Need advice on choosing a PCI soundcard

pumapenguin

Obliviot
Hi all,

I was hoping someone might be able to advise me on which soundcard I should purchase. Ideally I'm looking for a soundcard that I can do a bit of home-recording with - acoustic/electric guitar and flute mostly. Also playing/recording VST instruments using Cubase.

I've been considering both the Sound Blaster 7.1 X-Fi Elite Pro and the long established M-AUDIO 2496. I've read a few negative things about the X-FI Elite Pro and as it costs so much more I'm thinking...is it really worth that extra money? Ok - it's got a fancy breakout box and remote control. But do I really need that extra stuff? I just need a soundcard that will allow me to do some decent quality recording.

I have been using the Creative Audigy2 for a number of years and was very happy with the sound quality. I don't need bells and whistles. Unfortunately my newly updated computer setup has a problem with this card - something to do with IRQ settings on the ASUS PQ5 Pro Turbo motherboard bios - and they are not re-configurable. Lots of static and crackling.

At this point I have made a shortlist of cards. I'm hoping that someone out there will be able to help narrow this list down a bit more. Any advice would be much appreciated.

Something else that I'd really appreciate some help on... I currently have two midi keyboards. An M-Audio 88ES and an older midiman 49 key. I managed to break the USB port on the midiman a number of years ago and have never bothered to get it repaired. A couple of questions...

1) If you connect a midi keyboard using a midi cable rather than USB does/can this affect/improve latency?

2) Is it possible to connect one keyboard via midi and the second keyboard via USB and have both playing simultaneously?

Here is the list I am currently considering:

1) ASUS Xonar Essence STX (around £120)

2) Asus Xonar D2 Sound Card (around £85)

3) M-Audio Audiophile 2496 (around £50)

4) M-Audio Delta 44 - Professional 4 In/4 Out 24Bit/96Khz Pci Audio Card (around £120) (no midi port)

5) M-Audio Delta 66 PCI soundcard (around £145) (no midi port)

6) M-Audio Delta 1010 LT Audio Interface (around £135)

7) CREATIVE Sound Blaster 7.1 X-Fi Elite Pro PCI sound card (around £230)

Thanks in advance.

pumapenguin
 

2Tired2Tango

Tech Monkey
Before you spend money to fix a settings problem, why not try a couple of things...

1) Disable the motherboard's built in soundcard in the bios.
2) Try older or newer version drivers
3) Try using the motherboard's built in sound

If you're getting crackling in the recordings but otherwise the thing works ok, it's probably dirt in the connectors... dip a plug into rubbing alcohol and insert it into the audio connector you're using. Turn it in full circles back and forth several times, like you're turning a volume control up and down. Repeat this process for all the other connectors. Clean the pci edge connector with an eraser. See if that fixes the problem.

I assume from your description you are using an external mixer and recording from the line input... in this case you might have a ground loop. Try connecting the mixer and computer to the same wall outlet, or conversely try splitting them up...

Finally, you should know that neither PCI buss cards nor pci equipped motherboards actually use IRQ settings, that died with the ISA bus. Hardware signalling is now dynamically assigned by the OS as part of the plug and play startup process... and very often you will find that almost all of your devices are assigned to IRQ 11... which is perfectly normal and acceptable. So don't let anyone BS you about stuff that died with DOS.

Most likely you've just got an installation problem of some kind...

To respond to your midi question, yes you can have midi port and usb port keyboards on the same machine... ** so long as your software knows what to do with them. Like everything else, it's all about the software... You will get your best syncronization if both are on midi ports, since the midi beat clock is actually a hardware signal on the port... and they do make midi port mixers for just this purpose, but they're not cheap.

Hope all this helps.
 
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Rob Williams

Editor-in-Chief
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I'm no audiophile... and I can't be more clear on that, but when it comes down to the Creative at £230 and the Xonar Essence STX for almost half that... I'd have to recommend the latter. It's a fantastic card, and has even been praised by some of the most serious audiophiles, which is a good sign.
 

2Tired2Tango

Tech Monkey
I'm no audiophile... and I can't be more clear on that, but when it comes down to the Creative at £230 and the Xonar Essence STX for almost half that... I'd have to recommend the latter. It's a fantastic card, and has even been praised by some of the most serious audiophiles, which is a good sign.

The problem here is midi support. Only Creative does it right.

The Musical Instrument Digital Interface isn't audio, it's a streaming digital port. It's governed by a control language spoken by MIDI enabled keyboards, samplers, effects engines etc. It allows precise timing between multiple MIDI devices. So it's some pretty specialized stuff.

Picture a Disco with instrumental music pounding, lights moving and flashing in time with the music, lyrics being projected on the wall, images and slideshows keeping pace with the show... Now picture Karaoke night at the local boozer... some fool gets up there and starts a song, singing along with the bouncing ball, making a complete fool of himself...

And then there's christmas lights...
http://www.metacafe.com/watch/45390/wizards_of_winter/

And stage shows...
http://www.metacafe.com/watch/yt-NwFi_Wo1EIE/transiberian_orchestra_wizards_in_winter/

All this, music, lights, pyrotechnics and more can be coordinated by a single MIDI master and several MIDI slave units...

Tons of info here... http://home.roadrunner.com/~jgglatt/

Midi in action... http://www.metacafe.com/watch/34058...izards_of_winter_by_trans_siberian_orchestra/


One of the problems here is that a lot of newer soundcards don't support midi-in or midi-out.
Creative has traditionally supported this using extra pins on it's (old school) Joystick interface. But these days you pay a premium to get MIDI enabled sound cards.

The whole MIDI thing is moving over to IP based solutions but it's slow coming as many musicians simply can't be buying $10,000 keyboards every couple of years.
 
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Rob Williams

Editor-in-Chief
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Oh, I somehow overlooked the requirement of MIDI... but I admit I didn't know one card excelled over another. Whoops.
 

2Tired2Tango

Tech Monkey
Oh, I somehow overlooked the requirement of MIDI... but I admit I didn't know one card excelled over another. Whoops.

Well, the midi port is the midi port... it's a standard definition (like USB is) so no, the difference isn't there. However a good midi supporting card such as the SBPCI-128 will have high quality midi playback through it's own built in synth.

Playing midi files on the soundblaster synth vs the microsoft GS synth that installs with Windows is like driving a porche after being used to a Yugo. The difference is obvious, even to the most untrained ear... and for reviewing and editing midi files it makes all the difference in the world.

Of course there is a workaround and that is to use the midi-out port to play the files through a good external synth, most of which use the same sound samples as soundblaster does. (standard General Midi samples)

So... for future :D you should note that the "microsoft GS wavetable synth", used with most sound cards, massively sucks. Even the cheapest soundblaster card is better.... for midi that is. A lot of musicians use dual sound cards for this reason... a SB for it's midi capabilities and something like Xonar for it's superior wave playback.
 

Rob Williams

Editor-in-Chief
Staff member
Moderator
I'm sure I'm overlooking something huge here, but what makes MIDI such a popular choice in this day and age? For that matter, what's the most common use for MIDI? Just to create beats? Or full tracks?
 

2Tired2Tango

Tech Monkey
I'm sure I'm overlooking something huge here, but what makes MIDI such a popular choice in this day and age? For that matter, what's the most common use for MIDI? Just to create beats? Or full tracks?

Well... there are a lot of misconceptions about what MIDI is and what it can do...

First off MIDI is not a file format ... that's *.MID. MID files are MIDI sequences captured on disk, much like the paper rolls in player pianos (the true origin of "Be kind, Rewind", btw) They contain long lists of midi messages... commands sent to MIDI enabled devices to remote control them.

Second MIDI is not some squeaky ringtone in a 10 year old cellphone, nor is it one of those squacky Casio keyboards. They boast "General MIDI" sounds but in all truth they're most often not even MIDI enabled devices.

There is no sound on a MIDI port... it's all command signals, called Events. These can be things like "Select instrument" (Trumpet, Piano, Guitar, etc.) Note On, Note Off, Pitch Bend and more. Time them correctly and you get music. The MIDI specification also includes signals for controlling other devices such as drum kits, effects boxes, sequencers, lighting controllers etc.

MIDI is a control interface that allows performance equipment to communicate... These can be any of: keyboards, synthesizers, sequencers, samplers, rhythm boxes, lighting controllers, pytotechincs triggers, and more...

Take a look at that video of the house where the lights are timed to the music... I saw a write up on that system... not only is that music being played in it's entirety by a MIDI enabled synthesizer, the lights are being controlled by MIDI enabled controllers as well.

It shouldn't take much to figure out how important this can be in a live performance. I can't be certain the lighting pyro and filler sound in the live performance by Trans-Siberian Orchestra was 100% MIDI controlled ... but the interface is fully capable of it.

Probably the most common use of MIDI is in MIDI enabled keyboards. It allows the keyboard to communicate with a computer that captures the MIDI events as they come along and stores them for later editing in a software sequencer such as CakeWalk. This makes MIDI enabled keyboards an invaluable studio tool. In fact most of the music you hear on modern CDs is probably from MIDI devices... I mean you don't really think Miley Sirus has a 30 piece studio ensamble... It's probably just some guy laying down multiple tracks on a keyboard.

Take a look at the video of the guy playing "Wizards in Winter"... What's impressive there is not that he is playing along with the music... It's that he's playing ALL of the music.

Thus there are two key parts of a MIDI enabled soundcard that are important. First the MIDI port itself, the signals are standardized but a bad soundcard could introduce delays (latency) that can make it impossible to lay down more than one track without serious timing errors. Second the built in playback Synthesizer is crucial to the overall sound of the finished product... it's most often used in the transition from MIDI captures to MP3 sound. If that synth sounds like crap, so does the result.

What makes older SoundBlaster cards so special is their playback Synth. You can listen to MIDI music on a SoundBlaster card and you won't be able to tell it's not real instruments playing... Their sounds are taken from "samples" of real instruments, stored in files on your hard disk and loaded into the Synth at startup... thus it actually is playing back the sounds of real instruments.

MIDI really is the backbone of good music these days Rob... even though you are listening to PCM sound from a CD or MP3 sound from a file, the chances are the sounds you hear originated in a MIDI enabled device.

I'm attaching a few .mid files for you to play with... try to listen to them on a good SoundBlaster setup with the 8mb sample set... also note the file sizes.
 

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Rob Williams

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Thanks as always for such a detailed response. I'm well aware what the MIDI file format is, and the benefits of, but I didn't put it all together and clue in that MIDI = a real interface.

2Tired2Tango said:
Probably the most common use of MIDI is in MIDI enabled keyboards.

That's the first thing that comes to mind for me, because I'm planning on purchasing some DJing software in the near-future (Ableton Live 8, probably), and plan to get a keyboard at some point after that. I'm sure I'll have a lot more questions in the future, but out of curiosity, you wouldn't happen to have keyboard recommendations? Obviously there are some big names out there, but a starting point would be great.

If I stick with my Xonar STX for MIDI, should I feel confident that the quality is high? And finally, how exactly would a keyboard connect to the card? Via composite or the microphone port?
 

2Tired2Tango

Tech Monkey
Thanks as always for such a detailed response. I'm well aware what the MIDI file format is, and the benefits of, but I didn't put it all together and clue in that MIDI = a real interface.

Yep... the first realtime streaming interface.

Please note the difference... MID == file format ... MIDI == interface specification

The pinouts for the connectors are HERE

That's the first thing that comes to mind for me, because I'm planning on purchasing some DJing software in the near-future (Ableton Live 8, probably), and plan to get a keyboard at some point after that. I'm sure I'll have a lot more questions in the future, but out of curiosity, you wouldn't happen to have keyboard recommendations? Obviously there are some big names out there, but a starting point would be great.

(With the caviat that I am not a musician.)

That depends entirely upon what you're wanting to do with it...

If you're playing music it will depend on what kind of music, where and how often... home use keyboards start about $150... pro stuff can easily go over $10,000. Most of the studio setups I've worked on are either Yamaha or Korg. Many prefer Roland and M-Audio is also a well respected name in semi-pro circles.

Of course if you're wanting to use MIDI for lighting and effects control, the whole story changes real fast... Here you can look into Leviton controllers for mid-range SFX setups. Many Leviton lighting and effects controllers are MIDI enabled.


If I stick with my Xonar STX for MIDI, should I feel confident that the quality is high? And finally, how exactly would a keyboard connect to the card? Via composite or the microphone port?

Ideally you want to record and playback through the keyboard. This is the best way to gain consistent results when laying down tracks.

Looking at the specs on the Asus website... The Xonar soundcard offers no MIDI support whatsoever. That is... no playback synth and no MIDI connectors for your keyboard. Any MID file support you may have will come from a software synth which in Windows will most likely be the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth... and if you are anything but deaf and stoned at the same time, you are going to seriously hate that. So right away you're looking at a different sound card...

If you have the bux to spend look at the SoundBlaster X-FI series or you could look into the MAudio lineup.

Alternatively you can add a second sound card just for midi work... In this case you should hit the local computer stores and find any sound blaster PCI or Live series card... they will be in the junk box and will probably cost you a buck or two... Look for the CT-5880 chip on the board and a game connector on the backplane. Driver wise, I can send you a customized setup for windows that enable all the best features of the card.

Although there have been occasional problems with latency (delays between keypress and sound on) you could also try MIDI to USB adaptors like the ones from ZZSounds. I would caution you however, to not think "they're all the same"... spend the money and get a good one and be ready to try more than one if you run into problems.

Connecting the keyboard audio through your line in jacks will give you the real sound of the keyboard (sometimes preferable when recording live) but it will give you none of the MIDI interfaces control signals or timing features... I should think you'd be disappointed with this in very short order, especially when you see what pro-level MIDI capture/MID file editors like Cakewalk can do.
 
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2Tired2Tango

Tech Monkey
Hi all,
I've been considering both the Sound Blaster 7.1 X-Fi Elite Pro and the long established M-AUDIO 2496. I've read a few negative things about the X-FI Elite Pro and as it costs so much more I'm thinking...is it really worth that extra money? Ok - it's got a fancy breakout box and remote control. But do I really need that extra stuff? I just need a soundcard that will allow me to do some decent quality recording.

Reading back over this I realize I never did comment on which soundcard you should consider if my other solutions didn't pan out....

Yes either the Soundblaster or the M-Audio cards are your best bet. M-Audio is the new name for "MIDIman" and ithe company is very adept with MIDI enabled devices. However I've always favored the sound of the SoundBlaster playback synth... Either should serve you well.
 

Rob Williams

Editor-in-Chief
Staff member
Moderator
Once again, I'm not sure how I missed this response. Thanks a ton for the information man. I don't have much to add, but will take it all into consideration when I decide to purchase some equipment. The first purchase will be Ableton, and then nothing more for a little bit after that since it's a little pricey.

I think I've decided against a keyboard, at least for right now. I think something like this would be far more useful for my goals:

http://www.akaipro.com/apc40

I'd be creating dance-related genres of music. A keyboard would have some use, not not near as much as a proper controller.

2Tired2Tango said:
Looking at the specs on the Asus website... The Xonar soundcard offers no MIDI support whatsoever. That is... no playback synth and no MIDI connectors for your keyboard.

I find that a bit odd given the STX in particular is such a robust card. It's designed for audiophiles, and even recording, so the lack of MIDI is a little bizarre. Either way, that's something I'll have to add whenever the time comes (I'd likely use the ASUS for playback, and the MIDI card for recording). For various reasons, I'm not a fan of Creative, so I'd go with M-Audio more than likely. They make some wicked product.
 

2Tired2Tango

Tech Monkey
I think I've decided against a keyboard, at least for right now. I think something like this would be far more useful for my goals:

http://www.akaipro.com/apc40

I'd be creating dance-related genres of music. A keyboard would have some use, not not near as much as a proper controller.

You'll probably like that controller... however it's not a MIDI device. It's actually USB connected... which would eliminate the need for a second sound card.

I find that a bit odd given the STX in particular is such a robust card. It's designed for audiophiles, and even recording, so the lack of MIDI is a little bizarre.

Not at all. It's a playback device, intended to be used with audiophile equipment... not musical instruments. A musician's soundcard is a whole different animal... Take a look at the M-Audio cards as an example... there connectivity rules. A musician needs MIDI jacks and will prefer the extra I/O ability over features such as built in normalization and compression.

As a friend of mine points out all the time: "A feature is only a feature if you have need of it, otheriwse it's payload."

Either way, that's something I'll have to add whenever the time comes (I'd likely use the ASUS for playback, and the MIDI card for recording). For various reasons, I'm not a fan of Creative, so I'd go with M-Audio more than likely. They make some wicked product.

Even though Creative has a far superior playback synth?

MIDI wise, the Creative cards of 10 years ago are still the standard. The PCI-128 card with the CT-5880 chip (also found on many motherboards of the time) was and still is king of the hill.

MP3 (etc.) wise much progress has been made... but these days most soundcards use that eternally crappy Microsoft GS synth... Really, no joke... that thing IS a joke.
 
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Rob Williams

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2Tired2Tango said:
You'll probably like that controller... however it's not a MIDI device. It's actually USB connected... which would eliminate the need for a second sound card.

I'll admit, I have no idea the purpose behind the ports on that thing. It's a controller, so I'm not sure what I'd plug in there. It's USB-based, yes, but so is a keyboard or mouse. It's just a controller that interfaces with Ableton. So after plugging in, I could use it for precise control (I'm beginning to believe that it's imperative). So again, I'm not even sure what the ports on there are for, but checking the specs list, it shows "USB-MIDI with proprietary hardware/software handshake"... so it's not for MIDI at all?

2Tired2Tango said:
Not at all. It's a playback device, intended to be used with audiophile equipment... not musical instruments.

Good point.

2Tired2Tango said:
Even though Creative has a far superior playback synth?

It depends on how serious I want to take MIDI, I guess. I am not a fan of Creative, so going with another company's product appeals to me a lot more.
 

2Tired2Tango

Tech Monkey
I'll admit, I have no idea the purpose behind the ports on that thing. It's a controller, so I'm not sure what I'd plug in there.

Ok... first I would suggest you go and take a look at Jeff Glatt's MIDI site... it's packed with information about what MIDI is and what it can (and can't) do for you.

Now lets turn this around...


Rob Williams said:
I'd be creating dance-related genres of music. A keyboard would have some use, not not near as much as a proper controller.

What exactly do you want this thing to do for you?

Rob Williams said:
That's the first thing that comes to mind for me, because I'm planning on purchasing some DJing software in the near-future (Ableton Live 8, probably),

Ableton and it's kin are not much good for the DJ scene. Unless you are planning to create your own music from scratch you will find the lack of real-time queuing, cross-fading and song cataloguing to be a serious drawback.

Methinks that unless you are planning to create original music you might be happier with something like the Rockit DJ package and the M-Audio X-Session controller.
 
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Rob Williams

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2Tired2Tango said:
Ok... first I would suggest you go and take a look at Jeff Glatt's MIDI site... it's packed with information about what MIDI is and what it can (and can't) do for you.

I will do that when I need the information. I won't need MIDI for a while, so it's not a major concern at the moment.

2Tired2Tango said:
What exactly do you want this thing to do for you?

Exactly what it's built for, intricate control over the music. Adjusting knobs, faders, tempo and whatever else in software is just clunky, and very tedious. Having real control right there is a lot better.

2Tired2Tango said:
Methinks that unless you are planning to create original music you might be happier with something like the Rockit DJ package and the M-Audio X-Session controller.

Heh, I appreciate the idea, but I'm not about to use some software I've never heard of in lieu of professional software that's regularly used by DJs I actually listen to. Ableton is an industry standard, and it's not just a mixer, but a beat maker as well. I'd be buying Ableton Suite 8, which includes its "Software Instruments" (these are not just samples, but each set includes it's own control to configure the sounds to your liking) and also the "Essential Instrument Collection 2".

http://www.ableton.com/products

Ableton was first recommended to me by a friend who used to DJ, and used to be big into the DJ scene (he's interviewed some of the world's most important DJs), and after looking through all the details, it looks like it's a great application. I'm still not ready to commit to a purchase, because I haven't been able to dedicate any time at all to it. *kicks ground*

Thanks for all the advice so far though, I appreciate being able to bounce ideas off someone who knows what they're talking about.
 
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