For the next couple of posts, I want to talk about a couple of things that are pretty basic and key if you’re going to integrate laptops into a live performance group. Again, if I’m missing anything or you want to suggest something – throw stuff back at me.
NUMBER 1 – AUDIO INTERFACE: Really the most important thing (beside your laptop and DAW which I’m not going to discuss here) is your audio interface (also known as a soundcard) . The job of your audio interface is to convert analog signals (electrical signals such as those coming from a mic or electric guitar) to digital and digital signals (what’s coming from your laptop) to audio. There are a couple of things to look for when getting an audio interface primarily for live performance.
Firstly: I recommend firewire if you’re going to be using a Mac. In my experience, and that of many others, firewire data transmission outperforms USB. Here’s an article explaining why that may be. All I can say is that the consequences for data glitches and failure at a live performance are often higher than when sitting at home in your studio. Especially if you’re going to be using the interface to process audio coming into the computer, it makes sense to go firewire.
Secondly: Make sure you have access to at least 4 outputs. Technically, you could make do with three (2 stereo outputs and one for a headphone jack or click track) but you may quickly want to expand the number of audio tracks you send out. For example, when I play with Comandante Zero we use two outputs just for the drummer. (I’ll explain why in a later article)
Thirdly: I wouldn’t recommend spending more than $600.00 on an audio interface. Unless you have a lot of extra money to spend or you have some serious tour support gingerly caring for and packing your equipment, don’t spend more than this on an audio interface for live performance. Unlike in a studio where pristine audio is key, the beautiful sounds of your Apogee Ensemble will most likely be lost to the drunk and happy folks getting down to your tunes at the groovy loft party with a Peavey sound system. Most small to medium venues are not acoustically set up so that folks will appreciate the difference in price. Also, as I can sadly attest to, when you gig a lot gear invariably gets lost, broken or stolen. I’ve found that between $400 – $600 tends to be a good price point to get something reliable (most important) and decent sounding and it won’t drive you to tears if someone spills beer on it. On the flip side of that, if you have an expensive piece of gear for your studio, really think twice about turning it into a road piece.
Here are a couple of choices in that price range that use firewire. I’ve used the MOTU UltraLite mk3 on many gigs and have found it to be a really nice and reliable piece of hardware. I haven’t used the other two pieces, but they fit the above criteria, have good reviews as well and are probably worth checking out. If I’m missing anything within that price-range (or even below it) that is firewire and has 4+ outputs, please post it as a comment. I’d definitely like to know about other good options.
Anyone who has experience with any of these, or others I haven’t mentioned or even USB models, pls leave a comment…