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Thread: Introduction to Multitrack Computer Interface Recording

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    arcadeko's Avatar
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    Cool Introduction to Multitrack Computer Interface Recording

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    This thread is in response to the large number of post I see in the newbies forum about getting started with digital recording. Most of these threads are some variation of: "I have a guitar and mic and... and i want to record music - how do I get it into my computer?" So while I am by no means an expert on the subject, I have within the last year done a lot of research and tried several interfaces. I think this general breakdown will give you a good feel for what is available today.

    I'm going to make this super basic and in plain English for the uninitiated. I have added some definitions and references at the bottom. I am sure there are many people here that will be able to add much knowledge and information to this thread (And inform me of any mistakes I have made ). I would encourage this. Hopefully I have not made too many blatant errors and this will help some people get started with the appropriate equipment.

    So here we go...

    What is an audio interface?
    Simply put the device between your instruments and mics and your computer. Essentially this is a single piece of equipment, one end plugs into your PC* via USB or Firewire (or God forbid your on-board mic input) and the other end plugs into your guitar or mic, or electric ukulele or what-have-you.

    A simple interface may only have one or two inputs (or no inputs and just built in mics) while others may be a full multi-track mixing console. There is a huge range of price and variety, I am sticking with lower end devices (under $1000) with input jacks as this is an introduction to the devices and by no means meant to be the definitive guide.

    Some manufactures sell sound cards that can take a mic input, I have limited experience with them although I have used them for voice over work. They do a simple job and are cheap but I prefer the external interface so that is what this thread is about.

    What you need to know when selecting your first computer audio interface.

    Key Features of Interfaces.

    There are a few things that are crucial to interfaces for beginners and they are not always very obvious or well stated on the product information and they can make or break an interface. So the 4 important features I am covering are:

    1. Analog I/O (Already confused? See “What is I/O?” below in definitions.)
    2. PC Interface (Digital I/O)
    3. Pre-amps / Phantom Power
    4. DAW Software

    1. Analog I/O
    For recording live music you will primarily be concerned with the XLR (mic) and Instrument Jacks (1/4”). The number of Analog inputs is how many sound sources (mics, instruments) you can run into the interface simultaneously. The number you need depends on what you are recording. A full traditional drum kit can easily eat up 8 inputs.

    Basically you want to have an input for each mic and instrument you will be using. And as a word of advice, if you get more than you need you will not outgrow it as fast. If you are a solo artist you might get away with two inputs (guitar + mic) but if you want to add any more instruments or musicians you will need more channels/inputs.

    So the Analog I/O is how many inputs and outputs you have on your interface/mixer. The import number is the inputs. Or how many sound sources you can record simultaneously. For computer recording we only care about the In for instruments into the device.

    2. PC Interface (Digital I/O)

    The digital interface will usually be either USB or Firewire. USB 1.0 can usually only support 2 out, where USB 2.0/3.0 and Firewire can support 16 (or more) I/O. This is probably the most critical feature when it comes to mixing in a DAW (see item 4) The reason this is so important is that the number of digital outputs define whether you have true multi-track recording! If you have only the stereo mix output (2 Out) then you must perfect your mix prior to or while performing, as you will not be able to mix it again once its tracked in the DAW. You can get around this, (and many solo artists do this even with multi-tracks because you only have so many hands and mouths) by stacking tracks and recording multiple times. See “Overdubbing / Stacking Tracks”.

    So if you want true multi-track recording without having to record each part individually you will need multiple outputs, and this isn’t always clearly stated on packaging or product descritptions. You can usually find it listed as digital I/O or Firewire-USB I/O. If you want multi track then you need a full-duplex interface, this means 8/8 or 16/16 which mean 8 in 8 out, or you can record 8 tracks simultaneously. If a device shows 8/2 it only gives you stereo out. Just because a device has a Firewire or USB connection DO NOT ASSUME it is full duplex!

    So for our purposed we are mainly concerned with the "Out". We take our analog in, convert into a digital track through the device and it goes out - e.g. into our PC.

    3. Pre-amps / Phantom Power

    Many interfaces offer both pre-amps and phantom power. So briefly:

    Pre-amps give your mics a little gain before they hit the input channel so they can be heard along with other instruments which otherwise would be far louder. A standard mic run through a channel without a preamp has a very low volume level and pre-amps boost the signal. They can also make a big difference to the tone and feel of the microphone. This is an articles in itself.
    Suffice it to say, if you are recording with microphones you need pre-amps. Most interfaces have at least one, many have several. You can also buy stand alone microphone pre-amps.

    Phantom power is commonly found on the same channels that have pre-amps. Phantom power is a small current that runs through the XLR mic cable and supplies certain types of microphones with juice to make them active. It basically acts similar to a small preamp right in the mic. Phantom power mics are primarily studio vocal mics. I am not a mic expert but I have both standard and Phantom Power mics and they all have their specific uses. I get the best vocal tracks when using a nice studio mic with Phantom power. I can’t use them when I am recording with other musicians because they pick up all the ambient noise.

    4. DAW
    DAW: Digital Audio Workstation. This is the software you mix your music in. There are many flavors and brands. Some popular DAWs are Garageband, ProTools, Cubase, Cakewalk, Audacity, Reaper, etc. See Digital audio workstation - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Many of these interfaces will come with a limited edition (LE) or even a full version of software to allow you to edit and mix your recordings. There are many many many DAWs - They all have their own unique features and drawbacks but they are all basically the same - record tracks, mix, add effects, export song. Don’t fret if the hardware you are buying doesn’t have software, you can get excellent free open source software like Audacity (Audacity: Free Audio Editor and Recorder) or killer inexpensive shareware like Reaper (REAPER | Audio Production Without Limits) for like $40


    OK, so there we have the basic features of common interfaces. By this point you should have a decent idea about what type of interface you need. Full duplex or just stereo I/O, how many channels, how many pre-amps, and what type of PC interface (USB/Firewire)

    FireWire Vs. USB
    If you are wondering which is better, Firewire or USB 2 (or 3) you are not alone. From what I have seen, Firewire is actually faster than USB 2, but USB is cheaper to implement and is more common. Also the recording quality is the same from everything I have read (since its all digital anyway). And even though Firewire is technically faster, it’s a moot point as either can record 16/16 duplex equally well. So it is really a matter of personal choice. I have not seen any compelling evidence to choose one over the other. I have used both with the same fine results.

    So now lets look at some actual hardware. I have compiles a list of a few interfaces and noted what their basic specs are related to the key features I just described. I am not recommending any of these. I have used some of them, others I have never even seen except on the internet. If you want more information about a specific piece of gear, or something similar to something listed here, just post a thread and I am sure you will find someone who has used it.

    Recording Interface Comparison


    Here is a run down of a few of the countless audio interfaces out there and a brief spec. I tried to get the specs as accurate as possible, please verify for yourself. If anyone notices any errors please let me know and I will correct. Or if anyone has one for me to add, I will be happy to add it into the list also. Note- Many of the full duplex interface machines will say 8/10 - or 8 inputs 10 outputs - the extra two are the mix down so they are not a distinct usable track and I have chosen to omit them, the site may say 8/10 and you will see 8/8 here. Also when I list I/O below I will show the Anolog In/Digital Out.

    Cakewalk UA 1G USB $80
    Interface: USB I/O 2/2 (stereo) DAW: Sonar LE
    Connections: 2 XLR with Phantom and PreAmp, 4 ” TRS, 1 Mono ” Jack, S/PDIF, phones
    Cool Stuff: About as easy as it gets for a guitar player/singer.
    Roland U.S. - UA-1G: USB Audio Interface

    Lexicon Omega $150
    Interface: USB I/O: 8x2 DAW: Cubase LE4
    Connections: 2 XLR with Phantom and PreAmp, 4 ” TRS, 1 Mono ” Jack, S/PDIF, phones
    Pros: Small footprint - nice knob placement. Cons: 2 out

    Product: Omega | Lexicon Pro

    POD Studio UX2 $200
    Interface: USB 2.0 I/O: 4/2 DAW: Abelton Live Lite
    Connections: 2- XLR/1/4” with Phantom Power and Preamp, 4 - ” jacks, Midi, S/PDIF, phones
    Cool Stuff: Lots of guitar amps and cool VU meters
    Avid | Mbox

    Firewire Solo $180
    Interface: Firewire I/O: 4/4 Full Duplex DAW: Abelton Live Lite
    Connections: 1- XLR with Phantom Power and Preamp, 3- ” Guitar Jack, S/PDIF, phones
    M-AUDIO - FireWire Solo - FireWire Mobile Audio Interface for Songwriter/Guitarists

    M-Box $450
    Interface: USB 2.0 I/O: 4/4 DAW: ProTools LE 8
    Connections: 2- XLR/1/4” combo jacks with Phantom Power and Preamp, 2- ” jacks, Midi, S/PDIF, phones
    Avid | Mbox


    PreSonus FireStudio Project $500
    Interface: Firewire I/O: 8/8 DAW: StudioOne Artist
    Connections: 8- XLR/1/4” combo jacks with Phantom Power and Preamp, 2- ”, Midi, S/PDIF, phones
    Cool Stuff: Led Meters! Sweet. Eight Preamps! 4 GBs of software! Cons: No Faders
    PreSonus

    Alesis MultiMix 8/16 USB 2.0 $300/$600
    Interface: USB I/O: 8x8 /16x16 DAW: Cubase LE4
    Connections: 4/8 - XLR/1/4” combo with Phantom Power and Preamp, 4/8- ” (4/8 mono/2/4stereo), phones
    MultiMix 8 USB 2.0 Integrated USB 2.0 audio interface and mixer


    Tascam US 1800 ($299) *best deal for 16 track interface- just ask Jimmy*
    Interface: USB2 I/O: 16x16 DAW: Cubase LE5
    Connections: 4/8 - XLR/1/4” combo with Phantom Power and Preamp, 4/8- ” (4/8 mono/2/4stereo), phones
    Tascam US 1800


    Lexicon I-ONIX FW810S $700
    Interface: Firewire I/O: 10x10 DAW: Cubase LE4
    Connections: 8 XLR with Phantom and PreAmp, 4 ” TRS, 1 Mono ” Jack, S/PDIF, MIDI, phones
    Pros: dbx dynamics (compressor, limiter, gate, EQ) on all 8 channels
    Product: I



    Reference:

    What is I/O?

    I/O is a common term in stands for In/Out or Input/Output for the anal retentive. It can be used to describe any signal paths in a device be they analog or digital. Analog I/O includes the input jacks for guitars and mics. Most commonly there will be XLR (3 prong balanced mic cables) and ” (quarter inch standard guitar cable inputs or “jacks”). RCA jacks are also common (usually L/R red and white stereo) for line inputs/outputs.
    Common analog outputs are similar to the inputs but ” jack outputs are probably the most common, usually a left and right.

    Overdubbing / Stacking Tracks

    If you are a solo artist, or if you just want to add some extra tracks to an existing mix you can easily overdub. While overdubbing implies erasing something, I am referring to the process of adding additional tracks to a mix in a DAW. So for example, lets say you have a small stereo interface that records one or two sources at a time. You can record the main guitar track, then play that back and sing along to it into a new track. Repeat as needed to add guitar solos, egg shakers, cowbell or what have you. This way you can record all your tracks then go back and add effects, EQ and adjust volume on your mix.

    It can also give you a great sound if you stack and mix tracks to give them more depth. For instance, record your main guitar part. Load a new track, record it again. Now pan one track completely to the left, the other to the right. The tracks should be almost identical but just different enough to give you a rich wide sound that can not be achieved by using a single mono track.

    Footnotes: *
    PC: *I use the term PC in this article to stand for what it means which is Personal Computer - it should not be confused with any specific operating system (e.g. a PC can run Windows or MacOS (if its Apple hardware)). I know there is a common belief that PC means Windows but it does not, it means Personal Computer (Personal computer - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) and a Mac IS a PC as is a Linux laptop.

    Ok - Hope this helps out some folks. Man this took a while! Time for
    Last edited by arcadeko; 02-13-2012 at 19:50. Reason: speeeling - added tascam 1800
    Mea Culpa -:- What Blog? - Good Artist Copy, Great Artist Steal...

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    cian is offline Newbie
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    Great article! Thanks for sharing this and making it easy to understand. I know that as a newbie I have really no say in this but this should really be made a sticky for the likes of me Just 2 quick questions:

    1) What are/what is the difference between "unbalanced" and "balanced" inputs and outputs?

    2) Why do many interfaces have so many excess analogue and digital SPDIF outputs?

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    Now if you can only get the newbies to read this before posting!

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    arcadeko's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cian View Post
    Great article! Thanks for sharing this and making it easy to understand. I know that as a newbie I have really no say in this but this should really be made a sticky for the likes of me Just 2 quick questions:

    1) What are/what is the difference between "unbalanced" and "balanced" inputs and outputs?

    2) Why do many interfaces have so many excess analogue and digital SPDIF outputs?
    1) Balanced inputs use three wires (usually the XLR inputs are balanced) which reduces interference especially over long distances (like 20+ feet) - From my understanding you have to have 3 wires for balance (like XLR 3 prong)- two wires send the signal in mirrored phase and then the combining of the two leaves you with a clean signal or some nonsense. A regular guitar cable is unbalanced - balanced is a higher quality connection is the long and short of it -

    2) I have no idea - honestly I have never used S/PDIF and as far as I know have never had the need or desire to...
    Mea Culpa -:- What Blog? - Good Artist Copy, Great Artist Steal...

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    What no PCI cards?

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    arcadeko's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by c7sus View Post
    What no PCI cards?
    If anyone notices any errors please let me know and I will correct. Or if anyone has one for me to add, I will be happy to add it into the list also.
    Give me the specs and I will be happy to add it. If you can format it in the same fashion as the ones above it would make it a lot easier i'm not trying to create the definitive list or anything just show people a sample of whats available
    Mea Culpa -:- What Blog? - Good Artist Copy, Great Artist Steal...

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    tpb
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    Well while I am not a Noob I thought your explantion was well done and written thanks
    Tim

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    cian is offline Newbie
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    Quote Originally Posted by arcadeko View Post
    1) Balanced inputs use three wires (usually the XLR inputs are balanced) which reduces interference especially over long distances (like 20+ feet) - From my understanding you have to have 3 wires for balance (like XLR 3 prong)- two wires send the signal in mirrored phase and then the combining of the two leaves you with a clean signal or some nonsense. A regular guitar cable is unbalanced - balanced is a higher quality connection is the long and short of it -
    So unbalanced isn't as good...but it will still work reasonably well over a short distance (2m) right?

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    arcadeko's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cian View Post
    So unbalanced isn't as good...but it will still work reasonably well over a short distance (2m) right?
    Isn't as good I think implies that it can't perform perfectly - it certainly can perform perfectly - I have never seen a balanced guitar cable (although I'm sure they exist)
    and unbalanced cables are used every day by professional and casual musicians alike. I use them every day and i have never had a problem. I think the longest guitar
    cable i have ever used is like 15ft - I guess after 20ft you get signal loss but cable quality may or may not affect that.

    I imagine you wouldn't even notice up to 6m - Any basic cables available at your local music store will do the job perfectly 99% of the time (100% of the time for me so far)
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    cian is offline Newbie
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    Quote Originally Posted by arcadeko View Post
    Isn't as good I think implies that it can't perform perfectly - it certainly can perform perfectly - I have never seen a balanced guitar cable (although I'm sure they exist)
    and unbalanced cables are used every day by professional and casual musicians alike. I use them every day and i have never had a problem. I think the longest guitar
    cable i have ever used is like 15ft - I guess after 20ft you get signal loss but cable quality may or may not affect that.

    I imagine you wouldn't even notice up to 6m - Any basic cables available at your local music store will do the job perfectly 99% of the time (100% of the time for me so far)
    Ah great, thanks for the help!

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