How To Choose An Audio Interface
Modern recording options are plentiful. And perhaps confusing, especially if you are just starting out.
An essential component of recording today is the audio interface. But what is it, why do you need one, and what will best suit your needs?
The audio interface is a hardware devise that allows you to connect audio gear (instruments and microphones) to your computer. The interface then converts the analog audio signal to digital information that the computer can process. There are several types of connections available, such as USBm, Thunderbolt, FireWire, or a dedicated PCI/PCIe card. The interface also performs the opposite function, sending the audio from within the computer as an analog signal to speakers or headphones.
Technically the sound card in the computer is an audio interface, but it has limited functionality and connectivity options and the sound quality is less than ideal…so unwanted noise can easily creep into the recordings.
In choosing an interface, you need to ask yourself:
- What do I wish to record?
- How will I record the source?
- What connectivity to do I need from the interface to the computer or device?
- What level of sound quality do I need?
- What is my budget?
What And How Do I Wish To Record?
This is the best place to start, because it will determine how many simultaneous inputs and their type that you will need.
It is also good to consider (within reason) what you might wish to do in the future.
Some interfaces have a single input, others can take multiple instruments at once. If you are simply wanting to record a single instrument, such as electric guitar as you solo over backing tracks, then a single instrument-level input (a ‘high-Z’ input) might be all you will ever need. If you wish to record an audio source (an instrument or vocal) with a microphone you will need an interface with a dedicated mic input. And then if the mic is a condenser or ribbon, you will need an input with phantom power to energise it.
A singer-songwriter who wants to sing and play at the same time with a guitar or keyboard will need at least 2 inputs. But then if you wish to record the guitar or keyboard in stereo while you sing you will need at least 3 inputs..which means you will need to buy an interface with 4.
What connectivity to do I need from the interface to the computer or device?
With the explosion of home recording technology available today, musicians can produce high quality music on not just computers but also devices such as smartphones and tablets.
The most common connection types are:
USB: which will be found on any modern computer; most iOS devices can also connect to an audio interface via USB, making them ideal for mobile recording.
FireWire: found primarily on Macs and seen to be ‘old tech’ in some ways, this protocol provides consistent, high-speed data transfer that makes it ideal for multi-channel recording. PC owners can install an expansion card to allow for FireWire connectivity.
Thunderbolt: found on newer Macs, though PCs can be equipped with Thunderbolt option cards. This protocol offers excellent data transfer rates and very low latency, making it ideal for the most demanding computer-baed recording.
PCIe: is an internal cased-based interface for desktops. By connecting the interface to the motherboard some of the data conversion processes that cause latency can be bypassed. These cards can handle high track counts and offer very high speed as required by professional studios; and can be a lot more expensive than other interfaces using FireWire or USB, though more affordable models are available.
You will also need to consider what you wish to connect the interface to for playback. Headphones will be essential for monitoring during recording with any acoustic source. And what connectivity do your studio monitors require to work with the interface? How many audio sends will you need, if working with others?
What Level Of Sound Quality Do I Need?
For the most part, you will get what you pay for. Audio interfaces with the highest quality mic preamps and digital converters will have price tags that reflect such components. But that doesn’t mean that there are not very good quality models available at lower prices that the average musician can afford.
The following will influence the overall quality:
Bit Depth: is the number of bits of information in each sample. Audio CDs use 16-bit as their standard. The current standard is 24-bit recording, which can deliver very dynamic performances with very little noise.
Sample Rate: is the number of samples per second in a piece of audio. CDs use a sample rate of 44.kHz. This is debated, but there are those who will claim that higher sample rates (48kHz, 96kHz, or even192kHz) will give you more professional sheen in your recordings.
With all of this, think about what you will do with your music. If you are posting your songs on social media, recording at very high resolution won’t make a lot of difference. If you are looking to release something commercially a lot of mastering engineers will ask for 24-bit/96kHZ files.
Conversion Quality: the quality of the conversion in your interface from analog to digital and then back again also makes a big difference in the end result.
What Is Your Budget?
Only you can answer this.
We really like the range of UR and Scarlet interfaces from Steinberg and Focusrite respectively. Both offer great features, very stable performances across various platforms, and have very good quality mic preamps built in. Our pricing is also very good.
Behringer interfaces are also good with many features and are more budget friendly than the makes mentioned above.
The Rode AI-1 Complete Studio Kit is a great option for an interface paired with a Rode NT1 Studio Condenser and pop shield. This is a great place to start, especially for the singer-songwriter wanting to record vocals and guitar or keyboard.
How Can We Help?
We are very experienced where it comes to recording and have a lot of practical knowledge regarding software and hardware available today to help you realise your musical goals and visions. This guide (and the others we have written) will help in having a better understanding of what you will need to achieve that, but we realise it won’t cover all your questions.
Please feel free to ask for any help you need in buying the right gear for your needs.