With interface standards and user requirements changing all the time, the audio interface marketplace is a volatile one. We catch up with representatives of eight leading manufacturers for the inside track on the future of audio I/O hardware.
Back in SOS September 2004, we gathered together the thoughts of music PC manufacturers in a 'round table' discussion, which proved very popular with SOS readers and with manufacturers. The latter were finally able to explain why they chose the components they did for their PCs, how they managed to keep them quiet and cool, and what steps they took to make sure they were as reliable as possible.
In our latest round table, we turn to audio interface manufacturers, who are the best people to explain why they choose to support the formats they do in their current product ranges and what formats they are likely to support in the future. After all, this is a time of great change, and there are uncertainties about how long the well-established PCI slot will continue to appear on new PC motherboards, whether or not PCI Express products will take over, or whether we'll all make the move to USB and Firewire audio interfaces. Given the almost inevitable compatibility problems caused by the huge variety of available PC motherboard chipsets, we also hoped to find out more about how manufacturers test their new products before release. Representatives from Echo Audio, Edirol, ESI, M-Audio, MOTU, RME, Terratec and Yamaha were kind enough to agree to answer our questions.
PCs featuring Intel's PCI Express slots have now been available for over a year, yet not a single PCI Express audio interface has yet been released. What do you think of this new format's audio capabilities and do you anticipate developing new products that support PCI Express?
Matthias Carstens, RME (Matthias): "A PCI Express core is much more complicated than a PCI core, so it makes no sense for the pro-audio industry to invest a year or more in designing one, when a complete solution will be available sooner or later from specialised sources. PCI is everything one needs for 'normal' usage. PCI Express is only helpful for professional multitrack users, who exceed the typical PCI limits. For example, when using multiple HDSP MADI cards (each with 64 I/Os), PCI Express is expected to push the limits significantly. Therefore it is no surprise that we do have plans to have the MADI card ported to PCI Express, but no date so far.
"It might be interesting to note that the first PCI Express Firewire cards are available. First tests show that everything works as usual. This is a good sign, as a complete disaster (crackling all over the place, despite the high transfer rate) would have surprised nobody in the audio world. Further tests with multiple Firefaces running at 192kHz will be necessary to check the limits of PCI Express audio operation. If this works better than before (so far, all Firewire is PCI-based), more audio will surely find its way to this new platform even faster."
Claus Riethmueller, ESI (Claus): "PCI Express is at least as advanced and flexible as PCI or PCI-X [extended]. However, it's not compatible, making development more complex for hardware vendors at this moment. In any case, PCI Express is certainly on the agenda of ESI Professional for future developments."
Milo Street, Echo (Milo): "We're still evaluating PCI Express and probably will be developing products to support it in the future. One potential advantage over PCI relates to quality of service and the ability to allocate bandwidth. This could potentially allow lower latencies than PCI, which is already better than Firewire or USB."
Bret Costin, M-Audio (Bret): "PCI Express promises increased bandwidth but our customers are currently well-served by our Firewire-, USB- and PCI-based products. Few of today's computers have spare PCI Express slots available for use with audio, and audio-chip manufacturer support for PCI Express appears to be non-existent at this time."
Phil Palmer, Edirol (Phil): "We currently have no plans for any PCI Express devices. Edirol/Roland have led the development of USB interfaces on PC and Mac and we work closely with Apple on Firewire products. We feel that concentrating on these core technologies is the best way to bring innovative new products to market. The PCI Express protocol is still very new and, like all high-speed serial technologies, may be more suited initially to the sort of continuous unidirectional transfer that characterises disk controllers and graphics cards."
Mario Michel, Terratec (Mario): "Terratec Producer's PCI audio systems are always based on dedicated PCI audio controller chips such as the VIA1712(24). Until now we are not aware of a standard PCI Express audio controller chip, so we cannot plan in that direction. Anyway, PCI Express is mainly useful for huge quantities of audio channels (for example, MADI) and we do not plan such a device in the near future."
Peter Peck, Yamaha (Peter): "Yamaha cannot comment on any new development areas we are investigating. Our development currently focuses around the mLAN products we have (and are still continuing to release), as the requirements for our users are more than met by the capabilities of the IEEE1394 buss. Currently, there is no immediate need to develop support for PCI Express when we can already achieve channel input and output counts over mLAN which exceed even the most demanding of audio situations. However... never say never!"
Jim Cooper, MOTU (Jim): "As leading audio interface manufacturers, MOTU take a serious look at all new I/O technologies."
- Milo Street, Chief Technical Officer, Echo Digital Audio (www.echoaudio.com)
Echo Digital Audio manufacture a complete range of multi-channel, DSP-based audio interfaces using PCI, Cardbus and Firewire technologies.
- Phil Palmer, Product Specialist, Edirol Europe (www.edirol.co.uk)
Edirol cover all types of audio interface for Mac and PC, using USB 1.1, USB 2.0 and Firewire, starting from the straightforward UA1EX all the way up to 10-in/10-out 24bit/192kHz rackmount devices such as the UA1000, UA101 and FA101.
- Claus Riethmueller, Head Of Sales & Marketing, ESI Professional (www.esi-pro.com)
ESI offer a full range of products for the home recording and professional project studio market, including PCI audio interfaces and USB devices for the digital home DJ market.
- Bret Costin, VP of Engineering, M-Audio (www.m-audio.com)
M-Audio offer more than 20 interfaces of varying configurations, from entry level to professional, using PCI, USB and Firewire technology.
- Jim Cooper, Director of Marketing, MOTU, Inc. (www.motu.com)
MOTU are leading developers of PCI and Firewire audio interface products. Their Firewire interfaces include the 828mkII, 896HD and the buss-powered Traveler. Their PCI line consists of the PCI-424 system, to which up to four breakout interfaces can be connected for a maximum of 96 simultaneous channels in and out.
- Matthias Carstens, President, RME (www.rme-audio.com)
RME design and develop professional digital audio interface solutions. The company's range of PCI cards extends from the all-in-one HDSP 9632 (featuring analogue, ADAT, SPDIF and MIDI interfacing) up to the 64-channel HDSP MADI card. Using Cardbus and various external breakout boxes, RME also offer professional portable laptop-based multitrack solutions.
- Mario Michel, Product Management, Terratec Producer (http://audioen.terratec.net)
Terratec Producer is part of Terratec Electronic, which is mainly a manufacturer of PC and Mac consumer retail audio and video products. The company have continuously expanded their product range, which now includes professional audio systems and soundcards including the DMX, EWX, EWS and Phase series.
- Peter Peck, Marketing Manager, Music Production, Yamaha-Kemble (www.yamaha-music.co.uk)
Yamaha Corporation manufacture a complete line of professional audio and musical instrument products for sound reinforcement, recording, post-production and live performance applications. Yamaha mLAN technology provides the ability to route digital audio/music from one device to another without physically changing the cable connection, and mLAN hardware and software devices work individually, or cohesively with other computers or mLAN devices, in conjunction with built-in IEEE 1394 Firewire ports.
With the introduction of PCI Express and the popularity of both USB and Firewire audio interfaces, many musicians are beginning to view the PCI soundcard as an endangered species. How long do you think it will be before the PCI audio interface dies out altogether, like the ISA standard before it?
Claus: "At the moment, PCI and PCI-X are providing the most cost-effective audio solutions, either in the high end when a lot of I/O channels are required (like our MaXiO range of products) or for the entry-level market (with products such as Juli@ or ESP1010). PCI allows extremely affordable solutions that are not possible via USB or Firewire at the moment with similar pricing or the same level of audio quality. Simply because of that, we will see PCI audio devices for quite some time into the future. Ultimately, PCI Express will replace PCI and will establish itself as an important alternative to Firewire and ultimately USB."
Jim: "MOTU's current PCI-based systems still have a performance advantage over Firewire and USB products, even second-generation Firewire B (800Mbit) and USB 2.0 (480MBit) products. And our sales reflect this. MOTU PCI systems are still very attractive to many users — typically high-end customers who need the highest quality A-D/D-A money can buy, large channel counts, varied I/O formats, very low latency and the large-scale, inter-interface matrix mixing offered by our PCI424 family. We believe our PCI424 system is the very best native system that money can buy."
Bret: "It will likely be a few years longer. Soundcard performance was quite different between ISA and PCI, as the latter offered a serious advantage over ISA. The improvements today are more incremental, and as a result the push is not as aggressive to adopt these new technologies."
Mario: "Our development focus is USB 1.1/2.0, as well as IEEE1394 Firewire 400/800. We do not plan any new PCI audio systems in the near future and will continue to update the current PCI system drivers and software for a long time. We will sell our PCI-based systems for as long as our customers are willing to buy them, and I'm sure that will be the case for the next two to three years."
Phil: "This is really difficult to foresee, and I suspect that they will be around (certainly at the lowest price points) until PC manufacturers stop including PCI slots in their designs."
Matthias: "At least five more years. IMHO."
Milo: "The audio advantages of PCI Express over PCI aren't as great as they were for PCI over ISA. Also, it could be a while before PCI slots are no longer supplied on motherboards (it took several years for ISA to go away), so a PCI audio interface purchased today should be usable for quite some time. However, I would expect most manufacturers to eventually either migrate to PCI Express or solely support the serial interfaces."
Peter: "In my experience, musicians simply like the flexibility of external devices — being able to move their hardware from computer to computer as their systems naturally evolve and not having to open their PCs. Additionally, with the increased use of the laptop in music production, external devices are increasingly more desirable to the customer. This flexibility allows customers to keep their external devices longer than a card-based product, thus increasing its 'value for money' and lifespan. That demand for product longevity and flexibility has reduced the emphasis on the PCI buss, and I suspect that this is another factor that makes it appear that PCI is 'endangered'."
Now that both Macs and PCs have USB 2.0 ports, it's perhaps surprising that so few USB 2.0 audio interfaces have been released. Does Firewire offer you inherent practical advantages over USB 2.0, or are there other reasons for USB 2.0's limited support?
Phil: "We have worked very closely with both Microsoft and Apple to ensure that USB 2.0 support within the OS works perfectly, and this may be why we are the only manufacturer that offers USB 1.1, USB 2.0 and Firewire products that work on both platforms. Now that the OS issues have been sorted out, there are no inherent advantages in Firewire. Of course, the other manufacturers may need time to catch up..."
Claus: "In short, Firewire has no real practical advantages compared to a properly designed USB 2.0 audio interface. However, developing a USB 2.0 audio device that provides the stability required in the pro audio world is not as simple as it might look — in fact, considering the number of components available for development, it is definitely more difficult compared to the design of Firewire audio devices, at this moment. However, once development is completed, USB 2.0 devices can be produced in a more cost-effective way than Firewire devices, and that means that the number of USB 2.0 audio devices on the market will increase in the future. USB 2.0 has the potential to replace Firewire completely in the long term. It's happening already for non-audio peripherals and it will happen for audio interfaces as well."
Mario: "Right now there are lots of USB 1.1 audio devices in the market because dedicated USB 1.1 audio controller chips such as the TI TAS1020 or TUSB3200A are available. It seems that chip manufacturers are not willing to produce chips just for the MI/pro-audio market but only for the bigger quantity PC/Mac consumer retail business. Here good driver support from the OS suppliers is necessary (ie. Windows class-compliant or Mac Core Audio support). For Mac and Windows it took quite some time to get working OS-based USB 1.1 driver support. USB 2.0 class-compliant driver support with XP is available now but is still not for Mac OS X Core Audio. The reason might be that there still are no dedicated USB 2.0 audio controllers available.
"At the moment, Firewire and USB 2.0 audio devices need a lot of development work, because the USB 2.0 and Firewire audio controllers do have to be built by using standard (not audio dedicated) components. First, such a solution increases the price, and USB still indicates a lower price. On the other hand, to start twin developments at the same time needs a lot of resources. After having Firewire products in the market we're now developing USB 2.0 products."
Milo: "Firewire was designed from the start as a media interface, and industry standards were adopted early on for streaming audio and video. Apple have done a good job of formalising this and include multi-channel Firewire audio support in OS X, with no need to develop specialised drivers for each piece of Firewire gear. Streaming media support and high-speed data rates were added to USB as an afterthought and the standards lag accordingly. Also, there are currently no turnkey solutions, such as BridgeCo controller chips for USB 2.0, forcing manufacturers to 'roll their own'."
Jim: "From a performance standpoint, Firewire A (400Mbit) and USB 2.0 (480Mbit) are fairly equal. Firewire B ups the ante, with 800Mbit performance. USB 2.0 is very much a viable format for audio I/O, especially for Windows, where it historically has been most pervasive, and I think the marketplace is likely to see more USB 2.0 audio interface products emerge as time goes on. I think the inequality in market presence between Firewire and USB 2.0 is due to the fact that USB 2.0 is relatively new compared to 400Mbit Firewire."
Peter: "Firewire connectivity is essential for mLAN communication. Why Firewire? Because it allows communication without a computer in the network. We can now transmit digital audio, clock and MIDI data from instrument to instrument and device to device without the need for a host computer — a feature that is becoming increasingly important as live performance setups become more technologically advanced. Unfortunately, USB still carries the image it collected in v1.1, that it cannot handle high volumes of data in a reliable manner. Firewire also gives the advantage of still being scaled upwards, with 800MBPS now commonplace on new Macintosh computers."
Bret: "There is currently no cross-platform audio-class driver support for USB 2.0, and M-Audio's Firewire product line is flexible in terms of being buss-powered and therefore highly mobile. Another issue is that USB 2.0 audio devices are resource intensive compared to Firewire audio devices: an 8x8 USB 2.0 interface uses a lot more CPU resources than a similar 8x8 Firewire interface."
Matthias: "Of course [Firewire offers advantages]. The whole format and underlying technology is better suited to streaming audio at low latency with low CPU load. Therefore USB 2 never had and will never have a bright future as an audio interface format."
Yamaha's mLAN protocol is now available for both Windows and Mac computers and provides connection and control of a musical network via Firewire cables, but until recently support was restricted to devices equipped with Yamaha's own Firewire controller chips. Now that BridgeCo controller chips are also supported, and that over 100 manufacturers are part of the mLAN Alliance, are lots more mLAN-compatible products going to be found in recording studios worldwide?
Peter: "Yes. During August, Yamaha released more mLAN-compliant products (the S90ES Synthesizer and the AW2400 Digital Audio Workstation), so the network continues to expand. Implementation of mLAN into existing hardware is also becoming a reality, with expansion boards for the Yamaha digital mixers. The mLAN protocol continues to evolve, allowing different types of device (synths, mixers, DAWs and so on) into the network. Various companies, including CME, have also recently announced mLAN support for their products, which, with the new chipsets, makes mLAN even more tangible for many users."
Mario: "Hopefully! I cannot speak for our competitors but we already have Firewire mLAN support for one Terratec Producer product (Phase 24 FW). The first candidate software will be released end of September."
Jim: "MOTU's Firewire products have always been focused on providing high-quality, high-performance audio I/O to and from the computer (both Mac and PC). This focus allowed us to bring the very first Firewire audio interface (the 828) to market in 2001. However, we've been keeping a close eye on mLAN."
Phil: "I suspect that there will not be lots of mLAN-compatible products released. The protocol is yet another layer on top of the 1394 standard and therefore adds to the complexity of full OS support from hardware manufacturers."
Bret: "We see mLAN as another ill-fated additional standard that never offered much more than class-compliant drivers. Apple and Microsoft are committed and required to update their class drivers, while mLAN is not maintainable at that same operating system level, limiting its reach and potential effectiveness."
Matthias: "We don't think so."
Do you think that the popularity of Firewire audio interfaces has been affected by the hot-plugging problems that have fried some musicians' Firewire ports, motherboards and peripherals, and what, if anything, are you doing to minimise the risks on your own Firewire products?
Milo: "Not especially, since hot-swapping is a convenience most users can live without. Our Firewire products have their own internal power supplies and don't rely on cable power, which I assume has been the primary source of the problems. We haven't had any issues with hot-plugging our boxes."
Phil: "I think that this may have affected the popularity of some manufacturers' products rather than Firewire interfaces in general. Our products have circuit protection built in, to minimise any chance of failure, and we've never had any damage reported, to the best of my knowledge."
Claus: "We had no serious problems of this kind with our Firewire devices."
Bret: "M-Audio products adhere rigidly to the Firewire industry standard and pass stringent internal testing. Beyond that, we have designed an extra robustness into our Firewire products. M-Audio are being pro-active in investigating any issues that may adversely affect our customers. We educate users on the risks of hot-plugging and steps to avoid problems with inserts inside our packages and on our web site."
Jim: "MOTU Firewire interfaces are carefully engineered and rigorously tested. We are well aware of the potential hazards of hot-plugging the Firewire connection and have taken all necessary precautions in our design and manufacturing to prevent this type of problem. We have thousands of satisfied customers who use their MOTU Firewire interface every day without incident."
Mario: "Maybe! With Terratec Producer Firewire systems I never heard of such a problem and we've never had any customer feedback in that direction."
Matthias: "Not at all. The Fireface does not use buss power. It needs too much current, so this option was removed early in the development process. When we became aware of the power spike problems we also removed the power connections between the (hub) sockets in the Fireface, so Firewire power is not passed through to other devices."
Peter: "No. We do not believe such issues have affected Firewire popularity, and believe this is just journalistic scaremongering. It is still the easiest and most versatile communication protocol. We can honestly say we have never seen an mLAN device fry a computer's ports."
What range of PC system chip-sets do you test your audio interfaces with before release, so that they are compatible with the vast majority of hardware? Given the almost infinite number of combinations of PC components, is it inevitable that a few systems will always end up incompatible with some product?
Milo: "We test on a wide range of in-house PCs and Macs, from low-end machines to multi-processor systems, as well as beta-testers' machines external to Echo. But incompatibilities will inevitably arise. As an example, one particular Southbridge chip recently gave us problems due to incorrect BIOS settings programmed by the motherboard manufacturer. The chip-set worked properly in some systems but not others. These things can be tough to track down."
Phil: "We utilise two phases of testing. First, there are official test sites in Japan maintained by PC vendors (including Apple) that allow us to test a wide range of current retail models. This would probably mean that between 50 and 60 models of computer would be tested with each of our products. Second, we assemble new PCs in our labs when any major new chip-set release is made by Intel, VIA, SiS, ALi and so on, and use these for testing and development. The combination of these two methods means that a very large number of machines is tested with every product that we produce. That's probably the reason why we rarely have compatibility issues, although it is impossible to give guarantees, due to the enormous variability of the software/hardware combination."
Claus: "In principle, it is inevitable. However, with proper testing there are actually very few cases of incompatibility that cannot be resolved these days. This is different to the situation a few years ago, where the performance and compatibility differences between the various main board chip-sets caused a lot of work for engineering and technical support. At the moment, it is enough to make sure to test every modern chip-set (or Firewire/USB controller chip for specific devices) with two to three different main boards (or controllers) from different vendors during the development of the product to ensure a very high rate of compatibility. After the product has been released, the tests continue, depending on the input from technical support."
Matthias: "We test with lots of computers that we gathered over the years. Plus newer models, of course. RME's big advantage is that all our devices use the same core technology. All our PCI cards use the same PCI core and thus show the exact same compatibility range. That makes testing and a prediction of compatibility much easier. Thanks to our technology, we were able to implement several workarounds for performance and functional flaws of some chip-sets. Sometimes there was no workaround, but then the manufacturer came up with a driver fix. In this way RME's PCI and Cardbus cards have become exemplary regarding performance and compatibility."
Bret: "Over the years, M-Audio have developed a wide compatibility test suite, and we are pro-active in acquiring new-generation systems, motherboards and chip-sets to test our product line with. Our experience has been that by using this test environment we have only rarely seen an incompatible system in the field."
Jim: "MOTU thoroughly test our products before we bring them to market, with our extensive in-house test bed as well as an extensive outside beta-testing pool. Over the last 20 years, we've learned how to cover all the bases to ensure that our products are ready for the marketplace. While individual incompatibilities invariably arise in the PC world, they are infrequent enough that we have been able to promptly address them."
Mario: "Terratec Producer is part of Terratec Electronic, which is mainly a manufacturer of PC/Mac consumer retail audio and video products. Therefore we have access to a very well-equipped test department and can make these compatibility tests with nearly all main board chip-sets available. Because of that we can reduce incompatibility problems to a minimum."
Peter: "With our R&D teams around the world, we work very closely with all the major computer developers. As a small example, we have programming staff regularly posted within Apple in Cupertino, working alongside their Core Audio developers to make sure that the mLAN implementation works consistently within the Apple operating system. We also have worked closely with AMD and other PC manufacturers to guarantee a wide range of compatibility. I believe that this is a pretty unique situation and shows how closely we work with these companies to make sure that our hardware and software solutions perform correctly."
So there we are. It looks as if PCI Express will eventually prove popular for audio interfaces, but only once mainstream manufacturers develop suitable interface chips that can be pressed into service by the specialist audio community, and we may end up with even lower audio latencies as a result. However, some manufacturers look likely to stick with Firewire-based interfaces, especially as new and faster variants of this standard appear.
Most companies seem to think that PCI slots will be with us for at least another two years, and possibly five or more, but USB 2.0 audio interfaces face a more mixed reception, as does support for Yamaha's mLAN protocol. While a few fried Firewire chips have been found around the world, most of the audio interface manufacturers either avoid self-powered devices altogether or include measures that protect their products, which is reassuring. Finally, the old belief that manufacturers only test their products on computers that have Intel chip-sets is finally disproved, with some companies utilising 60 or more different PCs to ensure the widest compatibility.
What are the most typical interface problems reported by your customers, could they avoid them and, if so, how?
Phil: "The two commonest problems would have to be installation issues and noise in the audio signal. The first issue could be avoided with some reading of the manual — clichéd as that statement is. In the vast majority of cases, our support staff merely run through the procedures in the manual and this solves the problem. That, plus a little care over what software and hardware is installed on the customer's computers, probably covers 50 to 60 percent of calls.
"The second issue is one that has been covered (extensively and well) in previous issues of SOS and primarily relates to laptop use with buss-powered interfaces. This is almost always due to the design of the laptop and its power supply, whereby multiple double-insulated circuits connected by the audio interface end up with noise on the audio input (ie. a voltage difference between grounds). If you must use a laptop for your DAW, the simplest way to avoid this problem is by buying one from those specialist suppliers who advertise in SOS, that has been built for audio use."
Jim: "All MOTU products are accompanied by a thoroughly written, well-indexed printed manual for both Mac and PC. As you might expect, we find that the vast majority of customer issues could be resolved by reading and understanding the information in the manual. For further information, users can check our technical support database at www.motu.com. We also recommend that users always check for the latest drivers and other software updates at www.motu.com. Between the manual, the tech support database and the latest software updates, most users experience quick and easy resolution of any issues that arise."
Bret: "The single biggest issue we're aware of from our customers is system configuration. When a computer is not configured correctly, the user can experience errors such as IRQ conflicts, devices not being recognised, pops and clicks in audio, and so on. Our large technical support team spend much of their time helping our customers to ensure that their computers are properly optimised for audio."
Mario: "If a customer is asking for support he mostly just needs some help to set up his complete hardware and software system (BIOS, OS and audio application settings). We try to avoid these problems by offering as much information as possible in the manual."
Peter: "Just general PC issues really, such as non-standard setups, illegal software cracks and general PC maintenance issues."