Upgrading your project studio DAW interface to 96KHz

DAW interface options at the dawn of Thunderbolt

I have never felt embarrassed about the gear I work with, until recently. I was looking for options to get a higher quality signal to my main monitors from the interface I still use for remote recording – a Digidesign Digi002 Rack interface. Aside from that old issue they had with the PS/converter board cabling, the 002 has been pretty solid for the past 10 years now (has it been that long?). It has lasted so long because I never use the built in preamps or converters, except for D/A monitoring in remote gigs. Every signal travels into or from the optical or coaxial section digitally. As long as you don’t expect to be tracking 8-piece funk bands, it works quite well and you can get 10 tracks in at once nicely. Sometimes, I make better decisions when I have limited options. At least, that is how I explain this problem to friends. The main goal was to expand the I/O options at a higher quality sample rate.

One thing leads to another…
I decided to add a Dangerous DAC ST to the rig primarily because of the the digital thru capability and the excellent converter. That topic will form its own article in the next month. Then I got thinking, “While I’m at it, the Digi002 can’t record in 96KHz. Am I really that behind the times now?” (Yes, it technically can, but you have to use the converters in the interface and it is limited to 4 channels at a time.) I immediately started looking at options for new interfaces. I figured that it couldn’t be that hard now that Avid has allowed you to use any interface with the arrival of ProTools 9 (now on version 10). What I initially found was interesting – the gap is narrowing between “HD” systems (not just Avid’s ProTools) and the prosumer stuff like the old Digi002. There are a lot of options out there.

The Search: Find a Replacement for the Digi002 in 96KHz!
This article is going to examine project studio-oriented interfaces that can connect to a MacBook Pro running ProTools 9 or above. I’ll save other computer types for a future article, because options expand (and prices go up) when you can use a Mac Pro and PCIe slots. I was more interested in using outboard gear for the conversion part and I just wanted these features in an interface:

  • the ability to record at 96Khz concurrently on at least 16-18 tracks
  • a preference for the interface being just that – an interface that simply connects other A/D and D/A converters to the computer without mic preamps, internal converters, or even headphone monitoring
  • reasonable cost vs. features, since this interface should only have to pass digital signals between the computer and outboard gear – unless the internal converters are high enough quality and the piece can function as an independent converter

The Digi002 has worked well over several computer upgrades because there has been a Firewire port on each laptop at the core of this small studio. What happens when the next Mac has a Thunderbolt port only? Some quick research revealed that Thunderbolt supports Firewire and USB through adapters. It seems like a very innovative piece of technology that will change many things that users have taken for granted in the recording world, like the need to run ProTools HD in a tower. So for now, I’ll look at Firewire interfaces, but soon enough, there is going to be a huge spread of new products incorporating this technology.

ed note: As usually happens, I start writing about a topic with one intent and by the time the article is through, I’ve uncovered six other issues that I hadn’t been aware of. This article is one of those situations. It is abundantly clear that the new Thunderbolt port on Macbooks will change how computers interface with other gear. The days of needing a tower to hold PCIe cards is going to be gone soon and “HD” system prices are going to come down again. The way in which your gear connects to a computer will no longer segment which realm you are in or how many channels you can deal with, rather it will be the quality of gear that you use.

Because we are currently right on the tip of this changeover – most companies are releasing Thunderbolt products sometime in 2012, like Apogee for their Symphony system – these reviews of Firewire gear below already feel a bit dated before I write them. Nevermind that each of these products has already been around for 5 years or more! We’ll see what products utilizing Thunderbolt come out in 2012, then run through some reviews again. Many of the current products listed at the bottom will probably add a Thunderbolt port to their existing range, bump the price a bit and be done with it. Then there will be others that create new products that do everything an HD3 system used to do, but a heck of a lot cheaper. This is going to be a cool year for DAW interfaces!

Mitigating Gear Obsolescence
One option is to go the “HD” route, a route fraught with “obsolete” gear from 3 years ago, now worth 1/5 of the new purchase price. Somehow, I’ve made it through nearly a decade with that Digi002 rig because Firewire was prominent enough in industries other than recording to have some staying power, Avid had several products in different tiers that relied on Firewire, and the Digi002 allows at least some ability to get a signal into and out of the computer without using its own converters. So, if I am to plan the next decade and try to stay ahead of the curve, you can bet that I will stay with outboard gear as much as possible and will rely on the interface only for getting digital into and out of the computer. I’ll also attempt go with a company known for supporting older products for longer periods of time. It is not just Avid, and even Apogee is not exempt here – I remember trying to get a D/A board for a PSX-100 five years ago and being told that I was lucky, because I got the last refurbished one they had in the factory.

However, perhaps I am expecting too much from the manufacturers. Is it their fault? It is no secret that they don’t control the manufacturing of the digital components that make up any of their products – they are simply the designers and assemblers of these components that are often made overseas and tied to other industries’ needs. Certainly, digital gear involves different manufacturing techniques and it is not as easy to repair as a piece of gear that doesn’t utilize surface mount technology. Typically, entire boards are replaced – not individual components. In addition, the converters go out of style quickly and are constantly replaced by bigger and better converters. With the converter components being the cornerstone piece of this type of gear, the manufacturers have a difficult time balancing new product development with stocking outdated components. So, I don’t really blame them as much as I originally thought, but I still have to find a way forward that mitigates my exposure to gear obsolescence.

Do we even need high sampling rates?
What have we learned from the past decade? 96KHz is becoming the quality standard, up from 48KHz from long ago. Dan Lavry wrote a good article on sampling that you should read. It explains why 96Khz is already more information than we need and 192KHz is way overkill and can actually reduce accuracy in digital audio, not increase it. If you were to take a practical turn from this conversation and say, “Why do I need 96KHz anyway when 48KHz has served me well for many years?”  You might come to the conclusion that the increased cost in interfaces and outboard gear seriously diminishes whatever benefit you were looking to find in the first place. On top of that, 48KHz did not limit my enjoyment of music during the 90’s.

As Bob Clearmountain said in this month’s TapeOp (I paraphrase here): “You need good musicians, a good performance, good tracking, then a good mix, in that order. And you don’t even need the last two if the first two are outstanding.” Very true, right? No amount of dicking around with a mix has ever made a crappy performance that much more enjoyable to me. At the same time, the job of a engineer/mixer is to make the best possible product out of whatever they are handed. Thus ensues the continual drive to take gear limitations out of the equation by upgrading everything, until we arrive at the end of the road and many years of experience only to be left with one option: upgrade our own ears.

And now for a complete change of topic…
It’s nice enough at 48KHz. There are many things I could do better to make my mixes sound good. Instead of spending $5K to upgrade converters, I’ve instead focused on some great DIY projects – compressors and microphones. Check out DIY Recording Equipment run by Peterson Goodwyn – it’s a great catalogue of DIY recording projects of all types. Couldn’t have done it better myself!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: