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Soundcard vs Audio Interface .... questions.....

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I have a pretty hefty PC. I run WinXP Pro, gig of ram, 3.4Ghz proc and tons of 7200rpm HD, both internal and external USB. The OS runs on its own internal HD. I record to a USB 120gig HD and save files to a 100gig internal HD. As well I've tweaked, a word i detest, my system for the least latency with ASIO drivers.

BUT..... what I did not account for when I bought my system was a soundcard. Of all things! Shame on me! Send me out back to the out house!

I have a SoundMax onboard soundcard. Up to now it's proved itself to be.....reliable. It works.

My question revolves around.........

I want to move toward a more hi-quality sound. So, should I look at soundcards or an audio interface? Fact is, I don't know. If I choose an audio interface do I still need a sound card? If so, why would buy an audio interface? Why not just convert the AI bucks into SC bucks?

Just what does an "audio interface" do?

**

LC

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I'm watching with interest, Les...

In the meantime, what is an ASIO driver? And what sort of mixers, pre-amps, etc do you use for acoustic and vocals?

By the way, if I could record as 'clean' as your recordings (the clean playing is more of a problem) that you get, even with your on-board sound-card, I would happily be back in the Lessons and Recording sections of this site, and not pestering Tekker and others for their time and expertise. Luckily, Christmas is coming etc.

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That's a good question, Les. I'll give my opinion, but that's all it is... I think that the design tradeoffs are slightly different between sound cards and audio interfaces. I think that designers of soundcards would be emphasize the quality of the sound generation - the output stage since this is the predominat use of a soundcard. I think that the audio interface designer would be more likely to ensure that the input stages and digitization are high quality. Preamps on an audio interface would be better generally and are more likely to have phantom power. Noise isolation would generally be better because it is outside of the electrically noisey PC chassis. The drivers would probably be better quality at the recording than sound card drivers. There'd be exceptions, though. For example MAudio sound cards would prolly be as good as most audio interfaces, since they are primarily designed for recording.

One thing specific to your case, though (if I read correctly) is that you use a USB hard drive which may cause some problems if you want to use a usb audio interface at the same time. There may be enough bandwidth on the USB for both, but it may add some latencies. Just something to watch for.

Arny Kruger has some comparisons of soundcard qualitiy at his site...

The PC AV Tech

Oh, I missed this originally - an audio interface can be used for sound generation as well so you don't need a sound card if you have an audio interface.

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I would say that an audio interface would be the unit that sits on your desk while the sound card is a card that plugs into a PCI slot. The function is exactly the same, just a different packaging. So I think the terms audio interface and sound card are pretty much interchangeable. I don't think you'd be given any funny looks if you called a sound card an audio interface. ;) I call the M-audio units "sound cards" all the time, although I guess technically they'd be "audio interfaces".

The "audio interface" allows more room for components than a sound card. Most audio interfaces connect to the computer through cable which connects to a PCI card that is installed on the computer.... Other audio interfaces would use Firewire or USB.

Some advantages for an audio interface vs. a sound card:

More and "bigger" components

More channels

Phantom power

Physical controls (like volume knobs, phantom power buttons, etc)

XLR and 1/4" connections (the only inputs that can physically fit on a sound card are 1/8")

Easier access to the input/output connections

Looks cool!! :winkthumb:

The last one being especially important. :D

-tkr

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Tekker & Doug have just about said it all re audio interfaces :winkthumb:, but since this is my newest toy I'll add a little bit.:yes:

I've had the M-Audio Fast Track Pro (below) for only a week. The difference in recording quality compared to my old Sound Blaster has to be heard to be believed....no comparison!

Other advantages:

Connections.....here

Powered from the USB.

Phantom power.

Level controls for the the front inputs. (with lights to let you know when you're clipping)

A fader control for input/playback..adjusts the levels so you can hear yourself play/sing over earlier track/tracks.:yeahhh:

Here's a

of it's features.

Don't get me wrong LC, I'm not pushing this particular product - I'm sure there is a hundred like it. Though I do think this is the ducks nuts.:yes:

But there is no way I will ever go back to an audio interface that plugs into the m/board.

A audio interface is an "external" sound card...with more gizmos.:yes:

+ they look cool!

6326.attach

6327.attach

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Well, here we are nearly a year later. I have suffered through my SoundMax motherboard sound "device" as well as an Eridol UA-1X USB audio interface. For way too long!

This past Monday I finally settled on a *new* sound card. I opted for the M-Audio 2496 PCI sound card. I may raise the ire of others but after much debate and reading, I went for a PCI hard card over a USB/Firewire audio interface.

I received the M-Audio 2496 PCI Card tonight. I'll work with it a couple of weeks and I'll post my critique of it with comparisons to the SoundMax and Eridol interface.

But right this minute, I can absolutely tell you, the MAudio 2496 blows the doors off my other sounds devices.

**

LC

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Congrats on your new toy Les.

I can't help seeing a song idea in your first post - "Kick me out to the Outhouse".... Or "Take me back to the Outhouse"....etc. :winkthumb:

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....I may raise the ire of others but after much debate and reading, I went for a PCI hard card over a USB/Firewire audio interface....

Won't raise my ire - especially since your recordings are about a thousand times better than I could do! Hard to argue with results! :yes:

It's my understanding that PCI is faster than either USB or Firewire, so it should be a very good choice. I went with a Firewire interface for my Mac laptop because I (obviously, since it's a laptop) had to use an external device....it works out well because I'm able to daisy-chain an external HD and the audio interface on a single Firewire connection with no adverse results (latency, etc.).

I look forward to your review/comparison when you get around to it!

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Hi Les,

I'm currently using a Yamaha GO-46 external firewire box. But it only has two inputs and I'm thinking of expanding. Can you give us more feedback on your new card now that you've had it a bit longer?

thanks,

Doug

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Hi Les,

I'm currently using a Yamaha GO-46 external firewire box. But it only has two inputs and I'm thinking of expanding. Can you give us more feedback on your new card now that you've had it a bit longer?

thanks,

Doug

Hey Doug,

Thanks for reminding me Doug! ;)

Let me take a moment and give a little back ground. My recording rig is all hardware. The only software I use is the audio editor Audacity. While I know many home recording systems rely on software mixers, such as Reaper or Acid as well as VST or VSTi plugins, from the beginning I chose to use hardware to get my tones/effects prior to the sound reaching the editor.

I can't really do a side by side comparison against other sound devices except that which I have used. The Edirol USB interface I used, well, suffice it to say, it's boxed up. It was an incredibly annoying device. The sound was OK but it's use in "my" chain was a total headache. The SoundMax onboard sound device on my Dell was meant for listening to CD's and playing games. While it allowed nice tone for the ear, it was designed and is void of any critical sound output. The MAudio 2496 simply blew them out the door. I get great flat tones and through my particular studio setup, I can "wet" that sound in any fashion I choose.

The MAudio 2496 is an exceptional sound card. The clarity of tone is impeccable. Frankly, I can't believe I went as long as I did without any substantial sound device. The 2496 comes with a couple of demo audio editors. Ableton and ProTools M Edition. I do not use them. I prefer Audacity as my editor of choice which is used primarily to "mix down" tracks to a master file. As well, the 2496 has a control panel which simulates a mixer of sorts. I do not use it.

The primary reason I opted for the 2496 PCI sound card was it's RCA connections. By using RCA connections at the sound card, I completed eliminated all adapters and USB connections out of the system. As is always the case in recording, the more connections in a system, the more likely there will be sound degradation and noise injection.

As mentioned, I am completely hardware. Every piece of equipment I have runs into my main mixer, a Behringer X1222FX. Including a midi keyboard, even though the 2496 has midi IN's and OUT's.

The 2496 utilizes RCA IN's and OUT's. My mixer has XLR main outs. I use XLR to RCA cables to run directly into the RCA IN's on the 2496. In order for me to actually mix and master, I need to hear the sounds coming back into the mixer. From the 2496 RCA OUT's I use RCA to 1/4(mono) cables back into a stereo channel on the mixer for monitoring. My mixer has a monitor and a playback port for headphones. By configuring my hardware this way, I have complete routing control of my sound. I use "INSERT" ports on the mixer to chain in my external devices like my compressor and bass enhancer. All my effects pedals are chained as normal in any guitar setup and routed into a mono channel on the mixer.

The mixer is the central control but the 2496 sound card ties it all together nicely. My studio is analog and built more the old fashioned way rather than using digital effects and software built into USB or Firewire devices. I want it this way so I can really learn the art of recording, mixing and mastering. As we all know, recording, mixing and mastering is an on-going learning process. So for my situation, this was the most logical route to go.

As for the MAudio 2496, it is an exceptional piece of work. The sound is incredible and it's installation simple. It may not be for every one to use a sound card like this but for me it was the best way to go.

**

LC

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Thanks Les,

I was just outbid on ebay for a MAudio 2626 firewaire eight channel device. I'm kinda glad because I haven't done enough research yet.

I use condenser mics for the most part so I'm looking for a device that supplies phantom power and has credible preamps. To tell the truth, it's mostly my laziness because I think 2 channels is enough for me. But I don't like having to switch mics and have to readjust the settings whenever I want to go from one mic to another. So I'm looking for a good 4 channel device (or 8 - but 4 is enough). That way I could have my four best mics connected and never have to readjust the inputs.

Glad you are happy with your 2496.

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Thanks Les,

I was just outbid on ebay for a MAudio 2626 firewaire eight channel device. I'm kinda glad because I haven't done enough research yet.

I use condenser mics for the most part so I'm looking for a device that supplies phantom power and has credible preamps. To tell the truth, it's mostly my laziness because I think 2 channels is enough for me. But I don't like having to switch mics and have to readjust the settings whenever I want to go from one mic to another. So I'm looking for a good 4 channel device (or 8 - but 4 is enough). That way I could have my four best mics connected and never have to readjust the inputs.

Glad you are happy with your 2496.

Doug,

Absolutely! Research is the key. I've made many mistakes by not researching enough. Hence my long term search for just the right soundcard/audio-interface. Even my mixer in retrospect, while doing a great job, is not the one I should have chosen.

I think one of the biggest hurdles in starting a home based recording studio is learning the vocabulary of the business. It is a language unto itself.

I use a mix of condenser and dynamic mics. Of course, the mixer I happen to have, has the phantom power I need to accommodate up to six condenser mics. I would highly recommend looking into a hardware mixer for your situation. There are some very good and well priced pieces out there that will handle your mics. Keep in mind, that just because you may have a hardware mixing console, doesn't mean you can't use your software driven mixer. The benefits of having a mixing console it very good. Many consoles have a number of preset effects plus panning and perhaps some EQ built in. But in the greater scheme of things, a console is another tool in your aresenal and you can use a it for just the phantom power while still using all your recording software tools.

**

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I hear you Les. I started with an echo gina 3g which is an external box but is connected to the PC via a proprietary cable and PCI card. Very good device but I wanted something more portable so that I could take it with me on trips. So I then bought a Yamaha GO46. It's fine, but I was misled by by their numbering - 4 inputs and 6 outputs. But two of the four inputs have to come in by ADAT - really weird. Makes you wonder what they were thinking. So now that I want 4 inputs, I'm looking again. What I need is a box that has two xlr inputs with good preamps and two 1/4" inputs - I have an external RNP 2 channel preamp that is very good that I can use on the line inputs.

I've looked at RME products - they look amazing but are really pricey. Then there's MOTU (Mark of the Unicorn) products that are pretty highly recommended. Presonus and Focusrite products are recommended as well. I'm sure they're all better than I need.

There's 15 minutes left on that MAudio 2626 ebay item. I may get swept up by the excitment and put another bid in.

I'll let you know what I come up with.

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Quote: Even my mixer in retrospect, while doing a great job, is not the one I should have chosen.

What a tease you are Les! I spent a few hours on the weekend checking out the Behringer mixer you have - and I think Fly has the same one (at least for me, the next model down in the range) and was getting tempted, and now you say it's not the one you should have chosen!

Can you tell us which is the one you think you should have chosen, and why?

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Quote: Even my mixer in retrospect, while doing a great job, is not the one I should have chosen.

What a tease you are Les! I spent a few hours on the weekend checking out the Behringer mixer you have - and I think Fly has the same one (at least for me, the next model down in the range) and was getting tempted, and now you say it's not the one you should have chosen!

Can you tell us which is the one you think you should have chosen, and why?

Great question, Carol! I'll try to explain. :)

First and foremost, and especially to all you new recording studio technicians out there.

Stepping into the realm of building a home recording studio requires a lot of study and thought. Now, for all the folks who want to go down that "home studio road" and are unsure of their steps, let me assure you, what I'm about to say is not meant to scare you off. Rather it is to help you get your footing!

No matter what you are currently doing or going to be doing with recording your music at home, somewhere down the road you're going to ask yourself, "why did I buy that piece of equipment?" Or, "I wish I could do that with my hardware". Join the club! :)

A recording studio is dynamic. Even quarter million dollar studios change their equipment on a regular basis. Yes, they get their base studio put together but from that point on, it's a changing world. Mic's, preamps, monitors, compressors, patch panels and a myriad other pieces. The studio engineer is *always* searching for that new or elusive tone his or her mind hears but can't seem to get the right combination of tools.

So when you start thinking about a home recording studio, always, always, think of the future. If you don't, you'll always be one or perhaps several steps behind where you want to be. I am a case in point. Never fear to ask questions. Even if you don't know how to talk the "studio" lingo, ask anyway. Learn the terminology. Learn what different components, like a compressor, do to sound. Learn why so many studio engineers love analog over digital. Learn why digital tools make some things just a whole lot easier. The key to the recording side of music is knowledge. Plain and simple.

Now, Carol has asked a great question. Why I feel like my current hardware mixer is not what I "really, really" wanted? To make a long story short, I didn't ask as many questions I should have to find the right mixer for me. The reality is, "I didn't know what to ask about". There you have it. I just didn't know the language. I didn't know the vocabulary enough to make a solid and sound choice.

My current mixer is a Behringer Xyenx 1222FX console. It's plenty powerful, has lots of whiz-bang and does the job perfectly well and as advertised. It's really a great piece of equipment and there is nothing wrong with it. No complaints what so ever. It's clean and quite.

As I mentioned above, I'm into the analog/hardware way of recording. Basically what that means is, I create all my special tones "before" the sounds gets to my computer. As a rule I no longer use any software plug-ins to try and get the tones I think I should have. I work vocal and instrumental effects, compression, panning, EQ'ing before anything gets recorded. In order to do so, I have a lot of outboard equipment. Well, maybe not a lot but enough to manipulate my sound. All this hardware has to plug-in somewhere and after it's plugged in, all the sound created has to route somewhere as well.

So the *big* thing I'm missing right now with the X-1222FX mixer is known as "SUB OUTPUTS". Along with INSERTS, Subouts really make your sound flexible both before (pre-fader) and after (post-fader). What I mean by flexible, is how, when and where the sound is routed through the mixer and ultimately to the PC. For example, with subouts I could route vocal MIC's differently than from my instruments. I can daisy chain devices into the system more easily with subouts.

At this point, I want to let you know, I am by no means an expert on any of this and I want to re-assure you again, it's not as scary as it sounds. It's a matter of understanding, or at least having and idea, how the sound is manipulated through INPUT jacks, through BUSSES, MAIN OUTS and finally to the DAW.

So in all of this, I am now looking at a couple of different mixers. Not because the one I have doesn't go a good job. It's because the one I have doesn't do what I want it to do. I'd also like to reiterate, that what I'm doing with my studio is unique to my needs and not necessarily the right way for anyone else. But for anyone who wants to travel this road, it's a genuine learning experience.

Ah! Hmm! I just heard someone say something. Someone just said "But I don't want to spend all the time you're talking about it to learn all that stuff about inserts and sub outs and busses. All I want to do is make music." Well, friend. That's exactly what I said. But you know what? Once I turned down that Home Studio Road, I started learning more and more. My music and recordings have not suffered. They have gotten better. It can't be helped!

;)

**

LC

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Thanks for giving us all some tips Les. It certainly is true that you have to do a whole lot of researching to get the first idea about which does what. I know that I've learned heaps about recording from the members on this site - Tekker deserves a medal for steering me through PCI Interfaces last year.

You'll be pleased to hear, Les, that he really wanted me to get the MAudio 2496 that you just bought, but they were difficult (and expensive) to get here, and the fact that you had to dive into the CPU unit to install it scared me off (these days it wouldn't!) I bought an ebay basic Tascam USB device and it was a huge improvement in sound - and being USB I could use it on the mac too.

There's no doubt though that almost any Interface or external sound card is a major improvement over any on-board sound card that comes with the computer - I'm not talking about Macs which seem to have a reasonably good on board mic/soundcard that's ok for beginners.

Your experience and info is greatly appreciated - and useful. Thanks :)

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hello all, I am a little bit desperate. I wanted to record my play, so I

got a soundcard, some loudspeaker, a micro, Asio driver, and loaded

Kristal down. All is fine ... only, it won´t work. It records just fine only you can´t hear a thing. I tried almost everything. Dials up, or down, it is all the same .I tried to read the Help-side of Kristal. But I must admit, my english isn`t just good enough I don´t understand

everything-. Technical englisch is rather different. So if there is someone willing to help me, possible in german It would be great.

Thanks in advance Joke

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When you say it records alright but you can't hear anything, do you mean while you are playing? Or do you never hear anything even on playback after you have recorded something?

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What a great thread this one is,and it was just in time!At first I want to thank you all for the very useful info about recordings and recording hardware.Then I would like to ask some questions.I want to upgrade to a sound card better than the one I have now(I use the standard one from when I bought the PC).I was wondering about many things and with the help from this thread I must say I know things a bit better now.I like the reviews on both the M-Audio Fast Track Pro and the M-Audio 2496 PCI.I want to ask this though.Having S/PDIF out from the effects processor I use,shouldn't help me connect the processor directly to the sound card?If I got it right both audio interfaces have S/PDIF in.I also hear that connecting through S/PDIF is a lot better.Another question would be this.Does the M-Audio 2496 PCI need a preamp for a condenser mic?And the last one is wether the Fast Track Pro is compatible with Vista...If someone can clarify my questions,please answer...

All the best,

Theo

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Hello Carol, when I playback , my play is just to low. Whatever I do

with the loudspeaker won´t work. If I dial them up for recording I get

an echo but still the playback isn´t any louder. If I dial them down

I hear almost nothing in playback. I have no Idea what to do, again

I am gratefull for every help.

I checked also the device and it is allright, I think.

Greetings joke

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Alright... having a few more hours in on the MAudio 2496 PCI Soundcard.

If you have just installed or considering installing the MAudio 2496

Rule1) DO NOT go back and listen to your old mixes. Just start over!

Use your old mixes as a reference point of where not to be.

There is THAT much difference in tonal quality. My gawd!

**

LC

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That's cool. I'm glad you got it. Do you find yourself using lots of channels simultaneously or do you layer one channel in at a time?

Your last song - the other side of my heart - was excellent.

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Hello Carol, when I playback , my play is just to low. Whatever I do

with the loudspeaker won´t work. If I dial them up for recording I get

an echo but still the playback isn´t any louder. If I dial them down

I hear almost nothing in playback. I have no Idea what to do, again

I am gratefull for every help.

I checked also the device and it is allright, I think.

Greetings joke

I'm sorry I didn't reply sooner Joke, I've been battling with my computer.

I'm not sure what you mean by 'I got a soundcard' and a micro? Are you plugging your guitar straight into Line In on your computer?

Have you read through Tekker's lessons on Recording?

The index is http://www.guitarforbeginners.com/forum/tekkers-lessons/

Browse through some of the Computer Recording lessons and I thinkyou will get some help there.

I think you would get more specific help for your problems if you started your own thread in the Home Studio forum and tell members what your particular problems are there.

Good luck - you will succeed, but there's a lot to learn! :winkthumb:

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The question of ASIO came up, so I thought I'd try and spill what little I understand. ASIO is a driver model that Steinberg introduced but that third parties can support. If your card has ASIO drivers, they will likely be the best performing, lowest latency drivers you can get. If your recording app gives you a choice, ASIO is usually the best to pick, so: ASIO soundcard with an ASIO app, and you are set.

Then there was the topology question. PCI, vs Firewire, VS USB (and some variants of course).

PCI is *POTENTIALLY* a solid connection thru your motherboard's signal flow, AFAIK there may or may not be layers of crap between the PCI bus and the parts of the circuit that the soundcard needs access to to get the work done. Generally, the most stable, lowest latency cards you can get will be PCI. The downfall is you have to take it out of the computer to put it in another one, if you need the card over multiple systems. Also, it may be tricky using PCI cards with a laptop, though newer variants of PCI-e are making that possible with controversial claims of success

Firewire seems like it could be a good thing. AFAIK there are a few layers of crap that the FW buss needs to deal with on the way to the components it needs to deal with thruputting audio and tasks like getting it to your disks in a way that is somewhat more indirect than PCI. There are a few cards out there with latency as low as PCI running on firewire. It is easy as pie to go between different computers with the same FW device. The problem is that firewire is extremely sketchy and a lot of computers' firewire ports and handling is just not up to the task of dealing with our needs in audio. Sad to single out a manufacturer, but many companies will reccomend a TI based firewire chipset for their soundcards to plug into. Unfortunately, bad motherboard design and/or bad drivers from anywhere along the chain can make even a TI FW device behave unreliably.

USB for 2 channels this seems viable. A lot of decent devices are out there as stereo or four channel USB devices. Even more than firewire they are extremely susceptible to every type of evil that can get in the way of recording. Most USB drivers allow just about anything you do on your PC to interrupt your recording. Once you have a stable setup though, you can enjoy high quality recording for under 100 bucks in many cases. Latency in USB devices is usually pretty poor, but manageable. USB soundcards are extremely portable.

Drivers EVERYTHING comes down to your drivers. There are a few companies known for often putting out good drivers, though they are quite likely to slip up TERRIBLY now and then. Some can have 64 buffers of latency and run great, while others can be at 1024 buffers and still bog your computer down and skip like mad.

Check the user forums and anything you can on the net about any soundcards' drivers you can. The amount of frustration you can experience with poorly written drivers even from the most respected names in the industry can cause you to give up this hobby completely. Many of these companies are riding on reputation they gained from other areas and in my opinion have ZERO business making soundcards. Don't go on name alone, you will be bitten on the behind rather badly.

Manufacturers will try and confuse you (lie would be a better term) with low latency values, but the real world does not bear them out. The real measure you are after is "round trip latency", or the time it takes from signal to enter the card, thru the asio system, through your app and back out to where you can hear it. Here is a tool for testing round trip latency CEntrance, Inc. / Downloads

Don't let anyone lie to you

At this point, and I got jack for money so sue away, I would avoid any soundcard using the Dice-II firewire system. While advances are being made to fix their shortcomings, its been years, and too little too late. They are ridiculously latent, dropout prone and desync on an unreal basis. I know that everyone's got an uncle with a Dice-II based card that works great, but you are digging your own grave here

To save oodles of pain down the road, get to know this tool DPC Latency Checker

If you are getting red lines on it, you will have problems. Find out, or have a friend who is techy, find out what is causing the red line burps and take care of it. On one of my PC's, a Dell Laptop, simply disabling the CDDVD burner takes care of the issue. Other likely troublemakers are bluetooth and wifi (but there are ways to deal with that besides turning them off - how can you record without chatting on IRC at the same time?)

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