USB audio latency problems?
February 27, 2008 12:28 PM   Subscribe

How big a problem is USB microphone latency for multitrack musical recording? i.e. How difficult will it be to do tight vocal overdubs with a straight-to-USB mic? What about with a mic->XLR->USB interface->Mac setup?

I'm home-studio shopping, starting with a mic; I like the sound (and especially the price!) of the Samson C01U/C01, the former a USB mic, the latter a standard XLR-out mic. I'm going to do vocal/acoustic overdubs in Garageband/Logic on my Mac, and some MIDI nonsense. I gather that I won't be able to directly monitor my vocal performances without a USB/FireWire interface, as USB mic->Garageband->headphones monitoring will result in a maddening latency/echo effect. With a USB/FireWire interface I'll be able to monitor my own performance ('sidetone') before it's sent to the Mac, so that's OK.

So what I'm seeking is reassurance that, all else being equal, I'll be able to synchronize performance through USB audio devices (mics interfaces) as easily as through a FireWire interface. What I'm afraid of is that I'll make a recording, overdub a track, and then have to tweak the overdubbed track some number of milliseconds because the USB cable slowed my musicthaumaturgy down.

Bonus question: are the wicked-cheap Behringer mixers any good?

Side note: as happened with the Internet around 1993-95, the home studio market and discursive realm seems to be flooding with idiots uninterested in learning the technical ins-n-outs required to do a task up right. I hope/think I'm not that; I'd like to become proficient in home recording and audio-tweaking, given time and sufficient income. But I'm starting at rock bottom here, and still getting a sense of how serious these technical requirements of this pastime are, so please bear with me.
posted by waxbanks to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 1. The Wicked cheap Behringer mixers are crap. They've got the noisiest preamps I've ever used in anything, period. The few times I've had to use them, I've gotten a better signal by reversing my gain structure - keeping the preamp very low and pushing the fader as hard as I could. You don't want one.

2. I'm not sure about the USB mic, but any interface you get (including USB) should allow you to adjust latency in software - I've got an Mbox. It's USB. Latency is adjustable from within Protools, though not with a very wide range. I've never had a problem doing overdubs, even with a lot of tracks being monitored, or rolling on two mics at once. I would think, though, that any decent USB mic would have some sort of control panel option that would allow you to adjust latency.

The thing you're looking for is the buffer size - a low buffer size means low latency, but high processor load. When you're recording, use a low buffer size. When you're mixing, a high buffer size means you'll have more processor available for effects, etc. I have a feeling this is becoming less of an issue as computers are more powerful.
posted by god hates math at 12:42 PM on February 27, 2008

Bonus question: are the wicked-cheap Behringer mixers any good?

I think mine is a piece of junk. Buttons stick randomly, channels sometimes fail to work, bleh.
posted by mkb at 12:43 PM on February 27, 2008

I've got a little Xeynx 802 Behringer preamp/mixer doohicky that was cheap-- seems to work admirably for my needs. Hooked it up to a Shure SM57 mic and Fishman Rare Blend acoustic pickup--- most irritating thing about it is it picks up the crickets/cicadas from outside :)
posted by Static Vagabond at 1:01 PM on February 27, 2008

I'm confused here: are you also looking to get a Firewire interface, or not? If there's even an inkling of yes (and I think there should be; you'll at least get a couple extra preamps), skip the USB mic altogether.

Also, the cheap Behringer mixers are garbage. I've got two with screwy phantom power switches. The preamps aren't terribly noisy (only somewhat), but they're definitely more brittle-sounding than the Focusrite ones I've upgraded to (with the same, really lousy, sub-$100 mics).
posted by uncleozzy at 1:16 PM on February 27, 2008

Response by poster: uncleozzy: I'm considering USB and FireWire interfaces, and straight-to-USB mics. Given the limitations on my checking account, god hates math's comment makes me think I'm better off going with a decent USB mic and thinking my way around any latency issues that arise? But of course more comments are welcome. :)
posted by waxbanks at 2:14 PM on February 27, 2008

Well, my main concern with a USB mic would be drivers. There are plenty of USB and Firewire audio interfaces that are unstable because of bad drivers or bad firmware (I skipped a few cheaper options when buying a Firewire interface recently because of this). The USB mic market seems niche enough that you probably won't get the support you'd get with an interface by a major manufacturer. Not saying it won't work, but I'd be a bit wary.
posted by uncleozzy at 2:24 PM on February 27, 2008

Best answer: If you're in the process of setting up a small home studio, I'd recommend investing in a usb or firewire soundcard; this will allow you to plug in other external instruments later on, and gives you more flexibiity in terms of source format (XLR mic, 1/4'' line in, digital...). And since you seem interested in acquiring an analog mixer, having a usb mic would then become useless. In the longer term, you'll be happy to have the flexibility of a soundcard vs. being stuck with one usb microphone.

I have no direct experience with Behringer products, but their cheaper models have a long story of noisy pots and preamps. You could save that money and get yourself a firewire soundcard with built-in mixing capabilities.

And as far as audio latency, you can indeed adjust it in most sotware to avoid post-treatment. USB is fine for 2-in 4-out. More than that, I'd go with firewire. But really if all you want to do is sing (1-in) over pre-recorded sounds (2-out), usb would be fine.
posted by ddaavviidd at 8:28 PM on February 27, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the help, all - I went for the Samson C01U USB mic, which comes with Cakewalk (irrelevant), a shoddy little desktop mic stand, and a driver that doesn't work in Leopard (MacOS 10.5). The mic is quite sensitive and the sound is nice and clean; I sound like I really sound, incredibly (given how inexpensive the mic is), and any problems from here on in are my fault, not the mic's.
posted by waxbanks at 3:05 PM on February 28, 2008

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