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Why Do I Need An Audio Interface Designed For Home Recording?

Brandon Drury —  March 14, 2008

I’m often asked why it is necessary to purchase a real deal audio interface / sound card designed specifically for home recording. In fact, there is nothing wrong with your computers soundcard for playing back mp3s and other “consumer grade” activities. However, when you begin to record music on your computer, you have left the “consumer grade” world far behind. Your stock soundcard will limit your ability to work. That Soundblaster soundcard (which I’m sure came with an amazing graphic on the box) won’t cut it for home recording either.

Latency
Latency is the time it takes for your computer to process stuff. In our case, this is usually associated with the amount of delay it takes for sound to go in and out of your computer’s soundcard.

Let’s assume we are going to play a MIDI Controller / MIDI keyboard by running MIDI into the computer. This MIDI will trigger a synth or sample. In this example, let’s say we fire up some piano samples. When we strike a key, there should be no noticeable lag in time. In other words, we should hear the note immediately just like we are playing it through a standard keyboard. Your stock soundcard is probably going to take a while to process this note. It is slow and cheap by design and will have to sit around and think about the note that needs to be played. I’ve seen stock soundcards take as long as 250ms to play a note. This means every note you strike will be behind 250ms. At 60 beats per minute, this is a full quarter note! The solution is to use a low latency audio interface that can process this piano note in just a few milliseconds where the delay is not even audible by the person playing.

The issue of low latency isn’t limited to the playback of virtual instruments (synths and samples) on your computer. It becomes an issue anytime you want to monitor from within your recording software. I monitor through my recording software every step of the way from the drummer to the vocalist, all headphone or studio monitor mixes are done through the recording software (The exception to this is when I need more than one mix for individual players. In that case my audio interface uses a DSP mixer to give individual mixes to each player.) I prefer to use the recording software for monitoring because it gives me ready access to compression and reverb. I couldn’t imagine going back to the days when my vocal headphone mixes did not have compression. This would be impossible without a low latency audio interface.

When I fire up an electric guitar, the first thing I do is move the amp to an isolated area so I don’t have to listen to it. Then I slap up a mic and start listening to the guitar through the studio monitors. This allows me to hear exactly what the mic is picking up and make adjustments as necessary. This would not be possible without a low latency audio interface.

From what I hear, stock Mac soundcards tend to be a little better in terms of latency, but I do not know this from my own personal experience. I know of very few Mac users who are using the stock soundcard as their recording audio interface simple because there are other desirable features that the stock soundcard simply won’t have.

You may get lucky and find that your current soundcard is adequate for low latency recording. Go ahead and try cranking the latency down to the point that latency is acceptable for monitoring. If you can reduce the latency low enough without static, clicks, pops, and the infamous “blue screen of death” you may actually be able to get away with using your computers stock soundcard.

Analog To Digital (A/D) Conversion
The device that converts an analog wave to a bunch of numbers is known as an AD converter. We have to convert signal from analog to digital so that computers and other digital devices can store and manipulate the “data”. AD converters are not created equal. The higher the quality of conversion, the more accurate the sound. Generally speaking, A/D converters are usually not as prone to subjectivity as other links in the recording chain. In other words, there really isn’t a case I know of where a person wanted poor A/D conversion as a cool “effect”. I’m guessing that the guy singing through guitar pickups on a major label recording is still being routed through high end AD converters. Poor A/D converters tend to sound harsh and not as smooth as high end analog to digital converters. If you are using an audio interface specifically designed for music recording, you probably won’t notice much of a difference between the converters in your audio interface and the ultra high end converters made by Mytek, Lavry, Lucid, or Apogee. (I’ve never had a client notice when I switched from my Myteks to my stock Delta 1010 converters). However, it’s possible that the converters in your stock soundcard are so bad that the difference should be quite noticeable between your stock soundcard and a real audio interface. The converters in the stock soundcard that came with your computer were simply not designed for audio recording. They may sound okay at first, but I’m confident that you will notice a difference when you switch to a real audio interface.

Features
Audio recording has it’s own unique demands that few other people outside the recording realm face. I’ll break down all possible audio interface features in the Home Recording Soundcard Wizard.

What Is The Home Recording Soundcard Wizard?
The Home Recording Soundcard Wizard was designed to take job that normally takes hours and hours and hours of frustration and guessing take a matter of minutes. A laymen with little or no prior knowledge or experience of recording can hop on the Home Recording Soundcard Wizard and find exactly the right audio interface for their needs in a matter of minutes. For advanced users who already know exactly the features they are looking for, finding the right audio interface will only take seconds.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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30 responses to Why Do I Need An Audio Interface Designed For Home Recording?

  1. I play guitar and need audio interface/soundcard with the cheapest price but with very low latency and have good result. And I need a drum sound/loop for the beat. I want to record my music by using my PC, so, what kind of souncard should I have?
    I still have a trouble in using Fruityloop for drum sound, is there another else software for drum loop that I can get?

  2. USE REDRUM ON REASON 3.0

  3. Your article confirms what I’ve been told by a friend who has some experience in home studio recording. Moreover, he feels that the only way to go is with an external souncard via firewire. What is your opinion?

  4. I personally don’t find the difference between a built in audio interface and the USB $100 recording card so astronomical.
    You’d get better support with a dedicated audio software and usually some functions that you don’t see in a built in card, such as 1/4 inputs and maybe phantom power. The converters are really not light years ahead, either.
    There is a driver package, ASIO4All that usually works with built in audio cards achieving lower latency than some more expensive commercial packages.

    There was a question about drum sounds – I’d suggest NI Battery for drums or a hardware drum machine like the Boss Dr. Rhytm 880. A sampler will probably also do the job – you can buy sampled drum sounds and load your software sampler with them and trigger them that way.

  5. I personally don’t find the difference between a built in audio interface and the USB $100 recording card so astronomical.

    Really? Fire up a synth or sample in your recording software and hit a note on your MIDI controller.

    Brandon

  6. Hello, I have the new Tascam US1641 which has two Digital inputs (they look like RCA jacks)

    Can I connect my keyboard (KORG N364) using a regular mono 1/4″ cable and connecting an adaptor (converts 1/4″ plug to RCA male jack) and connect it to one of the ‘Digital In” inputs?

  7. I have a USB 2.0 to MIC Speaker 5.1 Audio Sound Card Adapter 552,do I need to get a audio interface in order to record correctly? What I mean by correctly is where it will sound professional,like no static or clicking or cliping? That sort of stuff? I am a beginner,i need help real bad

  8. well, I’ve Alesis IO2 but in my (damned) city I can’t find any non-split cable (two mono male jack to one stereo female jack) to match the output jack from it for connecting the speaker, I’m using an active speaker. So I’m planning to buy a Line6 TonePort (approx 500 thousands – 600 thousands rupiah rather than to upgrade speaker which cost approx 700 thousands rupiah). Gee..! these all cost me so much money!

  9. Septi, I’d recommend you post a thread in the forum (which better facilitates these kinds of questions) before you shell out $500 for an adapter alternative.

    Brandon

  10. I can’t find any forum here.

  11. Hey Brandon,

    I am new to the forum and new to recording. I had a question I am looking to buy a presonus firepod interface and just recently bought a vocal processor (tc Helicon voiceworks plus) along with a Shure KSM 44 mic, just wondering if you have had any experience with this processor and how to really connect it all together. I would appreciate any help you could give.

    Thanks~

  12. I need a sequencer, either software and hardware, with very low price. Where can I find ‘em?

  13. I’m new to this forum,i have a mbox 2 interface that i’m planing to get ride of and purchace a better or high end interface any suggestions i use both protools and logic

  14. have a mbox 2 interface that i’m planing to get ride of and purchace a better or high end interface any suggestions i use both protools and logic

    I don’t think you are going to find a “better” audio interface. You can get more inputs and you can more features, but if you are expecting a tonal upgrade I think you are going to be disappointed.

    Brandon

  15. If you want to run Pro Tools, you are wed to a Digidesign interface. Perhaps keep the MBox as a dongle if you really new Pro Fools… er Tools,. and get an interface that really suits you needs. You might put some weight toward whether it has a word clock input so you can improve the conversion by adding some equipment with a superior clock. The MOTU units come to mind as some that can really be improved by a better clock.

  16. where can I get ASIO4All? Is it free or not?
    one more thing. Is ProTool for specific audiocard only?
    My bro has protool software but it can’t run, neither on his laptop nor his PC? Can you give me the solution?

  17. Hello Septi,

    I recommend creating a thread in the Pro Tools forum.

    http://forum.recordingreview.com/f41/

  18. Does 002 and 3 gives better sounding qualitiy than the mbox 2 and someone said that apogee ensemble is very good . i need to know trying to get the BIG STUDIO SOUND or close but accomplishing it is very difficult.

  19. And between logic 8 and protools which is better for recording vocals,mixing & mastering for high end sound

  20. Neither. They both sound the same.

    Brandon

  21. apogee ensemble is this a good interface and if why?

  22. Hi Brandon,
    i found this website to be extremely useful. One question:
    Does a poor inbuilt soundcard just affect latency or does it alsoa affect the ‘quality’ of sound output? e.g. with reference to softsynths, would quality of sound be better / brighter if i invest in an audiointerface?
    Thanks a lot for your help

  23. Does a poor inbuilt soundcard just affect latency or does it alsoa affect the ‘quality’ of sound output?

    Read the section in the article above entitled “Analog To Digital (A/D) Conversion”.

    Brandon

  24. I bought the apogee ensemble and i was impress from the very first minute when i played a song through it the quality is amazing, i used a AKG c214 mic and i must say its the cleanest, smoothest recording i’ve gotten in months way to go apogee its worth every cent.
    (LOGIC PRO 8)

  25. Gosh,.. it happens all the time. I use io2 but still I have damned Latency, and the pitch sounds upper half than the original.
    what should I do?? I’ve used the Asio for All.
    what should I do?? Buying another external audiocard again??
    this is alesis io2 but why this happens to me?? Why?? oh why????
    Gee,… this case really makes me upset!!!

  26. WOW…Who writes these articles? Absolutely GREAT STUFF! I’m new to the forum and.. well, this site. This is the place for me, as a I learn recording and aquire equipment. To the writers – kudos.

    P.S. I majored in journalism, and I’m impressed. Well, enough gushing about!

    John67

  27. WOW…Who writes these articles?

    Weird! I’m not sure how many million pageviews RecordingReview.com has gotten since October 2005, but not once has anyone actually stated they enjoyed my writing!!! I’ll take it!

    I usually get an email every couple of days explaining to me some Grammer 101 concept that I had forgotten a decade ago.

    I’ve got an entire book coming out. Keep an ear out.

    Brandon

  28. Hi Everybody!
    I’m trying to decide on a Soundcard. I ran the Soundcard Wizard. This was the Cheapest Option:
    Focusrite Saffire LE 6-In/8-Out FireWire Interface
    Do you all have any thoughts? It comes with Software, but I already have Audition 2.0, so I suppose that makes software an irrelevant issue.
    Please give me your input.
    Stu

  29. well well i’ve finally come to the conclusion to my doubts about choosing and interface, lets face the facts folks if you want to get the HIGH END SOUND you gotta spend the boxs $$$ yip lets face it those cheap ass interface ain’t gonna do it for you sorry, i did try a few! mbox 2, m audio project mix , even the motou stuff ent no good! you want HIGH END then get yourself apogee duet or ensemble or rosetta 800 or even protools hd yes i said it. it all depends on your budget but if you’re serious about sound and being a professional then this is the way out for your home studio no other way i’ve been comparing different recordings from different interface to hear the quality and most of them sounds dull and boring unless your are a genius engineer then use it

  30. I’m trying to decide on a Soundcard. I ran the Soundcard Wizard. This was the Cheapest Option:
    Focusrite Saffire LE 6-In/8-Out FireWire Interface
    Do you all have any thoughts? It comes with Software, but I already have Audition 2.0, so I suppose that makes software an irrelevant issue.
    Please give me your input.