Best sound card for music production: I asked 15,024 producers

Best sound card for music production: I asked 15,024 producers play video
Written by: Dexxter Clark
I did multiple polls on my community tab on YouTube to determine the best sound card 2020 and topped that of with an extensive poll by 15,024 producers on my email list.
I put the results in 1 handy comparison table, combined with my definitive buying guide for sound cards, this is the ultimate resource for the beginner producer.


This article is split up in three parts:
1) buying guide
2) the frequently asked questions
3) top 5 results of my polls


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Buying guide

Midi connection

In the good old days, MIDI keyboards were connected via a MIDI connection, hence the name.
Back in those days, only sound cards provided that MIDI connection.

Nowadays, all new MIDI keyboards are connected via USB, so you don’t need to worry about that MIDI connection.
But if you have an old MIDI keyboard, you need a sound card that has such a MIDI connection.

Most sound cards nowadays don’t have that connection anymore.

The difference between 24 bit at 96 kHz and 16 bit at 44.1 kHz

Both refer to the resolution of the sound signal, the higher resolution, the more quality.

When you record a singer or a band, you convert an analog signal to a digital signal.
How much of that analog signal is stored in digital information?
The more information you store, the closer it comes to the original sound, the more quality you have.

The more bits, the higher the resolution (the amount of information you store), the more analog sound information is stored.
The amount of Hz refers to the number of times information is stored.
24 bit at 96 kHz means:
How many 24 bit samples are recorded in one second?
96 thousand per second.

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The higher the bits and Hz, the more precise the digital information is, but the more hard disk space it eats and the more processing power it needs by your computer.

I don’t want go into much detail here because it get’s complicated very fast.
What you need to know is, a regular old-school audio CD “only" stores 16 bits samples at 44.1 kHz.

At the moment 192 kHz is the best sample rate on sound cards we can get.
If you record in a higher frequency and bits, you have the luxury to downscale if you want to reduce quality and storage space.
But the other way around, you can never upscale to improve quality.

Connections: USB-C / USB 3 / Thunderbolt

This get’s confusing, I know, I can’t help it.
The engineers that designed these standards weren’t thinking about the user who has to make sense of it all.

Modern sound cards nowadays have a USB-C connection.
That connection says nothing about the technique that the device or the cable supports.
Multiple standards can be transferred through one cable, or just one standard.
But the cable could look exactly the same in both cases.

USB 3 is one of the most common standards for USB-C.
Even USB 2 can be supported with a USB-C connection (although USB-A or USB-B is more common).
But also Thunderbolt 2 can be passed through that same USB-C cable.


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Important to know is that your computer, sound card and cable must support a certain technology (USB 2, USB 3, Thunderbolt 2), preferably with a USB-C plug.
Because, like it or not, USB-C is the future.

The reason why you want to choose Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3 over their predecessors is because of lower latencies.
You want to have the lowest latency possible for your sound card.

External connections on the sound card

The most important connections are:
the studio monitor speaker connections (Jack connection)
the capability to connect a condenser microphone (XLR connection). A condenser microphone needs 48V phantom power.

A headphone jack with volume control is very handy.

Low latency

Latency is the time it takes (delay) to reach your ears.

When you record the roundtrip of a sound signal needs to “travel” from the sound card, through the computer with your DAW and all your plugins and back to the sound card for output.

The lower the latency, the more convenient it is for producing music.
For a singer it’s very important to hear directly what he or she is singing.
The lower the latency, the more your computer has to “work” to process the signal, so you need a more powerful computer.


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In your DAW you can set your sample rate.
The lower the sample rate, the quicker the sound will reach your ear, but the more system resources it will eat of your computer.

Pre amps

Pre amplifiers determine the sound quality of your recording together with the quality of your microphone.

Look for good quality pre amps in your sound card.

Balanced inputs

Balanced connections combined with balanced cables have an extra wire in them that makes the signal less susceptive to interference.
With unbalanced connections the cable will act as an antenna that picks up surrounding frequencies.
Long cables are more likely to pick up interference because the “antenna” is bigger.
If you use unbalanced cables/connections, make sure the cable is very short.

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Optional useful features

The following features are nice to have:
  • Direct monitoring to reduce latency by the computer
  • Second headphone jack if you want to record a singer.
    You can connect one headphone for the producer and one for the singer.
  • Talkback function for the singer.
    When you record vocals in another room it’s easy to talk to the singer via the headphones of the singer.
  • Sound level indicators for recording and headphone. My 2i2 has a led indicator, which works but, not my favorite.
  • Mono button for mixing.

    Mono is more common than you might think.
    
Speakers in stores, the gym or your phone for example are mono.
    

When you collapse a signal back to mono, both channels are combined to one channel and can give phasing issues.


    Stereo widening plugins are notorious for causing phase issues.

    It would be very annoying if your kick is suddenly gone in mono.


    The mono function is also in your available DAW, but a physical button is just a time saver.


    If you can switch with a touch of a button between mono and stereo and you don’t have to open a plugin on your master chain that takes you 15 seconds to find.

    Switching back and forth you have to do a lot for a proper mix.

  • Extra monitor output to connect shitty speakers.

    As a music producer you need only to listen to your tracks on good speakers, but also on the worst.



    Often little gimmicks are perfectly hearable on your monitors, but totally disappear on car speakers and speakers on a mobile phone.
    
If you can connect a pair of shitty speakers (buy the cheapest online for a couple of dollars) and easily switch with the touch of a button between your good monitors and the shitty ones, that is convenient.

    Otherwise you have to export the song to mp3, upload it to your phone via google drive and listen, same for car speakers.

Good quality doesn’t need to be expensive

You may think you need a 1000 dollar sound card to produce music.
Absolutely not.
For 150 dollars you have a great sound card.
I mention them in the top 5 later in this video


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FAQ

Do I need a sound card for music production?

In order to get sound in and out of your computer.
You might think: “my computer does that by default”, indeed most computers and laptops have sound cards built in.
So, not for getting sound, but if you want to record from a microphone and connect monitor speakers, if you want low latency, then yes.

Does audio interface improve sound quality?

It could, but it depends on the quality of the sound card.
Most onboard sound cards don’t support higher resolution sounds for recording and displaying, and dedicated music production sound cards often do.

Especially in recording quality you see the most improvement in recording quality.
With proper pre-amps (pre amplifiers) you can record a better quality sound than with an on-board sound card.

What is the difference between regular sound cards and music production sound cards?

Regular sound cards are not built with the music producer in mind.
  • Things like reducing latency was not on the priority list of the manufacturer.
  • Also do regular sound cards have support for monitor speakers and phantom power.
  • Music production sound cards are built to have a flat frequency response. So all frequencies are represented equally in the frequency spectrum. Regular sound cards tend to have boosts or dips in certain areas.
  • Most music production sound cards are external devices, so you can also use it with a laptop or an Apple computer.

What is the difference between sound card and audio interface?

Two different names for the same thing.
Some might imply that a sound card is internal and interface external, but it’s technically the same thing.
It converts analog audio to a digital signal and digital back to analog.
In one form it’s outside the computer, the other inside.

The card thanks it’s name to the expansion card format in the PC.
A daughter board is inserted into the motherboard to extend its functionality.
Sound interface “sounds” a bit nicer and more official than sound card, but it’s still the same thing.

Top 5 best sound cards for music production

I asked you on my community tab here on YouTube what sound card do you have and would recommend to fellow music producers.
I extended that poll to my email subscribers.

How to interpret the numbers?
I first looked at the top 5 most sold brands.
Next I looked at the best sold card of every brand.

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At the bottom of the page you will find a complete comparison table.
These are the results:

5. Tascam US 16x8

This quality card of Tascam is one of the bigger sound cards in this list (literally).
It fits perfectly in a 19” rack.

This Tascam sound card is popular because of it’s many in- and outputs for a decent price.
The sound card has 16 inputs, 8 XLR microphone inputs with switchable fantom power support, and 8 balanced jack inputs of which you can use 2 as guitar inputs.

The sound card is compatible with Windows, Mac and iOS.
It supports 24 bit recording at 96kHz, and you connect it via a “old school” USB 2 connection USB-B connection.

Worth mentioning is that this sound card has MIDI connections.
The price is around the 250 dollar mark.

For more information: https://tascam.com/us/product/us-16x08/spec
Price on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2vphY8K

4. Presonus Audiobox USB 96

Small and compact is the USB 96 from Presonus.
It’s one of the budget models of Presonus, but pretty popular amongst music producers, the price mark is around the 100 dollars.

The build quality of the sound card with its steel chassis is solid.

The Audiobox USB 96 has a MIDI connection to connect your MIDI keyboard and has a USB 2 connection to hook it up to your computer.
The sound card is powered via the usb connection so you don’t need a separate power brick, which makes it the perfect companion for mobile recording.
But you are out of luck when you want to record on your iPad, the sound card only supports Windows and Mac.

With a name like USB 96 you might suspect it supports 96kHz recording and indeed it does in a bit depth of 24 bit.

The sound card has a pair of jack monitor outputs, MIDI in and out, a headphone jack, balanced XLR microphone inputs with 48V phantom power and 2 jack unbalanced instrument connections.

Because it is Presonus hardware you get a simplified version of Studio One with the sound card.

For more information: https://www.presonus.com/products/AudioBox-USB-96/tech-specs
Price on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3cefDOQ

3. Audient Id 14

I whole heartedly agree with the number 3 on this list.
The Audient Id14.

The sound card supports 24 bit 96kHz signal processing.

The sound card has proper sound level indicators which most audio interfaces lack.
The sound card has an optical input, which a lot of sound cards lack.

The main different between its smaller brother the Id 4, is the quality of the preamps.
But the preamps in the Id 14 need more power than its little brother, so the Id 14 has a separate power brick and the Id 4 does not.
Furthermore the sound card has a USB 2 type B connection, 1 microphone jack but the volume is not controlled by a separate volume knob which is a bit clunky.
You can switch the 48V phantom power on per channel which is handy.

The sound card has one pair of jack outputs for your monitor speakers and two XLR balanced microphone connections combined with jack inputs for an instrument like a guitar.

You can’t use the sound card with iOS and the card has no MIDI connections.

The price range of the card is about 200 dollars.

More information you can find here: https://audient.com/products/audio-interfaces/id14/overview/
Price on Amazon: https://amzn.to/37ZZhWA

2. Native instruments Komplete Audio 2

Super popular amongst music producers is the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2.

The engineers at Native Instruments have an extremely hard time coming up with original product names, because everything is called Komplete, and it is even spelled wrong.

It’s smaller brother is the Komplete Audio 1 is a simple sound card that you connect via USB 2 type B connection with your Komputer (with a K).
The sound card has one XLR microphone input (with switchable phantom power) and 1 instrument input.
It has one pair of unbalanced monitor outputs over … wait for it … cinch.

The Komplete Audio 2 is more … Komplete.
You connect it also via USB2 type B and it has one pair of proper balanced jack outputs.
The inputs are XLR and Jack combined connections, with a switch to select micropone or instrument.
Nice is a mix knob for direct monitoring and a separate volume knob for your headphone which you can connect via jack.

Where the card jumps out in contrast to the rest in this list is the 24 bit 192 khz signal processing, instead of the “regular” 96 kHz.
The card has also a proper volume level indicator, but has no MIDI connection.

The price range of Komplete Audio 1 is about 100 dollars and the Komplete Audio 2 130 dollars.

Before I jump to number one in this top 5 best sound cards for music producers.
Don’t forget to give this video a like and subscribe for more beginner music production tutorials.

More information about Komplete Audio 1 & 2: https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/audio-interfaces/komplete-audio-1-audio-2/
Price on Amazon: https://amzn.to/391mTvg

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Music theory hard?
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1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Probably not a surprise for many, but still.
This sound card is not on spot number one because I have one, but I bought one because I knew it’s the most popular sound card.
#metoo

The Focusrite Scarlet 2i2 supports the 24 bit resolution at a sample rate of 192 kHz, instead of the regular 96 kHz.
I do have to mention it has no MIDI connection.
It is a sound card with one of the lowest latencies in the market.

The audio interface has two combined XLR/Jack inputs for instruments and microphones with a 48 volt switchable phantom power.
Two jack outputs for monitor speakers, but no MIDI connection.
The card is powered via USB and I like the fact that the card is plug and play on MacOs.

More information you can find here: https://focusrite.com/en/usb-audio-interface/scarlett/scarlett-2i2
Price on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3af1RcV


Top 5 specs compared

* Tascam US 16x8 Presonus Audiobox USB 96 Audient Id 14 NI Komplete Audio 2 Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Inputs: microphone XLR 8x balanced (phantom powered) 2x balanced (phantom powered) 2x balanced (phantom powered) 2x (phantom powered) 2x (phantom powered)
Inputs: line/instrument Jack 8x total (2 balanced, 6 unbalanced) (including 2x unbalanced instrument) 2x total (2x balanced line) (2x unbalanced instrument) 2x total (2x balanced line) (2x unbalanced instrument) 2x total (2x line) (2x instrument) 2x total (2x line) (2x instrument)
Outputs: monitor Jack 4 pair balanced 1 pair 1 pair balanced 1 pair 1 pair
Outputs: headphone Jack 1x 1x 1x 1x 1x
separate headphone volume button yes yes no yes yes
MIDI yes yes no no no
Resolution + bit depth 24 bit recording @ 96kHz 24 bit recording @ 96kHz 24 bit recording @ 96kHz 24 bit recording @ 192kHz 24 bit recording @ 192kHz
OS Windows, Mac, IOs Windows, Mac Windows, Mac Windows, Mac Windows, Mac
Computer connection USB 2 (USB-B) USB 2 (USB-B) USB 2 (USB-B) USB 2 (USB-B) USB 3 (USB-C)
Power power brick USB powered power brick USB powered USB powered
Price range 250 100 200 130 160
* although I did my best to gather accurate information, it might be possible that the information is not correct.
Go to the website of the manufacturer for the latest and most accurate information.
Sometimes manufacturers are pretty scarce with information like on the “balanced-ness” of inputs/outputs a sound card.

Honorable mentions

I also want to do some honorable mentions.
Apollo twin, Steinberg, Arturia AudioFuse, RME babyface and Apogee.
But the downside to Apogee is that you need to log in to download the drivers.
If you have lost your login (like I did years ago), you have to email them and it takes them hours to respond.

If you are serious about music production and want to take it to the next level,
download my free music production e-book.
Besides information about music production basics and computers for music production, the book gives also a unique perspective on the world of DJs and music producers.

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photo author dexxter clark
Dexxter Clark
Music Producer / YouTuber

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