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

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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.

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