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I have a Focusrite Saffire 6 USB. It looks like this:

Saffire 6 USB http://futuremusic.com/news/images/focusrite_saffire_6usb.jpg

If I plug a mic into one of the preamps and set the "gain" knob to where I know it will not clip, and I turn the "monitor" knob all the way to "input", and I turn the "phones" knob all the way up, it is still too quiet in the headphones.

Is this a common problem? How can I fix it? Note that I'm not using "pro" headphones if that makes a difference.

This is an old interface which has some other quirks, and I might be willing to buy a new one if there is a better option out there...

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I doubt this is really an error – as this interface is USB-powered, the designers probably spec'd the headphone output with rather low maximum voltage, so as to avoid supply problems; I know at least the old Tascam US-x2y series suffered from that problem. For consumer headphones, which are targeted at low-voltage battery-supplied devices and hence have very low impedance, this should still give you a sufficiently loud signal, but with studio headphones it's often a bit dissapointing.

Input-monitoring is in particular a problem if the input comes straight from a mic without any compression, saturation, EQ whatsoever: this way, it'll sound quieter than anything on a recording, but still have a lot of peak level.

One thing you should ensure is that the high peaks don't just come from artifacts you'd have to filter away later anyway: low frequency plops, and high-frequency hisses. In doubt, use suitable spiders, pop-killers and improve the mic placement to maximise "useful level", that will give you both better monitoring level and probably better sound on the recording.

In particular for vocals, it can also be a good idea to put a tube preamp before the interface. That warm, smooth overdrive is pretty much standard for studio vocals, and makes the signal considerably "hotter" without increasing the required peak headroom. You might also put in a gentle compressor for yet louder RMS without any distortion, I used to do that a lot – but now I rather prefer to do all that later in software, where you have much finer-grained control.

The most straightforward solution to your problem at hand however would tackle the other end: put an externally-powered headphone amplifier on the line out, and don't use the built-in one at all! Dedicated headphone amps should always give plenty enough volume, so you can just make the outputso loud you have good monitoring and then adjust the DAW playback level to get the mix right.

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As mentioned USB power has its limits and your high impedance headphones are not helping the situation. If you are willing to dump this interface and get a better one I say do it. I have had issues with buss powered interfaces in the past, mainly that they have dropped out when trying to use all the features at once over bus power. I would take a look at the MOTU ultralight, same size-ish but way more I/O. I would also get an external pre amp. Generally these on board pre amps are not that great, although companies will boast about their performance they are generally a minimum viable product for both size and cost reasons. You will notice a big difference with an external pre. Also as mentioned a headphone amp will help out the issue of driving high impedance headphones. Like everything there are lots of options out there in this world. However a good interface should have a relatively decent output.

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thanks for your answers. This is what I ended up doing.

I found out you can buy a splitter for a mic (called an "isolation transformer", $40) which allows you to use two preamps. I split the mic signal, and then I ran one signal to a tiny $100 mixer with digital FX and the other to my Saffire 6 USB.

The crappy preamps on the little mixer don't affect the awesome Focusrite preamps, and if I am recording a singer they can control their own mix on their own personal mixer. If I make any changes to the gain, etc. on my interface, it does not affect the little mixer, and vice versa. And I figure that the mixer and splitter will outlast many USB interfaces to come.

Aaaand the mixer gets headphones SUPER loud.

  • Forgot to mention - This allows the singer/musician to have reverb as well without having to set anything up in my DAW – Jesse Hufstetler Oct 3 '14 at 22:30

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