Optimize latencies: Your practical guide to improving sound

What is latency?

Latency, in a digital context, refers to the time delay between your action and the associated response. In music production, latency occurs when there is a noticeable delay between the moment you play an instrument or sing into the microphone and the moment you hear the sounds through your speakers or headphones.

What causes latency?

The most common causes of latency include problems with hardware or software. Hardware latency is caused by your audio devices, while software latency is often caused by audio programs and drivers. Your network connection can also cause latency, especially during live performances.

How do you optimize latency?

You can reduce your latency by optimizing your hardware, software, and network connection. On the software side, updating your drivers can help, and a faster network connection can also reduce latency.

Signal propagation time and round trip latency

Signal propagation time and round trip latency are also important factors. Signal propagation time is the time it takes for a signal to travel from one place to another. Round Trip Latency measures how long it takes the audio signal to travel from the source through the entire audio chain and back to the source. Both of these factors should be kept in mind when optimizing your system.

Buffer sizes and ASIO drivers

A crucial point for minimizing latency is the buffer size you choose in your DAW (digital audio workstation), such as Ableton, Logic, or Cubase. Buffer sizes are tradeoffs between performance and latency. Larger buffer sizes require less CPU power because your machine has more time to process the data. However, larger buffer sizes result in higher latency. In contrast, smaller buffer sizes require more CPU power, but the resulting latency is lower. So it’s important to strike a balance based on your specific needs.

In addition to buffer size presets with your DAW, you can also take a look at the ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) driver. This driver is specifically designed to minimize the latency of PC sound cards. Many professional sound cards and music programs include ASIO drivers, and there is also a universal version, ASIO4ALL, that can configure any sound card. With it, you can significantly reduce latency for audio applications.

Audio interfaces and network

Choosing the right audio interface can also make a big difference. Professional hardware often has significantly lower latency than inexpensive consumer devices. Brands like RME, Universal Audio, and Steinberg are popular among professionals because they offer excellent audio quality and low latency.

Another consideration is the network. For live performances where audio needs to be streamed over the network, it is crucial to have a fast and stable network connection. Optimally, you should use a wired network, as this provides the most stable and fastest connection. If this is not possible, you can make sure that your WLAN is configured to prioritize audio applications.

What should be considered when optimizing latency?

It is important to keep an overview and consider all possible sources of latency. Often, latency can only be reduced if you optimize the entire system. Also, you should always keep the overall experience in mind – sometimes small latencies are tolerable if they improve the overall sound.