Choosing An External Sound Card for Studio Recording
Do you need to record into your computer?
But you don’t know exactly what you need to get the job done…
Here’s what I advise:
Don’t buy what you don’t need!!
Although high end interfaces boast impressive capabilities, it doesn’t mean that your sound will be equally impressive.
Audio Interfaces 2015 | 2016 (CLICK HERE)
When reading this review don’t read it like number one is the best one around.
I’m just going to be writing about the best ten of them.
Any of these audio units have their own charm,
and all of them are of high quality sound and analogue circuitry. Let’s get on the review part.
Price start at $2000.- for a base configuration.
These guys are already known for their superb quality with their first unit.
But now they have just came out with their new flagship of products.
Apogee have revamped their way of making products and began focusing on the high end market. It’s not strange because in this segment of products you can get the most profit. But the decision was a good one if you ask me. The Symphony units are 16 ins and 16 outs that can be configured with anything you can think of or you can choose for 32 outs or 32 ins. You can even stack units for an even bigger configuration the possibilities are endless.
This is the type of unit you would buy when thinking about a premium big solution for a pro studio.
Avid HD Omni
The Omni is a compact producer solution for protools HD and MAC.
This new HD line of Avid has a great quality of sound that translates to your digital audio workstation . The converters on any of these HD units are next gen and far better then the old Line of Avid. They sound super clear and have a perfect quality image in stereo. Having two premium mic inputs really help out, they are superb in their own right. There is just not much that can go wrong with this Omni.
This is one the best digital interfaces to work with. It’s design and use is easy and the converters on this unit are up to date and of high end quality. It’s just an awesome piece of audio equipment.
Read more about: Avid HD omni Review
Prism Sound Titan
Prism is beast when we are talking about interfaces and you just can’t go wrong with any of their USB line. It is the 2nd of three in this line, but they all share the same specs.
The microphone preamps are superb as they sound very cripsy clean and also have alot of gain and transparency. The converters on this line are about the best in the market, Prism is known for their excellent quality and you just can’t doubt that.
It runs on Apple mac or a PC and because of it’s design it’s a good size to take along for a ride. The USB 3 option makes sure you get the fastest connect possible. 8 inputs and outputs as well as 4 microphone inserts any many more conductibility makes this anything you could wish for, unless you want bigger and more connects.
Antelope Audio Orion 32
Hello baby, you twenty-six channel ins and out with a very stable clock good looking running on 192khz on all channels you! Madi connection, adat and SPDIF makes you real rounded versatile piece of beauty.
Many people thought that they wouldn’t cut it to put all of this audio and AD/DA in a 1U rack type of situation. Keep in mind that power needed for this type of work could never fit in a unit five years ago. And all of this connecting your pc or mac with USB2. They sure as hell made a fine piece of audio gear here.
If you look at the price and what you get out of it your looking at something that becomes quite affordable. Some might even exchange their existing setup of five units with one of these with high end sample rates (hahahah).
Read more about: Antelope Audio Pure 2 Review
Universal Audio Apollo 16
Price: starts at $2495
The 16 inputs and outputs version of the Apollo sound card is a very nice unit that comes with a stable build in clock as well as Mady connectivity.
The Apollo comes with UAD2 Card that can run a lot of plugins from UA. They can even be used while tracking and recording on any input on the Box. Those plugins can also be used in your digital workspace for mixing and mastering your tracks.
The Quality of the Analog to digital is just outstanding! They sound super great and casscading two units together you can 32 ins and outs which is more then a home studio will ever need.
Read more: Apollo 16 Full Review
SPL is a great Producer of DA/AD processors and they have launched their Madison 16 in and out Gear box.
This nice piece of gear is simple but perfect to take along to any gig or fit in any type of situation. A super stable clock, one of the best converters, simple to use and can be expanded easily. Just 1 unit Rack that gives you 16 ins and outputs.
A very nice unit with good converting inputs and outputs, to use as a base for your projects.
You can also find mod versions of this unit on the web to buy with Jensen transformers , which is cool by itself if you ask me. Analog and Digital in one box unit.
Read the Full Review: Metric Halo ULN-8
RME Fireface UFX
Price: Around $2000.-
RME from Germany is always considered to be a very good manufacturer. And giving you quality in AD/DA is no surprise either. This UFX audio unit comes with 12 inputs and eighteen digital channels through AES and adat. The wordclock is superb with Hammerfall technology and also midi i/o can be found on the back. Their is also an option to use the volume rotary to cycle through channels.
With the channel mixing software that comes with any RME unit, you can easily route channels as you please and save your settings as well. Besides being a computer audio interface you can even work with this machine without a PC.
This unit definitely gives you well worth your money, so if your looking for a good unit with 4 mic Preamps and all the connectivity you need, this is the one. Although it should be considered within the Medium Range, I really wanted to write about this machine in the High End Audio gear section.
Check out the full review: RME Fireface UFX Review
10 Essentials before Purchasing an Audio Interface
What’s the difference between a sound card and an audio interface?
Well, a sound card is only used on onboard computer chips and internal cards can be connected for example to a PCI-slot.
When talking about external sound cards it’s usually referring to audio interfaces.
Besides your computer and DAW the audio interface functions at the heart of your home recording studio.
It’s primary function is to translate analog signals to digital signals.
Thus the quality of your recording is heavily depended upon the quality of the chips within the interface.
It comes down to what you are going to use it for.
To record a signal you need an input.
And if you want to record a microphone you will need an input with a preamp.
To records instruments you will need a dedicated instrument input.
You can however choose an audio interface with only line signal inputs (line-in and line-out) but then you will have to invest in a external preamp and/or a direct input box.
If your working with MIDI you would probably want to have MIDI-I/O.
Most of the interfaces today offer these already.
It’s good to know that most MIDI-controllers can be connected through USB.
When you have determined how much inputs and outputs you need it’s time to look at another factor, mainly the converters.
The converters manage the quality of the recordings.
Converters are electronic components that are responsible of converting analog audio to digital signals (AD-DA circuits).
There are 3 ways a computer can be connected to an audio interface:
- Internal sound card trough PCI(e)
- An Firewire Interface (external) and a…
- USB interface (external)
“Should It Be Cheap Or Should It Be Expensive?”
High-end interfaces often have more ins and outs then low-budget interfaces. Usually these high end products also have better microphone preamps and dedicated internal routing capabilities.
When you’re a mobile recorder/producer you will probably won’t have the need for all those inputs and outputs. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a high-end product that specifies your needs.
These specifications are the ones to look at when you’re deciding to buy your audio interface:
- analog I/O
- digital I/O (ADAT 8: Channel digital audio & S/PDIF: Digital Stereo )
- instrument inputs with High-Z
- microphone inputs with phantom power (48+ volt)
- MIDI I/O
- USB, firewire, thunderbolt connections
- headphone monitor outputs
- wordclock I/O
- Windows or Mac (depending on the unit)
- Compatibility with your DAW (again, this is very important)
Let’s have a breakdown of what you’re missing out when you buy a cheap one:
- a great interface build (possibly loose inputs, knobs. Plastic chassis, poor ergonomic design, portability)
- no independent DSP (for VSTi use. Essential for bedroom producers) which would kill your CPU if it’s weak as soon as possible.
- More clutter at home (expensive AI’s are huge and occupy more space)
- Expandability (limited channels)
But if you’re buying something expensive, you also miss out on:
- Paying less (for what you really need especially if you couldn’t maximize your equipment)
- portability (some large rack interfaces are not for the frequently-traveling audio engineer)
- low maintenance (you’ve got tubes to take care of. Clean your interface regularly.)
- Poor quality sound (you will always record at 24bit rates and you’ll feel your CPU run hot, but you get a decent sound!)
Now you’ve got a great audio interface.
You immediately bought that little Focusrite interface and you couldn’t stop shaking.
Then you load your DAW and everything seems to load fine.
But you couldn’t find the right driver to make your interface work for you.
That’s a big problem. But that can be fixed with a little research.
However, the point is, if your DAW does not agree with your audio interface, you could see that your audio interface is a huge waste of money.
Always make sure that your DAW can work with your Audio Interface.
I repeat, make sure that it’s as compatible as food to your mouth when you buy that audio interface.
Especially if you’re buying expensive equipment because you don’t want to regret making a poor investment and having a difficult time reselling incompatible equipment.
Apple has Thunderbolt, a 30-pin connector that is the equivalent of USB.
Meanwhile, Windows will always have USB. Apple said it is limited to the 5-pin that micro USBs (the same size as Thunderbolt) have and find larger USB plugs to be quite bulky for its taste.
Thunderbolt was specifically designed to carry “audio and transmit and receive”, meaning it intends to cut all latency introduced by the universal Serial Bus plugs because they have to go through so much information before they can process it.
The ability of audio interfaces to use DSP technology as well as sync VSTi recordings through a line-in instrument effectively is due to TB, which is why plenty of AI manufacturers try to go for a Macintosh approach to things.
TB allows transmission of video signals, not just charge and synchronize, which the USB 2.0 is capable of.
While Windows DAW’s have delay compensation and latency modes. But these aren’t enough to resolve the bigger issue at hand.
Cheaper audio interfaces may only have four inputs and about two outputs, which usually go straight to your monitors. Meanwhile, expensive audio interfaces can have multiple input/output for simultaneous recording.
Expensive interfaces, usually found in bigger studios where a single-shot recording is often likely, will have more features. It would often have its own DSP for audio processing even before the audio reaches the DAW.
These input/output may be limited in number because they may have their own tube preamps, which are not cheap to manufacture.
Hi-Z stands for high impedance and refers to a max signal of 500 ohms. Which is good for electric guitars and bass guitars.
Phantom Power is used for regular XLR cables which delivers 48+volt to for example a condenser microphone. Some interfaces offer phantom power that can be switched on and off different input channels.
Your choice of audio interfaces will depend on what you need to record, which simultaneous recordings you need so that you know how many input/output you will need.
I won’t be a hypocrite.
The size of the audio interface I need depends on what need I have for it.
For example, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is useful for me when I’m traveling with my laptop.
I’d say people who love traveling and are creating pod casts would benefit from using a Focusrite interface rather than going with an eight-channel DSP rich interface.
Form factor is important for me as it will indicate portability.
The heavier the device is for me, the more I dislike it if I’m going out.
In my home recording studio, however, the heavier the better.
Part of the form factor for audio interfaces include the connectors and where they are located.
For example, I’d hate it when the master volume settings are located behind the unit when all inputs and outputs are out front for smaller units.
You’ve probably come across famous videos of audio interfaces claiming that they’re the best. Immediately, we ogle towards the screen.
Well, I remember myself doing that when I saw trials on the i-net of some artists using the Avid Fast Track One.
It was simply amazing, the way they make it look easy to operate an interface.
Well, not that it’s difficult, but it’s not all the time that the latency will work for you, or the audio is thoroughly ‘clean’ with its signal or that your guitar won’t have noise when you run it through an amp VST.
You’ll be facing these troubles. But first.
“You wanted to see the professional way of audio production and what professional audio interfaces could do for you”
Contrary to popular opinion, there’s no single “best” audio interface, not even for professional-level audio interfaces. There are only ones that fail their purpose either by having some jitters or they have workflow troubles.
People often rate down certain audio interfaces in the market because they did not spend enough time to learn about its architecture. If one spent much time reading the manual and experimenting, they would do a fine job with almost any audio interface.
For example, you might have been using FireWire, but maybe your interface works better with less and thus low latency when connected through a USB while you have delay compensation turned on.
Small tweaks like these guarantee there’s no best audio interface. You’ll find glitches here and there, but you’ll find your own solution anyway.
Jitters and noise problems are probably the first things you’d notice with poorly-made audio interfaces, or at least ones that are cheaper, have very poor clocking. This is when it syncs with your CPU. The more jitters, the more latency problems. Sometimes, it causes pitch problems.
Even professional audio interfaces suffer from these troubles. You could lose some small details in a reverb when you have heavy jitters.
Of course, these can be difficult to hear through a normal room setting where there is lots of bounce going on.
Noise is easier to detect. Equipment noise is likely caused by poor circuitry. It might be a defect. Make sure that when you run either low budget or an high end interface with 60 channels, you look for that noise floor. Or else you make a bad investment.
Yes, even the professional interface can fall victim to this little problem.
The creme “de la creme” is what I call these audio cards/boxes.
I am so stoked writing about these beautiful beasts. These prices are not for the faint of heart and should only be purchased if they get a special spot within your heart and life.
Unless you have endless amounts of money and you want a super toy to junk around with be my guest. I will come and visit you! Also check out: (Top 10 best USB audio interface LOW BUDGET)
I hope you’ve got a good taste of these high-end products, and if you like it you can share or comment.