In this day and age, figuring out what technical gear you need for music production can be complicated. When I first started making music and producing, I didn’t know if I would need a soundcard. I started using a computer with a soundcard but soon was faced with some audio problems when I was recording. This article is here to help you figure out if you need a soundcard for music production and answer any other questions you might have.
Do I need a soundcard for music production? No, you don’t need a soundcard for music production. Instead, what you need is an audio interface. PCI Soundcards are not ideal for music production, as they don’t output as much of an accurate sound as an audio interface would and there’s more likely to have latency problems.
Soundcards for music production are more or less obsolete. They can be but used you might experience latency problems when you're recording and mixing your music. Audio interfaces offer so much more functionality than a basic soundcard on a computer and you get both an accurate and high-quality input and output of audio.
Why use a Audio Interface and Not a Soundcard?
It all comes down to accuracy. An audio interface is extremely accurate in terms of outputting audio.
As a music producer, it’s imperative to know exactly what you’re hearing in its truest form in order to create a good sounding mix that sounds great through headphones, on car stereos, etc.
Soundcards may work for casual gaming audio or watching movies, where you might not need a very accurate sound quality. In the case of making music, soundcards just aren’t powerful enough to output an accurate audio representation, and you might end up tweaking your mix too much to compensate for what you’re hearing.
Some soundcards have boosted bass, for example, which could cause you to mix the bass of a song way too low to make up for all the bass that you’re hearing through your soundcard, and then when you listen to the song on a different computer or in the car, you can tell that the bass is actually mixed too low.
An audio interface also provides much lower latency (or virtually no latency at all). Latency is essentially a delay between your computer playing the audio and it coming out of your speakers or headphones.
Latency can be a problem with soundcards because a computer’s soundcard might not have the processing power that your audio needs in order to be played. An audio interface has much more power, and therefore lower latency. More power also means there’s little to no chance of anything crashing during the production process.
Audio interfaces are also better because they bypass plenty of electrical components in your computer that could cause a buzzing sound while recording. An audio interface is basically an external soundcard with a lot more power, and it being external means that your audio doesn’t have to use the computer’s internal power supply, which prevents feedback and buzzing sounds which are due to interferences caused by the electromagnetic field.
How Will an Audio Interface Affect My Computer Compared to a Soundcard?
You might be wondering how much of a difference there is between an audio interface and a soundcard in terms of how they work with your computer. If so, it’s simple.
An audio interface will allow your computer to run much smoother than a soundcard will. Because your soundcard is now external, your computer won’t have to work so hard to process audio, and your CPU can now go towards powering your DAW and various mixing plugins. Your computer still uses power to fuel your audio interface, just much less than if you’d be using a soundcard.
If a soundcard is trying to process more audio than it can handle, it often crashes, which then in turn probably would cause you to restart your DAW or even your computer as a whole.
With an audio interface, you don’t have to worry about things crashing, audio cutting out randomly, latency messing you up while you record, or your DAW closing unexpectedly without you being able to save your work. Using an audio interface as opposed to a soundcard will make your computer faster in general when working with audio, even if you’re not using a DAW.
All this being said, it’s still a good idea to make sure your computer is equipped with a good processor, mainly to handle the CPU and RAM data that it takes to run your DAW and all the plugins on your tracks. Even though audio interfaces are external, they still work hand in hand with your DAW, so if your computer’s processor isn’t powerful enough, it might not work smoothly when connecting to your audio interface.
I’ve had some of these problems in the past when using a Mac desktop computer’s built-in speakers as opposed to an audio interface, and upon switching between the built-in speakers and the interface, my DAW has crashed because the computer didn’t have enough processing power.
What Should I Look for When Buying an Audio Interface?
When you’re looking to choose an audio interface to buy, the one you choose really depends on your specific needs. Will you be recording vocals or instruments, or do you just need an interface for getting an accurate idea of what your mix sounds like? How many instrument cables and microphones will you be using? Will you be recording instruments and/or vocalists individually, or all at the same time? Will you be mixing exclusively on headphones, monitors, or using a bit of both?
Some interfaces have many inputs, some only have a few, and it’s the same with outputs. Look for an interface that has enough inputs for your needs, and maybe even a few more to be safe, since this can slow down the recording process if you don’t have enough inputs.
Some audio interfaces only have inputs for XLR cables, and others only have inputs for instrument cables. Some have both. Make sure you know what types of cables you’ll be using to record with.
Audio interfaces also sometimes have MIDI inputs and outputs, so if you’ll be using a MIDI keyboard or other MIDI device, your device should be compatible with an audio interface.
As for outputs, if you have stereo monitors, most audio interfaces will have outputs for stereo monitors, as well as a headphone output. Some interfaces have balanced outputs and others have unbalanced outputs that you’d need to use RCA cables with, so keep that in mind and double check to make sure your speakers will be compatible.
Usually audio interfaces are powered by USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt, but if you’ll be using a lot of inputs at the same time or you’re using monitors that require a lot of power, you will likely need one that can be powered by an AC adapter, as USB limits the amount of power that your audio interface uses. Occasionally, if you’re using an AC adapter for power, ground issues could happen, but the chances of it actually happening are extremely low. Either way, this is a good thing to keep in mind.
What are Some Good Audio Interfaces to Consider?
Again, this is dependent on your needs and how much money you’re willing to spend, but here are a few great brands and models to check out so you don’t have to spend hours looking for the right brand.
For starters, if you don’t want to spend a ton of money and need something that works really well, I suggest anything from Focusrite. They have several different models of interfaces that have various outputs and inputs.
Their Scarlett Solo model is the most basic one, with two inputs (one for a mic and the other for an instrument) and phantom power for the microphone. From there, they go all the way up to the 18i20, which has 18 inputs, 20 outputs (10 of which are analog outputs), and 8 preamps.
All the models are pretty affordable and I can attest to how great they sound, as I have used Scarlett interfaces in my own work.
If you want something even cheaper than Focusrite’s models, check out Behringer. The Behringer U-PHORIA UM2 is a two input, two output audio interface that is super cheap but it works well if you’re not going to be using it extensively.
They’ve got an 18 input, 20 output model called the U-PHORIA UMC1820 and the sound quality is comparable to that of the Focusrite Scarlett interfaces.
If you want something very high-end, Universal Audio has some amazing options that are incredibly powerful. Their simplest model is the Arrow, with two inputs (both are XLR and instrument cable compatible), and four outputs. It also offers a low cut filter, a dB pad, and phantom power.
Their most complex model Universal Audio offers is the Apollo x16, which has 18 inputs, and 20 outputs (16 of those being analog inputs/outputs), with surround sound monitoring capability. It has incredibly low noise, and even features a talkback microphone on the front of the unit.
How Much Will a Soundcard Affect My Mixes if I Use One?
How much a soundcard affects your audio (and thus the quality of the music you produce) depends on what soundcard you have. Simply put, the lower the quality of the soundcard you have is, the worse your mixes will sound.
Some desktop soundcards are okay, but at the end of the day, nothing really beats an audio interface. An internal soundcard is not ideal for producing music by any means, but if you don’t care about speed, processing power, latency, recording quality, or output audio quality, then you don’t really need to use an audio interface.
So, if you have a very low-quality soundcard, it’ll probably give off a fair amount of latency and likely outputs some sort of colored audio or reduced quality of audio. If you’re using an audiophile soundcard (which I don’t advise), there’s a greater chance of it having some sort of audio coloration (like boosted bass), which is just as bad as having a low-quality audio output.
Even if you have a higher quality desktop soundcard, it still likely won’t have as accurate of an output as an audio interface.
An additional example aside from the one used earlier, your soundcard may make high frequencies sound harsh or tinny.
You may end up EQing them so that they’re not as harsh, and then while listening to your final mix on a different computer or through an audio interface, you find that it sounds dark, muddy, or unclear, as opposed to the bright, clean, crisp sound that you might’ve originally been aiming for.
When recording, you might get a noisy signal that you can’t get rid of with a noise gate; this is also caused by a bad signal chain, and you might get the same thing when listening to the output as well. More often than not, when using headphones plugged straight into a computer, there is a faint buzzing in the background, which is caused by the soundcard being unable to cut out interference from the electromagnetic field.
Are soundcards and audio interfaces synonymous? Yes and no. A soundcard is internal and produces lower quality audio. An audio interface is an external soundcard that offers a lot more versatility, with multiple outputs, various inputs, and features like phantom power, which plugging into the microphone input on your computer does not offer.
Can I use a soundcard and audio interface at the same time? Yes. If you prefer to use the audio interface to record and use your computer’s speakers to listen to audio as it comes out, you should be able to do this just fine. Some DAWs, like FL Studio, don’t allow it unless you have certain additional drivers for your soundcard, such as ASIO.
What is the difference between Firewire, USB, and Thunderbolt? The difference between Firewire, USB, and Thunderbolt is speed. USB handles audio and visual data the slowest out of them all, with Firewire coming in second, and Thunderbolt being the fastest of all of them. USB is slowly becoming defunct and more computer manufacturers are turning to Thunderbolt.