|Whether you're a songwriter, DJ, producer or guitarist, a sound card upgrade can make a huge improvement to your computer's performance when using music software. In this guide we'll show you different types of sound card designed for music-making.|
Do I need a new sound card?
These are fine for general computer use like word processing or internet browsing, but if you want to use your computer to record or make music a built-in sound card might not be up to the task.
You might hear glitches and pops in the sound when using music software, or your recordings might sound muffled. You might also hear a delay called latency - a gap between playing a note and hearing it come out of your speakers or headphones.
The sort of sound cards generally sold in computer shops might not be much help, either - while they might improve things a little, they're usually designed for computer games and might not give you the connections you need for guitars, microphones or DJ decks.
However, there are also a huge range of sound cards designed for musicians - these are also known as audio interfaces. Audio interfaces can vary from very simple designs right up to large rack-mounted systems with enough inputs and outputs to run an entire recording studio!
PCI sound cards are fitted inside your computer, in a spare PCI slot on the motherboard.
Some PCI cards come with a 'breakout box' or 'breakout cable'. This works as an extension for the sound card so that you don't have to reach round to the back of your computer to connect things to it.
PCI cards can be good value for money and once installed they tend to be very stable.
PCI cards can only be used in desktop computers, though, and not laptops. A PCI card also requires you to open your computer's case and fit it inside - this can be quite daunting for beginners and can sometimes void your computer's warranty, so if you're not technologically-minded it might be best to get a PCI card fitted professionally or choose an external audio interface instead.
USB audio interfaces are external boxes that connect to a spare USB port on your computer.
USB interfaces work in exactly the same way as an internal sound card, so once they're installed and set up correctly all of your operating system's sounds, music, DVDs or games, will come through the audio interface too. If you need to, once a USB interface is installed you can switch between it and your existing sound card.
USB interfaces are sometimes 'class compliant' - this means that your computer will automatically detect and set them up for you. Other interfaces will come with a 'driver CD', which contains software that you'll need to install to make the sound card work on your computer.
USB interfaces are very convenient - they can be used with desktop or laptop computers and are easily portable, so they can be switched between computers if you need to.
Most USB interfaces use USB 1.1, but some can use a high-speed USB 2.0 connection, which gives better performance if your computer has a USB 2.0 port. The USB 1.1 format supports data transfer speeds of up to 12Mbps ('megabits per second', the same units broadband connections are measured in), while the newer USB 2.0 is much faster, offering speeds of up to 480Mbps. Faster data transfer speeds can mean lower latency and the capacity to record higher quality audio. View our USB Interfaces Section for more sound cards...
Firewire audio interfaces are external boxes that connect to a Firewire port (this can also be called an IEEE 1394 port) on your computer. Again, Firewire interfaces work in exactly the same way as an internal sound card.
Firewire interfaces can be 'class compliant' - your computer will automatically detect and set them up for you - or they may need you to install a driver to make them work.
Firewire - Faster than USB?
Firewire operates at a high speed, like USB 2.0 - Firewire allows a data transfer speed of 400Mbps. Theoretically, this should mean that USB 2.0 is a faster connection than Firewire, as it can achieve 480Mbps, but unfortunately it's not that simple.
Firewire and USB use different methods of transferring data, and tests have shown that even though USB 2.0 is capable of reaching higher speeds, Firewire connections tend to be better at maintaining high speeds for long periods of time. Since recording audio involves transferring data at a steady rate over extended periods of time, Firewire will generally give better performance for recording even though it's technically slower than USB 2.0.
This extra speed makes Firewire audio interfaces good for recording multiple sound sources, so Firewire interfaces generally have more inputs and outputs than USB interfaces. If you want to record several instruments at once, for example a band, then you should consider a Firewire audio interface.
6-pin and 4-pin Firewire ports
If your computer has a Firewire port, it's important to check whether it's a 4-pin or a 6-pin port. 6-pin Firewire ports are the same size as a USB port, while 4-pin ports are much smaller - you'll often find 4-pin Firewire ports on laptop computers.
The two extra pins on a 6-pin Firewire connector provide power to the device that's connected to it. So, while you can connect an audio interface to a 4-pin firewire port, you'll need to have a mains power adapter for the interface plugged in while you're using it - no good if you want to record on the move, but fine if you're always going to have a mains socket nearby.
It's also important to be aware that some audio interfaces don't include power adapters as standard, and some might not even give you the option of using mains power at all, so always be sure to check before you buy. View our Firewire Interfaces Section for more sound cards...
PCMCIA / PC Cardbus
This type of card slots into a PCMCIA or Cardbus slot on a laptop computer, and provides a high rate of data transfer.
Some are very simple, and others include breakout boxes with extra connections. View our Laptop Interfaces Section for more sound cards...
A delay between making a noise or pressing a key and hearing it in your speakers/headphones is called latency. It's the time that your computer takes to recognise that something's happened, process it and route it back to the outside world.
There's no way to get rid of latency completely, but there's a lot you can do to reduce it, often to the point where it's not really noticeable any more. Read our Guide to Reducing Latency for tips on how to do this.
Many sound cards use ASIO drivers to provide very low latency, or have a “zero latency” function where part of the signal is routed directly to the output, while the rest is sent to the computer for processing. This allows you to monitor what you're playing without hearing a latency delay.
What does '24-bit, 96kHz' mean?
A sound card's sound quality is often measured in numbers - something like '24-bit, 96kHz' or even just '24/96'.
There are two main measures of the sound quality an audio interface works with - these are called the sample rate and the resolution. Just about all sound cards give at least CD quality, but some models can give much higher sound quality than this.
To record a sound into a digital format, the signal is passed through an analogue-to-digital converter. This takes readings or “samples” from the electrical signal thousands of times a second and converts the readings into numbers. So, the higher the number of samples taken in a given amount of time (the sample rate), the higher the sound quality.
The standard sample rate for CD-quality audio is 44,100 samples per second, which is written as 44.1kHz. The majority of sound cards designed for audio use can operate at 96kHz or above, with some allowing up to 192kHz.
The resolution of a digital signal is the range of numbers that can be assigned to each sample - each sample is 'rounded' by the computer, and the more decimal places the sample can be rounded to, the higher the sound quality. Resolution is measured in 'bits', so it's also known as the 'bit-rate'. CD-quality audio uses 16 bits - many audio interfaces can operate at 24-bit quality or above.
For more information on sample rates and resolution, see our guide, "Basic Digital Audio".
Can I use two sound cards at the same time?
As a general rule, no. Most operating systems (ie: Windows and Mac OS) will only let you use one set of audio drivers at a time, which means that they're only capable of controlling one sound card at any one time.
The exception to this is with certain Firewire interfaces - some models have two Firewire ports on the back, which allows you to 'daisy-chain' multiple interfaces together, connecting one interface to the computer, then a second (identical) interface to the second firewire port, and so on.
If you're unsure about any of the above, or if you're not sure which products would be best for you, please
contact us and we'll be happy to offer friendly, impartial advice and recommendations.