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Best External Sound Cards for Home or Studio

Updated on March 7, 2012

Find your sound by choosing a good external sound card!

Whether you are a professional musician, sound designer with a studio or just want to build a small home studio for yourself, sound card is always going to be your most important hardware for recording. Sound cards, along with microphone amplifiers and effect processors, define how your recordings will sound, so your choice is going to define your sound; however, always keep in mind when choosing professional sound equipment: cheap gear will give you cheap results. I learned from several years of experience in recording studios that there is no big need to buy an expensive $2000 audio interface to get decent recordings: there are always cheaper alternatives in the market that will give you nice results and save you a lot of money at the same time.

This model of Motu audio interfaces is the smallest one in the family and is equipped with both FireWire and USB2 outputs, which makes it especially useful if you have to switch between different work stations; it is also easy to carry around thanks to the sound card's compact dimensions (approx. 24 Ã 18 Ã 4.5 cm). Despite the size of MOTU UltraLite, I should say it has all features one would need from a professial external audio interface:

- 10 inputs and 14 outputs , including 2 Lo-Z XLR mic inputs, separate headphones output, S/PDIF I/O, 8 analog inputs and outputs: balanced/unbalanced, MIDI I/O (see pictures below for more info).

- Time code support through 1/4 inch input or output.

- Precision Digital Trim - feature that allows you to set the balance of your analogue inputs with up to 1dB precision.

- Option to save song mixes into UltraLite-mk3 and use it as a stand-alone device for performances.

- Onboard effects: 7-band parametric EQ, reverb and compression.

- Mac and Windows compatible.

If you are quite on a budget and want an easily transferable sound card that will fulfill its most essential studio and live performance duties, MOTU UltraLite-mk3 FireWire/USB will be your best choice.

Cons: some PC users complained about having driver installation issues on windows operating system!

Price: approx. $550

Please visit UltraLite-MK3 Hybrid page on MOTU website for more detailed information about this model's features.

M-Audio's ProFire 610 is an affordable FireWire external audio interface with most basic features for those who just need a solid studio sound card with no extra bells and whistles. It has no display like its MOTU UltraLite competitor, only 6 inputs and 10 outputs, but this is exactly what one would need for a studio work, right?.

The sound card's features are:

- 6 inputs/10 outputs, including 2 XLR mic inputs with high quality preamps, MIDI I/O

- A/D - D/A converter

- JetPLL Jitter Elimination technology

- User-adjustable master volume knob

- Onboard DSP mixer

- PC and Mac supported

Cons: some complaints concerning driver support issues; several CRC error reports.

Price: approx. $400

For a detailed description of ProFire 610 features visit M-Audio website.

Echo Audio specializes in digital audio interfaces and has been producing solid external and PCI based sound cards since 1990s, yet it seems to be a slightly underrated brand compared to giants like MOTU and M-Audio. Well, lets hope that Echo's products will get more recognition among sound egineers and music.

The best offer they have within the $500-$600 limit is their FireWire powered 16in/16out digital audio interface with 2 mic. inputs.

Echo AudioFire 8 FireWire features:

-16 inputs/16 outputs including 2 universal inputs (XLR mic/guitar/line), 6 balanced ¼" analog inputs, 6 balanced ¼" analog outputs, 2 unbalanced ¼" channel inserts

- S/PDIF I/O

- MIDI I/O

- ADAT I/O

- On-board DSP processing

- Compatible with Mac and PC

I still have not had a chance to see this sound card in action myself, but I browsed the web for reviews about the model's performance, and the most common answer was that it gives the most natural clean sound and has no driver flaws, so I have been thinking of buying an Echo product once I decide to upgrade from my MOTU 8pre.

For those who need to have more flexibility for recording, Echo introduce a more expensive model with 8 mic preamps - AudioFire Pre8:

This is a considerably compact device with 2 Mic/Line inputs on the front panel and 6 additional Mic/Line inputs at the back yet it has rack mounts if you want to properly install it in a sound studio.

Full list of features can be found at ECHO website.

I personally bought this one when I needed an all-in-one sound card with microphone preamps, a multi channel analog-digital converter and a digital mixer. I should say that MOTU did not disappoint me with this digital audio interface either. It gives a soft and clean sound to my recordings with very high signal to noise ratio. The 8 microphone preamps give unlimited possibilities to microphone recording options. I had a feeling though that the preamps are not as powerful as ones on a professional stand alone preamps, but they do their job; anyway, this is a matter of taste - some people might be happy with what MOTU 8pre offers, others may want to send microphone signal through an additional preamp. If you are a home recording enthusiast then you will most likely be happy with what you get for the price of MOTU 8pre.

In any case, I found this external sound card a valuable addition to my home recording studio and highly recommend it to anybody on the budget.

- 16 inputs with 8 microphone preamps, 12 outputs, up to 24-bit, 96kHz recording; separate phone and main outputs

- 8 XLR/TRS "combo jack" microphone inputs

- individual 48-volt phantom power switches for each microphone input

- 8 channels of ADAT optical I/O

- CueMix DSP monitoring system

- MIDI I/O

- SMPTE sync I/O

- 2 FireWire ports

Cons: this seems to be a reoccurring problem with MOTU sound cards, but I had troubles installing drivers for Windows XP. I had to reinstall it to make it work properly. After the first installation the interface worked only under my DAW, and did not want to run separately as a standalone application.

Price: approx. $550

Please visit 8pre page on MOTU website for more detailed information about this model's features.

Echo Audiofire 12 is a $600 price range solution for those who do not need any more preamps and mixers, but simply need extra 12 (extra FireWire connection can extend it up to 24) analogue line level inputs and outputs. This Audiofire model does not have any complicated all-in-one features which allows fast connection and user friendly operation.

- 12 balanced ¼" analog inputs and outputs

- MIDI I/O

- WordClock synchronization

- 24-bit 192 kHz recording and playback

- Mac and PC compatible

Which of the sound cards you prefer?

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