Itâs a sure sign that laptop recording is becoming big business when almost all of the audio interfaces landing on our reviews desk are USB or FireWire. It wasnât so long ago that PCI-based models were dominant, but new ones are something of a rarity now. One interface that is PCI is E-MUâs 0404.
Sure enough, though, the company have now seen fit to launch an external version that - as its name suggests - operates over USB 2.0. At launch, this was PC-only, but beta Mac drivers were released just as we went to press.
To what level the 0404 USB 2.0 is comparable to its PCI sibling isnât really clear - it may be in name only. The external version certainly doesnât come with E-MUâs PatchMix routing software or any hardware DSP-assisted effects, though both were features of the PCI model. The hardware itself is a slightly-larger-than-expected desktop box with input connectors at the front and output connectors at the rear.
There are only left and right (balanced) analogue outputs, so if youâre into surround mixing, this isnât the interface for you (unless youâve got a digital AC-3 decoder). The inputs are presented as Neutrik combo jacks, which offer microphone, instrument and - surprisingly - balanced line inputs for both the left and right channels. Professional-standard connectivity, in other words.
The front panel boasts a 1/4-inch headphone jack too. We can also celebrate the return of a couple of long lost friends: coaxial and optical digital connections. This is quite a surprise, as itâs been a while since weâve seen them on an interface of this type. We have to ask, though, what might you connect them to? Both CD and DVD players are now built into our computers, and most other digital hardware equipment (reverbs, samplers, etc) has been emulated satisfactorily in software. That said, the digital I/O might be a selling point for people who have DAT machines, MiniDisc players or similar gear that needs hooking up.
One thing we should make clear, though, is that itâs the digital connectivity that affords the 0404 its 4-in/4-out technical specification. If you arenât going to make use of this - and letâs face it, most of us wonât - the 0404 USB 2.0 is therefore, to all intents and purposes, only a 2-in/2-out audio interface.
MIDI I/O and a small mini-jack for desktop computer speakers completes the connectivity, but thereâs also a socket for a power supply. Sadly, the 0404 USB 2.0 is not bus-powered, so if you fancy a spot of battery-operated recording in remote areas, youâll be left disappointed. On the plus side, the mains adapter does have the benefit of being unusually lightweight and so wouldnât add any significant load to the mobile musicianâs rucksack.
The design of the 0404 USB 2.0âs top panel is excellent - thereâs something very satisfying about the layout and operation of the controls. Phantom-power is available (so studio-grade mics can be used), and, remarkably, there are ground-lift switches on the bottom of the unit so that hum problems can be easily fixed. The separate level controls for headphones and speakers are very welcome, while the status lights for MIDI In and Out are helpful too.
In use, the unit sounds great â thereâs absolutely nothing to complain about on that score. The control panel is easy to use, since there isnât anything much to play with except the sample rate (which goes up to 192kHz) and the ASIO buffer size. This second option is selected from a curiously large dropdown list - a bit odd, since at latency times greater than 40ms or so, youâre usually not so fussy about the precise time. We struggled to get acceptable performance at latency settings lower than 10ms, though new drivers might improve this in the future.
If you do have any latency problems, you can use the well-worn workaround that is direct monitoring. This isnât our favourite alternative to ultra-efficient drivers, as you still have to use various software tricks in order to supply reverb and other effects to the person performing. Whatâs more, zero-latency direct monitoring isnât even an option if youâre using a guitar amp simulation. These reservations aside, direct monitoring works well with the 0404. The level of direct sound is set with an encoder (rather than a balancing control) and the monitoring has a separate on/off switch. Thereâs also the somewhat less than ideal âmono direct monitorâ button for occasions where youâre recording (for example) a guitar and vocal at the same time.
Overall, though, the E-MU 0404 is more than just a respectable audio interface - itâs a very good one. The combination of top-class audio performance and comprehensive audio connectivity means that it can cope well in a wide variety of situations. Couple this with a cracking software bundle (see the Tooled up boxout) and a surprisingly low price and youâre looking at a very good deal indeed.