Is an audio interface a sound card? – Let’s find out

Is an audio interface a sound card? This question is often asked because many people get confused about an audio interface and a sound card. They have similar qualities, but they have many differences.

An audio interface is an external sound card, whereas a sound card is an internal sound card built into a PC. Audio interfaces are specially designed for music production. They are generally more expensive than sound cards but offer better functionality and high-quality recording.

What is a sound card?

A sound card, also known as an audio card, is a computer hardware component that converts digital audio data to analog audio signals. 

The term ‘sound card’ is also used to refer to the audio device itself, which is often an expansion card that can be plugged into a computer’s motherboard.

The main purpose of a sound card is to allow the user to listen to music, speech, and other sounds generated by the computer. 

Many computers have built-in sound capabilities, but these are often limited in quality, so many people choose to buy an external device for better performance. 

In the early days of PCs, the sound card was a separate component that you would install on your machine. 

Today, however, most motherboards come equipped with integrated sound chips, as do many inexpensive laptop computers.

What is an audio interface?

choose an audio interface

An audio interface is an external sound audio device that allows you to connect your computer with other audio devices and record audio signals. 

Audio interfaces are often used by musicians, producers, DJs, sound engineers, and anyone who records or plays music.

Audio interfaces have several different connectors, depending on which type of device you want to connect.

Some audio interfaces also have built-in preamps that boost the signal’s volume coming from your instrument before sending it to your computer.

Is an audio interface a sound card?

A sound card is usually included with your computer, but it’s not designed specifically for music recording. 

An audio interface and a sound have similarities, but an audio interface will provide better sound quality and features for recording, like MIDI ports and inputs for microphones and instruments.

If you choose an audio interface, there are many advantages you get.

1. Dedicated drivers

Drivers are software programs that allow the operating system to communicate with a piece of hardware.

An audio interface has dedicated drivers to improve performance for your audio projects. 

If you’re using an audio interface, it’ll have its driver and won’t be affected by any other problems.

These drivers have been optimized for recording audio with your software program and can often provide better performance than the internal sound card. 

2. Higher Samples rates and bit depth

An audio interface offers a higher sample rate and bit depth than a sound card.

An internal sound card has a 48kHz sample rate and 16-bit depth, while the best audio interfaces offer sampling rates up to 192kHz and 24 bits.

The sample rate (sometimes called sampling frequency) determines how many times per second your computer records sound information for each channel. For example, 44.1 kHz means that the computer records 44,100 samples per second per channel (two channels). 

The bit depth determines how many different values can be used to represent each sample. For example, 16-bit means that each sample can have one of 65,536 possible values (16 bits x 16 bits = 65,536).

A typical sound card has a 48kHz sample rate and 16-bit depth, while the best audio interfaces offer sampling rates up to 192kHz and 24 bits.

3. Higher quality converter

An audio interface offers higher quality converters for music production.

Converters are used to convert analog signals into digital data and vice versa. 

Different types of converters exist, such as AD/DA converters (analog to digital/digital to analog) and DA/AD converters (digital to analog/analog to digital). 

These are the converters you will find in your audio interface: AD/DA converters.

The converters in an audio interface are designed to give you the highest quality possible. 

When you listen back through your speakers or headphones, there will be no perceptible difference between the source and what’s coming out of your speakers or headphones.

4. Lower Latency

Latency is the delay between hitting a note on your keyboard and hearing the sound come out of your speakers.

It’s usually expressed in milliseconds (ms) but can also be measured in samples. 

When you record a guitar or vocal track, the latency is the delay between when you hit record and when you hear yourself on playback. 

You will not be able to play along with what you hear through your computer’s speakers if your latency is too high.

Audio interfaces reduce the latency that occurs when streaming or recording. They do this by using high-quality converters that are less prone to distortion than those found in computer sound cards.

5. Built-in preamps

A preamp amplifies weak signals or brings up the level of audio signals that are already loud enough.

Preamps also help remove background noise and improve the overall quality of your recording by boosting signals from weak sources like microphones or guitars. 

Suppose you’re trying to record vocals into a digital audio workstation (DAW) program like Ableton. 

In that case, you may need them to get rid of unwanted sounds or noises that could otherwise interfere with your recordings.

6. Phantom Power

An audio interface has phantom power, which supplies electrical power (+48V) to the audio device, such as a condenser microphone.

Phantom power is used in most condenser microphones and some dynamic microphones. 

Condenser microphones require phantom power because they require high voltage for their internal electronics and transducers (the part that converts sound into electrical signals). 

Dynamic microphones don’t need phantom power because they don’t need high voltage supplies as condensers do.

7. More inputs

audio interface inputs

An audio interface has more inputs than a sound card because it allows multiple signals to be captured at once. 

This can mean recording two different instruments or microphones at the same time or using one input for various instruments.

For example, an audio interface may have an XLR input and 1/4-inch line input for microphones so that you can use both dynamic and condenser microphones with it. 

You may also be able to use different types of cables depending on the type of input you’re using. 

Some audio interfaces have MIDI inputs for connecting electronic instruments like synthesizers or drum machines, while others include 1/4″ TRS jacks for connecting guitars and basses directly.

8. More outputs

Audio interfaces provide a wide variety of outputs. 

The most common is a set of balanced XLR or 1/4″ TRS connectors, which can connect microphones or line-level sources directly to the interface. 

Audio interfaces are also equipped with MIDI outputs that let you control external instruments and devices from your computer.

I wrote a detailed article about the audio interface’s features a few days ago. Check it out to know more about the input and output of audio interfaces.

9. Direct monitoring

Direct monitoring is a feature of an audio interface that allows you to hear what you are recording directly from your audio interface without any latency or delay. 

This means that you can hear your instrument or vocal directly through the interface.

You don’t have to wait for your computer to process the audio and send it back through your speakers or headphones before hearing how it sounds.

If you are recording an instrument such as a guitar or vocals, you need to hear what’s being played live to make adjustments and record the best possible performance from your music projects.

10. Other useful lights, buttons, and knobs

lights buttons and knobs

Last but not least, an audio interface has a range of useful lights, buttons, and knobs.

1. Lights

The lights on an audio interface tell you what’s happening with your signal. 

For example, if the light turns red when you plug in your instrument or microphone, you need to set up the right input settings before recording. 

If the light turns green when you press record, your signal is registered successfully.

2. Buttons

Many buttons on an audio interface give you access to various functions such as adjusting gain levels, muting channels, switching between inputs and outputs, etc.

These buttons enable fast and efficient control over your sound recording process without touching the computer screen every time something needs changing.

3. Knobs

Knobs are like small wheels that make it easier for you to adjust certain settings like EQ settings or effects levels.

This helps save time because instead of stopping recording or playing back to adjust these parameters manually, you can turn the knob and make adjustments while recording or playing back music from your computer or hardware device.

Which one is right for you?

Both sound cards and audio interfaces can process and record audio. However, they perform differently in different scenarios.

Sound cards generally process and record audio directly from a computer’s motherboard. 

They provide limited I/O capabilities but are often more affordable than an audio interface.

Audio interfaces are designed for music production that allows you to connect external gear like synths, drum machines, or microphones to your computer. 

They offer more inputs and outputs than a sound card and can be used as standalone devices when paired with other hardware.

So, if you want to record high-quality audio for a home studio or professional studio, you should consider an audio interface.

Check out this ultimate guide to choosing an audio interface.

My recommendations

Here are some of the best audio interfaces you can buy.

  1. Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen
  2. Behringer U-PHORIA UM2
  3. M-Audio M-Track Duo

Do I need an audio interface?

If you’re just looking for an easy way to connect your computer with speakers or headphones, a regular sound card should suffice. But if you want to record high-quality audio from multiple instruments like guitars or keyboards at the same time, you need an audio interface. 

Does an audio interface improve sound quality?

An audio interface improves sound quality because it has better components than your computer’s internal sound card. This means that the signal from your instrument or devices will be cleaner, which will make it easier for you to tweak the signal into the perfect recording.

Which is a better sound card or audio interface?

An audio interface is better than a sound card because it has better components than your computer’s internal sound card. Generally have more inputs and outputs than a typical sound card and built-in preamps for amplifying those signals before sending them out to your speakers or headphones.

Is an audio interface worth it?

An audio interface is worth it if you want better sound quality for recording or mixing. Suppose you want to use professional-quality microphones and studio monitors, and you also want to record instruments in high resolution with low latency; an audio interface is worth considering. 

Conclusion

An audio interface has better components than your computer’s internal sound card.

It allows you to record high-quality audio with zero latency and noise.

However, both serve essentially the same purpose, and their uses depend on the user’s needs.

It’s essentially like comparing apples to oranges. You can’t fault a person for preferring one over the other. 

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