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What soundcard should I buy?

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A simple question... or is it? Your sound card or audio interface is important if you are interested in music production & ReMixing. Here is a brief rundown - read carefully!! All prices are in US dollars. If the terms confuse you, scroll to the bottom of this post and you will see a glossary of terms. Each listing also links to a picture of the card or a product page so you can do further research.

PCI Cards (Desktop)

Emu 0404 - $100 - This is a great all-around soundcard for anyone interested in music production. It has a low noise level, various analog & digital ins and outs (through "breakout cables" - see the pic) as well as a very powerful software mixing system. The drivers have been known to be a little unstable in some applications (eg. FLStudio) but overall, this card performs better than any consumer-level card and is highly flexible. The internal software also has built in DSP effects which will not affect your computer's processor, great if you do a lot of recording and want to add some EQ, compression, or reverb without burdening your cpu.

Emu 1212M - $150 - The next step up from the 0404, capable of running at higher sampling rates. Recording quality is slightly higher than the 0404.

EMU 161M - $450 - The big daddy of EMU cards, this is a full fledged interface with fantastic sound quality. If you are really serious about recording, this is a great solution. However if you do most things "in the box" (eg. software only) this will be excessive.

M-Audio Audiophile 192 - $180 - Comparable to the EMU 1212M in terms of features. My personal preference has been EMU products over M-Audio as the latter seems to use lower quality components than its competitors so it can mass-produce them. However, you should do your own research and read reviews to decide for yourself.

Echo Mia MIDI - $130 - Another competitor in the lower price range. Echo products are considered to be fairly high quality.

RME HDSP 9632 Hammerfall DSP 24/96 - $600 - OK, so this is getting into the *really* high end. However, Hammerfall makes the best of the best. If you have no idea what to do with your money and want a killer sound card that will offer the cleanest sound and most efficient drivers, this is your card...

PCMCIA Cards (Laptop)

Echo Indigo IO Stereo 24/96 - $200 - Not exactly cheap, but a good solution if you want an internal sound card for your laptop that will provide pro sound quality.

EMU 1616 Laptop - $400 - Just like the 1616M, except... "portable". A high end solution, but worth considering if you don't want to compromise.

USB Interfaces

EMU 0404 USB 2.0 Audio/MIDI Interface - $200 - A slightly upgraded version of the PCI 0404 (in terms of converters) and physical control to boot. Good if you are a laptop user and like the EMU line.

EMU 0202 USB 2.0 Audio/MIDI Interface - $115 - This is a step down from the USB 0404. If you're not going to be recording much, no big deal. It will still perform better than your average laptop soundcard. If you plan on doing a lot of recording, however, and you want as clean a sound as possible, consider something in a slightly higher price range.

M-Audio Audiophile USB - $160 - Just like with the PCI Audiophile, this is a competitor to the EMU line in terms of price range. Similar features, but check the reviews for both.

Native Instruments Audio Kontrol 1 - $250 - Though normally residing in the market of software instruments, NI has produced a good audio interface. Good drivers, clean sound, sleek design, and comes with a nice bundle of NI software. If you're starting from a clean slate this might be a good idea.

Edirol UA25 - $240 - Touted as a very rugged and road-ready interface, if you plan on bringing around a laptop all over the place while recording, and don't want to settle for a cheaper interface, this may be what you want. Plus, Edirol is a good company!

Digidesign Mbox 2 - $450 - This is a combo hardware/software product, as you get Pro Tools LE with it. Much like the other, more expensive options listed so far, this is not worth it if you are only looking to ReMix or produce music as a hobby. However, if you want the next step up in terms of low-noise, solid drivers, and powerful software, The Mbox/ProTools combo is attractive.

Firewire Interfaces

Presonus Firebox - $300 - Ahh.. the Firebox. I've been using one of these for a few weeks now, and my roommate had the expanded version, the Firepod. They're very good in terms of sound quality and the drivers are ROCK solid. Reasonably priced too. My only complaint is the mixing software is a little weak... you can't do a lot of routing with it, as compared to EMU's products w/ Patchmix. Still, recommended.

Presonus Firepod - $500 - If you plan on doing lots of recording from multiple sources, such as a whole band, multiple vocalists, multiple synths, etc... this is a very good choice. No need to spend hundreds of dollars more on an external mixer!

Presonus Inspire 1394 - $200 - If the Firebox and Firepod are a little too big for you, the Inspire holds its own and since it's by the same company, you know the quality will be good. A good choice if budget is an issue but you need to go Firewire.

Behringer FCA202 F-Control - $80 - Behringer isn't exactly known for their high quality audio products. However, if you absolutely can't spend much on an interface, this is what you want. It'll still be better than your average Realtek or Sigmatel audio card!

So... what card should I buy?

My personal recommendations are the EMU 0404 and Firebox. The former if budget is an issue - it's still an excellent card, and the latter if you want more power. If you're going to do a lot of recording, I can't help but recommend the Firepod. If you want some nice bundled software, the MBox 2 or Audio Kontrol 1 are both advisable, though the MBox is somewhat pricey.

In general, don't skimp. If your budget is $200, buy a card or interface that is $200. With audio gear, you generally get what you pay for. If you decide to upgrade later because you want to take music more seriously, or you want to do more recording, or whatever else, you can't get a hardware discount. Buy a $100 interface at first and you'll have to spend another $200-300 on top of that for your new, better one (maybe more). Start out with the more expensive interface and you'll have room to grow. Plus, the higher-end ones resell a lot more easily so if you DON'T like it, it won't be as hard to get rid of.

Glossary

XLR - A type of larger connection with three holes, typically used for plugging in mics. IMAGE

TRS - A common audio connector used to connect all sorts of devices, from headphones, to guitars, and more. Typically 1/8 inch or 1/4 inch. IMAGE

PCI - An internal connection type in desktop computers, used with long "cards" that attach directly to the motherboard. All desktop computers have at least a couple PCI ports, which can be used for a number of purposes, from network cards, to USB extensions, to sound cards, and more.

PCMCIA - A PCI-like interface for laptop computers. Again, many things can be installed using it including sound cards.

PCI-e - An improved form of PCI for desktops. This is mostly used for graphics cards currently.

ASIO - A software interface between an application and your sound card. Better ASIO drivers mean lower latency and less CPU usage. It is also more flexible than DirectSound, which is what most generic sound cards for Windows use.

Feel free to post here if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions.

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What's the difference between gaming soundcards and audio production soundcards? Other than having more input options, are audio production cards basically the same (given the same specifications)?

Also, for something like the 0404, would I be able to hook it up to a 5.1 or 7.1 channel sound system?

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Guest gamel

My personal recommendations are the EMU 0404 and Firebox. The former if budget is an issue - it's still an excellent card, and the latter if you want more power. If you're going to do a lot of recording, I can't help but recommend the Firepod. If you want some nice bundled software, the MBox 2 or Audio Kontrol 1 are both advisable, though the MBox is somewhat pricey. In general, don't skimp. If your budget is $200, buy a card or interface that is $200. With audio gear, you generally get what you pay for. If you decide to upgrade later because you want to take music more seriously, or you want to do more recording, or whatever else, you can't get a hardware discount. Buy a $100 interface at first and you'll have to spend another $200-300 on top of that for your new, better one (maybe more). Start out with the more expensive interface and you'll have room to grow. Plus, the higher-end ones resell a lot more easily so if you DON'T like it, it won't be as hard to get rid of.

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This thread helped me a lot. I looked at all of the different ones and since I'm still sorta new at all of this, I went with the Emu 1212m model. Can't wait till it comes in I can test out my new headphones with that as well =).

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after I get my USB keyboard, I'll need a better sound card to reduce/eliminate latency... however, after I buy my USB keyboard I won't be able to afford much regarding a sound card... I won't need to record using the inputs, or need digital in/out, or MIDI ports or anything like that... I will just want the latency to be gone as best as possible for a cheaper card...

will the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme accomplish that? would anyone recommend it?

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after I get my USB keyboard, I'll need a better sound card to reduce/eliminate latency... however, after I buy my USB keyboard I won't be able to afford much regarding a sound card... I won't need to record using the inputs, or need digital in/out, or MIDI ports or anything like that... I will just want the latency to be gone as best as possible for a cheaper card...

will the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme accomplish that? would anyone recommend it?

If you're only able to spend ~$50 and you're not looking to record, the X-Fi Xtreme isn't the worst card in the world. I'm not so sure that it's any better than the cheaper 7.1 Audigy cards though.

In any case, the fact that it's PCI gives you the possibility of very low latency, and if you were connecting via a MIDI port on the card itself (I don't think the Xtreme has this option), you could get one of the lowest latencies possible with any card. But with the USB connection, I would think that the Creative drivers will be a big factor in what your latency will be.

Are those drivers good? I'm not entirely sure.

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I just bought a Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme... but not the cheap one... I got the X-Fi XtremeMusic, cause it supports ASIO 2 for low latency and what not. The RRP (MSRP) for it was around $300 AUD ($240 USD) a few years ago, but I've found at some online shops from $160 AUD - $230 AUD. Anyhow, I got it off eBay for $90 AUD ($36 of that is just the shipping from USA). I won't be getting my MIDI keyboard controller (probably Oxygen 61) for months though :(

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Hello, i just got a EMU 1212M but i don't have any jack 3,5mm out to put any headphone,

I have TRS, TS righ, left out

Digital Optical ADAT out

Analog Optical RCA out^^

well it's a problem,

any way by converter or anything to plug a jack 3,5mm in ?

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Humm a common Headphone at this moment, i will change it soon too,

yes that must work,

i have see also a Digital Optical to jack 3,5, but i think it will not work^^

the very common headphone i have at the moment^^ : http://cgi.befr.ebay.be/Casque-headphone-audio-Ifrogz-Nerve-Pipe-Black-GOLD_W0QQitemZ300359756555QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_23?hash=item45eed62b0b

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looking into getting a really good soundcard at some point relatively soon. time to revamp my home studio. a few questions, though.

i'm going to (eventually) be getting the following:

yamaha hs50m powered monitors x2

yamaha hs10w powered sub

audio-technica atm450 condenser x2 (possibly, hvaen't decided yet)

with this comes the need to get a good soundcard or audio interface. i currently use a mobilepre with my desktop, which by definition isn't the best idea (but it'll be able to handle the output for the subs and inputs from the mics if needed). it's a usb-based interface, though, so i'm worried about overloading the usb bus.

thing is, i'd also like to be able to run midi from my axiom 49 (and possibly a 76-key no-frills controller at some point) into this to reduce the lag that usb currently gives me.

i'm assuming i'd need an external interface for the amount of inputs and outputs i want. is firewire my only option, or is there something that hooks up through a pci or pci-x slot and uses a cable or something to go to the external interface?

so, i'm looking for an audio card that supports the following:

:4-8 inputs, preferably 8

:xlr or 1/4" output, preferably both

:midi inputs of some kind. i'd prefer it if it had inputs for two different keyboards - should i get a splitter or something, or what?

:complete flexibility and workability with windows 7 64-bit (or xp 64-bit, if not)

i'm comfortable spending around 400-500$ for this, but if i need to spend more to get significantly more value out of it, i'm kind of ok with that. i don't want this to be some $2k monster, though.

i'm looking at the presonus firestudio project or the focusrite saffire pro 40 right now. i've never used firewire before. anything to know about it? i'm also looking at the delta 1010 pci setup, with the big cable to a rack-mount setup. i like the concept, but it's more than i would like to spend.

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Upgrades are always fun. My 2 cents on some of your questions:

i currently use a mobilepre with my desktop, which by definition isn't the best idea
I like to think of the "mobile" preface to be an added feature, not an indication that the device is somehow not optimized for desktop use.
it's a usb-based interface, though, so i'm worried about overloading the usb bus.
I know there's the whole idea of usb not being as "smart" about it's data transfer as fw, but I just don't see running into issues of overloading the usb bus. I piped stuff into my FastTrack Pro (a mobile usb 1.1 interface!) like a madman and didn't have significantly more problems with it than I've had with my ProFire 2626.

thing is, i'd also like to be able to run midi from my axiom 49 (and possibly a 76-key no-frills controller at some point) into this to reduce the lag that usb currently gives me.

Not exactly sure what you mean here. If you connect via midi cable to a usb interface, the data transfer is still "limited" by the usb of the interface. And there's really no perceptible limitation. While latency can come from a variety of sources, the latency introduced directly between your controller and the processor is completely insignificant when compared to the latency added by the time it takes your cpu to crunch the numbers and tell your daw to tell your audio card to tell your monitors to play a sound. Even going to fw isn't going to dramatically change your latency, all else equal. I get the basically the same latency on my fancy ProFire as I do with my usb 1.1 FastTrack pro. Bottom line: reduce latency by getting a faster cpu.
i'm assuming i'd need an external interface for the amount of inputs and outputs i want. is firewire my only option
No. Like you said, you can go usb, fw or pci and get the same functionality. The differences are primarily ease of connection, compatibility, potential latency, and cost.
:midi inputs of some kind. i'd prefer it if it had inputs for two different keyboards - should i get a splitter or something, or what?
You've got options. The easiest and I'd say best way would be to hook your axiom up via usb. It'll be bus powered and you can easily transfer presets without having to plug it up each time (yeah I know, I don't do that often either, but w/e). Then you could use the interface's midi port for the other controller.

The axiom can also function as a midi interface where you could plug it up via usb, plug another midi controller up to it's midi in port, and still have the midi in/out on your interface free for another device.

If you're dead set on using midi cables, you could buy a midi patch bay or small dedicated 2x2 midi interface that would allow you to directly connect both to the interface and share the 16 channels of midi between the two devices. But this is just overkill for a couple of controllers.

i'm looking at the presonus firestudio project or the focusrite saffire pro 40 right now.
I was recently in the market, and Jimmy advised me against the firestudio project, having had a number of problems with a number of different units during his time at guitar center. The saffire pro I haven't heard much about, but it's in that same ultra budget price range as the firestudio project which would make me wary. For the same price, I'd probably go with the sexier usb 2.0 Lexicon Ionix U82S. If you can splurge though, I've been overjoyed with the ProFire 2626 which is at $672 on amazon right now. Wait for a sale and you can get it $100 bucks cheaper.

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huh. i was under the impression that you couldn't use usb for real-time recording, and that firewire was the only way to reduce your latency down to easy levels.

i wasn't saying that the mobilepre was bad for what i've got, i was more saying that i just didn't want to use something as basic as that for my interface. mainly, i want more recording channels and a midi i/o on a system that wasn't bus-powered.

i completely forgot about a 2x2 interface. they're cheap, i'll look into one of those.

500$ is ultra-budget range? =( =( =( i thought i was going mid-line or so. i'll look into the ionix and the profire 2626.

so now i've got four options, with a black mark on one. anyone else have opinions of the presonus, saffire pro 40, ionix, or profire?

initial thoughts: the firestudio and the saffire pro allow you to assign phantom power per two-channel sets. the profile's got it in sets of four. not a big fan of that...ok, carry on.

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huh. i was under the impression that you couldn't use usb for real-time recording, and that firewire was the only way to reduce your latency down to easy levels.
I recorded 2 simultaneous audio sources at 24/48 with 2.7-5.8ms latency routinely with my usb 1.1 interface (FastTrack Pro). I can't do better than that with my FW interface. What kind of latency are you seeing with the mobile-pre?
i wasn't saying that the mobilepre was bad for what i've got, i was more saying that i just didn't want to use something as basic as that for my interface. mainly, i want more recording channels and a midi i/o on a system that wasn't bus-powered.
understandable; I would want to use that as my primary either considering the upgrades you're talking about. Bus power has it's advantages in our price range though. The fw interface I have now is not bus powered and uses a power cord with a transformer. Those transformers are notorious for introducing interference with audio signals, and yeah I hear the interference from mine. You've gotta route your audio very carefully around it just to minimize that. Secondly, if you lose or damage yours, replacing it isn't always cheap or easy. More expensive units have internal power supplies that eliminate the need for the transformer.
i completely forgot about a 2x2 interface. they're cheap, i'll look into one of those.
again, if you're planning to get some hardware synths with midi, sure. But for your controllers, especially anything with a usb port, don't waste your money - you won't gain any speed.
500$ is ultra-budget range? =( =( =( i thought i was going mid-line or so.
For 8 pre amps, yeah that's budget. Consider it on a per-pre basis (one of the most expensive components). A great pre amp alone like Avalon or Greatriver will cost you $1000 or more per channel. A mid level pre like the p-solo will cost you $500 per channel. You're looking at paying less than $100 for each preamp and in real terms its even less because the audio interface includes other semi-expensive items like AD converters.
the firestudio and the saffire pro allow you to assign phantom power per two-channel sets. the profile's got it in sets of four. not a big fan of that
eh, the only way I could see that being a problem is if you were connecting either more than 4 ribbon mics (lucky rich bastard) or more than 4 condensers and a ribbon mic. If not, then just keep the ribbons on 1-4 or 5-8 and you'll never risk damaging them because you thought you were only turning the power off on condensers or dynamics. If you don't have any ribbon mics, this is essentially irrelevant.

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maybe i'm not reading something right.

i want to be able to take eight inputs into my system and spit at least two out (for my monitors). i was under the impression that, in order to be able to hook up eight mono mics or four stereo mics to that, i'd need eight preamps. is that a mistaken idea, or am i missing something?

if that's such a big issue, would going down to four inputs/preamps cut the price by enough that i could still get something quality and not have to worry about cutting corners so much?

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No, that's right. 8 preamps for 8 mic recording sources. Note though that preamps are only needed for sources (like mics) that are not line-level. Preamps are not required for electric guitars or for hardware synths, for example. So #inputs you need doesn't necessarily equal #preamps. Every interface I know of gives you at least two outs, and many give you more for flexibility.

It comes down to personal choice at some point. imo, look at what you want and buy the absolute best that you can afford. If you want to get 5-8 mic inputs at a time into you software, go for something with at least 8 preamps. Settling for less would personally frustrate the hell out of me. So if you want 8 but can only afford the saffire, I say go for it. As I've said, I was in your position where I wanted 8 but had initially budgeted for the $500 firestudio project. I ended up pushing that budget up closer to $700 (even though I got lucky and found what I wanted for $600), but now I am totally confident that I have one of the best products in our class. That confidence, more than the actual features, is where I feel the additional money went.

Example: When Win 7 came out, M-Audio was very open about the progress of their drivers. They released betas which worked great, as do the the final versions. The Sapphire interfaces still use Vista drivers and I'm not even sure they have one for 64bit. When I shell out $500 or more for something, I don't want headaches like hoping my drivers work, or worrying about shady tech support (M-Audio has the best tech support I've ever had to deal with), or worrying that my unit will die a few months down the road.

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huh. i was under the impression that you couldn't use usb for real-time recording, and that firewire was the only way to reduce your latency down to easy levels.

i wasn't saying that the mobilepre was bad for what i've got, i was more saying that i just didn't want to use something as basic as that for my interface. mainly, i want more recording channels and a midi i/o on a system that wasn't bus-powered.

i completely forgot about a 2x2 interface. they're cheap, i'll look into one of those.

500$ is ultra-budget range? =( =( =( i thought i was going mid-line or so. i'll look into the ionix and the profire 2626.

so now i've got four options, with a black mark on one. anyone else have opinions of the presonus, saffire pro 40, ionix, or profire?

initial thoughts: the firestudio and the saffire pro allow you to assign phantom power per two-channel sets. the profile's got it in sets of four. not a big fan of that...ok, carry on.

without looking at prices or doing any more in depth research, my vote's for saffire. focusrite makes some of the best pre-amps anywhere. pre-amps do make a difference.

also i'm probably biased--i use a focusrite saffire le as my workhorse for both live and studio work

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Example: When Win 7 came out, M-Audio was very open about the progress of their drivers. They released betas which worked great, as do the the final versions. The Sapphire interfaces still use Vista drivers and I'm not even sure they have one for 64bit. When I shell out $500 or more for something, I don't want headaches like hoping my drivers work, or worrying about shady tech support (M-Audio has the best tech support I've ever had to deal with), or worrying that my unit will die a few months down the road.

i'm still trying to figure out drivers, too. the presonus and saffire both work with xp 64-bit, but i can't seem to find anything on focusrite's website about w7 compatibility (seems shady, since the beta's been out since last year). presonus says that they're going to have w7 support 'soon'.

the profire does support w7 64-bit, definitely? if so, then that'll be the one i go with when the money's in hand. i'm not looking to buy tomorrow, i'm looking to buy when i've got the money from a composing gig i'm doing. might be a few months, might be six or more...and a lot changes in six months on the software front.

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