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What is Latency In Audio?

by Stuart Charles Black
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This is part of a FAQ series! Please share and comment if you found any of these articles helpful 🙂

  1. What is Soundstage?
  2. What is Latency? (You are here)
  3. What is Timbre?
  4. What is MIDI?
  5. What is XLR?
  6. What is SPL?
  7. What does Sibilant mean?
  8. What is the Sennheiser Veil?
  9. Do Headphones Need to be Burned In?
  10. How Do Noise Cancelling Headphones Work?

Hi friend and Welcome!

What is Latency? It’s such a loaded question, but I will try and outline some of the basic characteristics in this article!

Before we get started, grab a snack, sit back, and relax because…

You’ve come to the right place!!

What I will bring you today

  1. What is Latency?
  2. What causes it?
  3. Why does it present problems?
  4. How can you fix it?
  5. Final Word

Let’s get started!

What is Latency?

To start off, Latency is defined as the time delay between the input of a sound vs. actually hearing it live from your sound card.

Also, let’s say you’re using a synthesizer and press a key.

If there’s a delay in the time it takes for you to hear it, that’s latency as well.

It also affects the playback of existing tracks and the general responsiveness of the application.

As far as the actual signal (the sound), it can get delayed because of the distance required to reach its destination.

This is known as digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) and it’s how your computer makes sense of the information it’s receiving – from your audio interface, microphone, studio monitors, headphones, etc.

Your computer actually takes the sound from these various sources, and organizes it in the form of 1s and 0s!

Check out my article on bit depth vs. sample rate for a more detailed explanation!

So the simplified process is as follows:

  1. The sound gets converted from analog to digital (in about a millisecond).
  2. It then passes internally along a digital bus inside the sound card and ends up on the PCI bus.
  3. It proceeds to make its way over the motherboard to the rest of the CPU and comes face-to-face with your operating system. An intimidating thought indeed! Like Link vs. Ganondorf 😛
  4. The computer then takes this information and processes it in the forms of 1’s and 0’s (mentioned above).
  5. Once everything is processed, the info is sent back via an output buffer. The data is passed once again to a D/A converter (which converts the data back to audio), and then you hear it through your speakers or headphones!

An even more simplified version:

Analog to digital:

  1. Your computer receives sound from an input source.
  2. It processes this sound by crunching it in the form of 1’s and 0’s.

Digital back to analog

  1. It sends it back to you in a way that enables you to hear it.

What causes it?

So the process described above takes only mere milliseconds, but they add up which results in a delay.

The typical built-in sound card on your PC can cause latency if it’s of sub-par quality.

Most macs have pretty good ones, and a lot of PCs do as well. It all depends on the quality of your CPU.

Why does it present problems?

In short, if you’re tracking guitar with your headphones on, you need to be able to hear exactly what you’re playing in real time. Latency makes this impossible but also mind numbingly frustrating.

I’ve experienced it before and let me tell you, it’s not fun.

The best way I can describe it is that you almost slow down when speaking or singing into the mic because your brain is literally going insane trying to compensate for the slight delay in what you’re hearing.

C01 paired with the 2i2.

How can you fix it?

A few things can help here:

Have a decent CPU, with a big hard drive, lots of disk space, and as much RAM as possible (I have 32 GB and it really makes a difference).

A more common solution is to invest in a good quality audio interface, meant for studio and recording applications.

I previously owned the 1st-gen Scarlett 2i2 and now have a Universal Audio Volt 2.

I loved the 2i2 but had to sell it because it wasn’t compatible with Windows 10.

The audio interface in general is capable of processing data at a much faster rate.

It goes back to my article on bit depth and sample rate (above).

The 2i2 can reduce the lag time to a few milliseconds, which is unnoticeable to the average person.

Final Word

So, what is latency? Think of it as simply a delay. A delay in the process of sound travel. That’s it!

I hope you’ve come away with some valuable information today.

If you have any other questions or feel I’ve left out something important, let me know by leaving a comment below! You can always contact me as well if you need any recommendations…

I very much look forward to speaking with you…

All the best and God bless,





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