I'm an audio enthusiast/composer who has, until recently, created music for pleasure. I've decided that I like it enough, however, that I'm going to take the next big step and buy myself a new uber-beast of a computer that can handle any and all of the software demands for my own composition needs (my present computer just can't take it anymore). And so, a chief concern (among many) is what sound card to buy.
I've scouted around this forum and others, isolated what I'm reasonably confident are the best manufacturers and cards out there (in an affordable price range, at least), and compiled a list:
(I've also seen a number of reccomendations for RME cards, but their website was harder to navigate, and I'm sure something on this present list will be more than adequate for my needs)
My First Question:
As you can see, each company manufactures cards in a spectrum of price ranges. It would seem clear that those that are the most expensive have the most features, etc... So if I went with the most expensive card from any of the brands, I'm sure it could do everything I need it to do. Trouble is, I'm pretty sure I don't need a card that can do everything that the most expensive cards can.
For one thing, the majority of the more expensive cards (Delta 1010LT, EMU 1820M, Echo Gina, & Echo Layla) appear to be "Audio Interfaces," implying that they're more than just sound cards. And, near as I can tell, most of what your paying for when you get the higher end "Interfaces" is the ability to record multiple tracks at once - in essence, they give you the ability to turn your computer into a near pro level studio. Please correct me if I'm wrong in this assumption.
At the moment though, I really don't need that kind of connectivity. I could probably get by with as many as two (and I probably only need one) Audio I/O (I'm a newbie in this type of technical jargon, so forgive me if I sound like an idiot). What I'm mostly saying is that I do most of my composition on the computer itself, and don't have a need for the ability to record several live instruments at once (though I'd still like to be able to record soloists or vocalists and that kind of thing).
So the card I need should have very good mastering capabities, very low latency w/effects, that kind of thing; but it doesn't need to have multiple inputs for live recording.
My research thus far has started me leaning towards the E-MU 1212M; as it seems to have the most bang for the buck (I'd prefer not to spend much more than $200 on the card).
Which brings me to question two:
What are the advatages (if any) of going with one brand over another? Is there some glaring issue with the E-MU 1212M that I should know about. I'm aware that the M Audio cards are the most used and the best selling, but the customer reviews for M Audio cards aren't as strong as those for E-MU. And I think I've seen it mentioned somewhere that M Audio uses XLR cables, whereas EMU uses 1/4" (which really doesn't matter as far as I can tell).
At the moment, I do almost all of my music composition with FL Studio (which no one here seems to use... apparently it isn't quite as "professional" quality as Cubase or Sonar, but I know the interface and can get it to sound pretty damn good). I've got a few sample libraries: EWQL Colossus & Stormdrum, and I plan to get the Kontakt 2 stand alone VST instrument. I also own a Casio Privia PX-310 for MIDI use and such...
That's a lot to read, I'll appreciate any knowledgable response I get.
Oh, and I was curious about the Creative X-Fi Elite Pro card. Is this even worth considering? How's it different from any of the above listed?
I cannot address all of the cards you mention as I am not familiar with all of them. Between the Audiophile 2496 and the Audiophile 192, you may wish to consider the 192. It has balanced ins and outs whereas the 2496 has unbalanced.
You may wish to do even more searching and research. For example, the Delta cards are known to be incomptible with SLI SATA controllers, and the Echo cards used to have some incompatibility issues as well, but I have not kept up on whether or not Echo has resolved their issues or not. The point is that not every card is compatible with every computer configuration. Creative cards are generally not highly regarded for professional audio applications.
As I am personally returning to music creation after a long absence (due in part to poor purchase choices in the past) the most important thing is to do your homework first. Also, resist the temptation to overbuy - especially overbuying on one particular component while having glaring weaknesses elesewhere. You do not want to find yourself three months down the road discovering that you overspent for features you will never use, and have no funds left for something you discover you now actually do need. If you buy the uberbeast computer, but are mixing on lousy monitors, or if your microphones or preamps are poor (for recording live tracks) the uberbeast will be of limited value. You may be in very good shape in those other areas . . . but since you are contemplating major changes, it doesn't hurt to rethink through your overall equipment.
I agree with Jim. Get balanced I/O if you can afford it. It reduces noise and hum and lets you run longer cables.
That said, you only need as many outputs as you need monitoring channels. (Two for stereo. Six or eight for surround.) You can also use extra outputs for sending aux outputs to external gear, but that's probably unnecessary.
Regarding inputs, they depend on how many things you want to record at once - and if you want returns from that mythical external gear.
I make due with 2-in and 2-out, balanced. I use a Mackie 1402 mixer to route whatever I want into the computer and set levels. It also provides reasonable preamps. I also send the PC output to the mixer, so I can control levels to the monitor with real faders. I don't want to have to grab the mouse to turn down the volume if an unexpected signal causes my woofer cones and eardrums to start bleeding.
I'm using the Audiophile 192, and am happy with it.
I'm a satisfied user of a E-MU 1820m. When they where first released, some people were hesitant, maybe because of what the "Creative Professional" logo meant for them. Now, I think E-MU has proved that they've made a high quality product. The drivers are stable, at least in my setup (ASUS mobo with and AMD 64 3000 and 2GB of RAM, SATA and IDE disks), and I love the sound quality.
If you don't need those inputs and outputs, you could go with the 1212m, and later, if you need, you could add the external module, since it's sold separately.
I agree with what has said before. If you're thinking about taking this seriously, you should buy a good pair of monitors if you don't already have them (Mackie, Dynaudio, Event...). Think about your music environment as a
whole. I mean, the weakest point of your composing system will rest efficency to the other elements. If you have a $ 12000+ audio interface, wit a pair of cheap monitors, you won't appreciate the quality of that audio interface. Even if you have a good soundcard and monitors, and the acoustic of your listening room is defficent, your mixes won't translate well. Anyway, you'll have to start somewhere, so I suppose the PC and audio interface is a good point to start from.