Audio Sound Cards
If you are planning to record audio (rather than just MIDI), then you need to make sure you purchase an audio sound card that supports ASIO.
ASIO Sound Cards
ASIO (Audio Stream In Out) protocol, which allows high speed communication between your DAW and ASIO compliant Sound Cards, was designed by Steinberg to reduce or address latency issues with regards to recording onto PCs.
Prior to the advent of the ASIO protocol the issue of Latency, which is basically the audible delay one encounters when monitoring the output from any software based recording package against input, placed significant constraints upon computer recording systems. This made it very difficult to record/ play in time with the music when you multi-track recording.
With the advent of the ASIO protocol and ASIO compliant sound cards, or audio interfaces, all the issues raised above were effectively addressed, with latency times for PCI sound cards on a modern PC typically around 2 to 4 milliseconds, which is pretty much the limit of human detection.
PCI Audio Sound Cards
Until fairly recently, most audio sound cards were PCI cards that plug directly into the motherboard of your PC. This was necessary in order to meet the high performance requirements of audio recording. However, PCI sound cards have the disadvantages of forcing you to open up your PC to install them, are fixed into your PC (i.e. not easily portable) plus they do not work with Laptops. In addition, many PCI sound cards require that you have an external pre-amplifier for recording.
The leading manufacturer of Audio PCI sound cards is M-Audio, who offer a number of alternatives, based upon your required performance and the number of inputs and outputs you want on your sound card e.g. the Audiophile 2496 has one input and one output where the M-Audio Delta 1010 has eight inputs and outputs.
USB Audio Sound Cards
USB Audio sound card offset the disadvantages of the PCI sound card by plugging directly into a USB port on your PC. Hence, they are much easier to install, much more portable and easily work with laptops. In addition, most USB audio sound cards have build in pre-amplifiers, eliminating the need for external pre-amps. For these reasons, they are the preferred solution for your home recording studio.
Again, the leading manufacturer of Audio PCI sound cards is M-Audio, who offer a number of alternatives, based upon your required performance and the number of inputs and outputs you want on your sound card e.g. the M-Audio Fast Track Pro has four inputs and outputs. This is useful if you want to set up separate inputs for recording vocals, guitar and keyboard, for example.
Choosing an Audio Sound Card
Besides the choice between internal PCI and external USB audio sound cards, you should also consider the following:
- The number of inputs/ outputs: while you can get by with just a single input/ouput, this can make recording cumbersome, as you will need to keep changing (and probably re-configuring) these inputs when you switch between vocals, guitar, keyboards etc. Hence, as a general guideline, you should try to have the same number of inputs/outputs as voices and instruments you are recording. This might not be practical, in some cases, but I would recommend you have at least 4 inputs/outputs
- For USB sound cards (or for your pre-amplifier), you should ensure that you have at least one XLR input, to handle XLR microphones (although it is possible to buy an adapter).
- Do you want your audio sound card to handle MIDI inputs/outputs? Note: many audio sound cards do not have sound generation capability. This means that you will need to send you MIDI outputs to some other device (e.g. an external keyboard or your computer) to actually generate sound from a MIDI signal).