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I'm looking at replacing my aging SB Live Value soundcard with something more modern with much lower latency and ASIO 2 support. I do quite a bit of music composition through Sibelius (7) and Cubase, so I notice that these require ASIO to work well. As it is the latency from Sibelius to the soundcard is very poor, and I'm running ASIO4All with 512 samples to minimise stuttery playback. I also have a Korg M3 keyboard for MIDI input and sound recording, and I'd like to be able to have both the sound from my computer and M3 output from the same speakers (or headphones). I'm also looking at using the soundcard/interface for primary audio output from my desktop.

In my search, I've heard enough to avoid anything made by Creative. The popular M-Audio Audiophile 2496 seems to have compatibility issues with Windows 7 64-bit (which is what I'm running), so that would be a dealbreaker for me.

I found a forum post recommending the Asus Xonar Essence STX soundcard for music production, and a salesman at a local music store recommended a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or 2i4. I notice the latter is an external USB 2.0 interface, whereas the former takes an internal PCI-e slot on the motherboard.

I have the impression that internal soundcards/interfaces would be much faster and have less latency, given the proximity of the PCI bus, than external USB devices that would compete with other USB devices for bandwidth (even if USB 2 can theoretically reach 480 MB/s). However I cannot ignore that most of the audio interfaces sold today are external units connected by USB, Firewire or even Thunderbolt, so I'm not sure how much of a difference there would be.

I have no problems opening my computer, since I've performed several upgrades in the past. Currently my system runs on an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4800+ with 6GB DDR2 RAM.

Which would people recommend for my setup? Is there a reason why these interfaces are predominantly external USB?

Many thanks in advance.

Update

Here are my priorities that influence what I'm looking for:

  • As little latency as possible when using soft synths (without dropped samples)
  • Good-quality sound reproduction / frequency response for mainly orchestral music
  • Not too expensive or top-end, but reasonably-priced for something of good quality
  • Works well with Windows 7 64-bit, stable drivers

If an external interface is more suitable for me, I'd like this to be reasonably compact and bus-powered - hence the initial appeal of the Focusrite Scarletts. A full rack would be overkill.

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If USB isn't an absolute requirement you could also check out Firewire based cards (which I recommend over USB due to the hardware implementations). F.ex echoaudio.com –  0x2bad 0xdeadbeef Nov 20 '12 at 10:38
    
Thanks for the suggestion - that's another thing to consider. My main dilemma is over internal (PCI-e) vs external (either USB2 or Firewire). I notice that Wikipedia's entry for Firewire mentions having 2 separate buses for data (1 for each direction), while USB uses 1 bidirectional bus. Is this the main hardware implementation you are referring to? –  d_mcg Nov 21 '12 at 8:56
    
I'm looking for something similar. A little research has got me interested in: "Focusrite Saffire PRO 14" and "Tascam US-144MKII". A more high-end device, exceeding my budget: "Sound Devices USBPre 2". –  poplitea Nov 21 '12 at 11:16
    
@d_mcg Yes, Firewire is more data oriented than usb and having two separate buses reduces overhead in packet data enabling more data at the same data rate compared to usb. There are other factors too but not so relevant here (firewire daisy-chain vs. usb hub/host, usb non-direct communication with hardware etc.). –  0x2bad 0xdeadbeef Nov 21 '12 at 11:23

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The usual reason for these being external are:

  1. No conflict with internal devices
  2. Size and heat requirements
  3. Requirements for multiple interfaces: midi, spdif, line-in, mic etc
  4. User interface requirements - mixer controls, EQ etc
  5. Occasionally power requirements - an externally powered sound card can provide a lower noise floor, higher quality and dedicated preamps and compression where required.
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Thanks - points 2-4 gave the most for me to consider, and after this phenomenon called Christmas I settled on the Xonar STX. Hardware-wise this provided what I need without having too many IO ports that will go unused, and the nice thing is that it's integrated with my PC. I think a sixth reason people go for is ease of connectivity - there seems to be a perception that the mass market won't bother with having their computer opened up and would rather have something they can swap more easily between machines. –  d_mcg Feb 10 '13 at 5:17
1  
Well what a saga - it turns out that the Asus ASIO drivers are poorly implemented, so only have an option for a ridiculously low 4-sample buffer in Sibelius. Have returned the Xonar STX for a refund; looks like I'll be getting a Focusrite Saffire Pro 14 after all. Hopefully their 64-bit Windows 7 are up to scratch. –  d_mcg Feb 16 '13 at 11:03

When you get into the situation where you've got multiple sources (Sibelius, Cubase, korg line-out, computer, etc.) and multiple destinations (Sibelius, Cubase, monitors, cans, etc.), I think what you really need is a mixer.

I would look into getting a nice sound card and a small mixing board, and probably a digital link between the two that would support multiple channels simultaneously. This would give you the flexibility to move signal to/from whichever device.

I'm not 100% sure where the MIDI would fit into this picture, but my guess, is that you find a sound card with audio and MIDI both.

In any case, I think if you assume the existence of a mixing board, it makes shopping for an interface much simpler, as you're no longer as concerned with how many of which kind of I/O it has, etc.

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Although it is nice to have a standalone analog mixer, it is extremely convenient to have an audio interface that supports multiple inputs and outputs and can do mixing in the sound card - such as most of MOTUs offerings. –  ObscureRobot Nov 20 '12 at 14:41
    
@ObscureRobot, I couldn't disagree. I guess I just have a soft spot for visual, tactile routing and gain... especially if any of that stuff changes with any regularity. If it's possible to set it and forget it, you're probably right. –  JoshP Nov 20 '12 at 14:55
    
In the best of all possible worlds, I would prefer a mixer with a lot of mix busses. But you end up spending a lot of money and taking up a lot of space for any mixer with more one or two. The MOTUs let you arbitrarily route from any input to any output, and my mk2 828 has four submix buses. All in a shallow 1u package. –  ObscureRobot Nov 20 '12 at 18:23
    
Thanks, that's something for me to consider. At the moment I'm only concerned with the soundcard and having as little latency as possible. In my circumstance, I imagine I'd have my PC audio output (which includes output from Sibelius or Cubase) sent directly to the soundcard (over PCI-e, USB2 or Firewire) and 2 mono / 1 stereo input from my Korg keyboard. As I understand it, I'd be able to control the mixing of these 2 input channels in the soundcard through its software, though once I set up the levels I don't imagine I'd change this too often. –  d_mcg Nov 21 '12 at 9:11

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