No matter home (project) studios or professional setups, you depend on your audio interface. Onboard audio developed so rapidly, it is an often overlooked part when your computer is acting up during production. Should you buy a faster computer, or maybe not?
Audio interfaces: the essential yet most overlooked part
Chances are you will recognize this. That one minute when your computer presents you with crackles and pops you don’t want when recording or mixing. You flush out a lot of money for a new laptop or computer. It’s a beast according to specifications. But some time after the tedious installation process, you’ll get hit again with the very same issues. Or maybe, you want to hook up additional headphones, mics, instruments and outboard equipment.
Question: have you still been using your onboard (build in) soundcard?
Chances are, you have. After all, it sounded right and hey, it worked. Granted, there are still many situations where your onboard sound card might work just fine. But the time will come, depending on your projects and needs,your onboard sound just doesn’t work for you anymore. Even when you are not short of inputs/outputs, why would you need to be looking into a seperate (professional) sound card option?
A bit of history
The gaming market drove the development. Professional DAW solutions were in their own domain, and still often used proprietary, expensive solutions for audio interfacing and connectivity.
Soon it turned out those SoundBlaster cards just didn’t cut it for (professional) audio production. Gaming sound cards and their specifications would slam you with facts and figures about noise levels and DA convertors. In real life audio production though, they all lacked in the ability to hook up external gear. Audio quality was, opposed to specs, mediocre at best. Convertors, headphone and mic pre-amps were not on studio spec. And the drivers, software which enable the operating system to talk ‘audio’, were hardly written for realtime demanding multi-track applications.
As a lot of people had started looking into music production and using DAWs, manufacturers started designing professional cards at more entry-level pricing. Products with (much) better audio quality , more input/output options, better headphone and mic pre-amps. But the one and most important thing being: drivers. Drivers connect a device to your computer and it’s operating system. They are what make it work. In other words: a driver is a manufacturer’s software to support realtime audio in your computer. Why that mattered, and still does?
Highway to hell
Audio in your computer is like driving on a highway. A normal computer used for daily stuff like browsing, only plays one or maybe two audio things at one. Maybe that Spotify song and a sound when an email comes in, for example. And if that ‘ping’ telling you the email is in, sounds a fraction of a second earlier or later, who cares?
When it comes to audio production, audio in your computer easily gets ‘behind’ or shifted around. A few fractions of a second means you won’t be able to do audio production anymore. In order to overcome this, the audio uses a buffer, a temporary storage space. It gets filled with whatever needs to sound, and the operating system decides when it’s time to play it. In very simple terms: your processors tells your audio card to play something.
When you are producing, you easily have tens of tracks which all want (need) to be played at exactly the right time. All in perfect sync to each other. You will be slaming plugins on tracks like reverbs and EQ, and the processor in your computer performs millions of calculations.
Since the processor is at the center doing everything, it might easily fall a tiny bit behind. No issue for normal day-to-day use, but a killer for realtime audio.
So when that buffer is empty and your DAW can’t get the right data, in time, you’ll experience crackles, pops and all kinds of things you don’t want. This situation is oversimplified in this explanation, but it is like this: if too many cars get on the motorroad, collisions occur and it all comes to a full stop. And no traffic cop, or the processor in your computer, can avoid things from cludding up.
One standard to rule them all
Over time many different standards developed. On Apple computers audio used to be much less an issue. Apple always had a good sense for ‘content creators’. With their audio drivers being a core part of the operating system, thus rendering much faster, near real time performance, many people weren’t even aware audio could be a problematic area. Especially on PC’s however, and for high demanding professional applications and interfacing needs, different solutions were needed.
Steinberg, the original inventors of the VST plugin standard, had already solved this (realtime audio) the moment they introduced plugins. ASIO (Audio Stream Input Output) made sure any computer, through ASIO drivers, would be better capable to handle realtime multi-track audio. Because of licensing issues and proprietary hardware solutions, other manufacturers invented their own solutions. These solutions come in many different standards, like TDM, RTAS, WDM, DirectSound, Core Audio, and then some.
Continued on page 2.