17 Mar Studio Basics for Beginners Pt. 2: Choosing Your First Audio Interface
*This article is a continuation of “Choosing Your First Microphone”
Need help choosing your first audio interface?
In addition to a microphone, you will need to choose your first audio interface. Of course, choosing your first audio interface is critical. It’s the device responsible for the analog to digital conversion of the source you are recording. It’s also the digital to analog conversion for playback to speakers or headphones. Additionally, the interface will also have a microphone preamp (or several), which is necessary to bring a mic level signal up to a line level signal for recording and mixing.
All microphones (*with the exception of a USB microphone) will need to be preamplified to be usable (*A USB Microphone is a mic that plugs directly into your computer’s USB input. The analog to digital convertor and preamp are built into the microphone. As a result, this eliminates the need for a mic pre and analog to digital converter. Usually a cheaper and lower quality alternative to an XLR microphone and preamp/interface combo).
Interfaces range widely in their Input/Output configurations. From 1 in/2 out all the way up to many simultaneous inputs and outputs. Most home studios can get by with a small interface that consists of a few inputs/mic pres and a stereo pair of outputs for studio monitors. Ultimately, this will be determined by your own needs. If you only need to record one or two tracks at a time, a small 2-4 input interface will be plenty. Although, if you want to multi-track a drum set or a full band, you may need to consider a larger interface with more inputs, or an interface with the necessary I/O options for digital expansion. Many interfaces can be expanded with the proper equipment linked to it via optical ADAT or a digital S/PDIF cable.
Preamps and analog to digital converters in interface
After your source material (most important) and microphone of choice, the next largest factor in your recording quality will be the preamps and analog to digital converters in your interface. With most electronic equipment, there is a huge range of price and quality that is available. From 6-figure prices all the way down to 2-digit prices. With most consumer goods, it is never a great idea to get the cheapest thing available. You will have to decide what you are comfortable spending for the features and I/O options that you require.
Lots of different types of recording interfaces
Recording interfaces vary in their computer connectivity based on company and price point. The most common connection type is USB 2.0. On the other hand, there are many Thunderbolt 2 and 3 interfaces in addition to FireWire, USB 3.0, USB-C, PCIe, MADI, and a few less common connections. You will need to choose one that will be able to connect to your computer.
Here are PlayMT’s favorite entry-level recording interfaces:
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface – This is the most affordable and simplest interface on our list. Focusrite is a trusted and renowned name in professional studio preamps and consoles. Most importantly, the Scarlett 2i2 is a solid choice for those on a budget with few I/O needs. ($149.99 new). Focusrite also has several other options in the Scarlett line of interfaces. These consist of larger and different combinations of I/O. Along with their more expensive product lines. 24bit/192kHz
Apogee Duet – This is our selection for a small and portable interface that does not compromise sound quality. As the price point reflects, the preamps and converters in this interface surpass those in the Scarlett interfaces. It connects to your computer via USB 2.0. Also, it has the ability to be used as a high-quality recording interface connected directly to your smartphone or iPad, making it even more portable. ($649 new). 24bit/192kHz. Apogee also has many other great interfaces with other I/O options.
Audient iD44 – This is our interface of choice for the best bang for your buck. Certainly, it’s packed with useful features and quality components. Plus, it interfaces with your computer via high speed USB-C connection. It comes packed with four high-quality class-A Audient console preamps, and two pristine JFET DI instrument inputs. The Audient iD44 has two separate headphone outputs and four TRS line-outs. In addition to the analog connections, it has the ability to expand via ADAT optical or S/PDIF optical, piping in up to 16 additional inputs and outputs. There is also a useful monitor control section which is unfortunately left off many interfaces. Within the included interface software, you can choose routing options. Plus, edit monitor control functions to meet preferences and needs. The large control wheel can also be mapped to a DAW control for hardware automation. 24bit/96kHz. ($699 new)
MOTU UltraLite AVB – The UltraLite AVB gets PlayMT’s vote for best/biggest expansion options. In addition to two mic pres and two instrument inputs, it comes equipped with six line inputs, eight line outputs, and a headphone output. Aside from its analog I/O, it comes with ADAT optical in/out for up to 8 more I/O and a MIDI in/out. This interface is special because of its ability to be implemented into an AVB network.
“AVB” stands for “Audio Video Bridging.” Interestingly enough, this is an ethernet protocol, very similar to Dante, in which many streams of audio and/or video can be simultaneously shared and captured. Although, it must be with a capable device that is connected to the AVB network. Using the UltraLite with an AVB switch and other compatible AVB devices in an AVB ethernet network, you can do a lot. For example, you can achieve up to 512 channels of combined routable, simultaneous I/O. In fact, MOTU has a good handful of AVB capable devices with different I/O options. Therefore, you can build a customized audio network to fit your studio’s needs. Sampling rate affects the number of simultaneous AVB streams available. 24bit/192kHz. ($649 new)
Universal Audio Apollo Twin – The Apollo Twin is the most expensive model on our list. (With some of the most limited I/O options). Similar to other high end gear, it’s built to do a few specific things very well. Importantly, the preamps and converters are top of the line and they top this list. It’s equipped with two mic/line inputs, four TRS outputs, a headphone output, and an ADAT optical input for eight additional channels. In addition to its best-in-class conversion and preamps, the Twin comes equipped with Universal Audio’s proprietary DSP engine. Plus, a host of Universal Audio plugins that run from the built in DSP, which in turn frees up your computer’s processing power. Includes interface software to configure I/O and other interface functions. ($899 new)
When choosing your interface, you need to determine what features are necessary for your goals.
What kind of interface connection does your computer require? Decide how many mic pres and what kind of I/O you want. Decide if some type of digital expansion (optical, S/PDIF, etc) is going to play a role down the road. Do you only need a stereo output for monitors? Or would you like more outputs for the ability to use outboard gear for processing? Think about the future, too. Maybe you spend a bit more than you planned, and you won’t need to upgrade in a few years. You need to determine your price range. From here, you can start to narrow down options and find the right match for your needs.