The question of choosing the best External Sound Card for a particular use or application gets asked a lot. I have put together this quick guide which highlights the main considerations when choosing the right audio interface for your PC or Mac for recording and/or podcasting.
The first question: What are you going to be using an external sound card / audio interface for?
Recording simple vocals for presentations
Home recording vocals and instruments
Recording an entire band or group
Benefits of an External Sound Card
An external sound card or audio interface, often called a “break out” box, has a major advantage over an internal PCI / PCI-Express card when it comes to recording and podcasting. The Analog to Digital (A/D) and Digital to Analog (D/A) conversion engine is located in the external box, therefore, all of the processing that goes on to change the analogue stream into a digital stream and vice versa is undertaken inside the box away from the electrical noise of your computer. The resulting digital signal is sent via cable to an input in your PC or Mac via a USB, Firewire or a dedicated card specifically designed to couple the box to your computer.
Other important advantages include, ease of installation and connectivity; advanced functionality such as pre-amps; Hi-Z inputs; in-built hardware effects; mobility; use with laptops, notebooks and desktops.
How many analog inputs do you need? Are you podcasting using one or two microphones (2 inputs)? Do you need inputs for musical instruments such as a guitar and/or keyboards (4 – 8 Inputs)? Or perhaps you want to record your entire band and microphone up the drum kit (20+ simultaneous inputs)?
The more inputs you need, the more you will need to spend. From experience it is advisable to choose an external sound card with a few more inputs, just in case.
Pre-amps boost the very low signal input from microphones up to a level that mixers, sound cards, effects, etc can work with. Pre-amps are not optional if you are recording with microphones. You need a pre-amp channel for every microphone you are recording simultaneously. I recommend you get the same amount of pre-amps as you have analog inputs in your external sound card. It doesn’t do you any good to have the inputs if you can’t use them.
Connecting your external sound card to your PC or Mac
PCI or PCI-Express (Via internal card to “Break out” box) – Desktop only – not easy to install
USB 1.1 – Slowest connection speed- only good for one input at a time
USB 2.0 – Faster, The standard – better for simultaneously recording up to 8 inputs, Mobile
USB 3.0 – NEW, Faster still, awaiting audio peripherals to be released (One to keep an eye on)
Firewire – Stable, fast, low latency, preferred solution by seasoned recordists
PC, Mac or both.
Make sure your chosen external sound card works on your machine – the specifications will tell you. There are externals sound cards that work just on PCs and just on Mac’s and those that work fine on both.
Many external sound cards come with MIDI in and out ports. If you need MIDI or think you may want to experiment with MIDI, I recommend that you purchase a sound card with MIDI already built-in. You’ll want to make sure that the sound card uses a standard MIDI jack as some include ports that need adaptors. It is best to avoid adaptors.
MIDI can trigger synthesizers (which essentially shapes and moulds sound electronically to model various instruments) or samplers (which instantaneously play back short recordings of sound files). Because of this, MIDI is used all the time in music ranging from techno to metal to movie scores. With the right samples, it is easy to switch from working on an orchestral score to a rap beat in seconds.
Increase the quality of your direct guitar recordings, by plugging your guitar into a high impedance input. Your standard sound card input was not designed to work with a guitar and therefore, some high frequencies can be lost. Hi-Z input is Included on many audio interfaces.
Do you need to monitor vocals / guitars through headphones, have separate monitoring for each member of the band? Most recording software will allow direct monitoring of the signal through the main outs (which is how you listen on playback through you studio monitors). This is usually satisfactory for a drummer but may not be nearly as useful for the rest of the band.
Do some research before buying an external audio interface to make sure that your monitoring needs are taken care of.
Some sound cards come with recording software included. Make sure you factor this into your decision and into the price as well. Most recording programs bundled with sound cards are the “LE” version which means they generally are lacking some of the features of the given companies flagship model.
With that said, most people do not need the features included in the most high end recording software. You will probably be fine with whatever software that comes with your audio hardware (assuming it comes with any at all). If you find that the program that comes with your sound card is lacking in features, most companies will allow you to upgrade to more high end versions at a discounted price.
A selection of well known software companies that work well with an external sound card include Cakewalk, Cubase Alberton and Pro Tools.
Dr SGriff has over 25 years of experience in performing and recording live music, he is also a qualified systems engineer and addicted to technology and how it can be used to improve ones quality of life. Dr SGriff, has a particular interest in External Sound Card and audio interfaces and is very happy to share his experiences and knowledge in audio, in order that those with a passion for quality digital sound can make informed decisions when building computer systems for there particular application. Whether your interest be home recording, gaming, home theatre or creating professional presentations, read more about making the right choices here: