8. Which is Best for Me?
The decision of which interface to choose will depend on your personal specifications and should be made with those in mind. Ideally you wouldn't purchase an interface with features you don't need. On the other hand it may be worth allowing for future expansions. The most important things to consider when choosing are:
What do you want to connect?
The essential question, which devices do you already have, which do you plan to have? If you are planning to increase the number of devices or simply wish to upgrade your current ones, you should take that into consideration. For insatnce, an unused ADAP-Port left free can later be retrofitted with an adaptor for us as up to eight Analog-I/O's.
How do you work?
If you record tracks one after the other an interface with only a few, but very good, inputs is enough. If you want to be able to quickly record something in the rehearsal room at any time, then you'll want to be able to record the individual signals - for that an interface with many inputs is preferable. If mixing via an analogue mixer is required, an interface with sufficient analogue outputs is needed.
How will you use the audio interface?
If you are constantly on the move, an interface with USB or Firewire connection should be considered. If your desktop computer is stuck in the studio, you can take advantage of the slight performance increases offered by PCI's or PCIe's. When it comes to home theater and gameplay, surround sound support and game compatibility are important considerations. Producers of high end audio equipment usually put little focus on these however, so for more professional setups you should use an additional consumer card for your home entertainment needs.
For audio interfaces with the classic PCI format, the connections are often routed to the outside via a cable or external connection box (breakout box).
Are you planning further changes in the studio?
Is a switch from Mac to PC or vice versa in sight? Then don't buy anything that has no or insufficient driver support on the target platform. Also do not rely on manufacturer promises when it comes to future driver support. Only buy cards that already have a matching driver for your application(s).
Basic recording software is included with many cheap interfaces. These are usually much stripped down versions of popular recording software such as Cubase, Studio One, or Ableton. You won't be able to make huge improvements but it is enough to get started in recording without spending any additional money. To that end, you should inform yourself about the basic capabilities and user interface of the included software before purchasing. As a rule most professional level audio interfaces do not come with recording software.
Unbalanced, balanced or auto-balanced?
All single channel electrical signals are unbalanced and travel down a single piece of wire (plus ground). A balanced line uses two wires, with the original signal going down one and a mirror image going down the other which has been phase reversed. When the phase is reversed back at the other end and the two signals are combined, any interference picked up in the cable is cancelled out. Auto-balanced cables switch between being balanced or unbalanced depending on whats attached.
What is stacking?
Combining two or more interfaces of the same make and type to expand the number of connections available. Drivers must support this in order for it to work, and not all do. Audio interfaces from different manufacturers cannot be stacked in this fashion.
Which level, -10dB or +4dB?
Ultimately it depends on the equipment. +4dB is hotter and so has more level than -10dB, and on output this could cause distortion through the amplifier. On the other hand 10dB can be too quiet and waste some of the resolution of your dynamic processors. Most interfaces can be switched between the two, so that you can find the idea level for your particular environment.
What is Phantom Powering?
This is usually 48V of power that is required to run a condenser microphone. It is sent back down the same cable as the audio signal arrives on, requiring no separate connection, hence phantom.
Whats the difference between Coaxial and Optical S/PDIF?
Coax cables are highly insulated electrical cables, where the signal line runs down the centre of the shielding antenna cables are coaxial. Optical cables use light that is transferred down a fibre optic cable. Both cables are suitable for digital signal transmissions, although optical is less prone to interference from electrical fields. Coax and optical are not directly compatible with each other and require a conversion box to switch between the two formats.
Does 96kHz sound better?
Although in theory we cannot hear the extra information that is recorded at 96kHz or even higher, it often does sound better, primarily because it allows anti-aliasing filters to be placed at such a high frequency that they have far less detrimental effects on the audio spectrum. There are many other factors that affect audio quality though, so it can only be said as a rule that 96kHz generally sounds a little better than 48kHz on the same audio interface. 96kHz also generates double the amount of data, and so requires the computer to work much harder to cope with the information, and needs double the disk space to store it.
Is the quality of converters important?
Yes, but as with many things, the law of diminishing returns comes into play although as a general rule you will get better quality if you pay more, paying double doesnt double the quality. Unless you have highly trained ears, you may find it hard to detect any difference as you go further and further up the price range.
How high should the signal-to-noise ratio be?
Naturally, in principle, as high as possible. However, the higher you go, the harder it becomes to notice the difference. The maximum SNR for CD is 96dB and thats pretty quiet. To make use of any SNR above 96dB youd need to be working in 24bit resolution, which is one of the advantages of working at resolutions higher than 16bit.
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