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Which is better for audio recording? FireWire or USB audio interfaces?

I've used USB quite a bit and struggled with a few latency issues (which have since been resolved) but the speeds of FireWire are interesting to me.

I currently run a MacBookPro i5 w/ 8GB of ram.

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Not gonna say either USB or FireWire because I use actual audio cables and a sound card for recording, and I think it's the best way. –  Andrew Arnold Dec 7 '10 at 21:09
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@Andrew - not always possible if for whatever reason you're using a laptop (like the op), or borrowing someone elses's DAW –  Mark Henderson Dec 7 '10 at 21:42
    
@Farseeker - derp... my brain completely skipped that last sentence. –  Andrew Arnold Dec 7 '10 at 23:38
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10 Answers 10

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Firewire became really popular in the mid-90's when Apple dropped traditional SCSI from their boxes and started pushing the Firewire format instead.

Firewire has always been faster and have lower latency than USB, but obviously USB is a far more prevailant interface to be found on virtually every computer made in the last 15 years, but often you have to go hunting for Firewire interfaces.

That said, most of the professional external digital devices run on Firewire - maybe because of the push from Apple in the 90's, but whatever the reason, it certainly seems superior to USB when doing digital production.

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Ironically, Apple seems to have taken a step back from Firewire in recent years and (somewhat) embraced USB –  Rich Bruchal Dec 7 '10 at 21:22
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Don't forget the history... When USB 1.0 was introduced it was MUCH slower than FireWire (12 MBit/s as opposed to 400 MBit/s). USB 2.0 came out at 480 MBit/s and eliminated most of FireWire's advantage. –  Joel Spolsky Dec 8 '10 at 4:34
    
@Joel - then Firewire 800 was released, and then USB 3.0 came out - it's the same story in everything IT related where there's two competing technologies ;) –  Mark Henderson Dec 8 '10 at 4:36
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@Joel USB 2.0 has higher throughput overall than Firewire 400 but something about the way the packets are sent makes the latency variable, so it introduces jitter. I generally hear people preferring Firewire interfaces for audio because of this. –  Warrior Bob Dec 8 '10 at 5:47
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@endolith, my comments were related to transmission speed differences. Doing the math on this (rather than just thinking it out which I had done previously), I see that the latency difference is so negligible that it doesn't matter. I have deleted my comment. –  Brad Jan 10 '11 at 17:56
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Which is better? That depends on a lot of factors.

Bandwidth

Both FireWire (400 & 800) and USB (2.0 and beyond) have plenty of bandwidth available for multi-track audio recording, even at high sample rates and bit depth.

Latency

Latency has much to do with the drivers, the host computer, and the audio interface used.

Now, I've seen someone else talk a bit about throughput jitter. (This has nothing to do with clock jitter on the interface. Don't confuse the two.) Basically, FireWire can operate in a mode where there is a steady stream of data sent from a device to the host computer.

With USB, data can also be sent in a fairly steady stream of data, but if another USB device on the same root hub (external hard drive for example) wants a ton of bandwidth, your audio interface shares what is available. With FireWire, devices also share the available bandwidth when chained together... it is just less common to have more devices.

This is not to say that USB is inferior in this area. Simply plug your audio interface into a root hub by itself, or with low-bandwidth devices like your keyboard/mouse. It's really that simple. Don't have one available? Buy a $10 card and plug it in. Chances are you'd have to do the same for FireWire anyway, but that FireWire card will cost you $80.

Universality (Is that a word?)

How many computers made in the last decade (nearly?) have USB 2.0 interfaces? You would be hard pressed to find one that didn't.

How many with FireWire? Many for sure, and you can always buy a FireWire interface for your computer, Mac or PC, desktop or laptop (assuming available expansion slot). But if you drop your laptop on the way to a gig and need to borrow someone elses', you might not be so lucky to find that FireWire interface. Whether this matters or not is up to you. It may not matter one bit depending on your situation.

Bottom Line

You should choose an audio interface based on whether or not it meets your needs, and not on how it attaches to your computer. While FireWire at a low level has some strengths for dedicated bandwidth, it matters very little (none for many) these days.

You will always find people that say they used to use USB Audio Card X, and upgraded to FireWire Audio Card Y and noticed lower latency. Well of course, they probably bought something a lot newer or better. Either way, they are comparing apples and oranges.

Here's a personal experience for you... on my rig at home, I have a Tascam US-1641 USB audio interface, and my input latency is under 3ms! I haven't even optimized anything. It's even plugged into a chained 7-port hub that is loaded up with a webcam, another audio interface, an external hard drive, and some other crap. It's quite reliable. But again, I'd urge you to look past personal experiences here and there and read through my points above.

Choose an audio interface on its quality and features. If you find something you like that uses FireWire, then go that route. If you find something you like that is USB, go that route. Don't ignore one or the other simply by how it attaches to your PC. The reality is that doesn't matter anymore.

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I think people should definitly be taking a look at the connection available on most computers when buying an interface. Choosing firewire limits your computer choices, which you could be upgrading several times before you need a new interface. –  Sam Greene Feb 16 '11 at 21:45
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"if another USB device on the same root hub wants a ton of bandwidth, your audio interface shares what is available" To clarify, this won't degrade your audio quality or anything. The device will just refuse to work, and you'll have to plug it in somewhere else. I can't imagine Firewire works any differently; bandwidth is bandwidth. Also, I don't think a hard drive can hog USB bandwidth, because it's a bulk device. Isochronous devices like audio get first priority, with guaranteed bandwidth, and the bulk devices like hard drives get the leftovers. –  endolith May 11 '12 at 23:55
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Another thing to consider in the Windows world (and maybe OSX as well, but I'm not familiar enough with that kernel), is latency due to Deferred Procedure Calls (DPCs). This can cause audio drop-outs and latency that is independent of the USB/FW choice. Several tools exist to measure and analyze DPC latency:

I would suggest that having the nicest, most expensive USB or FW interface will still have latency and drop-out issues when connected to a DAW with a bunch of drivers all trying to raise interrupts at a high priority. Choosing between a supercharger and turbocharger to bolt onto a beat-up motor with poor compression and a slipping clutch isn't really a choice at all.

Keep in mind that each processor has it's own DPC queue, so more procs or cores means less of a chance of contention between DPCs. Therefore, I think there are a few choices you should make before you choose between FW and USB:

  • Will the connected machine be used for just DAW work, or also be hooked to a bunch of non-audio devices that may have contentious drivers?
  • Can you demo or rely on a return policy to test the interface on your specific hardware?
  • Is there a trade-off between number of inputs/built-in FX/preamps on comparable gear with different interfaces?
  • Could my money be better spent upgrading (more cores/RAM/disk IO bandwidth) the DAW first?
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There are companies making great USB interfaces now (RME). I'm going USB due to the computer upgrade issues - ie apple not putting firewire on certain lower cost computers. Very irritating. I have one of those new pcmcia express cards which has also been removed from all but the 17" Macbook Pro - so choose your connections for the long haul. You'll need a new compute every few years, but can keep an interface for 10+ years.

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Yep, I got an Indigo PC card interface which is now gathering dust because computers don't come with those anymore –  endolith May 12 '12 at 0:28
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USB passes each read/write packet through the CPU.

Firewire bypasses each read/write packet, avoiding CPU usage.

This has been the main issue with USB-1.0 and USB-2.0, and I'm unsure about USB-3.0. Intel USB-3.0 requires proprietary Intel drivers, and there are no generic USB-3.0 drivers for Windows platforms, except for Linux.

Many audio related manufacturers seem to be avoiding the PCI/PCI-E bus due to interference. Personally, I prefer PCI/PCI-E as there's better performance overall.

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I'm running my Apogee Duet on its own FireWire line. It is flawlessly fast and stable. Can't say I ever experienced this degree of stability and consistency with any USB-based audio gear.

When given the choice, I will always pick FireWire now.

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Thats what I'm starting to think is the best (from what I've read and researched) –  Donn Felker Dec 7 '10 at 21:11
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Can you include which USB interfaces you are referring to, since your experience is directly related to them? –  Brad Jan 10 '11 at 16:17
    
M-Audio Fast Track Pro –  Ian C. Jan 10 '11 at 21:34
    
@Brad: M-Audio Fast Track Pro and Presonus AudioBox 2x2. –  Ian C. Jan 10 '11 at 21:40
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In addition to all of the above answers; firewire also allows simultaneous independent track recording; as does USB 2.0 alesis and other audio hardware producers are now making some good devices for USB 2.0; USB 1.0 is the one you really want to avoid, unless you do not need track splitting and the higher bandwidth

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This is a feature of the driver on your interface, and not its communication standard to the host. Some USB interfaces allow this. Some Firewire interfaces allow this. Not all on either side do. –  Brad Jan 10 '11 at 16:14
    
Yes my point was that USB 2.0/Firewire interfaces 'allow' this capability not that all have it. –  DRL Jan 10 '11 at 22:32
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I have been using the PC for recording since 1998. at first we used the regular onboard sound, it was garbage.

I started using PCI sound cards which had pretty much a 0 latency. today a PCIe card would be the best choice.

But if you do not have a PCI/PCIe slot available you are forced to use USB/Firewire

I have used many USB devices and had nothing but problems with cracks. pops, dropouts, time outs, and latency. and I have always used top quality equipment. before someone makes the comment of using crappy computer equipment.

With Firewire I get lower latency, and have not experienced the errors I had previously with USB.

Here's why. USB not only shares bandwidth with other USB devices, it also shares the chipset which controls a lot of other components in the computer.

Firewire has it's own dedicated chip, beware of shotty chip manufacturers. It's a direct BUS, unlike USB (Universal Serial BUS) it's not a bus at all. USB3 will be better, but I haven't seen any USB3 audio devices.

Why do you find USB on most computers, and not Firewire? USB is much cheaper to license and has become the standard, It's not better, just cheaper and broad. you will find that even today professionals use firewire over usb, and most high quality devices that are more expensive are equipped with firewire.

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FireWire is often a better option, simple because there are so many other devices that may be connected to USB. By going with FireWire, your audio hardware will often have the entire bus to itself.

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This has to do with how your setup is and absolutely nothing to do with the standard. I assure you that you can chain Firewire devices, and run a single device on a USB host. –  Brad Jan 10 '11 at 16:09
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FireWire (IEEE 1394) was designed for isochronous real-time data transfer.

USB data transfer is asynchronous, and is therefore less reliable for time critical data (like sound or video).

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There are parts of the USB wikipedia article that would seems to contradict your answer. Particulartly, this section –  JoshP Aug 24 '13 at 12:46
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