This is the fifth article in a multi-part series designed to help you build a home recording studio. Whether you are a beginner who has never recorded before, or if you are more advanced with years of experience, I hope you find value in the series. If you have questions or would like me to cover a specific topic, please leave a comment at the end of the article. I read them all and will reply!
If you missed articles one two, three or four in this series, I shared some of the basic building blocks people will want to consider when putting together a working home studio.
In this article, I will guide you through the features and specifications you should consider when choosing the best audio interface for your personal needs.
Choosing the first audio interface can be a daunting task. With hundreds of options available, it can feel impossible to balance your budget while understanding what features you really need. Beyond that, there is also quite a gap in the overall sound quality between budget-entry level audio interface and high-end mastery audio interface.
As I've often said during this series, fear not! You are not alone; even the most experienced engineers sometimes struggle with choosing their next audio interface. Towards the end of this article you will gain a better understanding of the most important features to consider when choosing an audio interface. At the end, I will offer a short list of some of my favorite audio interfaces across a range of budgets. Here we go!
What features do I need in an audio interface?
Virtually all audio interfaces will perform, as far as possible, the basic function of converting analog audio to digital audio (for recording) and digital audio back to analog audio (for playback). Often you see this in brief as "A / D" conversion or "D / A" conversion. Sometimes you can even see something in line with "ADA" or "AD / DA", which simply lets you know that the interface handles conversion in both directions.
Now that we have found that almost all interfaces will handle conversion for you, it is time to explore the basic features you need to consider when purchasing the audio interface.
- OS and DAW Compatibility
- Connectivity (USB vs FireWire vs Thunderbolt vs PCIe)
- Number of Inputs and Outputs
- Types of Inputs
- Desktop vs Rackmounted
OS and DAW Compatibility
Let's start with some good news. Almost any audio interface you buy today will be compatible with Mac and PC hosts. There are very few exceptions to this, but they do exist. (For example, my Metric Halo interface is an oddball that currently only supports Mac, although PC support is imminent.) I would recommend that you do a quick check before purchasing anything to verify the OS compatibility of the desired interface.
If you happened to read my previous article about choosing the best DAW software for your needs. You will remember that most of the software is cross-platform compatible, with a few exceptions (such as Apple Logic: Mac only and Cakewalk SONAR: PC only).
So with that in mind, you can save yourself headaches (however unlikely) and double check that the audio interface supports the host's operating system. If it does, it is 99% likely that it will work well with your chosen DAW software.
Audio Interface Connectivity
Welcome to the fun world of connectivity! Here we have choices! Thunderbolt, USB, FireWire and PCIe are the most common, with FireWire and PCIe commonly found in older interfaces.
Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces
Thunderbolt connection is the latest technology in the bunch. The interfaces are generally more expensive than those found with USB or FireWire. Thunderbolt audio interfaces will often have more advanced features that can go beyond what you need if you're just getting started. If you are already experienced and need multiple inputs, outputs, or want to prove yourself in the future, a Thunderbolt audio interface can be a good investment.
Mr. Obviously says: Confirm that your host has Thunderbolt technology. 🙂
USB Audio Interfaces
USB is the most ubiquitous connectivity technology in the world, so it is no surprise that it is also the most popular audio interface type. If you own a computer made over the last 10 years, it is sure to have at least a couple of USB 2.0 ports, making it very likely that it is compatible with almost any audio interface that offers USB connectivity.
A USB audio interface is probably the easiest way to go if you're just getting started. In many cases (but not all), a new USB audio interface may even be plug and play (ie does not require a driver).
You will find that the vast majority of input level audio interfaces are USB. Don't let that deter you if you are looking for something high-end, as there are also many professional audio interfaces that have USB connectivity.
FireWire Audio Interfaces
Although you can no longer find FireWire on new computers, there are a plethora of great FireWire audio interfaces available in the used market (eBay, Reverb.com, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, etc.). Generally speaking, FireWire is considered more of a Mac connection option compared to PC (although you will sometimes see a PC with FireWire).
If you have an older Mac with FireWire, I would suggest this is the cheapest way to add a high-quality audio interface to your home studio. You can pick up a great used audio interface with many options for under $ 200. Even if you have a newer machine without FireWire, Apple makes a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire adapter.
PCIe Audio Interfaces
More commonly seen in the early days of digital audio, PCIe audio interfaces are now mostly used on high-end audio interfaces, the kind you see in large label recording studios. This is mostly because they are a) generally more expensive, b) require a desktop computer with PCIe slots, and c) they often provide additional DSP (processor power) and the lowest possible delay; something that large recording studios require when working with massive sessions and track counts.
In most PCIe setups, there is a card installed in the host machine that is connected to the audio interface, usually found in a rack with complementary equipment.  If you're starting out, you probably don't need to dive into the world of PCIe audio interfaces. Keep it simple and go with a USB, FireWire or Thunderbolt interface. Just confirm that your computer has the correct connection before purchasing.
Audio Inputs and Outputs
Often listed as "I / O", you will find that most audio interfaces provide anywhere from 2 inputs and outputs to 16, 20 or more. How many you need depends on how you plan to work.
Do you work alone? You can probably get away with 2 inputs and two outputs to start.
Do you work with small ensembles and bands? You will probably have at least 8 inputs, and ideally 16 or more.
I want to take some time to think about what most of your sessions will require. The last thing you want is to be hammered into a situation that forces you to create solutions instead of focusing on being creative.
Types of Audio Inputs
Once you have determined how many inputs you need in an audio interface, it is very important to be aware of the type of inputs you need. There are two types of analog inputs that you are likely to encounter. There are also a number of common digital inputs, but for beginners out there, I just want to focus on analog inputs.
Most audio interface inputs will include these types of analog inputs:
- Mic Input
- Just connect the microphone to the interface and voila! You're in the running.
- Line Input
- Requires a stand-alone microphone gain to record a microphone.
When shopping for your audio interface, you will often find that the total number of entries listed does not match the number of microphone inputs not . So read carefully.
Manufacturers typically display the total number of inputs as a total sum of micro inputs + line inputs + digital inputs. It is possible that an audio interface provides 20 inputs and only 4 microphone inputs.
The Bottom Line on Input
This means that if you do not want to buy separate microphone preamps, you want to make sure that the desired audio interface has enough microphone inputs.
Some interfaces have "fine-to-have" inputs, including instrument inputs (for connecting guitar, keyboard, etc.) and MIDI inputs (for connecting MIDI keyboards or controls). Whether you need these or not depends on your needs. You can always choose to have a standalone solution for each scenario along the way.
Desktop vs Rackmounted Audio Interfaces
This is perhaps the easiest factor to consider when purchasing the first audio interface.
There's a good chance that if you're just starting out, you probably don't have many gears already in a rack. If that's the case, my recommendation would be to buy a desktop audio interface. Most of them are quite compact, and there are many good options for budget conscious.
However, if you already have a tripod, or if your studio furniture has built-in rack space, mounted audio interface is a great way to keep your desk free of wires and mess.
Rack-mounted audio interfaces are more common in professional studios, as they often provide the most connectivity and sometimes include advanced features not found in the entry-level desktop interface. .
Recommends audio interface
Now that you have considered some of the key factors in choosing an audio interface, I would like to offer some suggestions to help you get started with shopping. Keep in mind that if you do your own research, you will probably find that the second hand market is a great place to pick up a great audio interface at a significantly discounted price. I almost always try to buy second hand when I can.
That said, here are some of my favorites over a few different budgets:
Budget Audio Interfaces
These two budget interfaces allow you to get started making music, even on a budget with a cloud. Technology has come a long way over the last decade, and these entry-level solutions provide excellent microphone preamplifiers and AD / DA conversions that are perfect for beginners. If you buy one of these, I would recommend pulling up one of your favorite albums and listening to headphones. You will immediately hear the difference compared to connecting your headphones directly to your computer. There will be a sense of depth and openness you probably never knew you missed before (this only gets better when you step up in quality and price).
Mid-range Audio Interfaces
With these mid-range audio interfaces, you get better audio performance. This usually means cleaner microphone amplifiers that are quieter and lower in distortion. With Universal Audio and Antelope Audio solutions, you even get some DSP for real-time processing of their proprietary plugins. This can be useful if you want to record through the vintage equipment they have digitally emulated. In comparison, PreSonus does not offer this option, but is a formidable solution for the price. You get lots of connection options, and it can also be mounted in a rack.
Professional-grade Audio Interfaces
For those who want uncompromising quality in all aspects of sound, these are three of my favorite interfaces of all time. In fairness, there are even more expensive interfaces on the market (some brands include Prism, Burl and more), but I consider it prohibitively expensive for most people. Undoubtedly, the interfaces that are even more expensive than the ones listed below provide reduced returns … which means, at which point it is no longer worth spending thousands more on an even more expensive interface for a less experienced benefit. Ah, hm, yes, one of the eternal questions of hungry sound people like myself.
I love this company. The microphone president is incredibly clean and open. The converters are top notch, and unlike many competing companies, they are deliberately designing their products to be upgraded in the years to come. There are products they have been selling for over 10 years that easily compete and best some of the biggest names on the market. Call them, they have knowledgeable staff and great customer service.
You will find Apollo x8p in many professional studios around the world. The next generation Thunderbolt 3 connection and AD-DA conversion in the "Elite Class" make it a staple for many manufacturers and engineers. A great feature is the built-in DSP. This allows you to run all plugins in the UAD library. A few are included, but you need to buy some extra plugins your heart (or ear) wants. They are considered the gold standard in plugins and have dozens of great recreations of classic, vintage gear. I personally prefer the sound of the Metric Halo interface, but the features you get from UA Apollo are undeniably attractive. It's a very, very capable device that sounds good.
Antelope Audio is known for making great audio interfaces. . In particular, they are known for their high quality digital clock, an important component for delivering high quality audio at this level. With Orion Studio, you get a full 12 mic preamplifier, built-in guitar amplifier modeling, up to 32 channels of audio and more. It really is a great value.
In this article, we covered some of the basic features you want to consider before purchasing the first audio interface. And finally, I gave you a short list of some specific models to consider.
Choosing an audio interface often comes down to personal preferences, especially when you get into the mid-range and advanced solutions. Just because I love the Metric Halo sound doesn't mean it's necessarily right for you. As with many things in the audio world, if you ask 10 people, you'll probably get 10 different answers. Go with your gut, try your friends' interfaces and see what feels right for you.
If you have any questions, I'm happy to help you as best I can. I wish you the best of luck on your audio interface!