What is Firewire!

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What is Firewire?
Excerpt from "All Fired Up" November 2003

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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 serial communications protocol offers plug-and-play installation, hot-swap capability, and enough bandwidth for high-resolution multichannel digital audio. Understandably, many musicians have watched with eager anticipation as the burgeoning FireWire marketplace has moved to center stage. You can now equip your studio with any of several high-quality digital interfaces that boast cross-platform compatibility, tons of I/O, and easy portability.

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

Of course, with a bit of care the process isn't really that treacherous, but a good number of musicians and engineers who are used to handling delicate instruments and microphones are nevertheless filled with trepidation at the prospect of reaching into the guts of a computer. Plugging a FireWire cable into a port on the back of a PC or Mac is a lot less intimidating and indisputably more convenient.

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

FireWire interfaces don't much care whether they're connected to a desktop or a notebook system. Likewise, most FireWire interfaces don't care whether they're attached to a Mac or a PC, though there are some exceptions.