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Near Zero Latency vs Zero Latency Digital Monitoring

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INTRODUCTION

Direct Monitor is a common feature of audio interfaces that lets you listen to your instrument through the audio interface without distracting latency.

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Zero Latency Monitoring

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PreSonus AUDIOBOX USB

Zero Latency Direct Monitoring is an analog solution. There's really no latency whatsoever and no real dynamics loss. There's most often just one knob that controls the volume balance between playback and input signals. Some interfaces have a mono/stereo switch that pans both inputs hard left and hard right.

PROS

pic No latency
pic Easy to use inputs/playback mixer knob
pic No dynamics loss

CONS

pic Hard panning is possible only with some interfaces (e.g. Focusrite Scarlett 2i4)
pic No routing options, no effects during tracking
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Near Zero Latency Monitoring

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Focusrite Saffire MixControl

In this case there's a digital mixer inside an audio interface that gives you full control over volume, panning and routing of audio signals at a cost of small added latency and some loss of dynamics as digital domain has its limitations.

There audio interfaces with Near Zero Latency Monitoring that have built-in digital signal processor (DSP) and with these there's an option of adding eq, compression and reverb to the monitored signal and that can make tracking easier. For instance, some singers like to track with a little bit of reverb. It's also easier to track bass parts with added compression.

PROS

pic Full routing, volume and pan control
pic You can add effects to make tracking easier (some interfaces)
pic Possibility of saving mixer presets

CONS

pic Some latency
pic Some dynamics loss
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EXAMPLES

Zero Latency Direct Monitoring usually means that there's a INPUTS/PLAYBACK Mixer knob somewhere and Near Zero Latency Direct Monitoring means that there's a digital mixer inside that you can control through a dedicated application on your computer, save presets etc.

Interface Direct Monitor Type Direct Monitor Latency DSP
ASUS Xonar D1 Other 77.66ms Yes
Creative Sound Blaster Z Near Zero Latency 11.47ms Yes
E-MU 0202, 0204 USB Near Zero Latency 5ms No
E-MU 0404 PCIe, E-MU 1616M PCIe Near Zero Latency 1.5ms Yes
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Zero Latency 0 No
Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 Zero Latency 0 No
Focusrite Saffire 6 USB Zero Latency 0 No
Focusrite Saffire PRO 14 Near Zero Latency 1.5 ms No
Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 Near Zero Latency 1.5 ms No
Lexicon Alpha, Lambda, Omega Zero Latency 0 No
Lexicon IO 22, IO 42, IO 82 Zero Latency 0 No
M-Audio Firewire 410 Near Zero Latency 1.5ms No
Presonus AUDIOBOX USB Zero Latency 0 No
Presonus Firestudio Mobile Near Zero Latency 1.5ms No

Table 1 Examples Zero Latency Direct Monitoring and Near Zero Latency Direct Monitoring audio interfaces

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HOW TO CHOOSE

For recording guitar amps, effects processors and keyboards you'll be more satisfied with Zero Latency Monitoring beacuse there's no latency and you get better dynamics. Near Zero Latency Direct Monitoring is great when you're working with multiple inputs and outputs because of flexible routing. DSP solutions are the way to go when you like adding effects to make tracking easier.

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FURTHER READING

The Truth About Digital Audio Latency by Wesley Elianna Smith on www.presonus.com

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