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Audio interfaces: What’s in, what’s out

It's a crucial piece of kit that comes in a bewildering variety of flavours. Despite this, the latest trend in audio interfacing seems to revolve around one key question

It wasn’t so long ago that quality AD/DA conversion was of primary importance when choosing an audio interface. Today, quality conversion is expected of even the most budget-friendly models, and users are demanding a lot more from their boxes.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, there are many features to consider when designing an interface. Red and Rednet product manager, Will Hoult, lists just a few Focusrite is keeping its eye on: “Firstly, there’s the connections available on the computers available in the market: historically Firewire (400 or 800), USB (1.1, 2.0 and recently 3.x), Ethernet, Thunderbolt, PCIe etc. The list goes on. Secondly, audio transport: so interfaces such as analogue line, MADI (pictured below) and AES3 for example. Finally and perhaps the most important we need to pay close attention to workflows across a variety ofuser groups as well as how our products need to integrate into the modern studio environment.”

The more manufacturers you speak to, the longer the list grows: onboard processing, low latency monitoring, quality preamps and preamp emulation. But is that what are users really asking for?

British musician/producer John Mitchell (It Bites, Lonely Robot) came to be a devoted fan of Focusrite interfaces almost by chance: “I do quite a lot of mixing abroad; I went to Australia about two years ago and produced a band called Prepared Like A Bride. While I was there I was invited along to the launch of the iTrack Solo. On whim I went out and bought it because it was tiny and it could fit in my luggage.”

Since then, Mitchell has added a Scarlett 2i2 and 2i4, a Saffire PRO 40, a Liquid Saffire 56 and several OctoPre dynamics to his arsenal.

“The GUIs that come with my interfaces are so self-explanatory; within 30 seconds you can install the driver and before you know it you’re up and running. One minute I’ll be in my main studio doing drum edits on my iMac and then I’ll take my interface and go to another room – I just plug it in and away I go. There’s a reason the 2i2 is so popular; you can be a tone deaf monkey and get it running, it’s fool proof.

“The thing is, I’m forever switching between computers…so whatever (interface) it is, it needs to be super quick and have reliable connectivity.”

London-based producer/remixer Glen Nicholls (pictured), who has worked with the likes of The Prodigy, Bomb The Bass and Erasure, recently invested in two Prism Sound Titan audio interfaces (with the Atlas pictured top).

“I’ve been in a lot of big recording and mastering studios for years and I’ve always seen the Prism Sound gear, so I’ve come to associate it with that ‘high end’ sound. I was mastering a project at home and hired in an Orpheus and loved it. I didn’t want to give it back – but I had to (laughs). I literally bought one the week after that, and I’ve had that for a few years.

“FireWire on the Orpheus was quite temperamental. It wasn’t until I got the Lyra which is a USB connection that I thought ‘OK, this is smooth running’. My interfaces are all USB now and I have no issues with that. I can take it on the road with me, plug it in wherever, which is pretty handy.”

So while ease of use and the “sound” of an interface are mentioned by Mitchell and Nicholls in the first instance, there is that one major feature users and manufacturers alike are talking about.

Somehow the vital connection is made

USB or Thunderbolt, that is the question.

“To a certain extent, there is a clamour for the latest ‘buzz word’, like Thunderbolt for example,” confirms Rob Masters, product manager at Synthax Audio. Among the products the company distributes are RME’s range of audio interfaces (pictured).

“The main strength of Thunderbolt (and USB 3.0) are their high bandwidth, so you will find these protocols on the Fireface UFX+ and the MADIface XT which have an astonishing 188 and 394 channels respectively. USB 2.0 is still the primary choice for RME’s lower channel count offerings.”

USB’s ubiquity is being challenged by the relatively new Thunderbolt connection, co-developed by Apple and Intel. Just to add a bit of mud to the water, Thunderbolt 1 and 2 used Mini DisplayPort connectors. The latest incarnation – Thunderbolt 3 – uses USB Type-C ports, which are not the same as USB 3.0. The latter is backwards compatible with – and uses the same port as – USB 2.0.

Rather than better on a clear winner, RME is hedging its bets and adopting a ‘You name it, you connect it’ approach.

“The pace of change across all electronic technology markets is incredible,” says Masters. “In this rapidly shifting environment, flexibility is king. You can face this with some confidence when you can rely on your audio interface to reliably cope with almost any platform – Mac, PC, tablet and mobile – and to offer connection formats for new and old external equipment. For example, RME’s flagship Fireface UFX+ has both USB3 and Thunderbolt, as well as an extensive range of analogue mic, headphone and line level connections, ADAT, SPDIF, AES/EBU and MADI digital i/o… The options are extensive.”

Universal Audio on the other hand is more certain that Thunderbolt is the way forward. The Apollo interface (pictured) was the first Thunderbolt interface on the market and many other manufacturers have followed suit.

“Thunderbolt was the first external connectivity protocol to offer the bandwidth necessary to truly realise Universal Audio’s roadmap for Apollo.” says Universal Audio product manager, Scott Greiner. “No other interface offers Apollo’s low latency plug-in workflows in real-time, plus those same plug-ins from within the DAW. This requires a lot of bandwidth, speed and stability; and Thunderbolt offers this by the truck-load.”

Apple’s latest MacBook Pro laptops forgo all but Thunderbolt/USB-C connectors, but it was an announcement from the Microsoft camp in January of this year that makes Thunderbolt’s reign a very real possibility: “The addition of ‘official Thunderbolt support under Windows 10’ from Microsoft is big news for all interface manufacturers,” says Geiner. “This news, combined with the addition of Thunderbolt 3 ports on PCs (and now Macs) represents a major shift for most companies with Thunderbolt audio interfaces. There is now great potential to expand into this new market, and customers are asking for it. We’re proud that our line of Thunderbolt Apollo Interfaces and UAD-2 hardware are compatible with both Mac and Windows 10 for Thunderbolt 3 PCs.”

There are two things to keep in mind: the first is that this is not the first time an Apple-led development takes the world by storm. FireWire was once “the next big thing” but is ultimately on its way out.

“The FireWire implementation wasn’t as robust and there were variations; the standard was constantly evolving, there was only a limited number of chipset choices and none of them were perfect, which gave rise to potential incompatibilities and difficulties with one connection or another,” explains Prism Sound’s Graham Boswell.

The company’s latest interfaces use USB connections, but there is an indirect way of getting around the USB/Thunderbolt debate using another recording mainstay: “Because Pro Tools is somewhat ubiquitous, we’ve supported customers on that format for many years, and we continue to make a compatible interface for it,” says Boswell. “It’s also a good way of syncing multiple interfaces together. For instance, using Pro Tools HD Native, which is a Thunderbolt interface, with a DigiLink connector on the other side. That’s actually a really neat set up. If you like, we’re relying on them to provide a less expensive ‘current flavour’ interface to the Mac platform…We’re keeping up with the Pro Tools format, we’re letting them do the consumer end of it.”

A soft(ware) trend

No audio interface manufacturer is more ‘connected’ to Pro Tools than Focusrite. The two companies share a long collaborative history including the original Digidesign Mbox. the world’s first plug-ins to feature a fully skeuomorphic GUI and Control|24, Avid’s first mid-format console.

At Winter NAMM 2016 it was announced that Focusrite and Avid were in “deep discussion” once again. “The first and most obvious fruit of the partnership with Avid is the inclusion of Pro Tools First with our second generation Scarlett USB audio interfaces. This gives our customers greater choice than ever over the DAW they use to get working with straight out of the box,” says Hoult.

It hasn’t yet hit ‘buzz word’ status (yet), but there is something to be said about a growing trend towards audio interfaces coming bundled with a more robust software package.

Manufacturers have long included software with their audio interfaces to the point that it is now expected. “However, in most cases, the bundled DAW is a third-party OEM solution that provides a limited user experience,” says PreSonus product manager Wesley Smith (pictured is a PreSonus interface).

“One of our immediate goals in developing Studio One, in addition to creating a revolutionary recording and mixing experience, was to provide PreSonus customers with an improved, ‘PreSonified’ user experience. To that end, we’ve focused our development effort on deep hardware/software integration

“The release of the first StudioLive mixers, which are audio interfaces as well as mixers, was a watershed because the mixer/interfaces offered integration with software for both wired and wireless systems. So although customers long expected to get some sort of recording software with their interface, the classic StudioLive and our subsequent mixers and interfaces have created a demand for deeper integration with a DAW and with control software, including for tablets and smartphones.”