For those that are just entering into the ‘write and produce’ industry, selecting the right sound card at the right budget can seem both daunting and complex. However, it’s not all doom n’ gloom. By following a few simple steps the experience can be made both painless and quite rewarding.
The first Prozac induced decision to make is which protocol do you need/want to use? Firewire, USB1/2/3/3.1/C, Thunderbolt 1/2/3, Gigabit Ethernet, PCIe, Klingon/Diana Troy Empath Interface (KDTIE) or whatever the hell the white coats are coming up with? I am not sure. Let’s see which drug is in fashion at the time and we’ll go from there. Actually, almost all jokes aside you can err on the side of caution and let the sound card make the decision for you. Suffice to say, most sound cards will use Firewire, PCIe, USB or Thunderbolt. Entering the debate as to which protocol serves best would not only confuse matters greatly but would also be a huge subject to cover in a quick byte article. Our industry is customisable in that you can build bespoke systems to run just about any protocol and in any configuration, so complicating this article would not be of help to the beginner.
What is important is which sound card would best suit your current requirements? So, let me make this process a little easier to digest and for that it’s best to run through a simple guide.
This is the biggie and the most important aspect when it comes to buying a sound card. Whereas driver reliability, preamp quality, etc all play a part in the decision making it is connectivity that tends to feature as a priority for most sound card purchases.
If you are working solely within your DAW and require no form of recording or auditioning of external hardware then the task has been simplified considerably. A simple stereo (2 in 2 out) device will suit your needs. Most modern sound cards will offer a stereo input that can also double up as two separate mic/line inputs and that can be very useful. But if you are after something a little more flexible then it might be worth thinking on a broader scale, and to avoid the minefield of over specifying your requirements, the most important question you need to ask yourself is ‘what do I want to record?’ This will determine what types of inputs you will need and how many.
Make a list of all the hardware that you want to be connected to the sound card. These should include outputs as well as inputs. Quite often, beginners will list all the inputs required but forget to accommodate for outputs. Be as thorough as you can when compiling the list as expandability in the future might be a critical requirement for your setup. If not, then add 1 of each to every single input/output requirement to the list, just in case. You never know if you might need the extra inputs/outputs. Once you have compiled your list you need to be very clear about the types of connections required for each device. Most manufacturers will list, in their manuals, the exact type of wiring required for various cables and connections, and it is usually up to the buyer to make sure the right connections and cables are used. I don’t want this single sentence to drive you to drink. Most cables are standard in configuration and should work out of the box on most sound cards. BUT, if in doubt, check the spec list provided in the sound card’s manual. They are usually very clear and concise and in many instances will actually draw a flow diagram explaining what connects to where and how, and provide you with a diagram outlining the changes needed for any connections used.
Once you have an idea of what needs connecting to the sound card you need to factor in flexibility versus price. This might seem a no brainer for those trying to acquire a budget sound card but you’d be surprised at how many ways there are to achieve masses of connections without having to sell a body part. Let us glimpse at ways you can save money and still have tons of routing options:
Nowadays, we are seeing commercial ready productions mushrooming out of home studios. That is thanks to the ever evolving improvements in technology coupled with the release of cost effective products. However, tracking (recording) is still an issue. Everyone wants to record instruments, vocals and so on in their homes, and when it comes to recording acoustic instruments you need a microphone and with that comes the inevitable ‘sigh, I need a preamp, oh, and what’s this phantom power thingy my mate’s on about?’ Thus the preamp debate ensues. If you have a high quality microphone do you compromise its performance with a sub standard preamp? I mention this because quite often a vocalist will buy a high grade microphone and run it through average preamps built into a budget soundcard. I have always been a firm believer that your signal path is as good as its weakest link and in the budget world, invariably, this will fall onto the limitations of the sound card. Nowadays, half decent microphones are very affordable and you can buy budget sound cards that afford decent quality preamps to run those microphones. Don’t make the mistake of overspending on a device that is limited by any of the multiple links within the signal path. Marry devices to each other sensibly.
Mic preamps (mic pres) are what we refer to as scaling purchases, in that the more quality preamps you require built into the sound card the more the price increases. Whereas the cost of 6 analogue line inputs against 2 analogue line inputs is not a huge hike in price, preamps don’t fare as well. A quality preamp requires good engineering and a single high quality preamp invariably costs more money than a string of average preamps packaged into a single sound card. Technology is continually improving and becoming more cost effective and over time this will change and we will see more and more sound cards affording multiple high quality preamps. In fact, we are already seeing this change in the industry. I use an Audient ID22 sound card and it features the same high-quality preamps as their popular ASP8024 console, and this is a £300 sound card, not exactly a lung Ebaying situation.
Because many people now record acoustic instruments at home the number of mic preamps required escalates. Something as simple as recording an acoustic guitar requires a minimum of 2 microphones, and because you will invariably use capacitor (condenser) microphones, you will need 2 preamps with phantom power (nominally run at 48V). That is not a problem as many budget sound cards will accommodate 2 preamps with phantom power. Now, imagine you want to mic up an acoustic drum kit (as opposed to an electronic drum kit) – you might need in excess of 4 microphones. Let’s complicate this scenario even further. You want to track an acoustic band live in a room – to capture the performance. Imagine how many microphones you will need. The best approach in addressing multiple mic recording scenarios is to get a dedicated mic preamp interface (strip) and connect that to your sound card using ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) or the Line Level Inputs. There are a few decent mic preamp interfaces that will have ADAT and can connect to the sound card using simple ADAT optical inputs. Of course, you need something to take the analogue mic, instrument or line input and turn it into the digital ADAT output (A/D and or D/A), and vice versa if you want more analogue outputs. The Behringer ADA8200 gives 8 channels of mic preamps with phantom power, is a firm favourite and connecting it to your sound card via the optical input requires a single cable. Although preamp interfaces can connect to sound cards using Line Level Inputs, using ADAT with digital preamp interfaces gives direct access to 8 channels of analogue inputs into your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation).
However, let us assume you don’t want to go down this route and require something more flexible and offering more expansion possibilities. What do you do? The answer is cunningly simple – use a dedicated mixer. Before sound cards became affordable I used to use a simple stereo sound card connected to an analogue mixer. I used the preamps in the mixer as both mic and line inputs, had acres of send/returns and auxiliaries for running dynamics and effects, control over each and every channel both in terms of level and equalisation and so on. I connected the mixer to the Line Level Inputs of the sound card. Nowadays, mixers come with even better specifications and even include USB, internal effects, automation, and so on. They can be connected to the sound cards in a number of ways and this level of flexibility and routing makes it very appealing for budget setups.
Line Level Inputs
These inputs are ideal for connecting other devices like mixers (see above), CD/DVD Players, Synthesizers, stand-alone Preamps (non digital), audio amplifiers, effects, and dynamics. We differentiate line level inputs from mic preamps because microphones output a lower level signal and therefore need a preamp to bring the signal back up to line level. Instrument inputs can be fed into line level inputs but in some cases it might be better to use a DI Box (Direct Injection) and output that into the mic preamp input of the sound card. However, nowadays even budget sound cards offer dedicated instrument inputs, so you don’t need to worry too much about spending more money on acquiring DI Boxes. In fact, technology has advanced so much that we now have multiple use inputs on the same input. You can use mic, line and instrument feeds on a single input and at budget prices – the Focusrite Scarlett 212 3rd Gen being a perfect example of such technology, and it is ludicrously cheap. And again, let us not forget the mixer to sound card route is a powerful option to explore.
Line Level Outputs
Always factor in the outputs when specifying which sound card you want. I run two sets of monitors in my studio and use the generous number of line outs supplied by the Audient ID22 to connect to a set of Neumann 120As and a single Avantone Mixcube (for mono referencing). This is the most simplistic line outs requirement I can think of but try to bear in mind that we can often use the line ins and outs to patch in effects and dynamics – using an external analogue summing box being a prime example, or patching in an analogue mixer as discussed previously. However, most modern sound cards will come supplied with dedicated send/returns to connect and action effects/dynamics. This is extremely helpful as additional line ins and outs can be used to patch in all manner of hardware on top of the dedicated sends/returns.
Most sound cards nowadays are perfectly adequate to run most headphones and will offer a clean enough signal. However, whether they are powerful enough for specific headphones is very dependent on the power handling of the output. Check the impedance values of the sound card specs and buy accordingly, but TBH, I have had no problems using the Audient headphone output to run my Audeze LCD-X headphones. If the headphone output provides less power feeding into higher impedance then consider a dedicated headphone amplifier. The number of headphone outputs is equally important if you intend on running multiple headphone feeds, but with budget sound cards you will be hard pressed to find more than 2 headphone outputs. If you find you need multiple headphone feeds it might be more prudent to invest in multiple channel headphone amp, and there are lots of those available at budget prices. Again, don’t forget the mixer route – they can provide cue monitoring for a number of performers and with detailed control.
MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface)
Although most modern MIDI keyboards and MIDI controllers connect directly to the computer via USB there might be some instances whereby the additional MIDI ports are required. Many songwriters still use MIDI sound modules and keyboard synthesizers and if you feel the need to have even more MIDI ports it can pay to acquire a dedicated MIDI interface. However, most sound cards will come supplied with a MIDI In/Out and they should be sufficient if you are only running the odd MIDI device.
The beauty of digital input/output is that the audio does not have to pass through an additional stage of A/D (analogue to digital) conversion.
We have already touched on ADAT but what other digital connections are there?
S/PDIF (Sony Philips Digital Interface), is a two channel consumer format used predominantly for Hi-Fi equipment and utilises coaxial phono or, as we have seen already, Toslink optical connectors to connect to the sound card. DVD and CD players are popular examples of hardware that use this format.
RCA (Radio Corporation of America) is also referred to as ‘phono’ and is used to transmit audio and video signals. This type of connection is very common and can be found on many different consumer products: CD and DVD players, DJ decks, and so on. If the sound card is supplied with this type of connector then anything with an RCA output can be connected to it.
To successfully connect digital hardware to your sound card you will need to have Word Clock (WordClock) available on the sound card and all sound cards will have a built-in (internal) clock. This serves to connect and sync two or more digital devices together. In terms of buying a sound card, you need to be sure whether the sound card can alter the clock source and specify the sample rate used between the two or more clocked devices. With most bus-powered budget sound cards there are limitations as to the flexibility and configuration of the clock source. All sound cards will have internal clocks than can be used to slave to external devices that act as the master (ADAT being a prime example). So, read the sound card’s specs and decide if you will need to use the various clocking options available. If you intend on running a lot of digital devices, and all synced to a master clock, then it makes sense to acquire a dedicated clock that all the digital devices can sync to.
Whether you need a monitor controller is determined by how many monitors you will connect to the sound card and what level of control you want over each set of monitors. If you are running a modest home studio and do not have two sets of monitors then it really is a luxury and not something you need to spend extra money on. However, some sound cards, like the Audient ID22 I am using, will have a basic yet well specified monitor controller that I have found to be very useful in my setup.
I know many musicians/producers/studios that base their buying decisions on sound card driver reliability, and it is for this reason alone that many opt for the rock solid drivers of RME sound cards. I can’t blame them, especially if they earn a living from this vocation. With budget sound cards I don’t tend to dwell on this feature too much. After all, some USB sound cards are class-compliant and don’t need proprietary drivers. Mac/Windows come with generic USB drivers that act are specific for ‘plug and play’ devices.
If driver stability is critical to you then conduct exhaustive searches specific to your setup.
Control Panel and Effects/Dynamics
Almost all sound cards incorporate hardware DSP (Digital Signal Processing) but do you need DSP Effects as well as the processing and routing functionality?
Sound cards come with software that is used as a matrix to configure the sound card. It is within this software, also known as the sound card’s control panel, whereby additional requirements can be specified – from selecting sample rates to specifying buffer sizes and so on. The control panel is not just a glorified routing matrix. It acts as the hub for all the features for the sound card.
Nowadays, some budget sound cards not only come with supplied DSP effects alongside a well detailed and specified control panel, but they will also often come with bundled software to help you to write and mix music. Whether you need DSP effects or are happy to run your own bespoke VST purchases or run external hardware effects/dynamics comes down to taste. However, there are strong reasons to consider built-in DSP effects. In live situations, cue back monitoring can include a modicum of reverb, or any effects for that matter, to help the performer realise a sense of space while performing. Or maybe you are conducting voice-over work and need a specific room ambiance to enhance your vocals. Maybe you are vlogging and need real-time de-essing and gating for your vocals….The list is endless.
There is nothing wrong in looking for sound cards that have built-in DSP effects. They can only be advantageous to the user. If you don’t then them, then don’t use them, but having them there ‘just in case’ is not a deal breaker and won’t add much to the sale price of the sound card.
Desktop or racked
I create video tutorials so for me having a desktop sound card is perfect for my needs. I can use the sound card’s volume controller as a monitor controller, adjust input and output gains simultaneously, DIM and CUT to taste, control the headphone output gain, patch in mics/external instruments, and so on, and all at my fingertips.
For musicians/producers that perform live or are on the go, a portable sound card might be a better solution.
Some home/ professional studios prefer to use a patch bay hard wired to the sound card and in that instance, they prefer the sound card to be out of sight and in a rack. All the routing is handled physically via the patch bay. It really comes down to workflow and portability.
The only question you need to ask yourself is:
Do you need continual access to the sound card, and does it need to be portable, or are you happy to wire it up and leave it alone?
A/D – D/A
Many moons ago budget sound cards were truly dire…..and in every sense. The A/D and D/A were woeful and you would have to spend a small fortune to acquire a half decent sound card. Nowadays, and thanks to leaps in technological advancements, this is not an issue anymore. The quality and performance of converters in today’s budget sound cards exceed most mid-range sound cards from 10 years ago. So, don’t worry about whether your converters are good or not. Take it from me – THEY ARE.
Whether you want to eBay your remaining kidney to purchase a top-end converter is up to you. If the rest of the signal path is average then no amount of money spent on the converter will alter the fact that your signal path is er ‘average’. Always remember, your signal path is as strong as its weakest link.
I hope this article has been of help to you. I am sure there are many other areas I could have explored that would be tentatively relative to the subject matter. However, I feel the above to be the most important facets to consider when buying a budget sound card.
Now go make some cool music!