Upgrading to the new Mixer or Mic-preamplifier

To upgrade or not to upgrade is the question

So last year Focusrite decided to change their range of 1st gen Scarlett series to 2nd generation and I found myself looking at my older 18i20 unit which had just lost a couple of bucks in value.

Scary stuff, but not as scary as vehicle depreciation.  So the question that arises is does one sell now, get new or hang on?  This is a dilemma which we all face at some time or another.  The solution is usually to use common sense and logic. Team marketing hope that you have neither.

FLAC – as good as your source and equipment

FLAC files have been around for some time and carry the merit of being small in weight with great reproduction quality. Pundits of audio are saying we need 384kHz sampling at 24 bits or higher. In fact I have an Art Pro digital which is 192kHz 16-24 Bit.  My 18i20 is sadly only 96kHz. But they sound the same, so what gives?

Engineers have for eons praised the quality of CD and for them the truth of the matter is that pushing sampling rates and bit rates up to the stratosphere actually reduces quality, not improve. (see under further reading – xiph.org)

Generation to generation

If you do have the older generation version of recorder, mixer or whatever there are some things we need to consider.  One will always be why you purchased it in the first place? If it was sold to you because it was the best on the market, which I believe the Scarlett series certainly is (for the price) then what makes the new one better?  Will the “quality” of reproduction be enhanced in such a fashion that it is better? Is the software better?

Focusrite ISA Two
Focusrite ISA Two

In both cases, in answer to the above, the answer will be no or a “maybe”.  If the advertised spec was originally very high the chances of this “miraculous” new generation being much better is not going to happen.  But, as with all great hardware, manufacturers start looking at the software.  The Scarlett series did have many users complaining about the complexity of routing and no doubt this has been improved through the Focusrite Control. Also, having control by apps on your Apple device is cool.

But let’s not harp on this.

Making the program source sound better

FLAC files. Lossless. New term. No change.  And that’s it – when ripping a CD the output, playback “quality” should be exactly the same as CD.  It ain’t though – there are losses, one being generated by the very equipment you are using.  Factors which play havoc on quality can be poor wiring, connections, power supply noise, malfunctioning software or hardware conflicts – if the mixing device or recorder is known to be in good order.  If you do make a recording or rip from one format to another does it sound the same?  It can never sound better. And that’s the thing.

A high spec mixer or recorder is worth it’s weight in gold. Most of us cannot, for home use, either justify or afford high end equipment unless it’s for professional use.  Most known brand pro equipment carry specifications that easily enable the user to make quality recordings.  One can only hear so much of course.  Reminds one of the old statement about “a bad workman blames his tools”.   This applies to music as well.  Having great hearing, pitch perfect, helps of course.  Many musicians are deaf.

Trading In

Getting to the point, should you bite the bullet and do a trade-in?  Of course not.  The life cycle of good audio equipment is very long, unlike visual equipment. 2K, 4K, 8K etc, etc. Notice how visual reproduction has become so good that it now no longer looks real. Because it isn’t real, that’s the problem.

Scarlett 18i20 Gen 1
Scarlett 18i20 Gen 1 (so new it still has the plastic protector over display)

If our hearing has been pegged at 20Hz-20kHz, CD at 44.1kHz sampling at 16 bits will 384kHz at 24 bits sound 9 times as good? In fact engineers believe it degrades the quality. Looking at the mathematics of this I believe this to be true. According to the Nyquist Rate,  your maximum sampling rate should be twice that of source frequency, which for us audio people means 40 kHz is as good as it gets. (44.1kHz for CD quality). Theories about sampling rate, or at least max sampling rate has the purist reaching for his machine gun.  The argument is all about resolution.  Listening tests may prove them right or wrong,  we do have people with uncanny hearing ability. In most cases the argument is that higher notes are more defined.  I.e. the resolution is better.

Computers, hardware and sound effects

Computer hardware requires constant upgrading to keep up with Sam the Man next door. More emphasis is placed on gaming and 3D, more emphasis on resolution of graphics through the processor / GPU / memory.  Although good quality audio is critical for gamers, sound effects rule.  In pro audio circles effects can be either obtained through hardware inserts or software. Software is gaining ground and in many instances has huge advantages over that of hardware.  Your pro mixer may have effects built in but the user wants low noise first and foremost.  Buying a new mixer for a better effects module is insane.

Improvements

Although there have been vast improvements in control, wireless communication, Class D amplification the end result or focus is always the same:  frequency response, noise levels and cost.  Because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s bad or vice versa.  Where we will see changes is in the software and the use of apps.  Recalling from memory mixer routing is an incredible advancement – to do it with your cell phone is a bonus.

And let’s not talk about stage lighting….

In conclusion

Firmware upgrades.  Audio equipment should not start carrying the same life-cycle of a notebook. Most, if not all, don’t. This is a big plus. Reputed manufacturers should allow their older models be compatible with newer releases i.e. forward compatibility, blanking out non-compatibilites in performance/processor speeds.  Keep routing and switching the same. (not being in the manufacturing game but knowing the end result is to show a profit it is also important to keep your loyalists coming back).

Arduino is a gem in this regard. For home builders there is enough information on the web to become really creative. See Jan Borsky’s kit below.

(Editor’s note:  Focusrite manufacture some of the world’s leading products, their customers and support  bear testament to this.  Depending on circumstances owners of any make of older gear often feel pressured into upgrading where it may not be necessary. Pro-audio manufacturers stick to a certain design style which often makes them ageless. Focusrite is no different).

Further Reading:

Myths about vinyl – hydrogenaudio.io

24/192kHz downloads …. and why they make no sense – Monty Montgommery xiph.org

From Jan Borsky – Arduino Audio Mixer with TDA7439DS, speaker remapping, equalizer, remote.

https://www.freetronics.com.au/blogs/news/7653819-build-a-powerful-arduino-based-audio-mixer-with-output-mapping

 

 

 

 

 

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