In today’s audio recording market, there are many options available when choosing a sound card. In this recording arts blog, we will learn some Audio Engineering Tips about choosing a sound card that’ll be right for your recording studio!
First, let me suggest that you purchase an interface and not a strict sound card. The term ‘sound card’ typically refers to a PCI audio card that is installed inside of a PC. There are sound cards, such as Sound Blaster, still available, but these are not typically the best routes to go when purchasing studio gear.
What most people in the recording industry tend to use is called an interface. An interface typically has A/D (analog to digital) and D/A (digital to analog) converters, several different audio inputs and outputs for connecting speakers and studio gear. Many times, they have built in mic preamplifiers, and they usually connect to your computer with USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, or some other peripheral connector. This means you don’t usually have to install any physical parts in your computer.
A MILLION DIFFERENT CHOICES…
Now that we have some recording arts terminology to work from, let’s talk about choosing an audio interface and which might be best for you. As with anything in the recording industry, your choice should be based on what you need and where you are going.
One thing to consider when choosing an audio interface is that most of your sound quality in digital recording is at the mercy of the interfaces A/D and D/A converters. That is to say a really cheap converter typically results in a really cheap sounding recording. When you listen to professional recordings, the converters used are very high end and many times, very expensive.
HOW MANY INPUTS ARE ENOUGH?
A good thing to keep in mind when choosing an audio interface is how many instruments or vocals you need to be able to record at once. Are you recording bands, singer/songwriters, solo vocalists, choirs, etc.? If you are just recording one vocalist at a time or a rapper making a mix tape recording over mp3 beats, you will only need one input. On the other hand, recording a band or choir will take many microphones at once. A drum kit alone can easily take up 8-16 inputs, luckily there are interfaces with 24 or even 32 inputs, and many others can be chained together.
Along with inputs, you may want to consider if the interface comes with mic pre’s for all of the channels or if you will need to get your own pre’s to record multiple signals. If you only need one or two inputs, then there are many interfaces on the market that can easily be demoed at your local music store. If you need 8 or more inputs, there are still many choices, but the price will obviously go up with the number of inputs and outputs.
Speaking of outputs, that is another big factor in choosing an interface that works for you. Are you mixing “in the box”, using a console, mixing in surround, or sending stems to some other analog summing gear? These are all questions that will help you find the best audio interface for your studio.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Now that we have a good idea of how to determine the type and size of interface we want, we can take a look at some common brands used in the recording industry. An interface can cost thousands, so obviously you get what you pay for. I really don’t like giving exact recommendations, because opinions on gear and recording techniques are very subjective, but I will list some very competitive products and industry standards.
Apogee has become a recording arts industry standard over the years. They once were only accessible through high end recording studios and well beyond the price of most home studios. Now, Apogee offers several budget minded interfaces that offer great portability matched with the famous Apogee converters and a decent pre amplifier. Check out the Duet and Solo here.
Focusrite is another music production industry standard brand with gear ranging from world-class mixing consoles to mono channel strips. The interface Focusrite has offered is the Forte, another portable USB interface that offers quality Focusrite mic-pre’s and several inputs and outputs. This interface is a little more affordable than the Apogee, but still holds its own for what it has to offer. Here is some more info about the Forte and other Focusrite offerings.
RME is kind of a secret weapon in the US, but very well known in Europe. RME has always been praised for the attention to audio quality and has built a solid clock offering some very high quality A/D and D/A conversion. The RME UCX is the USB/Firewire portable interface offered by this solid company. This small, unassuming box offers an amazing 18 inputs and outputs in a tiny package. It also has MIDI in and out along with digital input/output options. If you are looking for portability with a lot of versatility, this may be the interface for you. Here is the RME site.
Universal Audio offers up the last, but not least, interface I will mention, the Apollo Twin. The Twin is a solid 2 x 6 thunderbolt interface. Thunderbolt is the newest peripheral connection for Mac and many newer PCs, and it is extremely fast at data transfers. This means that the Apollo Twin is a near zero latency powerhouse. Not only does this interface give you 2 industry standard Universal Audio preamps, but adds instrument inputs and its own dedicated DSP processors. Having onboard plug-in processing is a game changer. This means that you can run Universal Audios acclaimed plug-ins using the interfaces processor chips, freeing up your computer for other applications and processing. If you are a traveling, in-the-box producer, then this interface could be your go-to device. Check out more on the Twin here.
TIME TO RECORD!
Hopefully this helped answer your questions about choosing a sound card or audio interface. I know I didn’t give you an exact brand to purchase, but I did show you what to look for and how to make your one choice. The music production industry rarely has infinite answers and is highly situational, so it is best to understand the ideas behind our choices as audio professionals. That way, we can apply that knowledge to every situation and make the best production choices we can! We look forward to seeing you in the studio soon!