For most people, a PC is the efficient and versatile centerpiece of the home studio. But is your existing PC sound card costing you audio quality?
It doesn't have to -- not if you have a sound card capable of 24/96 analog and digital recordings. These "high end" PCI-based cards add a new level of capability, offering a variety of input and output options and quality 24/96 recording.
24/96 stands for 24-bit resolution and 96-KHz sampling, currently the highest recording specification available in a prosumer sound card. Compare that to the 16-bit, 48-KHz specifications of a standard Creative SoundBlaster Live! Card or the 44.1-KHz sample rate of a standard audio CD. Although the typical listener wouldn't be able to discern the difference between a 24/96 card and a SoundBlaster, the typical audiophile or musician would. And that's why they would spend $600 for a phatty sound card.
Here are three excellent 24/96 cards that will bring your recording to the next level.
- Aardvark Direct Pro 24/96
The Aardvark Direct Pro 24/96 is the flagship card in the Direct Pro series, and at $699, it's not cheap. This hardware/software combo provides the tools for professional recordings right out of the box and no external mixer is needed.
In addition to a PCI card, the package includes a large breakout box, which allows users to plug in up to four analog microphone or line-ins (XLR). The box also has six analog-outs (1/4-inch jack), MIDI in and out, and a port for connecting to the sound card via a cable.
The card itself has an RCA digital input and output and its components (DSP and so on) are specially sealed to prevent unwanted noise from your CPU. Up to four cards can be used simultaneously in a single PC.
The Direct Pro 24/96 control panel software is robust and easy to use, giving the user full access to a virtual mixing board. The interface gives you control over meters, faders, pan adjustments, trim, and EQ -- all in real time.
This is the most expensive package in the roundup and it's worthy of attention, especially for those who don't already have a good mixer to plug into. The breakout box has all the connections any musician needs and the card was able to accurately record all of our sources (synths, handclaps, acoustic guitar) and the noise-to-signal ratio was the second highest in the roundup (using Cool Edit Pro).
- M Audio Delta 66
The $499 Delta 66, from popular MIDI hardware house M Audio, functions as a six-input/six-output digital recording interface. In addition to the PCI sound card (with digital I/O), the package ships with an initially complex breakout box. We call it complex because it has more I/Os, knobs, and meters per square inch than almost any piece of hardware we've seen.
Four analog inputs and outputs give you up to 24-bit data width and any sampling rate from 8 KHz to 96 KHz. Each I/O has its own software-based +4/-10 gain switch, and virtually all the routing and hardware settings can be tweaked with Delta's control panel software.
Like the Aardvark, the card sounds good. Various live samples were recorded at various sampling rates and compared to SoundBlaster recordings. The difference is slight but true. Noise is also not a problem with this card.
Overall, we'd recommend this less expensive setup to those thinking of stepping up to the next level. The breakout box does lack MIDI connections (SoundBlaster Live! owners can still use their existing card), which is an oversight in our opinion, but the breakout box does offer plenty of options.
- Digital Audio Labs CardDeluxe 24/96
The CardDeluxe is the simplest package in the roundup. All you get is a PCI card (no breakout box) and in our opinion, it's the best of the bunch. Those requiring multiple I/Os may be disappointed, since the card only has one two-channel 1/4-inch analog in and out, plus a digital I/O. However, those with deep pockets (and extra PCI slots) may slave several cards together.
The reason many like this card is simple. It reproduced our recordings the most accurately with no noise whatsoever. We already have a mixer anyway and were always satisfied with our analog and digital recordings.
The only negative here is the placement of the input and output level switch on the card itself. Changing the outputs from +4 to -1, for example, requires getting into the box and manually switching jumper blocks. For $595, this card will provide a solid foundation for your home studio.
Home HTML Menu Extra Information HTML Hub