USB Hubs for Studio and Mobile DJs

The humble USB port. Almost everything that can connect to a computer now features USB – your audio interface, DJ controller, sampler, external hard drive, mixer, and other components are all competing for a limited number of ports. The easy fix is a $15 USB hub from Radio Shack, but this often leads to power and drop out problems. It turns out that not all hubs are created equal, and some may be better suited to your needs.  Read on for our recommendations and advice on what might be the best solution for you.

 USB HUB BASICS

One of the challenges with finding the right hub lies in the fact that there are so many options. USB has gone through many upgrades and changes since it first became available and many hubs can be deceiving in how up-to-date their hardware is. Currently USB 2.0 is the standard built in to most electronics, but even that  is quickly becoming obsolete.

Many elements in the studio depend on USB power / Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Many elements in the studio depend on USB power / Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Though mostly used to transfer data, USB is also essential in powering your studio components and giving life to all the LED’s and circuits. It’s in the power requirements of each device that hubs start to run into trouble.

A single USB 2.0 port on most laptops provides up to 5 volts and 500mA of power to your devices. This is sufficient to power all equipment that complies with the USB rules, and can run off USB alone. The precise power requirements of each product vary greatly so here are some rough examples of demands in various types of products:

  • Large Audio Controllers with lots of LEDs (like the Kontrol S4) can demand at least 400mA
  • Small audio cards like the Audio 6 pull around 200mA
  • Small controllers with moderate LEDs (like the Midi Fighter) pull around 150mA

As you can see from the list above, 2 Midi Fighters and sound card would draw too much current if pulling from a single port. The end result would be a device failing to start up or intermittent audio problems.

The most important feature to look for on a USB hub is if it’s self-powered or not.

Self-powered hubs draw their energy from an AC adaptor as well as the computer, providing a full 500mA of power to each individual port. That means that the above scenario (2 controllers and a sound card) would be possible, although not recommended for data reasons.

Other issues to think about when it comes to plugging your hub:

  • Important devices get priority: Certain hardware should always be plugged directly into the computer to prevent latency. This includes any recording gear or audio interfaces (especially controller with built-in interfaces)
  • Use shorter cables: Smaller distance means faster data transfers. USB signal will cut out in cables longer than 16ft, but aim for using 3-6ft cables if possible.
  • Avoid interference: Some USB cables may not be properly shielded and can pick up wireless signals or noise from other connections. Look for high quality cables that have good shielding to avoid interference and ferrites to cancel out any that does get in.
  • Test each USB port: All the USB ports on your computer will work, but some may work better than others.

NEW TECH: USB 3.0 AND THUNDERBOLT

usb-3.0-cable-usb-hubs

The latest and greatest standards for connecting your peripherals are now USB 3.0 and Apple’s Thunderbolt port. USB 3.0 has many advantages over its younger brother like faster transfer speeds (625Mbps max) and better capabilities for carrying power. More computers are starting to ship with this new standard as well (you may even be using USB 3.0 right now). To tell the difference, USB 3.0 ports feature blue plastic on the connector instead of the typical white.

thunderbolt-cable-apple-usb-hubs

Thunderbolt is an even newer standard available on all Macs since 2011. While less universal than USB, Thunderbolt is worth mentioning here since it marks Apple’s latest proprietary connector (like Firewire) on which many new devices will be based. Data speeds over Thunderbolt max out at around 20Gbps (yes, gigabytes), which is more than enough bandwidth to make them future proof, but very few Thunderbolt products currently exist on the market. Firewire to Thunderbolt cables are available in the meantime.

HUBS FOR IN THE STUDIO

Beyond immediate hardware needs, consider all of the other USB devices you use regularly in the studio. Keyboards, printers, hard drives, and more will need to share space with audio interface and controllers. Additionally, you’ll probably buy more hardware as time goes on, so with this in mind consider getting a hub that offers a lot of head room.

What Makes A Quality Studio Hub: Going for something self-powered here is a no-brainer. If your computer features USB 3.0, getting the most up-to-date hardware will save you money down the road. Make sure your prospective hub also includes the necessary AC adaptor to power it – and that all of the ports are fully powered (some cheap hubs only power certain ports). Also note:

  • Buy PCIe for desktops – a PCIe card will solve both power and data transfer issues but needs a PCIe motherboard slot to work. This is really important if hard drives are sharing a hub.
  • Check all the ports – some hubs will offer combinations of USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports. Double check you’re getting what you want before buying
  • Spend now to save later – The newest USB 3.0 hubs will run you a bit more money (around $60) but you’ll save having to buy a new hub in a year or two

Most standard hubs will cost between $20-$40:

dlink-dub-h7-dj-hub

plugable-7-port-usb-hub-studio-dj

satachi-powered-dj-hub

D-Link DUB-H7$23
USB 2.0, 7 Ports

Plugable 7 Port Hub$35
USB 3.0, 7 Ports

Satechi UH3-10P$60
USB 3.0, 10 Ports

HUBS FOR DJS ON THE GO

It’s a good bet that if you are working from the road you’re not bringing an entire studio with you. This means less gear to worry about powering but more complications with finding an available power outlet, not to mention lugging around yet another computer accessory and AC adapter in your bag.

What to watch out for when buying a portable USB hub:

  • Sized right: a smaller travel-sized USB hub is recommended
  • Most travel USB hubs are “bus powered” meaning they won’t be able to power as many devices at once and can’t share sound cards and controllers on the same hub.
  • You get what you pay for – many cheaper travel hubs use slow USB 1.1 ports – fine for MIDI, horrible for data transfer.
  • Look for integrated cable – some hubs require you to add the input cable, making them large, bulky and easy to lose. Small ports with a short integrated cable are generally much easier to work with.
  • Get a backup: since these hubs tend to be much cheaper, consider grabbing a second one to keep in your DJ bag in case the first kicks the bucket or gets left behind (a very common occurrence) 

Here are a few quick selections we can recommend:

connectland-usb-mobile-dj-usb-hubbelkin-4-port-usb-mobile-djanker-mobile-dj-usb-hub

Connectland Travel Hub$7
USB 2.0, 4 Ports

Belkin F5U407$10
USB 2.0, 4 Ports

Anker Uspeed USB Hub – $18
USB 3.0, 4 Ports

Here is our founder, Ean Golden’s, recommendation for balancing power demands in a live set:

I always use a firewire sound card so the data and power-hungry piece has its own dedicated port. Then I divvy up the 2 USB ports on my Retina Macbook Pro based on power demands. Two X1’s share a single USB port on a Belkin hub, and my Midi Fighter Pro gets a dedicated USB slot due to the bright LEDs and a lot of 2 way MIDI messages.

HUBS FOR STYLE OR OVERKILL

We decided to add one more section to this article that shows off some of the crazier hubs out there that might either add the ultimate number of ports to your USB arsenal, or alternately the bit of flair that you’ve never known you wanted out of a USB splitter.

Again, when buying hubs that focus on style instead of performance, beware that the manufacturer might have spent most of their money on design – potentially skimping on the power supply, build quality, or even just thrown a USB 1.0 hub inside.

mondohubdr-who-hubskullhub

MondoHub – $89
USB 2.0/3.0, 28 Ports

Tardis USB Hub$30
USB 2.0, 4 Ports

Skullhub USB – $25
USB 3.0, 4 Ports

Know of any other hubs or USB accessories you’ve found handy in the studio or on the go? Give us some more recommendations in the comments.

  • Dr Beatz

    Anyone had any experience working with webcams and USB hubs? I am using the vizzable 2.1 suite in Max4Live and trying to get a few cams working, in addition to my controllers. Had my first gig with new setup this last weekend, and of course, webcams and one of my controllers failed at showtime…OUCH. It all worked prior to gig WTF.

    I would love to hear anyones comments on using a lot of controllers (5+) in a live setting. Any luck with running them as MIDI instead of USB (aka powering all devices and daisy chaining via MIDI I/O ports, vs connecting all via USB).
    I think for a larger number of midi controllers, this would be ideal, but have yet to test it out.
    I am searching for a 4-7 port live solution. It has to work flawlessly, price is not an issue if performance is stable and consistent.

  • Ajzen

    I‘m using a 7-Port USB 3.0 hub from HooToo. It’s bus-powered, it will works as either a powered or unpowered hub. Also, I enjoy the design of the spacing. Plus, I get mine from Amazon for $40, it worths every peny.

  • Tyler

    I use a 7-port Kensington PocketHub, has never failed me. I usually choose to plug it into external power when I’m using it live but it works even without the power supply (with my current configuration, not all 7 ports filled)

  • DJ MAOZ

    Help me understand this, please. If my comp usb 2.0 gives out 500mA/5volts + connect a non power usb hub= usb hubs get each 500ma/5volts or usb hub divide ports by 500ma/5volts for each usb port? OR power usb hub all usb ports get 500ma/5volts all the time. Are you splitting the power from the usb computer onto the each usb port on hub?

  • Jallmadak

    Industrial grade USB hub, for when you really need stuff to work no matter what: http://www.moxa.com/product/UPort_404_407.htm

  • Hugh

    it’s worth mentioning that many monitors (including the one pictured at the start of the article) are powered USB hubs. Not practical for the road but in the studio you can get 4 powered ports out of it and i have never had any complications with it.

  • djfreesoul

    Why can¨t Apple (or any other manufacturer) put more USB ports in their computer? Even my aunt (who is not a DJ) needs more than 2 USB cables.

    • J Crenshaw

      My non Apple has 4 USBs.. So “Any other manufacturer” would be incorrect.

      • djfreesoul

        Whatever…

  • Morgraw

    A little question: how much energy needs a powered contoller like the S4? And to use the CDJs in HID mode? 😀

  • Manus

    So let me get this straight. I could have a 13 usb port (like I do) But if I am trying to pull to much power from my usb hub it will be ineffective?
    I am currently setting up my studio again after being on the road for a while and have a 13 usb hub. I think I will be overdoing it alot from the list of things I am aiming to plug into it.

    Usb port 1. (Going through a 13port usb hub)
    Audio 8 Soundcard
    Keyboard
    Mouse
    Printer
    Akai MPD 24
    Akai LPD 8
    Midi Keyboard (M-Audio Keystaion 49e)
    Iphone Charger
    3tb Powered External Harddrive

    Some of these things can be powered for instance the midi keyboard, usb hub itself, external harddrive, akai mpd24, Printer. Does this make a difference to how much the ports can carry?

    Port. 2
    Traktor S4

    • Manus keep in mind that you are starting out your connections as you said with
      “Usb port 1. (Going through a 13port usb hub)”
      from that original point, you are only going to get the 400 – 500 needed to power devices
      now afterwhich you are splitting things. You can only get the 500 at a time through that port so if you have 4 other devices after that inside the 13port area, which need say 500 solid full time, you are asking for trouble if that port is now POWERED or those devices dont have an AC adapter plugging into the wall.
      Make sure you can grab power from as many places as possible but do remember
      “The more cables and connections you have in play, the more earth noise you will see”

  • Ezmyrelda

    Now, I have never gigged or toured with this. http://www.thinkgeek.com/product/e2d2/?srp=7 But I bought it with the express purpose of gigging and that said it has worked well within it’s capacity.. It’s powered.. and comes with certain caveats based upon what device you are using.. But the only hub that has ever worked worth a crap for all my midi controllers without fail is the one on my Z2.. I believe this has to do with cabling and power. It’s out of stock at thinkgeek but if you see them around it’s something to consider… and maybe discuss the finer points of.. just throwing possible options out there.

  • Phil Rennie

    I think that Thunderbolt speed should be in gigabits (Gb) not gigabytes (GB)
    20Gb/s = 2.5GB/s, and it’s only 10Gb/s in each direction on a channel for 20Gb/s of duplex data.

  • Boris

    I use the MondoHub – $89

    USB 2.0/3.0, 28 Ports 🙂
    Costs a lot, but no more problems with too many devices having to share a slot 🙂

  • Morris Summers

    Why aren’t MULTI-TT Hubs mentioned? Multi-TT Hubs are very important for Artist or Studio use!

  • Paul

    I used the Plugable 7 port USB 3.0 hub that’s in the picture and it doesn’t get along with my Macbook pro retina. When I plug in certain NI equipment (Audio Kontrol 1 and maschine), my computer immediately shuts down and restarts. I switched back to a small belkin 4-port powered 2.0 hub and it works great! Plus it costs $10 or less.

  • Ewan Collins

    Also, the Kontrol Z2 has a built in powered USB hub.

  • D3RKIN

    The measurement for speed is off for both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 they are measured in Gbps which is bits not bytes, GBps would be bytes. Big difference between bits and bytes…

  • Filippo

    if you don’t want to have problems for a 4 usb hub buy another power pack… same voltage, but increased amperage… my sitecom hub has a 1 mAh 5V power pack included.. i bought a 2.5 mAh 5V.. i use 2 xone k2s (aggregate audio interface of k2s) external mixer plus Maschine. in the first usb port i plugged in the first k2.. and in the second port, the hub with the second k2 and Maschine… low latency (10 ms)… never a problem.. i spend less than buy an high quality hub… my sitecom costs 7,90€ and the 2,5mAh power pack 15,90€… 😉

  • lanceblaise

    Been using this Multi-TT hub for the last 5 years with no problems ever! Was recommended when I first joined the boards here.

    http://www.cables4computer.com/USB_and_FireWire/USB_Hubs_USB_2.0_7-Port_Desktop_Hub_with_Power.html?gclid=CIjc39e6srkCFcue4Aodf30A7A

    • Fexus

      I’m also using two of these hubs, but I still tend to get issues with > 10 USB MIDI devices attached. Is anyone using hub(s) with more than 15 USB devices connected, without any glitches? For instance an NI Audio10, launchpad, MF3d, keyboards, orbit, USB hard drives, mouse/keyboard, etc.?

  • Professorbx

    The biggest thing to mention is a Multi-TT hub. When you don’t get a Multi-TT hub, the fastest device falls back to the speed of the slowest-if you have a USB 2 and a USB 1.1 device plugged in, you get USB 1.1.

    Fun fact, the Behringer CMD-MM1 is a Multi-TT hub.

  • Plus one for the Plugable hubs, I was using a USB2 one, and now a USB3 hub by them and they work great. Never had an issue.

  • Gábor

    Great article. One thing to correct: shorter cables doesn’t improve USB latency at all, cable length has no effect on this.

    • David Schulman

      True, the difference in speed with shorter cables is negligible to us humans. Going over a certain length though is what should be avoided.

      • Matthias

        More specific: The speed of data is not affected at all by length until the certain length, this is purely limited by the chips and other calculations on both ends. The propagation speed of current in copper wire is close to the speed of light.

    • Ian

      Correct, what it should say instead: Shorter cables reduce interference. They do so simply by being shorter. A cable is in effect like an antenna and tries to grab radio frequencies from the air. The shorter the cable the less RF interference you get simply because your ‘antenna’ cable is shorter.

  • RockingClub

    Anybody here is in the know of another, maybe a bit less pricey, Thunderbolt usb hub or docking station already, apart from the Belkin Express Dock (299 euros)?