Junior Sanchez chose the all-in-one software/soundcard/control surface M-Audio Torq Xponent and used the extra shopping time to buy supersweet specs.
Photo: Courtesy M-Audio
First you figured out what DJ program you wanted and then maybe you picked out a matching controller. But wait, what about the soundcard? For many people — newbies and pros alike — the soundcard is often the last consideration when building a digital DJ rig. Many people remain understandably confused about whether they really need one and which soundcard (aka audio interface) is the best. Remember, the soundcard is what your audience hears, and it can make or break the entire show. High latency and poor drivers that cause late starts and/or crashes during a set will make you look like an amateur no matter how cool your new controller is.
You may think your computer's built-in soundcard will be enough to get started. Sure, but if any of the following apply to you, then it's time to budget in a good soundcard right away: a) you need headphone cueing or to listen to one song while another plays over the main speakers; b) you want to mix on a traditional mixer using analog faders instead of their digital counterparts; c) you're running into any kind of a sound system or P.A.; and d) you like the bass, the bass that goes boom.
There are three types of soundcard connection types that vary in terms of quality. USB is the most basic and often the more cost-effective option, with many entry-level USB soundcards less than $100. A popular option, the Numark DJ|iO ($139; www.numark.com) offers two discreet outputs for your headphones and speakers, as well as a microphone input for the mobile DJ. M-Audio offers the Fast Track Pro ($249; www.m-audio.com), which would be the next step up from the DJ|iO. Both audio interfaces would also work well for basic production and recording, so you could get more out of your investment.
FireWire is the next step up from USB. FireWire cards often feature lower latency, more features, better quality digital-to-analog converters (DAC) and a higher price tag. One compact, portable and well-priced FireWire soundcard you might try is the Presonus Firebox ($499; www.presonus.com). This soundcard throws out powerful levels that are sure to rock any club at a price you can afford (about $299 street price). FireWire soundcards run the gamut from pro-sumer (M-Audio) to high end such as the RME Fireface 400 ($1,199; www.rme-audio.de), which is commonly used for its reliable drivers and rock-solid converters. Finally, if you're really serious about DJing and need the lowest latency possible, check out PCMCIA soundcards. This type of interface offers the highest bandwidth and most stable connection because the soundcards mount directly onto your laptop's motherboard via the PCMCIA slot.
GET YOUR LEVELS RIGHT
Many of the professional soundcards are not built with DJing in mind, so they often come with several kinds of outputs. The most common are ¼-inch outputs, which look like a guitar plug. Those are installed instead of the standard RCAs that come on DJ-focused interfaces to support balanced outputs, which can run long distances without losing sound quality along the way. These professional outputs are louder as well, specifically +4 dB compared to a Pioneer CDJ-1000, which registers at -10 dB. Louder equals better, right? Well, if you're running directly into a pair of Mackie speakers, yes, +4 balanced outputs will sound great. But if you're connecting to a DJ mixer, then you will end up distorting the input and causing frustrating level imbalances with the other DJs. Make sure when you choose a soundcard with balanced outputs that it has switchable output levels, so you can run -10 dB when going into club mixers and +4 if you're running long cables into speakers or P.A. mixers.
If you always connect to a DJ mixer, then it's handy to have ¼-inch-to-female RCA plugs that always stay in the back of your soundcard. Then, rather than plug RCA cables directly into a mixer, I just temporarily hijack the cables running out of the club's CD players and plug them directly into my soundcard. If you are running more than two channels into a mixer, you might want to invest in a quad-pronged multicable. They are very well made, sturdy cables that wrap four cables all in one, so you can keep things neat and organized.
ALL IN ONE
To make the process easier, you may be looking at all-in-one systems like the M-Audio Torq Xponent ($749) or the Behringer BCD-3000 ($299; www.behringer.com), which contain a control surface, software and audio interface all in one. Although such a combo package certainly minimizes gear, be careful to really check the specs and verify the quality of the built-in audio card. Companies will sometimes slap in an existing soundcard that retails for less than $100 and call it professional quality. Six months down the road or a few live gigs later, you might end up wishing you had bought your own external soundcard.
What really separates a $200 USB soundcard from, say, an $800 one? Well, for the mobile DJ, not as much as you may think. Most of the features that result in a higher soundcard price are usually earmarked for recording purposes, such as better analog-to-digital converters and improved microphone preamps. The DAC and overall components don't really vary too much in this price range. Personally, moving up from an Echo Indigo DJ to an M-Audio Quattro resulted in a noticeable improvement in sound quality, but subsequent upgrades to the Firebox and then recently, the Fireface 400, did not yield much difference. The real tangible differences seem to lie in the drivers. If you can get low latency, no dropouts and completely stable performance out of a $200 soundcard, then keep it around. Otherwise, keep trying the others until you get it right. When you do, your overall performance will be vastly improved.