USB vs. Firewire for data HD on P4/ATI chipset

Hi all,

First post, I am a longtime off and on Ardour hobbyist. After a long while with inadequate hardware, I am going to spend time with Ardour on a P4 (I know about denormals) with ATI Radeon 9100 IGP 128MB video. It’s 2.8ghz, will be used with a gig of RAM. It is in a tiny case that I cannot easily change, has only two PCI slots and no AGP. It has onboard 4-wire and 6-wire Firewire.

I have a Midiman Delta-66, I used it with Mandrake/ThacRPMs in the past, I am considering CCRMA or Debian for this incarnation (I am reasonably familiar with FedHat and Debian). The latest stock Mandriva 2006 only has a 2.6.12 kernel I believe. I am on dialup, and cannot easily do major upgrades (friends with broadband help on initial install!).

My problem I had before with old hardware was mostly disk I/O. I see the recommended hardware mentions that IDE data drive in a firewire enclosure can be nearly as good as SCSI. The question (finally!): It is mentioned that USB audio interfaces can induce latency. Will this problem extend to USB external hard drives? By spec, USB 2.0 is 480Mbs max compared to firewire’s 400Mbs. There is no physical room in the tiny case, and I was hoping to try external data drive, but am not clear what would be best for latency and kernel-level stuff. Recommendations? External enclosures are about equally inexpensive for both USB and Firewire.

My intended use will be mostly recording stereo pairs (perhaps a max of 4 total inputs at once) and overdubbing. Even with the Delta’s hardware monitoring, I occasionally want/need to have minimal effects on monitor. I can use an external mixer w/analog effects to ease computer resources. Eventually, I would like to work with Jamin as well.

Thanks to Paul for an amazing product!

my experience is merely my experience, but i have had very bad luck with USB disk support. the very same hardware (an external wiebetech disk enclosure with both USB and ieee1394 connectors) fails in so many ways i can’t count them when used as a USB device, yet works flawlessly via ieee1394.

performance is at least as good as a SCSI drive with the same physical characteristics.

i recall reading somewhere that if any USB 1 devices are plugged into the same hub (multiple USB ports on your case are likely on the same hub, especially with a tiny form factor box) the speed is dropped to USB 1 speeds across all devices. so basically, if you’ve got a USB keyboard or mouse for your system, that could be enough to spoil your plans. while i’m not 100% positive about this, i’m pretty sure.

additionally, i’ve never had a USB 2 device come anywhere close the the theoretical 480mb/s speed limit. from my experience, IEEE1394 (aka firewire) always outperforms USB 2. if you absolutely must use a USB audio interface, you can probably get away with it taking into consideration that you will most probably not be able to record more than one track at a time. but, with a USB storage device, you’d be lucky to lay down a track without a ‘disk not able to keep up with CPU’ message from Ardour. (or similar problems from any other audio software for that matter).

of course, as with all things, your mileage may vary. best of luck.


I’ve always had good luck with firewire…

Thanks to all for the reply. I had read elsewhere that the driver support (*nix) for USB vs. Firewire influenced throughput, but I wanted Ardour users’ reply.

One more question, Since I am re-re-learning Ardour with different hardware? The display adapter issue. This tiny Asus/P4 mobo has onboard video (along with onboard everything else, nearly) and has two PCI slots via a riser card. I love multiple monitors, and the suggested Matrox G450 solution sounds great. Since this is a teeny, tiny PC, it wants to use the onboard Radeon 9100 IGP. The Matrox G400/G450 apparently was available both in PCI/AGP?

Is the G400/450 suggestion slanted towards PCI/AGP? Upon searching, I was astounded to see a (now old) 32 meg vid card for USD $100-200! I am not a gamer at all, but all my young coworkers drop large $$$ for that ‘billion hectares per hogshead per metric moment benchmark’ (or whatever it is).

This need is an easy one to learn on my own. I’ll first try the onboard video, and see how Jack does with xruns and consider upgrading (if possible with the mini-hardware) later.

I do not yet have enough RAM scavenged to properly run the Mini-Asus, although I have a borrowed 256 megger to start with.


i have a pretty small form factor box myself. the case will not accommodate a full-height agp card. low-profile is the only way to go. my motherboard has onboard video, and it’s pretty tough to find a low-profile vid card; so, at first, i tried to use the onboard video. i didn’t have any xrun problems… however, i was getting some horrible audio hiss that really wasn’t acceptable. i didn’t realize it was related to the video until i snagged a cheap low-profile agp video card,disabled the onboard vid, and the noise went away, quite unexpectedly. my only guess is that the proximity of the integrated GPU to something or other on the motherboard was causing some kind of interference.

so, basically, if you can spring the cash for a dedicated video solution, go for it. it certainly couldn’t hurt.

as far as the PCI vs AGP issue, i think AGP is the way to go. whether you have a dedicated sound card or onboard audio, all the little 1’s and 0’s are probably being piped through the PCI bus. certain PCI cards use some hardware trickery to steal bandwith from the PCI bus to help improve video performance, at the expense of other peripherals.

regarding your ram, though… 256 mb is really scarcely enough for serious audio work. your best best is to drop cash on some ram before looking for a video card.

This tiny Asus does not have a choice for AGP, which is why I was wondering about the Matrox G400/G450 variants. I did not know if the PCI version would solve any of these problems or make them worse.

I have seen ham radio guys do elaborate homebrew shielding on a noisy PCI/AGP card (ok, and way back, ISA, but they weren’t as bad), and could reduce internal noise quite a bit. This was very low quality audio/voice-only, of course.

On the ram, the 256 meg stick is just borrowed to get the machine running somewhat. As per the first post, I will get a gig o’ DDR (but house payments, and real life get in the way first). It’s currently short on storage as well. This is hobby level work at this point, and I have to assemble the needed parts slowly.

Perhaps a worse problem? the Delta-66 card will not physically fit into the tiny case… it is short about 1/16 of an inch (it will hit the side of the case). There is about 1/16 of an inch extra space on the PCB, but Dremel’ing (is that a word?) on the Delta-66 card that close is scary. I think I will just cut a slot in the case and let the Delta-66 protrude a bit.

Thanks all, for reading this far; some of these problems (video, disk I/O) will become apparent when I get the stuff all working. I have been away from audio for a couple of years, and am anxious to resume.


The dremel project went without incident, Delta-66 is working fine. On the external data drive, what are the pros/cons of Firewire 400 compared to SATA? Assuming more or less similar drive performance (probably will be 7200 rpm) is either drive much better or worse based on the interface there?


I have an enclosure with both firewire and usb but it’s the firewire that gives me issues. It locks up if I try transferring over 800 mb of data. It even did that on an iMac at school. It might of been an issue with the FAT partition though. Now that I repartioned everything I should try again.

Isn’t there a new firewire version that’s capable of 800mbs? How can I tell if a device or computer is capable of the new speeds? Backwards-compatibility?