Dear DJ Industry — the time is now for USB C

Since the dawn of my tampering with audio, those connections have, for better or worse, remained exactly the same. Jacks, minijacks, RCAs, and XLRs have persisted. And bar the introduction of TRRS for mobile devices, these have endured for several decades to become universal standards. And with the help of a bag of adaptors, it’s relatively easy to get them all talking to each other too.Computer connections have however, by being part of a rapidly evolving technology led industry, each crawled from the digital primordial ooze and been hunted into extinction by bigger and indeed smaller predators in ever decreasing time.

Let me give you a list of different standards that you will have heard of, if not actually used over the years:

  • Serial
  • Parallel
  • VGA
  • SCSI
  • PS2
  • Firewire
  • USB
  • RJ45
  • eSATA
  • SCART
  • DIN
  • DisplayPort
  • DVI-D
  • S-Video
  • iOS 30 Pin
  • Lightning
  • Thunderbolt
  • HDMI

…and doubtlessly a few more that have slipped my mind. Let’s also not forget the assorted size variations within each of those too, plus the co-opting of connectors for other uses such as RCA for component video and SPDIF. Frankly It’s a bloody nightmare.

As technology has rampaged onwards, the computer has been severed from mice, keyboards, and networks courtesy of wireless communications. This kind of data is relatively easy to send wirelessly, but wireless audio and video is proving tricky to provide without latency. In this respect, your DJ setup is unlikely to lose that annoying collection of connections anytime soon.

But we’re considerably closer to having a lasting standard for computer connections with the advent of USB C. But first, let’s look at the hot mess that generically is USB and explain what it all means.

PROTOCOL

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus (no, unlike ISDN and ADSL I didn’t have to look that up), and is an all-encompassing specification for protocols and connectors. Broadly speaking, USB 1/2/3 is the protocol, and USB A/B/C is the hardware connector.

It has three main flavours:

USB 1.x — released in 1996, this had two bandwidths of 1.5Mbit/s and 12Mbit/s, but didn’t work with extension cables. USB 1.1 saw the wide adoption of this as a standard. Generally speaking, there was only the USB A and B connectors at this time. USB 1.1 has a nominal maximum cable length of 5 meters in 12Mbit mode, and 3m at the lower 1.5Mbit speed.

USB 2 — this came in 2000, and saw a quoted bandwidth of 480Mbit/s. It also expanded the range of connectors, hub-free device to device communications, and charging abilities. And it was backwards compatible with USB 1.

USB 3.x — 2008 saw supersede mode added with a quoted 5Gbit/s, which in turn allowed for better charging and powering abilities. USB3.1 upped the rate to 10Gbit/s, and USB 3.2 (designed specifically for the USB C connection) upped this to 20Gbit/s, and made use of USB C’s extra pins for enhanced communications. USB 3.x doesn’t specify a maximum cable length, but the thinner the gauge of cable, the shorter the distance it will reliably work.

That’s the stripped down version seen over at wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USB)

Thus USB is a developed and evolved standard that has seen off the likes of Firewire to become a ubiquitous connection that appears on just about every device on the planet. Except iPhones of course, but the rumour is that will be changing before too long.

CONNECTIONS

USB connectors come in many shapes and sizes, all of which we’ve seen in assorted DJ devices. The game however has changed with the USB C connector. Instead of the puny four pins (power, data x 2, ground) offered by previous iterations, USB C has a glorious 32 pins of power. And unlike… well just about every other computer connection, it can be plugged in any way up, so no more wrong-flip-wrong-flip-right plugging nightmares.

The waters are muddied a little when you throw Apple’s own proprietary Thunderbolt protocol into the mix. Previously it had its own cables and connectors that are the same as Mini DisplayPort.  But Thunderbolt 3 uses the USC C connector. Apple doesn’t help itself when some computers with USB C are just for USB 3.x, whereas MacBook Pro USB C ports work with Thunderbolt and USB 3.x.

Thunderbolt however can support daisy chaining up to six devices. So in a Mac setup, the supposed lack of USB C ports is moot if you use Thunderbolt devices. And while technically possible, there seems to be no clear answer about daisy chaining in a USB 3.x environment across Windows and Mac platforms. My advice — stick to hubs.

On a related note, I cannot express my joy at seeing that new MacBook Pro power bricks use USB C cables. So instead of having to replace a whole brick for £65 a pop, it’s likely to be a cable replacement, if indeed the USB C cable breaks at all (they’re beefier). And if you must have a MagSafe connection, Griffin does a “Breaksafe” cable for £22 amongst others.

POINTLESS MOANING AHOY

I can hear it now — the wave of what about my old devices? What about my computer that doesn’t have USB C? Here’s the thing — USB 3.x and USB C are backwards compatible. So all you need is a USB C to A cable or adaptor and you’re sorted. They cost a few quid — I just don’t see the problems that all too many people are protesting about. It’s a cable swap or plugging in an adaptor — nothing more. And manufacturers can easily add a cable for USB A and USB C for pennies.

And while were on this subject — please stop calling them dongles. A dongle is a dead-end serial or USB copy protection device that is needed to allow expensive software to run. Adaptors however convert one thing to another, like a USB or headphone adaptor. It is not a dongle, and neither is a hub. So please stop doing that.

Finally, before anyone dishes out the whataboutism with “yeah but what about USB 4?”. I saw USB 4 (which doesn’t actual exist yet) perfectly described as a solution looking for a problem. Of course things get faster and smaller, but the combination of USB 3.x and USB C delivers everything that consumer devices need, with significant bandwidth to spare. Apparently even the fastest SSDs can’t max out USB 3.2 bandwidth.

SUMMING UP

USB 3.x is a mature platform that delivers all the speed and features that a DJ needs (except Ray of course), and frankly could ever possibly need for the foreseeable future. And when you add USB C’s compact connection and the ability to deliver data, audio, video, and power, I cannot think of a reason why manufacturers shouldn’t start to use it right away. Dan rightly talked about the issue of obsolescence a while ago, but I genuinely feel that USB C and USB 3.x is the combination that will see us through a couple of decades at least… not that computer connected gear is current for that long anyway. Of course, when we’re DJing using augmented realty with VR in 8K, we might need ridiculous bandwidth and a 64 pin connector. Or hopefully it’ll all be wireless. 

So come on DJ industry — get ahead of the curve for a change rather than always having to play catch up. Even my next camera has a USB C Portland I susses so will your next smartphone.

YOUR SAY

I have an open mind, and have read articles pointing out issues. But USB C is here, and is appearing in all manner of devices. So do you see any reasons why new DJ hardware shouldn’t come with USB C as standard?

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