USB FireWire Audio Interface Showdown

If you lurk on various music tech forums like I do, it’s pretty hard to miss all of the talk regarding USB and FireWire audio interfaces. The general consensus seems to be that for audio, USB is vastly inferior to FireWire — that you’ll get far less performance out of a USB device than you will out of a FireWire one. Well, I’m a hands on guy, so I wanted to test this out for myself. This clearly is not an exhaustive, definitive test, but honestly, I was surprised by the results.

Here’s the gear I used for the test:

  • 17″ MacBook Pro (2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo/ 2GB 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM)
  • Logic 8.0.2
  • Apogee Duet (FireWire)
  • Edirol UA-4FX (USB)
  • Edirol UA-1EX (USB)

All of the “stress” tests were done at a 128 sample I/O buffer setting. I could have bumped up the buffer, but I work at 128 and that seems like a “real world” test. So here’s the lowdown:

  • 1,280 simultaneous notes using the Basic Decay 1 patch (EXS24)
  • 255 mono 16bit/44.1 khz off of the internal drive on the MacBook Pro. (I’m sure I could have done more, but I didn’t have 255 stereo 24 bit files handy…)
  • 15 Space Designer stereo 3 sec reverbs on inserts for a single audio track (16 bit/44.1 khz)
  • 47 tracks of audio (16 bit/44.1 khz) with a 3 sec Space Designer reverb inserted on each track
  • Playback of Apple demo (Shiny Toy Guns) roughly 1/3 of CPU meter (audio + video)

I had the exact same results from both Roland interfaces and from the Apogee Duet. Not only was there zero performance difference in terms of maximum number of notes, max plugins, etc, I found there was no difference in the response/latency of Guitar Amp Pro (a guitar amp modeller included in Logic). I’m not a great keyboardist, but the keys and drum samples I played seemed equally tight through USB and FireWire.

Again, this obviously wasn’t a comprehensive test.  For instance, it’s possible that there’s a differential in performance between USB and FireWire on older computers. It would have been nice to have had a number of different computers to test, but that will have to wait for another day. For newer computers though, my take is: If you’re recording, mixing and/or playing in the box, either FireWire or USB will work just fine.

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