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Buying Sound Cards - 4 Pro Tips

Aug 17, 2007
Sound cards creates a bridge from the live performance of an instrument to your digital recording system. As such it's a very important component of your overall recording environment.

If you have a sound card included with your PC then you should seriously consider replacing that with one designed specifically for use in recording applications - since the bundled PC cards fail to come close to even CD standards of signal to noise ratio.

This article covers 7 key factors you must know about selecting an audio interface card if you want to avoid throwing your money down the drain!

Computer Sound Cards

If you do need to use the PC sound card, at least to start, here's what to look out for.

Many PC cards come with line level miniature jack connectors for use to connect to computer speakers or to an external amplifier.

There may be a separate headphone socket, or you may be expected to use the same output for either speakers or headphones.

Typically, you'll find 3 types of input:

* "Microphone" input
This is designed for use with computer microphones. Don't use it with a recording microphone. This may be a surprise to you. The reason is that your precious sound may become rather distorted - because most recording mics are not matched to the input specification of a computer sound card.

* Joystick or MIDI port
With an adapter you can hook up a keyboard or other MIDI device to it

* Line input
o this input can be used for recording, at least with some suitable sources.
o it will generally not be compatible with recording microphones of any kind, or low level outputs from instruments (Guitar and Bass), or any instrument amplifier speaker outputs.
o it can however be used with anything that has a line level output (Keyboard line output, instrument amp line outputs (Guitar, Bass) CD player outputs etc. To use this, you'll probably need an adapter to convert your 1/4" connectors to fit the 1/8" sockets.

As soon as you can afford it, buy a professional sound card. You'll get much better quality recordings as a result.

Professional Sound Cards

So when you are researching which sound card is suitable for your needs, ask yourself about the kind of use you'll put it to:

What will you use it for?

1. The overall number of inputs you will need for recording?
2. Will you record with any microphones? If yes, consider whether you also need a pre-amp?
3. What is the maximum budget you are willing to spend for that ultimate sound?

What Technical Specifications Matter most to you?

Sound card specs are typically summarized in terms of:

* bits
* sample rate
* interface or connection type

1. Sample Rate

To explain:

* if your sound card is rate locked at 48 kHz, and you want to record at 44.1 kHz (standard sampling rate for music CD's) the soundcard has to perform 2 conversions - on both input and on output before the sound reaches your ears.
* On each conversion, there is a loss of quality of the sound. Also, these additional steps can cause recording problems with tracks sounding out of time.

Avoid rate-locked sound cards

2. Life Cycle

* Professional sound cards don't become out-dated as fast as their consumer equivalents.
* So you must consider your likely future plans for recording, and take account of this in you buying decisions.

Think in terms of a five year equipment life time.

3. Quality balance with other critical components

* No point in spending a large amount on a top-end sound card, yet skimping in other areas such as monitors, mics or recording software. You won't get professional sound quality that way, and you won't be able to tell the difference!
* Marrying a high end sound card with low end recording gear will prevent you from realizing its potential by producing an inferior quality signal.

Aim for consistency of quality through out the components you select for your recording studio.

4. Would an "Audio Interface" suite your needs better?
Software developers like Digidesign and Steinberg offer audio interfaces that are becoming the preferred option among musicians instead of a standard soundcard. So what's the difference?

* Audio Interfaces have what's called a breakout box, hardware separate from the computer but attached to it via a PCI slot or firewire connection.
o Major benefit - you don't have to crawl around under the desk to reach the connectors!
* An audio interface contains a variety of connectors to handle multiple connections from microphones, instruments, and mixers of monitor system.
* Some audio Interfaces also feature balanced inputs, meaning you don't have to get that XLR to 1/8" Jack adapter to plug into your sound card, which will never produce as clean of a recording. You can just plug it in normally into the audio interface.
* Audio Interfaces will usually also include a microphone preamp and phantom power (required for Condenser Microphones)

So - to create the cleanest recording environment, go for an audio interface, with balanced connectors.

In summary:
1. Make sure the sample rate spec is adequate for the output media you plan to use; avoid rate-locked products.
2. Protect your investment by selecting professional products rather than the consumer equivalents.
3. Keep component choices in balance throughout the overall studio gear.
4. Consider audio interfaces for the benefit of easier connectivity, and additional functionality.
About the Author
For more great sound card tips, click the link.

Still wasting hard-earned cash buying the wrong gear? Ken's website Home Music Recording is a gold-mine of practical help on building or operating your recording studio. Ken helps people make better choices of gear for your music style and budget.
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