by Jon Chappell and Craig Anderton
It seems like there are never enough ports of any kind—and with more and more devices connecting via USB, you can often use up the half-dozen or so USB ports found on a typical computer in short order. Keyboard, mouse, dongles, USB memory sticks for system speedup or backup, printer, USB mics, hard drives, interfaces . . . what's a modern musician to do?
USB hubs, which are basically multi-in/single-out patchbays of USB connectors that use only one USB port on your computer, seem like an ideal answer. And while they can be, if improperly applied, they can end up robbing performance, screwing up updates, introducing clicks and pops into your audio, and making your life more difficult instead of easier. Fortunately, you're reading this article—so instead you'll be able to take full advantage of USB hubs to streamline your musical computing processes.
A hub serves another purpose, too: because it connects to your computer via a normal cable, it doesn’t take more than its fair share of front-panel space, the way some USB devices do. For example, many iLok keys and other devices have bulky housings that interfere with each other and prevent secure, straight-on connections when you try to plug two of them into adjacent USB ports. Also, a hub saves wear and tear on the computer's ports if you do a lot of USB plugging and unplugging.
Virtually all USB devices draw some power from the USB bus, but some draw more than others. Devices with light power requirements can get by with a non-powered hub, but for the extra few bucks, consider getting a powered USB hub. Someday you'll plug something that needs a lot of current into your hub, and you'll be glad you had the foresight to go for the powered type. The only downside is they require an AC adapter, so for mobile use, if you can get by with a non-powered hub that's generally advisable.
The general rule of thumb is to connect high-performance or high-speed devices directly into your computer's USB ports, and avoid using a hub. Some companies insist that you plug their interfaces directly into the computer's port for best results but even if they don't, it's always a good idea to have as direct a connection as possible between interface and computer. Hard disk drivers also benefit from plugging directly into your computer.
On the other hand dongles, keyboards (both QWERTY and keyboard controllers), mice, USB memory sticks, and even printers are excellent candidates for USB hubs.
If you're updating a device's firmware via USB, never use a hub. Any interruption in the updating process can result in corrupted data or worst case, a non-functional unit because the part of the firmware that boots the device will become corrupted. Furthermore, make sure any connections are totally secure, and use quality cables when doing any kind of firmware update.
Although iLok and other dongles usually work fine with hubs, if you're going to be doing any critical operations—like transferring licenses from one dongle to another—it's a good idea to have them plugged in to your computer's USB ports while doing these operations. After the operations are complete, you can then put them back in their hub home.
If you run out of high-performane USB hubs on your computer, there's another kind of "hub": A PCIe or similar card that contains multiple USB ports. These are inexpensive, yet deliver the kind of performance needed for audio interfaces and hard drives. In fact, it's not a bad idea to use the USB ports on a separate card specifically for audio devices, and letting your computer motherboard's ports handle peripherals like hard drives. Sometimes these drives can put spokes or "dirt" on the USB bus, which can work their way into audio devices.
However, if you also need FireWire, don't be tempted to buy a card that has both USB and FireWire ports. Most manufacturers advise against this; get a separate card for the USB ports, and a separate card for the FireWire ones.
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).