Plug And Play

Q I need to do some location recording, and I also want to record a few voice-over sessions with my laptop. There are a lot of different outboard devices for routing microphones and digital sources into your computer on the market. Which model do you recommend, and why?
Alicia S.
Via e-mail

A The market does seem to be somewhat flooded with various cards, boxes and audio interfaces and several different price ranges. How does one choose the most effective tool for the job of routing audio into a laptop or desktop computer? There are several considerations to keep in mind. How many channels are you planning on recording? Will you need microphone preamps or will you be recording line-level or digital outputs from a mixer? Do your microphones need phantom power? What’s your budget? What level of quality can you afford?

I recently had a chance to put the Sound Devices USBPre 2 (sounddevices.com) through its paces, and I must say that I came away impressed. The USBPre 2 is a new product from Sound Devices, a company best known for its popular high-end location sound mixers and recorders. I reviewed the Sound Devices 552 mixer/recorder last year, and the quality and innovation present in that product seems to have spawned a new line of thinking at Sound Devices that’s reflected in this new interface.

What exactly is a multi-i/o portable device? The term “multi-i/o” is my feeble attempt to describe exactly what the USBPre 2 is. It’s not really just a microphone preamp, and it’s not simply an audio interface. The USBPre 2 includes functionality that allows it to be useful in a variety of diverse audio situations. The USBPre 2 can serve as an interface for professional microphones, line-level sources, consumer audio electronics and S/PDIF digital sources with Windows or Mac OS computers via its onboard USB connection. The USBPre 2 also features peak limiters, high-pass filters and a 15 dB pad overload protection, all of which allow a higher-quality audio signal path to be routed into your computer.

The USBPre 2 includes two discrete-transistor microphone preamps with 24-bit converters and sampling rates up to 192 kHz (Windows users are limited by their OS to 48K/24-bit). The USBPre 2 includes the typical for Sound Devices 23-segment, multicolor LED meter for precise level indication. The meter is switchable between input signal metering and output signal metering, and indicates both average (VU) and peak (PPM) ballistics.

The USBPre 2 came from Sound Devices suspension-packed in a shipping box with an owner’s manual, a USB 2 cable and a warranty card. I noticed that no power supply was included in the box. Upon studying the owner’s manual, it became apparent that the USBPre 2 is designed primarily to be used with computers and receives power via its USB 2 connection. If you want to use the USBPre 2 as a standalone device, chances are that you already have a USB charging device laying around to charge your iPod, cell phone or other device, but if you don’t, USB power supplies are available almost everywhere at around $20 retail.

In surveying the layout, inputs and outputs found on the USBPre 2, it became apparent that an impressive amount of flexibility is built into the device; it’s sort of a Swiss Army knife for the portable audio-recording studio. The USBPre 2 includes numerous output connections, including balanced mic- or line-level on XLR, unbalanced consumer line-level on RCA, S/PDIF coaxial (RCA) and optical (Toslink). The outputs have their own, dedicated front-panel level control. You can use the optical S/PDIF to connect to hi-fi systems that accept digital input. The coaxial S/PDIF output in standalone mode allows you to use the USBPre 2 as a portable microphone preamplifier with digital output.