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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Next: DAW Software: The Heart of your Home Studio

Mentioned Links

Miscelaneous other sound cards I've seen mentioned

Some Links to Articles that Test Various Sound Cards

page first created on Sunday, December 08, 2002

© Mark Wieczorek