Sound cards are built into the majority of computers in order to use basic input and output audio settings for simple projects like recording with a built-in microphone or playing back your audio on speakers.
Audio interfaces are external sound cards that allow you to control the sound going in, coming out, and more, depending on what interface you have.
In a way, yes, they are the same thing because they serve the same purpose. When you hook up an audio interface to your computer, it overrides the built-in sound card.
Audio interfaces are just advanced sound cards, so they are better if you want more flexibility with your recording and audio playback.
Interfaces can give you multiple recording inputs, serve as an amplifier where you can adjust the gain for your recording levels, and much more, depending on the quality of the product that you buy.
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High-end interfaces can be worth it if you go with a trustworthy brand that is known for its quality. Lower-end interfaces only have decent sound quality, which may not be what professional recording musicians need.
I once bought an audio interface from Amazon that was under $100 to use temporarily while I needed to research a Mbox Mini replacement (they were decent but discontinued). Boy, was I surprised by how much it lowered the sound quality of my mic recording!
Many high-end interfaces can be bought for less than $1000 for your home studio needs, giving you some of the best sound quality you'll ever hear.
It's hard to say what is the best because so many different musicians require different things in their audio interfaces. Bands, for example, will need an interface that will allow several instruments to be recorded at once, while singers like me who just use a mic won't need that feature.
A great place to start is with the highest-rated and most trusted brands, which include Univeral Audio, Focusrite, and Behringer. These brands will have a variety of interfaces that you will be able to choose from according to your particular needs.
Sound cards do not use phantom power, which is often required to record with condenser microphones. Phantom power is not recommended to use with dynamic mics.
If you are interested in using a condenser mic for your studio recordings, you will need to use an interface and won't be able to rely on your internal sound card.
In live performance and studio recording settings, there are some products that are more like audio interfaces that are also called sound cards.
These aren't like the classic sound cards that are found in your computer since they are also external, just like audio interfaces are. They are also more advanced than sound cards that can be found on computers.
The V8 Sound Card, for example, has features including noise reduction, voice changing effects, sound effects, sound transition effects, echo, reverb, and more. These types of sound cards work great for podcasters and voice-over artists.
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