The sound card is a component inside the computer that provides audio input and output capabilities. Most sound cards have at least one analog line input and one stereo line output connection. The connectors are typically 3.5 mm minijacks, which are the size most headphones use. Some sound cards also support digital audio input and output, either through a standard TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) connection or via an optical audio port, such as Toslink connector.
While there are many types of sound cards, any type that produces an analog output must include a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). This converts the outgoing signal from digital to analog, which can be played through most speaker systems. Sounds cards that support analog input also require an analog-to-digital converter (ADC). This digitizes the incoming analog signal, so the computer can process it.
In some computers, the sound card is part of the motherboard, while other machines may have an actual card that resides in a PCI slot. If you want to add more audio capabilities to your computer, such as additional input or output channels, you can install a new sound card. Professional sound cards often support higher sampling rates (such as 192 kHz instead of 44.1 kHz) and may have more inputs and outputs. Some cards may also have 1/4 in. connectors instead of 3.5 mm, which accommodates most instrument outputs.
While professional sound cards can add more audio capabilities to your computer, another popular option for multi-channel recording is a breakout box. This is an external box that typically includes a built-in sound card and multiple audio connections. For example, a breakout box may support 16 channels of audio, which would be impossible to fit on a single card. Most breakout boxes connect to a Firewire or USB port, though some connect to a sound card specifically designed to communicate with the box.
Updated: September 19, 2008