I remember when I first got my audio interface. There were a lot of buttons, controls, and words that I didn’t really understand the meaning of. It took me some time to get to grips with some of the more technical terms that come with the territory.
You’re here because you’re wondering about sound cards. What even is a sound card? Is an audio interface a sound card? Ah yes, I remember the confusion. Well, don’t worry in this article I’m going to answer all of your questions, go into detail about how they work, and discuss if you need to buy a separate one or not.
Is an Audio Interface a Sound Card?
Audio interfaces have built-in sound cards. So, yes, an audio interface is a sound card among many other things. An audio interface’s sound card will also be much better at processing audio than your computers. That’s because audio interfaces are specifically designed for audio production purposes.
What is a Sound Card?
A sound card can also be referred to as an audio card, sound board, or audio output device. Its job is to output audio coming from your computer, so you can listen to sound through the speakers or headphone jack. It also allows you to input audio into your computer, for example if you want to connect and record a mic.
All computers, phones, and tablets come with inbuilt sound cards. You may be wondering then, why do I need an external sound card? That’s a great question. To answer that, you first need to know the important jobs they carry out.
What Does a Sound Card Do?
ADC and DAC. Say, what? Ok, I’ll be more specific, but just because I’m nice. Any sound card must do Analog-to-Digital Conversion and Digital-to-Analog Conversion.
ADC is when a sound card takes a real-life signal like a singer’s voice going into a microphone and converts it to digital one. For example, an audio file which is stored in your audio software (DAW).
DAC happens when a sound card converts a digital signal (like a wav or mp3 file) into an analog one, like the sound coming from your speakers or headphones.
A digital signal is one that contains data in the form of binary (1s and 0s). An analog signal is a real life one, continuous, time-varying and measurable.
Ok, so why is this important to know? Well, an audio interface’s analog-to-digital converters and digital-to-analog converters are significantly better than your computers. They’re more accurate and faster. Resulting in higher quality audio with reduced audio latency.
Why? Well, simply put, audio interfaces are designed specifically for professional audio, whereas generic computers just have to do the bare minimum of audio tasks. Are there any other differences?
Audio Interface vs Sound Card
Apart from having better analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters, audio interfaces are advantageous in a number of other ways.
Having dedicated audio drivers means audio can be processed much more efficiently than if your computer was trying to do it alone. Be kind, help your computer out. They do a lot for us.
Higher Samples Rates and Bit Depths
Moving onto some of the more technical definitions now, bear with me. Audio interfaces give you the option to record at sample rates and bit depths much higher than your computer would.
Sample rate refers to how many samples are being recorded per second. Higher samples rates capture more data, which leads to better audio quality.
Think of bit depth like resolution. The higher the bit depth, the higher the audio resolution, allowing you to record more detail. Win win. You can read more about this in my article ‘Does an Audio Interface Improve Sound Quality?’.
Preamps have a very important job to do. They amplify weak signals, turning them up loud enough to the appropriate level for recording. Without a preamp, the signal from your microphone or instrument would be far too quiet.
The preamps in audio interfaces are much more powerful than those in your computer, which would not be adequate enough to amplify instruments and microphones.
Speaking of microphones, condenser microphones require more power than dynamic microphones. To be precise, they need 48V which we call phantom power. Most audio interfaces have the option of turning on phantom power, all you have to do is press a button. Computers on the other hand can not provide 48 volts.
A Variety of Inputs and Outputs
With a computer alone you’re seriously limited with what you can connect. However, an audio interface has inputs and outputs galore. This of course depends on the size of the interface, but this includes being able to connect microphones, instruments, headphones, studio monitors, and other external gear.
External gear can include compressors, limiters, effect units, tape machines, and even another audio interface, expanding your I/O configuration. Audio interfaces are extremely versatile when it comes to inputs and outputs.
Extra lights and Controls
Audio interfaces host a range knobs, buttons, and controls to boost or reduce the gain of instruments/microphones, and turn up or down the volume levels for monitoring purposes. Many also feature lights so you can monitor input levels and see which settings are engaged.
More advance and expensive audio interfaces like the Universal Audio Apollo even have programable buttons, wheels, and touch controls, creating a custom user interface to improve your workflow.
Audio Interfaces Provide Optimal Audio Performance
As you can see, an audio interface is extensively more versatile and adequate than an inbuilt sound card for audio production purposes. Not only are they a sound card, they have a number of physical components designed for optimal audio performance in mind.
If you want to record professional sounding audio or music, then buying an audio interface is your best bet. If you need help deciding, I’ve put a list together of ‘The Best Audio Interfaces for Every budget’. Feel free to take a look and please comment down below if you have any questions.