Sound Cards - Explained!

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Choosing a Sound Card

With technology evolving so quickly these days there are thousands of different options available on the market for almost every different need. In this guide we aim to narrow your search down a little and explain some of the most vital terms and things to look out for when choosing a sound card.

Most computers are sold fitted with basic sound cards or with onboard sound processing facilities built into the motherboard. While these are suitable for many computer users, professional audio applications will often require more advanced features or connections to allow audio recording or MIDI connectivity. All the sound cards we sell at Soundware are high quality and suitable for semi-professional or professional purposes.

There are a number of different types of sound card/audio interface to choose from. If you are unsure which would be best for your computer, please contact us and we will be happy to help.

Types of Sound Card:

  • PCI Sound Card
  • USB Interface
  • Firewire Interface
  • PCMCIA / PC Cardbus

Sound Card Terminology:
  • Latency
  • Sound Quality/Resolution
  • Inputs and Outputs

 

PCI Sound Cards



E-MU 0404

PCI sound cards are fitted inside your computer, in a spare PCI slot on the motherboard. These can be a very cost effective and stable solution for a music computer setup. Some come with a “breakout box” or “breakout cable”, which attaches to the sound card on the outside of the computer and allows for easy connection to other equipment. These sound cards can only be used in desktop machines, though, and not laptops.

 

Examples of PCI Cards:

E-MU 0404 - High quality audio card giving 2 24bit analogue unbalanced I/O, 24-bit/96kHz S/PDIF I/O (switchable to AES/EBU) and MIDI I/O.

M-Audio Audiophile 2496 - Award-winning card with 2x2 analogue I/O 24bt/96kHz S/PDIF I/O and MIDI I/O.

E-MU 1212m - High quality audio card giving 2 24-bit analogue balanced I/O, 24-bit/192kHz ADAT I/O (switchable to S/PDIF), 24-bit/96kHz S/PDIF I/O (switchable to AES/EBU), MIDI I/O and a Firewire Interface.


 

USB Interfaces



Edirol UA-25

These are devices that connect to your computer via USB and function as external sound cards. They are very user-friendly and many are Plug and Play compatible. Suitable for laptops or desktop computers with USB ports.

 

Examples of USB Interfaces:

Edirol UA-25 - 24-bit/96 kHz USB Audio/MIDI interface with two Mic preamps and phantom power.

Griffin iMic - iMic allows you to connect virtually any microphone or sound input device to your iBook, PowerBook, PowerMac or other Mac or PC systems with a USB port. iMic supports both mic and line level inputs via a selectable switch, as well as a variable level output for connecting speakers or headphones.

M-Audio Fast Track USB - Record guitar and vocals on your computer – complete with effects. Includes input for instruments like guitar and bass, plus a dynamic microphone input for recording vocals.



Firewire Interfaces



Focusrite Saffire

FireWire interfaces work in much the same way to USB interfaces, except that FireWire connections offer a faster data transfer rate and so they can handle more ins and outs at lower latency.

 

Examples of Firewire Interfaces:

Focusrite Saffire - Professional interface providing 4 inputs (2 digital) and 10 outputs (2 digital) with onboard compression, reverb, amp modelling and EQ .

M-Audio Firewire Audiophile - Compact audio/MIDI interface with 4x6 24-Bit/96KHz I/O S/PDIF I/O and MIDI I/O and onboard mixing facilities.



 

PCMCIA / PC Cardbus



E-MU 1616m

This type of card goes into the PCMCIA slot on a laptop computer, and provides a high rate of data transfer. Some include breakout boxes with extra connections.

 

Examples of PCMCIA Cards:

E-MU 1616m - Consists of a PCMCIA card which can be used as a standalone sound card or with the Microdock breakout box providing 16 inputs, 16 outputs and MIDI I/O.

Echo Indigo IO - PCMCIA card that provides a high quality minijack headphone output and microphone input. Uses “virtual” outputs making it compatible with multi-track software.



 

Sound Card Terminology

Latency

In simple terms, latency is the time it takes a computer to process an incoming signal before it appears through an output. High latency can cause problems with multi-track recordings appearing out of sync with each other. Many sound cards use ASIO drivers to provide very low latency, or have a “zero latency” function where part of the signal is routed directly to the output for accurate monitoring, while the rest is sent to the computer for processing.

Resolution/Sound Quality

To convert an analogue signal into a digital format, it is passed through an analogue-to-digital converter. This takes readings or “samples” from the electrical signal thousands of times a second and converts the readings into numbers which make up a digital stream (00101011011001011…. And so on…). So, the higher the number of samples taken (the sample rate), the more accurate a representation of the original analogue source is delivered and the higher the sound quality. The standard sample rate for CD-quality audio is 44,100 samples per second, which is written as 44.1kHz. The majority of the sound cards we sell operate at 96kHz.

The resolution of a digital signal is the range of numbers that can be assigned to each sample. CD audio uses 16 bits. Higher resolution increases the dynamic range and reduces quantization distortion and background noise. Many of the sound cards we sell operate in 24-bit quality.

Inputs and Outputs

Sound cards provide a variety of inputs and outputs. They can range from simple 2 channel in/out cards to cards with many more. Lots of I/O’s are only really necessary if you want to record multiple tracks at once or use external effects units or mixers.

Some include digital ins and outs. These can be SPDIF (consumer market), AES/EBU and ADAT (used professionally). These can be useful for high quality data transfer to a DAT recorder or minidisc unit.

Some cards will also include an integrated MIDI interface, allowing MIDI keyboards or other instruments to be connected.

Many cards now also include one or more microphone preamps, which provide 48V phantom power for condenser microphones.

 

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