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Advice for audio interface upgrade?

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Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby fladd » Sun Dec 10, 2017 12:51 am

Hi everyone,

I was hoping to get some advice in my ongoing (for years!) quest for a new audio interface.

I currently have a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, but it is time to upgrade, such that I can have all my input devices connected simultaneously (an SE X1 mic, a Shure SM-58 mic, a JD-Xi synth, a Novation Circuit groovebox, and a Roland TD-9 electronic drum kit).

It seems that the perfect interface for my situation does not exist. Some come close, though. For instance the Clarett 4pre. It has dedicated line inputs, and I could upgrade by adding an ADAT inerface (such as the ADA8200). Unfortunately, I don't have a Thunderbolt port.

The corresponding Scarlett 18i8 is also pretty close, but it has only a single stereo output, which means if I ever wanted to add external effect units, I would need to upgrade the interface again. The other concern is audio quality. I read a lot of different opinions on the Scarletts, ranging from "they are great" to "they have the worst preamps ever", and everything in between. Looking at the specs at the Focusrite website, it also seems that the frequency response (linearity) and EIN of the preamps on the 18i8 are worse than on the 2i2 (which is very weird I think).

The usual suggestion I read on the web is to look at the Audient USB interfaces (ID14, ID22). They are supposed to be much better in audio quality. Unfortunately, they only have 2 inputs each, so I would need to get an ADAT interface right away. I also read concerns about driver issues (i.e. bad latencies, unstable, etc.). The Scarlett has always been great in terms of drivers (unlike the EMU Tracker Pre I had before that).

Then there is of course MOTU (the Ultralite MK4 looks nice), and RME, but they are in a different price league. The Ultralite MK4 I would consider buying actually, but I read very negative reviews concerning MOTU driver performance under Windows. Otherwise this interface seem pretty good.

So I was hoping for some suggestions from you more experienced guys. Also keeping in mind the rest of my gear (i.e. the mics I mentioned above, as well as my Tannoy Reveal 601a monitor speakers). Is my equipment even capable to benefit from an audio interface that is marginally better than a Scarlett? Do you have maybe some experience with any of the above mentioned interfaces and can speak to my concerns? Or do you have even other suggestions that I have not yet considered?

Really looking forward for some of your opinions!
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby ef37a » Sun Dec 10, 2017 8:15 am

Hi Fladd, first of all I would clear your mind of any concerns about audio quality with any of the interfaces you have so far mentioned. I am sure Prisms and Benchmark gear DOES have an edge on an Alesis i02 but you would need very pristine sources, monitors and room to hear it I suspect?

You say "RME etc in another price league" ? Well yes but the Fireface 802 solves ALL your problems and has massive future proofing built in. There is also the fact that RME support their kit for many years and through all the curves Msoft throw at us. Whatever you get NOW, if it ain't RME you could be going through this exercise again in 3-5 years time?

If the 802 really is beyond your pocket then look at Tascam, their m'track AIs seem to have given many people very good service over many years. Roland too have a had good reports in SoS pages.

But, you know you could 'almost' do all this with a Native instruments KA6? 2 mics and 2 line inputs. Feed the latter from a small but decent Soundcraft/A&H mixer. £250 or so gets you connected. Quality is first class and latency very low...Then start saving for the 802!

Oh and I KEEP saying this! Native Instruments, please make a 4 mic input AI with 4 line ins, 4 out and ADAT/S/PDIF. MIDI of course. Use the same super solid drivers as the KA6. USB 3? Bus powered to an extent but rat option for the full Monty. If you can bring that in well under £300 I think hot cakes will not stand a chance!

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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby blinddrew » Sun Dec 10, 2017 8:58 am

Scarlett 18i20? Or is that pushing the budget too far?
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby Dave B » Sun Dec 10, 2017 9:07 am

blinddrew wrote:Scarlett 18i20? Or is that pushing the budget too far?

+1
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby The Elf » Sun Dec 10, 2017 9:46 am

Although you may need to *hear* all of your instruments and sound sources simultaneously you don't necessarily need to *record* them all simultaneously. With this in mind a cheaper solution might be a simple mixer and a 4-input AI.

You'd plug the mixer outputs into two AI inputs, then unplug individual instruments from the mixer and directly into the AI's other two inputs to record them, bypassing the mixer.

When you reach the number of instruments I have then it's ultimately pretty much the only way, no matter how many inputs your AI has - it would be uneconomical to have as many AI inputs as I have instrument outputs!
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby ef37a » Sun Dec 10, 2017 12:23 pm

"When you reach the number of instruments I have then it's ultimately pretty much the only way, no matter how many inputs your AI has - it would be uneconomical to have as many AI inputs as I have instrument outputs!"

Patch bay Mr Elf ?
I did think of a mixer of some sort, there are some reasonably priced multitrackers about now but, never seem one with MIDI. Now, I know OP did not mention MIDI but two of his bits of gear have DINs and I think it would be a shame to upgrade and future proof and not have the capability? But, something like my ZED10 and the NI KA6 would serve him well IMHO.

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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby ef37a » Sun Dec 10, 2017 12:25 pm

"When you reach the number of instruments I have then it's ultimately pretty much the only way, no matter how many inputs your AI has - it would be uneconomical to have as many AI inputs as I have instrument outputs!"

Patch bay Mr Elf ?
I did think of a mixer of some sort, there are some reasonably priced multitrackers about now but, never seem one with MIDI. Now, I know OP did not mention MIDI but two of his bits of gear have DINs and I think it would be a shame to upgrade and future proof and not have the capability? But, something like my ZED10 and the NI KA6 would serve him well IMHO.

I don't think even the 'decent' 24 bit mixers quite have the operational qualities of an AI?

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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby The Elf » Sun Dec 10, 2017 12:32 pm

ef37a wrote: I did think of a mixer of some sort, there are some reasonably priced multitrackers about now but, never seem one with MIDI.
I think you've misunderstood me. I mean a very simple old-style analogue mixer - nothing with digital trickery. It would simply let the OP monitor his synths, then he'd bypass it to record.

And yes, plenty of patchbays here, mate! Ideal for doing that bypass operation above, but I didn't want to scare the poor dude off by mentioning that option yet!

Let the AI take care of all the clever stuff, including MIDI. Keep the mixer dumb.
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby ef37a » Sun Dec 10, 2017 3:04 pm

The Elf wrote:
ef37a wrote: I did think of a mixer of some sort, there are some reasonably priced multitrackers about now but, never seem one with MIDI.
I think you've misunderstood me. I mean a very simple old-style analogue mixer - nothing with digital trickery. It would simply let the OP monitor his synths, then he'd bypass it to record.

And yes, plenty of patchbays here, mate! Ideal for doing that bypass operation above, but I didn't want to scare the poor dude off by mentioning that option yet!

Let the AI take care of all the clever stuff, including MIDI. Keep the mixer dumb.

Ah, gotcha. Yes, there are more options all the time now but I think the problem breaks down to two?
1) 4 in 4 out AI and mixer.
2) 8 way+ interface and if going that route, go expensive!

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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby fladd » Sun Dec 10, 2017 3:08 pm

Thanks a lot for the answers and suggestions so far!

Concerning the 18i20: It is an option. The problem there is that it does not have dedicated line inputs, and it is not clear to me what to set the gain knobs to to achieve line level (and how to match left and right channels). Also, I keep on hearing that one cannot mix/master with the Scarletts, due to their inferior converters. And I still do not understand why the preamps on this larger model seem to be worse than on my small 2i2 (according to the specs). Other than that, the unit would be an option. Especially since it has ADAT in and out, so I could even still use it as additional inputs if I ever upgrade again.

The mixer idea is interesting. I had a similar idea a couple of years ago (when I first started thinking about upgrading). Basically, I wanted to buy a Mackie 1202 VLZ4, because it has 4 stereo inputs and four Onyx preamps (which I was told are "better" than the ones on the Scarlett series). Back then I was told that it is a terrible idea and that those devices will introduce a lot of noise (I was thinking to record through the mixer, and more importantly, also monitor through it, to be more flexible when it comes to monitor mixes): https://forum.cockos.com/showthread.php?t=145374 and https://www.gearslutz.com/board/low-end ... rding.html. My upgrading plans then stagnated a bit. But your suggestion now is to only use the mixer to pool together all my instruments for monitoring, and then reconnect each instrument to a dedicated AI input for recording (possibly through a patchbay for convenience). It is a nice idea. But I wonder whether this will really be cheaper in the end (4-in AI = ~200 Euro, mixer = ~300); would be the same as an 18i20 for instance)

How would those two solutions compare in terms of quality (recording and monitoring)?

The RME Fireface 802 is indeed a bit above of what I wanted to spend (it is 1400 Euro!) :-)
Anyone using the MOTU on Windows?
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby The Elf » Sun Dec 10, 2017 3:31 pm

fladd wrote:I keep on hearing that one cannot mix/master with the Scarletts, due to their inferior converters.
Absolute nonsense. Even minimal budget gear is leagues ahead of what we used to mix on 20 years ago, and we managed pretty well back then, didn't we?!

My own rig is based around a Fireface 800. I can tell you that if you can run to RME then do it - honestly one of the best bits of gear I ever bought. TotalMix alone is a huge reason for my dedication to RME.
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby Dave B » Sun Dec 10, 2017 3:33 pm

fladd wrote:Concerning the 18i20: It is an option. The problem there is that it does not have dedicated line inputs, and it is not clear to me what to set the gain knobs to to achieve line level (and how to match left and right channels).

Seeing as the gains do not show any calibration, just a 0-10, it really doesn't matter. Just leave the 'fader' on the control at 0, raise the gain level until whatever is plugged in is peaking healthily (about -12dB should be plenty) and then carry on. Stereo paring is setting the two knobs to the same value - it's hard to find any kit these days with stepped pots so visually (and checking with your ears) is fine. After all, people have been 'stereo' recording this way on desks for decades...

fladd wrote: Also, I keep on hearing that one cannot mix/master with the Scarletts, due to their inferior converters.

Ahem. There is a word which springs to mind here and it rhymes with rollocks. (and is nothing to do with rowing) You can mix / master on almost anything - if you are at the stage where you are snobby about being ultra high quality, then you are in for a real shock at the price of kit we can recommend.

Frankly, unless you have a great room and fantastic monitors, you shouldn't be worrying too much about the .... ahem ... advice ... dolled out on the interweb for interfaces. With the greatest of respect, you'll get a bigger difference in final result from working / studying with great mix engineers / producers before you hit the limits of modern kit.

fladd wrote:And I still do not understand why the preamps on this larger model seem to be worse than on my small 2i2 (according to the specs).

What specs are you looking at? Focusrite preamps are perfectly fine for most home / project recording. And with the various interface options, you could hook up better mic pres over spdif / adat if that's what is bugging you.
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby ef37a » Sun Dec 10, 2017 3:38 pm

Looking at Thomann, the KA6 (say) comes out at 190 and the ZED10 basic model at 195 so 385 euro all up.
T's have the 18i20 (which you are twitchy about!) at 498!

I think you might have misunderstood my idea of mixer+AI? The ZED10 has 4 mono mic/line inputs and two stereo line inputs. That caters for more than your line in requirement?

The mixer feeds the line ins 3/4 on (say) the KA6 and you still have two mic channels. You could therefore record a stereo synth track AND two mics simultaneously giving you 4 tracks to balance together post tracking. Note the mixer does not really 'mix'. You keep everything plugged in but just bring up the channel fader for the appropriate instrument. (if you WERE linking stuff via MIDI you could of course record a stereo MIX of the two) .

Another advantage of the mixer is that I bet you could sort the monitoring such that you could play keyboards without the PC?

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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby fladd » Sun Dec 10, 2017 4:59 pm

Dave B wrote:
fladd wrote:Concerning the 18i20: It is an option. The problem there is that it does not have dedicated line inputs, and it is not clear to me what to set the gain knobs to to achieve line level (and how to match left and right channels).

Seeing as the gains do not show any calibration, just a 0-10, it really doesn't matter. Just leave the 'fader' on the control at 0, raise the gain level until whatever is plugged in is peaking healthily (about -12dB should be plenty) and then carry on. Stereo paring is setting the two knobs to the same value - it's hard to find any kit these days with stepped pots so visually (and checking with your ears) is fine. After all, people have been 'stereo' recording this way on desks for decades...

Given that the line ins do not bypass the preamp, shouldn't I at least try to be around unity gain in order to not colour the sound?

Dave B wrote:
fladd wrote: Also, I keep on hearing that one cannot mix/master with the Scarletts, due to their inferior converters.

Ahem. There is a word which springs to mind here and it rhymes with rollocks. (and is nothing to do with rowing) You can mix / master on almost anything - if you are at the stage where you are snobby about being ultra high quality, then you are in for a real shock at the price of kit we can recommend.

Frankly, unless you have a great room and fantastic monitors, you shouldn't be worrying too much about the .... ahem ... advice ... dolled out on the interweb for interfaces. With the greatest of respect, you'll get a bigger difference in final result from working / studying with great mix engineers / producers before you hit the limits of modern kit.

Yes, that is what I was wondering about. Whether I would even benefit from going that route, given my current equipment. I have no doubts that a 3000 Euro speaker with a 3000 Euro AI will sound better than a Scarlett with Tannoy speakers, but if there is a weaker link in the chain, then that would be the limiting factor it seems.

Dave B wrote:
fladd wrote:And I still do not understand why the preamps on this larger model seem to be worse than on my small 2i2 (according to the specs).

What specs are you looking at? Focusrite preamps are perfectly fine for most home / project recording. And with the various interface options, you could hook up better mic pres over spdif / adat if that's what is bugging you.

Well, the specs for the Scarlett (https://global.focusrite.com/usb-audio- ... arlett-2i2) mention a frequency response of 20 Hz - 20 kHz ± 0.1dB and a Noise EIN of < -128 dBu, while the ones for the 18i20 (https://global.focusrite.com/usb-audio- ... lett-18i20) mention a frequency response of 20 Hz - 20 kHz +0.5/-1.5 dB and a Noise EIN of -127 dBu.
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby fladd » Sun Dec 10, 2017 5:08 pm

ef37a wrote:Looking at Thomann, the KA6 (say) comes out at 190 and the ZED10 basic model at 195 so 385 euro all up.
T's have the 18i20 (which you are twitchy about!) at 498!

I think you might have misunderstood my idea of mixer+AI? The ZED10 has 4 mono mic/line inputs and two stereo line inputs. That caters for more than your line in requirement?

The mixer feeds the line ins 3/4 on (say) the KA6 and you still have two mic channels. You could therefore record a stereo synth track AND two mics simultaneously giving you 4 tracks to balance together post tracking. Note the mixer does not really 'mix'. You keep everything plugged in but just bring up the channel fader for the appropriate instrument. (if you WERE linking stuff via MIDI you could of course record a stereo MIX of the two) .

Another advantage of the mixer is that I bet you could sort the monitoring such that you could play keyboards without the PC?

Dave.

Something like this was my original idea back then - recording through the mixer - but I was told by almost everybody that this will introduce unnecessary noise. The ZED 10 also had a very weird monitoring section which does not allow to hear two of the selections at the same time. That is why I was looking at the Mackie, which allows for this (and because this one has preamps that are apparently "good"). I looked quite extensively into small analogue mixers back then. Playing keyboards without the PC would indeed be nice, though! But I think this should be possible with the Scarletts, too (I think they can function as standalone "mixers").

So yeah, not sure which of the two options is the best. Mixer or no mixer. If the MOTU had stable Windows drivers, I really think this could be an option. On the other hand, the features of the Scarlett 18i20 are also sufficient (at 120 Euro less), if the quality was decent enough (given the very polarising opinions on that; e.g. I still don't know if it will have enough gain for my SM58 or not).
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby fladd » Sun Dec 10, 2017 5:12 pm

The Elf wrote:
fladd wrote:I keep on hearing that one cannot mix/master with the Scarletts, due to their inferior converters.
Absolute nonsense. Even minimal budget gear is leagues ahead of what we used to mix on 20 years ago, and we managed pretty well back then, didn't we?!

My own rig is based around a Fireface 800. I can tell you that if you can run to RME then do it - honestly one of the best bits of gear I ever bought. TotalMix alone is a huge reason for my dedication to RME.


I was actually considering the Fireface UC for a brief moment (even though it is quite expansive), but it seems to be the only AI that does not work at all under Linux (and I really want to keep this option open for the future; both of my DAWs already work under Linux, and VST programmers seem to catch up, too, so switching to Linux might actually finally be a reality within the next few years!).
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby The Elf » Sun Dec 10, 2017 5:47 pm

fladd wrote:switching to Linux might actually finally be a reality within the next few years!).
I've been hearing that for a couple of decades at least. I won't buy a roasting tin for my hat just yet... :lol:
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby fladd » Sun Dec 10, 2017 6:03 pm

The Elf wrote:
fladd wrote:switching to Linux might actually finally be a reality within the next few years!).
I've been hearing that for a couple of decades at least. I won't buy a roasting tin for my hat just yet... :lol:

Well, if you don't use special VST instruments, then Linux has been an option since several years already. You get low latencies, there are several good DAWs available (some even open source) and you don't have to deal with the overhead of maintaining a Windows system.

But let's not get side tracked here :-)
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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby ef37a » Sun Dec 10, 2017 8:07 pm

"Something like this was my original idea back then - recording through the mixer - but I was told by almost everybody that this will introduce unnecessary noise."

^ Not if you get the gain staging right*. Noise is a fact of life but you are recording synths and drum machines?! Not THE cleanest audio source I would aver?

Not sure what you mean about the ZED's monitoring ? In any case the setup I envisage the mixer just acts as a source 'collector' i.e. Many inputs selectable to a pair of outputs K.I.S.Sir?

* I mention both the ZED10 and the KA6 because I have both. I have never set them up this way but will and give you some noise data.

BTW, our very own Folderol runs a KA6 in Linux.

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Re: Advice for audio interface upgrade?

Postby Dave B » Sun Dec 10, 2017 8:17 pm

fladd wrote:Given that the line ins do not bypass the preamp, shouldn't I at least try to be around unity gain in order to not colour the sound?

Unless I'm mistaken (and some clever bod around here will be along shortly to correct me if I am), then my thinking would be :

a) the mic pres are fairly clean and neutral anyway so I'd be less worried about that
b) remember that it is a direct interface, so when you see 0dB on the 'mixer', that's what will hit your DAW and your recording level will be 0dBfs. And that's bad - it doesn't leave any headroom in your recording system for any unexpected peaks or for intersample peaks. Basically, these days we leave headroom - you can always add a bit of gain in the mastering, but you can never take it away once it's blown.
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