Originally published on dolphinmusic.co.uk Wed October 25 2006. Updated 16.5.17
We at PMT Online understand that the Soundcard (otherwise known as Audio Interface) market can be a little daunting if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. With various connection methods such as USB, Firewire, and PCI it is difficult to find the one for you. This guide should give you an overview of the world of soundcards and hopefully help you someway in choosing the right one for you. Please remember that you can always call us if you ever need help or advice on 0151 448 2089. But for now, enjoy our Audio Interface buying guide!
What is a Soundcard / Audio Interface
A soundcard enables you to get audio from outside your computer into it. Or in other words converts Analogue to Digital (AD converter). Some cards will allow you to also record digital. Some people like to call more professional soundcards Audio Interfaces but they are the same thing. There are also Audio Capture devices such as Roland's UA-55 Quad Capture (pictured below) that do not require a professional soundcard. This type of Audio Interface is connected and powered via USB to your desktop computer or laptop, has various inputs for XLR/TRS cables and is a very portable means of recording on the go. These type of recording devices have high quality microphone inputs with mic pre amps for condenser microphones like you would find on a large professional mixing console.
The difference you find with soundcards to mixers is that where as a mixer will just take an analogue signal and keep it as analogue. A soundcard converts the analogue to digital. The price of soundcards can sometimes be determined by the quality of the AD converters and mic preamps. For example the quality of the RME AD converters is better then the ones found on the M Audio soundcard range, although how much better is negotiable.
Will the soundcard on my computer not suffice?
Whenever a customer questions this at PMT our response is always to let them try it out first with the onboard soundcard. There is no better way of learning how much of a difference good AD converters can be then to use really bad ones. The onboard soundcard is OK for games and MP3s but when it comes to recording audio and transferring to digital you really do need a better soundcard.
Onboard soundcards don’t offer multiple inputs which rules out any larger scale recording of bands or primarily drums. They also suffer from large amounts of latency (glitches in the audio recording) which you will need to overcome via getting a better soundcard.
How Many Inputs and Outputs do I need?
In today’s market there is a soundcard for everybody. At PMT we always ask customers to think into the future. Will there ever be a time that you will want to record more than two inputs simultaneously. This might be drums, a live recording, a band or the fact that they will have many instruments and don’t want to keep plugging and unplugging cables. If the answer is yes then we recommend 8 inputs. Unless you have a specific reason we would recommend that you have all 8 inputs via XLR and mic pre amps. You may not want this if you are using your own Pre Amps or you specifically need jacks.
Many people realise that they only need two inputs and if that is the case there are many options for you. Solutions range from just a small box that you connect to your computer, MIDI keyboards with soundcards built in (for the musician on the move) to guitar FX modelling solutions that you can connect straight to your computer. More and more manufacturers are seeing the need for combining an audio recording solution with their products.
Most soundcards will have two jack or XLR balanced outputs to go to your studio monitors. Specialist audio interfaces may have up to 8 outputs for surround sound monitoring and mixing. You can also get digital outputs such as SPDIF or ADAT (Lightpipe). ADAT can actually carry 8 channels of digital audio down one cable which is great for small studios.
Do I need a special Soundcard or Audio Interface to use Pro Tools?
Not anymore. Thankfully almost all modern USB Audio Interfaces are compatible with a wide range of different DAW's including Pro Tools.
The likes of the Focusrite Scarlett audio interfaces and the Universal Audio Apollo Twin Solo Thunderbolt Audio Interface are a great choice.
Soundcard Connectivity with Computers
The ever popular question about what connection you should go for is asked by customers every day at PMT Music. Firewire is probably the most popular type as of today due to its fast data transfer speed, you will find that M Audio firewire interfaces as well as Presonus are very good. USB 2.0 which is actually slightly faster is also popular with the Mbox 2.0, Edirol UA1000 and Lexicon Omega using it. USB 1.0 had a fairly bad reputation at first when manufacters failed to explain to users the limitations on the number of inputs you could transfer simultaneously. Any USB 1.0 2 in 2 out product you buy today such as the Edirol UA 25 will work just as well as a firewire unit.
Back in the last century when we started all this USB and Firewire were but a twinkle in some technician’s eye. It was all about PCI cards which are going as string today as they have done. PCI (or PCIX – new versions) can offer faster data transfer but are also more processor dependant. Famous PCI soundcards are the likes of the M Audio Delta range and the older MOTU range of soundcards.
It would be rude to talk about connectivity and not mention PCMCIA. This is a method of connecting directly to laptops. Just think PCI for laptops. Due to USB and Firewire it is becoming less popular but some still believe it to be the only true way of getting true recordings onto laptops. This is debatable and we just don’t have the time!
All soundcards will come with software that will allow you to control the routing of audio within your soundcard. You will need this software to interface with your recording software. It basically allows you to interface with your soundcard as if it were a mixing console.
Most manufacturers give you free basic sequencing of synth based software to get started, but some go the whole hog and give you fully blow sequencing packages to save you ever having to spend money on software just as the Steinberg System 4 package or the Mackie Spike.
What is Bit Depth and Sample rate?
The greater the bit depth the greater dynamic ranges you are able to potentially record. It basically allows you to record every bit of sound in great detail, even the quieter bits. The sample rate determines how accurate the audio is. 44.1kHz means that the soundcard (or computer) is taking 44100 pictures a second of the audio. We would always recommend in today’s market to go for 24 bit 96 kHz as a minimum. This gives you the option of producing a high quality recording, and with the prices today it’s just not worth looking below that.