Digital Audio Interface Guide

audio interfaces

Digital Audio Interface

The Digital Audio Interface is one of the most important part of your music recording setup, and a must if you want to record acoustics and vocals.

When you are thinking of setting up a computer based recording studio, how do you get the sounds in from various sources, and out of your computer to the various equipment?

This is where an audio interface comes into picture!

Every computer does have a sound card built in it for audio purposes, but you need to bear in mind that this is not designed for any audio or music production. That is the reason it is best to invest a decent audio interface.

With this equipment you can input and output sounds, into and out of the computer.You can get them as cheap as one fifty dollars and can go up to thousands of dollars.

Components that Affect Performance

Drivers and DACs are the two components that have a major impact on the performance of your soundcards.

The better the quality of these two things, the better the sound is going to be. These are one of the important reasons because of which the professional soundcards cost more than consumer soundcards.

Drivers are the software components that allow audio computer programs to talk to your soundcard; they come along with the card.

The drivers basically manage the traffic of data between the CPU, DAC and the audio application as and when it is needed.

DACs are converters that are physically present on the soundcard. The converters job is to read the incoming analog waveform and transform it into digital data. This important process is known as sampling and it determines the quality of your recorded sound.

Once the digital data is on your computer, it is very easy to manipulate it in different ways and store it on your computer.

Limitations of Consumer Soundcards

Almost all computer motherboards have microphone and speaker jack built into them so that you can take inputs from a microphone or output the sound to speaker/headphones.

But the problem is that these are good for regular use but are of very low quality to be used for music production.

These are available by default on any computer but if you are serious about music recording, you will have to buy a dedicated soundcard.

With a brief background on the internals of a soundcard, you will agree that although most of the consumer soundcards that comes built-in with your computer can be used for audio playback and recording, these soundcards are not meant to be used for music production.

Some of the limitations of a consumer sound card include:

  • High latency (delay in the reproduction of sound, between initiating a sound and hearing it)

  • General sound quality is not great

  • Low sampling rates (recording quality is poor)

  • The drivers may not work with most of the audio recording software applications

  • No MIDI port. You cannot connect external keyboards/synths

  • It is intended for home and office entertainment use. The emphasis is more on playback and casual use

  • Soundcard vs. Audio interface

    A sound card is a hardware that lets you record and playback audio. It sits inside the computer in a PCI slot and you connect all the cables at the back of this card.

    Professional soundcards, also known as Audio interfaces, on the other hand has a box that sits outside the PC and a cable that is connected to the PC, either to the PCI card or to the USB/Firewire slot depending on the type of the interface.

    The breakout box contains slots for all the input and output audio/midi connections.

    Types of Soundcards

    Audio interfaces are available in three types, depending on the way it gets connected to the computer:

    1. PCI Based
    2. They are inserted into one of the PCI slots inside the computer. You will need to install the soundcard drivers with this type.

    3. USB Interface
    4. They connect to a USB port in the computer.

    5. Firewire
    6. The external soundcard plugs into a firewire port in the computer.

    What does Audio Interface Do?

    A bit of theory here! Soundcards (audio interfaces) have what is called an AD/DA converter built into them.

    They convert Analog to Digital, to get the sound into the computer that you can process with effects.
    And, they convert the Digital to Analog, to get the sound from the computer to the monitor.

    These take inputs form various instruments such as guitar or from mics and convert that audio signal, which is in the analogue format, into a digital format which the computer can process. On the other side, it sends out the sounds to the speakers so that you can monitor what you have produced.

    So the advantage of having aan audio interface over a built-in sound-card are these converters, Analog to Digital, and Digital to Analog, which are much better in these audio interfaces. The result is that you get a very good sounding mix that is far more accurate.


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    Latency

    For best experience, latency should be as low as possible. And what is Latency?

    The time it takes the AD/DA converter to get the sound from the device to the computer, and then back to the monitor, is called latency.

    The best digital audio interfaces will have the shortest latency time.



    Connecting your Sound Card

    So how do you connect the soundcard to your computer? It can be done in either of these ways – PCI Interface, USB, Cardbus or Firewire.

    Out of these, only the PCI interface goes inside the computer, into the PCI slot. All the earlier soundcards used to be available only in this type and these soundcards can only be used with desktops.

    The other interfaces are external in the sense that the main box stays outside and a cable connects the box to the computer.

    Of all the external interfaces, the firewire interfaces are getting good reviews and are known to give good performances. It gets connected to the firewire port and can be used with laptops as well as desktop. They are very easy to connect and they also give you the option of portability.


    Digital Audio Interfaces

    To Conclude

    Regardless of whether you’re working on a small project, or an amateur musician, or a pro, you’re going to need this piece of equipment. Most are quite easy-to-use and also come with preamps. Having good preamps in the audio interface means all your microphones will sound great, and you don’t even have to buy an external one. A good audio interface means you’ll hear things very clearly in your music, and the latency is going to be close to minimal. If you are serious about creating music, may be for film or TV, or if you are a popular DJ who plays across all genres of music, then a Digital Audio Interface is a must in your setup.

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