Picking the right Direct Input (DI) box is one of the biggest upgrades you can make to your recording rig. Whether you’re an independent musician looking to improve your home setup or a studio owner looking to add a new color to the palette, there is a DI box out there for you. There are hundreds of DI solutions on the market, so with so many to choose from, where do you start your search?
Understanding What A DI Box Does
A DI box has a very simple task: to match the impedance of your instrument’s pickups to the mic input of your recording system. They step down the high-impedance levels of a guitar or bass to a low-impedance level that works better with recording equipment, which, for most of us, will be the converters in our interface.
Without a DI box, going directly into a preamp comes with it’s own set of unique problems. A non-DI signal from a guitar or bass can lack volume and clarity in it’s high-end frequencies. Engineers may be able to compensate for some of this with EQ, but it’s nearly impossible to add what’s not there.
Outside of impedance matching, every other feature on a DI box is an added bonus. Nearly every DI box will have a Thru to pass your signal on to amp, and most also include a Ground Lift. Before we get to what you should look for in a DI box, let me explain why what most home recording engineers are using just won’t cut it.
Why Your Interface Sucks
I don’t care if you’re running a next-gen Thunderbolt interface with 128-channels in and 256-channels out; your interface is not a substitute for a quality DI box. Will the several-thousand dollar interface have a better sounding DI than the cheap one? Probably, but it’s still not going to compete with the dedicated box.
You see… interfaces are tasked with a world of requirements. That list gets longer and longer as you start getting into higher price ranges too. Things like clocking, conversion & monitoring all get packed into units that are compact enough to take up one or two racks spaces at most. When you’ve got all of those things happening, manufacturers need to find a balance between features and price, or they price themselves out of the market completely.
Your DI isn’t special in this case. There’s a reason you can buy clocks, converters, monitoring systems, preamps & everything else in your interface on their own (at their own crazy price points) – and that’s because it’s just too much for one box to do all those things perfectly. The manufacturers do a great job making products that sound amazing, but they’ve got a production price they’ve got to stick to.
Fortunately for all of us, DI boxes are one of the least expensive parts of the interface that we can upgrade. Unlike the master clocks and converters, good DI boxes start under $100. If you’re looking to drop a bit more cash for a feature-heavy DI, you’ve got plenty of those options out there as well.
The Features You Need
Alright, so getting down to brass tacks, the first thing you need to decide on when buying your DI box is Active vs Passive. A Passive DI uses a more transparent signal processing approach, primarily transformers to step your impedance down to a lower level. By contrast, Active DI boxes use an additional built-in preamp to help with the impedance matching. This comes in handy with low-output pickups (single-coils), which, when run into a low-impedance Passive DI box, can end up with reduced transient response and high frequency levels.
If you can afford to spend a bit more, I’d recommend picking up an Active DI box, mainly for the flexibility it provides. An Active Box will come in clutch with low-impedance pickups and provide some extra headroom for active pickups.
For those that would prefer to minimize the amount of processing happening to their guitar or bass, a Passive DI box might be more your style. While a good Active DI box can add a decent “professional shine” to a track, some of the more boutique options definitely add more of their own color to the sound. If you’re running the DI through a virtual guitar rig like Toneforge, the color applied may be minimal; focusing on getting the cleanest signal possible to the rig should be your main priority.
Check some reviews on whatever model you might be considering before purchasing – Countryman, Radial & Whirlwind all make some great sub-$200 DIs (active and passive) that make great options for your first DI box.
Other major features include pads, level control & even pickup emulation.
Bonus Round: Stepping Up Your Game
If this isn’t your first DI box purchase, you’ve probably already seen the difference a decent DI can make in the recording/mixing process. Maybe you’re looking for ways to add a bit of color to the setup you’ve already got – something to round out your bass’ low-end or increase the clarity of your guitars.
To achieve this, a boutique DI might be exactly what you need. There are options on the market that incorporate high-end Jensen transformers & tube designs. By improving the components of the DI, a clearer or fuller tone can be achieved right from the DI without applying tons of expensive-sounding post-production in your DAW.
What To Do Once You’ve Got The DI?
Once you’ve got your new DI box hooked up in the studio, you’ve still got some steps to take to capture the perfect recording with it. Check out our guide on Crafting Clean DIs for some tips on getting the clearest sound possible. You can always supplement your DI setup with a great virtual rig and IR combo – giving you the best possible guitar tone for your mix. We’ve also got the Ultimate Guide to Beating Up Your Bass DI if that’s more your style.
If you’re looking for recommendations from other engineers & producers, come ask the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum. We’re constantly talking gear and recording, so if you’ve got a specific DI you’re looking at, chances are we’ve got someone that’s used it and can provide honest feedback.
See you there!