Have you ever used your computer for making audio files and listening to music? If yes, then you have most probably chanced upon digital audio interfaces. Audio interfaces convert binary data into perceptible data so that users can hear music or sounds. Majority of computers include digital audio interfaces.
However, the quality of those units is limited because majority of users are more into screen size as compared to the quality of sound. Sooner or later, serious music enthusiasts realize that they want to acquire a digital audio interface that provides excellent sound quality on their computers.
An excellent audio interface is important for any musician or producer since majority of standard sound cards do not provide professional-quality sounds. An audio interface can broaden the potential of a recording system with a multitude of monitoring selections, input/output and MIDI connection. The selections that are available are at times confusing though. This is why we created this article to further explain these devices.
Connections for Audio Interfaces
USB audio interface
USB audio interface is the most reasonably-priced device among audio interfaces and is most widely-used product as well. USB or Universal Serial Bus is a kind of format that is capable of connecting a broader selection of external devices to a computer. The USB 2.0 has a higher transfer rate for faster distribution of data and it provides more input and output. This is also a simple and easy unit to use.
However, if you are considering using the USB type, keep in mind that this kind of interface can be limiting for users who want to operate with higher resolutions or a variety of input and output.
Majority of USB interfaces are restricted to a smaller number of ins and outs and they also provide inadequate amount of channels to and from the PC. However, if you tend to work on a PC without any outboard gear, the USB audio interface is highly recommended.
FireWire audio interface
FireWire audio interface uses IEEE 1394 or a FireWire connection cord. This costs more than the USB type but provides a faster connection. A plug and play system with higher bandwidth and low latency benefits more from a FireWire interface as compared to a USB. Its speed is comparable to the USB 2.0.
However, the unit manages heavy information traffic in a more effective manner. This is ideal for units operating with lots of data such as DVD players and camcorders. FireWire also presents more input/output and provides bigger sample rates as compared to the USB type.
PCI audio interface
The PCI type uses an expansion card that mounts onto a desktop computer and utilizes a break outbox or cables to link up audio units. One benefit of PCI unit is its speed and its capability to operate a multitude of outputs and inputs. This particular format, however, requires users to open their computers in order to install hardware. It is also utilized chiefly for tower-based PC configurations thus it would not work with iMacs or laptops.
Although it presents excellent stability for information transfer, setting the whole thing up is typically complicated because as mentioned previously, it requires opening the computer.
Cardbus/PCM-CIA audio interfaces
Cardbus and PCM-CIA connections are not quite as accessible as the other audio interfaces mentioned here but there are a number of companies that make decent interfaces featuring this format. This is a great tool to use for mobile users who are not fond of using an external box to connect to their laptops.
Selecting the Best Audio Interface that Fits Your Needs
Although the idea of selecting the best audio interface might seem like hard work, bear in mind that through research, you would know more about the product and how it works with other devices. It can be a little confusing because there are many factors that you need to take into account from connection kinds and formats to input/output configurations.
This handy guide would hopefully steer you in the right direction by helping you pass through the selections that you require and find a good audio interface that works for you.
Importance of an Audio Interface
It is important to have an audio interface that works well. This is a factor that benefits producers and musicians who want to have access to recording equipment without spending studio time and compromising sound quality. You can use sound cards but if you are after recording music, an audio interface is best for the task.
Majority of sound cards only offer consumer-quality stereo line input and output and a headphone output. Too much latency, radio and electromagnetic obstruction can greatly influence audio in and out and this is often the case with sound cards.
Although sound cards are excellent for connecting hi-fidelity speakers and compressed audio playback, you would need to get a dependable audio interface for keeping track of decent audio and recording procedures.
Selecting Proper I/O Configurations
Input and output configuration is a crucial factor in selecting an audio interface. The amount of I/O and the appropriate kind depend completely on what you are planning to record. The selection of audio interfaces encompasses everything from 2-channel PC units to setups that can record lots of channels.
If you are a musician, you might only require a pair of inputs as long as they are appropriate for what you plan to do. Majority of audio interfaces contain 2 or more microphone preamps. If you want to use a condenser microphone, you would want to make sure that the preamps of your interface also come with phantom power. If you want to plug a keyboard or a guitar into the interface, make sure that the interface includes hi-Z inputs.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that line-level I/Os are excellent for connecting headphone amps, studio monitors and outboard processors.
Digital input/output might not appear to be crucial when you are just starting out in the business. However, they can be significantly beneficial in due course. For example, several high-end 1-2 channel microphone preamps include S/PDIF output that enables users to connect the devices to the audio interface without denying them beneficial line-level input.
If the interface includes a common ADAT lightpipe input/output, users can simply broaden their setup with an 8-channel microphone preamp with ADAT. Those additional 8 channels can transform your home recording setup into an arrangement that is quite capable of recording a complete band.
Some Terms that You Need to Know
Drivers are software items that allow audio interfaces to get in touch with a computer. They also assist in minimizing latency and in turn users get great sound quality.
This means a microphone preamplifier that boosts ultra-small signals from a microphone up to a proper level meant for recording. An excellent recording by a microphone starts with a decent preamp and appropriate input. This one is also called “mic pre.”
Latency is the obvious pause in tangible sound and the playback that it provides can be off-putting on headphones and speakers. These days, latency does not sound that terrible on computers but common sound cards that are included in those units are not excellent in terms of quality. Therefore, a superb audio interface could enhance this until you do not even recognize any of it.
Many audio interfaces feature a switch to facilitate users to perceive the source of the sound in a direct manner. Therefore, if you are recording vocal parts, you would promptly make out your voice straight in the headphones without the annoying delay.
48V phantom power
Several microphones require power to push active circuitry or separate a condenser microphone’s plates. If you want to link up a mic that needs phantom power, then you would be required to buy an audio interface with phantom power switch. However, if you have a dynamic microphone, you would not need a model that includes this feature.
Several interfaces contain MIDI in and out. Majority of MIDI controllers operate by means of USB therefore this is not as crucial to acquire like it was in earlier days.
Sample rate is the amount per second that a sound is “sampled” to generate digital signals. Higher sample rates feature a higher frequency selection of sounds that can be administered and recorded. The most common sample rate is 44.1 kHz which is capable of recording sounds of up to approximately 22 kHz.
However, keep in mind that sampling at higher levels like 88.2-96 requires the filters needed in digital audio to be well beyond human’s range of hearing which then enhances the quality of sound. Therefore, if you are searching for an interface, this is a good way to measure interface models against each other.
Balanced and unbalanced
Unbalanced inputs and outputs are produced with single core and screen cords while the balanced ones are built with two core and screen. Lots of affordable interfaces feature unbalanced I/Os which can result in interference and ground loops. If you select an interface with a balanced output and utilize balanced cords or cables, then any kind of interference gathered by the cable is gathered by both cores and is stopped.
Conceivable ground loop problems would also be eliminated because the connection of the screen is – at this point – not a part of the signal path anymore. For 1 or 2 track recordings, you should be familiar with these discrepancies. However, you should also be capable of making a decent quality recording out of affordable interfaces if they are linked up properly.
There are several audio interfaces that are PC or Mac compatible only. Therefore, make sure that you carefully go over the features of each model. Interfaces today contain built-in software control and DSP to a greater extent. This feature is convenient and mixing software lets users perform every procedure easily.
These procedures include adding reverb as well as setting up and delaying headphone mixes among others. Furthermore, software control and built-in DSP let users perform those tasks without draining the CPU, affecting DAW software and supplementing latency to the mix.
Top 5 Best Audio Interfaces
Now that we have discussed the factors that you need to remember while looking for audio interfaces, it is time for some recommendations. Here are 5 examples of audio interfaces that are constant favorites among musicians and producers. Have a go on these items. You may well be looking at the model that you have been searching for.
Presonus AudioBox 22VSL
The Presonus AudioBox 22VSL is a high-end interface that is designed to be portable so that you can take it with you anywhere you go. Its audio and MIDI interface provide professional-quality 24-bit 96kHz audio in a convenient attachment that lets users produce their own compositions whether they are in the studio or doing those exciting road tours.
It has 2 mic and instrument inputs with the company’s famous Class A XMAX preamps that are built-in with the brand’s Studio One 3 Artist DAW. It operates with all Windows and Mac recording applications.
- 24-bit 96 kHz USB 2.0 recording interface.
- Includes 2 dual-purpose input channels located at the front.
- Includes mixer control.
- Includes headphone jack with level control.
- Features main-output level management.
- Features LED clip indicator for every channel.
- Includes Studio One Artist software.
- Includes Virtual StudioLive control software.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (2nd Gen)
Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 is a consistent bestseller because of its quality sound output, fast speed and straightforward use. This new generation audio interface is portable yet versatile and features 2 microphone preamps, ultra-low latency, professional-level sound quality and digital conversion.
Users can carry this device in their bags anywhere they go and make music everywhere. This is a great device to use with Pro Tools and is compatible with Mac and PC operating systems and DAWs.
- Includes 4 analog inputs.
- Features professional-level conversion and sample rates of up to 24 bit 192 kHz.
- Features ultra-low latency with plug-ins minus DSP.
- Features 1/4-inch balanced jack output to link up pro studio monitors.
- Includes 1 headphone output with gain control.
Recording and producing music anywhere you go can be done with Steinberg’s UR22 audio interface model. This includes the company’s D-Pre microphone preamps that feature genuine isolated analog advancements. These are superb preamps with phantom power that provide excellent analog sounds.
Every channel presents an XLR/TRS combination jack therefore users can simply follow line-level gear and musical instruments along with their microphones. It also features the current version of Cubase’s AI recording software.
- Includes widely-acclaimed D-Pre microphone preamps.
- Includes world-class 24 bit 192 kHz converters.
- Built with solid metal enclosure.
- Features UR22 audio and MIDI interface for pure, clean sounds.
- Features 2 TRS inputs and 6 TRS outputs.
- Features 2 Neutrik combination inputs.
- Includes 48-volt phantom power.
- Includes pad switches and high-impedance input.
- Includes Cubase AI 6 DAW.
Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 (1st Gen)
The 18i20 is Focusrite’s latest when it comes to multi-channel USB-based audio interfaces. What makes this unit special is the fact that it features 8 of the brand’s highly-acclaimed microphone preamps that are built especially for computer. Therefore, they deliver company’s signature top sound quality.
The mic preamps from this brand are often found in many studios around the world and they provide users an unparalleled level of operations with lower latency, less distortion and wide dynamic range.
- Includes 8 top-quality Focusrite preamps.
- Includes top-quality 24-bit 96 kHz USB 2.0 interface.
- Compatible with both Mac OS X 10.8 and Windows 7 and up.
- Features Scarlett MixControl with super-low latency DSP router and mixer.
- Includes authorization codes from items like Scarlett Plug-In Suite, Softube Time, Ableton Live Lite, Novation Bass Station and more.
Apogee ONE Audio Interface
The Apogee ONE for Apple devices such as Mac and iPad presents specialized circuitry that produces a direct digital link-up to iPad and other iOS devices. It is also verified by Apple’s MFi program. In order to avoid your recording from getting interrupted, Mac or iPad would also charge those devices.
The breakout cable for the model allows users to connect a microphone to the XLR input and musical instruments such as electric guitars, bass guitars and acoustic guitars. This is the first professional-quality audio interface that is built especially for Mac and iPad use.
- Features USB 2.0 audio with 24 bit 96 kHz capabilities.
- Features D/A conversion.
- Directly connects digitally to iPad, iPhone, and iPod.
- Feature low-latency tracking.
- Features comprehensive input and output control with Apogee’s Maestro application.
- Features integrated omni-directional condenser microphone.
- Designed and made in the USA.
The primary decision-making factors that consumers should take into consideration when looking for audio interfaces include required connections and the total number of outputs needed. The amount of sound resources linking to the audio interface would decide the number of outputs that are obligatory.
Musicians have their own list of requirements when it comes to purchasing audio interfaces and that would progress in due time. The most important thing is producing great quality music and all these setups are, in fact, efficient at doing that task.