Sound Cards

Question for all. What do you think? Does the brand of the PC sound card make a difference in the quality of your recordings? If so, which brand and model do you recomend?

I don’t know that you can get a meaningful answer because on a PC, there are so many variables. They warn you that placement of the sound card is critical to avoid interaction between the computer components and the analog audio components, so isolation from electrical garbage needs to be part of the spec. Cool, now which one of the inputs and outputs would you like to rate? Modern audio cards have multiple channels and options.

People stopped posting the electrical specification a long time ago because nobody cared that the noise spec on the microphone channel was -40dB.


Right. That’s actually a terrible number, but how many people know that? Or care?

Oh, but having multiple digital inputs and outputs is a big deal as is supporting at least 36 channels of surround sound, Most of which I guarantee you’ll never use.

But I do have numbers. The first two or three SoundBlaster products had one thing going for them. They worked and almost nobody else’s did. SoundBlaster designed the original ring/tip/sleeve microphone power system, etc. Audio, however sucked. I was shocked when I got my first modern Blaster card and the sound didn’t suck. It was actually pretty good. I’m still using one of those cards on one machine to record live performances.

Then we got sloppy. We got a series of sound cards in the last year or so, that have “audio inputs” and we can’t tell exactly how they’re supposed to work. Do they supply battery for a microphone? Are they stereo? Nobody knows. We do know they scrambled the carefully constructed Blaster color scheme. Sorry, the pink connector isn’t the microphone any more.

So if you can look on the outside of the box and the maker even admits that the card will handle analog audio, that’s probably as good as you’re going to get. Recommendations are going to be of the Good or Bad class, good being the board kept working all the way through a project. Bad being it didn’t.

You will be able to collect failure stories. But again, keep in mind who’s telling the story and to be valid, you need to get the same story from multiple people.

Good luck.

Oh, and since I’m tri-lingual, I can tell you that modern Macs have one stereo line in and one stereo line out, digital and analog (in the same connector) and they work exactly correctly–as near as I can tell, on any Mac, deskside or portable.

Meanwhile over on the Linux machines, nobody understands what’s going on with sound. Ever. Try to get somebody to explain KMix to you. (ROFL)


The sound card you’re using will make a difference. How big a difference depends on what two sound cards you’re comparing.

I use an M-Audio Delta 1010LT. It’s a very nice card for the home studio, but it’s got more i/o than most people need.

In the affordable card market (cards costing less than ~$100), it can be hard to tell how good the recording will be. The overriding factor in the cost of those cards is the i/o and name brand. Recording quality isn’t something they focus on, so they slap something together for the input channels (usually only 2) in order to give you 8 channels of decent sounding output.

If you’re serious about recording, look at companies like M-Audio, Echo, E-mu, and RME. Or just go to the Sam Ash website and poke around in the Computer Recording section, just about everything you find there will be better than a Creative card (and certainly better than a motherboard sound device).

I don’t agree. I know that specs. aren’t everything, but this card sounds great.

Audigy 2 Platinum EX

• A-D & D-A converters: 24-bit Delta-Sigma, using CS4382 chip.
• MME-WDM playback: up to 24-bit at 8, 11, 16, 22, 32, 44.1, 48 and 96 kHz (192kHz only currently available for DVD-Audio playback).
• MME-WDM recording: 8, 16 or 24-bit, at sampling rates of 8, 11, 16, 22, 24, 32, 44.1, 48 or 96 kHz.
• ASIO recording/playback: 16-bit/48kHz or 24-bit/96kHz (choice of two drivers)
• S/PDIF input: up to 24-bit/96kHz.
• S/PDIF output: up to 24-bit at 44.1 (stereo only), 48 or 96 kHz.
• Signal-to-noise ratio: 100dBA (line in and out), 106dBA (digital playback).
• Frequency response: -1dB at 10Hz and 44kHz at 96kHz sample rate.
• THD+noise: 0.004%.
• Internal and effects path: 32-bit.

and for a second-hand price of less than $10, my SoundBlaster Live Value does a very decent job (however the “rear speaker” output is better quality than the “front speaker” output, so with a Creative EMU10K1 card it’s best to configure the soundcard to use the rear speaker output as the default - easiest to do when using the KX drivers rather than the standard Creative drivers).

No doubt that Creative’s cards are useful. But I stand by my statement that they can’t stand up to anything that Sam Ash will sell you.

I’ll throw sound quality out the window since I don’t have a way to compare. You’re right that those numbers don’t have a whole lot of meaning (especially without telling you anything about how accurate the clock is).

The problem is that they’re more limited than a card designed primarily with recording in mind. You’ll have limited i/o options, you’ll have more latency, and the clocks aren’t rock solid like they should be (take a look at all the problems people have with recordings getting out of sync with the playback, IIRC they’re all Creative cards). Creative has also had a bad reputation for drivers for years, but I’m not sure if that’s still deserved.

I’m not trying to suggest that Creative’s cards are worthless, they have excellent playback and are a fantastic deal for average computer users. But I can’t recommend them for people doing multi-track recording.

I’ve used quite a few Creative cards over the years, and never had any clock problems. The most demanding project my first Creative card (an AWE32) had to deal with was a 25 minute composition with 18 audio tracks and about 30 midi tracks - I’m not sure if that was the limit for what the card could handle, but it was certainly the limit for my old PC, but everything stayed perfectly in time and the only “creative” problems I had were those of a composer, not of a technician.

The old Creative drivers were pants for musicians, but for EMU10K1 and EMU10K2 based cards, the KX drivers provide tremendous flexibility (possibly too complicated for the average user that just wants to play music, but superb for musicians).

Sure you will get a lot of problems from users with Creative cards, there’s a heck of a lot of users that have Creative cards. There’s also a lot of problems from people with RealTek cards, but without knowing all the numbers you can’t derive any accurate statistical conclusions.

M-Audio cards have a good reputation for music, as do many other “music” cards, but even cheap old Creative cards are capable of producing very good work. At work we have just bought a new Digidesign system with ProTools - it’s an awesome piece of kit, but just because I can’t afford to buy one for myself isn’t going to stop me from being creative and enjoying the vast scope of what I can do with the kit that I’ve got.

A couple of old sayings that offer the flip sides of the argument:
“You get what you pay for”
“It’s not what you’ve got that counts, but how you use it”

I’ve got an M-Audio 1010LT card which I use for recording.

However, the computer I built for this purpose is my my jam/practice room, which is not the most comfortable place to work long term for signficant editing/mixing etc.

I plan on buying a pair of near field monitors , and using them with my main PC to edit/mix songs. (leaning towards M-Audio StudioPro 3)

That PC uses it’s on-board (ASUS P4C800) soundcard, which probably isn’t good enough for what I’m trying to do.

I’m looking for a low-cost soundcard that will give me decent stereo outputs. I don’t care about multi-channel or inputs, and my other computer has that covered.

Or… alternatively, should I get a USB near field monitor such as the “Alesis M1Active 320”

Can’t you use that for playback, or are you looking for another soundcard for another computer?

M-Audio have a name for making decent low cost soundcards, but I think you’ll find the “M-Audio StudioPro 3” monitors rather light on the bass. Even acoustic guitars produce frequencies below 100 Hz (according to the spec. the -3 dB point for these speakers), so you could have all kinds of rumbles and thumps going on in your recordings and not be aware of them (until you play the CD on your hi-fi).

Even with a cheap SBLive card those speakers would be the weak link in the system.

The ASUS P4C800 should do fine - I’ve got one and for audio it handles everything I throw at it (although I have got fast ram and a raid drive in it).

The Alesis M1Active 320 will sound better at the bottom end, but that’s because they use “bass boost” at 100Hz - this is not good for monitoring, you want speakers that are accurate for monitoring. Personally I’m not a fan of USB audio, a PCI sound card is tried and tested technology and it works.

Active speakers are convenient, especially if you are tight for space, and generally give good performance for the price. If your budget will stretch to it I’d recommend Behringer TRUTH B2031A which can sometimes be found with a heavily discounted price.

Yes… the 1010LT is on a computer in my practice/jam room… which is not the most convienient/comfortable place to sit down for a long period of editing.

I want to set up my main PC to edit/mix projects.

I was refering to the built-in sound card probably not being good enough.

The “bass boost” is switchable… they go down to 80 Hz… do you think with the “bass boost” turned off, that they still wouldn’t be flat enough, or go down deep enough?

I get where you’re coming from… that’s why I got the 1010LT… but considering I would only be using this for playback, and that this would eliminate my presumed need to upgrade to a soundcard better than the ASUS on-board one… would that reduce most of your hesitations on USB audio in this case?

I suspect that the The Alesis M1Active 320 will be bass light with the boost switched off. I’m guessing that that is why they have built in the bass boost. I have a pair of Tannoy Reveal monitors at home which go down to 65 Hz, and I find that they are still a little on the light side (very nice top and mid though). The Truth B3021A’s are a lot better at the bottom, although they start “puffing” if you try to drive them too hard. (and I’m not recording drum and bass, or dub reggae).

I don’t tend to use the on-board sound on my ASUS as I have a multi-channel sound card in it, but from what I remember the playback quality was not bad at all, so if you can manage without a new sound card you can put the saved cash toward better speakers.

The “ESI NEAR 05” monitors seem popular and may be worth considering, although I’ve not tried them myself. They’re still a fair bit more expensive than the Alesis monitors, but a lot cheaper than the Behringers.

[Edit] just found this thread that you may find of interest: