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How your USB audio interface handles latency, Explained

Before I explain how your USB audio interface successfully handles latency, we need to touch on exactly what latency is to gain a better understanding of the question at hand.

What is latency?

In the realm of digital recording, latency is the time it takes for a signal to open the door, come in, take of its jacket and boots, and sit down in your living room for a chat.

Most equipment in your recording chain, especially analog (non-digital) stuff, won’t add a noticeable amount of delay. However, digital things often will, and your computer’s audio interface will typically add a fair bit.

Depending on how powerful your PC is, “a fair bit” can mean anything from 5ms (well below what most people can distinguish, but still enough to drive hardcore studio nerds insane) to 500ms (“Jesus, this drummer is horrible”).

You may have noticed this if you’ve ever used guitar software like Amplitube, Guitar Rig, Revalver, or any of the free plugins floating around the internet. That weird half-second between hitting a chord and hearing it through the speakers? That’s latency.

While it’s currently not possible to completely avoid latency, recording latency can get low enough to not be heard in real-time, latency offset within your DAW makes recording latency a non-issue with regard to the actual recording and playback aspects.

In result, the term Zero latency is often misconceived, while it’s possible to reduce recording latency, completely removing it is something we haven’t achieved just yet.

How does your USB audio interface successfully handle latency?

There are two main places that USB audio interfaces handle latency:

  • Hardware. USB Audio Interfaces themselves have A/D converters and typically some DSP that may have its own stages of buffering. This is totally up to implementation and may add latency. In a high-quality interface with no optional processing effects activated, it should be next to zero
  • Drivers. The quality of software implementation of the device driver, which usually involves more buffering, can have a big impact on latency. Small buffer sizes are best, but if the driver is poorly implemented, there won’t be enough CPU cycles to handle this.

Different USB interfaces and drivers are not intended to be equal. A well-implemented interface with rock-solid drivers can do a few milliseconds.

One last point!

Drivers run on the computer’s CPU, not the interface. If you have a slow computer or are running lots of background processes, you’ll be forced to use a bigger buffer and get more latency. A faster computer should be able to handle lower latency.

Most professional recordings these days are made using USB audio interfaces just like the one you own, therefore if you ever feel like interface is cheap and tacky! Take some time to learn how it really works and you should be able to work your way around any issue without too much bother.

Need to know what the cheapest but most reliable USB audio interfaces are in 2017? read our article and find out.


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