And when playing back your audio, it’s the interface’s job to reconvert the digital audio files back into analogue signals that can be relayed to your studio monitor speakers or headphones. Put simply, if you want to record any kind of high-quality audio into your computer, a good audio interface will be top of your shopping list (after the computer of course!).
When they first began to appear on the scene in tandem with the earliest hard disk-based audio recorders, audio interfaces used to be really big, expensive things, only accessible to pro studios, costing about the same as your average family car and often requiring extra hardware cards slotted into your computer to run – the reason why they’re still known in some circles today as ‘soundcards’.
As computers got more powerful, with faster processors more capable of handling the demands of the task at hand, the need for expensive extra hardware diminished and affordable, portable USB-based interfaces began to appear, allowing a quick and easy solution for project studios and home recordists to hook up microphones and instruments such as guitars, basses and hardware synths to their computers.
At the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, the advances in technology that have brought quality audio recording into the hands of bedroom producers worldwide have allowed pro studios to access ever more powerful and sophisticated recording solutions.
Key Audio Interface Features To Consider
If you’re in the market for an interface, there are several key considerations to take into account, depending on your recording requirements. First and foremost will most likely be how many inputs and outputs you’re likely to need.
- Number of inputs
- Number of outputs
- Phantom power
- Bit depth and sample rate
Number of Inputs
The number of physical inputs your interface has will determine how many instruments you’ll be able to record at once.
Pro studios tend to favour multiple-input devices capable of accommodating enough microphones for a full band to record simultaneously, including drum kit, bass amp, guitar amps and vocals, along with line inputs for keyboards and suchlike. These often feature upwards of sixteen or twenty-four physical inputs, as well as digital inputs that can handle multiple channels of digital audio.
Meanwhile, home and project studios are often able to get by with just one or two physical inputs, either XLR-type microphone inputs or line-level quarter-inch jack sockets, so a solo artist can use them to record one microphone or instrument at a time.
Many units use space-saving, ‘combo’ inputs that can connect either an XLR or a jack plug to the same socket. So when choosing an interface, it’s important to bear in mind the main scenarios you’ll be using it in, and thus the minimum number of microphone and/or line level inputs you’re likely to need.
Number of Outputs
The number of outputs your interface needs to have really depends on where it will be used and what you’ll be hooking it up to.
Got a huge mixing console with multiple channels? You’ll most likely benefit from an interface with multiple outputs to feed into those channels.
Making tunes in your home studio with just a laptop and no outboard equipment? You’ll probably be fine with a simple stereo output to hook up to a pair of stereo monitor speakers and a decent headphone output for monitoring performance when recording using microphones.
Nearly all interfaces will come equipped with connections for a pair of monitor speakers and at least one headphone output, together with a dedicated volume control.
There’s no longer any real need for the average computer musician to collect together a huge rack of mains-powered, rack-mounted interfaces. A lot of the smaller interfaces aimed at project studios conveniently take their power from the USB cable that connects them to the computer, making them ideal for use with a laptop in a portable recording environment.
So you could work one day in your home studio, for instance, then next day just chuck the interface into your laptop bag and take your entire setup out on the road – with no need for an external power supply.
If you’re going to be doing any serious vocal or acoustic instrument recording, you’re going to need a condenser microphone, preferably of the large diaphragm type.
These super-sensitive mics are capable of picking up incredible detail, but the vast majority need to be powered by a 48V ‘phantom’ power supply that powers the mic via the same cable used to transmit the audio signal.
So look out for an interface with this feature, and you’ll be able to capture intricate performances using this type of microphone.
The problem of latency has been the one thing that interface manufacturers have been struggling to overcome since they first appeared.
The time taken for the analogue input audio signal to be translated into digital information and back again (known as ‘round trip’ latency) may only be a few milliseconds, but even this can be enough to be significantly off-putting to a performer, as it causes a perceivable delay between what they’re singing or playing and what they’re hearing in their headphones.
These days, thanks to faster onboard processors and speedy connection protocols such as Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, the problem of latency has largely been minimised to the point where it’s barely noticeable.
Nevertheless, although increasingly commonplace nowadays, good latency performance still ranks as an important feature when considering which interface to go for.
When recording analogue signals from, say, a microphone or electric guitar onto any kind of medium, a decent preamplifier (or ‘preamp’) will be required to boost the level up to the point where it can be recorded practically with a decent signal/noise ratio – in other words, so that the desired signal is loud enough compared to the amount of unwanted noise present in the system.
Some preamps sound a lot better than others thanks to the quality of their circuit design, so make sure the preamps in your chosen interface pass muster.
Again, you certainly get what you pay for when it comes to preamp quality, but there are some remarkably good-value examples out there, with respected companies like Focusrite and Audient building just one or two high-quality preamps into their units to make them more affordable.
Another vital yet often-overlooked component of your audio interface is the analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) and digital-to-analogue converter (DAC). These are the components that do the heavy lifting when it comes to translating analogue audio signals into digital information for storing on your computer, and reconverting it back into analogue again when you play it back.
A general rule of thumb is that the more expensive the converters in your interface, the better your audio will sound. Like preamps, it’s very much a question of ‘you get what you pay for’ when it comes to converter quality, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get a more-than-respectable result from some of the entry-level units on the market today.
Bit depth & sample rate
The way audio interfaces work is by digitally ‘sampling’ and converting analogue audio signals at very high frequencies, slicing the waveforms up into thousands of chunks per second. The number of slices per second the converters in your interface operate at is measured in kiloHertz (1kHz = 1000 slices per second) and is known as the sample rate. Each sample is stored digitally on your computer’s hard drive at a specific resolution – the higher the resolution, the greater the number of bits used to represent each sample, a figure known as the bit depth.
The standard ‘CD-quality’ sample rate and bit depth are 44.1kHz and 16-bit. Most semi-pro interfaces currently available operate at a minimum sample rate of 48kHz and a bit depth of 24-bit, while the sample rates of professional devices can go up to as high as 192kHz. While this makes for exceptional audio quality, the higher the sample rate, the larger the size of the resulting audio files, meaning they occupy much more hard disk space on your computer.
10 Best Audio Interfaces – Buyers Guide List 2017
So now onto the list of what we consider to be ten of the best audio interfaces on the market today. Like all of the lists we feature on GTPS, we don’t believe it’s particularly useful to say that one device we’ve included is categorically better than another.
We’re simply highlighting some of the best options currently available for various styles, budgets and workflows, but of course everyone will always have their own personal favourites.
Nearly all of the interfaces featured on the list come bundled with a lite version of a mainstream DAW, some bonus plugins or other audio content to get you off the ground.
At a mere $90 / £69, the Audiobox iOne from PreSonus represents exceptional value, and an easy first step into the world of computer-based audio recording. Ideal for guitarists and singer/songwriters on the move, this portable pocket powerhouse includes one DI input for guitar or bass and one mic input with a low-noise, high-headroom, Class A mic preamp and 48V phantom power for condenser mics.
Powered by its USB 2 connection and running at a resolution of 24 bits and sample rates between 44.1 and 96kHz, the iOne can also be used to record onto an iPad using the free Capture Duo app or the paid 32-track Capture iOS app.
And if that weren’t enough, a version of the PreSonus Studio One Artist DAW software is also included, together with more than 6 GB of third-party resources. The iOne’s bigger brother, the iTwo, adds MIDI ports and two combo mic/line inputs (see image above).
BUY NOW via Amazon
For many, the name emblazoned on the top of this great-value Focusrite box’s smart metallic red casing will be enough of a deal-breaker. A simple but nonetheless well-rounded feature list covers pretty much everything the home or project studio recordist might need – a footprint small enough for the most congested desktop, up to 192kHz, 24-bit operation, two combo XLR / quarter-inch jack inputs featuring a pair of Scarlett preamps, independent LED input gain level indicators, balanced line outs, 48V phantom power, a USB 2 connection for data and power, super-low latency and a headphone output with monitor level control.
But the icing on the cake is the software bundle the Scarlett 2i2 comes with – Ableton Live Lite, the Focusrite Red 2 & 3 Plug-in Suite, Softube Time and Tone Pack, Novation Bass Station, 2 GB of Loopmasters sounds and samples plus Pro tools First (First Focusrite Creative Pack). Now in its 2nd generation with improved instrument inputs, the 2i2 still represents an excellent, inexpensive way to introduce the Focusrite name into your recording chain.BUY NOW via Amazon
The AudioFuse is Arturia’s long-awaited, next-generation audio interface offering a total of 14 ins and outs and ‘DiscretePRO’ preamps that claim the lowest signal/noise ratio in its class. Some genuinely out-of-the-box thinking has gone into the design of this device. It’s like an audio interface and studio control centre combined, with some truly unique and useful features intended to make it the hub of your home studio.
Want to add an external hardware processor such as a compressor into the signal flow before conversion from analogue to digital? Need digital inputs and outputs like Word Clock, S/PDIF and ADAT? A 3-port USB hub for your master keyboard and e-licenser dongles? Zero-latency monitoring? A built-in talkback microphone with a button to communicate with your performers? MIDI In and Out ports? Two sets of speaker outputs?
The AudioFuse has all of these, along with other useful touches like phono inputs for a turntable and two headphone outputs with both quarter-inch and 3.5mm jack sockets, so no more hunting in the back of your drawers for headphone adapters.
Available versions: there is a single version of the Arturia AudioFuse ($599), but it does come in a choice of three colours: Space Gray, Dark Black and Classic SilverBUY NOW via Amazon
Aimed squarely at the pro end of the market, this remarkable device is a firm contender for the Rolls Royce of the audio interface world, with levels of audio quality and functionality that reflect its high-end price tag. Notwithstanding the amazing number of potential ins and outs it can handle (up to 188, including MADI, AES/EBU and ADAT Optical) and the fact that it can connect to your computer via super-fast Thunderbolt or USB 3, this beast of an interface doesn’t actually need to be hooked up to a computer at all.
With a USB thumb drive plugged into the front, the Fireface UFX+ is capable of recording a staggering 76 channels of time-stamped audio directly onto the drive, eschewing the need for a computer altogether. That’s some serious audio clout!
In addition to the super-clean sound delivered by the unit’s pro-quality converters and the mind-boggling array of input and output options, you also get TotalMix FX, RME’s innovative and intuitive mixing interface software. And to top things off, it can be operated using an iPad via the RME TotalMix app.BUY NOW via Amazon
Audient are well known for their great-sounding, large-format analogue mixing consoles, so a budget audio interface from them sounds like a mouthwatering prospect. Essentially, the iD4 aims to distil the audio performance and ease of use of their big desks into the perfect portable desktop package for the singer/songwriter demographic. The main component used to achieve this is a single Audient Class-A console mic preamp, the same high-end type of preamp as the ones used in their recording consoles, while the JFET DI input is designed to replicate the input stage of a classic valve amplifier. Other benefits include class-leading converter technology, dual headphone outputs (one 3.5mm and one quarter-inch), console-style monitor control, and Audient’s ‘ScrollControl’ virtual scroll wheel technology, which turns the volume control into a rotary encoder that can be used to adjust any selected parameter within your DAW.BUY NOW via Amazon
As the makers of Cubase, you’d expect Steinberg to know a thing or two about digital audio, and this pedigree continues with this little box of tricks, designed to fulfil the needs of the most demanding DAW user. A 24-Bit/192 kHz USB 2.0 interface featuring two Class-A D-PRE mic preamps with 48V phantom power, 2 combo inputs, 2 quarter-inch jack outputs and a headphone jack, the MK2 version now adds pro-level recording for iPad with CC Mode and an additional USB mini socket that acts as an input for an optional external power supply.
What’s remarkable about the UR22 is that it functions not only as an audio interface, but it also features a pair of physical MIDI In and Out ports, perfect for connecting hardware synth modules and keyboards – a really handy addition to a unit at this price point. As a bonus, the accompanying software bundle includes a downloadable version of Cubase AI for Mac and PC and the Cubasis LE DAW app for iOS.BUY NOW via Amazon
Apogee have a long tradition as designers of top-end digital audio converters for the pro audio market, so it’s only natural that they should also be up there at the top of the tree when it comes to audio interfaces. The Symphony I/O Mk II is a multi-channel interface featuring the company’s newest flagship AD/DA conversion and modular I/O, meaning that you can configure the ins and outs from a selection of optional modules (to give up to 32 simultaneous inputs and outputs), one of which offers 8 mic preamps.
Aimed squarely at the professional market, this is no desktop USB device – instead, it’s designed to connect via one of three different platforms – Thunderbolt, Pro Tools HD or the Waves SoundGrid network. With ultra-low latency performance, the Symphony MkII has a stated round trip latency of only 1.35ms when running Logic Pro X on Mac OS via Thunderbolt. A further benefit is the front panel touchscreen display that lets you monitor and control settings without having to look at the computer. Sophisticated stuff!
Also worth mentioning here is the Quartet audio interface, Apogee’s similarly high-end, pristine-sound solution for those who prefer a more streamlined, compact desktop audio hub solution.BUY NOW via Amazon
Native Instruments are renowned for their innovative hardware controllers and software plugins, so it’s no surprise to learn that they also have an audio interface on their product roster, and a remarkably affordable one at that. A USB 2-powered, 24-bit / 96kHz, 6-channel desktop audio interface with a small footprint, the Komplete Audio 6 offers four analogue inputs (two with high-end preamps) and four outputs, plus two additional channels of S/PDIF digital I/O. It’s got two proper 5-pin MIDI sockets – no adaptor cables required here – and basic monitor control comes courtesy of a large, tactile control (or Kontrol?) knob on the top.
Its rugged build quality, compatibility with NI’s Traktor DJ software and ability to run solely on USB power makes it an interesting proposition for DJ’s to lug around from place to place. An impressive suite of bonus software rounds off the package, including Cubase LE, the Komplete Elements suite of instruments and effects, and Traktor LE.BUY NOW via Amazon
Mark of the Unicorn have been in on the audio interface scene since the beginning, so they have a lot of experience to bring to the table. The 1248 is a fitting reflection of this, claiming to be the world’s first Thunderbolt interface with built-in 48-channel mixing and AVB (Audio Video Bridging) audio networking, which basically means that a bunch of 1248’s can be linked together with Ethernet cables to expand your system. Housed in a 1U rack unit with a grand total of 32 inputs and 34 outputs (including 4 mic inputs, 2 guitar inputs, 8 x 12 balanced analogue with dedicated main and monitor outs, 2 x 8-channel ADAT optical and S/PDIF), the 1248 boasts a round trip latency of 1.4ms over Thunderbolt at 96kHz.
A large backlit LED provides detailed metering of all analogue and digital ins and outs, and the unit is controlled via a web app running in a browser on a laptop, tablet or even smartphone connected to the same wired or wireless network. The built-in, 48-input digital mixer is modelled on large format mixing consoles, with 12 stereo busses and DSP effects, including reverb, 4-band EQ, gate, and compression. You also get the AudioDesk workstation software for Mac and Windows with 24-bit recording, sample-accurate editing and 32-bit mixing and mastering.BUY NOW via Amazon
On the face of it, the Apollo Twin MkII might resemble any other 24-bit/192kHz desktop Thunderbolt audio interface for Mac and Windows, but it has a few tricks up its sleeve, chief among which is the onboard DSP chips that allow you to run UA’s highly-regarded plug-ins without putting any strain on your computer’s processors.
Available in SOLO, DUO or QUAD configurations, (the QUAD being the most powerful), this makes the unit the most cost-effective way to get access to the UAD-2 range of software plugin emulations of classic vintage recording hardware. Featuring two software-controllable mic preamps and the Realtime Analog Classics UAD plug-in bundle, the MkII lets you use the included Console 2.0 software to record through mic preamp emulations from Neve, SSL, API, Manley, and Universal Audio that precisely model the circuit behaviours of the original hardware.
Following this, you can mix in your DAW with UAD plug‑ins like the included Teletronix® LA‑2A and 1176 compressors, Pultec® EQs, UA 610‑B Preamp and more. Add to this the MkII’s redesigned A/D and D/A conversion and added monitor switching, dim, mono and talkback features and you have a winning combination on your hands.BUY NOW via Amazon
Which audio interfaces have best suited your recording requirements and preferred workflow? Let us know below in the comments!
For a definitive collection of tips and techniques for enhancing your music to a professional level – from advanced compression techniques to shaping and placing your sounds in the mix with correctly applied reverb and fine-tuned EQ adjustments – don’t forget to check out the Ultimate Guides series:
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