Complete Buyers Guide
- 1 What to Look For in Best Sound Cards For Music Production?
- 2 Audio Interface Product Reviews
- 3 CONCLUSION
What to Look For in Best Sound Cards For Music Production?
Sound card is the music producer’s best friend: it helps in processing incoming and outgoing audio signal, connects band or DJ into the software world and gives an ability to use professional quality studio monitors.
Our selection of Best sound cards for music production include the best for various applications such as professional use, mobile and DJ use as well as beginner use, offering the best value for the money.
For DJ’s – Novation Audiohub 2×4
For beginners – Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 2nd Gen
For professionals – Antelope Audio Discrete 8
Before talking about how the sound ends up inside the computer, we must first understand what sound is in the first place: sound is vibration or oscillation that a sound source creates in the physical medium that surrounds it – in our case this medium is air.
Oscillation creates small changes the surrounding air pressure and these changes can be measured using a microphone, which reacts to the incoming sound and interprets the air pressure changes into changes in electric current.
At this point the boring acoustic band becomes electroacoustic, the sound guy kicks in, amplifies and modifies these signals in his mixer, feeds the summed signal to speakers, which transforms the electric current back to sound pressure – and the crowd goes bonkers.
The computer world adds yet another step to this process: sound is then digitized by special hardware in a process called sampling, where the incoming electric signal is translated into digital information, which can be then saved and manipulated using a computer.
This special hardware can be called sound card or sound chip and it can be integrated to a motherboard inside a computer, installed as expansion card or attached into computer as an external hardware unit.
In all simplicity – sound card handles the analog-to-digital digital-to-analog conversion processes and offers connectivity required for bringing sound in and out of the computer.
Additionally, a sound card can include preamps for microphone use, optical or coaxial digital connections and MIDI-connectivity.
Some solutions can also include word clock connections, DSP-based mixing and effects, as well as dedicated hardware controls.
It’s All About The Components
AD-DA conversion is the single most important function of the sound card, and this is handled by a special converter.
Technically this means that if the conversion is bad, the sound quality deteriorates and although these changes can be minute, they might become audible after processing and summing takes place inside the computer software.
This is especially true if the signal is sampled at a low sample rate or if there is some amount of noise included in the signal.
This is why, instead of just looking at the microphone and cable quality, it’s important to have a specialized sound card, that can manage these tasks reliably.
The Good, Bad And The Ugly Features
So what exactly makes a good sound card beyond AD-DA conversion?
This question has multiple equally good answers, depending on what is required from the sound card.
Let me explain.
Good, clean inputs are required if you’re recording a lot of external signals, such as hardware synths or acoustic instruments.
An excellent signal-to-noise ratio ensures you are able to mix multiple audio tracks without adding a lot of noise to the summed signal.
It’s easy to imagine this when recording drums, since even the minimal microphone setup typically involves using at least 4 microphones.
Multiple high quality preamps would be essential in various other situations too, such as recording a choir, multi-channel ambience or any other recording task that requires using multiple condenser microphones.
A great deal of users require portability these days.
A simple and easy to carry USB-powered box with couple of ins and outs as well as dedicated headphone connection would be essential for both DJ’s and gigging musicians.
Low latency features are widely adopted these days but it’s good to keep this in mind, when looking for sound card specifically for playing live.
Last (but not least) is the sample rate that the sound card is able to capture and playback audio.
Although most sound cards are able to handle at least 24-bit 48kHz conversions, there are some applications that require using much higher sample rates, such as high resolution audio offered in Blu-ray, which can go up to 24-bit 192kHz.
High sample rate would be desirable, when recording material for these kind of specific purposes.
Audio Interface Product Reviews
1) Novation AudioHub 2×4 – Best sound card for DJ’s
The AudioHub 2×4 features 2 RCA line inputs with selectable gain switch, 2 TRS balanced jack outputs and 4 unbalanced RCA outputs.
Separate headphone socket features an output select switch and you will find 3 USB type A sockets for connecting USB devices.
The top panel has 2 volume controllers for outputs 1&2 and 3&4, a separate headphone volume control as well as indicator LED’s showing input and output activity as well as USB ports in use.
Portability and the ultra low latency performance is where AudioBus 2×4 shines. 24-bit 96kHz capable converters are provided by Focusrite, which means the audio quality is spot on.
The build quality is also rugged enough for the unit to be thrown into backpack and to the road. Unit features surprisingly loud outputs and the RCA input accepts phono for connecting a LP player.
The built-in USB hub is a welcome addition, especially when connecting with USB keyboards, other controllers and even an iPad (although not supporting charging through the port).
The unit can be USB bus powered using type B cable, which connects AudioHub 2×4 to your computer or using a separate power supply, which comes included in the package.
There are no additional MIDI DIN ports on the AudioHub 2×4, which is a minor drawback, but not really a limitation as any USB-MIDI adapter can be easily used. If you wish to connect a microphone or require anything other than unbalanced inputs, you’re out of luck.
Novation AudioHub 2×4 is an excellent budget option for anyone who values simplicity and portability.
AudioHub 2×4 ships with Lite edition of Ableton Live 9.
2) Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 2nd Gen- Best sound card for beginners
The Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 features 2 Scarlett mic preamp equipped mic/line/instrument inputs at front and 2 balanced TRS line level inputs at the back of the unit.
There are further 4 balanced TRS outputs and separate S/PDIF in/out connectors for digital connectivity as well as MIDI din connectors at the back and two dedicated headphone connectors at the front.
Mic preamps are phantom-powered using a separate switch and there are level controls for both as well as main out, and both headphone outputs.
The red and green colored led rings as well as LED’s provide visual feedback for the two main inputs as well as MIDI and USB port status.
Focusrite has clearly thought out the playability of the product providing two separate headphone mixes and a very low latency: the second generation Scarlett unit can reach an impressive below 3 ms latency, which enables seamless playback experience.
Microphone preamps are open and clear sounding, while offering a wide gain range, making it easy to use it with both low and high input devices.
The instrument inputs sound great with guitars and basses.
The converters in this unit are 24-bit 192kHz capable and solid Focusrite quality.
The unit is too small to put in a studio rack but at the same time remains small and rugged enough to be portable, which is great news for taking it on band rehearsals.
Provided MixControl software is easy and intuitive to use and the bundled Focusrite Creative Pack is an impressive addition, offering both ProTools First and Ableton Live Lite 9 DAW software as well as a mouth-watering collection of great plugins provided by Focusrite, Softube and XLN Audio.
The “gain halo” LED indicator rings are beautiful and helpful but should provide a safe gain zone indication before reaching 0dBFS.
Scarlett 6i6 connects to computer via a USB 2.0 port and requires a external PSU, which is included in the package.
Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 2nd Gen currently sets you back $230.56 and is an impressive budget sound card offering solid performance, a well-thought out selection of inputs and outputs as well as great software to get started, making it an excellent choice for small bands and project studios.
3) Antelope Audio Discrete 8 – Best sound card for professionals
Antelope Audio interfaces are targeted at high-end recording studios and alike, and their Discrete 8 offers discrete console-grade Class A mic pres, hardware-level microphone preamp modeling, FPGA effects and Antelope Audio’s clocking technology.
The front panel includes 2 analog combo-inputs and two headphone connectors, while there are 6 further mic/instrument/line inputs, 16 channels of ADAT optical in/outs, S/PDIF coaxial in/out connectors, monitor and reamp line connectors, an 8 channel line out bracket connector, a single word clock input and 3 output connectors as well as a footswitch connector at the back.
Dedicated controls at front handle gain for 8 analog inputs, main output as well as headphone levels, while a three-button operated colour display provides visual feedback.
There is also a separate talk-back button at the front of the interface.
Antelope Audio Discrete 8 is oozing of quality.
The fully discrete mic/line preamps have a very good noise performance of -128 dBU (A-weighted) offering a 121dB dynamic range.
Needless to say, the preamps are very clean and offer a solid sonic performance.
But the real catch of the Discrete 8 becomes in the form of FPGA FX, or chip-based zero latency 3D microphone preamp modeling provided by Accusonic, which is designed to work extremely well with Antelope Audio’s Verge and Edge condenser microphones (not included).
At the time of writing, the modeling is limited to 10 classic amps, 19 modeled EQ’s, speaker/amp emulations, classic valve and FET compressors and a reverb, but the collection will be growing in the future.
The unit offers sample rates up to 24-bit 192kHz.
The clocking options are spot on with sample rate options from 32 kHz all the way to 192kHz.
The provided ConnectAFX plugin can access all of the unit’s settings from inside the DAW.
The line outputs are a little on the light side, providing only +20dBu maximum output and it’s said that the early driver versions were experiencing latency issues in use for limited number of users.
Unlike many other products, Discrete 8 doesn’t come bundled with additional software.
The unit can be connected to computer via Thunderbolt or USB type B connector and an external PSU is provided for powering the device.
Antelope Audio Discrete 8 is a product that leaves little to desire for.
It packs genuine innovation and user-friendliness in an astonishing package, that keeps on giving.
A dedicated sound card can sound like a big investment, but it’s important to understand that quality is a sum of all components used in the process.
Investing into a sound card is a real step towards professionalism and enables you to route signals flexibly in and out from the computer.
Dedicate time into researching the available options and find a sound card that is most suitable for your individual needs and budget.