Choosing a Sound Card for making Music. . . Part Two

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Drivers

A driver is software required by operating systems so that it can recognize and communicate with computer hardware.  Any peripheral added to a computer must have the correct driver installed otherwise it will not function at all.  Manufacturers will always provide the correct driver on the installation CD but it is always recommended that you download the latest drivers from the manufacturers website to ensure smooth operation. Specialist audio driver are slightly different than normal software drivers because they need to address the issue of latency.

What is Latency?
Music computer programs are putting more demand on computers than ever before.  Now a computer can successfully recreate the sound of any instrument such as a piano or trumpet but the calculations for this are all performed within the computer itself.  It needs to work out what key you have pressed, how hard you pressed it and what sound you have chosen to produce.  It then needs to get this sound out to the headphones at the same time as you pressed the key otherwise it is not a very useful musical instrument.  This is difficult to achieve because all the processing and calculations take time as does getting the information to the headphones and you will sometimes find that there is an annoying delay between pressing the key and hearing the sound.  This is known as latency.

To get around this the people who made the music applications designed better ways for the computer to communicate with the soundcard.  There are a number of different driver standards available depending on the software and operating system you are using.  Not all computer soundcards have specialist audio drivers so you will need to ensure you choose a soundcard designed for music production.  You will find that nearly all the soundcards on our site will have audio drivers suitable for music applications.  The following is a list of the different drivers available:

ASIO
ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output), developed by Steinberg, is a cross-platform, multi-channel audio transfer protocol that is being adopted by many of the manufacturers of audio/MIDI sequencing applications. It allows software to have access to the multi-channel capabilities of a wide range of powerful sound cards.  This driver allows the host audio/MIDI application to "see" all of the inputs and outputs available on the sound card. The user can then assign these I/O ports as needed for recording or playback when using an ASIO-compatible software program. This allows the users to record more tracks simultaneously than the previous limitation of two channels imposed by a standard soundcard driver.

GSIF
GSIF drivers are required to run Tascams Gigastudio Software.

CoreAudio
CoreAudio is the new low latency audio driver for MAC OSX.  If you need to use an audio interface with a Mac computer running OSX then you will need to make sure there are CoreAudio drivers available for the device.  All audio applications running on OSX will use CoreAudio drivers.

WDM
Short for Windows Driver Model, a driver technology developed by Microsoft to create drivers that are compatible for Windows 98, 2000, Me and XP.  Although WDM drivers do offer lower latency than standard windows audio drivers it is the least efficient type of driver.  Audio applications which take advantage of sound-card ASIO drivers will provide the lowest latency on PC computers.

Trouble Shooting Latency Issues

Specialist audio drivers will certainly provide better latency values than consumer soundcard drivers.  However, there are still a number of issues to be aware of to ensure you get the best performance out of your software.

1. Although the drivers are certainly an importanct issue when considering latency, simply installing the drivers does not mean the system is optomized for the lowest latency.  The actual latency value can be adjusted by changing the size of the DMA buffer.  Sometimes manufacturers default the size of the buffer to 1024, this is likey to cause a latency of about 25ms which would be noticable.  The buffer size can be reduced.  A size of 512 should bring latency down to about 12ms which you shouldn't notice.  If your computer is powerful enough then you may be able to bring the value down to 256 which should provide a latency of about 8-10ms but in doing this you are putting more strain on your computers processor and this may cause audio glitches, if you do experience this then the buffer will need to be increased to 512 MB again.

You can change the size of the buffer in the control panel supplied with audio interface.  You may not be able to change the value directly, they may simply provide a slider which says fast on the left and safe on the right (or something similar), adjusting the slider to the left is the same as reducing the numerical value of the buffer.  There is no right or wrong value for the size of the buffer.  It needs to be adjusted depending on the size of the project you are working on and the specific needs for latency (i.e. the lower the latency the more strain is on the CPU, the bigger the project the more strain on the CPU therefore it is sometimes necessary to increase the latency value to complete a project).

Have you adjusted the buffer size?  Has this solved the problem?

2.  There are also software settings which can cause latency.  If your software uses ASIO drivers then ensure you have specifically pointed it towards using the audio interfaces ASIO drivers rather than the Multimedia ASIO drivers or Direct X ASIO drivers.  This is usually done in the 'Preferences' or 'Device Setup' area of the software.

Have you pointed your software to use the correct driver?  Has this solved the problem?

 
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