What do you get for the money in higher end interfaces ?

Discussion in 'Recording Gear and Equipment [BG]' started by pfschim, Jun 3, 2020.

  1. pfschim

    pfschim Just a Skeleton with a Jazz bass

    Apr 26, 2006
    SF Bay Area
    Like many, I have returned to home recording after some time away. Did some homework on the interwebs and asked some questions here (and got a lot of good answers too .. thanks!).

    I ended up just upgrading from my 10+ year old gen1 Focusrite 18i6 to a gen3 18i8 and it's been working out fine for me ... mostly bass tracks for songwriters I work with prior to all the pandemic stuff ... and a few modest pieces of my own (fun to create with all the tools available).

    as part of the process or researching gear/tools, I realize there is a pretty big world of audio interface gear out there ... fully integrated boxes for consumer and prosumer users all the way up to full on component systems for small to large commercial studios.

    So, my question to the more recording gear experienced TBers here .... @silky smoove and @seamonkey , I'm looking for you guys here ....

    what do we get is we move up the cost scale ? and what features and metrics are the ones to pay attention to when comparing all of this gear ?

    I know some of the considerations are mic pre's, adc/dac quality, word clock accuracy, IO .. etc, but I'm not sure how to understand the key metrics involved (and I understand some will probably be subjective).

    I'm perfectly happy with my Focusrite decision, but am always open to buying using better gear IF I can understand whats really better about it.

    thoughts ?
    Ellery, Robert B and Highroler79 like this.
  2. 1. "Better" sounding mic pres. If this is what you're trying to address, you'd be better off getting a standalone pre. The preamp in your 18i8 is a $0.50 opamp based preamp. You can get a used Focusrite ISA One, UA710, Warm WA12 or WA76, etc. All of these will be better than what comes in a $1000 interface. And you can plug it in to the the line in on your 18i8.

    2. D/A converters. Even the ones in cheap interfaces are pretty good, so unless you have an immaculate room and monitor setup, you won't hear the difference.

    3. Driver utility/stability. Some drivers are better than others. Low end drivers are pretty generic. This won't affect the sound, but a better driver can lighten the CPU load, and be more stable. The less time you spend fiddling with your computer, the more time you can spend being creative.

    4. Internal processing to remove load from CPU. To me, this is the biggest benefit. Making the interface handle all of the audio processing, instead of the CPU. With my 20 year old PCI interfaces, I can record 72 channels live at 96k 24bit, and separate monitor mixes for everyone with almost zero CPU and very low latency. The on-card processor, in conjunction with the super stable drivers, does all of the heavy lifting.

    5. Software. Onboard DSP, mixing, etc.

    6. Support. Higher end companies offer better tech support in general.

    7. I/O options. Analog, SPDIF, AES, ADAT, MADI, Dante, etc. This means more flexibility for connecting to other gear using the latest formats. If you're not buying high end gear, you probably don't need most of these options.
  3. silky smoove

    silky smoove Supporting Member

    May 19, 2004
    Seattle, WA
    @Frank Tuesday nailed it. I differ in my opinion of moving DSP to outboard devices given the power of modern computers which will only continue to increase, but otherwise we're in complete agreement.

    One thing I'll mentioned regarding "better sounding" mic preamps is that in addition to the sonic quality of them, the available gain is a major selling point. A lot of budget interfaces have mic preamps in the ~55db range which often need to be cranked in order to get a sufficient signal in the DAW, which for me is an average target of around -18dbfs with no peaks exceeding -6dbfs. I have a Line Audio 8MP that only offers 66db, if memory serves, but it's completely clean and noise free all the way through its gain stage on all eight channels. I have a preamp incoming that offers 70db of gain and another coming in that goes all the way up to 80db. These are completely overkill for most needs, but they're specialized units with input and output controls to allow for coloration based on different saturation levels, so the output gain can be managed accordingly for a given AD.
  4. pfschim

    pfschim Just a Skeleton with a Jazz bass

    Apr 26, 2006
    SF Bay Area
    Cool, thanks for the reply.

    regarding Pre's, I totally get that standalone units could be better than the pre's in my 18i8. Other than the subjective/"sounds better" thing ("sweeter" "warmer" etc.), what makes these better ? Higher quality components? better overall design? specific features ? ... and how will these improved elements of a standalone pre translate to what the user might hear ? ... more headroom, better gain structure, cleaner signal path ?? .... not questioning your comment, just trying to better understand. Also appears to be someone selling a used ISA One right in my town! :thumbsup:

    I've had good interactions with Focusrite over the years, so I suspect they are a quality company ... you also mentioned the Focusrite ISA One preamp as being a good option for a standalone pre.

    another question, I am using a Cali76CB and Noble DI into my 18i8 (in that order), which so far produces very nice tracks. How would that differ from standalone mic pre's, or would the Cali76CB => Noble DI signal path be additionally enhanced by going through a higher quality stand alone mic pre like the ISA One ?
  5. silky smoove

    silky smoove Supporting Member

    May 19, 2004
    Seattle, WA
    I'm not who you were responding to, but I'll point to my post above regarding available gain. Preamps built into audio interfaces tend to be as neutral as possible throughout their entire usable gain range. As such there's no benefit to cranking them, but oftentimes you'll need to because of the low level of gain available for use. Better quality preamps can achieve the same type of tone (i.e. neutral) without being cranked and therefore will have less self-noise. Less noise, same or better sound quality, and therefore a better end product.

    It's a question of gain staging. Are you able to set your Cali76 and Noble at the levels and settings you would like to use, or are you compensating for a low gain mic preamp by driving them harder than you'd like just to get the signal up enough at these stages to avoid having to crank the interface's preamp? There's no right answer, especially when you've got three independent gain stages happening. With that much coloration up front I wouldn't expect a better quality preamp to provide much sonic difference, provided the preamp you're currently using is able to do its job without adding a bunch of excess noise.
  6. I've got an ISA One. It's a great sounding pre. It's "one channel", but it has a second channel of DI which sounds great for bass or clean guitar. It will have a different sound than the Noble. I wouldn't get it for the DI (since you have a great one already), but if you want a nice mic for vocals its hard to beat for the price.
  7. Just looked at some specs for the Noble and 18i8. On the 1/4", the Noble has an output impedance of 2kOhm, and the 18i8 has line input impedance of 60kOhm. You could try to run the 1/4" out into a line level input on back ,which would bypass the mic pre. You could even run the XLR into a mic input and the 1/4" into a line input and record simultaneously and compare the sound difference. Just make sure you normalize both to the same volume so you don't get tricked into thinking the louder one sounds better.
    HolmeBass, equill and pfschim like this.
  8. silky smoove

    silky smoove Supporting Member

    May 19, 2004
    Seattle, WA
    Very important!
    fishdreams likes this.
  9. Correlli


    Apr 2, 2004
    Wellington, NZ
    Lynx Hilo. High end mastering grade audio interface. You have to use outboard gear when tracking and over dubbing. You also have to have high end monitors to go with it. A couple of Barefoot monitors would do it. So this thing does one thing really well, AD/DA conversion.

    Last edited: Jun 3, 2020
  10. pfschim

    pfschim Just a Skeleton with a Jazz bass

    Apr 26, 2006
    SF Bay Area
    On the DI side, the Noble output level is fixed, only the EQ controls and HPF (on/off) are adjustable. On the line out I can set level ... and the Bass/Treble and HPF controls are adjustable (HPF is just on/off). I am not having to push the mic pre input gain at all on the Focusrite ... if anything, I am using the PAD on it as the level is plenty hot coming off the Cali76/Noble signal chain.

    The tracks I have done for several folks with this setup seem to be working pretty well so far. Big, clear, clean (unless I purposely ran a plug in to get some dirt on request).
  11. pfschim

    pfschim Just a Skeleton with a Jazz bass

    Apr 26, 2006
    SF Bay Area
    nice, I hadn't thought about that. I'll have to give that a try (1/4" and XLR into the 18i8 mic pre). I have tried to do DI and mic, but I have been finding that the mic input is not worth the trouble. I have a SM57 and a Rode NT1 available, but my room is not really set up well for cab micing and the results kind of show that for now. Its cool though because the DI input is working just fine (so far).
  12. silky smoove

    silky smoove Supporting Member

    May 19, 2004
    Seattle, WA
    With that in mind I wouldn’t expect anything major if you upgrade from your consumer level interface to a prosumer one in terms of what the preamps are offering since you’ve got so much color in your signal path already and you aren’t maxing out the existing preamps. A professional tier preamp might bring a different color, but I’d argue that the Noble is already a professional product.
  13. Unless you have a good sounding room, getting a good mic sound is tough. I have a 1960 B-15, and rarely use it for recording. A DI is more versatile, and usually sounds great in the mix. If I do use it, it's usually to re-amp a DI track.
    equill likes this.
  14. ToneMonkey


    Sep 27, 2003
    Eugene, OR
    Better everything but especially converters.
  15. pfschim

    pfschim Just a Skeleton with a Jazz bass

    Apr 26, 2006
    SF Bay Area
    well, thanks for your input but I kind of feel like you have a pretty overtly negative outlook on Focusrite and PreSonus given your recent comment in another thread about them being junk without offering much more solid information.

    OTOH, two seemingly knowledgeable members have suggested the converters on this level of gear are actually pretty decent, but the pre's may not be quite as excellent as higher end units.

    And as far as pre's go, Frank Tuesday has said (and Silky Smoove appears to agree) that any number of stand alone mic pre's will be better than those found even on higher end integrated interfaces. I'm looking at a few stand alone pres now, so we'll see what that turns up.
  16. fast slapper

    fast slapper

    Dec 11, 2001
    Fresno, CA
    Converters aren't a real issue anymore... getting enough clean low noise gain for a ribbon mic can be an issue. You can get a used Grace M101 for those occasions.

    You already have really nice gear for bass. Could only move sideways at this point.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2020
  17. fishdreams


    Sep 4, 2010
    Brooklyn, NY
    Endorsing: Martin Keith Guitars
    I have a ISA one, and ran a test recently to see what DI I preferred one among my options, which included a few other nice low-level stand alone pres, the not-half-bad pres in my Focusrite Clarett 4pre, and my beloved Arkham Abyss tube pre. The ISA is now my go-to DI because it combines clarity and transparency of tone with a broadness or 'bigness' that none of the others could match without turning to more coloration/saturation. Which sometimes is what you need, they all are different and very good, but if I need a DI that i just can switch on knowing it will always sound stellar in any musical context, that is the one for me. The other super cool thing about ISa one as pointed out above, is that you can run that DI and a mic in front of your cab into the mic pre simultaneously. None of my other pres do that.

    Get one if you can find it second hand. They are worth the money
    Frank Tuesday likes this.
  18. I've got the ISA, Demeter VTDB-201, Retrospec Juicebox & Squeezebox. They're all great, and they all get used. I hope my earlier comment didn't come across as dismissing the ISA DI. I just meant that if he already has a great DI which he's happy with the sound, another flavor of DI might be less important than another piece of gear that might be more useful.
  19. ToneMonkey


    Sep 27, 2003
    Eugene, OR
    I don't know what to tell ya. I offered my opinion based on my personal experience. I've owned 6-8 interfaces over the years. Initially I too felt stuff like Focusrite and Presonus were OK. Then after upgrading, and especially buying fairly good monitors, I had an "oh sh*t, this isn't a tad better, it's wayyyy better" experience. But your playback system has to be good enough to hear the difference. Having had that personal epiphany, I believe strongly that obsessing over pres when the converters aren't up to the task is a waste of time and money.

    You're gonna do what you're gonna do. And apparently, you're going to give greater weight to opinions that support the decision you've already made.

    I shall stop offering my opinion. Vaya con dios, amigo.

    PS: I didn't realize that you'd started an entirely new thread on this. Had you merely continued your previous thread, I never would have posted.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2020
  20. Dirk Diggler

    Dirk Diggler Supporting Member

    Mar 3, 2004
    Anytown USA
    Actually it's simpler than all that.

    1) Latency
    2) A to D and D to A conversion
    3) Wordclock and Jitter stability
    4) Physical connectivity options

    Personally I'm all about RME these days.

    ToneMonkey likes this.