HOW TO BUILD A RECORDING RIG, PT. 2 BY MITCH GALLAGHER
Last month’s column [“How to Build a Recording Rig, Pt. 1,” March 2012]
focused on determining the best possible
centerpiece for your rig—the actual recording device. We looked at using computers
as a primary recording device.
But a computer alone will not get the
job done. You need to have a way to route
your audio in and out of your machine. It’s
true that many computers have rudimentary
audio inputs and outputs, and it’s possible to
use them to get some sounds down. But for
quality recording, you must have an audio
interface. This is a device that accepts incoming signals from microphones, instruments,
or other sources, and then converts them into
digital data that the computer can digest.
Audio interfaces come in many, many fla-
vors. In fact, interfaces and microphones are
probably the two categories of gear for which
I’m most often asked, “Which is best?”
Consider the following questions to help
you narrow the choices:
What type of computer are you using?
This will only narrow things slightly, as
most interfaces work with both Mac and
PC computers. Still, there are some that
only support one platform.
How does the interface connect to the
computer? There are three options (with
a fourth, Thunderbolt, now rising on the
horizon). Some computers support all of
them, while others support just one or two,
which can help narrow things down.
An internal card slot is a type of audio
interface that is usually not compatible with
laptops, as many do not have card slots. Some
desktop computers, like Apple’s iMacs, also
don’t have card slots. Audio interfaces that are
cards themselves, or that connect to a card in
the computer, offer some advantages. One
is higher throughput, and some have extra
features for reducing latency, powering plug-ins, and for expanding the interface system.
However, you have to be comfortable opening
up your computer to install the card (or have
a computer-savvy friend do it for you).
USB interfaces are external boxes that
connect to the computer via a USB cable.
These are easy to connect and can be used
with most types of modern computers—
laptops, desktops, and towers. The original
USB 1.0 interfaces were limited in some
cases, and tended toward the low end. But
today’s USB 2.0 interfaces offer great quality
1. The Delta 44 interface from M-Audio features a PCI card that mounts inside a computer, and
then connects to an external box with audio inputs and outputs. 2. The Avid Mbox Mini connects
to a computer via USB and is a very compact interface for portable use. 3. The Focusrite Saffire
PRO 40 Fire Wire interface is rackmountable and has multiple ins and outs.
Like USB, Fire Wire interfaces are external boxes that connect to the computer
using a Fire Wire (surprise, surprise) cable
into a Fire Wire port. The two types of
Fire Wire—400 and 800—are primarily distinguished by transmission speed. While the more
common Fire Wire 400 is the slower of the
two, don’t take this to mean that FW400 isn’t
capable of recording and playing tons of channels—it can handle more than most of us need.
A few of the newer interfaces support
Fire Wire 800, which is the only type of
Fire Wire connector on today’s Macs. However,
FW800 is backwards compatible with FW400
through the use of an adapter, so you can still
use an FW400 interface with an FW800-
equipped computer. Be aware that the Fire Wire
bus will drop in speed to FW400 rates, which
could affect performance if you also have
FW800 hard drives connected in the same
chain with the interface. This shouldn’t be a big
deal unless you are really pushing the limits of
what Fire Wire can do, which few of us ever do.
A USB or Fire Wire interface is the most
convenient. If you’re like me and have both
laptop and desktop/tower computers, you
can easily move the interface from computer to computer.
How does the form factor in? A compact
and portable interface is excellent if you don’t
have much space. It’s also a great option if you
want to record on location and capture rehears-
als, gigs, or performances in unique acoustical
spaces (like a classical guitar performance in
a beautiful-sounding church). Throw it into
your laptop bag and you can record just about
anywhere, with many being able to draw
power from the computer, thus eliminating
the need to be plugged in. However, there are
compromises. A small interface means there
won’t be room for many inputs and outputs,
limiting the number of sources you can record
at once. Likewise, you won’t have much flexibil-
ity when it comes to multiple-headphone feeds.
MITCH GALLAGHER is the former
Editor in Chief of EQ magazine. His book is
Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Guitar
Sound. In addition to being a writer, he is
a freelance recording engineer/producer/
mastering engineer, teaches music business and audio recording at Indiana
University/Purdue University, and is Sweetwater’s Editorial