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While offer for the Mac platform was traditionally less numerous, that for the PC platform is sometimes reaching sheer confusion, and the Atari world does with what's available...

Just as the PC world knew a good number of synth-cards, or Midi-synth-sampling cards, this platform is offered a great variety of audio soundcards, amongst which it's not always easy to make a choice. Numerous additional functions are implemented, not always bringing any clarity to the understanding of the card's basic purpose. Therefore one had better know what he or she expects from it before purchasing a card. Quality mostly depends upon that of the A/D and D/A converters which, when present, should be a key to decision making. No miracle to be expected from "Jacks-of-all-tricks for lesser money".

On the Mac platform, which had long been the preferred one for professional musicians and engineers, there was originally some choice between quite expensive and not-so-cheap solutions. Macs are now equipped with a built-in soundcard, which quality might be challenged, but which may prove sufficient for some types of uses. Adoption in late 1995 of the PCI standard coming from the PC platform allowed for a significant price decrease.

For the one willing to embark into the digital audio experience, there are several things to be known. We'll study in other sections options re : the choice of a platform, processor speed, size as well as write/read performance of hard drives. Here we focus solely on the soundcard. But you should be aware of some essential points anyway :

  • Connection slots standards : ISA or PCI on PC, NuBus or PCI on Macs, (emerging) USB or (perhaps someday) FireWire solutions for both platforms
  • Size of the card (will it fit into my computer ?)
  • ? Number of available slots in your machine.

When you only have 3 slots, and 2 are already equipped with video cards or SCSI cards, choice becomes fairly restrictive, since you'll only be able to hook one more card ! Make sure that an ASIO driver (hopefully in version 2 for lower latency), an essential element for use with Cubase VST, is available for your card.

One will have a close look at the following parameters too :

  • Sampling frequency (22 / 32 / 44.1 / 48 / 96 kHz). Just forget about 22 or 32 kHz solutions. 44.1 is the standard for audio CDs, 48 or even 96 are often advertised for professional audio solutions
  • Bit depth, also called resolution (8 - 16 - 24 bits). A card with less than 16-bit resolution should be given for free to not-so-loved « friends » or PC games bozos. 24-bit is more and more often used nowadays ; the latest 5.0 version of Cubase VST/32 is even potentially able to handle 32-bit resolutions
  • Signal to noise (S/N) ratio : should be as low as possible, -90dB Beingg a nice performance. Although a lot of soundcards now sample at 16-bit/44.1 kHz, some manufacturers' silence as regards S/N ratio is quite deafening... The unaware user will think he or she is running a state-of-the-art DAW solution, while actually recording with not much better quality than early tape recorders.
  • Number of simultaneous inputs & outputs (I/O) : a majority of base soundcards only offer two I/O (i.e. one stereo input and one stereo output), analog and/or digital, but some higher-end solutions offer 8, 10 or even 16 I/O, mostly digital, this latter fact requiring additional outboard A/D and D/A converters in case one need analog I/O, often for an additional significant cost.
  • Does the card use its own processor (interesting but often expensive solution) ? Does it instead use the computer's processor (which may seriously degrade overall performance) ?
  • Is the card available for only one platform, or is it compatible with other ones ? In the latter case, if you decide in the future to shift to another platform, you'd be able to keep your card.

As a conclusion, one needs to inquire wherever this is possible, register to MLs, check out regularly web sites such as this one, find out seasoned users and ask. Asking may make you look like damn fool, but not asking will for sure make you be one.

In the following pages, you'll be able to read owners' opinions on various cards and various platforms. Some happy, some unhappy, some disappointed, some blasé, some enthusiastic... All were first contributed on French-speaking mailing lists and discussed there.

A very old sound card ;o)

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Miroslav HERMAN

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