Mixers and audio interfaces

Gosh apologies, it was indeed the routing of the numbers being different between Ableton and Motu! Thanks!

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Welp friends, it has finally happened:

NSFW (j/k)

MOTU UltraLite mk3 you have served me valiantly over the years. Thousands (millions?) of hours of audio has been routed through your venerable 8 ins and 10 outs. For the last year or two I haven’t been able to launch your software, but still you were able to be selected as my interface. Alas, today was the end. I didn’t know just a few days ago was to be our last time together.

I love you MOTU UltraLite mk3.

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What happened? Mine is still working (I hope)! Why did it go bad?!?

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Is that perhaps just going into a Thunderbolt dock USB C port? I can generally get this same ridiculous adapter chain working as long as it is a thunderbolt 3 port at the end and not a USB C.

Many thunderbolt 3 docks I’ve run into have only a USB C/DisplayPort additional connector instead of an entire additional TB3 port.

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@eblomquist @nojay OH WOW. It was the adaptor. When I plugged it direct in it worked!!! This is the adaptor I’m using. Wowwwwwwww. So USB C != Thunderbolt 3. Interesting…

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So I decided I needed a schematic to help me make some long term decisions about where I was headed with all of this and exactly how much money it would take to get things setup and organized. It’s certainly a worthwhile exercise. In the end, I made some more decisions:

  • 3 snakes: one for mics, one for things on the left, one for things on the right.
  • A new interface is next: the basic problem I’m trying to solve is how to use the gear I have and track more than 2 or 3 instruments/vocals at a time - my limit is Preamps and channel count.
  • Apollo 8 is most likely the best fit: I get 4 more preamps and it ties into my current workflow with the Apollo Twin seamlessly.
  • I still need a mixer: for now, I’ll keep using my small A&H for “loose” patching - random table top stuff and quick routing. Still want an X-Desk. (I even worked out a way to chain the A&H output to the X-Desk summing using their linking system!)

In that spirit, here is a concept of how it all might fit together with an X-Desk. I even did analysis on all the cables needed to make sure I wasn’t going to have a huge investment in cabling that I can’t use down the road.

I realize this isn’t directly relevant to anyone, but it was useful for me to do this for my situation so wanted to share my ideas. Definitely open to feedback on whether anything in this plan doesn’t look right or “isn’t done” for whatever reason. I’m not a pro!

(Done in Google Sheets I might add which made it REALLY easy)

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Not to go too offtopic but this is a common misconception due to the connector format. They are indeed not at all the same.

Thunderbolt 3 is by far more capable and provides for a wider range of hardware possibilities and throughput. USB is simpler to implement and has some standards around behaviour that permit class based driverless behaviour which TB3 does not. They are targeted at different needs and optimized for different applications and markets. Sharing the connector is the only thing they have in common. For what it’s worth, DisplayPort did that with TB2 causing people to confuse those protocols too.

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They made a complete mess of that connector which can carry a variety of “partner mode” data including HDMI, DisplayPort, and Thunderbolt, which itself can carry USB data. And obviously someone proposed Ethernet because didn’t stop to think if they should.
Expensive adapters for all. I’ll go by Firewire for as long as I can source stable adapters, or this perfect hash of a situation is resolved in favour of something I don’t have to dedicate cognitive resources to.

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To avoid confusion, this is technically not correct. The Thunderbolt protocol is effectively an encapsulated, serial PCI-e bus (leaving out yet further complications). Since nearly any adapter can be given a PCI-e peripheral connection, you can adapt everything from graphics adapters to USB controllers to DSP cards. USB itself, as a protocol, however, is NOT directly encapsulated by Thunderbolt 3 - it still requires a PCI-e protocol conversion, which means active hardware (e.g. a dongle), not simply electrical interface conversion (e.g. a cable).

I get that people are confused by the sharing of the connector, but that’s analogous to saying “you can carry data over wires”… it’s useless without specifying how in a myriad variety of ways (electrical signal levels, which wire means what, thence what the signalling pattern is to indicate data, ack, nack, flow control, error detection, thence the sequence of bits to identify, control, and communicate with each device on the bus or link endpoint, thence the control protocol for the device, and so forth). The connector is just a way for wires outside the computer to connect to wires inside the computer, absolutely nothing more.

Also, “Thunderbolt” as I’ve outlined above, is a specific set of meanings for those wires AND signals that go on them AND a method for devices to communicate to the computer AND some very basic layers of the methods for controlling them. USB is a completely different set of these core protocol specifications, plus MUCH MORE in terms of how the OS itself is aware of and generically provides driver support for certain classes of them.

While USB-3 and to a much greater extent USB-4 provide commonalities by which the appropriate protocol can be chosen and thus each is a little more aware of the other, they’re still by no means the same standard, they’re just closer to interoperability. USB-4 will be, if anything, even MORE confusing as it, as a protocol, is even more similar to Thunderbolt 4 (and they both have a 4 in their name, and share a connector, etc) but there ARE differences even there (Thunderbolt won’t provide backwards compatibility to any USB protocol, for instance, whereas USB-4 is a negotiated layer that can provide access downwards to them as fallback), and boy I can’t wait for the confusion here to start when cheap devices and dongles that really can’t translate between them well are abused for that purpose unknowingly.

In short, it really pays to know the differences between the protocols versus the connectors and what types of devices (and thus dongles) you’ll need to adapt what to what. But in near-universal cases, Thunderbolt “upstream” (e.g. on the computer end) can always adapt to USB “downstream” (e.g. towards the peripheral) but NOT the other way around.

Another takeaway of this is that you will always be able to adapt Firewire (downstream) to Thunderbolt (upstream) but it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to generically adapt Firewire to USB-* (at least until USB-* becomes identical to a Thunderbolt-like generic bus) because Firewire itself is a very generic bus and does not translate to the command-orientation of USB protocols.

As people re-discover the joys of older audio hardware (the human ear hasn’t, after all, changed much), adapting older hardware will only become more confusing to the newer interfaces you’re going to see coming down the pipe, so best to at least comprehend this non-symmetrical relationship between TB-X and USB-X as it will drive the next generation of expansion ports.

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The USB4 specification is based on the Thunderbolt 3 protocol specification.[2] Support of interoperability with Thunderbolt 3 products is optional for USB4 hosts and USB4 peripheral devices and required for USB4 hubs on its downward facing ports and for USB4-based docks on its downward and upward facing ports.

I’ll take your word for it but that’s how it reads to me. I get that their idea was to basically merge the two but I can’t understand why they’re going through so many iterations. I understand that the meanings change depending on context - sometimes we talk about protocols and sometimes about electrical wires and connectors, but I always put on a user hat in this - if it looks like a USB cable, I expect USB to work, and if it looks like a Thunderbolt cable, I expect that to work, and now the cables both look the same, here we are — talking about PCIe which not many people care about…

adding wikipedia’s “data” section for Thunderbolt (interface):

I see USB 3.1 gen 2 there.

Yes, I mentioned this in the fact that you can adapt the USB protocol to the thunderbolt interface but not the other way around. The protocol is implemented using a UHCI bridge adjacent to the thunderbolt that participates in the port protocol negotiation process and takes over if the port is USB, just like the DisplayPort protocol handler does for DisplayPort. In some silicon this is integral to the chipset, in others it is a separate one that gets control passed through. The point remains - a thunderbolt upstream PORT (e.g. interface) is compatible with the USB protocol (but Thunderbolt, itself, is NOT USB and does not encapsulate it directly, the USB host becomes a device on the Thunderbolt bus, just like plugging in a USB PCI card into a motherboard adds USB ports to your PCI backplane, but PCI is not encapsulating USB) but USB interfaces even if they share the same connector are NOT compatible with Thunderbolt.

Edit: and in some cases, the USB host is not actually even on the Thunderbolt bus once the negotiation is successful, it connects via it’s own method or is passed through to the CPU’s own USB host interface.

…hence my saying USB-C connector carrying data from Thunderbolt controller but actually USB - be it a USB “device” on PCIe or controller passing through USB directly to CPU. Sure, USB ends up on USB-C connector but not before we got ourselves a fine mess of hosts, protocols, and connectors, and it’s hard to tell which one does what and where some incompatibility emerged. And thus my point about expensive adapters.

See Focusrite Red4 and Red16 - both Thunderbolt - mDP connector on the back of the former, USB-C on the latter. … just … no. too many variables.

One question: are you using dedicated snake boxes or just connecting cables directly to the snake (i.e., XLR chaining)?

I ask because I was kindly gifted a box of Gepco snake cables of various lengths and connections - all with E3s on one end which was awesome! One of the snake has a bunch of XLR connectors that I could use in lieu of a snake box which would cost about $100 or more.

Also, I like the idea of a monitor controller. I think I can use my small ZED mixer as a monitor controller - its not obvious from my schematic but I plan to connect my monitors directly to the mixer and use the Playback input on the ZED to control the computer/interface audio going to the monitors. I’m not 100% sure whether this is a good idea although I believe the mixer is reasonably transparent. If I ever upgrade to an SSL mixer, the monitor connections will move to that unit. Open to feedback on all of this…

Thanks for such a detailed post!

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Ok, quick sanity check. I’m still running an i7 3770k, 32GB of ram on an Intel motherboard that has a TI FireWire chipset, an OG PCI slot as well as a 16x PCIe 3rd gen slot. It might be showing its age but it’s “modern” enough to track audio without a hitch. I’ve been using Saffire 40 this whole time as well for home and person use - since 2012 at least. I’ve noticed that the old RME PCI cards are going cheap these days and I’m still running a machine that can use them.

Is this a dumb idea? I suppose I’m thinking that yeah, it isn’t that fast by modern standards but there are loads of high performing usb2 interfaces out there pushing loads of audio with less theoretical bandwidth. Perhaps the round trip latency on the PCIe stuff is better but I’d imagine we’re talking less than a millisecond. Plus it’s RME so I know the Windows driver is stable.

Considering it’s probably going to be more stable than FireWire on Windows 10 I’d also be gaining more adat I/o so I could justify fooling with the expert sleepers stuff. Just let me know if I’m crazy, my wife listens but doesn’t have much practical advice on the topic.

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People still do MIDI sequencing on Ataris, of course you can record audio on a slightly outdated PC.

We’re culturally indoctrinated to thing that the presence of new things make old things less useful. We should try to judge the thing on its own merits. Does it solve the problem? In your case I think the answer is yes. Audio isn’t that intense, old computers can handle it. The RME card should compare well to newer, cheaper audio interfaces.

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What can you recommend as audio interface? 8 channels, preamps are not needed. Very Stable on Win, clean sound. Midi out is good as a plus. I’m thinking about RME UFX i/ii gen but have some doubts in adc. I have babyface and axe-fx 2(as audio interface) and all the time prefer recording through Axe.

I’m surprised you don’t like your Babyface - but then some people prefer a more “digital” sound than pure transparency (that’s actually been noted many times on this forum). For you any decent soundcard will do then, something like a Focusrite Scarlett Mk 2 or 3 series will be just fine and if you prefer your Axe sound, you can always run your gear through it and then into the Focusrite. Tascam also makes some very affordable USB interfaces with up to 8 channels.

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In dont like babface in comparison with Axe which has top convertors on the board and chain from inputs to adc. I dont think that Tascam can help (rme should be a lot more stable at least). I try to understand the difference between (used) rme/lynx/something else

You’re aware that the RME converters are measurably, objectively significantly better than the Axe’s, right? RME is renowned worldwide for having among the best world-class converters out there, and their drivers are also well known for being the most stable (there are others that may be equally stable, but none that reliably are more stable) and in the top tier of low latency. You can buy different, but you can’t buy (significantly) better than RME and everything else from Metric Halo / Antelope / Lynx / UAD is just tiny variations on the same high technology. They’re up there with the best of the best, where the differentiating factors are not sound quality but features and upgradability and onboard DSP etc. RME are known for an incredibly transparent sound, due to an absolute lack of colouration in the recording or playback. This makes some people feel that they are “sterile” but in fact it ensures that precisely what you put in, you get out. If you want colour, add it elsewhere in the signal chain.

In contrast, the Axe has average-mid quality converters in the 110dB S/n range, limited to 48kHz sample rate, no mention of internal oversampling methods used, no mention of clock jitter specification, and a frequency spec that stops at 20Hz-20kHz. This is average gear, not top quality stuff.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying anything like “the Axe is bad, RME are the best”. I’m saying that, from a real world perspective, the RME boxes have measurably (and realistically) significantly higher fidelity to the recorded audio from input (including and especially in the analogue preamp and line amp stages) through to the output (including the output buffers and amplifiers) and even in the hardware mixing internally. They are world class gear. However, there are tons of people who prefer, subjectively, a more lo-fi sound. They find it more pleasant or more suited to their style of music, or more to their taste. Or they don’t prioritize ultra high fidelity over other values like price, convenience, or specific features like onboard effects and what have you. The form factor of the Babyface is a good example, it is not for everybody and something more traditional like a UCX/UFX would work better for them. There are those who are not only happy with but prefer the 12-bit digital sound of OTO pedals and run everything they make through them!

So I am not saying that RME is “better” in the subjective sense, only the objective measurable sense as compared to a perfectly transparent recording ideal. If you like your Axe FX 2, you like it, full stop, and that’s “better” for you!

But, to my point, if you do like that, there won’t be much point in spending money for a massively better interface, as the quality will be limited to what the Axe can produce, so you might as well save your money and put it where it will make a bigger difference to you. So I suggest the Focusrite line since those are already significantly higher quality than the Axe and easily able to translate it’s sound into your computer and back out faithfully.

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I got sucked through a rabbit hole that started with realizing that I needed some kind of mixer, but wanted it to be rack mounted. I got a Soundcraft ui24r which was fine for a while. I am not blaming the ui24r but during this era, for the last 9 months or so, I have been very productive but suffering a lot of humming, buzzing, line noise, audible noise floor in the mixer, and electrical zapping when I turn stuff on (definitely not mixer’s fault). I think, but cannot prove, that the prevalence of USB in my setup may have contributed somewhat to this.

I tried another USB based rack mixer, and ended up with several support tickets open the first day, and so I bailed on it and the whole mixer idea. I bought a Motu lp32 and a Motu 8pre-es, which are connected via AVB. The 8pre-es is the interface + mixer, because it is thunderbolt. I have this connected to a Mac Mini 2018.

I futher simplified my workflow today by ordering a Tascam AD-3000 which will receive the mix out from the 8pre-es, and now I only need the Mac for administrative duties like running librarian software or the Motu Mixer interface, but no DAW, no active audio duties.

I have found the Motu stuff really good. I saved a lot of money. For the amount of IO I have ( also bought a couple of old digimax FS preamps for more channels when needed ), I could not have gotten the same quality and configurability for the same price using RME or anything I am aware of. Since I am using a grab bag of synths, sound quality is a lesser concern than for someone who is recording real instruments. The worst of my synths like the EMU -2500 go through the digimax FS, there is no reason to overdo it. But the sound coming from my PC is now on ADAT, and I can hear the difference in definition. On my Kronos, I can hear a difference after going digital through the 8pre-es.

A mostly digital world with no USB now has everything whisper quiet. I am not sure exactly how, but 2k usd later I am in a different situation than a month ago. Not sure it was warranted, it is more than someone like me needs.

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