Choosing The Best Audio Interface For Your Home Studio
If your computer is the brain of your studio, then your audio interface is the heart: it connects everything together.
Whether you’re in the market for your first audio interface or you’re looking to upgrade, choosing the right audio interface is an important decision.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What an audio interface is
- How to pick the perfect audio interface for you
- Some of my favorite audio interfaces on the market today
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What Is An Audio Interface?
Your audio interface connects your microphones, instruments, monitors, headphones and computer/DAW together in a small, simple package.
It uses a series of converters and amplifiers to process the signals generated by your equipment, which ultimately facilitates high quality recording and playback. It accomplishes these tasks automatically and with minimal latency.
Ultimately, your audio interface is one of the most important pieces of equipment in your home studio.
Audio Interface Features
Audio interfaces usually come in one of two form factors: desktop or rack mounted.
A desktop interface takes the form of a compact box that can rest anywhere on your desk. This is the most common type of audio interface, and the one that most people will need when shopping for one.
A rack mounted interface is a wide, flat box that screws into a dedicated audio rack, which can store a wide variety of musical hardware. While dedicated studio hardware is less popular than it once was, many high-end audio interfaces are still rack mounted.
The one thing that all audio interfaces have in common is that they have some sort of interface to connect themselves to your computer.
For the overwhelming majority of audio interfaces today, this means having a USB connection. Some higher end interfaces use other standards, such as Thunderbolt.
In addition to providing data transfer to and from your computer, an audio interface’s USB connection often doubles as a power source. This saves you from needing a separate power cable and an additional power outlet to power your audio interface.
After the computer connection, an audio interface’s recording inputs are one of the most important features of an audio interface. There are three common types of recording input: microphone, instrument, and line.
Microphone inputs use XLR connectors and built-in preamps to take low-level microphone signals and turn them into healthy signals ready for your DAW to record.
Instrument inputs use 1/4” TRS connectors to record unpowered instruments like guitars and bass. They also utilize the preamps inside of the interface, but the signals are not as strongly amplified.
Line inputs, which also use 1/4” TRS connectors, facilitate the recording of powered instruments like synthesizers, keyboards, and DJ equipment.
When you’re shopping for an interface, make sure to note if the audio interface in question is using any combination XLR/TRS connectors. For these interfaces, the product marketing may count each of these connectors as two recording inputs, but you can only record with one at a time.
An audio interface’s output connections usually include 1/4” TRS connectors for your studio monitors (as a pair) and for your headphones. Some audio interfaces include additional outputs for extra monitors or for sending playback signals to other studio rooms/equipment.
The headphone jack on your audio interface will allow you to listen to what you are producing in your DAW, and it will facilitate monitoring while recording. Monitoring your recordings with headphones can make the recording process much more effective.
MIDI and Other Interfaces
Finally, some audio interfaces have additional connections, such as MIDI. If you have a MIDI keyboard, controller, or other device, you can connect it directly to your audio interface to control your virtual instruments easier.
Other connections on many audio interfaces include optical connections, S/PDIF connections, and more. These features are typically not important for most people.
Choosing The Right Audio Interface
When it comes to shopping for an audio interface, one thing that you don’t have to worry about is quality. For the most part, audio interfaces today, whether they cost under a hundred dollars or over a thousand, are made with decent quality hardware.
It’s completely possible to get professional results with a budget audio interface, so you don’t need to worry about spending a ton of money to ensure that you’re getting a good quality product. A more expensive interface will likely offer better audio quality, but the difference will often times be minimal, and in some cases, unnoticeable.
As always, it’s more important to focus your time and resources on improving your music production skills. Buying increasingly expensive equipment will only impact the quality of your music to a limited degree.
How Many Preamps Do You Need?
The biggest question to ask when shopping for an audio interface is how many microphone preamps you need. When you’re recording music, how many microphones do you need to use at once?
The number of microphone preamps in your interface will be a major driver of price, so it’s important to get the right number of preamps to meet your needs.
Keep in mind that it’s much easier to record one or two microphones at once verses three or more. Microphone bleed can be an issue in small recording spaces when recording multiple vocalists, guitar players, etc.
How Many Line Inputs And Outputs Do You Need?
After microphone preamps, the next question is how many line inputs and outputs you need. Compared to preamps, there are usually enough of these types of connections in typical audio interface for most people’s needs.
If you plan on recording with a lot of electronic gear or have several monitors you want to connect to your audio interface, make sure you are shopping for interfaces with enough connections.
Do You Need More Than One Headphone Jack?
Most audio interfaces come with a single headphone jack, but if you want two headphones jacks for dual monitoring, you will have to shop accordingly.
Most of the time, a single headphone jack will be enough. If you have a performer and a recording engineer who want different monitoring configurations during a recording session, two headphone jacks will be necessary.
Do You Want MIDI?
Finally, ensure the audio interfaces you are considering have a MIDI interface if you want to connect your MIDI device to it. If you don’t need MIDI, then you don’t need to worry about finding an audio interface with this feature.
What’s Your Budget?
Audio interfaces can range in price from $50 to over $5,000. There are a lot of factors that go into those prices, but remember that even budget quality audio interfaces include hardware that will be suitable enough to create decent recordings.
For most people, audio interfaces that cost no more than a few hundred dollars will meet your needs perfectly.
What Does The Future Hold?
While you may know what audio interface you need now, make sure you’re considering the future too. What type of audio interface will you need in six months? Twelve? Eighteen?
Make sure you are buying an audio interface that will last you for a while. The last thing you want to do is buy an audio interface with limited features today, only to replace it with another interface in a few months.
My Favorite Audio Interfaces For Your Home Studio
To kickstart your shopping process, I’ve pulled together five recommendations for great audio interfaces on the market today. These audio interfaces are affordable, great quality, and will meet almost anyone’s needs.
The M-Audio Duo is only $70, yet it has two preamps, a rarity for audio interfaces in this price range. Additionally, it has two instrument/line inputs and two monitor outputs.
PreSonus AudioBox USB 96
If you’re looking for a budget interface with MIDI, look no further than the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96. This interface retails for $100 and has two preamps, two instrument inputs, and two line outputs.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo
The Focusrite Scarlett Solo is a simple, yet high quality audio interface for only $120. While many audio interfaces at this price point have decent quality, in my opinion Focusrite delivers the best quality on the market for low-cost audio interfaces. They are my favorite brand overall.
The Solo has one preamp, one instrument/line input, and two line outputs. It also has a special option called “Air,” which adds a subtle amount of high end to your recordings for a brighter sound if you need it.
Focusrite Scarlett 4i4
If the Solo doesn’t have enough inputs and outputs, I recommend upgrading to the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4. The 4i4 costs $240, and it gives you two preamps, four line inputs, and four line outputs.
Like the Solo, it also has the “Air” feature for brighter recordings.
If you need four preamps and/or two headphone jacks, then the Steinberg UR44C is the interface for you. At $360, it’s a great option for people who need more connectivity in their audio interfaces.
In addition to its four preamps, it has two instrument inputs, four line inputs, and six line outputs. It also has two headphone jacks and MIDI.
Going even further, you can power it through just a wall outlet, meaning you can use it as a mini mixing board for live performances.
Put Your New Audio Interface To Work
Now you know how to pick out the perfect audio interface for you. Once you get that interface, you’ll be well on your way to making great music in your home studio.
To make this process easier. I’ve create a free music production guide: Five Steps to Make Professional Quality Songs in Your Home Studio.
If you’re a musical artist or producer and you want to improve your skills, I highly recommend downloading this guide. It will help you take advantage of your new audio interface and help you produce your best music yet.
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