The audio interface vs. sound card controversy is one of the most common debates that come up among beginner music production enthusiasts. Indeed, we frequently get questions like ‘what are the differences between an audio interface and a sound card?’ and ‘Does a sound card have the same functions as an audio interface?
If anything, we understand how confusing these two pieces of hardware can be, especially without the proper information.
You see, technically, a sound card is a form of an audio interface. But, it doesn’t quite have as many functions and desirable qualities that an audio interface has. This is where it gets confusing for most people. Not to worry, we’ll help you clear the audio interface vs. sound card controversy.
This article will take you through all you need to know about the sound card and the audio interface. We’ll also give you some insight into the various advantages one has over the other. That said, let’s jump right into it!
What Are Sound Cards?
Sound cards essentially act as an audio translator for your computer. It converts analog audio signals entering your computer (through any input device) to a digital signal that the system can understand. It also works the same way when you reverse the equation.
For instance, when you play a sound from your computer, the sound card converts the digital signals to the analog format you hear.
You see, while computers have undergone significant advancements over the years, they are still unable to ‘understand’ audio signals in their raw form. So, they need a means of converting it to binary (1s and 0s) that they can interpret.
This is where sound cards come into the equation.
Interestingly, computers started featuring sound cards in the 1970s, and it began with the Apple II computer. However, it wasn’t until approximately a decade later that they became popular as built-in hardware.
Introducing Audio Interface
Now that you know what a sound card is, let us examine an audio interface. To get the best picture of an audio interface, simply think about a soundcard, but with more juicy features.
In other words, an audio interface is generally better than a sound card. Indeed, its higher audio quality and multiple-recording feature are just some of the advantages of an audio interface has. Of course, you can easily connect one to your computer with a USB cable!
However, some audio interfaces may also use thunderbolt as their means of connection.
Are you wondering why you should buy an audio interface when your computer already has a built-in sound card? This next section is for you!
Advantages of Audio Interface Over Sound Card
There are several benefits an audio interface offers over the default built-in sound card in your computer. In the next few paragraphs, we’ll share some advantages. So, keep reading to find out more.
It is a higher-quality Digital-to-audio Converter
If you’re into audio production, you can afford to rely on the built-in sound card in your computer. Those are merely present in the computer to aid its normal function.
You see, most computers do not have the specialized features that a musician or audio engineer needs. So, while they may work fine for playing music or watching videos, they fall below the mark for professional audio works. You just don’t get that higher quality that you want!
However, an external sound card or audio interface can help you achieve your desired results due to its superior digital-to-audio conversion ability.
You Get Higher Sampling Rates & Bit Depths
Higher sampling rate and bit depth are some other benefits of using an audio interface. Understandably, this may seem like more technical stuff that you don’t need. But, it is undeniably a crucial advantage that you want for your audio production projects.
Bit depth is the term that describes the detailedness of a digital signal undergoing processing. This means that the higher the depth you can achieve, the more detailed the sound will be. Of course, this boosts the quality of your audio recording.
On the other hand, the sample rate is the unit that quantifies how much your audio gear captures in every moment. Naturally, if you have a higher sample rate, you can capture more information per time and achieve higher audio quality.
However, you only enjoy these advantages when you utilize an audio interface.
An Audio Interface Has A Dedicated Driver
Another benefit of using an audio interface is that you get a dedicated driver for your audio projects. You see, a driver is a collection of files through which a hardware device communicates with a computer’s OS.
So, having a dedicated driver in your audio interface means you can run your projects more efficiently without slowing down your computer. Of course, it also helps that audio interfaces generally have top-notch drivers that meet professional audio engineering standards.
You Enjoy More Output Options
More often than not, a built-in sound card will have only one consumer-grade stereo and headphone output. In other words, you don’t get a variety of output options. On the other hand, audio interfaces offer you a range of options for when you want an audio output.
Here are some typical output options you get with an audio interface:
- Headphone outputs
- Monitor outputs
- MIDI output
- Line outputs (both balanced and unbalanced)
It Can Handle More Inputs
The multiple input option of an audio interface is also another one of the crucial advantages it has over a sound card. You see, a built-in computer sound card allows to record only one audio input per time.
In other words, if you want to record audio from a mic jack and a guitar line-in, you’d have to do it one at a time.
But, by using an audio interface, you can record as many audio inputs as it offers. Indeed, some audio interfaces can have up to four inputs. Imagine how much more convenient that will be – recording different audio from one performance in one take!
Additionally, some audio interfaces also have MIDI I/O settings, alongside SPDIF and ADAT. In this case, you can use ADAT to connect another hardware and gain even more input options.
Comes With Built-in Preamp
A preamp is responsible for boosting a low-level audio signal such that it becomes strong enough to undergo output or other processes. In the past, you will typically have to acquire an external preamp to achieve. However, today, many audio interfaces also come with built-in preamps, which help you achieve louder and clearer audio signals conveniently.
It Experiences Lower Latency
You see, an audio interface can convert audio much faster than a built-in sound card can. This helps you eliminate the latency we all like to avoid. (Just in case, latency describes the duration between when you play a sound and when you hear it).
Of course, you probably don’t need us to tell you about the havoc higher latency can wreak during your audio production. Imagine recording the perfect audio take only to realize it’s slight off-time due to your sound card’s slow conversion rate? Thankfully, an audio interface conveniently solves that problem!
It Has Built-in Phantom Power
Don’t let the name deceive you. Phantom power is simply a direct current that some require to function. While not all mics use phantom power, you’ll need a source of phantom power if you’re recording with a condenser microphone. Thankfully, an audio interface can take on that role.
However, suppose you’re still using only your computer’s built-in sound card. In that case, you’ll need to take to the extra expense of acquiring an amplifier (or similar equipment) to supply phantom power.
Hopefully, we’ve helped you clear up whatever questions you may have about the audio interface vs. sound card controversy. While the two may perform similar functions, an audio interface features a sound card and more. Of course, by now, you already know some of the unique advantages an audio interface offers you.
So, if you want to record multiple high-quality audio tracks at once, an audio interface is the way to.