by Steve Cunningham
The computers in the lab at USC, where we teach digital recording and editing, are in active use for up to 80 hours every week. They’re used by students who know what they’re doing, and by a substantial number who definitely do not. As a result, we routinely replace half the computers every summer, and the accessories nearly as often. Since we are an Avid-certified training school, we’ve been partial to Avid’s products (and Digidesign’s before the name change). Their Mboxes have generally been reliable, and have worked well with every software package we’ve used over the years. Nevertheless, our Mbox 2 units began to fail about six months ago; the primary point of failure is the USB jack, which becomes loose over time and begins to intermittently cut out, which in turn generates session-stopping errors and crashes with the software. The secondary failure point is the knobs, which become noisy and inaccurate. Since the latest version of Pro Tools no longer requires an Avid interface to run the software, we began an outside-the-box search for suitable replacements.
The criteria for this purchase, which would involve several dozen units in one go, were reasonably simple: The interface required at least two line inputs and two mic inputs (not simultaneously however, just alternately), plus two line outputs and a stereo headphone jack. It had to run under both ASIO for Windows and Core Audio for the Mac, with or without a driver, and had to sound good in both cases. It also had to connect to the computer using USB, inasmuch as Firewire seems an endangered species on both platforms. Additionally (and unhelpfully), the newest Mac computers include Thunderbolt, an interface for which there is still a dearth of accessory products.
Many candidate products were evaluated and tested over several months. Most were of very good quality; the primary differences were a) the overall build quality, which ranged from very good to cheesy, and b) the need for and quality of the audio drivers and firmware (in one instance a simple firmware upgrade completely bricked an interface). Finally, the votes were tallied and we saw white smoke from the chimney.