An audio interface is basically a device which provides audio input/output capabilities to a computer. The device enables the recording external sounds like music instruments and vocals into a computer by converting the analog input to the required digital format. It also enables the reverse from the computer to loudspeakers or amplifier. Check out our list of the best audio interfaces below to get up and running with a professional setup quick.
What is an Audio Interface?
Audio interface units may include features like analog or digital I/O, internal or external clocking, built in effects as well as extra expansion slots for future upgrades. Some of the common kinds of audio interface connections include USB 2.0/3.0, FireWire, Thunderbolt, PCI/PCIe and CardBus or PCMCIA. Universal Serial Bus (USB) audio interfaces are the most affordable and most commonly used types in the market however FireWire type is much more expensive than USB but delivers a faster connection.
Audio interfaces are essential in ensuring that the user records quality, high resolution sound and is a must-have device for record studios as well as for DJs. Most computers are not made for professional music production thus an audio interface comes in to take over most of the sound processing activities.
Whether in a home studio or otherwise audio interfaces enable the user to record optimally and ensure the best qualities of sound. The interface connects audio equipment such as microphones, studio monitors and guitars to a computer. Additionally, they can offer phantom power to further amplify the microphone, connectivity with MIDI devices, monitoring options and also provide an XLR port for the microphone.
Consumer grade sound cards used in a PC or a Mac are not ideal as they cause delays and interferences in sounds. On the other hand audio interfaces are the standard sound card for use in any type of studio. There are very many audio interfaces available in the market today, it’s imperative to consider a number of factors before purchasing the product. The best audio interface should provide studio-quality sound, diverse functionality and of course, value for money.
The 5 Best Audio Interfaces of 2016
Here are the 5 all around best audio interfaces for musicians and producers.
1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Recording Audio Interface
This interface by Focusrite is one of the most popular one in the market and is suited for both semi-pro as well as home studios. It has an anodized aluminum body to ensure stability, durability and a great deal of portability. The front panel provides ample room for the line and instrument level inputs along with halo indicators for visual reference.
The “2i2” in its name basically indicates that it has two outputs, two inputs in addition to two preamps. It ensures high quality of sound with its 24-bit resolution at sample rates of a maximum of 96 kHz. It also has a direct monitor switch that enables the user to hear the recording through the speakers, without the audio signal having to go via the computer. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is light, compact and has a USB connection type. Moreover, the 2i2 comes with easy to use DAW software and Ableton Live Lite effects
2. Apogee Duet Audio Interface for iPad & Mac
Apogee is best known for their top-notch AD/DA converters and Mac based interfaces. The Duet has a two in and two out design and can be used with Macs and iOS based devices. The unit has two combo inputs (for serving 1/4 TRS and XLR jacks), two balanced 1/4 inch line outputs and a separate headphone output which can also be assigned a separate output by using the provided Maestro software.
It also includes a single push encoder on the front panel, two touch sensitive pads together with clear LED meters to use as visual reference for either the ingoing or outgoing levels. This audio interface has a sampling rate of 192 kHz and a 24-bit rate. The Apogee Duet allows the user to record any instrument or vocals on most DAWs such as Logic, GarageBand and Pro Tools. It also features a switchable phantom power functionality to ensure optimal use of the microphone.
3. Lexicon Alpha 2-Channel Desktop Recording Studio
This is a simple audio interface ideal for both Mac and PC users. The unit has two input channels (an instrument input channel and an XLR microphone input) and two 1/4 inch inputs located on its rear. The 1/4 inch inputs are ideal for stereo instruments such as a keyboard. The Lexicon Alpha has a dedicated knob to enable the user to get a good balance between the recording channel and the playback channel.
It also comes with a set of stereo RCA outputs, left and right 1/4 inch TRS outputs and a 3.5mm headphone port. The Lexicon Alpha features a sample rate of up to 48 kHz and a 24-bit rate. Even though the unit lacks phantom power, this USB interface is fully powered from the computer’s USB bus. The Alpha audio interface comes with Steinberg’s Cubase 5 software as well as the Pantheon VST reverb plug in.
4. M-Audio M-Track Plus MKII Two-Channel USB 2.0 Audio Interface with Waves Plugins
The M-Track Plus, an audio interface from M-Audio, is a simple two channel USB interface tailored for musicians and producers who are constantly on the move. It has two input channels each with gain level control and dedicated XLR and 1/4 inch TRS sockets. It also features a switchable 48v phantom power which helps in attaining optimal use of the microphone. The unit has a clear segment meter to show input and output signal levels.
The M-Track Plus also has a headphone socket with its own volume controls. Remarkably, the unit comes with MIDI I/O to connect MIDI devices or keyboard controllers. It has complementary software such as Pro Tools Express and AIR Music Technology’s Ignite. The software allows for exporting of audio files and supports audio recording with available effects. The M-Track Plus offers a portable, versatile and appealing audio interface at a reasonable price.
5. Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6
This USB bus powered unit has four analog inputs (two balanced line and two XLR combo inputs) in addition to four balanced outputs .The user gets to enjoy direct monitoring, low-latency performance, digital stereo I/O and MIDI I/O. The MIDI inputs/outputs are ideal for a master keyboard or any MIDI controller. The headphone output has a source switch and comes with an independent level control.
It also features super-primo preamps, accurate LED meters and a compact and appealing body guaranteed to fit in any desktop space. It has 48v phantom power functionality for use with active DI boxes and condenser microphones. Komplete Audio 6 comes with complementary software like Cubase LE 6, Tracktor LE 2 and Komplete Elements.
Top Benefits of an Audio Interface
Broadly speaking, a dedicated audio interface is preferred to sound cards as the latter has limited sound quality as well as minimal input/output configurations hence making it less ideal for audio recording. Sound cards mostly have consumer-grade stereo line level input/output and a headphone output. They are also prone to radio and electromagnetic interference, excessive latency as well as jitters all of which greatly reduce the quality of sound output and input.
Sound cards are mostly ideal for use with Hi-Fi speakers to play back compressed audio while dedicated audio interfaces are the most reliable for recording as well as monitoring the quality of audio produced. They also provide a quick and easy way to route audio inputs/outputs and greatly eliminates the extra costs related with consumer-grade sound cards.
Audio interfaces have reduced latency since the bundled software enables direct access to the sound card thus avoiding all intermediate layers. Furthermore, through the direct access to hardware the audio signals are not interfered with by the operating system’s audio mixer. There is no sample or bit rates conversion losses thus ensuring high fidelity gains. The reduced latency benefit is especially most bold when working with multiple channels of audio. Some of the best audio interfaces have direct monitoring functionalities; audio signals can be heard through speakers without having to be reprocessed in the computer’s operating system thus furthering reduction in latency.
Analog/digital converters in computers are cheap components directed to the mass market and have little regard to good audio quality while dedicated audio interfaces are based on better audio fidelity and are specifically made for music production.
The easier accessibility and bigger physical size of audio interfaces means that a wider variety of input types can be built into the given unit. Unlike standard on-board sound cards, the user can be able to record a wider selection of professional recording equipment and without compromising on the sound quality. This includes analog and digital inputs/outputs, MIDI inputs/outputs among others.
Factors to Consider Before Buying an Audio Interface
A lot of research should be carried out before buying a particular audio interface to ensure value for money as well as the best quality sound. The most notable alternative to audio interfaces is opting for a standard on-board sound card which mostly has a PCI or PCIe connection and is mounted on the motherboard of the computer.
It is recommended to go for the dedicated audio interface as it has many benefits over the standard sound cards. The following factors must be considered before purchasing the the best audio interface.
- Type of connections. The interface connection types include USB, FireWire, Thunderbolt, PCI/PCIe and CardBus or PCMCIA. USB is the most common type since most computers have USB inputs whereas FireWire requires the user to have the FireWire card on the computer. The FireWire card is mostly found in Macs however most of the new audio interfaces models produced today come with both the FireWire and USB support. The two are the most common types available in the market and can guarantee relatively high transfer speeds for typical recording sessions as compared to the rest.
- Number of Inputs/Outputs. Line level inputs provide for input from instruments like drum machines and keyboard synthesizers given that they produce much stronger signals as compared to microphones. Line level inputs are basically of two types depending on instrument cable used namely a 1/4 inch instrument cable only and a combo which can accept either the 1/4 inch instrument cable or the XLR cable. While the combo variant is a bit expensive it is gaining a lot of popularity due to its flexibility. Most of the audio interfaces will have a minimum stereo main output. Additionally, some units will come with additional inputs/outputs to support a number of instruments and enable mixing and recording of the multiple instruments. Therefore, the number of inputs/outputs should be considered depending on the number of instruments and microphones the user intends to record as well as future expansion plans.
- Analog/digital converters. The converters offer the ability to take the electrical signals from the microphone or audio instrument and convert it into a digital format that can be used in a computer. Audio interfaces offer a quick and easy method to introduce this function in any audio recording setup. The converters are portrayed as a set of two numbers i.e. a bit depth and a sampling rate. The set of values represents the maximum sample rate and bit depth achievable with the given interface. The most standard target values are a bit rate of 24-bits and a 48 kHz sampling rate. Notably the rates are always adjustable to a lower value as required by the user.
- Microphone Preamps. Preamps are responsible for the resultant sonic character in the recording thus it is recommended to go for the ones that are transparent and full sounding. This is essential since they can handle the varying tones produced by different instrument types and vocals. Most audio interfaces come with similar microphone preamps having the number of preamps as the only difference. Also interfaces with phantom power are the most ideal if a condenser microphone is to be used as it requires about 48v phantom power to operate.
- Mixing capabilities. Audio interfaces are compatible with most digital mixing software programs to enable the user to alter tracks in a similar method as that of physical mixing console. This is achieved by using a mouse to adjust the virtual knobs of the mixing software. Audio interfaces can be used together with a mixing console to offer hardware mixing capability. Therefore, they can be very ideal for DJs and track mixing setups.
- Size and shape of the device. There are basically two form factor options to pick from namely desktop interfaces and rack-mounted interfaces. Desktop interfaces are usually smaller in size and can be placed on the desk next to the computer while rack-mounted ones are larger sized and can be mounted in a standard size rack unit. Desktop interfaces are easy to use, relatively cheaper and ideal for beginners. On the other hand rack-mounted interfaces are ideal for intermediate/advanced studios as they usually offer more Inputs/Outputs and also provide superior flexibility with signal organization and routing.
- Additional features. Some other factors to look out for include bundled software and drivers as well as computer/smartphone/tablet connectivity. Most audio interfaces have accompanying DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software, effects and drivers to expedite the audio processing and set up activities.