Q. How can I link outboard to prevent degradation in quality?

Published in SOS March 2011
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Matt Houghton

I have a few bits of outboard gear that I want to set up as external plug‑ins in Cubase. Should I be linking each bit of gear to different inputs and outputs of my soundcard (a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40), or should I just use a patchbay so that I can link multiple processors together in series? Presumably, doing it the latter way, I get less degradation of the audio signal as it's not passing through the Saffire's D‑A/A‑D each time?

Adding external effects with hardware can really open up your options in terms of adding character to your music. With good‑quality gear, you'd have to go through several stages of conversion to notice any degradation in sound quality.Adding external effects with hardware can really open up your options in terms of adding character to your music. With good‑quality gear, you'd have to go through several stages of conversion to notice any degradation in sound quality.Q. How can I link outboard to prevent degradation in quality?

John Corrigan via email

SOS Reviews Editor Matt Houghton replies: You are perfectly right in theory: yes, there is some distortion each time audio passes through your interface's A‑D or D‑A converter stages. So, if you're chaining multiple processors in series (say, an EQ and a compressor), then it's better to only pass through one stage of D‑A and A‑D conversion. But that's the theory and (as in all matters audio), in practice, it comes down to what you can hear.

With a good modern interface, like those in Focusrite's Saffire series, you have to go through many stages of conversion before you'll notice any audible degradation. This is especially true if you're using outboard to impart a bit of 'character' or 'flavour'; it's extremely unlikely that a couple of extra stages of conversion will be at all noticeable. If you're a mastering engineer then maybe you have good reason for worrying about this, but then you'd already know enough from listening to the difference that you wouldn't be asking this question! In my opinion, the benefits, in terms of saving time and being able to go with the creative flow of patching in your external effects as if they are DAW plug‑ins, far outweigh any theoretical disadvantage. Just remember to use and trust your ears!  .


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