Guide to Buying The Best Audio Interface
Buying an audio interface for the first time can be stressful, especially because you want to guarantee you’re getting the best audio interface available in your price range. You don’t want to make the wrong choice, but you’re probably dying to get your hands on one and start recording. There’s so many options, the prices range from a couple hundred dollars to multi-thousand dollar interfaces, and you just aren’t sure which direction to go. I made the mistake of rushing my first audio interface purchase, and was disappointed with what I ended up with, so hopefully this guide can help you avoid that from happening.
So what are some common questions when buying an audio interface?
Let’s start with the most basic question. What is an audio interface?
An audio interface is basically a sound card on steroids. It let’s you connect all your audio devices, microphones, studio monitors (or speakers / headphones), and numerous other things to your computer. There’s many different types of interfaces, but the main idea is to convert analog signals into digital information, essentially turning sound and other analog data into digital data.
What company or brand makes the best audio interfaces?
Do you find yourself asking if you should go with M-Audio or Focusrite or Presonus or MOTU or AVID or Apogee or Native Instruments or Echo or Edirol or one of the other hundred companies that produce audio interfaces? Well unfortunately the answer will vary depending on who you ask. The important thing about an audio interface isn’t so much the name across the top of it, as it is what features it has. What type of preamps, the connectivity, the I/O (inputs and outputs), and the A/D conversion (analog to digital) are the factors you should be considering when looking to buy an audio interface.
Do I really need an audio interface?
A basic computer sound card isn’t made for music production or recording. If you plan to use your computer for recording music, then yes, you need an audio interface. Of course you probably want to know why, so I’ll give you a couple reasons a regular sound card is inadequate for making music. Recording latency (delay), lack of headroom (how much noise you can put in without clipping occurring), and limited I/O (what do you have like one headphone jack and a speaker output on your soundcard?).
The In’s And Out’s of an Audio Interface (I/O)
One of the biggest factors in determining which interface is going to be the best audio interface for you is what you plan on connecting to it. When contemplating how much I/O you need, you should also consider what you’ll need in the future. You might just plan to record your vocals and a guitar right now, but down the road you might want to record a full drum set or even an entire band.
There are many different types of inputs for the various audio interfaces out there, and you want to make sure you get an interface with enough inputs to get all your gear hooked up. Make a list of what gear you’ll be using, and what type of input they require, along with the type of gear that people you frequently collaborate with are using. Then double check that the interface you plan to purchase will accommodate your input requirements.
Another important consideration is the outputs on your interface. You probably are going to want a headphone jack as well as an output for studio monitors. Some interfaces will accommodate multiple sets of studio monitors while others provide outputs to only one pair. Fortunately you can also purchase something like the Behringer MON800 MiniMON Stereo Monitor Mixer if your audio interface only provides outputs for one set of monitors. You might also want to be able to send signals from your audio interface out to processing units (ie; reverb) and back, which isn’t a feature found in every audio interface. Verify that your audio interface will cover all your output needs before making a purchase.
One more thing to consider is if you’re going to need 48v phantom power or not. Most condenser microphones require an external power source to function, which is where phantom power comes in. If you plan to use a condenser microphone through your interface, make sure phantom power is provided on at least one of the channels.
Connecting an Audio Interface to Your Computer
So you probably are going to want to hook your interface up to your computer. There are 3 main ways to do this: Firewire, USB, and PCI. All 3 of these connections have advanced throughout the years so there are also subsets of these connections which are firewire 400, Firewire 800, USB 1.1, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, PCI and PCIe (express). As you can probably guess the Firewire 800 is faster than 400, USB 3.0 is faster than USB 2.0 and 1.1, and PCI express is faster than PCI. Out of all the connections PCIe is capable of the fastest speeds currently, although many audio interfaces are either Firewire or USB only and most audio interfaces don’t use the full capabilities of the majority of these connections. Before purchasing your interface make sure you have the correct port on your computer to hook it up to. Also verify that it’s compatible with your system, as some are made for Mac only or PC only, and others require higher system specs.
|USB 1.1 Max 1.5 MB/s||USB 2.0 Max 60 MB/s||USB 3.0 Max 625 MB/s|
|PCI Max 132 MB/s||PCIe x1 Max 312 MB/s||PCIe x16 Max 5000 MB/s|
|Firewire 400 Max 49.152 MB/s||Firewire 800 Max 400 MB/s|
The Last Big Factor in Buying The Best Audio Interface (Bit Depth and Sample Rate)
The last major thing to consider when purchasing an audio interface is bit depth and sample rate.
Bit Depth determines the maximum headroom (how much sound is allowed before clipping occurs), and each “bit” increases the dynamic range by 6 decibels (ie; 16-bit translates to 96 Db).
Sample Rate determines the maximum frequency the interface can record. Generally the frequency cap is half of the sample rate. So for example a sample rate of 92kHz can record a maximum frequency of 46kHz, although it’s generally accepted that humans can only audibly detect a range of 20Hz to 20kHz (20,000 Hz). Ideally a sample rate of 44.1 kHz (pretty standard for introductory level audio interfaces) should cover the audible human frequency range, but not everyone hears the same and it is also generally accepted that higher sample rates than 44.1kHz do result in better audio quality.
To give you a general reference point, “CD Quality” has a 16-bit depth and 44.1kHz sample rate.
Summary to “Guide to Buying The Best Audio Interface”
This is the conclusion to our audio interface buying guide. If you have additional questions regarding the best audio interface to buy for your needs, feel free to leave a comment on this page. An audio interface is often the core of home recording studios and you should definitely do your homework before making a purchase. If you make sure to plan for the future and not just your current setup when buying an audio interface and you should make out alright, and many allow for expandable I/O if it doesn’t provide enough I/O out of the box. With the huge selection of factors to consider and contemplate when it comes to buying an audio interface, it’s always a somewhat difficult decision, but if you use the information in this guide to buying an audio interface along with a little common sense you should have no problems in landing the right audio interface for your setup. Another thing to consider is that many retailers that sell audio interfaces allow returns up to a certain time span, so if it’s not exactly what you want make sure to send it back within the allotted time. Below are several other sources of information and guides for helping you decide which audio interface to buy.
Other Audio Interface Buying Guides
|Sound on Sound|
Choosing An Audio Interface
Audio Interface Buying Guide
Sound on Sound provides one of the most comprehensive audio interface buying guides on the internet. There should be very little questions left in regards to making an audio interface purchase after reading this guide.
Selecting The Right Audio Interface
The Audio Interface Buying Guide on Sweetwater is a good primer to get an idea of what to consider when choosing an audio interface. This guide is designed to make sales, as they are a retailer of interfaces, but that’s exactly why it’s so good. This covers most of the main factors in determining which audio interface is right for your setup.
|Choosing an Audio Interface|
The tutsplus Audio Interface Buying Guide focuses on audio interfaces that are over $1,000. This is a great resource for aiding you in finding the right interface if you have a bigger budget and are ready to go to the next level in digital audio recording. Most buying guides about interfaces (such as the one on 2infamouz) are written in a way to help even if you’re choosing your first audio interface. This one is specifically for buying more expensive audio interfaces.
|Beginners Guide to Audio Interfaces|
The Beginners Guide to Audio Interfaces from Music Radar is an introduction to the subject of audio interfaces. This is a great place to start, covering similar topics as the guide here on 2infamouz.