Whether you are recording a solo project in your bedroom or a full band in a studio, it is necessary to have the correct audio interface for your work. Without an interface, there is no other way to produce music with the pro-quality sound you hear all around you.
You can try and make a record with a pair of studio cans, but there are some limitations to doing so.
At their foundation, interfaces act as the fulcrum of your studio, making sure that you can connect your instruments, monitors, computer, etc., to one single place.
If you’re new to the world of audio interfaces, trying to find the right one can be quite overwhelming, especially because they all boast a variety of features and specs.
We’re here to break it down into a simple guide so that you can find the best audio interface for all your needs without the hassle of the hunt.
- 1 What to Consider When Choosing the Best Interface for Your Needs
- 2 Inputs / Outputs
- 3 Connection Type
- 4 Sound Quality
- 5 Portability
- 6 On-Board DSP
- 7 Best Desktop Audio Interfaces
- 8 Best Rack-Mounted Audio Interfaces
- 9 Best “Professional” Audio Interfaces
- 10 Gear Up
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Interface for Your Needs
There are a variety of things to consider when looking for your audio interface. Instead of diving down the rabbit hole, let’s look at what is most important:
- Inputs / Outputs
- Connection Type
- Sound Quality
- On-board DSP
Inputs / Outputs
The number of inputs and outputs that you’ll want on your audio interface entirely depends on the type of music you’ll be making and what exactly you’ll be recording.
Some producers use mainly VSTs, software synths, or software instruments, meaning they’ll likely only need a MIDI / USB input for their keyboard (typically found on the computer itself) and one output for their studio monitors.
As for the opposite, some producers are going to want to record full bands. A professional live drum recording will require at least 4 microphones, though typically uses 8 or more. This means you’ll need an audio interface to handle all those microphones, as one with 1-2 inputs won’t do.
The same goes for producers who want to work with multiple output sources such as a subwoofer or a secondary set of studio monitors. You’ll need more outputs to handle those extra sources.
Audio interfaces can range from having 2 channels to hundreds of channels, so it is really up to you to figure out how many you truly need.
Like we said in the beginning of the article, the audio interface is the fulcrum between your computer, the speakers, and the instrument. This means that you’ll need a way to connect it to your home device.
Audio interfaces can have different types of cables that they use to connect, so you must keep that in mind, as it would be useless to buy an audio interface with a cable connection that your computer doesn’t allow.
Some connection types have advantages over others as well, which we will discuss. Here are the most common connection types you’ll find on audio interfaces:
USB audio interfaces seem to be the most widely used in small home studios. They are incredibly affordable and are far more flexible than other interfaces, as the majority of computer systems have USB ports.
Many USB audio interfaces run off of bus power, meaning you don’t need any external power supply to get them up and running.
This makes them perfect for producers who are on the go or those who are recording in a mobile fashion from their laptops.
The unfortunate characteristic of USB interfaces is that they have the slowest data transfer out of all connections, meaning you might run into latency issues, especially when recording multiple channels at once.
Firewire (Less Common)
Firewire is the first step up from USB and can typically be found on higher-end audio interfaces. The data transfer with Firewire is faster and more consistent than with USB, meaning you can run simultaneous inputs and outputs more reliably.
Some interfaces work with Firewire 400 and some with Firewire 800, 800 having double the bandwidth of 400. You’ll find that Firewire 800 ports are less and less common because Firewire 400 has the bandwidth to carry hundreds of audio streams without trouble, so if you run into marketing hype behind Firewire 800, it’s probably best to dismiss it unless you’re working on massive orchestral or big band projects.
The biggest disadvantage with Firewire is that fewer computers are manufactured with Firewire ports these days. Also, if you operate on a PC, you may need to install a firewire card - not good!
If you begin looking at high-end, professional audio interfaces, you’ll most likely see thunderbolt connections. Thunderbolt connections offer insane high-speed data transfer and low latency, making it one of the top choices for connecting multiple audio interfaces.
The latest Macs have Thunderbolt 3 ports which are two times as fast as Thunderbolt 2 and almost ten times as fast as USB. You can also find Thunderbolt creeping into the PC world via add in-cards and onboard ports.
PCIe connections are in a realm of their own. Rather than being physical cables, they are internal card-based connections that you find in desktop computers.
Because they are connected directly to the motherboard of your computer, you don’t have to deal with the longer data conversion that can result in latency issues and bandwidth limitations.
Audio Interfaces with PCIe connections can be found in many professional studios and are typically more expensive than other types of interfaces because of their fast data speeds.
Like with anything in life, you get what you pay for.
The same goes for audio interfaces. Having high-quality digital converters, mic preamps, and other components, can largely affect the cost. That being said, even the biggest audio interface manufacturers have low-cost models with professional components nowadays.
Here are some of the most important sound quality factors you need to know before buying:
When you record digitally, you are converting acoustic sound into bits/bytes. We could spend hours talking about the science behind it, though all you truly need to know is:
The greater the bit depth, the higher your audio signal’s fidelity.
Audio interfaces with low bit numbers won’t reproduce sound as faithfully.
CDs use 16-bit standard with a dynamic range of 96dB. The negative side is that the digital recordings have high noise floors. If you’re forced to record at 16 bits, there will certainly be noticeable noise, especially if you’re recording quieter music.
You’ll definitely want an audio interface that can deliver 24-bit recordings, as 24-bit is the standard these days. They provide tons of headroom and allow for smoother and more dynamic recordings.
The sample rate is the number of samples of audio carried per second.
CDs use a 44.1kHz sample rate which can capture sound far beyond the human hearing range.
While that’s all gravy and completely usable, most pro studios work at higher sample rates like 48kHz and 96kHz, as they are said to provide a higher sound fidelity.
In all, you can surely work with a 16-bit / 44.1 kHz processing for demos or independent releases, though if you’re planning to make your music commercial, you’ll want to be able to utilize 24-bit / 96kHz processing, if at all possible.
Converters are what turn the analog signal (recording) into a digital form that your computer can understand. On the flip side they also convert a digital signal (from the computer) into an analog signal that your playback system can understand - typically, a pair of studio monitors.
Though people mostly speak on sample rate and bit depth, converter quality is just as important. A low-quality converter is not going to give you the same fidelity as a high-quality converter.
When we talk about portability, what we’re really talking about is the shape and size of the audio interface. There are two main types of audio interfaces regarding shape and size:
Desktop-sized audio interfaces are perfect for newbies in the recording game or those with bedroom studios, as they are typically less expensive and can fit on top of your desk without taking up too much real estate.
Rack-mounted audio interfaces are more expensive and are typically best for producers who have more experience. They’re much larger, require a rack to be mounted on, and typically require a more tech-savvy setup with the number of I/Os and other features.
If you’re recording a full band with tons of microphones, it’s necessary to have a number of inputs and outputs to do so, meaning you’ll most likely need a rack-mounted interface.
Lastly, there are some audio interfaces with special DSP (digital signal processing) built onboard to dedicate interface to digital processing tasks rather than giving your computer the entire burden.
Companies like PreSonus, Universal Audio, and others, manufacture their interfaces with On-Board DSPs that can be customized and controlled using “control-panel” software.
These control panels can be used to route audio signals, add effects, add processing like reverb and compression, and control levels, among other things. You’ll find that audio interfaces with these capabilities are typically more expensive, though they can be great for those who have computers without ample CPU power.
Best Desktop Audio Interfaces
Focusrite has set somewhat of a standard regarding manufacturing pro-quality audio interfaces as such low prices. That’s the main reason why their entry-level audio interface, the Scarlett 2i2, is such a popular interface for new producers.
The Scarlett 2i2 comes complete with dual mic / line-in inputs, perfect for XLR or instruments inputs, and offers a solid 24-bit sample rate up to 192kHz.
For the price, it is surprisingly low latency. Because it is USB powered, it is a perfect interface for the traveling producer. All of this, including the quality Focusrite preamps, is wrapped up in a beautiful, sleek red casing that feels bulletproof.
When you purchase this little guy, you also get Pro Tools First and the Focusrite Creative Pack, meaning you can get started recording on a 16-track software with 12 included plugins.
Looking for some of the highest-grade A/D & D/A converters wrapped up in an ultra-portable interface? Then the Apogee Duet may be the interface fo you.
Just about the size of a thick iPhone, the Duet looks sleek and sounds even sleeker with Apogee’s famous preamps. The interface comes with 2 inputs, 4 outputs, and iOS/USB connectivity. It can also record at 24-bit up to 192kHz like the Scarlett.
On the physical interface, you can easily monitor input and output levels, mute your signal, initiate phantom power, and much more, on the futuristic OLED.
This is another interface that is perfect for producers who are constantly on the road, as it is easy to use and can virtually fit in your pocket. There’s pretty much no other audio interface with this compact design that can deliver the same high-fidelity audio.
Apollo’s desktop thunderbolt interface with dual Sharc processors gives you the professional quality of well-regarded UAD plugins right at your fingertips, thanks to their on-board DSP.
For Mac systems or Windows, you get two microphone inputs, two beautiful sounding preamps, an optical in, and recording capabilities of 24-bit up to 192kHz.
It does all of this with next to zero latency. Thanks to the included Sharc processors, you can use UAD’s plugins for tracking, mixing, and monitoring, all in real time, without eating up your system’s CPU.
While UAD plugins can be a bit pricey, it does already come standard with a few including: UAD’s LA2a, 1176N, Pultec EQP-1A, Softube Amp Room Essentials, and a couple others.
As your setup grows and you want to record more channels, you can easily chain these bad boys together to make the most of your recording experience.
The Discrete 4 truly lives by its name in providing four discrete microphone preamps that emulate a wide array of classic microphones and preamps. This is all thanks to the on-board field programmable gate array FX.
So whether you’re looking to get the sound of legendary gear like FET, BAE, or Lang, or even lay down some tasty guitar tones with their amp models, you can do so. There are also a variety of built-in Vintage EQs and compressors to tweak your sound in real time as you record.
We were surprised to see such a small device include four headphone outputs as well, making it great for recording small live ensembles. You can easily monitor everything that goes on in the Discrete 4 with the provided software controller.
This desktop audio interface is definitely more high end than some of the previously mentioned ones and provides excellent sound, as well as a flexible layout, all wrapped up in a slim and gorgeous Thunderbolt / USB box.
If you’re looking for simplicity in compact form, you should definitely check out Presonus’ AudioBox USB 96. This little guy features a 2-channel input that can record at 24-bit up to 192kHz. You can easily switch between XLR inputs and ¼” inputs, as well apply 48-volt phantom power with the click of a button.
There are two stereo main outs built in and a headphone jack for isolated listening. The beauty of this USB 2.0 interface is that it is completely bus powered, meaning you can use it wherever your laptop or computer is without need for an external power supply.
While it doesn’t offer the highest recording resolution, it indeed works for amateur producers and artists who want to dip their toes in the recording waters. Along with the interface, you receive Studio One 3 Artist DAW software, as well as a variety of third-party plugins to get you started.
This is undoubtedly the best budget option for those who are getting into recording, and we highly recommend going simple, to start.
Best Rack-Mounted Audio Interfaces
If you want to get serious about your production, or you need tons of inputs and outputs, one of the first interfaces you should check out is the Apogee Ensemble.
This slim, rack-mounted audio interface comes complete with 30 inputs, 34 outputs, and can record at 24-bit up to 192kHz. It also just happens to have the speed of Thunderbolt 2 for excellent data transfer.
The digital to analog converters are Ess Sabre32 Hyperstream, giving you crisp and clear audio playback, as well as a massive dynamic range.
Some other major features on the Apogee Ensemble include the eight high-quality mic preamps, S/PDIF in/out, word clock in/out, and two Thunderbolt 2 ports so that you can connect another Apogee Ensemble interface if you do so choose. This is an interface you get if you’re on your way to becoming a professional and can do just about anything you need to be done.
The Universal Audio Apollo 8 Quad takes everything from the Apollo twin and completely amps it up. With four gorgeous preamps and Thunderbolt 2 connectivity, you can get a seriously professional from a sleek 18 input/24 output rack-mounted interface.
The Apollo 8 also has ADAT optical ports, word clock in/out, and two Thunderbolt 2 ports to connect multiple interfaces.
There are also two headphone outputs for double the isolated listening capabilities. While we could spend hours talking about UAD’s top-of-the-line converters, the most significant advantage to this system is the Sharc Processors that give you the ability to use UAD’s real-time tracking and mixing plugins. Just like the Apollo Twin, this interface comes bundled with the starter plugins.
You can easily connect up four separate Apollo interfaces to get the most out of your studio. If you’re serious about high-fidelity live sound, this may be the interface for you.
This PreSonus interface is a major step up from its little USB brother and comes complete with 2 combo mic/instrument inputs, as well as 6 combo mic/line inputs. It’s certainly an excellent choice from mid-level producers who need the extra inputs and outputs but don’t want to spend a ton of money on an expensive rack-mounted interface.
Keep in mind that this is a USB 2.0 interface, so you won’t get the same data transfer speeds, though it’s more than alright for keeping up with home recordings.
The best thing about the PreSonus 1818VSL is that you essentially have a virtual version of the StudioLive mixer with built-in effects. You can track and monitor with compressors, reverb, EQ, etc., all without having to worry about latency. All in all, the PreSonus AudioBox 1818VSL is probably the simplest and easiest to use of all the rack-mounted interfaces on our list.
Another older brother of one of our listed desktop interfaces is the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20. This rack-mounted interface is loaded with two updated instrument inputs and ten balanced analog outputs for tons of versatility. Along with the PreSonus 1818VSL, this is another great mid-level rack-mounted interface.
The eight preamps on this interface sound nice and natural and have plenty of gain and headroom. It’s also very low latency and allows you to record with plugins at 24-bit up to 192kHz.
At half of the cost of some leading rack mounts out there, the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 provides you with everything you need to record excellent quality material.
Luckily for you, it comes bundled with Red 2 & 3 Plug-in suite, the Softube Time and Tone Bundle, 2GB of Loopmasters samples, and Pro Tools First. All of this is wrapped in the same legendary cherry red casing that made us fall in love with Focusrite in the first place.
For something a bit more unique, you can check out the MOTU AVB. This half-rack interface can easily link to other MOTU interfaces and can run up to 18 inputs and 18 outputs simultaneously. With just an ethernet cable or an audio network, you can link a wide array of these interfaces together to really amp up your recording capabilities.
That’s not to take the spotlight away from the sound quality, as the analog performance and 117dB of dynamic range is something that you pretty much can’t find in this price range of audio interfaces.
The LED panel built into the front is unique as well and lets you easily monitor incoming and outgoing signal. Overall, mid-level and pro-level producers will enjoy the MOTU UltraLite AVB, as it is versatile and compatible with just about everything.
Best “Professional” Audio Interfaces
The AVID HD I/O 16x16 is arguably the world’s most high-quality professional audio interface there is. It’s designed to work with Pro Tools HD systems and can capture audio in incredible detail.
You can find these interfaces in major studios/sound stages all over the world including Sony, Capitol, 20th Century Fox and more. If you’re a professional by any means, you truly need one of these.
This thing is packed with a million capabilities, has 16 analog inputs and outputs, and has Digi Link Mini connectivity, giving it the best data transfer out of any audio interface anywhere.
If you’re anywhere below a professional, the rest of the specs are unnecessary for you to know about. However, if you’re in the process of building or setting up a professional studio business in your home or elsewhere, you’ll need at least one of these interfaces to compete.
Apogee already has a reputation for having some of the most pristine audio converters out there, and the Apogee Symphony is at the top of the game. The stereo imagining on this interface is impressive, it’s modular, portable, and can easily expand to multiple devices. The Thunderbolt connectivity makes it easy to transfer data quickly and seamlessly.
One thing to note however, is that this interface only works on Apple computers.
Right off the bat, you can choose from different stock configurations from 2x6 analog plus 8x8 optical plus stereo AES/EBU, all the way to 16x16 analog, 8x8 analog, 8x8 AES/EBU, optical, AND eight mic preamps. The point is, the options are truly endless.
Along with the Pro Tools HD interface, the Apogee Symphony is really in a league of its own and is made for serious recording professionals.
You also get DSP-powered plugins that create an essentially zero-latency recording experience. Some even say it sounds better than the Pro Tools HD interface, which is a bold argument.
Antelope is another one of those companies that is known for making hi-fi audiophile gear that is also top-of-the-line, even though their brand isn’t as prominent.
Their Goliath HD is just how it sounds: Big.
There are 32 analog channels packed into this thing, as well as D-SUB connectors that can record up to 192kHZ. The surprising part is that it works over USB2, unlike its Thunderbolt counterparts. You also get 64 channels of MADI, 16 channels of ADAT, and two channels of S/PDIF. For the price point, that’s an insane amount of capability.
All of this is packed into a sleek looking unit with a cool looking LED display that gives you all the input channel meters. Whether you’re doing recording for big bands or tv and film, the Antelope Audio Goliath HD will have you covered.
The converters are of extremely high quality, the digital control panel is user friendly, and the audio interface comes from a company that still has quite a bit of room to grow.
We hope that this article helped you to find the centerpiece of your production setup. It’s important now that you consider your needs and find what works best for you.
Figure out how you want to route your setup, figure out which features you need the most, and get the best sound quality that’s within your budget.
For Desktop and Rack-mounted interfaces, we would highly recommend going with the Apollo products.
They sound amazing and you can continue to expand and grow with them as you gain more experience.
If you’re already a pro, it’s hard to beat the Avid HD I/O 16x16.
Remember, you can always make music with just a laptop and a pair of headphones, though if you want to make the most professional sounding music you can, an audio interface is absolutely necessary.
Now get out there and make some sweet tunes!