14 rules to buy the right audio card
Smart advices to buy the right audio card for you.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably about to take a crucial step for your music: the purchase of an audio card.
By reading this article, you will get all the necessary information that you’ll need to choose one that suits you. Don’t worry, it’s going to be easier than you think.
Do not buy audio cards that lack ASIO drivers.
ASIO4all or any other driver are a big no no: you should look only for ASIO drivers. If the audio card uses them, it’s an indicator of high quality.
Do not worry about audio quality.
Every modern card comes packed with a high audio quality. Some more than others. But, in these terms, there’s never going to be a large difference, if you consider the current artistic context. We’ll get back on this later, in another post.
Pre-amps do not “produce sound”: that’s YOU.
The role of pre-amps is to change the card input volume. They’re no more and no less than a volume knob. The signal audio quality should be modified in postproduction or during the sound engineering phase, not via recording circuitry.
If the sound is ugly, 99% of the times it’s not “pre-amps fault”.
Do not worry about stability.
Modern audio cards, if properly used, are all perfectly stable.
Whether it is a €100 one or a €15.000 one, the card is going to perfectly work within its limits.
If you need to record your instrument, buy an audio card with direct monitoring.
It is a technology that allows recording without audio latency.
If you want to record instruments using a card that lacks this feature, you’re going to have a bad time.
ADAT ports are much better than a lot of inputs/outputs.
If you need to record many tracks at the same time, ADAT is a great technology: it allows you to expand your audio card inputs and outputs for a small price.
Such a setup will allow you to easily carry your audio card around in a backpack, and you’ll still be able to upgrade its inputs/outputs number whenever you want. This way, you aren’t forced to transport an audio card the size of a pickup truck.
Moreover, you will be able to keep your ADAT card, even if you change your audio card, and end up saving money.
Small card doesn’t mean bad card.
There are a lot of small and cheap audio cards that still rock really good components.
In reality, many small cards are nothing less than resized versions of their premium counterparts.
High price doesn’t mean good card.
The price of a product reflects many different aspects. One of these is marketing costs: most equipment tend to have a high cost also due to the money spent in its advertisement. How can one tell which is the case?
We’ve written about it in this post: 11 rules to choose the right audio gear.
If a famous artist owns it, or you’ve seen it on TV, it doesn’t mean it’s the right audio card for you.
We’ve covered this topic here (rule 8): 11 rules to choose the right audio gear.
Do you want to use your audio card in studio or live?
- If you want to use it in studio, you won’t have to worry about its structural properties too much. The only features that would be handy are external system controls: a potentiometer (“pot”) for the main volume and a mute button are going to be very useful during the editing phase.
- If you want to use it live, you should verify that:
A- It has a solid frame (e.g. a shock-resistant ABS structure or an aluminium/metallic chassis: it is not unusual for it to fall down or get hit).
B- It has the least possible amount of protruding parts (e.g. pots: should they get hit, they might snap off).
C- It has a good range of audio/data connection (you never know what may happen during a show).
D- It doesn’t have weird interconnection standards (should you lose your connection cable or your computer, you won’t be able to use it. USB is perfect. Firewire is the worst).
E- It should have several headphone ports (being able to hand a pair of headphones to a colleague or a client is handy).
F- It doesn’t cost too much (theft, water, impacts: your audio card may not have it easy).
Be careful about not-so-well-known brands.
They may create high quality products, but the future of the firm might be uncertain, and so will be the product services: up-to-date drivers, hardware upgrades and so on.
The risk of ending up with a useless card due to lack of updates might be just around the corner.
How many inputs?
Every circumstance will need a different amount of inputs and outputs.
Yet, here are some general guidelines:
- If you need to register yourself only, even one or two inputs is enough.
- If you have a small recording studio, we recommend having between 4 and 6 inputs. Or you could have less, but with ADAT ports.
- If you want to use it live, no more than 4 inputs and some more outputs (for bases or clicks)
- For a DJ set, 2 ins and 4 outs (setup + monitors).
- For audio analysis (e.g. SMAART), 2 ins and 4 outs.
Is a MIDI port useful?
It is always advised to buy an audio card with MIDI ports.
Maybe, for now, you do not need a keyboard. But, given the musical capabilities of VST software, you’re going to change your mind pretty soon.
To be honest, it would be a shame to not have a MIDI port.
You would miss out on a lot of possibilities.
It would be better to buy one with a good virtual mixer.
A lot of cards like Focusrite and, some time ago, E-Mu ones, have great virtual mixer systems. This allows you to change the card routing outside your music software, providing you with a higher operational flexibility.
It would be better if your audio card had such a virtual mixer too.
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