How Does a Soundcard Affect Music Recording Quality?


You probably know a lot about music production, such as the equipment you need and the techniques about creating a full song or podcast with tools you have. However, one thing that is entirely overlooked when talking about music production is the technical aspects such as computer specifications, and the soundcard specifically. When you are shopping for a new computer, what aspects do you look for? A fast RAM and processor is a given. But how does the soundcard affect the quality of your audio recordings? Does it make that much of a difference?

The built-in soundcard of your laptop or computer will not affect much of the sound quality in your projects as long as you have a suitable and sufficient audio interphase. Audio interfaces should already have an external soundcard that would help you getter better quality recordings of audio instrument tracks, including vocals. However, if you plan to record music using the computer’s built-in soundcard with the 3.5mm mic input, you will not have enough preamp and gain to capture the frequencies as the laptop is not intended for that kind of application. So, generally speaking, the computer’s soundcard will not affect sound quality.

WHAT AFFECTS THE SOUND QUALITY?

If you are using the internal soundcard of your computer, do not expect to get a higher gain. You will get white noise, and will not get the quality you are looking for in music production. The built-in soundcard is only intended for capturing video, Skype conferences, or audio and video calls. What affects the sound quality is which kind of sound card you are using. Most producers only use an external soundcard, which is an audio interface, to record audio instrument tracks. 

The external and internal soundcards are basically the same thing. However, an audio interface tends to go the extra mile in terms of conversion, preamps, inputs, and outputs. Since they are specifically made to record audio tracks, they will do the job better.

Another thing that will affect the sound quality of your recording is the instruments themselves. Low-end instruments such as low-end guitars will not have the same high-quality wood, and electrical components as a high-end and expensive guitar would. Make sure you use a high-quality instrument for the job. Make sure that you also invest in changing the strings, as well as using high-quality cables. Using the best gear is so much more useful than trying to make low-quality instruments work. The same goes for microphones, to use an audio interface to its maximum capacity, make sure you use the best microphones for the job.

Another factor to consider is the room. The conditions of your studio will affect the quality of your recording, especially if you are using a mic to record vocals and instruments. Make sure you kill all the extra reverb in the room by purchasing acoustic foam panels, bass traps, and the other essential acoustic treatment equipment. A vocal track with less reverb is more comfortable to master. Without a natural reverb, you can easily manipulate and add artificial reverb without clashing with the natural echoes of the room.

If your room, however, has excellent acoustics and natural reverb that sounds good on the track, you do not need to add extra reverb. You only need minimal EQ adjustments and use the raw form of your vocal recordings instead.

USING THE INTERNAL SOUNDCARD OF YOUR COMPUTER

The external soundcard is not the main focus of selling computers. In general, the specs that you should look for when buying a laptop should be more on the speed. A computer that you will use for recording does not necessarily have to have good graphics, because you will not need that in the recording tracks. You will need a powerful processor, high RAM, and a lot of storage. You can upgrade the storage and ram later on if you have the chance, but I suggest that you get a laptop or computer with at least 8GB of ram to handle data-heavy applications such as DAWs and VSTs.

An ideal laptop for recording is one that is designed for gaming, not because of the graphics, but because gaming laptops have fast RAMs and powerful processors. The internal soundcard, however, can affect the output of your tracks when you monitor the, but it does not mean that they would sound the same on every device. I suggest that you use a good set of monitors or headphones when you monitor a track if you decide to use the output jack of your computer.

Here are some suitable Monitors and headphones you can use to monitor your tracks by using the internal soundcard of your device:

AUDIO-TECHNICA ATH-M20X

(Price: $50)

These headphones are an excellent choice for monitoring your audio tracks. It has enhanced low-frequency performance so you can hear the lowest bass frequencies. The single-sided cable is convenient and won’t get in the way when working. The design is elegant and tasteful.

AUDIO-TECHNICA ATH-M50X

(Price: $140)

The ATH-M50x professional studio headphones are critically acclaimed and praised by pro audio engineers and producers for its accurate frequency playback. This set of headphones is durable because of the copper-clad aluminum wire coils. The frequency range on these studio headphones is exceptional.

Specs:

  • Clear sound and clarity
  • Excellent sound isolation
  • Professional-grade earpad comfortable for hours of use
  • 90-degree swiveling earcups for one-ear monitoring and portability
  • 45mm driver
  • 96 dB sensitivity
  • 1600 MW of power

MACKIE CR5 5-INCH MONITORS:

(price: $229.99)

This set of monitors will look great for your small studio space. It has Bluetooth connectivity so you could eliminate the use of wires.  Furthermore, its 50W power of clear and articulate stereo audio allows you to get the best out of these monitors. These monitors are very compact and will not take a lot of space in your corner music studio.

PRESONUS SCEPTRE S8 STUDIO MONITORS

(Price: $1,199)

These monitors are not the most expensive, but they hold up against any monitors three times their price. They are not quite famous monitors, but they have good reviews. The PreSonus Scepter sounds very pure and natural. It has a punchy bass that is suitable for small bedroom studios. These monitors might look different in large rooms, but for your bedroom, they won’t disappoint. The mid and high frequencies sound good as well.

Despite the minimalist aesthetic of these monitors, it has a very crisp and powerful sound that you can feel when you are listening. The highs and lows are easy to distinguish because of how clean these speakers sound.

AUDIO INTERFACE

Using an audio interface is the right track to choose when recording an audio instrument track. You have a far better chance of capturing quality audio rather than using the internal soundcard of your laptop or computer. Here are some of the best audio interphases you can purchase:

  • STEINBERG UR44

(Price: $299)

From the creators of another high-end DAW called Cubase, Steinberg is an excellent audio interface for professional recording. If you want to upgrade from a one-input audio interface to a four-input, go for the UR44. With more mic inputs, you can capture many sounds all at once. You can also record live recording sessions.

Specifications:

  • 24-bit audio
  • USB output
  • Four Class-A Mic preamps
  • Durable metal casing
  • Latency-free

This product is like a rack interface that professional producers use in larger studios. The size is small but has the power of those massive rack audio interfaces.

  • FOCUSRITE SCARLETT 18i8 (2nd GEN) USB AUDIO INTERFACE

(Price: $299)

If you have a Focusrite Scarlett Solo and don’t want to go for another brand like the UR44, that is not a problem. You can go for the same brand with upgraded inputs and power.

Most professionals prefer numerous inputs for a more efficient workflow and better audio capturing.

The Scarlett 18i8 does not only have more inputs, but you also get the most out of your money with the added free software. You can get Pro Tools, Ableton Live Lite, and 2GB worth of free loops and samples. With more inputs, you can now use your bedroom music studio for recording for multi-instrument recording purposes.

Specifications:

  • Four microphone inputs with phantom power preamp
  • Two instrument inputs
  • Two headphone outputs
  • 24-bit sample rate

MICS

Use quality microphones to get the most out of your external sound device. If you are using your computer’s input, do not expect quality. The audio you capture by using the 3.5mm jack on your computer will not be at its best. Make sure you use a suitable audio interface with the following microphones:

  • NEUMANN U-87

(Price: $3,000)

It is a large-diaphragm microphone that is suitable for capturing almost any vocal and acoustic instrument tracks. This mic is a classic studio microphone that has three directional characteristics, Omni, cardioid, and figure 8. The features give the mic more functions in a recording session.

  • SENNHEISER MD 441-U

(Price: $900)

This dynamic microphone is an excellent versatile mic for recording and for singing live. A dynamic microphone is used for recording louder audio like guitars, bass, drums, and piercing vocals. This mic has excellent feedback rejection to make you sound cleaner live. The excellent pick-up of this mic can capture even your dynamic whispers and tones.

The five-position roll-up switch gives you numerous sound options. The five different modes add a lot of fun to this mic.

 Having a mic like this lessens your worry about your room’s acoustic treatment. If you do not have enough time and knowledge to treat your room acoustics, get this microphone because it is worth every penny.

  • FOCUSRITE ISA ONE CLASSIC PREAMP

(Price: $539)

Not precisely a mic, but a product that an ordinary mal bedroom studio musician won’t typically buy. Having a separate preamp for microphones can enhance your vocal track significantly. When you buy an audio interface, it already has a built-in preamp. If you are buying a preamp, you can improve the sound of any low-end microphone to make it sound significantly better for vocals or guitar recording. A preamp will make any microphone sound better with the right tweaking.

INPUT AND OUTPUT SETTINGS

To capture the best quality, you can’t rely on your equipment for everything. You need to learn the correct mic positioning, as well as the right adjustments for your inputs and outputs. Make sure you always do a test recording to see if your track causes clipping on the levels. An audio interface or DAW should indicate clipping if you reach the red zone. Make sure you do not reach that zone but do not adjust your volume too low. You want to keep your levels consistently above the middle line. Adding amount or gain post-recording can compromise the quality of your tracks.

RELATED QUESTIONS:

  • How can I improve the recording sound quality further? You can improve the quality of your recorded tracks post-recording by tweaking the EQ and adding effects. However, you need to make sure that you recorded them in high-quality fashion first. It is easier to tweak tracks that are recorded in high quality before mastering them. You can use the built-in effects in your DAW, or purchase mastering software to improve your tracks.
  • Does the internal soundcard affect the output quality? Yes, if you have an audio interface, you can configure that to be your output instead of your computer’s output if you wish. If you are using high-end monitors, you should not worry about the output quality, because high-end monitors have their own soundcard that will have the best output to monitor your tracks.

CONCLUSION

The internal soundcard of your computer does affect the quality if you decide to use it. In most cases, you will not have to use it for recording tracks because you will have an audio interface to do the job. Back in my early years of music production, my band and I used the internal soundcard, having no knowledge that audio interphases exist. The demo we recorded turned out bad, but we enjoyed recording anyway. So don’t worry if your computer does not have a good soundcard or even a soundcard at all. All you are going to need is an audio interface anyway!

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