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Do professionals suffer from latency?

Latency is a significant problem with computer-based recording systems. Latency simply means a slight delay between the signal going in, and the same signal coming out. How do the pros deal with latency?


Latency is a significant problem with computer-based recording systems. Latency simply means a slight delay between the signal going in, and the same signal coming out. (You need the signal to come out again so that you can monitor it).

Take an example. A guitarist is overdubbing a solo onto the basic tracks of a song, which were recorded previously. The monitoring is set up so that he can hear the basic tracks in his headphones, and can also hear his guitar too. The problem is that the guitar is delayed by anything up to 20 milliseconds. It takes this long to make the trip from input to output.

Twenty milliseconds doesn't sound like much, but even a ten millisecond delay can be intensely distracting. It doesn't sound right to the guitarist, therefore he can't play at his best. It's even worse for singers.

It's worth knowing that only computer recording systems suffer from latency. Analog recorders, even humble cassette recorders, have zero latency. Absolutely none. Digital tape recorders do have a slight latency, but it is small and usually can be switched out so that a signal being recorded passes in the analog domain to the outputs with zero time delay. Some standalone disk recorders have sufficient computer-like qualities to possess latency, unfortunately.

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There are three solutions to latency in computer recording.

  1. Use a professional system that incorporates DSP (digital signal processing) chips. DSP chips are optimized for signals, unlike the processor of your computer, which has an awful lot else on its mind. Such systems can reduce latency to such a low value that it really is difficult to notice.
  2. Use an input system with 'zero latency monitoring'. In fact, any decent mixing console can be set up quite easily to do this. Some microphone preamplifiers also have this feature. In either case, the output from the recording system is mixed with the input signal direct from the microphone or other sound source. Hence there is no delay. The snag is that it can be fiddly to get this to work so that you don't hear both the zero latency signal and the delayed signal together, which sounds really dreadful. Also, if you like to hear reverb and maybe compression on the monitor, which many recordists do, then this can be very tricky to arrange.
  3. Take a look deep in the preferences menu of your recording software and set the 'buffers' to as low a value as possible. The buffer is a time delay that the software uses to process all the data, particularly through plug-ins. A longer buffer means that more plug-ins can be used simultaneously. A shorter buffer means lower latency. Obviously, you won't be able to use so many plug-ins during recording.

One of the fascinating features about latency is that it is purely an amateur problem. Professionals simply equip themselves properly. Free from such troubles, they can get on and create great music and continue in their success. Everyone else just has to struggle!

By David Mellor Friday February 4, 2005