The most confusing or you can say tricky part in building your recording studio is choosing a perfect Audio Interface.
Where every small and big pro audio company is now manufacturing audio interfaces and you have tons of choices, just imagine how difficult is choosing a perfect one which suits your needs?
The selection procedure becomes 10x difficult when you are a beginner and don’t know that each and every audio interface is designed to meet specific studio needs.
Let me assume,
You have a bedroom studio. Then what type of audio interface do you need? A 2 channel USB audio interface might be perfect for that bedroom studio which costs you around $100-$150.
But if you have a professional recording studio which needs to record several instruments simultaneously and you need to mix in 5.1 surrounds then? You need a fully professional Audio Interface with several inputs and outputs which costs you at least $2000.
So, whats your needs?
How many IN/OUT do you need?
Is that audio interface compatible with your other hardware and software?
Is the Form Factor of audio interface compatible with your studio space?
Do you need MIDI, Fantom Power etc?
What about the AD/DA conversion quality of audio interface?
Have you figured out all the questions above? No?
Let us figure out them together.
This in-depth guide will solve all the above questions as well as suggests some good audio interfaces to choose from so that you could find out the right audio interface for your recording studio.
What To Look For When Choosing Audio Interfaces
Because matching a perfect audio interface is a tricky process, I have 8 key features here which you should focus to get the perfect match.
- Compatibility With Your DAW
- Interface Connection Type
- Inputs/Outputs Count (How Many Do You Need)
- Type of Input channels
- Size and Shape AKA Form Factor
- Sample Rate
- MIDI Support
- 48V Fantom Power
#1 Compatibility With Your DAW
However, most audio interfaces are compatible with all the major DAWs, you should always check out the compatibility information before buying.
But, generally, this information is not given in the specifications and features section of the audio interface. So you should check out the FAQ section or support community to get that information.
The common reason why this information is not given in most audio interfaces is, DAW updates time to time but hardware update is not possible as frequently as DAW. They do not guarantee that if your audio interface supports your current DAW version means it will support the future versions too.
However, in most of the cases, with an updated driver you can use an audio interface with a DAW for years. But at a last, you will have to change your audio interface with the newer one.
As there is no guaranty of future, companies don’t advertise their DAW compatibility.
Buying DAW-Audio interface combo is a solution, but it will limit your options.
So, before buying it’s better to find out if the audio interface is compatible with your DAW or not.
#2 Interface Connection Type
How would you connect the audio interface with your computer?
There are 5 option,
- USB 2.0 – The most common connection type which you can find in almost all the computers. The best part of that connection type is, USB 2.0 audio interfaces are far cheaper than others. But they have the slowest data transfer rate.
- Firewire – Firewire is a fast data transfer connection interface. They are not as common as USB 2.0 connections. In Windows computers, you need to install a Firewire PCI card to connect Firewire audio interfaces.
- Thunderbolt – These are the fastest connection interface is computers. But the downside is, you must have an iMac or MacBook Pro as it only comes with Mac computers. The second downside is, Thunderbolt audio interfaces are very expensive.
- USB 3.0 – Its the newer version of USB. But it’s not as common as USB 2.0 and most audio interfaces don’t have USB 3.0 compatibility. But time is changing now. All the audio interface companies are shifting from USB 2.0 to USB 3.0 for the better speed.
- PCIe – this port is a built-in feature in most of the Windows computers. But the installation needs to open up the cabinet of your PC as this port is inside the cabinet. As it directly attaches with your motherboard hence provides the fastest connection.
In all the above connection types, USB 2.0 is the most common port which you find in any computer. However, its the slowest in all the 5 options, you can seamlessly record more than 16 tracks simultaneously in 48kHz/24Bit format. Is it enough for you? Or do you want more?
The go with others.
#3 Inputs/Outputs Count (How Many Do You Need)
Are you a musician or vocalist and want to record just your own creations? Or you have a songwriter team. Or a recordist who records the whole band.
When it comes to IN/Out count there are many options from
- 1 input for a single instrument to…
- 16, 20, 24…for professional recordings
The IN/OUT count whole depends on the number of tracks you want to record simultaneously.
- Bedroom Producers/Musicians need 2-4 inputs
- Songwriting teams or small bands need at least 6-8…where
- Professional recording engineers need as many as possible but at least 16.
Even drum kits sometimes need 4-6 inputs when you want to record each part of the kit separately.
As well as if you want to mix in 5.1 then you need at least 6 outputs from 5.1 speakers.
So, IN/OUT count always depends on your track counts and speaker counts.
Get a paper-pen and write down the instruments, and other things which you want to record simultaneously. And also the number of monitors you want to connect in output. Then you will get the better idea of IN/OUT count.
#4 Type of Input channels
Its a bit confusing when choosing an audio interface with appropriate input types.
Every audio interface might have any number of different input types. But the count of input types that suits your needs is a thing to consider before proceeding.
Let us give it a closer look…
There are several types of inputs you get in an audio interface
- Mic/Instrument Input in-Built Preamp – This type of input is needed to amplify the mic signal to the line level. A Mic preamp is used to amplify the signals coming from the mic. As well as for condenser mics, 48V Fantom power is also given in these inputs.
- Line Inputs – These types of inputs are used to record onboard gears like keyboards, e-Drums etc. You can use these inputs to connect external Preamps to use more mics.
- Optical inputs – Optical inputs are used to connect digital converters, preamps and other digital devices which have optical outs.
- MIDI Inputs – If you want to play VST instruments on your DAW then you need MIDI inputs which connects your MIDI keyboard with your audio interface.
- Digital In – If you have a digital out in your keyboard or other digital instruments, you can use this input to get the lossless recordings. However, this input type has its limitations (Many digital instruments only support the 44kHz sample rate)
Now let us assume you need 6 mic inputs for acoustic drum and 1 for vocal. Then you need at least 7 mic inputs on your audio interface.
But generally, you will find only 2-4 mic inputs on audio interfaces. Audio interfaces with 8-12 mic inputs are available in the market but they are costly.
So, here are the limitations. Manufacturers offer 16 inputs in their audio interfaces doesn’t mean that you get all the inputs as mic preamp inputs.
If you want to record more mics simultaneously then you need sperate mic preamp gear or an audio interface with mic preamp as per your need.
Where is your pen-paper?
Write down – how many mic inputs you need in your studio?
#5 Size and Shape AKA Form Factor
Audio interfaces come generally two size and shapes.
Desktop Audio Interfaces – These interfaces are small enough to place to your bedroom desktop next to your computer.
Rackmounted Audio Interfaces – As from the name these audio interfaces can be mounted on racks.
Desktop audio interfaces are a good start for beginners as they can be placed in your desktop, cheap and easy to use. You don’t need extra peripherals such as racks to mount on them. Just put them on your desktop and start using.
Rackmounted Audio Interfaces are used in home/professional studios. You get more I/O in these interfaces. They are more flexible in signal routing as compared to desktop audio interfaces. But they need standard size rack to mount on.
So, do you want to own a desktop audio interface for bedroom recordings or want to expand your existing studio? Choosing a desktop or rack-mounted interface is all depends on your needs.
#6 Sample Rate
The sample rate is a very important part of the digital recording.
The Sample rate will be the number of audio samples that are captured per second and is measured in Hertz.
If you don’t know what is sample rate then here is a simple formula.
Higher sample rate = Higher audio quality = Require more disk space on your computer
Common Sample Rates: 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4, 192 (kHz)
However, today’s audio interfaces support several sample rates.
But before going to buy any audio interface always check out the sample rates it supports.
#7 MIDI Support
Today, each and every music producer use VST instruments in their recordings. Gone those days when a whole band of musicians are recorded in realtime with sophisticated recording machinery.
Now, we just need a desktop audio interface with MIDI support and VST instruments plugins in our DAW to get the best music ever.
So, today MIDI is a very important part of audio recording studios.
Check out that the audio interface you are willing to buy has MIDI support or not?
If it supports MIDI inputs then you can see the 5 pin MIDI port on that audio interface.
#8 48V Fantom Power
Condenser mic needs fantom 48V fantom power to operate.
In studios, condenser mics are used to get the clean sound so that it could help in mixing when you want to change the dynamics, EQ and other effects.
For more information on condenser mics, you can refer to this article
Here is another article on 10 Best condenser mics under $200 which will help your o chose the right one for your recording studio.
So, make sure the audio interface you are choosing has fantom power or not. If not then you need to buy a separate mixer to power up your condenser mics.
Here were the 8 feature of a good audio interface you must consider before buying an audio interface.
Some Advance Factors
Here are some advanced features you have to know when choosing an audio interface.
#1 Signal-to-Noise Ratio
Signal to noise ratio is an important term in the audio recording field.
It refers to the measure of signal strength relative to background noise
In most of the audio interface, the S/N or signal to noise ratio is given in the specification section. It’s measured in dB.
Most of the audio interfaces have -100dB to -113dB S/N.
The less S/N your audio interface has, the more clear recording you get.
#2 AD/DA Converter Quality
When you record an analogue audio signal through an audio interface, it converts into digital form to save in the hard drive. Then your audio interface again converts that signal into analogue form to output that via speakers.
If you want to know the signal flow in the digital audio recording you can refer to the article,
In every stage of this process, we lose some dynamics of the audio signals. It all depends on the quality of the AD/DA converter of the audio interface.
An interface with a good AD/DA converter will save most of the dynamics in the conversion process. The sad part of this is, great AD/DA converters need a good investment.
However, in the specification section of the audio interface, you don’t find AD/DA specification. You need to search in audio forums to get a better knowledge of the AD/DA converter quality.
#3 Preamp Quality
The preamp is another ingredient which decides the quality of the recording.
Especially in acoustic recordings, we can’t neglect the quality of preamp. S/N ratio also applied in preamps. You should know about the S/N ratio of the audio interface’s preamp.
As well as finding out the information about the chip used in the preamp for a particular audio interface is good practice.
But it no matters how much you research on the preamps of an audio interface, without using it you can’t judge.
But here is a heck. It’s better to learn from others mistakes instead of your own.
Go to related forums and find out the suggestions regarding the audio interface’s mic preamps.
Now you know that what features to look for when purchasing an audio interface, let us find out some of them which fit perfect on your needs.
Best Desktop Audio Interfaces
There is a majority of people who can’t afford rack-mounted professional audio interfaces. So first we will check out some affordable desktop interfaces that fit with your pocket length.
USB audio interfaces with 2-6 inputs are those which I always recommend to my readers. They don’t cost you more than $1000. Even some of them cost you only $150-$200.
Presonus AudioBox USB (For Beginners)
Presonus AudioBox USB series audio interfaces come with DAW combo offer. You get Presonus Studio One Artist DAW with all the Audiobox USB series interfaces.
These audio interfaces are generally suitable for beginners who have a tight budget and can’t afford a separate DAW purchase.
Focusrite Scarlett Series (USB)
The second one and very affordable USB audio interface series are the Scarlett Series.
If you have a budget for separate DAW then Focusrite Scarlett series is the best start.
Focusrite Clarett Series (Thunderbolt)
Focusrite has also a Thunderbolt desktop interface series – Clarett Series.
If you have an iMac and don’t need a lot of I/O’s and can go with them.
Motu Audio Interfaces
Motu audio interfaces are considered as professional audio interfaces. And the best part of them, they are cheaper than other professional interfaces. I have 3 recommendations from Motu which you can buy as desktop USB interfaces.
Avid USB Interfaces
Do you love Pro tools?
Then definitely go with Avid USB audio interfaces. You will get a bundled Pro Tools DAW copy with each Avid interface.
All the beginners who want industry standard Pro Tools DAW can go with them.
M-Audio is a reputed audio interface manufacturer. They have a wide range of audio interfaces including Desktop USB models.
Here are some recommendations.
M-Track Vocal Studio Pro is a bundle which comes with Protools M-Audio Version DAW, a professional headphone, and a condenser mic.
If you want al in one bundle then go with M-Track Vocal Studio Pro.
Universal Audio Interfaces
Universal Audio is a leading plugin manufacturer known as UAD plugins. If you buy their audio interfaces, you will also get some of their hardware powered plugins.
Their plugins are counted in world-class hardware emulated plugins which make your recording professional.
If you have an iMac or MacBook Pro and want an audio interface cum hardware plugin accelerator just on your desktop then go with Universal Audio Thunderbolt interfaces.
Rackmounted Audio Interfaces
Even if you already have a bedroom studio today, someday you have to transform your studio into an intermediate home studio which would be able to record more tracks professionally.
The purpose of this article is not only serving beginners but intermediate music producers too, who need some helpful guidance in making decisions on expanding their recording studio.
And the very 1st thing you need in this process is to change your bedroom desktop interface with a rack-mounted interface with more Ins and Outs.
There are many companies offering rack-mounted audio interface. But I have only a few here which I trust with a closed eye.
- Ensemble (thunderbolt)
Fully Professional Audio Interfaces
When we are discussing audio interfaces, it’s important to mention some of the fully professional which world’s great studios use.
In big studios, the main DAW used is Pro Tools. Pro Tools needs more resources than any other DAW. So its better to get best interfaces for smooth recording on Pro Tools.
That’s the reason why big studios use those million dollar professional audio interfaces.
There are some other benefits of using them,
- High I/O counts
- Ultra-Low latency
- Best quality Digital Conversion
Here are three of them,
If you have any of these audio interfaces, drop a comment about them so that others could get better guidance on purchasing the right one. Share this article on your social media to help others.
Gautam Roy is a professional Blogger and Freelance Mix Engineer from India. He loves leading looks, listening to music and travelling.