Sound Cards And Audio Interfaces
Simplified For Song Production
By Robert Curtis
There is quite often a lot of confusion surrounding the key part of computer hardware for sound production - the sound card - that also overlaps with the term audio interface.
For the purposes of discussion it is important to note that the term audio interface has come to apply to all sound processing hardware components and is now being subdivided by what actually powers and connects the device to your computer such as a usb connection or firewire for example or if it's inside your computer it's called a PCI interface.
It's real easy to get lost in all the techno jargon at the music store or even at online stores. So a little basic education to get started hopefully will set the foundation from which to build upon your sound knowledge :)
So to keep things more basic we'll talk in terms of where the sound processor is located - the sound card (also called a PCI audio interface today) being in your computer, and we'll refer to it as the sound card, and all other types of audio interfaces - outside.
For computer based songwriting and production - knowing the basics of sound cards and audio interfaces and how they can affect the sound of your songs will make you better able to see how to get better sound out of your computer. Also seeing how and what they provide in terms of places to hook up your equipment will also help you decide better what most suits your needs.
Having better sound processing than what typically comes with the average computer can make a big difference in what you actually hear coming out of your recording efforts. Not incrementally better sound either. We're talking what can be a very noticeable difference from what may sound kind of cheap and tin can-ish to something that sounds like a live orchestra.
Speakers (monitors) play a part here too and we'll touch on them briefly towards the end of this article.
Also note there is one other major issue with computer generated sounds and it is called latency. Latency is the time it takes for sound to go from the source, like the playing of a note on a midi piano keyboard hooked up to your computer, to the time it actually comes out of your computer speakers.
Generally speaking the lower the quality of your sound card or audio interface the slower the sound is processed, in other words the greater the latency. Today's sound cards and audio interfaces often have reduced latency time practically to zero and that's what you want.
Let's Better Define A Sound Card
Sound cards (or PCI audio interfaces as we noted before) are an actual piece of hardware that for the most part physically reside inside your computer case, desktop or laptop, and are hooked up to the main processing engine of all your computer functions - the motherboard..
Sound cards process and transmit music and or multimedia sound effects to your stereo or computer speakers.
If your speakers are not built-in there will be a hole, called a jack, on the front, side or back or your computer that allows you to plug in headphones or a line to external computer speakers so you can hear the sound being played. There also will typically be a jack to provide the ability to record through what are called line inputs that accept the line from a microphone for example. This is all pretty basic and you can see these jack openings on the left side of the sound card pictured right above this paragraph.
When you're venturing into song production on your computer you're likely going to want more than just these basic features though. It's quite possible you'll also want the ability to hook up midi instruments, like a piano type keyboard, up to your sound card and typical sound cards that come with off the shelf computers don't have jacks for midi lines.
However, a lot of today's midi based instruments can hook up to your computer and sound card through a usb connection or firewire connection so if you have a newer computer (a few years or less old) then you may have that option.
But even if you can hook up to the usb port the sound that will be produced on the typical built in sound card may not have a very realistic or satisfying sound.
To sum up for the moment - most standard sound cards are not satisfactory to the ears of songwriters and accordingly you may very well want to get a better sound card. This is where you'll be faced with the choice of getting another internal sound card (a PCI audio interface) or going to an external audio interface which is usually just called an audio interface.
Or to call it an external audio interface makes it more clear that you're referring to a hardware component that will go outside of your computer.
Let's Break Down The External Audio Interface
Often the term audio interface is used to describe what could best be called an external sound card. In other words a "sound card" that sits outside of your computer. They're then further described by how they hook up to your computer either by usb, firewire or in the case of laptops there are even PCMCIA interfaces as an option.
Of course once an item no longer needs to be designed to fit inside your computer it opens up a lot of possibilities for size and function.
This affords an external audio interface the ability to offer more features of course and for one you get the option of having more types of things you can readily plug into it.
For example, on the Edirol UA-3 (pictured just above) that I use, you can hook up a microphone, a guitar or other wired acoustic instrument or even an electric one, and you can have an external audio device hooked up as well like a cassette or cd player or even a mixer board.
Additionally there is an output that runs to either headphones or to a set of external monitors (speakers).
Also you can hook up an external digital device and this particular unit is conveniently powered by a usb connection that would hook into one of your computer's usb connectors.
This unit does not have midi in and out ports but you can find those included on other audio interface models if you need them.
As you can see having your "sound card" outside of your computer opens a whole host of possibilities that are otherwise often less available and more costly when the card has to fit into your computer.
A Quick Word About Laptops
If you have a laptop and you're looking to upgrade to a better sound device you'll probably have to get an external audio interface as it's usually not readily feasible or practical to replace an existing sound card in a laptop.
I had this very experience when I considered upgrading the sound card in my Dell Inspiron 5100 laptop and was told by Dell that it couldn't be done.
You could also use a PCMCIA slot type sound card but bear in mind because of its size it will have limited space available to hook up various other devices like your piano keyboard with midi jacks only for example.
A Brief Word About Speakers
In spite of everything I've said about sound cards and audio interfaces you'll still need to have good speakers to hear the quality.
It is recommended in particular that you need to use powered monitors (powered speakers) as generally that extra power is required for optimum sound. And not powered by your computer but rather speakers that you have to plug into an electrical outlet.
Some Good Sound Card and Audio Interface Models To Consider
If you decide that you want to go for an internal card then consider the E-MU 0404 that runs just under $100 (pictured at right).
It has been well reviewed and brought a lot of prior high-end capabilities down under $100 for the first time.
If you decide an external audio interface is what you'd prefer, pretty much a given if you're a laptop user, then I can certainly vouch for the UA-3 above that I use.
Indeed the Edirol line in general is highly regarded (now owned by the very reputable Roland company) and has a great variety of audio interfaces for various needs.
Also consider offerings from Digidesign, M-Audio and Tascam.
For example you might need a model that also accommodates midi in and out jacks and that is provided for by a model like the Tascam US122 audio interface pictured to the right.