The latest category of audio consoles are those with USB or FireWire connections, allowing recording or playback to computers or to small USB flash memory sticks (“jump drives” or “thumb drives”).
The ability to multi-track provides additional opportunities for bands besides recording live performances.
Band and venue users can record rehearsals and make demos, write new material or teach songs to new members of the band.
They can also track live shows, whether 2-track or multi-track, and release MP3 “board tapes” following the show, remix or re-master live songs or sets on their web site, cull material for live album releases, or simply archive shows for future use.
USB recording of MP3 files makes archival recordings small enough to be easy to email, and playback of MP3 files makes it easy to manage background or walk-in music.
Most of these consoles are bundled with third-party recording software. “Limited Edition” versions of Steinberg Cubase and Cakewalk Sonar are common, but notable exceptions include full-featured proprietary offerings like PreSonus Capture or Mackie Tracktion.
Master-switch phantom power is common in this category, but a few of the fuller featured products have phantom power individually switched on a per-channel basis. Mic inputs have switchable 75 or 80 Hz high-pass filters.
Unbalanced singlejack TRS inserts on mic inputs and main outputs are standard in this category. Two-track analog recording sends and returns are also a standard feature, supplementing the digital FireWire or USB I/O.
Two or more stereo line level returns are frequently provided, usually with less agile EQ, often 3- or 4-band fixed-frequency.
These stereo returns usually provide a choice of unbalanced connector pairs - either TS, RCA or stereo-mini 0 and are sometimes available to receive the USB signal return from the computer instead of the 2-track return.
With FireWire, multiple channels can be “plug-in processed” and returned to the console using a laptop as an outboard plugin server, while USB mixers can sometimes process a stereo pair of tracks.
The main difference is FireWire supports dozens of channels of I/O, while USB is often limited to two tracks. But even with USB, sometimes a favorite plug-in can be used, returning a plug-in processed stereo signal to the mixer.
The original specification for the Universal Serial Bus (USB 1.1) was for 12 Megabytes of data per second (Mbps), which with 24 bits and 48,000 samples per second equals about 1.1 Mbps per channel of audio, and twice that for 96 kHz audio.
Clearly, not a lot of audio will pass USB 1.1. The 2005 adoption of USB 2.0 theoretically boosts capacity to 480 Mbps, however, PC-based USB bus controllers typically sustain transfers at only half that speed, while FireWire’s peer-to-peer architecture requires minimal CPU overhead and easily outperforms USB 2.0.
Vista laptops often only support USB, but older Windows XP supports FireWire 400 and newer Windows7 adds support for the newer FireWire 800 spec.
Since FireWire is an Apple trademark, most higher-end Macs have FireWire ports. The original FireWire spec, IEEE 1394a or “FireWire 400” was for 400 Mbps.
FireWire cables can be up to 15 feet long, and the 6-circuit connector can supply up to 45 watts of power at up to 30 volts (allowing many smaller devices to operate without a power supply).
The newer 1394b spec for “FireWire 800” is twice as fast, uses a newer “beta” 9-pin connector, but is backwards compatible by using an “alpha-to-beta” adaptor cable.
Whether you have a PC or a Mac, there’s a USB or FireWire mixer to suit your needs. Enjoy our Real World Gear look at the latest FireWire and USB mixers.
Take our PSW Photo Gallery Tour of 12 current models in the FireWire and USB console genre.
Mark Frink is editorial director of Live Sound International.