Sound Card Basics

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What in a sound card? What makes one better than another? What are all those specs and what do they mean to you? Read this to understand.

In the other pages of this section we have discussed the theory and mechanics involved in recording on a PC. To that end the conclusion usually reached is that the time and money invested is best spent on a good sound card for your system. So, the issue at hand is: what makes a good sound card?

The answer to that is not clear cut, it depends on who you are, what type of music you play, and the environment your record in. So, in order to get an idea of your needs, answer these questions:

  • Do you use ALL live instruments, or do you use any MIDI in your recordings?
  • If you use MIDI, do you have modules you use, or would you use the sounds built on the sound card?
  • Are you a solo artist playing all instruments yourself or do you have a band?

The answers to these questions will go a long way toward getting you the right card. For example, many of the mid to high-end cards do not include any MIDI sounds, and many times, not even a MIDI interface. So, if you use MIDI gear, or wish to use MIDI sounds from your PC, make sure the card will support it.

To MIDI or not to MIDI

MIDI "support" come in a couple different flavors...there are cards that offer the MIDI in, out, and thru ports, like the Layla from Echo Audio. However, these cards do not have any sound chips in them, they just allow you to control the routing of MIDI data. There are also cards such as the D-Man from MIDIMan that has the MIDI port(s) and sounds built in as well. For people that use MIDI, SoundBlasters and the like seem very attractive, and for only that reason they are. For numerous other reasons they are not usable in a pro audio environment, reasons which we will dive into later...bottom line is this, if you like the sounds of your SB or Turtle Beach soundcard, great! Use it, but expect to by a second card for the audio recording.

Digital Audio Recording

MIDI in itself is easy work for a PC, it is just making digital sounds, no sweat...but recording an analog instrument such as drums, guitar or a vocalist...well...that tougher on a PC. Especially if you are multitracking many different instruments, and even harder yet if you are recording then all at once time. All this plays a role in figuring out the ins and outs you will need on your soundcard. If you are a solo artist, recording each instrument one at a time, then you really only need to have one input. If you record the whole rhythm track at once (such as drums, bass guitar and rhythm guitar tracks) and want to keep them on separate tracks on the PC you will then need a card with multiple inputs.

Most cards today come with at least one set of stereo ins and one set of stereo outs. If you are clever in you routing, you can actually use the stereo ins to record two instruments at once if neither are in need of a stereo recording.

Outs are strictly a matter of taste and style. If you do all your mixing and effect processing on the PC you only need one pair of stereo outs. If you prefer to route some tracks back out of the PC to run them through some external components such as reverbs and compressors you will need multiple outs to do so, and consequently you will need multiple ins to get the tracks back into the PC. It can be kind of a mind-screw to keep all this straight for the first time you think about it, but it is really no difference than doing it all with an analog mixer and rack effects setup.

When looking at soundcards, check what type of ins and outs they have. If you are looking at one with 1/8" stereo jacks, think again, they will not give you the sound quality you want. 1/4" jacks are the most common, and many even have 1/4" balanced as well, that will give you the best signal for that size of jack.

Other Specs

An important spec to ask about when buying your card is "latency". Latency is the amount of time (in milliseconds) that it takes for the sound entering your PC to the time you hear it. When this really matters is when you are laying a track over an existing track. All good multitracking programs have support to correct this so it will not affect your listening. However, the less the latency, the less work your PC has to do to correct it and the more energy it can put into the recording. A latency of 200ms or less is good. I have seen some as low as 6ms from the Lexicon Core 2 in a Pentium III PC. Typical SoundBlasters test out around 500ms or higher for the mid-level cards, and a little better for the higher-end SB and Turtle Beach cards.

Also pay attention to the analog to digital converters. you want at least 16-bit, most high-end cards are 24-bit/96Khz today. anything at 20-bit or higher is a good spec.

Final Thoughts

Also, keep in mind how you want your final product to can out of the PC. If you are planning to burn to CD, there is a few other pieces of equipment and programs you will need, but it won't be affected by the soundcard you choose. If you wish to go out to DAT, make sure your soundcard has S/PDIF (Sony/Phillips Digital Interface) to connect digitally to your DAT.

There is a lot to consider when you purchase a good soundcard, but, it is time well spent. The right choice will give you many years of recording enjoyment, the wrong choice will give you headaches and problems for as long as you have the card. As with any PC component, you will also have to make sure it is compatible with your PC. Some cards don't play well with other components depending on their manufacturer, but, as far as Windows-based PC's go, if you have Intel Processor and Mainboard chipset, you will have no problems...almost everything works with Intel. If you have a non-Intel chipset, do some won't regret it...

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