In this article you will learn:
What a Sound Card/Audio interface does
Why you need a Sound Card/Audio interface
The differences between a Sound Card and an Audio Interface
The internal pieces of a Sound Card/Audio Interface
The Connection Types
What is an Audio Interface/Sound Card and what does it do?
A sound card receives audio signals and converts them into digital audio.
A sound card is synonymous in function to an audio interface.
The conventional Sound Card is a chip that is installed into your computers PCI slot.
An Audio Interface does the same thing. It converts input audio signals. It is just in the form of a hardware interface that connects to your DAW computer. An audio interface is an external device that receives an analog signal, and sends it to your music software application in its digital form.
For example; by plugging a microphone into an audio interface with a compatible audio sequencer, an audio interface can convert the analog microphone signal and record a digital audio file onto a track. This can be done with a sound card as well.
Why You Need a Sound Card/Audio Interface?
Music production and intensive audio processing requires more than your stock SoundCard can typically handle. Simple as that.
See, when an audio signal is recorded from your microphone and onto the hard drive of your computer, it goes through a process of conversion from an analog signal into a stream of binary code, which is the digital “representation” or “translation” of that original signal.
The main problem is what is known as latency. Latency occurs when the time it takes for conversion, and the output of the recorded track, along with any effects or signal processing that happens anywhere in between, is delayed. There is a lag, and you hear it late. Thus, “LATE”-ncy.
Clicks, pops, error messages, and other artifacts can result with a cheap Sound Card, or improperly optimizing the settings for your recording platform.
The Differences Between a Sound Card and an Audio Interface
They both have virtually the same function. The difference-primarily lies in the hardware itself. A Sound Card is a “card” that gets internally installed into the back your computer through a PCI slot, while an audio interface is an external piece of hardware that can sit on your desk and offer you the convenience of not having to reach around to the back of your computer to plug stuff in and adjust things.
The audio interface typically has a “breakout box” for all your inputs, as well a preamp, which converts a mic level signal into a line level signal.
The Internal Pieces of a Sound Card/Audio Interface
As described above, the core component of a Sound Card/Audio Interface is the digital audio converters.
The other important piece is the software drivers which manage the “code” of data flow and thus play a critical role in the overall effectiveness of your sound card.
The other piece that can be included with audio interfaces is onboard preamps. Preamps can be the most expensive part of an audio interface, and some don’t have them.
Sound Card and Audio Interface Connection Options:
USB: Plug and play quick
PCI: More tracks and no need for attach/unattachment, because it is installed.(Some high-end studios use state of the art HD Sound Cards that are capable of the highest possible sampling rate and bit depth.)
In most cases they all produce similar sound quality, (with exception to the pro HD card) but offer different advantages with each connection option.
There are two components within both of these devices which factor into making a unit – produce superior/inferior audio recordings.
Drivers – Software that ships with your product.
Digital Audio Converters – The conversion of audio to digital audio, for editing and processing on your PC. (See my Analog to Digital Converter section for more on this subject.)
Some audio interfaces may have built in Preamps, which can be an added benefit and may help produce a better recording. (See my Preamps section for more on this subject.)
As I mentioned earlier there are areas in which both the audio interface and sound card excel. Of course, you must research that the audio interface/card is compatible with your set-up. You should also evaluate whether or not you want to do more portable (on the road) or stationary (in the studio) recordings. (Respectively)
If your just starting out and looking for something with good sound quality, reasonable prices, and can withstand a few accidental BANGs! A portable audio interface will give you many options to start with and expand on.
If you’re looking to record solely from your home or project studio with a generally large track count – A traditional sound card or PCI chip with a breakout box will offer stable conversion and a large track count at very fast speed.
Most importantly the digital audio converters, which touches the sound, is the most important component in both. This is the thing that transfers the input audio and transforms it into digital audio.
Make sure you have a handle on the concepts of both before looking for specifics.
Research the compatibility of the interface/card and your PC/Laptop.
Keep in mind you are really looking for good: A/D/A/Converter/Preamps and Driver within the unit.
Remember, if you are just starting out: This is one important component among a number of important components involved in a quality home recording studio. So assess your budget/needs carefully.