Does An Audio Interface Replace A Sound Card?

You may be wondering, “Does an audio interface replace a sound card?” Let’s look at what an audio interface is and what a sound card is.

Does An Audio Interface Replace A Sound Card?

An audio interface is an external sound card. External meaning it is not a built-in part of your stock computer. Most audio interfaces connect to your computer via a USB connection, or a Fire Wire connection. Your stock computer probably already has a built-in sound card that functions much like an audio interface. For professional audio production purposes, the audio interface should be used to capture high resolution audio. The built-in sound card in your stock computer will still be inside your computer but will not be used unless you want to use it for different tasks. The Audio Interface will give you better audio quality and help your computer perform better.

What Is An Audio Interface?

An audio interface is an external sound card built into a housing that provides you with high quality preamps and AD / DA converters.

An audio interfaces allows you to easily connect your musical instruments, microphones, and MIDI gear to your computer via a USB connection, Fire wire connection, or other connection.

Audio interfaces give you the convenience of connecting all of your audio gear to one computer, provide high resolution audio, and reduce the processing load of your computer to eliminate latency.

Video Credit: Sweetwater

What Does An Audio Interface Do?

If you want to record high resolution audio (24 bit / 44-192kHz) then you will need to get yourself an audio interface.

How To Connect All Your Gear To An Audio Interface

An audio interface provides one central location where you can connect all of your instruments, microphones, MIDI, studio monitors, headphones, ADAT, and any other gear you may use such as a mixer to your computer.

The audio interface will provide phantom power to power your condenser microphones.

An audio interface should have top quality preamps to process incoming signal and provide you with top quality AD / DA converters.

AD (analog to digital) / DA (digital to analog) converters are key to working with analog signal in the digital realm.

The AD converter changes analog signal coming from your microphones and instruments into a digital signal your computer can work with.

The DA converter changes the digital signal coming back out of your computer into an analog signal that can be played back through your studio monitors or headphones.

The processing of the signal happens inside of the audio interface and therefore takes the processing load off of your computer.

What Is A Sound Card?

A sound card is a miniature audio interface that is built as a circuit board and plugs into the motherboard on your stock computer.

The stock sound card also has AD/DA converters to allow for a microphone input from something like a phone headset or a stereo input.

The sound card converts incoming analog signal to digital signal that your computer can work with and then converts digital signal back to analog signal that can be played through your computer’s speakers or headphones.

A stock sound card will only give you one or possibly two audio inputs and a headphone output and speaker output.

A stock sound card will lack high quality preamps and high-resolution AD/DA converters.

The stock sound card will not give you as high-quality audio signal processing as an audio interface.

What Does A Sound Card Do?

Your computer contains a sound card for one reason.

The sound card gives you the ability to listen to music, videos, and Skype or Zoom conversations happening on your computer.

Some computer sound cards will give you one or two 1/8th inch jacks to connect a microphone and a pair of cheap computer speakers.

Your computer’s internal sound card converts the digital audio signal happening in your computer to an analog signal that can be played through the computer’s speakers or headphones.

That is all the internal sound card on your computer was designed to do.

Works great for casual listening to conversations, videos, music, etc.

Do Sound Cards Produce Phantom Power?

Condenser microphones need phantom power to operate properly.

Your computers onboard sound card does not produce phantom power.

Phantom power is the power source needed to operate condenser microphones and is generally around 48v.

However, you can plug a dynamic microphone into most computer sound cards if you use an XLR to 1/8-inch adapter.

The Main Differences Between Sound Cards And Audio Interfaces

Sound Card

A sound card is designed to do one thing and that is play back the digital audio happening inside your computer so you can hear the activities that are happening on your computer.

In order for the digital audio to be played back through your computer speakers it first has to be converted from a digital signal to an analog signal.

The sound card in your computer does the digital to analog and analog to digital conversions.

Your computer speakers and headphones need analog signal to work.

If you have something like a microphone plugged into your computer, the sound card will convert the analog signal coming from the microphone device to a digital signal that the computer can work with.

The sound card is powered and processed by your computers onboard processer and uses up some of your computers processing resources.

A stock computer sound card is not designed to work as a high-end audio signal processer.

Audio Interface

The audio interface is designed to work as a high-end audio signal processing unit.

The audio interface will have good quality to excellent quality preamps and AD/ DA converters.

When working with audio on a pro level the importance of quality preamps and AD/DA converters is important for your final mix quality.

The audio interface will provide you with anywhere from two audio inputs to 20-50 or more inputs.

The audio inputs generally come from an analog signal source and then are converted to a digital signal that the computer can work with.

The quality of this conversion is important and is described in bit and sample rate. A very good sample rate would be described as 24bit/ 192khz resolution.

The high-resolution digital signal is now processed in your computer using your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software.

Of course, you will want to hear what is going on inside your computer, so the computer sends the high-resolution digital signal back out to your audio interface and then sent to your studio monitors and headphones.

When the high-resolution digital signal comes back out of your computer it will need to be converted from a high-resolution digital signal back to a high-quality analog signal.

The audio interface is going to take care of this for you as well.

The DA converter will convert the high-resolution digital signal back to a high-quality audio signal that can be played back on your studio monitors and headphones.

Audio interfaces provide you with a quick and easy way to connect all of your gear to your computer so you can write and record your own music with your DAW software.

Audio Interface VS. Sound Card

ScenarioAudio InterfaceSound Card
Easy To Connect All
Your Recording Gear
YesNo
High Quality
Preamps
YesNo
High Quality
AD/DA
Converters
YesNo
Connect MIDIYesNo
Direct MonitoringYesNo
Phantom PowerYesNo
High Resolution
Audio
YesNo
Goes Good With
Ice Cream?
YesYes

Do I Need A Sound Card If I Have An Audio Interface?

If you have a computer and an audio interface, chances are you already have a built-in sound card in your computer.

If you have a computer with a sound card already in it and are thinking about getting an audio interface, you do not have to remove your sound card from your computer.

Simply connect your audio interface to your computer via a USB or Fire Wire connection and you’re good to go.

You will then need to select your audio interface as the sound card you want your computer to use.

It’s super easy to get started with an audio interface.

Does An Audio Interface Improve Sound Quality?

Yes, an audio interface will improve the sound quality of your recordings, mixes, and mastered projects.

You may not be able to tell a big difference in the sound quality if your ears are not seasoned.

A good quality audio interface will make a positive difference in your audio quality.

The preamps and AD converter will significantly improve the analog signal going into the computer to be used inside your DAW software.

Likewise, the DA converter will convert high resolution digital signal back to a high-quality analog signal to be played back through your studio monitors.

By the way, along with a good audio interface you should invest in a quality set of active studio monitors.

Good studio monitors make it so much easier to hear what is going on in your mix.

Relevant Article: Are Studio Monitors Necessary? Check This Article Out To Learn More About Studio Monitors.

Why Is An Audio Interface Better Than A Sound Card?

If you are building a home recording studio and want your audio quality to be the best it can be, then an audio interface is going to give you much better-quality audio.

Below I have listed some of the advantages of using an audio interface.

Sample Rate

An audio interface will allow you to adjust the sample rate you want to record at.

Sample Rate is the number of times the audio signal is captured per second.

As you increase the sample rate, you capture more samples of the incoming audio signal each second.

Sample Rate values are typically written in kHz (kiloHertz).

The higher the sample rate you record your audio at the better the frequency response.

The human ear can hear frequencies from 20Hz – 20kHz

When using a sample rate of 48kHz, we can capture audio frequencies up to 24kHz.

Most audio interfaces will have the ability to record with a sample rate from 44kHz – 192kHz.

Bit Depth

Bit Depth is the number of “bits” captured in each sample per second.

If you are familiar with music, you may know the term dynamic range.

Dynamic range is the difference between the lowest and highest volume when playing an instrument.

As you increase bit depth, you expand the threshold of what can be heard and recorded by your recording software.

Common Bit Depths: 16, 24, and 32 bits.

Preamps

The job of the preamp is to raise the signal of an incoming microphone or instrument to a line-level signal suitable for recording.

A preamp is designed to raise the audio signal without raising the noise floor with things like hiss or electrical hum.

A good preamp will give your incoming audio signal a better quality of sound that we refer to as color, tone, or texture.

In other words, it makes the sound better. This is generally due to design of the preamp circuit and the quality of the electrical components used to build the preamp.

Dedicated Drivers

Most all audio interfaces come with their own set of drivers.

The driver is software that allows your audio interface to communicate with your computer.

Since your audio interface has its own set of dedicated drivers this speeds up the communication between your computer and audio interface which helps reduce latency.

Reduces Latency

An audio interface has its own onboard processing and AD/DA converters.

Since your audio interface does its own processing of the audio signal this takes a load off of your computers processor and reduces the number of tasks your computer processor has to do.

This helps reduce latency caused by an over tasked computer.

One Connection Point For All Your Gear

An audio interface makes it super easy to connect all your microphones, instruments, and MIDI devices to your computer.

You can plug all your gear into your audio interface and leave everything connected so you are always ready to record when inspiration hits.

Studio Monitors

You can easily connect your studio monitors to an audio interface.

The back of the audio interface will have outputs designed especially for connecting your studio monitors.

You can connect active or powered studio monitors, or you can send the signal to an amplifier if you are using passive studio monitors.

Some audio interfaces have multiple monitor connections so you can connect more than one set of studio monitors.

This allows you reference your mix through more than one set of studio monitors.

MIDI

If you are using MIDI equipment you can connect your MIDI gear directly to your audio interface if it has MIDI in and MIDI out.

If your audio interface does not have a MIDI connection, you can connect your MIDI device directly to your computer via a USB connection in most cases.

Phantom Power

Condenser microphones need phantom power to operate properly.

Audio Interfaces are a good source for phantom power and make it super easy to connect your condenser microphones.

Are Mixers The Same As Audio Interfaces?

Yes and No. Let me explain.

Mixer With Onboard Audio Interface

An audio interface is a very basic style of mixer.

You can connect your gear to your audio interface and control the settings such as gain and the playback volume.

The actual mixing of the signal will happen inside of your Digital Audio Workstation. (DAW)

Mixers on the other hand will allow you to plug your instruments and microphones into the mixer and you can set your gain, EQ, panning, add effects, and incorporate mix buses and monitor mixes.

Today’s modern mixers will also have onboard AD / DA converters so you can connect your mixer directly to your computer via a USB connection.

If you have a large home recording studio you may find that a 16, 24, or 48 track mixer with a built-in audio interface and AD / DA converters will serve you better than a regular audio interface.

If you will be recording a large band live or if you are a drummer, you may find a mixer with a built-in audio interface is a better option for your home recording studio.

Can I Use A Mixer With An Audio Interface?

Yes, you can use your mixer with an audio interface.

Let’s say you own an older mixer, and it does not have a built-in audio interface to convert AD / DA to use with your computer.

You can connect your mixers stereo or bus outputs directly to your audio interface.

The drawback is that you will not have individual track recording if you go this route.

Which Audio Interface Should I Get?

When it comes to choosing a good audio interface for your home recording studio you need to consider several different things.

1. How many inputs do you need?

2. How much desk space do you have?

3. What type of monitoring needs will you require?

4. Do you need a MIDI connection?

5. How many studio monitors will you need to connect?

6. What is your budget?

7. How many headphone jacks do you need?

These are just some basic questions you may want to ask yourself when you are trying to decide which audio interface will serve you best.

If you are just getting started with your home recording setup, I recommend starting fairly small and you can upgrade as you need to.

Learn to plan and budget your money.

Relevant Article: The Best Audio Interface For A Home Studio. Check out some great audio interfaces for your home studio.

What Others Are Saying

Direct QuoteSource
“When you connect an audio interface to your computer or laptop, you effectively bypass the onboard soundcard, so yes an audio interface can replace the sound card. The interface is used to process the audio, rather than the computer relying on the soundcard and its drivers.”https://stampsound.com/can-an-audio-interface-replace-the-sound-card/#:~:text=When%20you%20connect%20an%20audio,the%20soundcard%20and%20its%20drivers.
“Yes, an audio interface IS an external sound card that is specifically
designed for audio production. But it is also much more besides,
with specialised drivers, inputs and outputs, making recording music a
much better experience.”
https://musicianshq.com/what-is-the-difference-between-an-audio-interface-and-a-soundcard/
“Technically speaking, a sound card is an audio interface, but it features minimal inputs and outputs as well as lower audio recording quality.
An Audio Interface lets you record all the inputs that it has available simultaneously while a sound card will only allow for tracks to be recorded one at a time.”
https://thehomerecordings.com/audio-interface-vs-sound-card/
“If you are starting from scratch, you will probably want a USB Focusrite or Presonus interface. If you see a cheap enough used Firewire mixer, that could also be an interesting option, but they can be tricky to setup. This will bypass your built-in sound card for both recording and playback.”https://www.quora.com/Should-I-buy-an-audio-interface-or-get-my-sound-card-on-my-computer-replaced
“You see, technically, a sound card is a form of an audio interface. But, it doesn’t quite have as many functions and desirable qualities that an audio interface has.”https://www.becomesingers.com/vocal-recording/audio-interface-vs-sound-card
“For studio quality stuff, there are combined microphone preamps and D/A converters with Firewire interface (USB is also available but is a lot more vague with latency management and bandwidth guarantees, so at the very least keep off USB/Midi devices, mice, keyboards and similar from the same USB bus). They are not exactly cheap.”https://music.stackexchange.com/questions/48613/sound-card-or-audio-interface
“Despite looking completely different, audio interfaces and sound cards do basically the same thing. They both exist as devices to help computers translate audio from a digital signal to an analog signal and vice versa.”https://producerhive.com/ask-the-hive/audio-interface-vs-sound-card-differences/
“You can make basic recordings with any modern computer, laptop or tablet as they all come with a built in sound card. You can improve the sound of your recordings to some extent, especially on phones and tablets, with a better microphone. However to really make a professional recording you will need an audio interface or a better sound card.”https://www.musicrepo.com/what-is-an-audio-interface/
“There are several reasons to use a dedicated audio interface, rather than the sound card built into your computer. Technically speaking, a sound card is an audio interface, but its limited sound quality and minimal I/O make it less than ideal for recording. Many sound cards only have a consumer-grade stereo line level input, a headphone output, and possibly also a consumer-grade stereo line level output. Electromagnetic and radio interference, jitter, and excessive latency all degrade or negatively affect audio both on the way in and on the way out.”https://www.sweetwater.com/insync/audio-interface-buying-guide/

Final Thoughts

If you want to produce with high quality audio for your home recording studio projects, then you will want to get yourself an audio interface.

Decide how many inputs and outputs you need and whether or not you want MIDI in and MIDI out.

I do recommend getting an audio interface with the MIDI connection. Even if you aren’t using MIDI now you may want to start using it later and having a MIDI connection on your audio interface will free up a USB connection on your computer.

Be sure and check out the link I placed above where you can learn about some good starter audio interfaces for your home studio.

If you like playing, writing, recording, and producing music I have a ton of great articles to help get you moving in the right direction.

Take a little time and have a look around my website. I think you will find it helpful.

Please leave your questions and helpful comments below.

6 thoughts on “Does An Audio Interface Replace A Sound Card?”

  1. I am so glad there are posts like this for people like me that are not that computer savvy! I once tried setting up a studio so that I can record Youtube videos, It didn’t work out at all as it seems I didn’t have all the right equipment in my PC. 

    Thanks for sharing this information with us, next time I’ll know where to go if I need a proper set up. 

    Reply
    • An audio interface is great for podcast and microphones for YouTube videos.  I have a lot of great articles you can check out if you are still interested in setting up a small home studio for videos, podcast, and audio production. 

      Let me know if you have questions or need help getting set back up.

      Reply
  2. Your site is very informative and well laid out. I learned something new today as I know nothing in the audio interface department. For someone who is at your site as a newbie in this department, they’d leave it having a good understanding instead of even more confused. I like the chart you provide on what other websites are saying about audio interfaces as well, I need to get an audio interface but I’m not sure which one yet and I greatly appreciate the information you provide. 

    Reply
    • Hi Stephanie, and thanks for stopping by.  I try to provide you with good information to help you build your home studio the right way.  If you are looking for a good audio interface for your home studio, I have an article I wrote where you can look at several different audio interfaces that will be good to get you started.  You can check it out here. I hope this helps and let me know if you have other questions. 

      Reply
  3. Your website is really helpful and well-designed. I learned something new today because I know nothing about audio interfaces. I learned a lot today about this audio interface. And if I buy one, I can now decide for myself what kind of one to buy. And the videos you put up make it even clearer. We use a sound card. Which is better? Keep posting like this. Thank you very much.

    Reply
    • I’m glad the article was helpful to you.  To answer your question, if you are doing audio production, I highly recommend an audio interface. Everything else you do on the computer the stock sound card will work just fine.  

      Reply

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