The advent of cheaper audio interface cards, combined with less-expensive audio editing programs like SONAR and Pro Tools LE, has revolutionized the home recording market. Musicians working in their homes can now produce professional-sounding recordings with an investment of less than $1,000. In order to record audio to the computer, you need to get a sound card.
FireWire vs. USB
FireWire (iEEE1394) and USB are the two most common interfaces for a sound card. Using an external sound card, connected by either FireWire or USB, takes a load off the CPU of your computer. Theoretically, USB 2.0, with transfer speeds of 480 Mbps, is enough for simple audio projects. Many companies offer excellent smaller sound cards using USB. However, real world studies show that even FireWire 400, with transfer speeds of only 400 Mbps, is often faster than USB. FireWire 800, which supports transfer speeds of up to 800 Mbps, is an even better choice.
One problem with FireWire is that many computers don't come with a FireWire input, so you will need to add an extra PCMCI or PCI card to your computer. Many laptops, if they do come with a FireWire port, only come with a 4 pin FireWire port. The 6 pin FireWire ports are superior, and enable the FireWire device to be powered off the computer. The FireWire 800 ports are different than FireWire 800 ports, but you can get cables that work from the 6-pin ports on your computer to the 800 ports on your interface.
When looking at a sound card, one thing you will need to decide on is the number of inputs you need. Many basic cards have two inputs: a 1/4-inch instrument plug and an XLR plug for a microphone. These are perfect for a singer-songwriter, and by multitracking, you can even record a full band. To get better results with a band, however, it is best to get a sound card that has multiple inputs so you can connect several microphones and mike the drum kit.
While Pro Tools is the industry standard, it is a hardware-based system that will only work with certain interfaces. You need to invest in the Pro Tools hardware to use the software. Pro Tools has licensed their program to work with certain less expensive audio interfaces made by M-Audio on the M-powered Pro Tools platform. Some of these M-Audio devices are also compatible with other popular audio programs like Cakewalk SONAR and Steinberg Cubase.
Several companies, including Alesis, Cakewalk, Edirol, and Tascam, make mixing consoles that can function as sound cards with a DAW (digital audio workstation) for multitrack recording. These mixing consoles give the budding audio engineer a lot of flexibility. Some, like the Alesis MasterControl FireWire console ($900), also come packaged with powerful recording software like Steinberg Cubase.
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