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Which Soundcard 3: How many bits will I need?

For anything relating to music-making on Windows computers, with lots of FAQs. Moderated by Martin Walker.

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Which Soundcard 3: How many bits will I need?

Postby Martin Walker » Sat Dec 16, 2000 10:41 am

Everyone would like to have 24-bit recording capability, since this gives you a huge
dynamic range and extremely low noise. It certainly makes life easier when recording,
since you can afford to leave far more headroom (you don’t have to watch the input
meters like a hawk to keep recording levels as high as possible), but still get a large
dynamic range.

However, it is important to understand the consequences. A 24-bit recording will occupy
50% more hard disk space, and of course you will need 24-bit capable software. Both of
these will consume more computer resources, but realistically the rest of your equipment
will have to be up to a similar standard to reap the full benefits. If you recording
classical music live, using high quality mics and preamps, you may benefit from 24-bit
capability to capture every subtle nuance.

For most recordings, 16 bits are still quite sufficient, but you are likely to get
better quality recordings using 18 or 20-bit converters. These tend to have lower noise
than 16-bit ones, even when the file is only saved at 16-bit resolution (any extra bits
are dithered down to a higher quality 16-bit signal). Some soundcards with 20-bit
converters do allow 20-bit recording, but this still takes up the same amount of hard
drive space as 24-bit recordings, and your software must support 20-bit recording as well
(not all of it does).

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Martin Walker
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