Personally, I prefer to have an external audio interface rather than the internal PCI sound cards that are fitted inside your computer (like the classic Sound Blaster sound card for instance) although internal PCI sound cards are great workhorses for gamers and people watching films on their PC.

The right external audio interface can offer various advantages:

  • You won’t need get to the back of your computer every time you want to plug in a microphone or your electric guitar.
  • Many audio interfaces have better quality pre-amps for each of the audio inputs.  This means that when you plug an instrument or microphone into you sound card, you’ll get a better signal to noise ratio (basically less noisy inputs) and often a better tonal quality to your recordings.  For the recording musician a decent pair of pre-amps are a must, but you will find that there is much debate about the best ones.  I personally really like the ones in my PreSonus FireBox (this particular box plugs in via a Firewire connector and not USB).   I certainly wouldn’t go back to the plain inputs found in some devices.
  • You’ll often have a dedicated volume control with which to control the output to your speakers, and often gain controls to vary the amount of signal flowing from your instrument into your computer.  This is really handy for ensuring that you get optimal signal volume once it gets to your recording software.
  • Fantom power!  Some microphones, especially condenser microphones  require power to operate.  Some mics get this power from a battery fitted inside the mic, but others get their power from the audio interface.  This is called fantom power, and there is usually a switch to turn it on. This is usually a feature of interfaces with three pin XLR (also known as balanced) microphone connections.  Not essential for the beginner, but experienced and serious users will want to have this type of connectors!
  • Bus power.  If you get the right audio interface, then you won’t need one of those horrible ‘wall wart’ power supplies, as many units can derive their power from the USB connection (often called the USB Bus).  This is great news if you’re wanting to take your laptop and interface out and about for recording on location away from your studio.  I also find that  external power supplies introduce unwanted noise and irritating ‘ground loop’ hums, so if you can avoid them its often beneficial.

17 Responses to Why I prefer an external audio interface

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  16. Rohit says:

    Hi. Thanks for the website. This is really helping me finally understand all this. But I have a question: Would I still need a decent sound card if I get a USB interface? Cause my laptop has on-board audio and the recording quality isn’t good and there’s significant latency. So will a USB interface solve the problem or would I have to pair it with a sound card too?

  17. Paul says:

    Thanks for the comment. I’m really glad you’re finding the site helpful.

    If you choose the right USB audio interface you shouldn’t need any other hardware.

    If you’re worried about latency, look for an interface with ‘zero latency’ in it’s specification (most have this, but it’s worth checking specs). This allows you to listen directly to the sound you are recording through the interfaces ‘internal mixer’ (before it is delayed by the computer processing).

    Hope this helps.

    If you can let me know a little about what you want to achieve, I may be able offer some hardware suggestions.

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