Too many drivers, too little time, take a look at this brief overview to educate yourself a little before jumping and and buying anything. Updated.
This is an update to an article originally written in 2002
It seems to me that many people are getting confused, and rightfully so, by all the drivers types that are in use for your basic Windows workstation these days. My goal here is not to get into extreme detail in each type, but just to educate you at high-level about what each of the main drivers are and what you need to use them, to make you a wiser shopper and a more knowledgable user.
In the beginning there was MME, but it was without standards for high-performance and therefore void for any real professional use, though many did because it was a Microsoft standard and therefore supposedly easy to code for.
Any windows audio application will probably support these by default, as they are a basic part of windows and if the application doesn't support them they will surely perish. So, if you have no other choice, you can almost guarantee that any application will use it. But I will not spend much time talking about it because it's not worth it.
WDM is the newest Microsoft standard for multimedia drivers on Windows platforms. It started with Windows ME and continues through Windows 2000 and XP. There are now patches to make WDM work on Windows 98 Second Edition, but be warned, it WILL NOT WORK on the 98 original release. These drivers are much higher-performance than the original MME drivers they still may not quite match the performance of the next driver mentioned, the ASIO, as the performance of WDM is variable depending on the manufacturer of the card and driver.
For a reason unbeknownst to me, application developers have been slow to adopt this, I don't understand why, and the ones that do seem to use differently. I had one card, the Philips Acoustic Edge, that I used for surround sound playback, which Cakewalk actually recognized as 3 stereo pairs of outs for the full 5.1 output, but other apps I have that supposedly support WDM still only saw it as one stereo output pair...so ultimately I don't know what to make of this type.
To use it to it's fullest possibilities you do need to make sure your sound card and applications support WDM if you wish to use it. If you are on a Windows ME or newer (or a patched 98 SE) the OS itself will support it. As of the original writing of this article support is growing.
Many times, when installing WDM's you will get an error message, such as the one displayed to the right, saying that the drivers are not authentic, and to only proceed at your own risk. This is generally caused by Microsoft wanting money from every manufacturer to certify their drivers as "authentic Windows driver" and they don't want to spend the money, so they don't bother. This screen can almost always be ignored, as it's just an annoyance of Windows trying to extort manufacturers out of yet more money.
ASIO drivers were developed for high-performance and low-latency targeting professional studio use. This however is not always an option, as few cards and applications support ASIO. ASIO is not a default part of Windows, it was created by a third party manufacturer, and therefore, in order to use it you must make sure of two things, first that your sound card actually has ASIO drivers as part of it's driver bundle, secondly, you need to make sure that the applications you use support ASIO as well.
All of Steinberg's application support ASIO (they played a large role in creating ASIO), but Cakewalk, for example, does not support ASIO as of the original writing of this article), so you would have to use the WDM or MME drivers for your card.
In my personal experience, ASIO seems to be the best performing device driver I have used, but it is also the least supported by cards and applications, however, that number is growing, more and more cards are starting to include ASIO drivers as part of their package.
Many common consumer cards don't have ASIO drivers because it is more of a studio-targeted driver type and are not needed for gaming, DVD playback and the more common tasks associated with normal computing needs. If you are in such a situation, you are a condidate to try the ASIO4All drivers which are meant to be a one-size-fits-all ASIO driver for standard consumer cards. There have been some great reports from users of this driver as well as some "didn't work for me" stories. They may well be worth a try if you are caught without ASIO.
One drawback of ASIO is that the standard only supports a single card per computer. However, to overcome this limitation, many manufacturers have added functionality to the standard that allows the user to use multiple cards in the same system, generally, only if all the cards use the same driver install, meaning, if they are all the same card, or in the same series of cards, as manufacturers often make one driver work for more than one card.
Final Comments (Updated 4-10-2007)
Be aware that just because you chose to use Cubase and ASIO drivers for your multitracking purposes, this does not mean that you have to use ASIO for your mastering as well, if you would prefer to use Sound Forge, for example, as your mastering application, which does not support ASIO, then in that application you can use your WDM or MME drivers.
Bottom line is, you can use different drivers on the same machine as your applications need. The primary point of this little overview was just to say, if you are looking at any application or sound card, make sure that the other has complimentary support.
Also, as stated above, performance with any given driver type varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. I have had cards in which the ASIO driver would vastly outperform WDM on the same card, I have also seen the opposite, and cards where they are very even. It depends on the focus of the company and quality of development.
If you do see any inaccuracies in this article, please let me know, I am basing it mainly on learned experience, which may, in fact be wrong, I am fully open to clearer explanations if you have then.
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