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Can an audio interface replace a sound card?
Is your laptop’s sound card is good enough to record professional audio?
We’ve listed the differences between an audio interface and a sound card so you know which is best for you.
While audio interfaces are normally reserved for home producers, musicians, songwriters, and professional engineers, sound cards are more common than you may realize.
Every laptop, tablet, phone, and smart device that plays and records audio uses a sound card to do this. Though audio interfaces and sound cards essentially do the same job of translating audio signals to digital data, there are several key differences that make audio interfaces more suitable for musicians and producers.
So if you’ve ever wondered if your computer’s built-in sound card is good enough for recording, read on…
The Differences Between Sound Cards & Audio Interfaces
Sound cards are internal devices that translate a digital audio signal to an analog waveform and vice versa. They are used for sending sound out to speakers or headphones and also to get sound from a microphone so it can be processed and transmitted digitally (like with your phone).
Audio interfaces are external devices that have XLR and TRS inputs for microphones and instruments, and they have preamps for boosting signals so the volume is right for your DAW.
Diving Deeper Into Sound Cards vs Audio Interfaces
Despite looking completely different, audio interfaces and sound cards do basically the same thing. They both exist as devices to help computers translate audio from a digital signal to an analog signal and vice versa.
Sound cards do this internally, taking the digital signal from your phone or laptop and converting it into an analog signal that it can play from the speakers built in to your device. Digital signals exist as binary code (1’s and 0’s), which can’t just be amplified over speakers. Instead, sound cards help convert this code into a playable signal.
Audio interfaces also convert audio signals so that computers can process them, but they can convert both ways. Most audio interfaces have multiple inputs for quarter-inch and XLR sources and are designed to take signals from electric instruments and microphones.
In the same way, it can convert that digital signal back into an analog signal to be played over computer speakers, studio monitors, or even a PA system.
This two-way process is referred to as AD and DA conversion – analog to digital, and digital to analog. AD converters take analog signals and prepare them for digital processing, while DA converters translate this digital code back into a continuous analog signal.
Simply put, the quality of the converters on an audio interface will be much better than the converters on a sound card.
An audio interface bypasses a computer’s sound card, giving it more flexibility for inputs and outputs and better sound quality (including higher bit depth and sample rate).
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty. Sound cards and audio interfaces have very different uses despite their similarities, so it’s important to know their ideal purposes in great detail.
Sound cards exist in every digital device that can play audio in one form or another. This means that your laptop, tablet, gaming rig, and phone all have sound cards. However, they can vary in sound quality.
A lot of lower-end PC laptops have notoriously basic sound cards, while higher-end PCs and modern Macbooks tend to have better sound cards. As technology advances, the quality of sound cards continues to grow.
Sound cards can also be used to record music, but this is not the way that most people use them. Sound cards have very few inputs and outputs and are not very compatible with most pro-audio gear.
For example, many computer sound cards can record audio from a device’s internal microphone or a 3.5mm line-in jack. This doesn’t leave much room for adjustment, especially for instrument and microphone signals.
If you’re dead set on recording without using an audio interface, you can always use adapters or try to work with a USB-compatible microphone to send the audio signal to your computer. However, this is not ideal and can be more trouble than it’s worth.
Sound cards are located internally, meaning that they’re not very easy to access or modify. Most people don’t even think of modifying their sound card because it performs such a basic task.
Since they’re located inside the device, they don’t take up much space and are less bulky than an audio interface. If your main use is casually listening to music on your laptop, a sound card will suffice. The only real reason to upgrade a sound card or use an audio interface is if you’re interested in recording, mixing, or producing music.
When it comes to playing audio on digital devices, sound cards do their job and they do it well. They’re compact, already included in the device, and produce clear audio without any extra modification.
However, if you’re a musician and want to record music on your laptop, your best move is to invest in a good audio interface. Keep reading below for all the details on what an audio interface does and what to look for in a purchase.
As we saw above, audio interfaces perform a similar role of converting audio signals into digital data the computer understands, but an audio interface integrates much better with your DAW and is designed for making music.
When you plug in an audio interface to your computer, it effectively bypasses the built-in sound card. Using an audio interface will give you better sound quality and more options for inputs and outputs. What they lack in convenience, they make up for in functionality.
Audio interfaces also make it easier to record and listen to audio with less latency. Audio latency means there is a delay between the input and output of a signal. Sound cards are known for having more latency issues, while audio interfaces are designed with low-latency in mind.
This can be crucial when recording music, as it can cause your playback and performance to be out of sync. Audio interfaces are not 100% latency-free, but the problems associated with latency are much less common when using an audio interface instead of a sound card.
Part of that is due to the design of each device. Sound cards are more basic and are specifically meant for playing and converting audio. Audio interfaces are designed with recording, mixing, and producing in mind.
For example, most audio interfaces offer phantom power to supply power to condenser microphones. Without phantom power, these microphones won’t work. Sound cards aren’t compatible with condenser mics, since they weren’t designed to handle that kind of recording. The great majority of sound cards will not accept XLR cables either.
Another example is that most audio interfaces provide options for direct monitoring, meaning that you can hear your dry input signal as you’re recording it with zero latency. This can be helpful when testing the latency of your setup, or even for hearing your own performance better.
Some audio interfaces have as little as one or two inputs, while others can have twenty or more. These are designed for different recording situations, but their power is vastly different from the abilities of a sound card.
They also offer inputs for instrument cables (¼” jack) and microphones (XLR), making them compatible with almost all musical equipment. In addition to inputs, some offer multiple outputs for external speakers or powered studio monitors.
Regardless of your existing setup, audio interfaces are the superior choice for recording music. Using a sound card to record music is often more trouble than its worth, and in almost every case music producers and recording musicians need an audio interface if they want to make high quality recordings.
Audio Interface Vs Sound Card: The Verdict
If you’re trying to decide whether to use a sound card or to buy an audio interface, the main thing to consider is how you’ll use them. Even though they both perform the same basic function, their practical uses are very different.
If you plan on recording music or producing/mixing audio at any level of professionalism, you’ll want to go with an audio interface.
If you work in music production, sound design, or any field where you need to create the best quality audio possible, an audio interface will make your job much easier and give you better results.
However, if your needs are more casual or you are fine with semi-decent audio quality, a sound card will be more than enough.
Even video editors can get away with using laptop speakers. Unless you plan on digging into the details of audio production, there’s no need to pull the trigger on a new audio interface.
But if you’re into home recording or music production, you’re going to need an audio interface at one point or another. To help you get started, you can check out our roundup of the 6 Best Audio Interfaces For Beginners.
Which Audio Interface Should I Get?
Most musicians are familiar with the iconic crimson box that sits on the desks of home recording studios around the world. This box is the Focusrite Scarlett, an interface that’s become extremely popular due to its ease of use and modest price point.
In recent years, the amp modeling surge has taken the world by storm. Rigs like Axe-Fx, Kemper, and Helix have redefined the recording process for guitar players, and it’s left a lot of users curious as to the extent of their device’s abilities.
Some amp modeling devices double as an audio interface. For example, the Line 6 HX-Stomp is a compact version of the Helix software that is also an audio interface. You can plug your guitar into the FX box, then use the USB output to go straight into your DAW.
However, not all modelers are designed as audio interfaces. Most have USB cables to connect to a computer for software and firmware updates, but this doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily an audio interface either. Be sure to refer to the manual or the product’s specs before attempting to use your modeler as an audio interface.