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The Specialized Interface

The March column covered the age of specialization in DAWs, and how more programs are taking a different tack rather than trying to be all things to all people.

The March column covered the age of specialization in DAWs, and how more programs are taking a different tack rather than trying to be all things to all people. Now interfaces are increasingly taking the same approach, as the computer-based pro audio market continues to splinter into niches.

Some early examples include Creamware’s SCOPE system (now owned by Sonic Core), which packaged the interface as part of a DSP farm that also integrated effects, mixing and virtual instruments. As such, this interface was designed not so much as a gateway to your studio, but as the studio itself. Another early entry was M-Audio’s Black Box, which essentially coupled Roger Linn’s AdrenaLinn with an audio interface designed for guitarists.

But now we’re seeing a proliferation. For example, Avid’s Omni Pro Tools|HD interface is clearly designed not for big studios with a zillion mics doing huge sessions, but smaller studios, post-production and similar situations as it is one box that replaces multiple pieces of gear (digitally controlled mic preamps, computer interfacing, headphone amp, surround monitoring, persistent mixer [functions without the computer on], limiter, etc.). The price—about $3K— may seem out of line for an interface, but if you break it down into the price of each element in the “collection,” it’s cost-effective.

Another common paradigm is the interface+control surface, like the Avid 003 Factory, Alesis Master Control and others. Cakewalk/Roland took this concept even further with the V-Studio 700, which isn’t just about audio, but synthesis as well: Along with the control surface and interface, there’s an integrated Fantom hardware synthesizer inside the interface, as well as the ability to add an expansion synthesizer card.

One of the more interesting examples of a specialized interface, Avid’s Eleven Rack, is designed specifically for guitarists. However, it ups the ante by also being a complete rack processor musicians can take out on the road for live performance (or even stuff into a cabinet with power amp, thus turning the combination in your basic combo amp). However, in the context of working with Pro Tools LE, it offers a mic preamp with pad and phantom power, as well as MIDI over USB for MIDI control of effects and a 5-pin DIN physical MIDI port for use with master keyboards and other MIDI hardware, such as external control surfaces.

Another trend isn’t expanding interfaces into other territories, but expanding other gear into interfaces. A keyboard like Yamaha’s Motif XS or XF is like the keyboard player’s equivalent of Eleven Rack; while the Motif is essentially a keyboard workstation that works well for live performance, its ability to sample means it has audio I/O, and the faders used for tweaking synth parameters can also act as a control surface. Its networking ability for storage, and very tight integration with Cubase, results in a new breed of “personal” interface that’s designed for solo musicians working in a relatively small studio environment.

It’s also interesting to see more guitar effects with built-in interfaces. This trend really took off with DigiTech’s GNX4 “guitar workstation,” which featured not just a USB computer interface, but also an editor, accompanying software, onboard recorder and mic preamp. Like Eleven Rack, a guitar player could take it on the road, then turn around and obtain the same sounds in the studio— or use it as a studio on the road, then transfer tracks over to the DAW in a “big” studio. But now even multi-effects have USB interfaces that allow a direct connection into software. Not only is this convenient, but it eliminates latency problems, because guitarists can get the sound they want in the multi-effects and monitor/record that, without going through computer plug-ins.

Then there are the interfaces designed for maximum portability and laptop users, like Mackie’s new Blackjack interface. However, a more intriguing example would have to be Mackie’s older Satellite interface. This consisted of a relatively conventional “desktop” interface, but with a smaller, lighter “satellite” that lifted out of the main interface, and could be taken on the road for portable recording. Taking the concept of mobile I/O to an extreme, Avid’s Mbox 2 Micro is a USB interface that’s more like a “dongle with an audio output.” You can’t input anything into it, but this teeny interface lets you mix and edit with Pro Tools LE on a laptop.

So what’s the bottom line? Part of this is the economy: With fewer disposable dollars, companies are targeting very specific markets so that their products don’t include any more features than are absolutely necessary—and are also trying to “own” those markets. But some of it is also about simplification, too. Why carry around a bulky interface if you’re mostly into using a laptop? It’s clear the age of specialization continues unabated, in both hardware and software.

Craig Anderton is executive editor for EQ magazine, and editor in chief of