An Audio Interface allows you to connect microphones, instruments, and line level devices to your computer. Most Interfaces also have outputs so you can monitor your projects on studio monitors or headphones. The role of the audio interface is to take the analog signal that you are capturing and convert it into a digital format so you can take advantage of powerful software including DAW’s, VST,s and other production software like Ableton Live, Reason, and FL Studio.
Why You Need an Audio Interface
Within home or professional level studios, you will be confronted with different types and styles of audio that will be best captured with different types of microphones, amplifiers, and analog processing gear. While a simple USB microphone is useful for general recording, you are beholden to the sound of that microphone. However, with an audio interface, you can constantly work with the optimal gear for each task. For example, if you want to record a track on your Electric Guitar, you can mic your amp with the industry standard Shure SM57 instrument microphone. Say you need to capture female vocals, now you could do so using a Blue Microphones Bluebird condenser microphone; or male vocals with an Audio Technica AT-4040 large diaphragm condenser microphone. The possibilities are almost endless thanks to the Audio Interfaces ability to accept and convert the signal of almost any microphone or instrument with a XLR or ¼ output.
How to Choose the Right Audio Interface
At Sam Ash we offer hundreds of audio interfaces from iconic brands with sterling reputations. With so many options, upon taking a glance in the store you are probably asking yourself “Why do the prices differ so much?” The biggest reasons will be “the number of inputs they provide” as well as “the audio quality that they are able to produce”. Sample rates are going to have a lot to do with the quality of the audio, but be mindful of what sample rates your computer can properly handle (If you are not mindful you could encounter issues with your CPU becoming overloaded. Overloads cause “clicks and pops” in both monitoring and playback which will force you to alter your buffer rate which often causes increased latency.) Latency is the amount of delay between the audio you’re capturing and the time you actually hear it in playback. High latency could be a major issue, practically making the recording process impossible. Another factor that will affect the price and the speed of the interface will be the type of connection between the audio interface and the computer. In order of speed from slowest to fastest is USB, USB 3, Firewire, and Thunderbolt. You must keep in mind that not all computers accept all of these connection protocols. However, you can often use expansion cards to achieve compatibility.
When choosing the right audio interface, keep all of these features in mind and always think and plan ahead on what you may need in the future. For example, are you producing hip hop and only need one input for vocals since most of the audio is MIDI format or sampling? Do you need multiple inputs for capturing a full drum kit which could be up to 8 separate microphones and inputs? Do you plan on doing full live recording sessions? You then may need multiple interfaces that are able to be daisy chained together to give you 16/24/32 separate inputs depending on the capabilities of the chain-able interface.
Audio Interface Picks
One of the best options for someone new to recording would be the Presonus Audio Box USB 96. This is the perfect option for a singer songwriter, or if you’re only looking to capture high quality vocals for a Podcast or Twitch stream. It would also be sufficient if you are looking to produce using MIDI. The Audio Box also gives you the ability to choose how much of the input signal and playback is mixed into the monitoring source. Another bonus of the Audio Box 96 is that it comes with Presonus Studio One Artist which is an amazing DAW that has an incredibly easy workflow that is packed with a large number of features and plugins. Studio One is my favorite D.A.W. that I personally use in my own studio.
- 2 inputs which are combo jacks
- Balanced 1/4” main outputs
- Supports MIDI in and out with 24 bit resolution at 44.1/48/88.2 or 96 kHz sampling rate
- Zero latency monitoring via internal mixer
Another great interface would be the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 which supports up to 192 kHz sample rate. This is a great interface for a singer songwriter, someone just capturing vocals, or just producing using virtual instruments. Being a low latency interface, it helps prevent delay when recording live. When it comes to software, it comes packaged with Ableton Live Lite which is great for working with virtual instruments. These interfaces are also very portable and compact, taking up very little space on top of your workstation or desktop.
- Two Scarlett mic preamps w/ even gain
- Two balanced 1/4” main outputs
- USB powered
- Conversion and sample rates up to 192 kHz/24 bit
- Includes Pro Tools | Focusrite Creative Pack and Ableton Live Lite
This next audio interface I will be talking about made the cut thanks to its high quality microphone preamps: the Steinberg UR-RT4 is built with their classic D-PRE Amps. Traditionally, they’ve been used in Yamaha mixers and are jam-packed with the Rupert Neve Designs transformers for more expressive sound and rich harmonics which are perfect for vocals and guitar. Although it is a USB interface, it is not USB powered, so unlike most other tabletop audio interfaces, you will need to use a separate included power supply.Luckily it makes up for that slight inconvenience with its extensive features. It also works great with IOS devices which is a perfect feature if you are looking to record on the go. When you want to get down to recording, it comes with Cubase AI and Cubasis LE for IOS use. The UR-RT4 is a more professional solution than the previous models we covered.
- 6 inputs
- 4 combo jacks
- Two 1/4” line inputs
- Four line outputs for sends and cue mixes
- MIDI in and out with 2 balanced 1/4” main outputs
- Supports sample rates up to 192 kHz at 24-bit resolution with zero latency monitoring
Now getting into the professional studio quality audio interfaces, I will start with the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MK II with real time UAD-2 Core Processing built right into it. This means that all of the processing is done inside of the audio interface taking all of the strain off of the processors built inside of your computer. This allows your computer to focus it’s power on your software. The Apollo is best of the best for someone who is doing solo work or only needs two inputs but wants an incredible audio recording experience. Depending on your preferred speed, the Apollo Twin is available in either a USB 3 version or a Thunderbolt 2 version for connectivity into your computer. The Apollo Twin comes packed with incredible microphone preamps, and includes the UAD Plugin Bundle, a suite of emulations of legendary studio processing gear from names like Manley, Neve, API and more. Another super cool feature of the Apollo is Unison Mic Preamp technology. Unison is essentially bidirectional communication between your chosen plug in and the Apollo mic pre’s. When you alter a level, the plug in will tell the preamp to adjust at the circuit level. The result is that your plug in is able to perfectly emulate the analog gear it was inspired by.
- Two combo jack inputs
- Two 1/4” balanced main outputs
- Optical in input
- Sample rate of 192 kHz at 24-bit resolution
- Runs UAD Powered Plug-Ins via VST, RTAS, & AAX 64 in all major DAWs
- Up to 8 channels of additional digital input via Optical TOSLINK connection
Another high quality professional recording interface is going to be the MOTU 828ES 28×32. This interface supports either USB or the thunderbolt 2 and is even able to be networked via ethernet. It’s loaded with a large amount of inputs and outputs for rooting so you’ll never worry about setting up your band rig. This interface is also compatible with IOS devices through the standard camera connection kit (sold separately.) This interface allows you to record at ultra-low round trip latency, as low as 1.6ms at 96 kHz with the thunderbolt connection. This is a perfect interface for someone doing large projects with full bands, or just needing lots of inputs, You will also have the advantage of a front panel LCD screen for visual monitoring of input and main output levels. If you have a large project, you even have the ability to daisy chain up to 5 MOTU interfaces using a MOTU AVB switch.
- Two combo jack inputs with mic pre-amps
- Eight 1/4” line inputs
- Two balanced XLR main outputs
- Two banks of optical
- MIDI in and out
- Time code in and out
- World clock
- Two headphone jacks
- Built-in talk back function
- A/B speaker select buttons.
This last audio interface we will discuss is perfect if you want professional quality with premium portability. Im talking about the Antelope Audio Zen Tour Portable Thunderbolt Audio Interface. When it comes to the software, this tabletop interface includes a full and always expanding list of antelope vintage FX models. This audio interface also comes with Antelopes Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). This provides the interface with massive parallel processing while still having the lowest latency levels on the market at 192 kHz at 24-bit resolution. A few other nice features are the touch screen on the front panel, which can also be controlled via a downloadable Android/IOS app. Just keep in mind that it is not BUS powered so you need to use the included dedicated power supply during operation.
- 4 combo jack inputs with mic pre amps
- 4 line inputs
- 2 re-amp outputs
- 2 headphone jacks
- 4 1/4” balanced main outputs for 2 monitor pairs
- S/PDIF in and out
- USB or thunderbolt connectivity
- Line output D-SUB Tascam that’s a 25 PIN standard
- Ability of 2 ADAT inputs and 2 ADAT output