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USB v3 vs Firewire - will the gap narrow ?

Discussion in 'Recording Gear and Equipment [BG]' started by pfschim, Apr 25, 2010.

  1. pfschim

    pfschim Just a Skeleton with a Jazz bass Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2006
    SF Bay Area
    Just curious if anyone has any insight into whether or not the advent of USB v3 will help USB interfaces narrow the performance gap with Firewire interfaces. I don't think that USB v3 has added an synchronous aspect to the spec (Firewire has synchronous function), it has just widened the data path and raised the clock rate, but I am not a super techie and am still wondering about this.

    any informed views on this question ?
  2. UncleFluffy


    Mar 8, 2009
    Head Tinkerer, The Flufflab
    USB has had synchronous modes since USB2.

    IMO, Firewire has little or no advantage over a properly implemented USB system. (Unfortunately, there's a lot of crappily implemented USB motherboards around, so try before you buy).
  3. Spencer!


    Jun 25, 2006
    Owner, Pike Amplification & 3Leaf Audio
    USB 3 is full-duplex like firewire, but with a much higher throughput, so it should render firewire completely obsolete. Intel's lightpeak technology looks promising, but it's still a while off at this point.
  4. chicago_mike


    Oct 9, 2007
    Chicago - LA - Rome
    Endorsing Artist : Genz Benz
    The problem with usb 1 and 2 is that usb would talk to device 1 then talk to device 2 then talk to device 3....firewire doesnt act like that. Thats why many times the mouse or printer would take over the usb port if you happened to also have a soundcard on the same ports controller, or even on a different controller.
  5. Jim Roseberry

    Jim Roseberry

    May 24, 2007
    USB3 will bring USB performance to a whole new level.
    That said, Firewire 1600/3200 is also in-the-pipe.
    Firewire is far too prevalent to just disappear.

    As of this moment, only two USB audio interfaces offer total round-trip latency on par with the best PCI/e audio interfaces.
    Those two are the RME Fireface UC... and the M-Audio FastTrack Ultra 8R (when running in high-performance mode).
    Most USB audio interfaces have a driver that uses a LARGE hidden safety buffer... which can literally double round-trip latency (making playing in realtime thru software EFX/processing impractical due to excessive lag).
    Many typical Firewire audio interface also suffer from high round-trip latency. The exceptions are RME Fireface units, MOTU units (especially the pre mkIII models), and the Steinberg MR816 units.

    IMO, USB3 is most exciting for laptop users... as many new laptops either don't have Firewire... or have crap Firewire/express-card controllers (Jmicron, 02micro, Ricoh, etc).
  6. seamonkey


    Aug 6, 2004
    I heard last namm show was dominated by USB
    Very little firewire
    Both are very powerful and able to do the job.
    If you're looking for 32 simultaneous channels maybe one is better than the other, but for the average person USB should be fine.
  7. Spencer!


    Jun 25, 2006
    Owner, Pike Amplification & 3Leaf Audio
    Given that almost all Firewire audio gear is still using Firewire 400, I doubt they're going to make the jump to Firewire 3200. USB3 pretty much obsoleted it already. There were reasons to prefer Firewire 400/800 over USB2, but none of those reasons apply to USB3.
  8. Jim Roseberry

    Jim Roseberry

    May 24, 2007
    The reason why manufacturers haven't jumped on Firewire 800for audio interfaces is that it's just not necessary.
    FW400 has plenty of bandwidth... (unless you're running a LOT of channels of I/O at higher sample rates).
    ie: The RME Fireface 800 works just fine (single unit) with a FW400 connection. If you're running multiple Fireface 800 units, FW800 is necessary.

    USB3 has made Firewire obsolete???
    How so?
    I and scores of clients are successfully running Firewire audio interfaces. Units that are rock-solid and deliver excellent (low) round-trip latency that's on par with the best PCI/e units (which is 5-6ms at a 64-sample ASIO buffer size/44.1k). That's as good as it gets...

    Right now, there are literally *zero* USB3 Audio interfaces. Currently, if you need low round-trip latency from a USB audio interface, you have two choices (RME Fireface UC and the FastTrack Ultra 8R). Typical current generation USB audio interfaces don't deliver this level of performance.
    One would expect USB3 audio interfaces to be a major improvement (across the board) from current generation units... but until said units actually exist... we're merely speculating. Assuming USB3 audio interfaces are a major improvement, that still doesn't spell the end of Firewire. ;)
    Rather, that will put USB units on par with what we've been about to achieve via Firewire for several years.

    Liken the situation to the release of PCIe audio interfaces.
    Unless you're running enough high-res I/O to saturate the PCI bus (not likely unless you're running a large commercial facility), moving to a PCIe unit will not buy you additional audio performance. IOW, You won't be able to achieve lower latency... and you won't be able to run heavier loads simply by using a PCIe audio interface.

    Unless you're saturating the current bus, extra bandwidth will have no affect.

    The primary advantage of USB audio interfaces is that the casual user doesn't have to deal with compatibility issues that result from using a crap Firewire controller. This will be most beneficial for laptop users... who either don't have Firewire... or are stuck with a poor controller (Jmicron, 02micro, Ricoh, etc).
  9. Jim Roseberry

    Jim Roseberry

    May 24, 2007
    I can name a lot of current generation Firewire audio units that were at NAMM. ;)

    RME Fireface 400/800
    MOTU Ultralite/Traveler/8-Pre/828/896
    Steinberg/Yamaha MR816x/MR816csx
    Presonus FireStudio and its spin-offs
    Digi 003 and MBox 2 Pro
    Focusrite Saffire series
    TC Konnect series
    M-Audio Profire series
    Echo AudioFire series
    Apogee Ensemble/Duet
    Lexicon Ionix
    Alesis Master Control
    Mackie Onyx mixers (Echo designed the Firewire option)

    The reason why you see a focus on USB audio interfaces is two fold.
    1. It's cheap to manufacture
    2. Universal Compatibility - every recent make PC has a USB port

    Going USB also eliminates the problems associated with using a crap Firewire controller (which plagues many inexpensive off-the-shelf laptops).
    If you frequent any audio forum/s, make note of those having problems with a Firewire audio interface. Almost every time... you'll find that the end-user is not using a good TI chipset Firewire controller.

    USB3 should be great for audio interfaces...
    But that doesn't mean that Firewire audio interfaces are suddenly/immediately obsolete... or that they're going to disappear in the near future.
    Under the best of circumstances, USB3 audio interfaces will allow the same performance you can achieve via PCIe. Thus, it will be a lateral move for many folks.
  10. seamonkey


    Aug 6, 2004
    That's not a very big list.

    It seems like new PC's just aren't coming with FW. But things change every 18 months. So it's hard to say.

    If they could do wireless firewire, or USB, or daisy chain - and keep the same performance - man would I like that. Did all those frequencies sold by moving to DTV only go to cell providers?
  11. Jim Roseberry

    Jim Roseberry

    May 24, 2007
    It's silly to argue over such a small point, but ??? :D
    Some of those series have 3-5 different units.
    There's ~30 different Firewire units on that list.
    Can you show me 30+ PCIe audio interfaces? ;)
    For that matter, show me 30 USB audio interfaces of the same calibre. That's currently the main rub. If low round-trip latency is important to you (playing/monitoring in realtime thru software EFX/processing like Ampeg SVX), then you really only have *two* choices (RME Fireface UC and the FastTrack Ultra 8R). Everything else has higher (usually significantly) round-trip latency...
  12. pfschim

    pfschim Just a Skeleton with a Jazz bass Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2006
    SF Bay Area
    Jim, can you elaborate on the bold comment above. I am currently looking at the MOTU Ultralite mkIII interface to expand my laptop recording options. Are you saying that the MOTU (and RME) mkIII would have greater latency/lag than the older mkII ? I do not expect to tax any system in the foreseeable future, but it would be good to know if one unit would offer better performance over the other.
  13. Jim Roseberry

    Jim Roseberry

    May 24, 2007
    As a point of reference, the best PCI/e units deliver a total round-trip latency of 5ms at a 64-sample ASIO buffer size/44.1k. That's as good as it gets...

    Round-trip latency is the sum of the following:
    • ASIO input buffer
    • ASIO output buffer
    • A/D and D/A converters
    • The driver's hidden safety buffer

    The RME Fireface units deliver 6ms total round-trip latency at a 64-sample ASIO buffer size/44.1k.
    Keep in mind that the RME units also provide a smaller
    48-sample ASIO buffer size... which puts round-trip latency right about 5ms. If you have a well configured i7 based DAW, you can run substantial loads at the 48-sample ASIO buffer size.

    The pre-mkIII MOTU units yield 5.35-5.5ms total round-trip latency at a 64-sample ASIO buffer size/44.1k... *IF* you use the older driver under 32Bit windows.
    The newer MOTU drivers do indeed have slightly higher round-trip latency (this is to support the new mkIII units which have onboard DSP EFX/processing). Granted, the newer driver only adds ~2ms to the total round-trip latency figure, but when you're playing/monitoring in realtime thru software EFX/processing, 2ms can mean the difference between being very comfortable... and starting to feel sluggish.
    Anything 6ms and below feels comfortable (similar to playing thru a POD). If round-trip latency gets upward of 10ms, it's starts to feel pretty sluggish. At ~8ms total round-trip latency (at those same settings), the mkIII MOTU units (and older units using the current driver) are at the very outer edge of comfortable realtime monitoring thru software.

    The Steinberg MR816 units use a large hidden safety buffer, which would cause them to have high round-trip latency... but there's a workaround. ;)
    The MR816's driver provides a 32-sample ASIO buffer size... and the drivers are rock-solid. Thus, with a fast (well configured) i7 based DAW, you can achieve low round-trip latency by using a 32-sample ASIO buffer size. Note that the trade-off is higher CPU use (due to the small buffer size).
    At the 32-sample ASIO buffer size/44.1k, the MR816 delivers round-trip latency of 5.6ms. Very workable... and the feature set is nice for the money.

    In addition to these units, I'll mention (again) the USB units that allow low round-trip latency.
    Currently that would be the RME Fireface UC... and the M-Audio FastTrack Ultra 8R.
    The FastTrack Ultra 8R yields total round-trip latency of 5.5ms when using a 64-sample ASIO buffer size/44.1k.
    The Fireface UC delivers round-trip latency identical to its Firewire counterpart.
    The M-Audio unit won't put Apogee converters out of business, but you get a whole lot of bang for the $499.
  14. pfschim

    pfschim Just a Skeleton with a Jazz bass Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2006
    SF Bay Area
    Jim, as long as you are providing information, how do you feel about the M-Audio Fast Track Ultra USB (small portable unit, not the 8R) or the MOTU Ultralite mkIII units. I am very interested in getting as many as 6 simultaneous ins (right now I only do 1 or 2), in a small footprint/portable unit. I am using a Core2 Duo laptop with Vista (although I could easily move to Win7 if it offered a performance improvement), and Ableton Live 8 as my DAW (yes I know Ableton is not a mainstream DAW, but I have become very familiar and comfortable with the interface and tools it offers).

    any thoughts ?
  15. Jim Roseberry

    Jim Roseberry

    May 24, 2007
    Both of those units work well... so you can't make a bad decision. In this particular case, the FastTrack (in high-performance mode) would actually deliver slightly lower round-trip latency. That being the case, I'd opt for the FastTrack.

    Windows 7 is a very slight improvement over Vista.
    That said, Vista SP2 (well configured - lean) runs pretty well.

    Live 8 is a very good creative (production) environment.

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