Desktop PCs: Dedicated sound card vs. onboard motherboard audio

Discussion in 'Technical Side of Things' started by CalicoSkies, Feb 19, 2020.

  1. CalicoSkies

    CalicoSkies Gretschie

    Nov 18, 2019
    Hillsboro, OR, USA
    I originally posted this on Reddit in the "Buildapc" subreddit, but surprisingly, nobody there has provided an answer. Also, it seems to be a common opinion that there's no good reason to have a dedicated sound card, but I'm skeptical of that. I'm curious if anyone here (who perhaps does music recording, etc.) might have any good info on this.

    In the early-mid 90s, sound cards for PCs always provided hardware support for audio processing, which helps take the audio processing load off the CPU. Also, PC sound cards also always used to have hardware MIDI support, including at least FM synthesis (and later, wavetable MIDI), and providing some way to have MIDI I/O ports so you could plug in MIDI devices and record MIDI music on your PC. For a long time, I preferred having a dedicated sound card in my PC, for the above reasons.

    These days, one could argue that onboard audio on a PC motherboard is fine for most uses. Different audio chipsets probably perform better than others though. Also, for MIDI, I've found that a software MIDI synthesizer is probably better, since that makes it easier to render MIDI audio to a file when you're doing multi-track music recording. And most MIDI controllers have a USB MIDI interface, so you can just plug it into a USB port.

    In my previous desktop PC that I built, I used an Asus Xonar Xense sound card, though I wondered how much benefit there really was to that. That Asus sound card didn't have any MIDI support, and I wondered if it really provided much benefit over the onboard motherboard audio. And it sounds like the Realtek ALC1220 is really good, and I seem to remember reading that MSI added some shielding for it on this motherboard I'm using. I'm not sure about the CPU load of audio with this, but it seems to be working fine for me so far.

    My questions:
    • My motherboard is a MSI MPG Z390 Gaming Edge AC, which uses the Realtek ALC1220P onboard audio chip. Would it be beneficial to buy a dedicated sound card, such as the Asus Essence STX II or the Creative Sound Blaster ZxR? Perhaps at least for music recording?
    • Do dedicated sound cards provide any hardware audio processing benefit to take load off the CPU?
    MSI MPG Z390 Gaming Edge AC motherboard specs:
    Asus Essence STX II sound card:
    Creative Sound Blaster ZxR sound card:
  2. BrianSelzer

    BrianSelzer Electromatic

    Jan 19, 2020
    The days of soundcards are over. If you are into making music, better get a usb audio interface that also lets you connect condensor mics and guitars. The Behringer umc204 (with midi) for example or something more prestigious. I even use an 18ch digital mixer (XR18) as my audio interface
  3. Randy99CL

    Randy99CL Gretschie

    Feb 17, 2020
    I'm an old guy building PCs since the early '90s and remember a long string of Creative Sound Blaster cards and yes, they used to really make a difference by taking the sound processing duties off the CPU. Great multi-channel sound.

    But today the onboard sound processors are much better than what was available even a decade ago, and the multi-core CPU chips are so fast that they have plenty of time to process audio. Audio signals are incredibly simple compared to things like video rendering.

    No way I'd spend $200 for any sound card. Like Brian said, you need to check into stand-alone studio-quality USB interface devices.
    GlenP and CalicoSkies like this.
  4. CalicoSkies

    CalicoSkies Gretschie

    Nov 18, 2019
    Hillsboro, OR, USA
    The days of dedicated sound cards seem not to be over if they're still making them.. There must be a reason for them, I'd think?
  5. DougWheeler74

    DougWheeler74 Gretschie

    Jul 10, 2019
    NE Wisconsin
    I did a quick look at the Sound Blaster card as a reminder of what may be out there. That's a fair amount of money for an audio interface. It also looks like its primary use is for output with gaming. When I hear sound card (and I've used them over the years) all I think of is driver hassles and dropped support when the computer was upgraded. A USB interfaces also offer the ability to be used with a laptop. A good example for recording for less money is the Focusrite line. Great preamps, flexible I/O capabilities and generally hassle free. I use this and am very happy with it.
  6. CalicoSkies

    CalicoSkies Gretschie

    Nov 18, 2019
    Hillsboro, OR, USA
    I generally haven't had driver issues with cards. And USB devices require drivers too..
  7. Aymara

    Aymara Friend of Fred

    Jul 6, 2013
    Long story short: For music production, incl. guitar recording, you need an audio interface, e.g. Focusrite. For everything else, except audiophile HiRes music listening, an onboard soundcard is good enough.
  8. CalicoSkies

    CalicoSkies Gretschie

    Nov 18, 2019
    Hillsboro, OR, USA
    By "audio interface", I assume you mean an external one rather than using the line-in on the PC's internal sound device?
  9. Aymara

    Aymara Friend of Fred

    Jul 6, 2013
    Sure, that‘s why I mentioned Focusrite as an example.

    Another example is the Apogee Jam+, if you don‘t need mic recordings and just guitar and a pretty small interface, that‘s also iPad compatible.
    BatmansGretsch likes this.
  10. BatmansGretsch

    BatmansGretsch Gretschie

    Dec 3, 2019
    The problem is not that you can't design a sound card these days to work in a PC motherboard slot. The problem is in order to have a sound card viable for sound engineers there are an awful lot more connections out there from digital to analog now than in the 90s. It is just not feasible to produce a semi-pro sound card that needs twice as many inputs and outputs as your video card does. Imagine multiple instruments needing inputs. You get the point. So 99% of semi-pro and pro sound cards are now separate hardware in a box you hook up with USB mainly. Focusrite and such are your cheapest and probably best option.
  11. Henry

    Henry Gretschified

    Apr 9, 2014
    To make money selling them - presumably not a good enough reason for you to buy one. :D The "because it's there" is a terrible consumer habit to get into, if you follow that to its logical end you should buy the most expensive one out there - after all, there must be a reason for it.

    The input boxes are the substitute for sound cards as having the right connections at this stage of tech development is more important than processing power.
    CalicoSkies likes this.
  12. Aymara

    Aymara Friend of Fred

    Jul 6, 2013
    PS (forgot that in my last post):

    An audio interface is not a sound card ... they are similar, but have different purposes. The sound card nowadays only has an input for a microphone, that doesn't need phantom power, while most interfaces have phantom power for studio mics, line-in, MIDI-in and -out and instrument-in, e.g. for guitar and bass, which need a very high impedance.

    A further difference is, that a good interface with good drivers doesn't cause latencies! Latencies occur when one signal is slower than the other. You notice that, when you use studio software, a so called Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), and the current recording is slower than the playback of former recordings. Furthermore you often hear crackling noise in these cases.

    Examples for DAWs are Reaper and Studio One.

    Tip: Buy a Presonus audio interface and you get Studio One for free, including virtual instruments and effects. But there's also a totally free version without free plugins, which is available for everybody.
    Reaper though is only free for 4 weeks, but it is the cheapest full feature DAW and is has the most powerful community, so it might be the best choice for beginners.
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2020
    CalicoSkies likes this.
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