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Your First 8-Channel Audio Interface

Brandon Drury —  December 23, 2010

Thinking 3 Years Ahead

First off, I want to say that it does no one any favors to recommend you short-term, crappy solutions that ultimately cost you a lot more money. The only problem is this does require more cash outlay in the beginning. Not everyone wants to commit to a good car, so often times they settle for a cheaper one that works half the time. My experience has shown me that the crappy car is almost always more expensive than the good car IF you are smart about how you buy that “good” car.

The same applies to audio interfaces. So let’s get on with it.

If you are to hop into home recording, the first thing you really need to think about is the audio interface. When it comes to the interfaces with 8+ channels, I believe I have found the ultimate solution, although slightly unorthodox. First, let’s talk about a few issues/requirements.

Rock Solid Reliability
If you are cussing your interface, you aren’t recording. If you put an experienced dude’s head on the chopping block and forced him to recommend a rock solid interface that works reliably day in and day out, he’s going to get nervous. Why? Because it sometimes takes a while for a person to work all the bugs out of their system. (For more info on that see Killer Home Recording: Setting Up .)

Generally speaking, a reliable interface is kinda like a hitter in baseball. If they actually function 40% of the time (batting .400) they end up in the Hall of Fame. It’s not THAT bad with audio interfaces, but interfaces that work 99.99% of the time are hard to come by.

The only one company that I feel comfortable fully endorsing is RME. There are other good companies and maybe even a few great ones. However, based on my experiences they’ve stood out as being superior.

Low CPU Usage / Low Latency / Direct Monitoring / Extreme Routing
Not all interfaces are created equal in the latency department. There are companies out there, usually those hitting a lower price point, that have drivers that don’t run so well. They won’t run smoothly at 64 or 96 samples. You’ll find that these interfaces that can’t handle ultra-low latency tend to use more CPU power. This means less horsepower can be given to virtual instruments and plugins.

Most interfaces have direct monitoring, but not all have dedicated mixers for every channel so you can craft individual mixes for every band member (I rarely do this, btw, but when I need it I NEED it!) The ability to create very specific mixes goes much further than headphone mixes. It allows you to send specific signals to specific outputs. This is a very general description, but I’m positive it’s one of the most valuable features on an interface. When you need to send a signal to X and you can’t, you have a problem. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t hype well in the magazine ads but is absolutely crucial to having a great interface.

Basically, I recommend an interface with a solid foundation in both the hardware and software department.

Inexpensive In The Long Run
This is the biggie. If you buy a $600 interface now and you stick with home recording (either as a serious hobby or maybe you even make a few bucks) you will outgrow it. It will have all the features to get you started and you may be lucky enough to get decent reliability and okay sound, but I can’t recommend this route. If you take this approach and end up tearing your hair out, I look like a jerk.

So…I always recommend thinking three years ahead with any audio purchase. A piece of gear that’s great for 3-12 months but ends up collecting dust or being tossed on Ebay is too damn expensive.

That’s It!
If you can get rock-solid reliability, low cpu usage, low latency, direct monitoring, and extreme routing in your interface you are set. You are flat-out kicking butt and there are few interfaces that fit this bill, btw.

Where Is Sound Quality?

I didn’t list sound quality and I’ll tell you why. Sound quality in your first audio interface is kinda like speed in a car. Every new car can do 70mph. From an ultra-practicality standpoint, you never really NEED to go faster than that (although who’s ultra-practical????). Every audio interface I’ve ever heard will do the 70mph equivalent.

What The Hell Does That Mean?
It goes like this. A college kid who needs to get to school is broke and just needs transportation. A Formula One driver is going to be pissed if his car is 1mph slower than the competition. The tolerances are dramatically different depending on where you are driving and in what context.

I think every interface I’ve ever heard is more than adequate for the college kid or the guy on the budget who just needs to get to work. As you transform your needs towards the cream-of-the-crop F1 driver, maybe a Honda Civic isn’t going to work anymore. I remember a Top Gear episode where a Formula 1 driver took a new Ferrari out for a spin and later said it wasn’t really all that fun. So perspective is HUGE here.

So, your typical 8-channel interface in the under $600 category is going to work for anyone with modest needs who isn’t really expecting to sound better than the latest Mutt Lange production tomorrow. Mutt is most likely working in a room with a $300,000 console, $100,000 in outboard gear, and $200,000 in microphones. So do the math. A $1,000 8-channel interface isn’t going sound anywhere near the tip-top league either, but it will be a notch in that direction.

The price of going from a Civic to an Enzo is exponential. If you are driving an Enzo on a gravel road, it’s still only going to go about 30 mph…just like the Civic. If your rooms, instruments, and performances aren’t kick ass, any benefits from the Enzo-caliber interface are moot.

Sound Quality / Price In The Long Run

Most interfaces suck when it comes time to upgrade your sound quality. If/when you decide you want a bit of boost, you are flat-out stuck. There is one exception. The interfaces that give you multi-channel digital I/O allow expansion without total replacement.

Even if you don’t think you’ll be expanding any time soon, if you are anything like me you are TERRIBLE at predicting your own future.

Taking this even further, it’s my opinion that the interface with only digital I/O is the best long term solution…….

When PCI Isn’t An Option

The PCI option has been great for a long time. However, I only rate it a few percentage points more reliable than Firewire and USB options. Now that PCIe is dominant, the days of PCI are numbered.

Some computers don’t have any additional PCI slots. So that forces a person to look towards USB or Firewire options. Note: Laptops are never my preferred tool for the job unless I’m on an airplane or something. For you guys who bought a high priced computer with no expansion slots, it may be time to rethink your life a bit. (Har har, you know who you are!!!)

The truth is, I’m not aware of a Firewire or USB solution that meets my criteria at anywhere near the $300-400 ballpark a person can snag a RME HDSP9652. That little guy just happens to be the steal of the century in my opinion. He’s an exception to the rule.

There are interfaces out there that are stripped down, totally modular ADAT in/out gadgets, but I can’t think of one I feel comfortable recommending off the top of my head. (Either the company that makes them is not reputable enough for me to stake my reputation on or the company is usually reliable and I’d need to use the thing before recommending it here.)

If my life changed and I had to go with Firewire and USB I guess I’d have to ditch the main premise of this article…..going fully modular.

My Recommendations
I’d take a strong look at the RME interface that meets your needs that happens to be fairly expensive USED on Ebay. The “used” part is very important here. You MUST find an interface with a high resale value. Most of the RME interfaces do have a high resale value, which is not something I can say for many other companies. The resale value tells you almost everything you need to know.

For anyone on a budget, I can’t say enough how important it is to get an interface that you get to use for free in the long run. For a greater understanding of this concept, head here: How To Waste $10,000 On Recording Gear You Don’t Like

Back to PCI …..I’m Gonna Seem Like A Whack Job

It’s my view that if a piece of gear can be obsolete, it needs to be avoided, when possible and when realistic. In terms of the interface, most guys are going to recommend a Firewire or USB 2.0 contraption that has all kinds of features built in.

In every interface I’ve owned or used, I’ve found some kind of limitation that made their built-in features less useful than is implied in the ads. One great example that comes to mind is the, otherwise outstanding, Yamaha MR816. It came with onboard DSP effects. Cool! You just can’t use them and the S/PDIF digital inputs. YUCK! This kind of thing happens, to varying degrees, more than you think for everything from headphone signal routing to effects to having less I/O than you thought you had.

So What Is My #1 Interface Recommendation

My number one recommendation for an audio interface is the RME HDSP9652. When you look at it, you are going to be disappointed and may even scratch your head. Why? It doesn’t do much. It’s just damn good at what it does.

What does it do?

  • It’s extremely reliable
  • Low latency
  • Excellent drivers
  • Total routing possibilities
  • It doesn’t use Firewire or USB2.0, which I actually consider to be a slight benefit
  • About as not-obsolete as you can get

The Catch

Here’s where it gets a hair tricky. For this, I apologize. Beginners are going to prefer more simplicity. BEFORE YOU DO….HANG ON! I’m 100% positive that the additional time needed to figure out your setup will be entirely outweighed by all the benefits.

You will require a headphone amp. If you want reverb during direct monitoring (and don’t want to deal with potential latency issues…..see this Latency As Vocal Producing Obstacle Part 2 ) you’ll want a hardware reverb. Most importantly, the RME HDSP9652 has no analog ins and outs. This means that if you buy it and nothing else, it won’t do a damn thing. You must have external ADAT or S/PDIF converters. PERIOD.

Great Bang For Buck Options
I’d go with Ebay for both of these. You could definitely skip the reverb if you can live with predelay on your reverb plugins. I rarely recommend Behringer for anything, but their headphone amps have been outstanding for me.

Reverb: Kurzweil Rumour
Headphone amp: Behringer HA4700

Using Modular To Your Advantage

Are you looking for a Honda Civic, Ferrari Enzo, or F1 car equivalent? It doesn’t matter with the HDSP9652. Why? Simple. You can swap out whatever external converters you wish. It’s as simple as unplugging one ADAT cable and plugging it into another gadget and setting one as the Master Wordclock. Done.

For example, I used a couple of Behringer ADA8000s for coverters. (Not bad converters, not good preamps, great bang for the buck, but they aren’t as good as my Apogee AD-16x and (2) DA-16x. No shit!) When I upgraded to the mentioned Apogees (that upgrade set me back $6,500) I didn’t have to touch the interface. Dumping/wasting that much dough on super converters is something that took me nearly 10 years of pro recording. Before that, I was doing alright with lesser converters. (Note: I did rely on my Mytek AD96 via S/PDIF for two input channels for about five years.)

So I don’t expect many of you to be upgrading to ultra converters in the quantity described this decade, it’s nice to know that your good ol’ rock solid interface just keeps on going. I didn’t even have to think about it!

External ADAT Options

Super Tight Budget Options
The Behringer ADA8000 will get you 8ins and 8 outs. The converters stack up great against any stock interface in the under $1000 department. The pres aren’t so great. For less than $200 on Ebay one of these will take care of you stereo outs, headphone outs, and have a few left over. You could add external pres to this and not be hurting a bit. (This is what I did for a while.)

Budget Options
The M-Audio Octane ain’t no Neve, but at $600 new (much less on Ebay) it’s a nice bang-for-the-buck 8-channel preamp with ADAT out. I do like the pres better than pres I’ve heard in

The Presonus D8 isn't a bad sounding unit either. It's in the $400 ballpark new. Presonus swears these are the same pres in the Firestudio, but I'm positive the low end was dramatically cleaner they had less of the megaphone thing.

High End Options
There are many 8-channel preamp options and most of them aren’t going to be ultra-high end pres. Off the top of my head, (2) Focusrite ISA482 preamps with optional AD converters would be a killer 8-channel setup for about $3000. Those are top-notch pres (although I’ve not used the converters). They are in the big boy league, although they are clean.

Other than that, you’ll have to look around at various AD converters. I went with the Apogee AD-16x and it does sound great. It’s an “alive” sound which I really dig. That’s (2) ADAT channels for a total of 16 ins. I’ve not experimented too much with high end converters in the ADAT variety so I’m not going to say much here.

Of course, external preamps is beyond the scope of this article. Make sure you check out the 4-channel pre discussion here: Who Needs Fancy Preamps?

Conclusion

The super secrets to an effective, ultra-reliable recording rig.

#1 – Buy a used interface with high resale value.

#2 – Don’t cut corners on a budget interface.

#3 – Go with an interface with as few features as possible other than your required I/O (ins and outs).

#4 – Go with modular individual components. Go cheap on the headphone amp, go with a reasonable preamp / converters combo (preferably ADAT). If you get rich, blow a ton on preamps and converters after you have awesome studio monitoring and great rooms.

#5 – Make SURE you have direct monitoring options for your vocals PERIOD. I won’t ever go back to monitoring vocals from within the recording software, regardless of its convenience. EVER!

#6 – Maybe consider just watching football on your weekends and skipping this whole stupid recording thing. Har har!

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 RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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11 responses to Your First 8-Channel Audio Interface

  1. Do they still make computers with PCI interfaces?

    I think your modular approach is a very sensible one, but for anyone reading this and thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park, here are some other things to think about:

    1) How future proof is your PCI interface when that format is being phased out entirely. Having previously been the proud owner of an ISA sound card in the 90′s, I would argue that USB and FireWire have more longevity. External connection protocols change less frequently than internal connection protocols.

    2) How do you know that the used PCI card from eBay isn’t haunted or possessed by demons? Computer internals have a way of being twitchy, and the thought of buying a used internal card from eBay gives me pause. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy less fragile items used though.

    Other than that, I agree with everything else here. Great article overall.

  2. Do they still make computers with PCI interfaces?

    Definitely. I see them all the time. In fact, I’ve not encountered a motherboard that didn’t have one.

    1) How future proof is your PCI interface when that format is being phased out entirely

    This was mentioned in the article and is a major reason to consider the PCIe approach if it is a concern. I expect the next 5 years to be covered with at least one PCI slot, but the future is hard to guess.

    I would argue that USB and FireWire have more longevity.

    USB is probably safe. Firewire is a tough one. PC was never ultra huge on it. Mac has given up on it.

    2) How do you know that the used PCI card from eBay isn’t haunted or possessed by demons? Computer internals have a way of being twitchy, and the thought of buying a used internal card from eBay gives me pause. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy less fragile items used though.

    It’s a fair question, but I don’t see it as being any different than the brand new lemons I’ve encountered. I would definitely only buy one that was guaranteed not to be DOA, but it’s always this way with Ebay. It’s kind of a given for seasoned Ebay users.

    Brandon

  3. this is something ive been looking into and this helped me alot. RME is what i was looking at, im trying to move away from firewire and usb as i feel it is the cause of my latency issues and ASIO spikes. as of now i have 2 of the firepods (fp10. can i use the spdif outs and go right into the RME unit. i have never used adat or spdif before. i understand the adat does 8 channels, does the spdif work the same? for instance on the firepods can i do 16 channels in, then go spdif out of each or go out of one into the other? how does it work?

    i am definately looking down the road and i dont have a problem purchasing new equipment that is reasonably priced especially when bought in stages, but it would be hard for me to sell what i have then probably spend in the ball park of at least $1200 to get back up recording again. if i can use these firepods with the HDSP9652 until i can upgrade to something better it would be perfect.

    i need at least 12 channels in, i have enough preamps (beween my mixing board and channel strips), and a headphone amp, so what can get me there?

  4. Hi!
    This is 8Ch card. But I really don’t get, how to connect 8 channels to that card. I see COM-port, 6 optical ports (correct me if I wrong), and to weird ports. Where are 8 ch?))) Or I don’t understand completely how this thing works))
    Thanks.

  5. Hi!
    This is 8Ch card. But I really don’t get, how to connect 8 channels to that card. I see COM-port, 6 optical ports (correct me if I wrong), and to weird ports. Where are 8 ch?))) Or I don’t understand completely how this thing works))
    Thanks.

    It’s technical not an 8ch card. At least it has zero analog inputs. The point of the article is that I highly recommend people going with an ultra-reliable, modular setup that relies entirely on ADAT for conversion so that switching to fancy converters, upgrading to more channels, or replacing any one component is ultimately cheaper, faster, and easier.

  6. t, im trying to move away from firewire and usb as i feel it is the cause of my latency issues and ASIO spikes

    Well, as the article suggests my rig ran the Yamaha MR816 with ZERO problems. It was Firewire and totally reliable. Your spikes are most likely caused by either a poor interface, a dirty operating system, or pushing the latency to too low of setting.

    i understand the adat does 8 channels, does the spdif work the same?

    Na. Unfortunately, S/PDIF is only 2-channel setup.

    i am definately looking down the road and i dont have a problem purchasing new equipment that is reasonably priced especially when bought in stages, but it would be hard for me to sell what i have then probably spend in the ball park of at least $1200 to get back up recording again. if i can use these firepods with the HDSP9652 until i can upgrade to something better it would be perfect.

    It’s hard to make the jump. That’s for sure. I can’t recall if the Firepods have ADAT out or not. If they did, in theory you could just use them for the preamps and conversion.

    Brandon

  7. My Presonus Firestudio mobile kicks ass for my purposes as a solo singer/songwriter/guitarist/recording artist. I like to keep things as simple as possible. Just got a ZenPro fully modded Golden Age 73 mic pre I run into the Presonus unit along with a Rode NTK. I’d rather be recording than pulling my hair out with SPDIF and shit like that. Perhaps the quality is not as great but as far as I can tell, I have zero latency and am running on a Dell laptop just fine. Fuck Mutt Lange anyway. I’d rather sound like the Clash’s first record than anything that mullet having jackass has put out in the last ten years. Now Shania Twain? Good lord she’s a hottie and I’m glad they got divorced.

    Rock on,
    Wyatt Scott

  8. Ok i decided to make the jump after accessing that my joe meek twin Q has digital outs using the toslink type adat connector. so that gives me 2 outs, so i really only need 8 more for the time being to get by. i can always do a submix of scratch guitars thru my mixer into one channel of whatever interface i get. unfortunately price wise, AD/DA converters are not cheap… the behringer looks like the route i will be going for the time being. but now i have a question pertaining to digital preamps. the joe meek twin q has ad/da converters, and other preamps now are starting to come with digital outs and converters. how do these converters compare to say the behringer or better yet something like apogee? when you are looking at least $800 bucks for 2 apogee converters, does it makes sense to buy another Twin Q for close to same price or getting another preamp with digital outs, like focusrite for example? money wise it definately makes sense if the ad/da converters are good quality, as long as you dont need a ton of channels. plus i find it way easier to spend $800 on a preamp than just converters. plus this makes it easier to build a studio over time instead of dumping $6500 at once… yikes

    i read the preamp article listed above, but it doesnt cover the digital out possiblities, especially if you are just needing another digital channel or two.

    i understand at some point you are going to need a device with outs (the behringer in this case), since the preamps dont have ins, just outs. looking at the 9652 it has 3 sets of in and outs so at some point you are limited to what you can connect, but i read you can add another 9652 to double your ins/outs if needed.

    ive been reading as much as i can and im starting to get a handle on this, i think the fun part is going to be setting this up… have i missed anything?

  9. the joe meek twin q has ad/da converters, and other preamps now are starting to come with digital outs and converters. how do these converters compare to say the behringer or better yet something like apogee?

    The converter world is pretty damn subtle. I consider it to be quite a bit less subtle than the preamp thing and in the grand scheme of the things the preamp is a tiny part of the equation. One worth investing in if you’ve got the cash an inclination, but not a life changer in my opinion. So the difference between Behringer and Apogee is easy to overstate.

    I’ve heard them A/B’d. The Apogee is more aggressive. One could call the Apogee more exciting but that’s a hair on the sensationalist side. I decided that the incremental improvement was worth the investment, but I’m at a different stage in my recording quest than most.

    I say if the Joe Meeks work for you, their built in AD converters should be more than acceptable. Note: I’m surprised they are using ADAT outs for only 2 channels.

    If price is a factor in your decisions making, than don’t spend any big time cash. The improvements are only “worth it” when you’ve are willing to blow a ton for just a little. Focus on the things that really matter…..studio monitoring, your room, and your own abilities.

    Brandon

  10. I’d rather be recording than pulling my hair out with SPDIF and shit like that.

    Nah. S/PDIF is one of the more reliable facets of this home recording realm. You plug in a cable and set the master clock. Done. It’s easier and faster than cooking a microwave burrito.

    The complications come from when not-so-great manufacturers sell stuff that doesn’t work reliable. This is why I’ve chosen to go all out with a modular rig. If yours works, great! Just be careful, though, because anytime a person gets confident in their setup, something bad happens. I know. ha ha

  11. I hear ya Brandon. I shouldn’t get too cocky cause things with my Firestudio could get rocky. I’m knocking on wood. I just purchased your Killer Home Recording silver package. Great stuff, and I recommend highly for the newb. I’ve only gotten thru the electric guitar section. In your interragator session on that you thought the Firestudio did a fine job and was definetly a workable interface for someone on a budget. That’s nice to hear from you seeing how I have one. Just got a Golden Age Pre 73 though so I’m stoked to see how that improves things by bypassing the preamps in my Firestudio Mobile.