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This is part 9 in a series on various studio equipment, what it does, and how to choose!
- How to Choose Studio Headphones (Coming Soon!)
- How to Choose a Headphone Amp
- How to Choose a Microphone
- How to Choose a MIDI Keyboard
- How to Choose a Turntable (Coming Soon)
- What are Studio Monitors?
- What does an Audio Interface Do?
- What does an Audio Mixer do?
- What is a Soundcard? (You are here)
- What is a USB DAC?
Hi friend and Welcome!
What is a Soundcard? That’s a great question! Before we dive right into it,
Grab a snack, sit back and relax because…
You’ve come to the right place!!
What I will bring you in this article
- Introduction & What is a Soundcard?
- Internal vs. External
- Final Word
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!
You may have recently bought a computer and not really given much thought to the Soundcard that’s inside. Understandable, given that the computer will still function without one. However, when you want to listen to music, or record something, it obviously becomes important! All computers come with an on-board Soundcard, and it’s usually pretty crappy in comparison to an aftermarket one. Of course, it does its job adequately enough. I used my laptops internal card for years before I decided that it was time to upgrade.
There is a marked improvement in sound quality over the stock card. The difference is almost night and day. You may notice that when you plug your headphones into the jack on the side of your PC or laptop, the sound really leaves a lot to be desired. Even at full volume, I was yearning for more.
I didn’t actually invest in one until 2014! Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I waited so long to upgrade. I used to mix beats on a laptop and my old Sony MDR 7506’s. I was still able to get pretty decent mixes out of that simple set up, but the addition of studio monitors and an audio interface (simply an external sound card) really improved my production tenfold. What does an audio interface do?
- Check out my Sony MDR 7506 Review!
All that said, usually, the people who upgrade are the audiophiles, headphone enthusiasts, music producers, gamers, and so on. Your average consumer may not care as much.
As for the raw definition?
a device that can be slotted into a computer to allow the use of audio components for multimedia applications.
Check out this informative article for more information!
Internal vs. External
Internal (PCI/PCI Express) What is PCI?
An internal sound card must be manually installed inside the laptop or PC. Before you begin, make sure you have:
- The Soundcard you want to install.
- A Phillips head screwdriver to open your computer (if needed).
- An empty PCI slot inside the computer. If you’re replacing the old sound card, you would just take out the existing one first.
Normally when you purchase an aftermarket card, it will come with a CD and instructions for the install. Make sure you install the driver that came with the Soundcard as it may not recognize it after you’ve laboriously put it in. 🙂
To remove the old card:
- Open your laptop or CPU case after powering down everything.
- Ground yourself by touching the metal casing that surrounds the jack where the power chord plugs in. This makes it so you don’t shock yourself and then write me angry emails. 😀 It also protects your new card and all of the other internal parts.
- Remove the old sound card gently. If you don’t have instructions on how to remove it, first locate it. Then follow the wires from your speakers to the back of the card. Note the location.
- Unplug all speaker and mic wires from the sound-card.
- Remove any screw or hook holding the card in it’s slot.
- Carefully pull it out straight. Make sure nothing gets bent or twisted.
To install the new one:
- Read the instructions first. No instructions? Locate an empty slot in the CPU that will house your new card.
- Make sure the card you have will fit into the slot that the old card was in.
- Gently place the sound-card on top of the slot. Line up the pins on the card with the slot and push gently down. Make sure it’s all the way in.
- Screw the sound card to the frame, while not bending it. Screw it in snugly but not too tight.
- Put your computer back together with the screws that were taken out.
- Plug it back in and install the necessary drivers. As mentioned above, you may need to install a newer driver if it doesn’t work.
If that’s the case:
- Go to control panel > Hardware & Sound > Double click the sound card > Driver tab > Update driver (if it allows).
All that said, internal sound cards are a pain. Right now my laptop doesn’t make it very easy to install a new one. It really depends on your particular PC. For some people, it may be advantageous to go ahead and replace it internally. For me, the easier option is an external card.
External Sound Card (Audio Interface)
An external Soundcard (known by audio geeks as an Audio Interface), is a separate piece of gear that you can purchase to improve sound quality. A lot of producers, musicians, vocalists, rappers, etc. love this option because it’s so versatile. For example, with my Scarlett 2i2, I can:
- Record vocals
- Power my Studio Monitors
- Record an Instrument. Is Mayonnaise an Instrument?
- Plug my high end headphones in via 1/4″ adapter.
It becomes the go-to as a great all-around solution.
Learn more about Your Audio Interface!
So what exactly does this shiny piece of savory goodness do? Well basically it sends and receives data. When you scream obscenities into your microphone, your computer gets sad 🙁 But that doesn’t distract it from its primary goal.
What’s the goal?
To make sense out of your potty mouth! Haha but really. It processes this information in the form of 1’s and 0’s.
Check out my article on Bit depth vs. sample rate to discover exactly how your CPU sends and receives data! Also, related is my big article on What is a USB DAC? Highly recommended reading for all you need to know!
The sound is generally improved dramatically with an audio interface, provided that you’ve done your research. Luckily for you, I’m here to do that for you! The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is such a great little piece of equipment. It’s pretty much solved all of my low volume/distortion/crappy sound issues, and the headphone jack on the front is invaluable.
Let’s talk about what makes an interface so valuable:
So you’ve got a new condenser microphone and need something to plug it into. Via XLR connection, the interface has you covered. The internal preamps basically amplify the sound of your recording to a listenable level. The DAC inside provides a nice conversion of that signal. Preamp vs. Interface. The 2i2 in particular does well with a lot of different condensers. Just make sure you push that 48v phantom power button or you’ll wonder if your interface is broken! I’ve seen it so many times on amazon that I’ve lost count: “Bad interface, doesn’t work, 1 star” 😛 “Did you push the 48v phantom power button?” “Oh.”
- Condenser mic vs. Dynamic mic
- The difference between a USB microphone and an XLR microphone (Great starter guide on XLR connections)
They can also power my Studio monitors, and are a perfect pairing with the LSR 305’s.
Check out my JBL LSR 305 Review!
The 2i2 has line outputs on the back, used for running balanced TRS cables to your studio monitors. For more information on cable differences, check out my article on TRS vs. TS! I also cover what they are primarily used for. What are Studio Monitors?
Need to plug a guitar into your 2i2? Well you’re in luck. It has combo jacks, meaning that an instrument cable OR an XLR cable can be used. Genius. “But don’t Genius live in a lamp?”
Nearly every entry-level, to mid-fi, to hi-fi pair of headphones, has a 1/4″ adapter. If you aren’t using a headphone amp, the Interface is the next best thing, as it really brings out the best sound possible. Are there better options out there? Of course, but for my purposes (and perhaps yours too), the 2i2 is simply a solid investment.
Whew! I know that was a lot. I hope you’ve come away with some valuable information today in my article, What is a Soundcard?
As for my top recommendation? Of course, it’s gonna be the 2i2.
CHECK OUT MY FOCUSRITE SCARLETT 2i2 REVIEW!
Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss something or get something wrong? Reach out below or Contact me! I would love to hear from you…
Until then, all the best and God bless…