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My setup for audio

July 28, 2012

I like good music. And I don’t like partial solutions. Recently I decided to invest some time and money into my sound system. Due to lack of space I decided it has to integrate nicely with my current home PC running Linux. It turns out, that you can get really nice quality! First, I looked at available sound cards. Requirement was easy: the card had to support analogue IO. I used ALSA project wiki search engine to find out, which cards support it. I also wanted the card to be a USB device with separate power source, so it played even the computer isn’t powered – again, used search. I decided to not go with FireWire because of price and fact, that I heard USB Audio can be supported on Android soon, so I will be able to use same card with tablet – at least I hope so. Browsing trough them, and looking at various features, one particular cards line got my attention – they were M-Audio FastTrack cards. From all available models, M-Audio FastTrack Pro looked best to me, but it is already at end of line. Most shops recommended FastTrack C400 instead. True, it looked nice, but it lacked Linux support and physical mix knob, it was moved into driver. It makes the device less useful as a standalone device without computer connected. Anyway, I looked around and found one on local auction site (still more than one year of warranty) and soon it arrived with original packaging and all. It has many cool features – first of all, it works even if USB isn’t connected as I bought optional external power supply. This card also allows to use high quality cables. For input it has two hybrid Jack TS/XLR (with optional 48V Phantom Power for professional microphones), for output it has two TRS Jacks (yes, balanced). Of course it has more input and outputs, but I use only those. Another important feature – this card has direct monitoring, so all that comes into input can be passed directly into output with zero latency, which means that it can be one of parts in the audio chain, and what comes in analog leaves analog. There is very neat physical mix knob on front, which allows me to mix between analog input and digital input from PC – as I mentioned, never models has this feature moved into driver which I believe is too bad. That way if I receive important Skype call I can switch to sound from PC without changing cable connections – in most cases, the mix knob is set at 50%, giving me equal mix of analog and digital input. Not to mention, that this card works in 24bit/96KHz, so the sound quality is quite nice. And only downside so far, it is USB 1 device, so it cannot work in 24bit/96KHz at full-duplex. It can only record or only playback at this quality. To get full-duplex (record and playback at once) you have to lower the frequency for example. What else… it works with kernel shipped with Arch Linux. No need to patch anything – it also works reasonably well without linux-rt (real-time kernel) so I stayed with main branch of Linux kernel. Only thing I did to system was disable on-board sound card (no need for it anymore!) and added line:

options snd_usb_audio   vid=0x763 pid=0x2012 device_setup=0xd index=0 enable=1

to file in my /etc/modprobe.d (so I’m sure what index it receives, other values are here to enable 24bit/96kHz mode – check Joe Giampaolis blog for more information about it, just look out for mistake – above mode has device_setup=0x5, but it makes the device fallback to 16bit/48kHz mode.) I also installed Jack 2 and QJackCtl for GUI and set it up according to wiki on Arch Linux web page.

Now that I had sound card (or interface as some people say for products of this class), I needed to get some speakers (or sound monitors as people say). I got monitors AV40 (rev. 2) also from M-Audio. They are nice, 40W (20W per channel) speakers with good enough set of connections and wooden case. For me, it was important that they featured balanced input on TRS jacks and simple regulation – only voice level, nothing fancy like bass knob, I want the sound to be like artists wanted it to be. I connected them using two Proel Die-Hard T cables.

Now, I was able to listen to some nice music from PC. I played some of my ripped CDs using my preferred music player – Audacious – and found that they aren’t best quality… it’s amazing how I haven’t heard it on my old Creative Inspire speakers. Anyway, I installed Ruby Ripper from Arch Linux community repository and ripped my favourite Apocalyptica CDs into FLAC format. Now, this is what I’m talking about… but wait, this is still digital, and I have analog IO on this card… I decided to buy a new gramophone.

Products from Pro-Ject looked impressive and affordable at the same time. Nice and very simple design, and no automation – nothing fancy line included preamp or USB output. No automation means fewer parts that can break. I got black Debut Carbon Esprit and Phono-Box (you guess it, also black one). This model features arm made with carbon and acrylic platter, also it provides to balance other heads, so if I want to replace default Ortofon 2m red, I can. Connected them using supplied cable, and got another set of Proel cables to connect preamp to interface.

I tried the setup out on some old vinyls that were around and I must say that this is huge improvement in quality, although those albums were in poor shape. I ordered some more new titles from Amazon (7 albums from British Amazon, as they offer free postage to Poland for orders of 25GBP or more) and wait for their arrival. When they come, I will try ripping them using Audacity.

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