How to shop for an audio interface

If you’re just starting out your home studio, or looking to upgrade your audio interface, there are many factors to consider in order to make an informed decision that gets you the best bang for your buck. An audio interface is the traffic cop of your home studio, controlling all the physical inputs and outputs.

Using an audio interface is always better for a home recording studio than the built-in soundcard on your computer. An audio interface:

  • will allow you to connect guitars, synthesizers, and professional microphones
  • can achieve lower latency, so you don’t hear a delay while recording or playing a software synthesizer
  • is designed to record and playback at the same time; a soundcard, not so much

With the right feature set for your home studio, you can improve your workflow and focus on the creative rather than the technical. Don’t get me wrong, though – you still have to understand the technical, so here we go.

Number of inputs

The first and potentially most important thing to consider is the number of inputs you have. You need as many inputs as things you’ll be recording at the same time. Interfaces generally come with 2, 4 or 8 analogue inputs.  Manufacturers usually state the number of inputs in the model name, and almost all of the time, it’s the first number.  For example, a Focusrite 2i4 has 2 inputs (and 4 outputs, but we’ll get to that in a bit). A Presonus AudioBox 44VSL has 4 inputs and 4 outputs.

What’s crucial to understand here is that you only need enough inputs for one recording pass. For example, if you record guitar first, then vocals, then bass, you really only need one input. If you’re recording all three at the same time, you’ll need three inputs. Simultaneous recording not only captures the magic of musicians playing off one another, but recording them on discrete channels also gives you isolated tracks in your software for better mixing. (Note, mic bleed is a topic unto itself.)

Types of inputs

Inputs for microphones are XLR inputs – an XLR mic cable has three large pins in a circle on one end. Often, audio interfaces feature “combo jacks” which can take an XLR (mic) cable, or a standard ¼” cable, like a guitar patch cord. Other inputs may only take a ¼” cable.

Inputs are usually designed for one or more impedance levels. The definition of impedance doesn’t matter – just note that microphones, guitars (or any stringed instrument with a ¼” output), and synthesizers all have different types of output, and require three different setting for inputs. Mic level is the weakest of the three, instrument level (for guitars) is higher, and line level (synthesizers, CD players, your mobile music device) is the strongest signal. While most combo jacks automatically detect a mic or line level signal, only some feature a switch or option for instrument level. Activating the instrument level switch (sometimes called Hi-Z), if it’s available on your interface, ensures you get a good signal level from the instrument. This is about the same as patching your guitar through a DI box.

Input channels may also features a 20dB pad. This switch cuts the signal by 20dB, which is a significant drop. This is useful if you’re recording anything particularly loud, like a guitar amp or a drum, and ensures you won’t distort the signal. This feature is usually not found on the least expensive interfaces.

Some interfaces also include 5-pin MIDI input and output. While not strictly part of the audio system of your home studio, this can save you from investing in an additional USB MIDI interface if you have some older synthesizers you want to use. Most modern synthesizes and MIDI controllers connect directly to your computer via USB.

5-pin MIDI IN and OUT ports
5-pin MIDI IN and OUT ports

Preamps

When you plug in a microphone, the gain knob controls the volume of the input and engages the preamp. Ideally, these knobs are laid out beside each input, so it’s easy to know which knob controls which input. For most home studio setups, the preamps in modern audio interfaces are low-noise and transparent sounding. While some interfaces feature premium quality preamps (for a premium price), you need to keep in mind you should also have a premium microphone and an acoustically treated recording environment to really take advantage.

Phantom Power, or 48V

Every audio interface will have a switch or button for 48V power, also known as Phantom Power. This is required for using condenser microphones. Just remember to always switch on Phantom Power after plugging in your microphone, and switching it off before unplugging your mic. Phantom Power will not affect your dynamic microphones.

Some interfaces put the switch for 48V on the back of the interface. Ideally, the switch is on the front and has a light to indicate that it’s on. Some may even have the switch as part of the software interface, which in my opinion, is the least desirable place for it.

Outputs

Most audio interfaces will have balanced TRS (tip, ring, and sleeve) connections for outputs. The TRS cable looks similar to a ¼” patch cord (unbalanced TS cable), but it has an additional ring on the connector pin, indicating that it can be used for a balanced TRS connection, or carries a stereo signal, like your headphone cable. Generally, balanced TRS connections are less susceptible to introducing hum or noise in your signal path over longer distances.

TRS vs TS cable
TRS vs TS cable

Outputs are normally reserved to connect your studio monitors. This takes two outputs – one for the left speaker, one for the right. Interfaces with more than one output pair can be used to connect additional speakers, or connect to a desktop mixer. Connecting to a second set of speakers can be useful in testing your mixes.

Don’t discount the value of a big honking volume knob. Some interfaces feature this, and personally, I think it’s a great value add. Volume of your playback is one of the most frequently used controls in your home studio, and sometimes you need to adjust it quickly; you don’t want to be mousing around to find the control. Some interfaces also feature a mute button, which is ideal (i.e. you don’t want your monitors sounding while you’re recording from a microphone).

Digital inputs and outputs

Some interfaces also include digital inputs and outputs. These are used if you have a device with a corresponding output (S/PDIF or optical). The optical (sometimes called ADAT) signal can carry 8 discrete channels. For example, you could expand your two-input setup with an 8-channel preamp with an optical output, for a total of 10 microphone or instrument inputs. The S/PDIF connection only carries a 2-channel stereo signal, and is usually found on synthesizers or CD players.

Sometimes audio interfaces are marketed as having 10 inputs, while only two mic inputs are visible. That’s because the manufacturer is also counting the 8 digital inputs via an optical connection.

Monitoring options

All interfaces have an option for zero-latency monitoring. Generally, if you want to include a reverb in software for your vocalist while recording, you’ll introduce latency while the computer processes the signal, applies the reverb, and sends it back out to be heard. A zero-latency switch (often called direct monitor, or input) allows you to hear the input in real time, without latency, along with the computer playback. Some interfaces allow you to adjust the relative levels of input and playback material.

On-board DSP

Some interfaces include on-board digital effects processing. This allows you to record with very low latency and still apply a reverb or other effect to the monitored input. In my opinion, this is only an issue with older or very budget-level computers. With most modern systems and non-DSP audio interfaces, you can get latency down to a few milliseconds and use a software reverb. It’s best to use a low-CPU taxing plug-in for this. It’s important to note that the reverb in this case won’t be recorded; it’s only used for monitoring. You can still use a better reverb plug-in after the recording is complete. Many singers prefer a bit of reverb in their headphones while recording.

Power supply

Many of the two-channel interfaces are powered by their USB connection to your computer, making them ideal for a mobile recording studio. The larger interfaces, with four or more inputs, usually require a separate power supply in addition to the USB connection, and a power switch. This is something to consider if you’re planning to go mobile with your studio.

Bundled software

The fact is, there are a lot of interface options out there, especially in the two-channel range. One way to decide which one to buy is to look at their bundled software. Many manufacturers include a light version of recording software, like Cubase or Abelton Live. If you prefer one software choice over another, but you haven’t invested in it yet, sometimes getting the light version with your interface gives you a discount when upgrading to the full version. You can check with the software companies to find out more, or download trial versions if you haven’t settled on one yet.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I can’t tell you what interface to buy. If you want to know which one I have, and which ones I’ve had in the past, check out my blog post about the history of my home studio. You have to assess your needs and come to your own conclusion. Hopefully, this article has armed you with the knowledge to make a good choice.

Do you see anything on an interface that I haven’t covered here, or have any questions? Comment below and let me know, and I’ll get back to you. I also accept heaps of praise and accolades.

The generosity of Don Campbell

My singer-songwriter friend Jeff Greenway invited me to a BS Fridays  music showcase at the Cameron House in August. I was pleased to also see Melanie Peterson‘s name on the bill. Melanie is also a friend and a very talented singer-songwriter.

All of the performers were unique and talented, and one singer-songwriter, new to me, really impressed. Don Campbell‘s performance had a great rock energy, and his songs were catchy and well written. I introduced myself to Don after his performance, and told him about Song Talk Radio. I also purchased one of his CD’s, Sail the Grateful Way. I took a cue from another fan of his and had him sign the album insert with a generic personal message like “Neel, thanks for the support! Enjoy the album.” (You can’t expect a personal message from someone you just met.)

After I got home that night, I realized I didn’t have his CD with me. I must have left it on a table at the venue and neglected to put it in my bag satchel man purse messenger bag. I immediately messaged Melanie, who was one of the event organizers, to see if someone perhaps turned it in to her. No luck.

The next day, I contacted Don on Facebook and conveyed my woes. Don was very understanding, and graciously offered to give me a free replacement CD!

It took some back and forth, but last week we met for coffee and Don gave me another CD, again signed with a generic personal message. We shared a great conversation about performing, songwriting, and other stuff.

As for the person who snatched up my original purchase, you got some great music for free. And every time you open the CD you’ll see my name and remember what you did.

Thank you Don for your generosity!

Don Campbell CD signed personal message

Being an introvert and meeting people

I was always labelled the “shy one” or the “quiet one” at family gatherings, and even school group activities and other social functions. Being an impressionable child, I just believed what I was told and didn’t actually do anything about it.

I don’t think I noticed, as I grew older, that I could carry on one-on-one conversations really well, or that I gravitated to very small groups of people; I believe my ideal group size, to this day, is two or three people. Any more than that, and it’s a sliding scale to anxiety.

Several years ago, well, maybe at this point, many years ago, I read The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney.  Marti says, “Introverts are like a rechargeable battery. They need to stop expending energy and rest in order to recharge. Extroverts are like solar panels that need the sun to recharge. Extroverts need to be out and about to refuel.” It’s how we’re wired, so there’s not much you can do to change that. You can, however, accept and embrace and leverage your “introvertedness” to your advantage.

At large parties, I take a few minutes of alone time, step away from the fray and literally recharge. When I engage in the party again, I feel refreshed and ready to talk. I try to engage people one-on-one as much as possible. I accept that I am comfortable spending time alone – it allows me to pursue many things I value, like writing this blog.

Of course, words like “introvert” and “extrovert” make it look like it’s a binary system. The truth is, it’s a scale, or a gradient. No one is fully introverted or extroverted; everyone falls somewhere in the middle, and it also depends on the environment or the activity. You can say you’re strongly introverted or extroverted, for example, or more extroverted in certain situations.

I’m old enough to clearly remember a time before the internet. It sucked. The internet is an introvert’s playground. While some of what we do online is technically for the world to see, many of the social interactions are one-on-one. At the very least, as an introvert, you have time to consider, edit, or save and come back to, anything you post. Except on twitter, which is something I still don’t fully get.

Meetup.com is a great place to bring together the online and offline worlds. There’s a meetup group for quite literally every interest imaginable. (OK, so I haven’t looked up “ritual dancing barefoot in the forest with unicorns” yet.) I was first introduced to meetup.com by someone I was chatting with on an online dating site, before online dating was as mainstream as it is now.

So, one truth about introverts is that we despise small talk. We’re much better at, and enjoy, meaty, meaningful conversations. Get philosophical, go on a rant about life, the universe, and everything – we’re game. Part of the challenge, particularly with a new acquaintance, is getting past the small talk. Usually it helps when you’ve already got a common interest.

The first meetup groups I joined were for songwriting and photography. Right off the bat, I could easily engage anyone in a conversation.

Ironically, this was harder at the “Introvert Social” meetup (yes, it exists, and it’s gigantic, perfect for introverts #sarcasm). The first Introvert Social meeting I went to was at a pub (not the quietest, but pretty good for introverts) with about 12 other people, and I was the most talkative one there. That’s never happened before, or since. The trouble here, of course, is that everyone is introverted, so no one wants to start a conversation in a large group. Plus, there’s no common interest except for being introverted, and introverts don’t want to talk about that unless it’s a group therapy session ;). For myself, I started engaging with only the two or so people around me, and before I knew it, I was ranting about something, and the whole table was listening.

Suffice to say, meetup is still a great place to meet others and make new friends. Through meetup, I went with a group of 30 photographers to Cuba for a week, and also became a host of a songwriting radio show. I’ve made new friends, and even improved my own skills in my areas of interest.

I have found that for myself, I’m less of an introvert when engaging in an activity that I’m passionate about, and can talk about with confidence. Another truth about introverts is that we don’t like public speaking, and would rather write our thoughts out. But I’ve started presenting workshops on songwriting and home recording, two things I know a lot about and can talk on for 90 minutes. Naturally, I plan the crap out of them with power point and notes, so there’s little spontaneity, but I manage to cover everything I need to.

My experience on Song Talk Radio is similar; I rely more on scripting parts of the show than my co-hosts. I’m also drumming for a band started by a music production client of mine. This is a safe place for me, even though it may seem ironic that the “shy guy” is pounding away in a rock band (at least I’m not singing lead vocals).

When I worked for a non-profit organization, my job was largely behind the scenes, managing the website, doing layouts for newsletters and e-mail blasts, and writing articles. Sounds like the ideal job for an introvert. Once a year, though, my introversion got pushed a bit. During the organization’s annual conference, part of my responsibility was to engage the conference delegates and take their photos for a large-screen slideshow at the banquet dinner. We referred to these photos as “happy snaps.”

Now, walking up to strangers with a big camera and asking them to smile for a photo is not ideal for an introvert. At first, I had a hard time approaching people. Then I realized that the engagement was so temporal as to make it kind of fun and fascinating. I would ask, take a quick photo or two, say thank you, that’s a lovely photo, and move on. This was as close as I was ever going to get to any of our members, and that was an amusing thought. After the first couple of years doing this, I even had members ask me to take their photos because they enjoyed seeing their friend’s smiling faces at last year’s banquet.

So all in all, I feel I’ve carved out a nice space for myself as an introvert. It’s a long process, with lots of trial and error, but like most things, the more you practice it, the better you get at it. You begin to predict what choices are going to work for you, and how to prepare for the situations where you’re not at your best. Large family gatherings can still be an energy drain for me, but I’ve got enough me-friendly things going on to keep me happy, energized, and confident.

Facilities Management Year in Review

The Facilities Management department at London Health Sciences Centre needed to improve its public profile at the hospital, and one strategy was to produce a Year in Review report to deliver key messages and showcase good work.

I wrote the content, took many of the photos, and designed the document for the 16-page report. Content included:

  • letter from the Vice-President
  • the Facilities Management team
  • Featured Projects
  • Infrastructure Improvements
  • Visions for the Future

Downloads

Year-in-Review-layout-1

Facilities Management intranet site

The Facilities Management department at London Health Sciences Centre needed to improve its profile within the hospital’s culture. The internal website I developed served to increase transparency and communication, while showcasing the good work done by the department.

I was responsible for writing, photography, and management of the intranet site.  A working group arrived at a consensus for the site architecture, which I then refined and developed streamlined content for each of the pages, including some photography.

 

Do you write songs from the heart or from the head?

Often on Song Talk Radio, this question arises.  Sometimes, it’s fun for the hosts to try and guess.  “Your song sounds very cerebral,” or “Your song sounds very intuitive.”  The guests themselves tell us how well considered every decision in their songwriting process is, or tell us “It just came to me.”  This question of process in creative endeavour is as old as the creative endeavours themselves. On Blair Packham’s show, he talked about his own journey on both the intuitive and the cerebral roads.

Most songwriters and musicians know the history of the Beatles.  In the early 60’s, before they were famous, they played for hours every night in clubs in Hamburg, Germany.  They learned their chops, got better at harmonizing together and playing tightly together.  Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book Outliers, describes this as the 10,000 hours rule: practice anything for 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert.  The Beatles played more shows in a few short years than many contemporary bands play in their entire career.  Gladwell uses evidence-based examples to show that the most successful people are those who put in the time.

In another book, Blink, Gladwell champions the subconscious mind as a powerful decision maker, and how little information can be beneficial in making positive, snap decisions.  He cites such examples as fine art experts who can spot a forgery at a glance (and can’t explain how they know they’re looking at a forgery) and orchestras who hold blind auditions to reduce conscious biases.

So let’s bring this back to our central question.  It may be possible that songwriters who feel they channel their songs from some outward source, may in fact be so well practiced they make decisions in a “blink” and rely more heavily on their subconscious experience to guide their songwriting decisions.  “That chord progression just felt right.”  On the other hand, some songwriters are deliberate and conscious in their writing, and know the reasons their songs work the way they do.

I recall clearly learning to play the drums many years ago.  I started with simple rhythms on a single drum, and practiced many hours to coordinate my hands and feet on a drumkit.  The moment I could successfully coordinate kick drum and snare hits with a running cymbal rhythm, something in me clicked and I’ve never forgotten how to do it, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve last played a drumkit.  These days, I don’t think about it – I just follow my subconscious to feel the beat and play along.  If I’m playing in an unusual time signature, like 5/4 or 7/4, I need to engage more of my conscious mind.

I think the same applies to songwriting.  As songwriters, we can rely on our ability to “blink” and know if a songwriting or performance decision is the right one.  However, we can also study more conscious tools of songwriting to change things up, overcome writer’s block, and think outside the boxes we have created ourselves through our experience.

For myself, how do I answer the question of do I write from the heart or the head?  Historically, I’ve been a head-dominated writer, but lately I’ve been “consciously” relying more on my snap judgements, and perhaps surprisingly, they’re mostly right.  So, like everyone else, I’m somewhere in the middle.

Let us know how you look at your own process.  Do you write from the heart or the head, or both?

Song Talk Radio articles

I’m a regular contributor to Song Talk Radio’s blog and newsletter, with writing original content on topics of interest to our songwriter audience.

Check out my articles at the Song Talk Radio website.

What does it mean to be an “amateur” songwriter?

On Song Talk Radio we have a wonderful variety of guests and songwriters, and one way to group them is whether they are professional or amateur songwriters. Often, when we refer to amateur, there’s a negative connotation that implies a less polished, unsophisticated, or otherwise lesser craft. When we talk about being professional, it implies a polished, well-considered, or elevated craft.

However, if we consider the word amateur and its inherent meaning, there’s a better way to look at it.  Amateur is derived from the Latin amatorem, which means “lover of.” So, if you love writing songs, you’re an amateur. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of your writing. Surely, many guests on Song Talk Radio, both amateur and professional, are superb songwriters.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Those songwriters who have devoted their careers, either full-time or part-time, to songwriting and performing, tend to have more polished and carefully considered songs. But consider if this is because they are “professionals” and earn money from their songs, or because they have made a decision to approach their craft with commitment, seriousness, and time.

Also consider the advantages of being an amateur writer. You don’t have to answer to anyone, or consider if your songs are “radio-friendly.” You can take risks, be experimental, and pretty much do as you please. (Another caveat – yes, there are commercial songwriters who can and do pretty much as they please and still sell records.)

The bottom line is if you love what you’re doing, you’re an amateur. You can still put in the time and commitment to polish your craft, and above all, embrace your amateur status with passion, integrity and creativity. Keep on writing.

Quick Connections newletter

Layout of a 24-page newsletter for non-profit housing members with advertising, 6 times per year.  Electronic edition included bookmarks and hyperlinked advertisements.

Visit onpha.on.ca/qc for complete archives.

I was also responsible for research and writing of the “Going Green” section, focused on environmental initiatives and tips for non-profit housing providers.

Going Green writing samples:

may-2013-qc-cover


Evolution of my home recording studio

I recently purchased a new audio interface for my studio, after the mic inputs on my old one starting giving me static or no signal at all. I thought it would be interesting for others to see how I went about making the choice of which interface to buy, within the framework of the evolution of my studio.

So, even though I starting making MIDI-based instrumental music on my computer back in 1988 on a Commodore Amiga 2000, I didn’t really get into audio recording until around 2002 on my first Windows-based PC. One of the first purchases to be made was an audio interface.  At the time, I had a Roland D70 synthesizer, a drum machine, and (potentially) a microphone. I knew that I only needed to be able to record one track a time into the software on my PC. The first thing I learned was the difference between consumer-level “audio cards” (e.g. Soundblaster) vs. professional interfaces.  Primarily, the professional ones allow you to more effectively record audio while playing back audio at the same time. This is essential for any multi-tracking studio.

I opted for an M-Audio 24/96 interface, which was really just a PCI card with 2 RCA inputs, 2 RCA outputs, and MIDI in and out jacks. I fronted the interface with a 12-channel Behringer mixer with an Alt-bus (or submix bus). This allowed me to send only the keyboard, or only the mic signal, for example, into the M-Audio to be recorded on the computer, while still using the mixer to listen to playback from the computer and my keyboard.

Understanding this flow of signals, both MIDI and audio, was essential to making the purchasing decisions. Suffice to say, I figured out exactly how I was going to connect everything before ever laying down a dime. (Incidentally, this process also allowed me to know and purchase only the cables I needed.)

Over the next few years, I slowly expanded my studio to include monitors (speakers) and a couple of guitars. The extra inputs on the mixer made it easy to patch any of these extras in and use the alt-bus to send each one to be recorded on the PC.

The home studio, circa 2006
The home studio, circa 2006

Of course, as with most budget-gear, the Behringer mixer started crackling and hissing with static after a few years of use. At this point, I figured a multi-input interface would be a good idea. This would allow me to eliminate the hardware mixer entirely, thereby simplifying gain staging and improving signal path quality. I opted for an E-MU 1820 in 2007, which had a digital PCI card and a “break-out box” with 2 mic inputs and a few analogue inputs. Of course, it also had MIDI I/O.

By this time, I had sold off the old Roland D70 synth and got a CME U7 keyboard controller and a Roland JV-1010 sound module on eBay. This, together with the plethora of virtual synthesizers on the computer made my old Roland seem very quaint and limiting. I also gave up on the guitars (instead investing in killer guitar software).The EMU interface served me very well for several years. I attached the Roland JV-1010 and another drum synth to the other inputs. Theoretically, I could record up to 8 tracks at once, but the opportunity to do so never came up.The one limitation with the EMU was the lack of a dedicated output knob. I ended up picking up a Mackie 402-VLZ3 mixer which was used as a glorified volume control and mute button for my monitors, and in a pinch, I could also use its mic inputs if I needed.

Finally on to my latest setup. On July, I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface. While my old EMU allowed me to record up to 8 tracks at one, the Focusrite only allows 2. I figure if I hadn’t needed more than 2 inputs in the last few years, chances are I’m never going to. It has a dedicated volume knob, so I no longer need the Mackie mixer. However, my Roland JV-1010 has nothing to plug into (previously it plugged into line inputs on the EMU). This is not such a big loss, as I haven’t used the Roland in several months, since software synthesizers and samples are getting better and better.

The Focusrite is wonderfully simple. The only driver interface is to set the latency buffer. No software mixer panel, no built-in effects suite, just pure input and output. I picked the 2i4 model over the 2i2 model to have the variable control over the input vs. playback monitoring, and I thought I could use the extra outputs to feed into my Mackie, but didn’t end up using them. Plus I prefer to have real, old-school MIDI connections rather than USB for my keyboard.I did also check out the Presonus 44VSL interface, which has 4 mic inputs, for a possible future when I might actually need to record more than 2 tracks at once. The Presonus was more costly, but quality-wise felt and sounded about the same as the Focusrite. However, I was unable to get the latency for software synths to work – it was quite bad, in fact. I chose to shop at Long & McQuade, who offer a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy, so the Presonus went back and I kept the Focusrite.

So I think the take-away message here is to really examine your needs, do your research, and make informed purchases. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get good quality sound. If there’s one truth to the evolution of my studio, it’s this: the longer I do this, the simpler my system becomes – in other words, fewer parts. Part of this is the fact that newer computers can handle more of the workload, so your outboard gear can be pretty minimal, but part of it is also understanding signal flow and boiling your setup down to the essentials.

The studio earlier in 2013
The studio earlier in 2013