Sound Card / AD Converter
A few months ago, Electronic Musician had an article "Build a Home Studio on Any Budget" but their bottom budget was my top budget. This is my answer to that column.
Okay, the computer has a sound card, but let's say you want something that doesn't have 1/8" headphone inputs and can drive a microphone. Since we're talking budget studio, I'm dealing only with products with at least some Mic Pre's. If you already have a mixer or Mic Pre, or don't need a Mic Pre, investigate some of the manufacturers I mention. Often they offer a product at the same price with double the inputs, but without Mic Pres.
Most of the hardware mentioned offers quality up to 24/96 for DVD audio, with the notable exception of the DigiDesign hardware which is typically 24/48 maximum. Of course, the higher end DigiDesign stuff leapfrogged 96khz and jumped to 192khz, but don't expect to be able to afford one of those easily. I don't go into digital inputs and outputs much (SPDIF, ADAT, etc.), just analog to digital.
The Soundcard You Already Have
Most computers come with sound cards & many people pay extra for better sound cards to listen to their video games, CD's, MP3's and DVD's with. So why not use it for recording? I'm not going to recommend any specific sound card because I don't know much about consumer cards, but I do have a few tips.
The right adapters
A lot of sound cards will have a stereo input via an 1/8" headphone jack. A trip to Radio Shack will let you split this into 2 signals - left & right. This means you can get 2 tracks into your computer at once. Some may come with 1/8" mono jacks, but if you have a stereo input, that's 2 tracks. Just record the left channel onto track 1 & the right channel on to track 2. What you're looking for at Radio Shack is a stereo 1/8" male to two mono quarter inch female converter. If you know you're always going to plug it in to something closeby that's got 1/4" female plugs (just like your amp or guitar) then you can get a stereo 1/8" to two mono quarter inch male converter and leave it plugged in all the time.
Mic Pre/Instrument Inputs
A recent article on JoelOnSoftware.com about his new recording rig for recording voice overs on software demos turned me on to the M-Audio AudioBuddy. The AudioBuddy is a super-inexpensive ($80 street) mic/instrument pre that brings mic level up to line level for recording. I don't know how good/bad it sounds, but it's one of the cheapest mic pre's I've seen and M-Audio has a good reputation for quality. Joel has mp3's that show the difference between computer mic & SM58 with the AudioBuddy. Keep in mind that the mp3's are of the lowest possible quality because he's producing them for online web demos.
USB powered 2 channel A/D converters ($80 - $450)
Due to the limitation of USB, most A/D converters that use this technology are limited to 2 channels in and 2 channels out. On the other hand, they're typically small and portable so you can use them with a laptop, or bring it over to a friend's house and record there. Most of them also support up to 24/96 recording for DVD audio.
- Edirol UA-1A
I'm going to break my own rule and mention a product with no Mic Pres because it's so cheap. If you already have an analog mixer with mic pre's or can get one cheaply - I, for example, have a Tascam 8 track cassette recorder, then the Edirol UA-1A USB Analog Audio Capture Device may be right for you. At around $80, it'll get 2 channels of audio into and out of your computer. It has 2 line level inputs & 2 line level outputs using RCA jacks, probably like your CD-Player, which means you can also plug it in to your stereo for monitoring.
update March 27, 2003: There is no input level control on the Edirol and it's prone to clipping if the input is too hot. Check out this thread about it.
For a little more money, the M-Audio Duo is a USB audio interface that you can buy for just over $250. The M-Audio Duo gets a lot of good reviews and provides 2 inputs with mic pre's and 2 outputs. The only drawback is it doesn't really have an instrument input, sure it's got a 1/4" jack, but it wasn't designed to take an instrument.
If you need to plug in a guitar, then Edirol's UA-5 is a good choice. It's also a 2 in 2 out USB A/D converter with mic Pre's, but it lets you plug in a guitar or bass as well. The Mic Pre's have gotten sleightly worse reviews than the M-Audio Duo, but if you need to plug in a guitar, this is the way to go.
For $450 there's the Digidesign M-Box. It's yet again, a 2 in 2 out USB A/D converter. The upside here is it comes with the LE version of ProTools, so you don't need to buy any audio software with this to get started. This is the same ProTools that professionals use, just the LE version of it, which supports 24 or 32 tracks (check the spcifications) and runs off of your computer's processing power.
The M-Audio Quattro is a very attractive USB option. I'm breaking my "must have mic pre" rule again, but it has some features that are worth mentioning. In addition to the standard 2 in / 2 out, it offers MIDI, and at 16/44.1 it offers 4-in and 4-out! This is the only USB option I've seen that can do 4 tracks full duplex. It also offers up to 24/96 recording. Combined with the Mic Pre's/instrument inputs on the AudioBuddy (see above) or Omni i/o this could be the most versatile option on the list.
High End USB Options
On the high end of the spectrum are the Apogee Mini-Me ($1300) and the new Grace Lunatec V3 ($1550). Apogee is known for their A/D converters, and Grace is known for their microphone preamps. The Apogee integrates a compressor as well. Also there's the Sound Devices USBPre.
Added March 17, 2003: Edirol has announced a new USB 2.0 compatible audio interface that offers 10 in/10 out 24/96 full duplex recording! It's called the UA-1000, and the "photos" on the websites are obviously mockups, but it looks like USB will finally be giving Firewire some competition.
PCI based A/D converters - 4 to 8 tracks $440 - $800
With the exeption of the Echo Mona, these cards are PCI based and can only work on a desktop/tower computer with available PCI slots. This increases the number of tracks available. The Echo Mona is also a PCI based product, but Echo has recently released a PCMCIA adapter for laptop use.
- Digidesign Digi001
The most obvious is the Digi001. Introduced a few years ago, this box probably set the standard for home audio. While people complain that it's Mic Pre's aren't the greatest, nor are it's A/D converters, for under $700 you get 8 inputs and 8 outputs and 2 of the inputs have preamps for mic or instrument input. Combined with an external mixer, this is enough to record your whole band. Lastly, it offers MIDI support to plug in your keyboard. What really pushes this box over the top is the inclusion of the ProTools LE software, so you're recording right out of the box on one of the most popular and easy to use DAW's on the market. You can't use it with a laptop (though some strange PCI to laptop contraptions exist), and it's limited to 2 in and 2 out with other software. Also be sure it has the drivers for you're looking for. It doesn't support Windows 2000 at all, for example.
- Echo Mona (discontinued)
Another good option is the discontinued Echo Mona. Offering 4 channels if input with mic pre's and up to 24/96khz, this is a great tool. Plus, Echo introduced a laptop PCMCIA adapter for their line. Echo also offers other products in this area, the Layla (8 in, 8 out, no mic pre's) for example, if you have your own mixer or mic pre's. A friend of mine uses this for recording vocals (he has a mic pre as well) and getting 8 tracks in from his MPC-4000. You can find the Mona on eBay for around $600-700.
- M-Audio OmniStudio
This seems to be M-Audio's answer to the Digi001. It offers, as far as I can tell, 6 channels of audio, 2 with mic pre's and instrument inputs, and one effects send per channel, which is odd for an A/D converter. It also offers 2 headphone outs, which should be handy if you're tracking more than one musician, or if you're monitoring in the same room as the singer and don't want the monitors to bleed into the mic. $440.
Here is a review of the Audiophile 24/96 card.
- Edirol DA-2496 8x8
The company that pioneered USB Audio has decided to offer a PCI based version of it's hardware. It seems to be a feature-for-feature match to the Digi001. $535.
- RME Hammerfall / ADI series
RME has be recommended to me time and time again as a high quality sound card and A/D converter (hammerfall and ADI respectively). Plus, the ADI-8 series can be added to something such as the Digi001 for high quality A/D conversion.
- Aardvark DirectPro 24/96
This is an interesting looking option. A 4 in/6 out PCI interface with 4 mic preamps, MIDI, SPDIF, built in effects & a headphone out. It comes bundled with Cakewalk Pro Audio 9.
- Aardvark DirectPro Q10
Aardvark's flagship product, this unit has it all. 8 inputs have XLR & 1/4" inputs all with Mic Pre's via Neutrix connectors, the last two are specially designed for guitar or bass. Aardvark's A/D converters are among the best, and it's DSP based, meaning the mixer won't slow down your computer. Add MIDI and Cakewalk software all for around $800. This product merits serious consideration.
The Q10 is possibly the first product that will let you record an entire live band using a single 1U rackmount box and soundcard combination, without employing loads of other gear, except perhaps a compressor/limiter or two. For those who want a compact setup without sacrificing their options or compromising on audio quality, the Q10 should prove ideal. - from a review in Sound on Sound, I couldn't have said it better myself.
Firewire based A/D Converters ($700 - $1600)
Geared, obviously, towards Mac users, Firewire allows for an extremely high transfer rate over a skinny little wire. Expect PC support to be somewhat less than Mac support.
MOTU 828 / 896
I had originally planned on purchasing a Mac for audio. I didn't want to spend forever configuring, but once I started pricing audio computers, I decided to go PC. While the MOTU converts will work on a PC, there isn't as much support as for the Mac, and I was looking at Digital Performer, MOTU's audio software, as well, which is only out for the Mac.
While I was looking at Mac's, I was looking at MOTU. The 828 ($700) offers 8 analog inputs, 2 of which have mic pre's and instrument inputs. The 896 ($1250) offers 8 analog inputs, all of which have mic pre's. Multiple 828's and 896's can be chained together more options and more simultaneous tracks. It also comes with Audiodesk software for the Mac, which is upgradable to their Digital Performer software.
Metric Halo Mobile I/O
Offering 4 channels with Mic Pre's and 4 instrument/line level inputs for a total of 8 inputs, the Metric Halo Mobile I/O has been garnering quite a few accolades. Aimed at the portable audio market, the Mobile I/O is about the size of a laptop. No PC drivers as of December 9, 2002.
What to Get?
It all seems to revolve around how many inputs and how many Mic Pre's. For just a couple, USB audio is cheap and portable. For more, PCI seems to be the way to go. Firewire is a great option, especially on a Mac.
Also, you sacrifice money for quality. The cheaper the equipment, especially compared to hardware with the same features, tends to be lower quality. Digidesign is the exception, due to the bundling of the ProTools software, it tends to be more expensive than comparable equipment, even if the other stuff is higher quality. Also, a truly pro setup will want external mic pre's and probably an external board, which will have it's own mic pre's.
I don't know if latency is an issue with USB, I've heard the M-Box has 56 milliseconds of roundtrip latency (23 D to A and 23 A to D), but the Digi001 is capable of 5ms roundtrip. I also heard the M-Audio Duo is capable of approx. 4ms one way. Talk to people who use the hardware you're interested in, message boards & Yahoo! Groups seem to be great places to find user communities.
If you have more money than time, then buy the best you can afford that fits your needs. If you have more time than money, do some research and it'll pay off.
On January 15, 2003, David Lemire sent to me:
In the category of MIDI plus audio interfaces over USB, I'm looking seriously at the Tascam US-428 and at the Edirol UA700. The former offers a nice control surface, the latter offers COSM models for microphones and guitar amplifiers. Decisions, decisions. :-) These push the "inexpensive" qualifier a bit, since they're each about $500, but they appear to offer a lot of bang for the buck.
My notes: If you already have a MIDI keyboard you love, it certainly makes sense to buy something like this.
In ran across this lengthy & technical post on Low Latency on January 26, 2003.
- Echo Audio
- Aardvark Audio
- RME Audio
- Metric Halo
- Comparison of the Edirol UA-5, M-Audio Duo, Apogee Mini-Me and Sound Devices USBpre 1.5
- Yahoo! Groups
Miscelaneous other sound cards I've seen mentioned
- Digigram has a PC card for your laptop capable of 4in/4out
- David Lemire wrote in alt.music.4-track:
There's a list of the USB converters available at AudioMIDI.com at http://www.audiomidi.com/hardware/audio_usb.cfm There's a pretty large spectrum of price and features.
- Sound Devices
Some Links to Articles that Test Various Sound Cards
- RightMark Audio Analyzer Test Results
- PCAVTECH Sound Card Technical Benchmark Test Ratings Comparison
page first created on Sunday, December 08, 2002
© Mark Wieczorek