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Computer Connectors, Protocols & Audio Interfaces

Making Connections
Published January 2018
By Sam Pryor

Making Conections

How do you know which audio interfaces will work with which studio computers? We cut through the connector confusion!

Few of us look forward to replacing a studio computer or audio interface, and typically, it’s something we might only do every five years or so. In that time, a lot can change. Whereas once FireWire or USB 2 would have seemed the obvious choices, now the landscape is very different. In more or less common use today, you’ll find not only USB 2, but also USB 3.0 and 3.1, not to mention Thunderbolt 1, 2 and 3, Gigabit Ethernet and PCIe. So what’s the difference, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each for audio recording?

Bits & Bandwidth

At the most basic level, what all these connections do is to make an electrical link between the computer and the other device. This link is then used to transfer digital data: high and low voltages that represent binary digits or ‘bits’. A microchip called a controller at either end of the link takes care of sending and receiving these ones and zeroes, but as far as the controller is concerned, all that matters is that a string of ones and zeroes has successfully been transmitted. It doesn’t know or care whether those bits add up to a photo of your kids, a chapter of your latest novel, or the best vocal take of your life.

The number of bits that can be sent over a connection every second is known as its bandwidth, and historically, not all types of connection had a bandwidth that was adequate for audio recording. The original USB 1.1 specification, for instance, offered just enough bandwidth to send stereo 24-bit, 44.1kHz audio in both directions at once. That was all right if you just wanted to record the odd vocal or guitar part, but not much use if you were tracking an entire band live on the studio floor.

Thankfully, those days are behind us, and all of the connectors you’re likely to find on a modern computer offer enough bandwidth for big multitrack recording projects. However, this bandwidth can still be eroded if that connection is shared by multiple devices.

In Real Time

With some types of computer peripheral, it’s more important to transfer data reliably than to transfer it continuously. When we’re backing up to a hard drive, it’s not disastrous if things occasionally get held up: what really matters is that the...

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Published January 2018