Along with the new generation of Traktor Pro and Traktor Scratch Pro, Native Instruments presented two new audio interfaces, the [audio6] and the [audio10] to succeed the fairly successful Audio 4 and Audio 8. They promised us improved sound quality, connectivity and flexibility as well as being "installation friendly".
But how do they hold their ground in daily club routine, especially for DVS DJs who will make most use of them? And is there any reason to switch to a new interface if you already own one of the old generation?
Let's start with the obvious changes: the Native Instruments interfaces are now larger because they offer more channels - the Audio 6 has three stereo inputs and outputs, the Audio 10 has five of each. This way they offer more connectivity, no doubt about that. They are also heavier. The difference between the Audio 4 and the Audio 6 are an additional stereo in (line only) and stereo out on the front panel, an additional hook to fix a USB or power supply cable on the backside and an inlet for the (optional) power supply.
The changes between the Audio 8 and Audio 10 are more significant. The Audio 10 has four ins and four outs on the back as well as USB and power supply connectors. Every of these four inputs can handle phono and line signals! The external power supply for the Audio 10 is obligatory, a USB connection simply can't handle that much power demand. The Midi in and out on the Audio 10 are now on the front panel as well as a fifth pair of in and out connectors (only line this time for the inputs), a microphone jack plug (as opposed to the XLR plug on the Audio 8 ) and a headphone socket.
The headphone socket on the Audio 6 always sends the signal from the main output (on the front). On the Audio 10 you can choose between the input signal and the output signal of the front panel connectors. The status LEDs on the upper panel of both new interfaces are bolder and brighter.
So let's start the testing. For the test I used my Macbook Pro 13" (mid 2009) with 8GB RAM, and Traktor Scratch Pro 2.0.2. The audio interfaces tested were the Audio 8 (representing the old generation) and the Audio 6 (representing the new).
The things I wanted to test were:
- Is there any difference in sound quality I can actually hear?
- Is there a difference between the Audio 6 with external power supply and without? (I read in a forum that there is less latency with external power)
- Is there any difference in latency between the Audio 6 and the Audio 8?
So, with exactly the same conditions for both audio interfaces, my first finding was that I couldn't hear hear any difference in sound on my studio monitors. That does not mean that there is not one, but it's not enough that I can hear it. As the specifications are nearly the same I am also not surprised about this. The sound is good and punchy - as it used to be.
The Audio 6 operates exactly the same way when connected to an external power supply as when only connected to USB. There is no change in latency on my system. And yes, there is a difference in latency between the audio interfaces: Audio 8 needs about 2ms more overall latency to run without a crackle. (Of course it would have been interesting to also test the Audio 4 and the Audio 10 here.)
Connecting the interface to your equipment has changed a bit - at least if you use Traktor Scratch with vinyl or CD control as I do. For the old generation you had to use one of the Native Instruments multicore cables in order to split the signal and play vinyl (or CDs) alongside your files. This new generation has a thru function, that lets you switch the outputs (on the back of the devices) between the signal from Traktor and the input signal. A phono input is converted to line level here.
Switching between analogue and digital
A good thing is: the multicore cables are gone. I will not miss those cables: they were heavy like professional equipment, but error-prone like a child's toy. But is the thru function a real replacement for them? To switch between thru and the signal of Traktor you have to open the control panel, a program that comes with your audio interface. There is no way to do this from the Traktor settings (but there is a button to open Control Panel in Traktor's Audio Setup). There is also no way to configure a keyboard shortcut or Midi command for this.
As there are no hardware buttons for this on the audio interface either, you do have to take your mouse or trackpad - something I really hate during DJing. I would have preferred hardware switches or separate thru outs (like on the Rane SL 1) here. But as most DJs seem not to switch mediums during their sets nowadays, I understand why neither Native Instruments (nor indeed Rane) support this any more.
The control panel
Let's take a closer look at that control panel. It contains two tabs, "Current" and "Startup" - I think this is well thought-out. As Startup is also the state that is set active when you disconnect the USB, Direct Thru should be selected here if you want to play records or CDs when a computer is not connected. In the Current settings you can choose what you need during your set on a temporary basis. Direct Thru, Phono and Line are the options here.
The option to run the audio interface in thru mode and connect a computer later makes them - like Native Instruments pointed out in its press release - usable for club installation. A second USB, like on the [sl4], would have been useful here. Clubs may also take upgrading to a [djm-900] (with a built-in sound card) as a better (if more expensive) option. And the Xone:PB patch board is a great option if you have to switch between two digital DJs (although you then need two audio interfaces as well).
After all these tests and observations only one final test is missing: using it live. I'll keep it short: everything works like it is expected to. I did not experience any surprises.
Should you buy one?
So, should you buy a new Native Instruments audio interface if you don't have one by now? Sure, they are great audio interfaces for DJs.
Should you buy a new one if you already have an Audio 4 or Audio 8? No, there's no real benefit for you, unless you need more channels or you play with Traktor Scratch and really, really hate the multicore cables.
These new audio interfaces do bring more channels and slight adaptions, but they are not the reinvention of the wheel.
• Aka Tell is a DJ and producer from Vienna, Austria. You can visit his blog at akatell.com.
What sound interface do you use? Are you a DVS user who has a Native Instruments audio interface and is thinking of upgrading? Or do you already own one of these devices? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.