All Fired Up

FireWire (more formally known as IEEE-1394) was once considered the future of audio interfaces, but it's not anymore. It's the present. FireWire's high-speed
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FIG.1: Digidesign's Digi 002 is notable for its well-designed controlsurface and its integration with Pro Tools LE, which comes with theinterface.FIG.2: M-Audio's FireWire 410 is the smallest and least expensive interfacein the group.FIG.3: Metric Halo's Mobile I/O 2882 packs eight mic inputs along withS/PDIF, AES/EBU, and ADAT I/O into a singlerackspace.FIG.4: Metric Halo's 2-channel Mobile I/O ULN-2 boasts two high-quality micpreamps and (like the Mobile I/O 2882) you can power it from theFireWire bus or from batteries.FIG.5: MOTU's next-generation 828mkII offers a full array of I/O options,including MIDI and built-in SMPTE sync. Its front-panel meters are moreelaborate than its predecessor's, and the rotary encoder knobs anddetailed LCD allow standalone mixing.FIG.6: MOTU's 896 is the only 2U rackmount model in this group. In additionto ADAT I/O, its larger size accomodates a full complement of analogand digital (AES/EBU) I/O with XLR connectors. Its front panel alsooffers more extensive metering than the otherinterfaces.FIG.7: The two mic preamps on the Presonus FireStation offer tube drivethat you can dial in or switch off entirely. The FireStation is alsonoteworthy for being the only mLAN-compatible unit in thegroup.FIG.8: Tascam's new FW-1884 is currently the largest of the FireWireinterfaces. It sports a full-featured control surface with a 4-portMIDI interface. The FW-1884 is designed to support a number of DAWapplications.

FireWire (more formally known as IEEE-1394) was once considered thefuture of audio interfaces, but it's not anymore. It's the present.FireWire's high-speed serial communications protocol offersplug-and-play installation, hot-swap capability, and enough bandwidthfor high-resolution multichannel digital audio. Understandably, manymusicians have watched with eager anticipation as the burgeoningFireWire marketplace has moved to center stage. You can now equip yourstudio with any of several high-quality digital interfaces that boastcross-platform compatibility, tons of I/O, and easy portability.

I spent my summer vacation getting up close and personal with anarray of FireWire interfaces, checking them out on Windows XP and MacOS 9 and OS X. The contenders include Digidesign's Digi 002, M-Audio'sFireWire 410, Metric Halo's Mobile I/O 2882 and ULN-2, MOTU's 828mkIIand 896, PreSonus's Fire Station, and Tascam's FW-1884. I found a lotto like in each of these devices, and it was a joy not to have to takemy computers apart every time I swapped interfaces.

WHERE'S THE FIRE?

Industry pundits like to gush over FireWire's 400 Mbps bandwidth,but to most electronic musicians the protocol's appeal is simple: itconnects to the computer externally. Traditionally, audio interfaceshave been based on PCI cards with a bunch of connectors squeezed ontothe back of the card or with a separate breakout box for the audioconnections. That means you have to open your computer, press a cardfirmly into an available slot (while handling the card only by theedges), and worry that if your flesh should accidentally contact thewrong component you could fry the card, your computer, or both with asudden burst of static electricity.

Of course, with a bit of care the process isn't really thattreacherous, but a good number of musicians and engineers who are usedto handling delicate instruments and microphones are neverthelessfilled with trepidation at the prospect of reaching into the guts of acomputer. Plugging a FireWire cable into a port on the back of a PC orMac is a lot less intimidating and indisputably more convenient.

Moreover, FireWire offers new possibilities when it comes toportability. Moving a PCI-based interface from one computer to anotheris a pain, but with FireWire, moving your interfaces around is a snap.And speaking of portability, if you want to use your PCI interface onthe road with a notebook computer, you're out of luck. With aFireWire-equipped laptop, however, or with a CardBus-to-FireWireadapter, portable high-quality audio production is very much areality.

FireWire interfaces don't much care whether they're connected to adesktop or a notebook system. Likewise, most FireWire interfaces don'tcare whether they're attached to a Mac or a PC, though there are someexceptions. For example, Metric Halo has Windows drivers underdevelopment, but it hasn't yet committed to a release date for them.Frustratingly, I was never able to get my Windows notebook fullyfunctional with any of the interfaces that I tested, although I'veconcluded that the fault lies with my notebook (see the sidebar“Best-Laid Plans”).

FEATURE PRESENTATION

For the most part, the devices that I examined aren't in directcompetition with one another. Each has its own approach to solving theaudio-interface needs of musicians, and I can see choosing any one ofthem over the others in a given situation. On the other hand, none ofthe units is quite so revolutionary that I'm compelled to rush out andreplace my existing CardBus-based interface. That isn't intended as aslight to any of the FireWire interfaces; it merely illustrates howimportant it is to match an interface's features to your specificneeds.

Those features can be divided roughly into four categories: inputsand outputs, compatibility and drivers, ergonomics, and extras. Ofcourse, input and output configuration is a primary consideration foran audio interface, and compatibility with your platform andapplications is an absolute prerequisite. Depending on the nature ofyour work, ergonomics can range from a nice detail such as afront-panel headphone jack to a make-or-break issue such as whether aninterface is rackmountable. The variety of “extras” thesedevices offer is impressive, including standalone mixer functions,bundled software, and virtual control surfaces.

COMING AND GOING

Because an audio interface, FireWire or otherwise, is literally yourDAW's connection to the outside world, most of us start by looking at adevice's input and output options. How many analog inputs does it have?Are they line level or do they have mic preamps? Do they use¼-inch or XLR jacks? How many outputs are provided? How manydigital ins and outs does it include? What digital formats does itsupport? What sampling rates and resolutions does it support? Oncethese specs have been sorted out, you're left with the more subjectivequestion of whether you like the sound of the converters and micpreamps.

With the exception of the Mobile I/O ULN-2 and the FireWire 410, allof the interfaces offer at least eight analog inputs. Most use TRSconnectors, but every unit has XLR connectors with built-in mic preampsfor at least the first two inputs. The 896, FW-1884, and Mobile I/O2882 have mic preamps on all eight channels. All of the various micpreamps provide phantom power that is selectable on each channel excepton the Digi 002, where one switch serves two channels (two pairs areprovided), and on the FW-1884, where two switches handle the eightinputs in groups of four.

Except for the Mobile I/O ULN-2, all of the interfaces have at leasteight analog outputs, and all use TRS jacks except for the 896, whichuses XLRs, and the FireWire 410, which uses TS jacks. Other than theFireWire 410, the Mobile I/O 2882, and the FW-1884, all the units havea spare pair of analog outputs called Main or Monitor; they offer anindependent connection to your monitoring system. Every device offers aheadphone output, and the FireWire 410 even provides two headphonejacks with independent volume controls.

Except for the FireStation — which maxes out at 48 kHz —all of the units have A/D/A converters that support sampling rates upto 96 kHz. The FireWire 410 even supports 192 kHz audio on outputs 1and 2. Except for the Mobile I/O ULN-2 and FireWire 410, the interfacesall provide ADAT Optical (Lightpipe) ports for eight channels ofdigital I/O. However, only the 828mkII, FW-1884, and Mobile I/O 2882support sampling rates higher than 48 kHz via Lightpipe. The S/MUXextension to the Lightpipe standard, providing four channels at 88.2 or96 kHz, has been around long enough that you might assume — as Idid — that any 96 kHz-capable interface would support thatsampling rate through its Lightpipe ports. Unfortunately, that's notthe case.

Additional digital I/O includes S/PDIF, AES/EBU, or both oneverything but the FireStation. All of the units that support samplingrates above 48 kHz also support the higher sampling rates on theirstereo digital I/O. The FireStation is an mLAN device, meaning it isalso capable of direct peer-to-peer digital connections withmLAN-compatible digital mixers, keyboards, and other devices.

GETTING ALONG

All of the interfaces in this survey are ready for Mac OS X 10.2,and they also still work under OS 9.2. Only the Metric Halo units arenot cross-platform. (They're currently for Mac only.) Everything elseworks under Windows XP; the MOTU units even go all the way back toWindows 98.

In fact, the MOTU interfaces, along with the FW-1884, are at the topof the compatibility heap with support that covers everything from ASIOto GSIF and WDM, including CoreAudio, Sound Manager, and MME. The MOTUinterfaces also support the company's native MAS format, and theFireStation is unique in its support for Yamaha's mLAN protocol.

The Metric Halo interfaces use ASIO under OS 9 and CoreAudio underOS X. The Digi 002 trails the pack with support for only its ownsoftware or for applications that support Digidesign's DirectI/Ostandard. A beta version of an ASIO driver is available for Windows XP,but not for Mac operating systems.

Besides the Digi 002 and FW-1884, you can connect multiples of anyof these interfaces to your computer; you can even mix and matchsame-brand siblings. For example, you could have a couple of 896s andan 828mkII running at once, or you could have a combination of MobileI/O 2882s and ULN-2s.

BEING PRACTICAL

So you've narrowed the field to those interfaces that have the I/Oyou need and support your hardware and software, but how are you goingto like working with them? Are you planning to move your interfacearound a lot, or will it stay put? Do you need to rackmount it? Do youprefer real knobs and switches, or are software controls more yourstyle?

The smallest of the interfaces is the FireWire 410 and the largestare the Digi 002 and the FW-1884. In between, the Metric Halo units are1U high but deeper than the 2U 896. All but the Digi 002, FW-1884, andFireWire 410 have rack ears; you can remove the ears from the 828mkIIand the two Mobile I/Os. (Digidesign also offers a 2U rackmountableversion of the Digi 002 called, appropriately, the Digi 002 Rack. It'sessentially the same as the Digi 002 without the control surface.)

In considering size and weight, be sure to take mic preamps intoconsideration. The 896 may require one more rackspace than the 828mkII,for example, but it includes six more preamps. You would need to addsomething like the Focusrite OctoPre or the PreSonus DigiMax LT (whichprovide eight preamps in one rackspace) to the 828mkII to roughly levelthe playing field in terms of inputs and luggability. Meanwhile, theMobile I/O 2882 trumps the other interfaces by providing eight channelsof mic preamps (four XLR plus four TRS) in a single rackspace.

The FireStation, the FireWire 410, the Mobile I/O ULN-2, the 896,and the 828mkII use Neutrik combo connectors for their mic inputs,facilitating the use of either XLR or phone plugs. (Unlike the otherunits, the FireWire 410 only supports unbalanced TS plugs; the FW-1884provides separate sets of XLR and phone jacks.) That's a greatconvenience for anyone who needs to reconfigure connections frequently.The FireStation, FireWire 410, and 828mkII place their mic/instrumentinputs on the front panel, which is great for plugging and unpluggingvarious cables — but you'll always have cables hanging down thefront of your rack.

The front-panel headphone jacks are accompanied by a volume knobexcept on the Mobile I/O 2882, which offers Mute and Dim switchesinstead; the FW-1884 has its headphone jack on the back panel. Eachdevice offers a mixer application incorporating routing functions,digital-format selection, and monitor mixing; some incorporate themic-preamp controls. The Mobile I/O 2882 offers only software controlof the mic preamps, whereas the other units provide real knobs andswitches.

If you're into knobs, you'll appreciate the sturdy feel of theFireStation's dual-concentric metal knobs and the solid plastic knobson the Mobile I/O ULN-2. The Digi 002, 828mkII, and 896 have the sortof serviceable but lightweight knobs that should last a long time withcareful use. The Mobile I/O 2882 has no knobs whatsoever, while theDigi 002 and FW-1884 offer lots of knobs in addition to theirtouch-sensitive faders.

Another real-versus-virtual dilemma concerns metering. The Digi 002and FireWire 410 offer only signal-present LEDs, forcing you to look tosoftware meters, whereas the 896, 828mkII, and both Mobile I/Os haveladder-style LEDs on the boxes themselves. The FireStation has threeLEDs indicating -32, -16, and -3 dBFS, and the FW-1884 offers a single11-segment stereo meter.

The FireWire 410 and the two Mobile I/Os are the only interfacesthat can be powered solely via the FireWire bus, a feature which underideal circumstances would be extraordinarily convenient for fieldrecording. According to Metric Halo, most FireWire ports provide enoughpower, although it's wise to check your hardware before counting on it.The Mobile I/Os can also run on battery power or their lump-in-the-linepower bricks. The FireWire 410 can run on its 9V wall-wart adapter. Theother units have standard detachable IEC power cords.

AND ANOTHER THING

Top dogs in the “extra goodies” category are, of course,the Digi 002 and FW-1884 (the most expensive interfaces inconsideration here). The Digi 002 is really much more than aninterface, incorporating a control surface and the host-based versionof a program that is to digital audio workstations what Kleenex is tofacial tissue. The Digi 002 ships with Pro Tools LE, the popular32-track audio application that also includes an array of plug-ins fromvarious developers, offering more power and flexibility than everbefore.

The Digi 002's integrated control surface is a big plus with itsmotorized touch-sensitive faders, continuous rotary encoders, LCDscribble strips, transport controls, and numerous dedicated buttons. Itnaturally falls short of the company's Control|24 or ProControl, but itoffers the most important advantage: you can move two or more faderssimultaneously and independently.

To many aspiring engineers, knowing that the software you use withyour own rig is essentially the same as the software you'll encounterin many commercial facilities is a deal clincher. To others, the lackof compatibility with other DAWs is a deal breaker. Fortunately, thosepeople can turn to Tascam's FW-1884 for a control-surface/interfacethat is designed to work with a wide range of audio programs.

MOTU includes its own pro-level Mac-only AudioDesk DAW application(for OS 9 and OS X) with its interfaces. It supports multichannelrecording and mixing, waveform editing, and MAS and Premiere plug-ins.The MOTU interfaces also work well with many audio applications.

All of the interfaces are touted for their mixing capabilities, butthe FireStation, 828mkII, FW-1884, and Digi 002 are in a differentleague from the others. While all the interfaces offer a good deal ofdirect-monitoring flexibility and the ability to recall settings forvarious situations, the FireStation, 828mkII, FW-1884, and Digi 002provide enough actual knobs to do some real-time mixing even without acomputer. If this sort of thing lets you spend money on a microphone orguitar instead of a separate mixer, it could tip the scales foryou.

PreSonus, Metric Halo, and MOTU point out that their interfaces canbe used as analog-to-Lightpipe front-ends for ADAT-compatible digitalmixers or for another audio interface. I doubt that I would buy one forthat purpose alone, but certainly there's potential in using one as aninterface in a portable rig, for example, and then using it to addeight extra analog channels in a studio setup.

In addition to their audio I/O, the FireStation, FireWire 410,FW-1884, 828mkII, and the Digi 002 include MIDI ports, limiting or insome cases eliminating the need for a separate MIDI interface. The1-In/2-Out Digi 002 and the 1-In/1-Out 828mkII and FireWire 410 providethe connections on their back panels, whereas the 1-In/1-OutFireStation provides the ports on the same small breakout cluster asits S/PDIF coaxial connectors. The FW-1884 takes the cake in thiscategory with its 4-In/4-Out back-panel configuration that providesmerging and routing capabilities. The FireStation, 828mkII, 896,FW-1884, and Digi 002 also include footswitch jacks for hands-freepunch-in recording if your software supports such things.

WHICH WAY TO JUMP?

Now that I've surveyed the various features that distinguish theseinterfaces, I will take a brief look at each unit individually. Theobservations that follow are intended to elucidate the sort ofapplications for which each device is best suited. However, becausesome of the distinctions are necessarily subjective, you should assessthe different products based on your particular needs and studiosetup.

Digidesign Digi 002

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Although it's the most expensive interface in the roundup, the Digi002 (see Fig. 1) also includes the most extras. Buying a programequivalent to the bundled Pro Tools LE to use with any of the otherinterfaces would add several hundred dollars, and buying an equivalentcontrol surface would cost a grand or more, so all things considered,it's really on par with the others.

As with the 896, the Digi 002's lack of S/MUX support makes iteither a 10-channel 96 kHz interface or an 18-channel 48 kHz interface.If you can live with either the lower track count or the lower samplingrate, you'll have a wonderfully integrated system to work with. Thecontrol surface is seductive — it's difficult to do without onceyou get used to it. The 100 mm touch-sensitive faders are a pleasure towork with, and the Digi 002 includes some nice touches like the brightyellow LCD channel/parameter labels.

Because the control surface and interface comprise a single unit,this is one of the least portable of the bunch. Still, it's prettylight and reasonably compact for all its functionality. Digidesign evenoffers a special 2U carrying bag, the DigiPack ($125), that fits theDigi 002 or the 002 Rack perfectly. If what you really want is ProTools, the Digi 002 (or 002 Rack) is a good way to go, and it'scurrently the only FireWire option in the Pro Tools product line. Add aMIDI controller keyboard and some RTAS soft synths and you have thecore of a great home studio.

M-Audio FireWire 410

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M-Audio's compact and affordable FireWire 410 packs a lot of 24/96connectivity into a package that is (unfortunately) just a bit widerthan half a rackspace (see Fig. 2). Its front panel features twoNeutrik combo connectors for mic and high-impedance inputs, and theback has separate ¼-inch unbalanced line inputs that substitutefor the ones on the front. The FireWire 410's mic preamps featureindividual pads and a single phantom-power switch. Eight analog outputsare available on unbalanced ¼-inch connectors on the back panel,and the S/PDIF I/O (in both coaxial and optical formats) brings thetotal I/O count to four inputs and ten outputs, as the unit's namesuggests.

The two front-panel headphone jacks with independent volume controlsare a nice touch. The S/PDIF outputs support AC-3 and DTS streams.Drivers are available for Windows 2000 and XP and Mac OS 9 and OS X.For simplicity and portability, it doesn't get much better than this,and the price is by far the lowest of the group.

Metric Halo Mobile I/O 2882

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The Mobile I/O 2882 (see Fig. 3) joins the 828mkII and theFW-1884 as the only ADAT-equipped interfaces that are fully operationalat 96 kHz. Unfortunately, both Mobile I/O models lack Windows drivers.Moreover, the Mac installation procedure is remarkably uncharacteristicof Macs, requiring that you manually copy drivers to specific folders.Perhaps Metric Halo was too busy working on the excellent 100-pagemanual to write an installer.

The Mobile I/O 2882 has no bells or whistles. It's just theessentials, done well and packed into a single rackspace. Other than aheadphone jack and Mute and Dim buttons, the front panel is entirelydevoted to 16 channels of 10-stage meters. You'll need XLR-to-TRSadapters to use microphones in inputs 5 through 8, but that's allspelled out in the aforementioned manual.

The Mobile I/O 2882 fits perfectly under a laptop, a real plus foranyone trying to squeeze a remote rig into tight spaces. Add bus- orbattery-powered operation, and you have a strong contender for thetitle of Ultimate Remote Rig.

Metric Halo Mobile I/O ULN-2

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ULN stands for “ultra low noise,” a reference to the micpreamps in this unit (see Fig. 4); they're a step up from theones in the Mobile I/O 2882. Each channel has a send and return forinserting dynamics or EQ in the signal path. The main ¼-inchinputs are high-impedance instrument inputs, but you can use thereturns as line-level inputs, thereby covering all the bases.

Compared with the Mobile I/O 2882, the ULN-2 trades channel countfor preamp quality and flexibility. If you're doing stereo locationrecording, that might be an excellent trade-off.

MOTU 828mkII

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The original 828 won EM's 2002 Editor's Choice award in partbecause it was the first of this new breed of multichannel FireWireinterfaces. The second generation 828mkII (see Fig. 5) addssignificant functionality along with an impressive feature set thatMOTU has managed to pack into a single-rackspace unit for the sameprice as the old 828.

Unlike the 828, the 828mkII has its Neutrik combo mic/instrumentjacks mounted on the front with separate phantom-power switches andindividual TRS send/return jacks for each channel. The front-panelmetering displays are also much more elaborate and more detailed. Inaddition to the multisegment LED meters, a separate backlit LCD sectionwith six accompanying push-button/rotary encoders lets you view andedit parameter settings and provides hands-on access to the built-in8-bus mixer (with four separate monitor mixes).

The combination of the multifunction LCD and the array of editingknobs makes this unit an effective standalone mixer-interface as wellas a sophisticated DAW front-end. And speaking of DAWs, the 828mkIIcomes bundled with MOTU's latest version of AudioDesk, which nowsupports OS X. Although it doesn't offer MIDI sequencing, Audio Desk isa full-featured multitrack audio-recording and -editing applicationthat is comparable to Pro Tools LE. Too bad it isn't available forWindows.

Other noteworthy features include MIDI I/O, S/MUX support for theADAT port, word clock I/O, and direct SMPTE time-code sync. With itsremovable rack ears, the 828mkII nicely accommodates tabletop use, andit's easily small enough and light enough to throw into a backpack withyour notebook for remote gigs.

MOTU 896

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When I first saw the 896, the only 2U device in the bunch, myminimalist nature recoiled at such a “big” interface (seeFig. 6). Upon further reflection, I realized that bringing the828mkII or FireStation up to eight mic inputs would require a secondrackspace anyway. Only the Mobile I/O 2882 provides as many mic inputsin less rack space.

The reason the 896 is two spaces high is because it has an all-XLRback panel, arguably its most attractive feature. Its front-panelreal-knob-and-switch controls and its extensive and flexible hardwaremetering (with 20 10-segment meters spread across the front) are a realconvenience. In addition to word clock I/O, MOTU has always made apoint of including ADAT sync in its interfaces, which for some users isimportant enough to steer their choice by itself. (The 828mkII alsooffers this feature.)

If you're not too put off by the lack of S/MUX support, you couldeasily rack up a couple of 896s and a couple of 8-channel preamps andhave 32 channels of mic inputs in six rackspaces for a compact andpowerful 24-bit, 48 kHz rig at home or on the road.

PreSonus FireStation

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I found the FireStation pretty appealing, and it's not just becauseof its pretty blue knobs (see Fig. 7). Although it trails mostof the pack in both sampling rate and I/O count, its two mic preampsoffer tube drive that can be dialed in or switched off entirely. Likethe Mobile I/O ULN-2 and the 828mkII, it also has a send and return oneach of the two channels, so you can massage the signal before it hitsthe converters. The top of the unit features adjustments forcalibrating the line inputs to the A/D converters, something notusually seen in this price range.

I'm not sold on PreSonus's choice of mLAN for this unit, however. IfI owned a bunch of other mLAN devices I might see things differently,but for many users it only represents another layer of complexity ininstallation and configuration.

Tascam FW-1884

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Codeveloped with Frontier Design Group, Tascam's FW-1884 (seeFig. 8) is the answer for desktop musicians who like the Digi002 design concept but don't want to switch to a new DAW.

Incorporating an 18 I/O interface (or 14 I/O at 96 kHz) with acontrol surface that's compatible with a variety of different programs,the FW-1884 covers a lot of ground. Being the largest of the interfacesunder scrutiny, it's probably most at home in a studio, but remoterecording is not out of the question.

All eight mic/line inputs have inserts, and the eighth input can beswitched to high-impedance guitar operation. Phantom power isswitchable in groups for inputs 1 through 4 and 5 through 8. Aheadphone output is also provided on the back panel. Digital I/O comesin coaxial S/PDIF and optical connectors that can serve up eitherS/PDIF or ADAT Lightpipe; word clock I/O is provided on standard BNCconnectors.

The control surface features nine 100 mm motorized touch-sensitivefaders, transport controls, a jog/shuttle wheel, eight channels ofrotary encoders, a dedicated set of knobs for controlling EQ, and morebuttons than you can shake a stick at. Compatibility with hostapplications is provided either by a control surface plug-in or byemulating the behavior of a Mackie Control or HUI. Tascam did a prettygood job with its earlier US-428 USB interface, and with the FW-1884 ithas not only raised the bar, it has answered all of the majorlimitations of the US-428. Tascam even plans to offer an eight-faderexpansion unit (due out by the end of the year), called the FE-8, formore channels of control.

CHOICE FEATURES

The current batch of interfaces represents an impressive array ofchoices, and more options are on the horizon. Because the bandwidth ofa FireWire connection is ample, manufacturers are able to focus ondistinguishing their feature sets rather than battling over trackcount.

Being able to buy one interface and use it with either your notebookor your desktop, or with either your Mac or your PC, is a greatconvenience and cost saver. With FireWire's power and flexibility andwith the range of interface options that are currently available, youreally can start to think (and create) outside the box.

Brian Smithersis Course Director of Audio Workstations atFull Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida.

BEST-LAID PLANS

At the risk of feeding Steve Jobs' superiority complex, I have topoint out that I was never able to get any of the Windows-compatibleFireWire interfaces running properly on my Windows XP laptop. Even morefrustrating is the fact that I can't exactly pin down the source of theproblem. The one thing I can conclude with confidence is that my laptopis the source of the problem, not the interfaces. I deduce this fromthe following facts: all of the Windows-compatible interfaces hadproblems; none of the suggestions of the various manufacturers' techsupport folks resolved the issues; I faced the same issues with twodifferent programs; I did not face these issues on my desktop; and Ihad the same problems with two different CardBus FireWire cards knownto be compatible with FireWire audio interfaces.

The challenge with Windows compatibility is, of course, the sheernumber of different manufacturers and models, presenting anear-infinite combination of design variables. In notebook design,additional compromises have to be made to fit everything into a smalland lightweight box, inviting further deviations from“standard” configurations. Given the fact that you can'tusually open a computer in a store and check which components it uses,as well as the fact that you can't custom-build a notebook, choosing anotebook for use with a FireWire interface is a bit of a challenge.

Because many people consider a portable notebook-based recording rigto be the “killer app” for FireWire interfaces, I asked thevarious manufacturers for some guidance on what to look for in anotebook. Here's what I learned:

  • Newer machines generally present fewer problems. (My notebook is a 1GHz Celeron that I've had for about three years. When I purchased it,FireWire wasn't in widespread use on PCs.)
  • CardBus FireWire adapters are often better than built-in FireWireports, especially on older machines.
  • The newest versions of software, drivers, and Windows should providethe best compatibility.
  • Quality cables of the shortest useful length provide the bestperformance; don't forget that cables can go bad.
  • If you're using a FireWire drive, you should connect the drive tothe computer and the interface to the drive, so the interface is lastin the chain. Better yet, put them on separate ports.
  • Tech support can be quite helpful. Keep detailed notes about anyissues and error messages so you can provide the necessary informationwhen asked.
  • Manufacturer's Web sites often provide compatibility information,tech notes, and user reports about compatibility issues.

In an ideal world, manufacturers would all build according to acarefully designed set of standards, and the job of making devicescompatible with all computers would be greatly simplified. I'mconfident we'll get there, probably just after we achieve world peace.In the meantime, consider the advice I got when I asked onemanufacturer's product rep what he looked for in his recent purchase ofa Windows notebook for his portable demo rig. He simply replied,“A 30-day return policy.”

Click to see PDF chart of Audio InterfaceFeatures

CONTACT INFO

Digidesign
tel. (650) 731-6300; e-mail prodinfo@digidesign.com; Web www.digidesign.com

M-Audio
tel. (626) 445-2842; e-mail sales@m-audio.com; Web www.m-audio.com

Metric Halo
tel. (845) 831-8600; e-mail in-foo@mhlabs.com; Web www.mhlabs.com

MOTU
tel. (617) 576-2760; e-mail info@motu.com; Web www.motu.com

PreSonus Audio Electronics
tel. (800) 750-0323; e-mail presonus@presonus.com; Web www.presonus.com

Tascam
tel. (323) 726-0303; e-mail tascamweb@tascam.com; Web www.tascam.com