Friday, November 21st, 2008...5:54 pm
Tracks 101 – Soundcards: WDM, ASIO, GSIF, Core Audio, JACK and ALSA
Round 2: Fight! Sound cards, the ins and outs of your digital studio. a Sound card is the main way of getting audio into an computer in a digital medium. your basic sound card can handle mono to 7.1 sound and usually has a joystick port which will take in midi, with the right adapter cable.
Some sound cards have DSPs (small processors dedicated for audio conversion) which work in conjunction with their software drivers to provide digital conversion on both the in and out signals of the sound card. Some DSPs also have software VSTs and effects to work in conjunction with them, and are usually pretty good.
When looking for a sound card features you want to investigate are:
- Audio Interfaces- XLR, TRS, S/PDIF, TOSLINK, AES/EBU, ADAT, BNC, ETC…
- Channels / polyphony – Mono/Stereo , 16 channel digital, 5.1 & 7.1?
- Microphone Pre-Amp(s) and other in line effects
- Computer Interfaces – PCI/PCI-E, Firewire, USB 2.0, Cardbus, USB 1.1
- Supported Audio Routing/Drivers Technology: WDM, ASIO, GSIF, Core Audio, ALSA, JACK
- Breakout Boxes, Audio Control Surfaces and other tactile controllers – if you like the hands on approach
- Latency – Most people can deal with up to 10 ms of latency before it becomes an issue, then its just awkward.
- Fidelity – Frequency Response and Bandwidth – usually sound cards are limited at 24bit with 96khz of bandwidth, and this is more then enough for the average user. i would recommend recording at 24bit/44.1Khz at the bear minimum, but with all of that being said, cd quality is 16bit/44.1Khz. a good article is located on tweakheadz.com about 16 vs 24 bit recording.
Thats a lot of stuff to investigate, so lets first figure out what type of sound card you need to get started.
Here are some questions im going to ask a lot in the Tracks 101 series; What do you want to accomplish/what are your goals? Do you want to be a Producer or MC? What is your Budget?
if you are just an MC, you might not even need a good sound card, this is because you more then likely will be buying a USB microphone, which will take care of almost everything you need in the recording department, however it will not let you monitor in Real-time. Plus you wont be able to use many effects plugins.
If you are a beat maker, and do not plan on making anything more then just a few beats here and there, then you can go with a basic ASIO based soundcard. (most high end consumer sound cards will have what you need)
if you are planning on Recording live bands with multiple audio inputs and/ or becoming a hardware based beat maker, then you will want to go with a high end pro-grade sound card. this sounds expensive but this sometimes is the most cost effective route to go.
Now the other major factor to consider, is your budget. if you do not have much money, you will want to go with a cheap sound card and software ASIO/JACK drivers, or a used pro-grade sound card. however if you have the money, dont cheap yourself. get something that you will be happy with and will work out of the box.
if you want a protools rig, you can get an mbox series interface, however did you know you can also run protools LE /M-powered on other m-audio soundcards?
the M-audio Delta 66 and Delta 1010 are available for about $100-200, they are PCI based cards and have great digital audio converters, they however do not have XLR connectors or for that matter mic-pres. So while this would be great for a hardware based beat maker, a recording engineer or producer wouldn’t do so well with this as a out-of-the-box solution.
So that being said, what type of instruments/devices are you planning to connect to your sound card?
if you want to use instruments, samples, keyboards, amps or some microphones; then include a TRS jack for each channel/instrument you want to record.
if you want to record from a microphone, or mixer, or want a balance output for monitor speakers, then you will want to see if your sound card has XLR inputs and/or outputs.
Now these days, you can get a mixer with a mic-preamp, a usb audio connector and 12-16 channels of input for around $150. The reason why most of the time this will not work, is because these setups take those 12-16 channels of audio and mix them down to stereo out, or 2 channels out. There are some mixers out there that do not do this stereo downmix but they are more expensive. This setup will work for MCs who just want to record a mic and do not have a usb microphone. you can get a simple TRS to 2x TS cable for the main out of your mixer to the line in port of your regular sound card. that hardware setup plus ASIO4all or some other open source ASIO driver is a great startup setup for an MC.
Ok, so you dont want a basic system, you want a system that provides you with all the basics for producing that next hot track. you will be looking for these features:
powered XLR input, TRS input and output, an onboard DSP, ASIO drivers, USB 2.0, Firewire or PCI computer interface, and at least 24bit DACs.
you will be looking to spend at least $100 for used pro-grade equipment and $100-200 for new prosumer grade equipment. you can find a decent used prosumer grade sound card for under $100 on ebay, but i wouldnt recommend that route unless you have no money to spend, and can not deal with software ASIO drivers.
here are a few cards i would recommend for MCs and small setups:
Emu 0404 – used these cards are as low as $20 on ebay
M-Audio Fast Track – compatible with protools m-powered. and i have seen deals with this device and two MXL mics for $99 at guitar center.
MBox 2 based packages – by themselves they usually are overpriced, but through in the rest of the studio for only about $150 and then its worth it.
Other good sound cards include:
And lastly, i would look for these sound cards used:
MOTU 2408 Mk3 (although mk2 is also a great product) – was able to get two 2408 mkIIs for $150
Now with most of these cards i would get a small mixer with a microphone preamp and phantom power.
the reason why, is because you more then likely will get a better preamp in the mixer, you get phantom power, you will have a balanced signal and because you have the most control over your sound this way.
So, now that you have an idea of what to look for when selecting a sound card, here are a few sound card lists from Tweakheadz.
and lastly, a FAQ about sound cards from Tweakheadz.com
i included the last link, because they go into more detail about specs and because they have a lot of great information.
I hope my sound card rambling has helped point you in the right direction, and as always remember Protools isn’t always the answer, but it isn’t a bad alternative.
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