t want their products compete with their own siblings. Take a brand like Allen & Heath—all Zed mixers are fitted with high-resolution 2in/ 2out USB recording capacity. If the same mixers could record high-resolution multi-track it would undercut the market for their own R16 and GSR24. On the other hand we see a lot of affordable Midas/ Behringer mixers set up with some sort of multi-track capacity via FireWire or USB (caught speed after Behringer bought Midas). This, together with the low prices is clearly a move to take market shares, and if successful it could force other manufacturers to provide similar capabilities at the same prices.

Midas Venice F32 with full FireWire connectivity (48kHz/ 24bit)

High-end mixers is another field entirely. I don’t believe expensive digital mixers will be made without the infrastructure to record digitally in the future, but that infrastructure will have to be flexible and not locked to one connector. A current example is DigiCo-mixers supporting MADI-standard and Yamaha with expansion slots for a variety of connectors. You will have to buy expansion-cards and interfaces separately, but at this budget it should not be problematic. Product infrastructure and flexibility is more important than having an affordable pre-installed connector that would be limiting your connectivity options.

DigiCo SD7

What will the future of connectors look like?

-       USB & Thunderbolt for small-scale systems, home-studio owners and semi-pro equipment.
-       Thunderbolt & RJ45 for larger scale pro-end systems (I don’t include MADI, lightpipe or similar here, as these will need another interface to connect to the computer). USB might be added to the list if the standard keeps developing, but it will currently be better suited to semi-pro applications rather than pro, when track-count and latency matters.

How fast will the transition away from FireWire, USB 1 & 2 and PCIe happen? It depends; here are a couple of thoughts:
-       Manufacturers will still differentiate their products into different price-brackets. Currently, this means you are likely to pay more for a Tunderbolt-interface than a FireWire or USB-interface even if they are of comparable quality (Thunderbolt is still a buzz-word). When Thunderbolt-equipment becomes more common, the price will slowly decline which will again increase the amount of users—eventually it will take over for FireWire and partially for PCIe. Thunderbolt and the Dante-standard on the RJ45-plug will be the two main competitors in high-capacity audio interfacing.
AVID will keep producing their PCIe cards for a while longer, but they will be increasingly challenged by the likes of Focusrite and Universal Audio who use RJ45 and Tunderbolt. Eventually, I can imagine even Avid dropping the PCIe standard, but have no idea when.


The market will remain in a ‘state of flux’ for a while still. A lot more products will be available at sensible prices in a few years—when the period of ‘flux’ is over for this time. For a good read on the status of the available connectors, do check out Sound on Sound’s article. Hope I have provided you with some food for thought!

(Photo Credit)

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