A USB audio interface is a powerful external sound card that’s almost always used for high quality music recordings. More commercial users of PCs won’t need all the features and high quality sound ability of such a professional external sound card, even hardcore gamers. Gamers are more into video quality.
A USB audio interface is an external box of varying weights that plugs into a computer via a USB cable, there is only one driver available, and very high quality sound can be produced. The more expensive the USB audio interface the higher the quality of sound will be and the more features will be available. Of course, your computer better have a good amount of RAM and a dual core processor for the higher end cards or the sound quality is not going to be as good. These types of cards are usually reserved for professional sound engineers and professional musicians, however as costs have come down amateur musicians can also greatly benefit from owning their own external sound card at home.
These external sound cards allow for what’s called polyphony, meaning that playback of multiple voices or just a single voice. This sound can be heard through headphones or a monitor (amplifier). These “voices” and more commonly referred to as channels to engineers and musicians. The higher end the audio card the more channels and effects the musicians will have access to. Musicians can listen to playback through what’s called a DAC or digital to analog converter, this device converts digital information into sound. Again, these playbacks can be listened to through a pair of quality headphones or through the use of a monitor. Headphones are generally used by engineers during the tweaking process or recording, while the whole band can listen to playbacks through a monitor later.
ASIO stands for audio stream input output, most of the professional audio cards will have this capability. This will allow for multi-channel recording and playback as well as studio grade hi-fidelity sound. These input, outputs are accessed through a USB cable or firewire. A high level of sampling rates due to the power of the outputs and the hardware allow for excellent sound quality and an AD/DA converter or analog to digital/digital to analog feature allows the information to flow through the inputs and outputs.
This is what makes digital recording of music sound so clean and warm and true to life and has made digital recording the best way to record music in our modern era. In fact analog tape is rarely used anymore and many manufacturers have stopped making it altogether. Some purists will probably preserve this older method of recording however, as they see it as being more full and warm.
A lower end example of a decent USB 2.0 audio interface is the Tascam US-100. It’s perfect for the amateur musician and home recording, as it retails for just $70 dollars and is very easy to use. It’s made of a sturdy aluminum case construction and is basically plug and play. It is compatible with Windows or Mac without any software installation, which is a rarity. It comes with a ¼ inch instrument input and a 1/8 inch headphone jack output.
E-Mu makes a more middle of the road USB audio interface, it’s 0202 model retails for around $129.00 dollars. It features 24 bit sound at 192 KHz. It has two preamps and a MIDI controller for keyboards, along with a basic array of MIDI sounds like a Hammond B-3 organ. It’s software is easy to use and it is also good for the novice musician. The recommended PC requirements for this device are 2GB of RAM and a 2GHz dual core processor. This device works with both Sony ACID and Apple Garage Band software as well making it versatile and desirable.
If you’re looking for something a little more pro, Cakewalk makes quite a few top of the line professional USB audio interfaces. The UA-101 10 x 10 Audio & MIDI Interface retails for about $500 dollars. All throughput is very fast and it features 10 full channels. It also has an analog limiter to avoid clipping; and it is Mac and Windows compatible. Additional equipment for the pro engineer would include things like a USB cable, an AC adapter, headphones, a monitor, and a MIDI controller.
There are plenty of USB audio interface options to choose from making them perfect for professional sound engineers and amateur musicians alike. Look around and you’re sure to find the perfect model for you.