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The Quick Start Guide to

FireWire Audio Interfaces

Provided by your friends at The Home Recording Studio Guide

A Division of New Art Today
What’s an audio interface?
This is the hardware (a separate unit or box) that allows sound to be input and output from your
computer. It might be built-in to your computer or you may have paid extra for a "sound card". If you
want to spend a bigger chunk of money you can buy a unit that has different sorts of 'plug-in' types
like the 'RCA' connectors or 1/4 in. 'phono' plugs or even what's called XLR connectors. Or simply it
is much like a mixer that will combine analog inputs and preamps. However, after the preamp, the
signal is converted to digital information and sent via digital output to a computer. The digital
information is processed via software and then returned to the interface where it is converted back to
an analog signal for playback.

In simplest terms, an audio interface connects your microphones and other sound sources to your
computer - it bridges the gap from analog to digital. Audio interfaces are commonly equipped with
mic preamps, line inputs, and a variety of other input options. It is briefly a piece of hardware that
acts as an intermediary between the analog world of your mics and instruments and the digital world
of your computer. Computers can be pretty smart, but when it comes to sound, they need a translator
that can convert sound waves into the digital language of ones and zeroes. Audio interfaces provide
this translation.

You might be asking yourself, "If audio interfaces are often equipped with preamps, why wouldn't I
just buy a channel strip or preamp?" Well, the answer to that question lies in the analog-to-digital
conversion. Traditional preamps and channel strips send out an analog signal, and for audio to be
usable by a computer, it needs to be digital. The audio interface converts the analog signal from its
inputs to a digital output, making it easily digestible for a computer.

Benefits of choosing an audio interface over a soundcard:

With a brief background on the internals of a soundcard, you will agree that although most of the
consumer’s soundcards that come built-in with your computer can be used for audio playback and
recording, these soundcards are not meant to be used for music production.

The onboard soundcard is OK for games and MP3s but when it comes to recording audio and
transferring to digital then having an Audio Interface is an absolute must, as the quality of the sound
produced is based on this important piece of hardware.

A sound card is a hardware that lets you record and playback audio. It sits inside the computer in a
PCI slot and you connect all the cables at the back of this card.

Audio interfaces, on the other hand has a box that sits outside the PC and a cable that is connected to
the PC, either to the PCI card or to the USB/Firewire slot depending on the type of the interface. The
breakout box contains slots for all the input and output audio/midi connections.
Some of the limitations of a consumer sound card include:

• High latency (delay in the reproduction of sound, between initiating a sound and hearing it)
• General sound quality is not great
• Low sampling rates (recording quality is poor)
• The drivers may not work with most of the audio recording software applications
• No MIDI port. You cannot connect external keyboards/synths
• It is intended for home and office entertainment use. The emphasis is more on playback and casual

Audio Interfaces, on the other hand, do not have the limitations listed above making them suitable
for serious audio work. Some of the features on a professional soundcard include:

• Low latency sound recording and playback

• Usually follows the ASIO protocol (suited for sound engineering and music software)
• Comes as external rack-mountable units which can be connected using USB 2.0/Firewire
• Large number of input and output connectors
• Hardware support for multiple input and output sound channels
• Higher sampling rates compared to a consumer soundcard
• Multi-channel data recording and real-time audio mixer and processor

Finally we can say that an audio interface is a professional sound card.

What it looks like?
Audio Interface Main Components:
• Sound Card: This card, also called a PCI card because it fits in the Peripheral Component
Interface (PCI) slot in your computer, allows your computer to read and understand the
digital information coming from and going to the converters. Without a sound card, your
computer doesn’t know what to do with the musical data that it receives.
• Analog-to-digital(AD) and digital-to-analog(DA) converters: These converters allow you
to get the sound from your instrument, direct box, or preamp to the sound card (the AD
converter’s job) and from your computer back out to your monitors (the DA converter’s job)
• Direct Box: A direct box (technically called a Direct Induction Box or DI box for short) lets
you plug your guitar directly into your recording device without having to go through your
amp first.
• Microphone preamp: This is a requirement if you want to plug your mic into your recording
device. The preamp amplifies the signal coming from your mic so that it can be recorded.
• Drivers: Drivers are the software components that allow audio computer programs to talk to
your soundcard; they come along with the card. The driver is the critical code that manages
the traffic of data going from the cpu to and from the DAC. It organizes the data so the CPU
can fetch it when the audio application says it is needed.

There are three main types of audio interface formats:

PCI card. This plugs into a PCI slot on your computer's motherboard. It may place all its connectors
on the backplate, a second backplate that installs next to the board but doesn't take up a slot, or have
a cable that goes to a separate (usually rack-mountable) breakout box that's festooned with

• Advantages: Cards usually offer the tightest integration with the computer and the best MIDI
timing. Also, if there's a breakout box, the connectors can be placed where it's most
convenient for your studio setup.
• Disadvantages: You need to open up your computer, and although Windows machines have
become quite good about "plug and play," there is still the possibility for conflicts with other
cards -- particularly PCI video cards. (If you do use a PCI interface, if at all possible use an
AGP rather than PCI graphics card.) Although any conflicts can almost always be resolved,
those who aren't into computers may find the experience frustrating.

USB. This type of interface is a separate box that plugs into a computer's USB port. Early USB
interfaces got a bad rap because of problems in computer operating systems; however, starting with
Windows 98SE and MacOS 9.1, USB functionality was decent and now with Windows XP and Mac
OS X, USB is fully integrated into the operating system.

• Advantages: You don't have to open up your computer, and the experience is pretty much
"plug and play." It's also easy to move among different computers, even if they're different
platforms -- use a USB interface with your desktop, then if you go on the road, plug it into
your laptop.
• Disadvantages: USB 1.1 is a relatively slow protocol, so there's a bandwidth limit -- you're
not going to get 16 channels of 24 bit audio. In fact, it's more likely you'll get four
simultaneous channels... but that will be enough for many applications. Note that although
there may be timing issues with MIDI, the latest generation of USB MIDI interfaces with
time-stamping can overcome any inaccuracies. USB 2.0 delivers considerably faster
performance, but as of this writing choices remain limited.

FireWire. This is similar conceptually to a USB interface as it plugs into a built-in computer port,
but runs at a much faster speed than USB 1.1 interfaces.

• Advantages: Similar to USB, although FireWire interfaces need their own drivers, whereas
USB interfaces can often use existing system USB drivers. FireWire was adopted by Apple
early on, so many Mac owners gravitate toward FireWire.
• Disadvantages: As FireWire ports have been built in to the Mac for some time, using a
FireWire interface is pretty much plug-and-play. However, many Windows machines will
need a FireWire card. Although adding one is a pretty straightforward process, it negates the
advantage of not having to open up your computer and install a card.

FireWire Advantages:
FireWire provides many advantages over other peripheral interconnection technologies. The cables
are as simple to connect as a telephone cord--there is no need for screws or latches. And, unlike SCSI
technology, FireWire is autoconfiguring--so it eliminates SCSI device ID conflicts and the need for
terminators. FireWire is also a hot plug-and-play technology, which means that a device can be
disconnected and then reconnected without the need to restart the computer. FireWire is fast--it can
transfer digital data at 200 megabits per second, with a planned increase to 400 megabits per second
and beyond. And, the FireWire technology supports expansion--up to 63 devices can be attached on
the same FireWire bus. Finally, FireWire includes support for isochronous data transfer, which
provides guaranteed bandwidth for real-time video and audio streams.

 Real-time data transfer for multimedia applications 100, 200, & 400Mbits/s data rates today;
800 Mbits/s and multi-Gbits/s upgrade path
 Live connection/disconnection without data loss or interruption
 Automatic configuration supporting "plug and play"
 Free form network tool allowing mixing branches and daisy-chains
 No separate line terminators required
 Guaranteed bandwidth assignments for real-time applications
 Common connectors for different devices and applications
Firewire Audio Interfaces classification:

Category 1: Low Budget / Beginner Level ($125 to $350): least expensive semi-pro audio
interfaces for computers. If you are planning to record using professional microphones, you will need
to add a suitable microphone preamp or a good quality mixing board. I usually recommend the
mixing board option because it will give you more flexibility in routing inputs and outputs and
patching in effects boxes.


• M-Audio Audiophile FireWire - This is a 4-in 6-out audio interface consisting of a small
audio I/O box that connects via FireWire to the host computer (much higher performance
than USB!). Analog inputs are line level – add your own mixer or mic preamps. Features 24-
bit, 96kHz sampling rate capability, with S/PDIF or MIDI I/O. Drivers support: Windows
98SE/Me/2000/XP, ASIO 2, Direct Sound, EASI, multi-card, Gigasampler, Mac Sound
Manager, Mac ASIO – and even Mac OS-X!. $350 list price (US).

Category 2: Low-End Pro Level ($350 to $800) While some of these more professional interfaces
will have built in mic preamps with +48V phantom power and XLR inputs, others have line-level
inputs only. Those products which come equipped with XLR microphone inputs with phantom power
are designed to function as close to a complete 'studio in a box' as possible. These products usually
include a mixer interface built into their driver software so that the computer takes the place of the
mixing board in your studio. Others integrate so tightly with your music software of choice that they
accomplish pretty much the same thing.


• Digidesign Digi 002 Rack- Here's Digidesign's entry into the 'low end' studio market
(~$800). This is a FireWire-based 24-bit audio interface with 8 line level analog inputs and
outputs, 4 balanced microphone inputs with phantom power, headphone output, one MIDI IN
and two MIDI OUT, coaxial S/PDIF, and also includes the Pro Tools LE software. The Digi
002 system is basically a 'native' version of Pro Tools, meaning it uses the computer's CPU
for DSP and mixing instead of the hardware DSP included with a full-blown Pro Tools rig.
That means no TDM plugins, but you can use Digidesign's Real-Time Audio System (RTAS)
plugins. Supported in Mac OS-X and Windows XP Home Edition. Windows 2000 is not
supported, but the Mac-heads out there will tell you that it works much better on a Mac!
• M-Audio FireWire 410 - This is an analog I/O box (24-bit, 96kHz capable) with 2 mic
inputs, 2 line inputs, 8 line outputs, S/PDIF I/O and 1x1 MIDI I/O, that connects to the host
computer through FireWire. Driver support for: Windows 98SE/Me/2000/XP, ASIO 2,
Direct Sound, EASI, multi-card support, GSIF, Mac Sound Manager and Mac ASIO
(including OS X). List price is $500, sells for about $350 (US).

Category 3: Professional Level: These products are designed for use in professional studios. The
computer-based products are designed to be expandable with external interfaces and additional DSP,
and to connect to the other digital audio devices that are normally found in a full-blown recording
studio. The stand-alone products are designed to be used as a full-function, portable "studio in a


• Mark of the Unicorn 896 - The 896 is the latest multichannel audio interface to use
FireWire (IEEE-1394) to connect to Mac G4, iMac/iBook and PC laptops equipped with
FireWire ports. Housed in a two rack-space chassis, the 896 provides 8 channels of 24-bit
96kHz balanced analog ins and outs, 8 balanced mic preamps on XLR connectors (w/
individually switchable 48VDC phantom power for each mic pre), 8 channels of ADAT
Lightpipe I/O, optical or coaxial S/PDIF, AES-EBU and 9-pin ADAT sync connectors. Since
it uses the FireWire interface, this should be a really good solution for creating a portable,
multichannel DAW based on a laptop computer (such as the Mac iBook or Titanium G4, or
Sony Vaio), List price is $1295 (US).

Criteria to choose a firewire audio interface:

• How Much Can You Spend?

• Are You Sacrificing Sound Quality?
• Which Operating System Do You Use?
• How Will You Connect It to Your Computer?
• What Number of Inputs and Outputs Do You Need?
• Resolution, sampling rate, and bit depth needed

• Do You Want Extra Knobs and Features?

• Do You Intend to Use Pro Tools?

Most common firewire audio interfaces specs and terms:

ADAT refers to an 8 channel digital input and output. It is useful for connecting more mic preamps,
a second audio interface or computer, a digital mixer, or can be used to add more analog i/o through
an 8 channel ad/da converter. When you see ADAT x2 in the chart that means the device has two
ADAT ports in and out or 16 channels in and out. (Sometimes two ADAT ports may be used for
eight channels at a high sample rate like 96kHz)

ASIO (Audio Stream Input Output): This driver format, introduced by Steinberg in their popular
Cubase application, runs at a lower level (as it bypasses much of the Windows OS) and therefore
typically manages lower latencies than both MME and DirectSound. Many musicians have managed
to run their music software with latencies as low as 2ms using ASIO, although 6ms is a more realistic
figure, and even 12ms is acceptable in most cases. Emagic’s EASI (Enhanced Audio Streaming
Interface) format is derived from ASIO and is capable of slightly better performance with Logic
Audio. However, few soundcards now support this option. There are 2 versions. ASIO 1.0 and 2.0.
2.0 adds the ability to monitor several audio inputs at once. Beware that there are drivers that call
themselves ASIO drivers that are not. Most notorious are “asio multimedia” drivers. Don’t use that
one for music programs. Look in the driver list for a different ASIO driver that has the name of the
interface in it. That is the true ASIO driver.

Bit depth describes the number of bits of information recorded for each sample

Sampling rate, sample rate, or sampling frequency: defines the number of samples per second (or
per other unit) taken from a continuous signal to make a discrete signal

Latency - Latency describes the amount of time it takes the input signal to pass through the system,
and reach the output.

MIDI i/o refers to the number of 16 channel ports there are on the interface. 1/2 means it has one
MIDI input and two MIDI outputs. MIDI inputs and outputs are used to connect a MIDI synthesizer,
keyboard controller, drum pad controller, and some control surfaces. You need one port for every
device you want to connect to the computer. You can always add more via separate MIDI interfaces.

Core Audio: This is the main Mac OS X method of handling audio, developed by Apple. There is no
Core Audio for windows. Mac OS9 used other methods including ASIO that are no longer supported
in OS X.

GSIF (GigaSampler InterFace): Designed specifically for just one application — Tascam’s popular
GigaStudio software sampler — GSIF drivers also work at a low level within Windows, providing
guaranteed low latency of between 6ms and 9ms. If, like plenty of other musicians, you’re interested
in GigaStudio and its extensive collection of professional sample libraries, your soundcard must have
GSIF drivers; you won’t be able to run GigaStudio without them.

Preamps refers to the number of microphone preamps the interface has. Usually these can double as
instrument inputs (guitar, bass, etc.) But check on that before you buy. Also some interfaces (but not
all) will have insert jacks or send outputs for connecting compressors and other processors. You
might want to check on that too when evaluating an audio interface.

S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format) i/o is a stereo digital pathway, and may be
either coaxial or optical. S/PDIF is useful for connecting digital audio devices, like external a/d
converters, effects processors, CDR recorders, even some preamps and keyboards that have digital

WDM stands for Windows Driver Model with Kernal Streaming. This is a lower latency driver that
allows the application direct access to the “kernal” without going through the Windows OS. This
results in latency figure that is fast like ASIO. It was introduced in Cakewalk’s Sonar. So if you want
to run Sonar, a card with a good WDM driver helps. However, today cakewalk does support asio

Word Clock refers the presence of a BNC connector through which word sync signals can be sent to
other digital devices. It is important that all digital devices connected through s/pdif or ADAT share
the same word sync. For simple setups that may have two digital devices, having a word clock
connector is not usually necessary. Sync can be sent along through the s/pdif or ADAT connection. It
becomes important in rigs where there may be multiple digital devices where it is impossible to send
word sync to all devices.

Best Manufacturers and Conclusion

Some of the major and popular manufacturers/brands of professional firewire audio interfaces
include M-Audio, RME, Tascam, MOTU, PreSonus, Digidesign, Onyx, etc.


Choosing an audio interface doesn't have to be rocket science...

• Choose a manufacturer with a reputation in pro audio.
• Decide how many analog inputs and outputs you want.
• Decide how many digital inputs and outputs you want.
• Decide whether 24/96 is good enough (it's more than good enough for most people), or whether you
really must have 24/192 capability.

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The Home Recording Studio Guide

New Art Today – Recording Division

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