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USB/FIREWIRE Mixer instead of standard interface?

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  • USB/FIREWIRE Mixer instead of standard interface?

    I'm at a crux...

    I've been recording using a few different things: Xenyx 1002 USB Mixer (meh was ok), Samson Studio GT (I actually like it, but i can use my intended monitors), TonePort UX2 (Sucks for vocals)...

    I'm ready to spend some money on a quality interface OR a good mixer interface combo like the Mackie Onyx series with firewire. My questions are if anyone uses a firewire mixer to get great quality recording or is it better used for live performances. Or should I just stick with and buy a traditional interface like the Scarlet series?

    I also just started learning pro tools 10, which the Mackie says is completely compatible, channel by channel.
    Reduced to roadie, sound guy, and "hey-boy" for a 16 year old.

  • #2
    Nearly all interfaces are compatible with Pro tools. That shouldn't be a big factor but you should always compare your computer specs to the interfaces minimum system requirements.

    As far as quality goes, its essentially centered around the interfaces preamp and converters, nothing else. Once the converters convert the analog wave to digital its no longer and analog wave, simply ones and zeroes. You're essentially dealing with an illusion of sound when you manipulate the data within the DAW program. When recording, Once the data is converted to digital its written to the hard drive. The DAW program doesn't do jack to the data besides set up separate files. The DAW program doesn't use algorithm's to recompute the sampled data until you start mixing, panning, adjusting levels and using plugins.

    What's written to the disk recording is exactly what the interface converters sample. The exception is what you place between the mic and converters or whether you use plugins to change the data before its written to the drive. Most people don't use plugins recording because it adds a great deal of latency to what you hear tracking which can throw your musical performance off. Its also going to permanently affect what you record and cannot be undone - in other words if you mess up setting a plugin using it in series with the data being written, you're stuck with it. If you write to the drive without plugins running, you can mix all you want and undo any changes so long as you don't render and rewrite tracks with the effects applied.

    I mention these things so you know what the reality of what you're working with is and know what will make a real difference when buying gear or software.

    Back to your specific inquiry. The difference between a mixer and straight interface is this. An interface only has a preamp before the converters. For line level guitar its likely a two stage preamp that gets the guitar up to line level before hitting the converters. The mic preamp uses an extra gain stage because a mic has a lower output vs a guitar pickup.

    So long as these preamps produce a flat response with low noise you get the best recording quality possible. The quality of the converters can be an issue too, but not like it was in the early days. The chip manufacturing is as good as computer chips are and most budget interfaces have quality good enough where its impossible for your ears to tell the difference between one chip and another, so the difference in sound quality between one interface and another is essentially the preamp and that's it.

    So long as the interface has good drivers and communicates with the computer without dropouts that can cause pops and clicks the actual sound quality is based on preamp quality only. Some high end studios may use converters that cost a grand or more per converter but their setups are based around the work they do. I'll skip going into all the technical details because they just don't apply for your situation but its something you may find educational if you understand things in more depth.

    A Mixer interface adds extra analog circuitry before the mic and converters. The channels usually contain EQ's to shape the mic signals before the signal is converted to digital.

    The question comes down to weather you need it or not. Any additional circuitry will add noise and if there's and EQ you have a certain amount of analog loss no matter how good that EQ circuit is. The rule of thumb in analog electronics is the shortest path is the truest. As you add more components in series the signal degrades and you loose fidelity. The EQ circuit in the mixer contains chips, coils and capacitors that remove frequencies the mic produces and does add raises the noise floor. If the EQ is high quality the noise may be minimal compared to the results you get.

    You have to ask the question of do you need to shape the signal before it gets written to the drive or can you wait till you mix and do that shaping within the content of it fitting into the mix properly. In the past studios had to do allot of pre mixing before they recorded to tape because the frequency response of the signal hitting the tape influenced how it was written to the tape. Tape had limited headroom and they would push certain frequencies to produce certain types of tape saturation.

    In Digital there is no saturation so there is no need to EQ the signal prior to it being written to the drive. In my book, having everything a guitar or mic produces saved to the drive can only be beneficial. You don't and wont know what frequencies you need from that mic until you are actually mixing the parts. if you EQ when tracking you may wind up removing the exact thing you needed in your final mix to make it sound great. Or you may add something you only have to remove later and when you do, it winds up sounding worse then if you never added it to begin with.

    There are circumstances where Pre EQing may be necessary. Maybe the mic isn't right for the application, or you have a very bassy pickup that impedes your playing performance. You do what you must to allow the best playing performance, but can you adapt your playing to that sound and simply take care of it later mixing? I've been recording for nearly 50 years and grew up using all kinds of inferior equipment and learned to not let my playing performance be bottlenecked by the gear. Of course its always nice to have great tone tracking whenever possible, but I know when it begins to influence the quality of the recording in a bad way.

    So again, if you're using a mixer to enhance you signal, and all you do is roll off some bass because you have a bassy pickup, maybe you could do better, backing that pickup down, Replacing the pickup, using a high quality filter into an interface instead of using a mixer EQ which is often low quality and broad banded removing frequencies you don't need to. There are more then one way to skin a cat and you do so by experimentation.

    If your mic sounds bad with your voice, yes you can pre EQ it but wouldn't it be better to get a mic that suits your voice and doesn't need EQing? This way you retain maximum fidelity until you're in the final stages of mixing and can surgically removes the exact amount instead of guessing when tracking and often guessing wrong.

    Not sure this answers your question. Mackie makes good gear, or at least many people like it but I see that kind of mixer better for live situations where you can run the mixer as a PA and record from it. If you simply record in a studio it contains redundant circuitry that can cause more harm then good.

    The Focusrite interface on the other hand uses high quality differential preamps which remove noise similar to how humbuckers work by using phase cancellation. you wind up with and extremely clean and low noise signal with an extremely flat response. If you need the mixer to shape your inputs so the sound good playing then go for it.

    If its a matter of your headphones and monitors being low quality that you're trying to compensate for you're approaching the problem at the wrong point in the chain. The mixing chain works in reverse of a performing chain. If you play guitar, you start with a great instrument and shape it going down the chain.

    In recording you end with great monitors so you can properly shape everything that comes before it. They are the truth detectors for your ears. If you don't have good monitors then everything I've said is immaterial. If your monitors aren't true you can never get an accurate mix. Same for headphones.

    For tracking you can for example put an EQ/compressor or even reverb between the interface and headphone amp or monitors and shape the signal when tacking so your playing feels comfortable yet not have those changes recorded to the tracks - then you can bypass it when mixing and work with the true response of your tracks when mixing.

    Again, these and many more are your choices. You'll have to make your own decisions on what works best for you. Hopefully this explanation will give you a better insight as to how and why things actually work and can guide you to the best purchase option.


    • #3
      I've used the PreSonus StudioLive mixer with Firewire to record and mix a few projects.I believe the Mackie Onyx mixers work the same way. I know the Onyx allows the Firewire sends to be setup as pre or post EQ which is helpful if you are recording a live performance.

      It is a good way to work if you are used to an analog mixer with a tape deck and provides 'hands on' mixing.

      One advantage of the Mackie over the PreSonus is that it has discrete channel strips so there is no need to step through pages.

      What computer will you be using?
      Every worm, every insect, every animal is working
      for the ecological wellbeing of the planet.

      Only we humans, who claim to be the most intelligent
      species here, are not doing that. ~Sadhguru


      • #4
        Thank you very much guys. Great info. My computer should be fine, I have an i5 Ivy bridge, 16GB DDR3 Ram. After reading a few posts by WRGKMC, I really don't NEED a fire-wire interface or mixer... I was convinced the firewire was a better interface because of speed. I am learning that is not the case. Additionally I was under the impression that I may have been limited by the number of channels I could record at once because of USB, when it is in fact from the interface itself (The Xenyx mixer will only record two tracks at once, L/R and not all channels as tracks in any DAW). Onelife, I am used to mixing on an analog mixer for live performances, not so much for recording. Maybe I only wanted the mixer for comfort because of lack of knowledge of the DAW. I need to keep learning...

        That said, I "want" an interface that:
        1. I can bypass the pre's or line level in as I sometimes use other rack pre amps.
        2. Has at least 4 XLR ins. I want a set it and forget it setup. My daughter is a solo acoustic act. I want two in the booth for multi mic or vocal and pencil condensers, with a line level option. I also want to set at least two in the room, because sometimes it sounds good with the vaulted ceiling and just like it.
        3. I want the option to record all inputs to separate channels at the same time...

        All the reviews read, and people who swear by this or that just has me confused at what to buy. I have rack space for growth if needed, but don't mind a separate console. firewire, usb 2.0 or 3.0... If you guys want to make a suggestion I would love to hear it!

        Pics of my space for reference:

        Reduced to roadie, sound guy, and "hey-boy" for a 16 year old.


        • #5
          I've had great success with the PreSonus AudioBox 1818VSL and a MacBook...

          PreSonus also has a four channel version as well...
          Every worm, every insect, every animal is working
          for the ecological wellbeing of the planet.

          Only we humans, who claim to be the most intelligent
          species here, are not doing that. ~Sadhguru


          • #6
            check out the midas venice F series... i think they've just been discontinued but there might be some around still .. or there's used

            it's what i use


            • #7
              Firewire does have two speeds of 400 and 800Mbps.
              USB is a master slave port and Firewire is Peer to Peer which does have an advantage over USB even though it may not be as fast. Its akin to the Turtle and the Hare. The Turtle wins by having a steady pace and the Hare runs fast but constantly hits red lights.

              In computer terms. Peer to peer will run steadily in the background while the CPU is doing other things. It may not be as fast as some USB units but because it runs uninterrupted it can wind up being more reliable especially running allot of channels. The main requirement used to be to run a TX instruments Firewire chipset card for the highest reliability. You can also stack interfaces on a Firewire port with certain interfaces.

              USB is a Master Slave port which requires constant monitoring by the CPU. The CPU can also interrupt the data flow when the load becomes to great. Since computer processing has improved and we have dual and quad processors the issues with USB dropouts is not as bad as it was when you had single processors. The processors can easily run multiple tasks and not have the dropout issues they used to. You shouldn't have any issues running 16 channels or less. USB is supposed to be really fast too but I honestly cant tell you how well the USB interfaces work.

              There are two others as well. PCI/e and Thunderbolt interfaces. PCI is faster then USB or Firewire because it plugs directly into the mother board and doesn't require port protocols to transmit data packets. It uses the Bus IRQ instead. Thunderbolt is a communication port but bit does tie into the main buss and its supposed to be as fast as PCIe or any other port.

              I've been running PCI interfaces since about 1994 and have had great success with them. My first 8 track card was a ISIS card which I used for quite a few years. When XP came out I found the driver wasn't upgradable and the company had pretty much gone out of business. Its too bad because it was a really good sounding card.

              I upgraded to three M-Audio 1010LT cards which gave me 24 channels. I still have those in the studio for recording full bands. PCI has been phased out for PCIe so I'll need to upgrade my interface to run on USB or Thunderbolt when I upgrade my computer next time.

              I have been using a 6 channel Tascam US-1200 a 6 channel interface for solo stuff. The sound quality is as good as any other interfaces I've owned and the build quality is a solid metal rack unit.

              My buddy owned an 8 channel Presonus Firebox, one of the early PC compatible interfaces (Presonus used to be mac only) and he constantly had driver issues. He even contacted Presonus about the problem and they acknowledged the issue and couldn't tell him when they would update the driver. He was stuck deinstalling and reinstalling the drivers to get the thing to work. I looked at it for him too and thought I had the issue fixed. He had a half dozen drivers installed over and over so I removed them all and reinstalled and it worked fine for me. A week later he was back at it again so I cant be sure if it was partly his fault.

              So far the Tascam hasn't had a single dropout. Of course my PCI cards had no issues in the past 12 years either.
              If you can afford more channels go for it. You'll find uses for it once you get into some creative micing techniques.
              With the 6 cannels I can record guitar with stereo effects using 2 channels and use a stereo drum machine at the same time.
              I could also use two mics at the same time to record all 6 channels. I don't sing and play at the same time doing solo stuff. I do that playing with the full band though, in fact I can record all 4 singers, 8 drum mics two pairs of guitar mics and bass which is my preferred method recording a 4 piece band.

              I had planned on switching to a MOTU recording setup. Some of their rack units are excellent but I'd need to but a main unit then an additional 8 channel preamp unit and that's pretty pricy for me needs. I can buy a Tascam US-1800 for $250 and easily do what I'm doing now.
              the 1800 has 8 built in mic preamps and 8 line level inputs. I already have an 8 channel preamp I can plug into the line inputs and have the full 16 channels. No huge rush on any of this however. I haven't been playing with the band much lately so its a lower priority then it used to be.
              Last edited by WRGKMC; 10-10-2016, 01:43 PM.


              • #8
                I too have the PreSonus StudioLive mixer which I use for both recording and for live performance (and for recording live performances.) It's probably better as a recording rig - according to many who don't like the interface and occasional lockups. Apparently the lockups can be prevented by using a really good power conditioner or UPS.

                I've also used Tascam, Presonus FireStudio and a few other interfaces.

                All that aside - the issues I run into when dealing with interfaces are:
                • quality of mic preamp,
                • number of mic preamps/inputs
                • quality of analog to digital conversion,
                • latency,
                • control over different monitors
                • midi

                Pretty much any interface that is from a name brand will have decent mic pre's and a/d conversion. So if you buy a mackie, presonus, United Audio, Tascam etc interface you'll be fine for that.

                You can, if you have some extra cash, buy a 'boutique' style mic pre and run that into your interface on a line in. Most of us don't really need that much mic pre to get really good recordings.

                And yes, more mic pres lets you do more at one time, more is better :-D four to eight would probably do you well.

                Latency: If you're recording everything at once or can plan out recording so you can do all your recording before mixing and you have a reasonably fast computer - latency with Firewire or USB 3 isn't as big an issue. If you're like me and wind up adding parts as a result of mixing and thinking "Oh, I should put a XXXXX here," then latency becomes an issue.

                The way it works is that there are buffers that store up date and release a bit at a time to your DAW so that you don't get pops and cracks. But the bigger the buffer the slower the latency and suddenly you go from 4 to 8 ms which you can hardly hear up to 12 to 20 ms which sound like you're adding reverb and parts are not 'in time' when overdubbing.

                If you're recording all at once, you can leave the buffers larger so less chance of pops, clicks, dropouts etc. You can lower the buffer for overdubs if need be.

                Faster connection plus faster computer plus fast external drive (so you're not sucking up resources on your main drive) minimize latency.

                I've only run into issues mid mixdown and wanting to add one more vocal harmony, guitar part and/or percussion and already having a ton of plugins running and needing the buffer high so that it still keeps chugging along. Lowering the buffer at that point leads to stoppages, pops and clicks because of all the data being moved around.

                The next thing is control of monitors - which I've found to be a real hassle in the studio. You want at least one headphone output with its own volume control, plus at least one speaker output with it's own volume control.

                You want to be able to turn off the main speaker volume while overdubbing or listening to a click track.

                I've tried workarounds, but really just find that if the interface doesn't have those outputs don't get it. Just too much hassle.

                Midi can be important. If you have a set of electronic drums, you'll want to hook them up by midi. Don't even think about running an audio out from them for recording. Unless you buy the most expensive electronic drums, it'll suck. The drum samples/virtual drums you can get now are awesome. Yes, the virtual drummers come with some great patterns and are getting very good at faking their way through songs (just like real drummers.) But every once in a while you need a specific fill, stop or other drum trick that a virtual drummer just can't do. A quick fill with the drum kit and let the virtual drummer do the rest can work wonders.

                But - you don't need to have midi just for keyboards, buy a keyboard controller that has a USB out and you're covered for putting in keyboard parts and running a virtual piano, organ or synth.
                Last edited by HardwireSpeers; 10-13-2016, 01:33 PM.
                Neil "Hardwire" Speers - on SoundCloud