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High Level Audio Interfaces
  • I noticed that in all the discussion of audio on the site, experienced people have frequently covered inexpensive mics and recorders, and occasionally covered more expensive mics and software - but we have not often covered the audio interfaces used in project studios and professional audio environments.

    For a discussion of the even higher-end gear, check

    Audio interfaces, pres and converters determine how your sound both gets recorded and how you hear it when it plays back.

    Since we have a lot of experienced audio people here, I would like to open the floor to discussing some of the options and pros and cons of different options.

    I'll list some of them below.

    This is for the higher end ones.

    Note the interface (Firewire, PCI, USB 2.0, etc.) required and see whether it is compatible with your current hardware as well as portable to other systems. USB options tend to be compatible with the widest range while Firewire is the most popular type used in professional audio interfaces for the last decade.

    USB 3.0 options would be great (greatly exceeding the bandwidth of the Firewire flavors supported on the audio interfaces listed so far on paper) but the audio interface manufacturers have not readily embraced it.

    Thunderbolt deserves special discussion. Thunderbolt has massive bandwidth and some computers feature it instead of Firewire. There are accessories you can buy to connect Firewire devices to your Thunderbolt port, so don't rule Firewire interfaces out just because you have a Thunderbolt computer.

    Firewire cards can also be purchased for PCI and PCI-e systems, so if you have a desktop, there is a good chance you can use a Firewire interface. When buying a Firewire card, try to get one with a Texas Instrument chipset - these are the most widely compatible.

    Note that some Firewire interfaces can be powered by the computer connection, while others require AC power. Few laptops provide enough power to run a Firewire device off this alone, but some do. Look for a full-size 6-pin connector as opposed to a 4-pin one if this your intent.

    If you have concerns about the compatibility between your system and your audio interface, you can buy pre-built audio certified computers (with or without your chosen interface) from any of the following (as well as may others).

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  • ====== High-level Interfaces ======

    These interfaces not only support 192 KHz, 24-bit analog input and output (or higher) but they are class leaders regarding either the pres or converters used for their input and output. We are now up at the level where people start to debate which ones are better, with each of the following having people willing to argue that they are the best.

    Must support at least 8-channels of input and output (enough to record or mix in 7.1) Must feature the highest-end parts that the company offers in a retail product.

    All interfaces offer some level of support for both Windows and OS X unless otherwise noted.


    • Prism Sound Orpheus (MSRP $5,000, Street $4,495) - Firewire - 192 KHz/24-bit

    • Metric Halo ULN-8 (MSRP $5,995, Street $5,745) - Firewire - Mac Only - 192 KHz/24-bit

    • Benchmark Audio ADC16 with Firewire (MSRP $4385) - Firewire - 192 KHz/24-bit

    • Mytek 8x192 (MSRP $3495) - Firewire OR USB 2.0 (choose one or others when you buy) - 192 KHz/24-bit

  • ====== Mid-level Interfaces ======

    These are interfaces that are of sufficient quality to be used in professional environments but are priced low enough that they may not be used in the top studios. They all feature better converters and mic pres than the ones listed in the entry level systems, and usually have more functionality.

    All these interfaces must support 192KHz, 24-bit analog input and output support.

    Must support at least 6 inputs and outputs (enough to record or mix in 5.1).

    All of them feature digital inputs and outputs to interface with other gear (should you want additional inputs and outputs or a different sound).

    All interfaces offer some level of support for both Windows and OS X unless otherwise noted.

    Firewire, Thunderbolt or USB

    • RME Fireface UFX (current MSRP $2,299) - Firewire and USB - 192 KHz/24-bit

    I'll start off by talking about the Fireface UFX and the Apollo Quad because they each offer something that I have not (personally) found in other audio interfaces in this price class.

    The Fireface UFX, in addition to featuring strong drivers and good converters (as well as multiple built in mic-pres) can also be used a standalone high-resolution multi-track recorder thanks to the USB port once it has been properly configured by a computer for that use. This is a big selling point.

    The Universal Audio Apollo Quad is unique in the support it provides for Univeral Audio plug-ins (which normally require additional DSP cards and introduce a lot of latency) which is both ultra low-latency/real-time (depends on how you look at it and who you ask) and the fact that it allows you to use the exact same plug-ins while recording or playing back. You can also use those same plug-ins in your DAW via formats like VST, etc.

    The quality of signal paths on these units (as you would expect) completely blows away the converters and mic pres that are normally discussed on terms of on-location recording on this site - and they offer more channels of input and output, as well as the specific special features mentioned above.

  • I'm a big fan of MOTU interfaces. I 've been using an 828mk2 (fw400) for many years and it's always been rock solid. I've been using it for recording in my home studio, playing live on stage and as part of audiovisual/interactive art installations. What I love about it is that it's super flexible in I/O routings (especially when programming DSP in MaxMSP) and can function stand-alone without computer. And of course that it's always been super reliable. (I'm on OSX.)

    Sound quality-wise I have nothing to complain about, although I haven't been able to compare 1-to-1 with other devices (though I can tell a big difference to my Macbookpro's internal sound ;).

    My only major complaint is that the knob labels should be printed above the knob, not under it ;) Other thingy is that the jack busses are placed rather close to each other so fat jack plugs will sit very tightly. Sometimes too much.

    If it dies some day I will get a new MOTU for sure.