The Interface Saga

When I first got into computer audio recording, I was using the old Dell family computer and it’s stock Soundblaster card. My small mixer was plugged into the stereo mini-jack on the soundblaster, and I listened back through the speakers that came with the computer. It worked okay, but I soon discovered that music that sounded good on my computer didn’t necessarily sound very good on other music players. This was my first introduction to the concept of “translation” – the idea that a musical mix will sound good on a large variety of systems with a large variety of frequency response curves.

As part of my first big gear purchase, back in something like 2004, I picked up a pair of KRK Rockit 5 monitors and a new interface – an EMU 0404. Excitedly plugging the 0404 into my motherboard, I learned the second lesson of computer audio – in the PC world, not everything is compatible with everything else. The 0404 just wouldn’t work with my computer.

Returning it to the music store, I picked up an M-Audio Fast Track, which connects to a computer via the USB port. USB interfaces tend to be much more universal, and this one worked nicely for me for several years. Until, that is, I upgraded my computer.

The new computer constantly blipped, hickupped, hung up – and this was a supposed to be a step up! And then I got the Blue Screen of Death, again and again. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it, but I discovered that by unplugging the interface, all my problems went away – excect, of course, that I could no longer get audio into or out of my computer.

My good friend Will had recently purchased a Behringer mixing board that came with a tiny little stereo interface, and happy with his 1010LT, chucked it my way. Fortunately, this simple little interface worked, and I have used it since.

Now we come to the current drama: My mixer has died a slow, horrible death. Let’s just say I’m not a big fan of Behringer mixers. They’re the Wal-Mart of mixers – they look nice and pretty off the shelf, but in a few years they fall apart. I’ve never seen a Behringer mixer that’s more than two years old that still has all it’s working channels. Mine had failed master faders, the first two (or maybe three) channels, and both headphone jacks had all stopped working.

The loss of the headphone jacks was what clinched it for me. I believe that spending time mixing on headphones is an integral part of getting a mix that will translate across a variety of systems. This is additionally supported by my less-than-optimal mixing setup in the corner of the dining room, where mixing at louder volumes will invariably conflict with some other member of the family’s current agenda.

This problem came to the fore as I attempted to finish my mix of Beyond the Horizon. Having a small amount of cash to spare for the fix, I decided that it was time to see what my $100 bucks could get me.

Tascam

At first it seemed tooo good to be true – Tascam is selling a USB interface that can record 8 channels of audio simultaneously – the US-800! I read the reviews, and the biggest concern was as follows: “when using the interface for normal computer audio (not mixing in a DAW) some sort of buffer eventually gets filled up and the interface will no longer make any sounds until it is restarted.” Fortunately, a following review said that was fixed in a driver update. So, I took the plunge and when it appeared, I immediately downloaded the latest drivers (generally a good idea for any interface purchase).

Well, the first review was right, but the second review was wrong. After so long of streaming Netflix or listening to iTunes, the interface simply quit, not to be revived except by unplugging and replugging (due to a lack of an on/off switch). I thought maybe I could live with that because… I was mixing on headphones! However, I noticed a marked decrease in the performance of my computer. When all I was running was Sonar, the memory usage was off the scale. In fact, when I wasn’t running anything the memory usage was off the scale!

When the Blue Screen of Death appeared, the Tascam was reboxed and returned to the retailer. On to number 2…

Aardvark

Aardvark? That’s right – a few years ago the Aardvark was a high end professional studio interface, much like Apogee or Lynx Aurora. While no longer the name they once were, I would be very happy to work with older technology that was still several steps above what I’m using now. I found a Q-10 on Ebay and won the auction. Then I read the fine print – doesn’t work with any operating system past Windows XP Service Pack 2. I’m running Windows 7.

I was sorely tempted to either try to build a high-end XP machine, or turn my computer into a dual-boot system, but (I think wisely) decided that I would more likely end up chasing my tail forever and never make music again. Fortunately the seller cancelled the sale without docking my feedback, and I left him a glowing feedback. One more Ebay try…

Presonus

Frustrated with USB and PCI technologies, I thought I would give Firewire a try. The Presonus Firebox was (and is) available used in my price range. After, I think, 8 or 10 auctions, I won one for what I was willing to pay. After an achingly long shipping cycle (over two weeks from Texas to Virginia) I plugged it into my computer and… nothing.

To make a really long story slightly less long, it never worked. Turns out (according to my Sweetwater sales tech) that firewire interfaces, and Presonus in particular, are very picky about the chipset of the computer end of the firewire plug, and most off the shelf computers can’t speak to an audio firewire interface. So, I re-Ebayed the Presonus and had a revelation…

Yamaha

So, if you are enough of an audio geek to stay with me this far, here’s the big payoff: full-circle. That’s right, I came full circle. Deciding that I’d played enough interface roulette, I’ve decided to stick with the simple Behringer interface and replace my Behringer mixer – this time with something reliable for the long term.

Again looking at my $100 budget, it appeared that the MG102C filled the bill quite nicely. It has four microphone pre-amps, as many as 10 inputs, and some basic routing capabilities.

I can choose between listening on my monitors or headphones. I will need to get splitter to use two sets of headphones at once (for recording someone else), but that’s not a huge deal.

If I ever add outboard processing (like a compressor or EQ), I can route things through the mixer and back into the computer. I will need more channel on my interface to do this in real time on individual channels, but I could do it across the 2-bus with what I have now (which is where I would do things first, anyway).

The only shortcoming is that phantom power is universal – i.e. it is applied to every channel when it is on. That would be fine if I didn’t have any ribbon mics, but I do. So, I’m scheming a workaround to record in stereo for an upcoming session – more on that soon, I hope.

So, I solved it, for now. The hopeful upgrade path includes a new computer with a higher level of compatibility, maybe a PCIe audio interface – a MOTU interface would go down great, but that may be a bit further off. Also, I’m trying to save up for my dream keyboard.

One step at a time.

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