Friday, January 31, 2014

Multiple Sound Cards On A Laptop

When you use several audio applications at the same time on a laptop, sound card management becomes a real problem. For example; if you are using Smaart Live to monitor your sound system while you are playing walk-in music you have maximized all the usable resources of your sound card. Smaart Live has priority of the card's input while your playback program is using the card's output. There just isn't any room for another music program. You can't even turn on Smaart Live's pink noise generator without first turning off your music. That makes for an awful lot of mouse clicks just to bounce between two programs. And if you make just one mistake you might cause your computer to hang up right in the middle of a show!! That's a hard lesson to learn. The best solution is to use multiple sound cards.

I like to use three sound cards on my laptop to get the job done. If every active audio application has it's own dedicated sound card input and/or output, you can prevent any digital traffic jams from causing a computer crash. I don't want my computer to produce even the slightest "hiccup" during a show.

There are several flavors of laptop sound cards to choose from: USB, PCMCIA, and your on-board sound card. Each card has it's advantages and disadvantages. So, let's have a look at the various types of sound cards and see how well they work together.

In general, when using multiple sound cards you must be mindful of power management. Remember, we're talking laptops here. Teeny tiny computers with teeny tiny power supplies. There are only so many volts to go around.
Some of the USB sound cards I have used excel is sound quality and have many useful features; built-in headphone amps, cool looking light displays, even phantom power. But this all comes at a cost. The power for this devise comes from your USB port, which comes from your motherboard, which comes from that little plastic power supply sitting at your feet. If your sound card of choice is the USBPre I wouldn't advise buying three of them. Although this card sounds great and is loaded with features it draws a considerable amount of power. Read their Overview and pay close attention to the section about power requirements.

One good, low voltage, USB choice could be the Edirol UA-1EX which has a minimal voltage draw from your USB port. Or even the Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Roadie that draws even less power than the AU-1X. Don't let size fool you. This little box uses the same or better 96k D/A chips that any larger professional Digital Audio Work Stations! Not bad for the price. I found this card to be an excellent low voltage playback card that works well on a multiple sound card laptop. The Audio Advantage Roadie and the AU-1EX will work just fine together without overloading the USB ports.

What if we use one beefy USB card and one PCMCIA card?
Well for starters, we won't be overloading the USB port with too many volt hungry devices. And by having only one USB device on the port we free up all available bandwidth for that single USB card. Full speed USB devices signal at 12 Mb/s, while low speed devices use a 1.5 Mb/s subchannel. USBPre is a full speed peripheral. Products like keyboards, mice, and graphics tablets are usually low speed devices. At the full date rate, 18 mono channels of 16-bit/44.1k (0.67 Mb/s) audio can theoretically be simultaneously moved across the bus. Since there is protocol overhead associated with USB, that 18 is brought down to typically 8 or less mono channels of 16/44.1 audio that can reliably be transferred across the bus. So when you add two full speed USB sound cards to your laptop the available bandwidth is halved yet again. And I think this brings us a little too close to bandwidth overload.

There are several other USB cards available on the internet such as the Creative Labs Extigy . Use the Goolge link on the right side of this page to have a look around.

I have had very good results using PCMCIA sound cards. My first card was the Digigram VxPocket v.2 . This card comes with more than you will probably ever need. However, it's nice to have the extras if you need them. To connect to your audio equipment the card comes with a dongle that includes XLR inputs and outputs, SP/DIF input and output, 1/8" headphone and sync. The link above will show you all of the stats. I used this card for about 5 years and had no problems with it. Except for the fact that I'm a "worry wart" and could not go on a show without a spare dongle. The connection from the dongle to the card seems a little flimsy. I ended up replacing this card for that very reason. The replacement is the Echo Indigo io . This card sounds just as good as the VxPocket without this large dongle hanging out the side of my computer. It has 1/8" input and output, is a full duplex sound card and volume control for the output.

Before we get into the Windows sound properties you should know how to boot up a multiple sound card system. I'm not sure how Windows makes this selections, but if I have all my sound cards connected when I boot my laptop it always picks my USB card as the Windows default. As you will read below, I like to use my on-board card as the default.
So...What we do is start up our laptop without any additional sound cards attached. This will force Windows to choose the on-board card as it's default. After the computer has completely booted you then connect your other sound cards to their ports.

In order to manage all these sound cards you should get familiar with the Windows "Sound and Audio Devices" dialog boxes in Control Panel. All three of my sound cards will show up in these setup tabs. Here is where you decide which sound card will play all your default Windows sounds and things like that. I have always turned off all Windows sounds by default. What a drag it would be to have some silly "DING" blast through your system during a presentation! I choose my "on board" card as the default Windows card since I don't usually patch it through my console. This comes in handy when you have to jump into an editing program on the fly while you are still in "Show Mode". I can edit files in Sound Forge with my onboard sound card while I'm running PCDJ for walk-in music, and still run Smaart Live to monitor the venue. All at the same time!!

In your various audio applications you will find "system" or "device" parameters to choose sound cards for input and output. You can use different cards for the same program! I use the Indigo io for input to Smaart Live and use the Edirol UA-1X for Smaart's output. Mix & match! Have fun and discover what works best for you.


Chris Pew said...


first time visitor to your blog, i find a lot of it to be very worth while, infact when i get a chance to run to my library i will shott you some more book titles. I am with you on the multiple cards for laptop running, though i am curious if you have tried limiting yourself to 2 sound cards, i.e. internal and something bigger in the echo family such as the layla or the new audiofires. You can get the same results by allowing certain programs access to the analogue half of the i/o's and others to the digital i/o's and assigning things like editors to your internal if it is good enough. It will free up some strain on your power supply and cpu usage by limiting the number of devices, and for my money i have found no better sound cards then echo. on that note though, tascam makes some decent usb ones for simple recording projects.

thanks for the good tips, keep them coming.

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