Buying A Music Card

I use one of that Realtek sound chips that are built-in in so many motherboards these days. It’s not bad and I actually don’t have any obvious problems with it and Renoise. But I heard from many people that if I compose music, I should get myself a separate good quality sound card. So my question to all of you is: why should I buy that separate sound card?
Some reasons that come to mind:

  1. Latency. Good cards supporting ASIO have near zero latency. My card works alright at 30ms latency. Do I really need lower than that? I mean 30ms is like nothing. Can you guys really hear the difference between 30ms and 10ms? And does it bother you to the point that you are willing to spend $$$ to improve it?

  2. Recording. I know that good sound cards allow for a very good quality recording. But I don’t record anything (yet) to make my music. I use VST instruments and some samples that I can find on the Internet for free. So, I’m not interested in recording at this point.

  3. Operating in other that 44100Hz. So far I render all my music in 441000 and that works great on my card. Why would I want to render it in higher than that? For better mastering? Anything else? Again, is it worth $$$?

Anything that I’m missing?

Mind you that I’m just a hobbyist. I don’t sell music, neither my job has anything to do with it. Does it make sense to invest in a good sound card in my case, or should I just stick with the onboard chip?

Bonus question: if the sound card is not necessary for me, what else should I spend my money on? Let’s say I have around $250 to spend on this. I already have M-Audio keyboard. What would be the next logical item to buy?


The difference between 10ms and 30ms is very noticeable when playing with a midi keyboard.

But you can achieve that with ASIO4All drivers on a Realtek chip.

It’s not just recording, it’s also reproduction. Crappy sound interface = inaccurate reproduction of the sound on disk. In other words, Realtek chips don’t just record crappy, they also sound crappy.

At a hobbyist level this really doesn’t matter.

The difference in sound quality will be noticeable if you get a nice card. That said, what’s your monitoring setup? In my mind, that’s more important than the soundcard.

30ms is not a real issue if you compose note by note and only process the song during playback.
If you want to do live events or record along other already recorded tracks, 30msecs can be an issue as the timings are in some cases a bit too late to be recorded exactly on the spot. This means that some notes can end up on other rows that you had timed your input. Even for a hobby composer, this might become an issue sooner or later.

Perhaps you can try and download the ASIO4all driver (which is free) and see how that works out with your soundcard. Your soundcard however needs to support WDM drivers in order for this driver to work, i have no idea what RealTek type or card you have…

If you are satisfied with 44Khz and the latency timings, i would not suggest you to invest money into more expensive hardware this if it works out.
I suspect you can get a little timing improvement with the Asio4all driver which seems a nice compromise for you.
In other cases there are also mid-range soundcards that will be affordable and offer a decent quality. (Perhaps ASIO and 48Khz).

I don’t have any real monitors. I use Sony MDR-XD200 headphones and Altec Lansing VS4221 speakers.

Well, there’s your answer then. It’s probably true that you won’t get decent monitors for $250, but you can get some sweet headphones for less than that. Mixing on headphones only is a bad practice, but you do what you gotta. I did my first album on a decent set of headphones (Sennheiser HD280s) and computer speakers… the sound ended up a little disappointing but it was a lot better than what I got when I was using $30 Sonys.

That Altec Lansing system will definitely throw off your mixes. Any monitoring system that is meant to make your sound ‘good’ is a problem. They add their own eq curve to give people the impression that music sounds better on their system. The problem is that you don’t know what it sounds like without the sweetening.

I have this motherboard, so it seems it is ALC889A. Hmmm, I just noticed they have released new drivers few days ago.

2008, well… you can call it new if you haven’t tried for over a year… Wait!.. that’s a typo, their summary speaks about 2009…

(Or were you talking about the Mobo drivers? i was discussing the asio4all drivers)

Today you can find a lot of “not too bad & not too expensive” gears :

Monitors :

Sound Card :
EMU 0404 PCI : 99€

Sennheiser HD-202 : 33€
PRODIPE PRO 580 : 49€

But If your neighbors don’t like your music, you should forget to buy monitors and buy good headphones ;)


Don’t buy new then. You can get some amazing speakers / monitors second hand for that price.

Personally I think I would never buy a second hand speakers or monitors

For what reason??

Are the speakers you have now, not ‘used’?

If you listened to some amazing sounding second hand speakers, which sounded far better than some new ones, at the same price or cheaper, you wouldn’t buy them??

It depends on the age of the speakers… if the ring around the cone is already crusting, i would not quickly buy them, no matter how nice they sound. Some of the material degrades and this also affects the sound quality.

but I used them.

Some years ago, I “broke” my last (hifi) speakers because I was doing music with them (you know… Beers + too much bass…)

–But I have a second hand soundcard–

Thanks for some hints. I will check the headphones, speakers and sound cards you recommended. BTW I just realized that I have Audigy2 ZS in my old computer. Is it any good (i.e. better than ALC889)?

Better than Realtek, not as good as the Audiophile or Delta.

  1. no. (pure) playback at even 250ms is still alright. but yes for 2.

  2. if you do not want to record/playback in realtime, no. but if, its essential to be <=10ms (or maybe 20 I dunno); you might want to do playback and recording simultaneous.

  3. yes. you will enjoy it. you get way more clarity at high freq. and more details in synthesis in general; = better sound - or you go for lo-fi all way down :).

tho’ you can simply do playback at 44.1khz - render stuff at 96khz - downsample with dither to 48/44khz and still have the same (better) result. now here, you “hope” for the sound you want since its altered at 96khz.

in my case, I’m just like you, a hobbyist and I think the best thing I bought so far is the audiophile196 and decent monitors.

you forgot one thing. a audiophile is kinda cheap and there are trade-offs.

  1. how many parallel inputs do you need? none in your case :P
  2. how clean do you like to have your line-in(s). PCI boards are noisy if they are “cheap”.

now, I’d suggest you probably do not buy anything :P

but yet, good question. I’m thinking bout getting another interface too. what would you guys go with (multi input) ?

I went round a friends yesterday to show him a few programs for composing.
I tried a test record from his on board sound card (realtek) and both the noise and DC ofset were quite questionable.
It all depends on the quality you want - if you’re happy (and of course cash flow) - don’t get bothered by audiophiles - but a better soundcard and speakers may well be inspirational

There are some bargains on EBay - i bet if i ebayed my delta 44 it would get sniped for 20 UK pounds

I did some tests and it seems like they must have done something good in Vista, because on my onboard Realtek chip I can get down to below 20ms with a fairly complicated (more than 10 VST instruments playing at the same time) tune, without any side effects. I don’t use ASIO4ALL. Just the regular DirectSound.

I get the feeling that my next buy will be headphones then :) So if you guys could recommend some more models, I would really appreciate!

I really like my AKG K240 (even if they are not perfect)
BeyerDynamic DT 770 Pro 250 are said to be a good buy.