Jewish Music Blog

December 24, 2005

PCs and Audio Interfaces

Filed under: Music Tech — jewishmusic @ 6:51 pm

For most audio enthusiasts, one of the most difficult decisions to make is what type of computer and audio interface to purchase. On the computer angle you could get a Mac which is very reliable for audio, but expensive and not so compatible for other things (such as gaming and amount of software in general), or a Windows PC which is compatible with alot of hardware and software, but not as reliable as a Mac.

On the PC side the question is more difficult because of the amount of PC vendors. Because I use a PC, I’ll focus on that angle. There are several port options for laptop interfaces – Firewire, USB, or Cardbus/PCMCIA (PC Card). Firewire is a standard started by Apple and is very common in audio interfaces because of its high 400 Mbps bandwidth. High bandwidth is useful for muti-track recording and stability on general. Most of the USB interfaces available use USB 1.1, which does not have very high bandwidth (12 Mbps vs. firewire’s 400 Mbps and USB 2.0’s 480 Mbps). Although MOTU, a long-time firewire interface maker just released a USB 2.0 version of their popular 828 MkII, in general there are very few USB 2.0 interfaces. PC Card interface is similar to the desktop PC’s PCI interface, only smaller. Almost all laptops have at least one of these ports, and although there are few audio interfaces that utilize this interface, it is generally very reliable.

For better or for worse, I’ve been a long time Dell owner. I like to use my PC on jobs, so I needed a reliable, portable, laptop and interface configuration. For a long time I had a Dell Inspiron 8200, and although it served me well for other purposes, finding the right audio configuration was difficult. I first bought a Tascam US-428, a USB 1.1 audio interface with transport controls, faders and rotary encoders. Although I fiddled around with it for a while, I never could get it to work reliably. Because of the US-428’s non-reliability, I decided to take advantage of the firewire port on the Inspiron 8200 and I got a MOTU 896 – a top of the line firewire interface at the time (I really wanted to have a reliable configuration). To my dismay, Dell laptops had a firewire problem which caused the firewire port to randomly shut off. Obviously this was unworkable so I sold the MOTU 896 and I bought an M-Audio Omnistudio PCI (desktop PCI) interface (M-Audio has apparently discontinued this, but it’s basically a Delta 66 card with a breakout box with more ports). I used the desktop PCI interface by using a Dell C/Dock II laptop docking station which had PCI ports. This situation was reliable, but because of the bulky docking station, not really mobile. For mobility, I used an Echo Audio Indigo I/O, a small PC Card interface which only had one 1/8 inch in and one 1/8 inch out. For Midi I used an M-Audio Midi 1×1. Because of the limited input and output of the Indigo I/O, I had to use converters to record both in and use the output in a live situation. Although this was reliable, it was limited in its use.

A couple of months ago I decided to upgrade to a Dell Inspiron 9300, a 17 inch laptop with a top of the line Intel Centrino processor. I had a lot of issues with my previous Dell, an Inspiron 8200, but I figured that Dell had worked out most of the kinks through the several years in between models. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as right as I’d hoped. After selling the M-Audio Omnistudio, I started off with an M-Audio Firewire 410, a popular firewire interface with a small footprint and a good amount of ports. At first it worked great, but after a couple of days odd things started to happen. The Midi port of the 410 would mysteriously drop out, and sometimes the entire interface would stop working. Although most of the time it worked, this situation is utterly unworkable in a live setting. I returned the 410 and exchanged it for an E-MU 1616, a Cardbus interface with a similar amount of ports as the 410, but with the addition of 2 Midi ports and hardware based effects which don’t tax the host processor. This proved to be a great choice. The 1616 is reliable (I haven’t had any problems with it through its entire use so far), has many ports and has built in great sounding effects which don’t tax the host processor. Also, Emu sells sample libraries which only work on Emu interfaces – so I have access to a wide range of sounds not available with other interfaces.

Another solution is to use the built-in soundcard of your laptop with the Asio4All ASIO driver, which allows any soundcard to use the ASIO standard set by Steinberg which most applications take advantage of. The problems with Asio4All are limited ports, uncertain results and uncertain reliability.

A bit about Dell laptops – although I have had trouble with them regarding audio, Dell laptops are very customizable. I’ve opened up both the Inspiron 8200 and 9300 for various purposes – to install ram, to change a graphics card, to change hard drives – and the experience wasn’t that hard. Hard drive swapping on Dell’s is extremely easy – you just have to buy the right type of hard drive enclosure on eBay and very easily mount the hard drive in the enclosure and then simply slide it in the laptop. It really could not be easier. Dell also has great user forums. If you have a problem with your Dell, chances are someone else had the same problem and found a solution. My experiences with Dell Customer Support weren’t great, but in the end they would always replace whatever needed replacing. Although other PC vendors may be more reliable, I’ve read that Sony, Toshiba and other vendors have problems of their own.

All in all my experience taught me one major lesson – whatever you buy, make sure it has an extensive return policy.

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3 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this post, mate. I’ve been using a MOTU 828 with my 9300, but it’s beginning to fall apart (the 828), and I’ve been wanting to get the emu 1616 as well.
    Is it still working out for you?
    Have you used multiple io at the same time reliably?
    thanks, zevo

    Comment by Anonymous — January 19, 2006 @ 5:23 pm

  2. 1616 works great – I had a small problem with the built in headphone jack which doesn’t affect the rest of the interface’s performance, but Emu is taking care of that with little fuss.

    How has the firewire worked for you with the 828?

    Comment by keyboardguy — February 2, 2006 @ 1:59 pm

  3. Are there any kind ASIO driver besides ASIO4ALL?

    Comment by Bushyetdah — May 5, 2008 @ 3:58 am


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