E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 Review
The world of budget, portable audio interfaces is in great health. There are many options available today of very high quality. Preamps and converters in budget interfaces have reached a level that would have seemed impossible at such a low price point 10 or 15 years ago. If you don’t need to record a huge number of inputs simultaneously, there’s no reason you can’t make great recordings these days with a $200 interface (or even cheaper).
Even though it’s harder than ever to go wrong, I’m going to focus on one of my personal favorites: the Creative Labs E-MU 0404 USB 2.0. It’s been around for quite a few years and is actually discontinued now, so you may wonder why it’s even worth considering since I just mentioned how many great options there are these days, but these interfaces are pretty easy to find and I feel they’re still one of the best options out there. I even found a retailer selling one in a never-opened box less than 6 months ago. If you check eBay somewhat regularly, you shouldn’t have a problem finding one, and I believe it’s a worthy choice even if it has to be purchased used.
Features and Specifications
- Total audio inputs: 4
- 2 E-MU XTC preamps with 48V Phantom Power and built-in soft limiter available (combination balanced input jacks: XLR (microphone) and 1/4″ TRS (line, Hi-Z instrument))
- 2 S/PDIF inputs (via single coaxial jack or single optical jack)
- Total audio outputs: 4
- 2 balanced 1/4″ TRS mono outputs
- 1 1/8″ mini stereo speaker jack (not routable; grouped with main outputs)
- 1 1/4″ stereo headphone jack (with headphone amp and independent volume control) (not routable; grouped with main outputs)
- 2 S/PDIF (or AES/EBU) outputs (via single coaxial jack or single optical jack)
- Hardware direct monitoring available (with independent volume control and stereo/mono toggle button)
- 2 balanced 1/4″ TRS mono outputs
- MIDI support (1 input, 1 output)
- Maximum bit depth: 24-bit
- Maximum sampling rate: 192 kHz*
- Connectivity: USB 2.0
- Compatibility: Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7**, Mac OS X
- Power source: 5V DC power supply (included)
*Analog operation supports up to 192 kHz sampling rate with Windows, and up to 96 kHz sampling rate with Mac
*MIDI functionality disabled at 176.4 kHz and 192 kHz sampling rates
*S/PDIF operation supports up to 96 kHz sampling rate with Windows, and up to 48 kHz sampling rate with Mac
*Hardware direct monitoring mode supports up to 96 kHz sampling rate with Windows, and up to 96 kHz sampling rate using main outputs or up to 48 kHz sampling rate using S/PDIF with Mac
**Windows 7 operating system support available only with beta drivers
The E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 packs a great set of features for someone recording at home who doesn’t need a high number of inputs and outputs. It connects via USB 2.0 port and doesn’t seem picky about ‘favoring’ specific ports on a computer, as some devices strangely seem to do. The drivers support operation in Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Mac OS X. As noted above, using a Mac will limit your maximum sampling rate to 96 kHz with the use of all analog inputs and outputs, and 48 kHz if using any digital (S/PDIF) inputs and outputs. Additionally, Windows users are limited to 96 kHz when using any MIDI connections and/or the hardware direct monitoring (either digital or analog), and hardware direct monitoring for Mac users is limited to 96 kHz using analog outputs and 48 kHz using the digital outputs. There is much debate among audio engineers over the benefits of recording at high sampling rates, but many agree that 44.1 kHz (which is also the sampling rate of audio CDs) and 48 kHz are more than sufficient for recording music. Having a sampling rate of over 48 kHz is not going to be the defining factor in making a high quality music recording, so I don’t think Mac users are at a disadvantage for home recording use. Mixing at 96 kHz (and above) can be advantageous when working with some virtual synthesizers to prevent aliasing, but once again, that sampling rate is supported with Macs as long as the digital inputs or outputs are not being used. Since most Windows users these days probably aren’t using anything older than Vista, it’s important to note that proper Windows 7 operation is only possible through beta drivers, and since this interface is discontinued, it’s unlikely that Creative Labs will continue work on the drivers. However, I’ve found the beta drivers to be adequate and I’ve explained my experience with them below in the “Drivers” section of this review. I have not tried the beta drivers with Windows 8, but there are reports on various recording forums that they work fine.
The interface has two analog inputs with preamps providing up to 65 dB of gain, which use combo jacks that support XLR and 1/4″ TRS cables. The 1/4″ TRS parts of the jacks are great for recording guitars direct because of their high impedance (Hi-Z) inputs, which are a must for preserving the high end clarity from high impedance sources like passive guitar pickups. Each analog input has its own gain control and a set of LED indicators to represent signal level (including a red LED for each input to indicate signal clipping). These inputs also have individual ground lift switches (accessed on the bottom of the interface), which can alleviate noise caused by ground loops from mains-powered devices. 48V Phantom Power can be supplied to both analog inputs simultaneously by pushing a button on the face of the unit, and a red LED illuminates when Phantom Power is active. This makes recording condenser microphones as easy as pushing a button.
A soft limiter can be enabled for both analog inputs simultaneously via the control panel software that installs with the drivers. Each input has a yellow LED marked “SL” for “Soft Limiting”, and when the limiter is turned on, it will shine if the signal level reaches the -12 dBFS threshold and engages the limiter. The limiter is a nice touch that can come in handy for recording dynamic sources while still keeping the preamp gain in the ‘sweet spot’. I find it to be very transparent when engaged and I doubt that anyone could discern when it clamped down on a track in the context of a full mix. I think the soft limiter is especially useful for recording direct guitars with palm muted passages, as it allows the preamp gain to be set high enough to achieve a pleasing gain structure and full-bodied frequency response but prevent clipping that might ordinarily occur when the palm mutes produce much higher signal levels. Because of its transparency, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to leave the limiter enabled nearly all the time as a form of “signal life insurance” unless you’re recording a signal you’re sure will have very limited dynamic range at all times.
The E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 also features a MIDI input, which is a necessity for using outboard gear to trigger virtual instruments (such as using a MIDI keyboard controller to trigger a virtual piano or a MIDI drum set to trigger virtual drums). The face of the unit has a red LED which illuminates when MIDI input data is being received. The interface also features a stereo S/PDIF input through either a coaxial or optical jack. This allows sources such as high-end external preamps with dedicated analog-to-digital converters to be recorded without undergoing the interface’s analog-to-digital conversion. S/PDIF carries two channels of audio, so it’s easy to record a single stereo source or even two mono sources from the same unit (such as a two-channel preamp with S/PDIF out). Some DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) group stereo inputs together, but most allow the user to manually ungroup the tracks and treat them as two mono inputs, so it’s easy to treat the S/PDIF input as two distinct inputs, if appropriate. A button on the face of the unit allows toggling between whether the coaxial or optical input is active, and LED indicators show which is selected. The S/PDIF input also allows the interface to be used as a digital-to-analog conversion device (without recording a signal and/or using a DAW) by connecting a device to the S/PDIF input, turning the interface’s power off and on (which synchronizes the interface with the external device’s sampling rate and word clock synchronization signal, illuminating the LED marked “Ext” to indicate an external synchronization source), enabling the interface’s hardware direct monitoring mode, and making sure the direct monitoring mode is set to the main outputs (which is done using a button on the face of the unit and verified by checking the red LEDs labeled “Main”, “S/PDIF”, and “Off”). This allows the interface to function as a dedicated DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter), and it’s a popular choice among headphone enthusiasts for that purpose.
I especially like the E-MU 0404 USB 2.0’s output options. The extra 1/8″ mini stereo output linked to the main stereo output (two balanced 1/4″ TRS mono jacks) makes it easy to connect another set of speakers for monitoring, such as of hi-fi computer speakers which could be used to check how a mix translates on consumer-level sound systems. These outputs are served by a single main output volume knob on the face of the unit. The headphone amp has a 22 ohm output impedance and has plenty of power to drive high impedance headphones very well, and having a separate volume control for the headphones is a convenient feature. In fact, this interface is a favorite at the Head-Fi.org forums for use as a dedicated listening device due to the high quality of the headphone amp and the interface’s digital-to-analog converter. However, the headphone output might not be ideal for headphones with an impedance of less than about 170 ohms because the electric damping factor is reduced when the source’s output impedance is more than 1/8th of the impedance of the headphones, meaning that the intended frequency response will be altered, distortion may occur, and the general performance of the headphones may be lacking (most notably a boomy, loose bass response). Pressing a button on the face of the unit enables hardware direct monitoring mode, meaning the input signal undergoes no processing by your computer/DAW before hitting the output stage, therefore no latency is experienced. This can be especially useful for monitoring a microphone or line level signal while recording with a heavy computer load (due to high track count, intensive plugins, etc.). The face of the unit also has a button that will switch the hardware direct monitoring output to mono, which is a good idea when recording separate sources through the inputs rather than one stereo source (otherwise each input will be panned hard left and right).
The unit also has a MIDI output, which is useful for capturing the sound of a unique outboard synthesizer without manually playing it (by sending the MIDI signal to the synthesizer and recording its line output simultaneously). The face of the device has a red LED that illuminates when MIDI data is being sent through the MIDI output. The interface also has a stereo S/PDIF output which is passed through a coaxial jack and an optical jack, enabling you to bypass the interface’s digital-to-analog converter and send the digital signal to an appropriate device, such as a dedicated digital-to-analog converter or effects processing unit. Both the coaxial and optical output jacks are always active, so no toggling is necessary — just plug in to whichever output you need. The control panel software also allows the user to set the S/PDIF output to pass AES/EBU signal instead. The hardware direct monitoring mode can be switched to pass through the S/PDIF output by pressing a button on the face of the unit, and this allows the interface to be used as a dedicated analog-to-digital converter without using a DAW by connecting a device to an analog input and enabling hardware direct monitoring. When a device is connected via S/PDIF, one of them needs to be set as the master word clock source so that the other device can synchronize with it, and the other device should be set to the master device’s sampling rate. Generally, the device supplying the source signal is set as the master device. In this case, make sure that the “Sync Source” in the control panel software is set to “Internal” (and the external device is set to receive an external word clock source via S/PDIF) so that the external device receives the proper clock signal from the interface, and set the external device’s sampling rate to the same as the interface’s. When the interface is using its internal word clock (which is also the case when S/PDIF is not being used at all), a red LED on the face of the unit labeled “Int” will be illuminated.
Features and Specifications Rating: 4.5 stars
Simply put, the E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 sounds absolutely great. It’s still renowned around the home studio community as one of the best budget interfaces ever made. Its low-noise preamps and converters are very highly regarded for recording nearly any type of source. Its 20 Hz – 20 kHz frequency spectrum is very well represented and there is a great clarity in audio recorded and played from this device. The high end is smooth but detailed, and the preamps are clean and transparent. The ability to work at up to a 192 kHz sampling rate with Windows (and up to 96 kHz with Mac) is great for those mixing virtual synthesizers who want to minimize aliasing (although the MIDI input and output are disabled at sampling rates above 96 kHz, so if you want to do manual MIDI work at a higher sampling rate than that, you’ll need to create a 96 kHz session to record the commands from a MIDI controller and then import the MIDI files into a session with the higher sampling rate of your choosing).
The E-MU 0404 USB 2.0’s preamps have a THD+N (Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise) specification of -101 dB, and its analog outputs read -100 dB (however, the headphone jack comes in at -95.5 dB with a 600 ohm load). Those figures are certainly worthy of praise, but I do have to admit that they’re comparable with some other budget interfaces these days, since they thankfully aren’t plagued by noise like in the past. The analog-to-digital converter has a dynamic range of 112.5 dB (A-weighted) and the digital-to-analog converter comes in at 114 dB (A-weighted), which are some of the best specifications I’ve seen for interfaces in this price range.
I am quite impressed at the way the low-mid frequencies are captured when I record tracks on this interface. They seem to have a realistic ‘weight’ to them that makes sources with adequate frequency content there sound very thick and punchy, but never muddy. I find this to be especially true when the input gain is set at the ‘sweet spot’, which on this interface seems to be about 1/3 of the way up. It is especially beneficial when recording guitars direct. I’ve recorded guitars direct through many interfaces and I believe this one truly excels at the task. It would take a much more expensive preamp and/or interface to provide a discernible improvement in sound quality over the E-MU 0404 USB 2.0.
E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 Recording of Direct Guitars and Bass (Full Mix):
The guitars tracks in this clip were recorded direct with a Gibson Les Paul Signature T into an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer pedal (set as a clean boost for EQ curve (tightening bass response) and gain structure purposes) into an E-MU 0404 USB 2.0. In the DAW, they were run into LePou’s HyBrit amp simulator and then the RedWirez mixIR2 impulse response loader, using RedWirez impulse responses of a Marshall 1960 4×12 cabinet with Celestion G12T-75 speakers miked with a Shure SM57. The bass track was recorded direct with a Hohner B Bass into the E-MU 0404 USB 2.0. The bass track was split into a DI track with no amp simulator, a track with Ignite Amps’ SHB-1 bass amp simulator and RedWirez impulse responses of an Ampeg SVT 810 cabinet with Ampeg SVT 10 speakers miked with a Sennheiser MD-421 (loaded via RedWirez mixIR2), and a track with Mercuriall’s JCM800 Hot Preamp amp simulator and the same RedWirez SVT 810 impulse responses just mentioned.
E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 Recording of Direct Guitar (Isolated Dry Track):
This is one of the guitar tracks from the previous clip but isolated and with no DAW processing. The overdrive is from the Ibanez TS9 pedal (used before the signal hit the interface). Take note of the exceptional clarity and how the high end is not harsh despite the bit of overdrive coming from the TS9.
Sound Quality Rating: 4.5 stars
Drivers and Stability
The E-MU 0404 USB 2.0’s drivers are not exceptionally stable, but I’ve never encountered any drastic failures. As mentioned previously, the drivers which offer Windows 7 support are a beta release, and given that they were released in September 2011, I think it’s fair to say that Creative Labs don’t seem interested in providing support for this device these days. However, don’t let that scare you. The vast majority of the time, they work well enough that you’ll forget to be concerned about them. The only issue I’ve had is that the device would occasionally stop passing audio through the outputs until the computer was rebooted, which is a much more manageable problem in comparison to conflicts causing crashes to desktop, blue screens of death, automatic system reboots, and DAW freezing, which can be very real problems with the drivers of other budget interfaces. The audio output problem only happened on an old computer I had and I’ve never had it with my newer system, so it may have been a rare conflict with the system configuration. Users on recording forums have also reported success using the beta drivers with Windows 8, so the interface still has a lot of life left.
Drivers and Stability Rating: 3 stars
Overall, the E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 appears to have suitably sturdy construction. Its face is encased in a transparent, hard finish that is resistant to nicks and scratches, and the rest of the unit seems very tough. It weighs a little more than one would expect just by looking at it, which I’d imagine is further proof that the materials used in its construction are dense and durable. The analog input and output jacks are so secure that I often have a tough time removing cables from them. My only complaint is that the plastic knobs used for input and output levels feel cheap and flimsy. I’ve never broken or damaged one, but they seem like they could easily be cracked or broken off.
Durability Rating: 4 stars
Once again, since the E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 is discontinued, you’ll likely have to buy it used. I’ve actually owned three of these interfaces since I like them so much, and I generally found them selling from anywhere from $110 to $170 or so. When they were new, I recall them being in the $200+ range (and still worth every penny), so I think the used market pricing is a steal. You can easily spend more than that on a new or used later model interface and still not beat the E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 in terms of value.
Price Rating: 4.5 stars
The E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 is one of the best budget interfaces ever made, plain and simple. It has a flexible set of features, marvelous audio quality, and was designed and built without compromises in mind. If you want great sound quality but don’t need a large number of inputs and outputs, look no further. There’s good reason that this interface is still coveted today despite being introduced over 7 years ago. Although it is discontinued, the drivers in their current state are sufficient and the prices on the used market make this interface an even better value. If your desire is a budget interface that doesn’t skimp on quality, resist the urge to buy new and be on the lookout for the E-MU 0404 USB 2.0.
- High quality preamps with detailed sound and plenty of gain
- Analog inputs can receive XLR microphone signals, 1/4″ TRS line signals, and 1/4″ TRS Hi-Z instrument inputs, with the added flexibility of Phantom Power and soft limiting
- Hardware direct monitoring capability with independent volume control and stereo/mono toggling
- Additional stereo output jack makes it easy to quickly audition another monitoring setup
- Built-in headphone amp with separate volume control and adequate power to drive high impedance headphones
- Low noise, high dynamic range converters
- Flexible S/PDIF inputs and outputs (plus AES/EBU output capability) with simple synchronization process
- Mostly sturdy construction
- Beta driver required for proper Windows 7 (and above) use
- Drivers are old, no longer updated, and occasionally have small issues
- Highest sampling rates not available in some circumstances
- Plastic gain and level knobs feel flimsy
- Unit is discontinued; may be harder to find and Creative Labs seems to no longer provide ongoing support for it