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|Quick Studio Tips
|When using compression, start off with a ratio of about 2:1 or 3:1 and lower the threshold until you start heairng evening between the loudest parts and quietest parts. Why is it called a "ratio"? Here's a useful way to understand ratio. A 3:1 ratio means it takes 3db of gain above the threshold setting to produce a compressed gain result of 1db.|
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|How To Buy The Right Soundcard / Audio Interface|
Ok, so you've decided to get serious about music recording and, naturally, your first major purchase is probably going to be a good soundcard or audio interface. But, there are so many options, how do you know which is the best to choose for your particular goals/setup? While its nearly impossible to anticipate the best possible piece of gear for each particular setup out there, its a good idea to be aware of some basics before going out and purchasing something as central to your studio as the actual recording console. Read ahead and you'll likely have a better picture going forward.
Consideration #1. PCI, Firewire, or USB?
Before looking at affordability, its best to start by looking at the different classes of audio interface out there. Essentially, you will be faced with a choice between a:
Below are the strengths, and weaknesses of each choice.
PCI Card - Strengths: Speed. There is still nothing as fast as having a card plugged directly into your motherboard, accessing the super-fast pci/e bus. Speed can be especially important when working with audio as everything comes down to tight timing intervals. If you have a hiccup when recording that one-of-a-kind guitar part, or you press a key on your midi-keyboard only to hear silence and then, finaly, a delayed note of what you were playing, the result will be a very frustrating recording experience. Next up is, reliability. Although the reliability gap is closing between PCI and Firewire, PCI is still the most reliable of all interfaces. The rate of unexplained incidence during startup or shutdown is very low with PCI cards. This is important because the less time you spend troubleshooting, the more time you can spend being creative...which is the ultimate goal, remember? Another strength is that you will likely have an 'all-in-one' solution. A firewire interface will require atleast one other piece of gear: a proper firewire port. You won't have to worry about 100% compatibility between your PCI card and your PCI slot, whereas the same can't be said for firewire chipsets and firewire devices, which can be especially nightmarish on Windows-based computers.
PCI Card - Weaknesses: Lack of portability. Since the card is connected directly to your motherboard, it won't be easy to constantly remove it if you want to place it in another setup. If you want to save money and use the same interface between your laptop and your main studio desktop, you'll be out of luck as PCI cards won't work in any laptop, period. If you want to be portable, you're likely going to have to move your entire computer setup. Not fun.
Firewire Interface - Strengths: Portability. Provided that you have proper firewire support within your systems, you will be able to easily move your recording center between home, studio, and remote setups. It'll save you money, and you will feel like the studio you're used to is following you wherever you go. As far as speed is concerned, firewire is not as fast as PCI but can be functionaly almost as fast. I say "can" because there are several factors at play. Firewire runs at different speeds depending on the speed of the interface, the speed your firewire chipset can handle, and even the speed that your OS can handle. Back around 2006 Microsoft decided to throttle down the allowable bus speed of connected firewire devices. That meant that even if you had a firewire 800 speed interface, it was throttled down to the lowest setting of 200. However, even at the lower speeds firewire is a solid middle-ground between the blazing-fast PCI and the tortoise-like USB.
Firewire Interface - Weaknesses: Lack of reliability. Firewire seems to struggle more than any other format listed because it depends so much on interacting with the firewire chipset, bus-supplied power vs external power, and OS restrictions previously listed. The result can be a lot of time spent troubleshooting, restarting your system, and often fretting whether or not your accidental hot-plug had permanently fried your setup. If you do decide upon getting a firewire interface and you are running windows, it is virtually necessary to make sure you have a texas instruments brand firewire chipset (often denoted as TI or TBS*****). Why is this? Firewire was born out of a Mac standard and since Mac's almost exclusively ran on TI chipsets everyone built firewire devices to work with TI chipsets. Other TI firewire manufacturers use different specs which can produce sync, and timing problems with audio setups. And good luck trying to source out a compatible firewire adapter for your laptop. Not only will you have to find an adapter conforming to your particular cardbus form-factor, but you will have a hell of a time determining whether or not the particular brand of firewire adapter is running under a TI chipset. You won't be able to look inside before purchasing, and whats worse, many manufacturers (belkin, siig, etc) will use different chipsets even within the same models they are selling. Making it nearly impossible to track down a sure-thing. The good news is that if you're running on Mac, you don't have to worry about any of this. Mac users definitely win in this category.
USB Interface - Strengths: Affordability. USB interfaces often offer the cheapest option when considering equaly spec'd alternatives. You get the same portability of Firewire Interfaces, but often at a much reduced price. Another strength is reliability and ease-of-use. Although not as reliable, or fail-safe as PCI, USB interfaces tend to have better compatibility out-of-the box than comparable firewire devices. You won't have to buy any additional chipsets or usb ports provided that you have a recent enough computer that is running USB2. Additionaly, USB is very plug-and-play friendly, so you don't have to worry about removing or adding the device to your setup while your computer is still on, unlike with hot-plugging restrictions advisable when using firewire.
USB Interface - Weaknesses: The biggest weakness with USB is that it is functionaly slow. Yes, you may have heard that USB2.0 is theoretically as fast as firewire, but in reality the bus-speed for USB is divided many times over and results in the slowest of all available formats. The result is you might get stuttering during recording and playback sooner than you would if you ran under PCI or Firewire. And if you're really jazzed about the idea of real-time-monitoring (adding FX to your input signals in real-time), or peforming midi-controlled virtual instruments in real-time, then I would advise you to stay away from USB. If, however, you plan on mostly recording analog instruments and adding fx later, then USB should satisfy most of your needs.
Consideration #2. Budget
While the pricing scale of cheapest-to-most-expensive tends to go 1) USB, 2) PCI, 3) FIREWIRE, there are a lot of things to consider when buying relative to your budget. If you're on the lowest end of the budget-scale, you may be thinking that a USB interface is your best fit, however that isn't necessarily the case. There are some budget PCI interfaces that give you more bang-for-your-buck than any USB interface and provide, overall, a better user-experience provided that portability isn't an issue. An old budget PCI stalwart is the M-Audio Audiophile 2496. On the used market you can find one for as low as $40, and new, can be as low as $100. For that price, you get near-zero latency recording, blazing fast processing, midi-ins and outs, and very good digital analog converters for recording analog signals. What you don't get is a lot of inputs, so you'll have to get an external mixer for connecting multiple inputs sources.
The next range up pretty much falls between $300-$500 and at this range I would price USB's out of consideration. Simply put, I wouldn't spend that much money on a USB interface. There are a lot of good firewire and PCI interfaces that fall within the mid-range pricing of $500 or so. Most of them offer comparable DAC (Digital Analog Converters - the chipset that determines the quality and character of your recordings), and at this point your best bet is to compare the various bells & whistles that each interface may come with. Amount of simultaneous inputs, phantom power (for condensor mics), midi ins and outs and input types (XLR, TRS, Optical, SPDIF) all play a roll in determining the best fit for your needs.
Consideration #3. To Go All-Out, or To Not Go All-Out?
Often, when researching competing products, there's a tendancy towards feature-creep: telling yourself that for only X-amount of more money spent, you get X-amount more features. Whether or not you actually need those extra features often gets forgotten and, pretty soon, you find your initial investment budget of, say, $500 turns into a "but, mom, this does everything I would ever want" worth about $1,500-$5,000. In some cases, there is real value in higher-end options. These worthwhile options usually come in the form of tangible product, such as doubling as an out-board mixing console, additional chips providing extra processing power or the ability to lego-block with existing hardware. If the biggest selling points at this price-range come in the form of nebulous claims like "clearer audio," "superior jitter reduction" or "one-of-a-kind space-age processing do-dad technology" then I would think twice.
There is great allure in buying an all-encompassing hardware solution that comes with its own knobs, faders, and independent FX processors capable of tracking a live band performance in real-time, but, again, think carefully about how much you need these feautures, and ask yourself if you can produce similar results with additional, cheaper gear that you can buy only when you need it and can upgrade/downgrade as you see fit.