Navigating the world of audio interfaces can be daunting, especially with all the new choices out there (and the wide range of prices). However, understanding what really matters when it comes to choosing an interface helps make the process easier. Here’s a guide to help you figure out which audio interface is the right one for you.
The Short Version
Modern audio interfaces are virtually guaranteed to have excellent sound quality, so don’t worry too much about the difference between different preamps or converters in the same price range. There is no right and wrong interface, well maybe there can be a wrong interface.
But with all the available technology that is available to us today, it’s safe to say that picking a great interface today doesn’t mean you have to shell out thousands of dollars.
With that in mind, here are some key things to consider when selecting your next interface:
Budget and needs
The first step to finding the perfect audio interface for you is to assess your budget and needs. If you’re a casual user looking to record vocals and simple instruments, an inexpensive 2×2 interface with basic features should suit your needs well. However, if you need more inputs and outputs, additional features such as MIDI ports or headphone outs, or higher quality preamps, you’ll need to spend more to get the best audio interface for your particular needs.
Today, almost all companies are offering a budget-friendly version of their flagship interfaces. Take a look at Universal Audio, a company that is notorious for having super expensive outboard gear – they have recently announced their Volt series which are very affordable and sound absolutely amazing. Other companies have been doing the same for decades – look at Focusrite and their Scarlett Series – it’s probably considered one of the best-selling budget interfaces ever.
Inputs and Outputs
When deciding the number of inputs, you really have to think about your own setup, and how many simultaneous inputs you need at a time. For a singer/songwriter setup, an interface with 2 inputs should do the job. One for your instrument, and another for your microphone.
For those who require multiple inputs, however, such as a full band recording session or live streaming setup, interfaces with 4, 8, or 16 inputs are recommended. You should also look for features like preamp gain control and pad switches that can protect your equipment from clipping or other issues when recording high-input sources. It’s also important to check the types of inputs available; XLR and 1/4” TRS are the most common choices. Having an interface that supports both is ideal.
Latency is an important consideration when choosing an audio interface, as it can have a major impact on the quality of your recordings. Some interfaces are designed for low latency performance, while others may require more complex setups to achieve optimal performance.
Interfaces that are within the budget-friendly range do not have an internal chip that can process the signal within the interface itself. However, higher-end audio interfaces, like the Universal Audio Apollo series all have an internal chip that takes the load off of your computer’s processing resources, making it ideal for live tracking at very low latency.
Furthermore, these higher-end audio interfaces also offer features such as onboard compressors, EQs and FX that can help you shape your sound even before it reaches your recording program. Some advanced audio interfaces offer built-in talkback and headphone monitoring options so that you can easily communicate with performers in the studio.
Compatibility with DAW Software
The next thing to consider is compatibility with your preferred digital audio workstation (DAW) software. Most modern interfaces will be compatible with all major DAWs, but some may require special drivers or plugins in order to be fully functional.
Major DAWs today have no problems communicating with popular audio interfaces – usually, it is a matter of plugging the interface via some variation of USB (A or C), installing the main interface software, and you’re good to go. Everything is then controlled via the application, like assigning EQ and compressor to individual channels. This is very apparent in the Universal Control application for Presonus’s interfaces.
Again, you need to assess you own situation in order to pick the right interface. Are you always on the move? Are you doing remote recordings? If so, then a small, portable interface might work best for you. If you have a dedicated space to work on your music, then a rack-mount style interface can be an ideal choice.
Sometimes, bigger doesn’t mean better.
One thing for sure is that it’s amazing how much technology can be packed into tiny boxes these days, so whatever your choice is, I can assure you that it will have enough power to put a man on the moon.
Choosing an audio interface can seem intimidating at first, but taking the time to understand your budget and needs will help make it much easier. With a better understanding of what really matters in an audio interface—inputs and outputs, latency and driver performance, compatibility with DAW software, and portability needs—you’re now well-equipped to start looking for the perfect audio interface.