Read The Manual BEFORE You Buy

Brandon Drury —  August 12, 2010

I’ve been saying it for years. Recording gear companies are f’ing scumbags, for the most part. They’ll imply that their gear has more inputs and more features than it actually has to make a buck. Some gear comes with all sorts of new features, but they don’t work if you choose to use some of the other features the unit has. This is the equivalent of General Motors claiming their Camaro has both a cd player and an air condition. However, they don’t tell you that you can’t use the cd player AND the air conditioner at the same time. That would never fly, obviously.

A recent example is my Steinberg MR816csx. The thing PROMISES….. I want to emphasize that when the features are listed for a given gadget at Musician’s Friend or the manufacturer’s website, it IS a PROMISE……that it has 8 channels of inputs via ADAT Lightpipe and 2 channels of ins via S/PDIF. This combined with the stock 8 analog ins SHOULD give a total of 18 inputs. (Yes, they do call the unit a MR816 and you can read that it is a 16-channel interface. However, it’s never really explained how what appears to be 18 inputs is actually only 16.) Well, it turns out that you can’t use all 8 of the ADAT channels and the 2 S/PDIF channels at the same time. You can use 6 ADAT inputs and 2 S/PDIF inputs. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s generally accepted in recording land that this isn’t an either/or situation. It should be stated how/why they arrived at the “16” number.

The Problem

The problem is there are 700 choices AFTER you’ve narrowed down your choices. I just took a look at my spreadsheet I created to help me with selecting a new audio interface. Yes, I had to create a spreadsheet to manage all the freakin’ possibilities, features, and requirements. It’s so easy to get hung up on this phase with tail chasing research, rethinking your needs, rethinking your budget, trying to speculate future problems with chipsets, operating system bit depth, etc that many of us just look at one, throw our hands up in the air, and say “That one!”. You pull out the credit card, throw a Hail Mary, and sign your life away.

The Clue

The very first thing MOST of us do when dealing with a fancy piece of gear (no, we aren’t talking DVD players here) is fire up the manual. We know that audio interfaces don’t fit in “asking for directions” territory. (Reading the manual is a necessity to getting things done. Asking for help while driving is immoral.) If more guys could discern the difference between reading manuals for recording gear and asking a gas station attendant where Clark St is those people would be cranking out dramatically more and dramatically better recordings.

Anyway, the first thing we SHOULD do is read the damn manual. Then, when are free from bs marketing jargon like “pristine quality” we get the real truth. This is where we find ourselves saying “Whoops!” when we have severe conflict issues. Common issues now are audio interfaces that won’t run on certain operating systems due to issues with the bit depth of that operating system, incompatible chipsets, features that require you to buy more stuff, etc.

As stated above, this is where you also find out which features the unit actually has and which will work in your specific situation. The fancy DSP plugins found in the MR 816 CSX don’t work if you use the S/PDIF output on the interface. The Cubase intergration is reduced to “not much” in this situation, as well. That’s stuff you won’t see in the ad. Guess where you do find it. The manual.

The Solution

So, after 10 years of practicing this craft, it finally occurred to me to go ahead and fire that manual (that I’m going to read anyway) just BEFORE I pull out the credit card. The manual is not going to be a literary marvel, but it will at least be honest with you. It’s not going to sugar coat all the limitations of unit. It’s going to explain how stuff works and that means they are going to tell you what the unit can not do. I find that all the red flags end up being in bold anyway.

You’ll find that disabled features are highlighted. You’ll find how many inputs the damn thing actually uses ahead of time. Basically, you’ll encounter what you should have been told by the bs marketing. I guess that’s why it’s called “bs marketing” and not “facts” or whatever. Hell, this gives a person an excuse not to read the manual once the interface shows up! That sound pretty damn manly to me!

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

13 responses to Read The Manual BEFORE You Buy

  1. sooo.. other n the s/pdif snafu… how does the MR816CSX stack up? i own cubase 5, right now am using the CI2 interface, want more i/o, and am heavily considering the MR816CSX so i’d really appreciate true user feedback, not marketing bs ;)


  2. Excellent advice. Thank you.

    I wish kids came with manuals. (At least, mine didn’t.)

  3. A little bit of history research is a good exercise too.

    Steinberg, isn’t that the software company that once in while sells hardware, discontinues it after some time and does not deliver drivers after that?

    Try to get a 64bit driver for a Midex 8 or ask a proud owner of a Huston controler what he thinks about hardware from Steinberg ;-)

    I have seen that they came up with some new hardware, but I did not even bother to read the review that far, to find out what it is…

  4. I try to conduct as much research on an expensive product (-expensive for me, that is) before making the purchase. And that includes hardware, as well as software. Reading reviews, obviously; but I also try to find a copy of the manual online. Finding the manual online isn’t always easy. But worth the effort.

    The few times I’ve ended purchasing a product that turned out to be of disappointingly limited use to me because I was mistaken about the item’s capabilities (or lack of capabilities, to be more precise), happen to be the times I did not do research and went by the company’s advertised, brief description alone.

  5. I can’t agree more, RTFM!

    In the last few years virtually every piece of equipment out there has a manual available online. I have become so addicted to this, I download manuals for equipment I know I’ll never own. The practice of reading manuals will help you determine what products will meet your needs, in your application. I recently bought an iPAD, now my daily routine of reading in the bathroom is maily manuals. I downloaded a pdf reader and carry my equipment manuals around with me. When I feel bored, like at the dentist office, I can look something up, or just day dream of what I want to do when I get back to the studio.

  6. What an excellent idea, and one I will implement from now on – read the manual online before you buy! In the manual, they HAVE to tell you how it REALLY works! Thanks for a great post.

  7. This truly is the BEST advice anyhow possible. I do this since years, and I never was disappointed by any gear I acquired since then. First I take a look to the specifications which often allow to eliminate some candidates early. Searching history of manufacturers and distributors can be an additional support in making a decision you won’t regret.

  8. Good thoughts just don’t let on to the manufacturers. They will take their manuals offline.

  9. The manufacturer’s marketing people reckon that there are customers outside who buy for the look of the front panel, and those who buy for performance. So I hope they keep on showing colour pictures for the first, and specifications for the latter to find their special interest.

  10. This is an ongoing battle all MI retailers face with audio manufacturers who’ve gone down-market. I won’t mention names since they all do it. I can’t tell you how many times I want to get on the phone and scream at our vendors: “Just tell us what you built – if you want to sound like it has more, then build more into it and charge accordingly!” And when we do try to tell our customers exactly what they built, they get call us and scream, demanding that we leave the descriptions as their marketing monkeys wrote them. Of course it doesn’t hurt them since we have to take the heat for them misleading our customers. The game here is to attract limited budgets to what appears to be most bang for the buck. Again, it’s simple, build a better box and charge accordingly – but we’re dealing with greedy suits these days.

    Reading the manual first to find out what the limitations are is an excellent suggestion to avoid buyer’s remorse. I know something about this stuff and have also been mislead by what listed features allude to in terms of functionality, only to find out the limitations later on. So, if you read a features list and think, “Great, I can do such and such, the manual will tell you yes or no.” Remember, they can’t lie in a manual (well, in marketing, it’s not seen as lying so much as “improving the truth.”)

    I would also learn something about basic analog and digital electronics in order to suss out the misleading phrases. Once you know how things work, you can debunk the BS on your own, or at least know what questions to ask. Failing that, here are some offending marketing techniques demystified:

    Number of inputs — is often used to imply a greater number of channels. HOWEVER, number of inputs do not equal number of channels. Nor do stereo channels equal two channels as some manufacturers insist. A stereo channel technically has two channels, however, in reality it is ONE channel, since you cannot process the two signals independently.

    Digital I/O: Again, here’s where a little knowledge of digital electronics will come in handy. ADAT lightpipe protocol is 8 channels at 24-bit/48kHz, and not a byte more. 96kHz operation is achieved only by multiplexing (SMUX) – that is, combining the bit streams of 2 channels of 48kHz into one channel of 96kHz. So yes, your channel count will be cut in half as you double sampling resolution. There is no way around this, since lightpipe will only pass 8 channels at 48kHz. To get 8 channels at 96kHz, you need 16 channels, or two ADAT lightpipe ports.

    The same holds true for the MADI optical format as well. The difference is that MADI can transmit up to 64 channels of 24-bit/48kHz audio. 96kHz cuts the number of channels in half, and half again at 192kHz.

    ADAT vs. S/PDIF – unless the design states otherwise, this is an either-or situation, since each follows a different digital protocol. However, if I recall correctly, the DIGI 002s and 003s will allow both ADAT and S/PDIF input simultaneously. The word to watch for is “simultaneous.” This lets you know how many inputs, analog or digital, you can record at one time. However, it does not always refer to discrete channels. Again, stereo S/PDIF has two inputs, but technically, it’s one stereo channel, since either channel cannot be panned or processed separately from the other.

    In summation:

    To determine number of channels of a mixer, ignore the stated number of inputs. Count the number of mono channels or look at the XLR inputs (there’s always one per channel). Count stereo channels as one line-level channel (for stereo keyboards etc.). The easiest way to count the discrete channels of a mixer is simply to count the channel faders or the number of panpot/balance controls. The face of the mixer will always have silk-screened lines to separate channel faders from aux, master, or effects faders.

    To determine the number of channels on an audio interface, the concept is the same: count the number of XLR or analog line inputs. ADAT will always be 8 channels at 24-bit/48kHZ, SMUX cuts it in half as sampling resolution doubles. S/PDIF and TOSLINK are 2-channel stereo.

    ADAT Lightpipe maxes out at 8 channels of 24-bit/48kHz audio. Period. SMUX operation means 4-channels at 24-bit/96kHz, or 2 channels at 24-bit/192kHz (if design specs allow). So, without having to read the manual, you could look at an 8-channel interface and know that with only one ADAT port, you’re going to get 8 channels of lightpipe out at 24-bit/48kHz, done deal.

    In the case of the Focusrite Octopre, it has 8 analog input channels and 16 channels of ADAT lightpipe, which means you can record your 8 analog inputs to a DAW at 96kHz via SMUX. That’s the point of the unit; to give you a full eight channels at 96kHz. “Mirrored” simply means that at 44.1/48kHz, the same 8-channel output appears on both ADAT ports simultaneously – that is to say in their terms, that at 48k, the output of ADAT port 2 is the mirror-image of ADAT port 1 and vice-versa.

    S/PDIF, TOSLINK, TDIF – these are digital stereo protocols: S/P stands for Sony/Phillips (digital interface), the “TOS” of TOSLINK stands for Toshiba, and TDIF is TASCAM Digital Interface- these are digital protocols based on the manufacturer’s design and as such, require that you input or output to compatible devices. Do not assume that S/PDIF or other stereo-only inputs can work alongside ADAT Lightpipe unless the manufacturer says so.

    Another thing to watch out for if you’re looking into high-end multi-channel conversion is what type of pin configuration the unit employs. You can’t just hook up any DB-25 25-pin cable and expect the unit to work. For example, Apogee converters use the Yamaha DB-25 pin configuration while most others, such as the SSL Alpha Link use the TASCAM DB-25 pin configuration. Some even require custom pin-outs. For example, the SSL’s XLogic modular systems have different pin outs: most modules use the TASCAM pin-out, however, the master bus module requires a custom DB-25 pin-out.

    One over-arching thing to keep in mind is that despite the affordability of


  11. to continue the chopped-off sentence at the end: despite the affordability of prosumer equipment this is the only industry that sells professional tools (or scaled down versions) to amateurs and hobbyists. This equipment used to be the domain of professional engineers and required (and still does) a highly technical, specialized knowledge to operate and choose equipment wisely.


  12. Any industry sells professional tools to amateurs and hobbyists who are prone to DIY activities. No matter if it goes around building a house or servicing cars, mechanical or electrical design and construction, getting around with computers, or audio technique from recording to reproduction: You will find amateurs there whose knowledge and experience exceed those of many professionals. In addition, amateurs often perform more thoroughly and conscientiously. In contrary, take a listen to most of nowadays professional so-called CD mastering – is this performed by idiots, or are they extorted by clueless and unscrupulous managers? You may extend similar questions to any branche which is mainly controlled by multinationals…

  13. Sorry, I spelt branch falsely with an e that must not be there.