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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November 12, 2005

Pro Tools – Is It Really That Much Better?

Filed under: Music Tech — jewishmusic @ 6:48 pm

In the pro-audio world, it’s known that Pro-Tools is the industry standard. My question is simple: What makes Pro-Tools better than the other professional audio/midi recording software out there, such as Cubase or Sonar? I personally use Cubase, and I find it a pleasure to use. It easily has more features than I need but at the same time I find that it allows me to do what I need quickly and efficiently.

Is Pro-Tools really that much better?

October 14, 2005

Windows Vista Audio

Filed under: Music Tech — jewishmusic @ 11:44 am

As you may know, the next version of Windows, entitled Vista, is due late 2006. Right now Microsoft is in the early Beta testing stage, with Beta 2, a pre-release with most of the features of the release version, due at the end of 2005.

What does Vista mean for audio, both professional and user-end? The Windows team is totally rewriting the audio code to provide for less latency and more fidelity. The main point of this is to reduce glitches in audio – so, for example, if you’re playing music and you open an application, the audio will not skip (or will skip much less frequently). I’m not sure what this means for professional audio, but I would imagine that if the underlying audio core has less latency, professional audio drivers will be more stable and less processor intensive.

The other main audio feature in Vista will be per-application volume control. A picture of this is available here. What this means is that all open applications will be able to be individually controlled from one central location – the audio window. One common application of this feature is that you will be able to change the volume of system notifications, such as instant messaging notices, without having to change the overall volume. Changing volume in the upcoming Media Player 11 will be reflected in the audio window, but I’m not sure about other applications. For example, if I’m running Winamp and change the volume within Winamp, will this be reflected in the audio window’s representation of Winamp? If not, than all I can see is that having another level of volume control will just make things more difficult. Right now Windows (basically) has two levels of volume control – the main volume and the volume in applications. Adding a third level could just make things more confusing.

I guess we’ll just have to wait for Beta 2 to see how this turns out.

July 13, 2005

Crucial RAM Customer Support

Filed under: Music Tech — jewishmusic @ 11:09 am

Whenever I have to upgrade RAM, I always buy Crucial simply because they’re the easiest to configure, generally have very good prices and they have free 2-day shipping.

Up until now I always upgraded the RAM in my laptop, which was always a fairly simple process, so I never had to call technical support. Last week I bought RAM for my desktop, and the installation was significantly more difficult than the laptop. Once I figured how to open the desktop case, I attempted to install the RAM but had trouble securing it in place.

I first used Crucial’s online chat tech support and they advised me to call technical support. I called tech support, and my call was answered immediately. This is in comparison to tech support of other companies in which I would wait on hold literally for an hour and still not get a response. The Crucial tech, without asking me for any personal information knew it was me, and addressed me by name. I’m not talking about the addressing by name that companies require their employees to do, such as “Mention the customer’s name in every sentence.” This was actually thoughtful name addressing. This is in contrast to companies that require very specific idenification, and if you’re a little off, they won’t help you. The tech who picked up was American; this was not an out-sourced outift. I described my problem and the tech immediately answered with a thoughful response, as opposed to reading from a pre-written script. When I still had difficulty installing the RAM the tech recommended a course of action which was successful.

But, when I turned the computer on the BIOS gave me a RAM error. So I called tech support again and again was answered immediately. This tech also was very knowledgeable, and he too addressed me by name. I described my problem and he recommended two thoughful courses of action. I mentioned to the tech how I felt that he’s the most knowledgeable tech I’ve ever spoken to, and he responded that he’s built around 100 computers himself. Wow. A customer support person who really knows what he’s talking about.

Unfortunately the RAM never worked so I was transferred to the returns department. The woman who picked up seemed to know exactly what was goinig on in my two previous conversations and addressed me by name as well. I quickly arranged to ship the RAM back at Crucial’s cost.

This is clearly the best customer support experience I have ever had. If you need to upgrade your RAM or whatever else Crucial sells, it’s worth it to buy from them for their customer support.

(What does this have to with music? I upgrade RAM so I can get better performance while using my computer for audio recording and editing.)

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