Soundcards and audio interfaces perform very similar functions. However, there are some significant differences between the two devices when it comes to recording and audio playback.
Can an audio interface replace the sound card?
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.
Nevertheless, there is more to this subject than meets the eye.
Indeed, audio interfaces do replace the function of the computer’s soundcard when they are hooked up via USB or FireWire.
However, certain situations may arise when a soundcard would perform more capably than an audio interface. In the remainder of this guide, you’ll find a detailed breakdown of whether audio interfaces can replace sound cards.
The Functions Of An Audio Interface & Soundcard
Audio interfaces and soundcards share many qualities. The main difference between the two is that audio interfaces are external devices that connect to your computer or laptop using a specific cable, while sound cards are pre-installed within the hardware of the device.
All computers and laptops come with their soundcard. These devices have been included in computers since the late 1980s, to facilitate audio processing so that music, videos, and games can be enjoyed without requiring an external device.
Check out this popular PreSonus audio interface here on Amazon.
Sound cards are internal expansion devices, which have inputs and outputs allowing you to send audio into the computer or send it out into speakers and headphones. The reason that they are required, is because, despite the incredible processing power of modern computers, they are incapable of understanding audio signals.
Computers and laptops operate using digital formats.
This means that an audio signal is presented as a series of 0s and 1s. For audio to be played from a computer, the digital signal must be converted into an analog waveform. This conversion makes it compatible with playback devices like monitors, speakers, and headphones.
Sound cards take care of this process, thanks to the inbuilt digital-to-analog converter that is installed within the device.
Commonly known as a DAC, this device is integral both for sending audio from the computer to speakers or headphones, and also when recording audio into the computer using a microphone or direct input.
Modern computers are generally tasked with playing music from a streaming platform.
For this process, the audio is initially presented in the digital format as a series of 0s and 1s. Then, the soundcard’s DAC converts the signal to analog and sends it to the playback device.
Early, primitive soundcards were capable only of producing the simplest system sounds of the computer. However, with the remarkable advances in audio technology, they can now process complex audio for music production, video games, and films, and so on.
Another popular choice of audio interface is the Focusrite Scarlett (pictured above) Take a look at this audio interface here on Amazon.
Replacing The Sound Card With An Audio Interface
An audio interface is essentially an external soundcard, with additional capabilities.
This is why many people get confused when trying to differentiate between the two. They both perform the same basic function, but audio interfaces are more versatile than sound cards.
You might be wondering, why would I need an audio interface if all computers and laptops already have onboard sound cards?
There are several answers to this question. Firstly, sound cards are great at playing audio from the computer, but they lack the additional recording and playback options that audio interfaces offer.
For example, audio interfaces include at least one input for microphones or direct recording of instruments. The input commonly uses a preamp to prepare the audio to be received by the DAW recording software.
Sound cards, on the other hand, commonly feature auxiliary inputs and outputs. This facilitates recording to an extent, but in comparison to the balanced input of an audio interface, it provides you will significantly fewer options.
It is practically impossible to connect a condenser microphone to a sound card, simply because they require a balanced XLR connection. The small auxiliary input featured on most sound cards isn’t suitable for these microphones.
Check out this high-quality condenser microphone here on Amazon.
Therefore, if you intend to record audio into a DAW for music production, podcasting, or voiceovers, you’ll find it much easier if you use an audio interface to replace your sound card.
- Relying solely on the sound card will limit the quality of recording that you can capture.
Another advantage of replacing the sound card with an audio interface is that in the majority of cases, the interface has a higher quality DAC. They are designed specifically for audio production and therefore can convert the digital signals to analog much more efficiently than sound cards.
Sound cards are designed to perform the basic function of sending audio to speakers or headphones, rather than facilitating audio production. Indeed, it’s possible to use a sound card for audio production but the process will be more arduous, and the quality of the result is likely to be limited to an extent.
Another benefit that replacing the sound card with an audio interface produces is the minimizing of latency.
- Latency is the time gap between a sound being played, and it is heard through monitors.
Basic soundcards are much more likely to fall victim to latency. This issue is highly detrimental to the recording and playback process, and in some cases, it can make aspects of music production practically impossible.
This video thoroughly analyses the difference in quality between an audio interface and a sound card.
Although audio interfaces aren’t guaranteed to reduce latency, the majority of them do.
Also, audio interfaces commonly include the function of direct monitoring, which allows you to bypass the sound drivers in the computer and hear the audio as you record it, with zero latency.
Direct monitoring is not a feature that sound cards are capable of, and so the problem of latency when recording or playing audio is much more difficult to overcome.
Indeed, the quality of the specific interface that you choose will largely impact how effectively you can reduce latency and streamline the recording process.
The table below summarizes the capabilities of audio interfaces vs. sound cards.
|Capability||Audio Interface||Sound Card|
|Inputs/Outputs||Balanced XLR/Unbalanced TRS||Aux input and output|
|Direct Monitoring||Commonly featured||Not included|
|Phantom Power||Commonly featured||Not included|
Bit Depth, Sample Rate & Dedicated Drivers
Another reason that replacing a sound card with an audio interface would be beneficial, is the increased bit depth and sample rate that they commonly offer.
Bit depth refers to the detail of the digital signal when it is processed. The higher the bit depth, the better quality the recorded audio will be.
Many external sound cards are specifically designed for music production or other heavy audio-processing endeavors.
These devices are usually outperformed by audio interfaces, due to the additional inputs and outputs they offer, and their superior bit depth.
Another factor that can improve when you replace a sound card with an audio interface is the sample rate. This is essentially the amount of data that the device can capture at any given time.
The higher the sample rate, the more information is captured and consequently, the quality of the recorded audio improves. High-end audio interfaces are capable of working at high sample rates to ensure that the finest details of your recordings are captured in the DAW.
To further improve performance, audio interface manufacturers install dedicated drivers within the device.
Drivers put simply, are groups of files that make it possible for the hardware devices to communicate with the operating system of a computer or laptop.
Computers usually come with their dedicated sound drivers, but manufacturers have to evenly spread their attention on the various components within the computer. This results in the onboard drivers generally being of a lesser quality than those installed in audio interfaces.
You can download audio-specific drivers, such as the popular ASIO, which will significantly increase the efficiency of your computer’s ability to handle audio production.
Take a look at the ASIO website here. https://www.asio4all.org/
The drivers included in good-quality audio interfaces far exceed the capabilities of the drivers in the computer, therefore, choosing to replace your soundcard with an audio interface will increase your system’s ability to playback and record audio in various ways.
Do I require a sound card if I have an audio interface?
Audio interfaces perform the same function as a sound card, but with more additional features. As a result, you don’t need a sound card if you are using an audio interface. However, having no sound card means you always need the interface plugged in to hear audio from the computer.
Are mixers the same as audio interfaces?
Mixers and audio interfaces are similar devices, but there is one main difference between the two. Audio interfaces convert analog signals into digital signals, whereas a mixer receives multiple signals and blends them.
Check out this article that explains the main differences between audio interfaces and mixers.
Do sound cards produce phantom power?
Although most audio interfaces produce phantom power for the use of condenser microphones, standard sound cards do not. This makes them incapable of recording with a condenser microphone.
If you are unsure what phantom power is take a look at my article on this subject. You can read it here.