Friday, December 28, 2012

USB Interfaces

After the post the other day about getting your first USB audio interface I got a few requests about specifics. This is also coming up constantly on nearly every forum you care to look at. Here are the two that I recommend for starting out.

The first is the ART DualPre. It can be had new for $79, I got mine on eBay for less than $50 shipped. It's a little better than a real no frills model. In fact, it's got quite a few frills which in most cases will more than make up for the fact that the mic pres are a little noisy.

On the front it's got a pair of combination XLR/quarter inch connectors for accepting mic or line inputs and a gain knob for each. On the back it's got a headphone volume knob and a blend knob so you can listen direct off the pres for zero latency monitoring, hear what's coming back out of your DAW, or both. In addition to the 1/8" headphone jack there are a pair of mono 1/4" jacks for connecting studio monitors.  The only odd thing about it is that when you're monitoring direct from the pres you hear channel one in your left ear and channel two in your right. It can throw you a little but I have found it very useful.

Another nice feature is the power situation. The DualPre is bus powered which means it can get all the juice it needs right from your USB port (even enough for phantom power to run condenser mics). But it's also got a slot for a nine volt battery and a jack to accept a twelve volt wall wart. These are pretty common and can prevent issues if your computers USB ports aren't quite doing the job. When not powered by USB there's a button on the back to power the unit down and save the battery.

In addition to all this it can be used as a stand alone headphone amp which I've done several times. The use of adapters is often required depending on the needs of the performer. It's a matter of what you feed to each channel and thus into each side of their headphones.

Another nice option for those just getting started out is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. For less than $150 you can get one brand new which includes a plug-in pack that's worth nearly as much as the unit itself. Connectivity is similar, dual purpose inputs on the front (with line/instrument switch for better impedance matching of 1/4" inputs), headphone and monitor outs, etc. For the extra money what you're getting is a pair of really outstanding Focusrite mic pres. As a company they've been making outstanding pres for ages, some live guys even take them on the road because they prefer them to the ones in their Midases. Now they're focusing heavily on the interface market and we reap the benefits.

Either one would be a fine choice to start out with, although my advice of "save yourself some trouble and buy your second one first" holds true here. A few extra dollars nets you a really nice interface and some great plug-ins to boot. It can also be tempting to want to get something with more inputs but if the budget is tight you can always start with two and then either use ASIO4All on a PC or the Mac's built in aggregate device options to gang more interfaces together. Both work well and will let you piece together a home studio with ease.

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