An audio interface is a device that helps record audio into the digital domain or, as most call it, your computer. No matter how great one’s laptop is, the sound card in it is not enough to capture quality audio. An audio interface converts analog signals into digital signals, making waveforms into 1’s and 0’s. This conversion is essential to improving or maintaining the quality of your recorded sound.
What to Consider
There are a few different things one should consider when choosing their first audio interface. Understanding the tech behind it can help make a more informed decision.
Inside of every audio interface is a preamplifier, which is an integral part of capturing sound. If you’re recording vocals, your interface will help amplify the signal from the microphone. This way, it can be picked up by your digital audio workstation. Preamps will determine the quality of the sound to a certain extent and color your sound in different ways. Every audio interface attributes different sonic characteristics to the sound it captures.
The two major components in an audio interface that will determine sound quality are preamplifiers and converters. As much as many of us like to save money where we can, getting a quality interface with a good preamp and converter is important. Cheap converters often sound brittle, while good ones make your sound fuller.
Audio interfaces can also differ from each other based on their ports. There are three main types – USB ports, thunderbolt, and firewire ports. Firewire ports are a relic of the past at this point. Although there was a time it trumped the early stages of USB, it’s now “the way of the dinosaur,” as The Recording Den’s lead audio engineer, Mike Sorrentino, would say.
The average user is probably most familiar with USB audio interfaces. They’re highly popular because of their easy usage. Once you install a driver, you can set it up and go. They work great for most producers, but a thunderbolt audio interface will always hold supreme. This plays a major role in cost, making thunderbolt a lot more expensive than USB.
What it really comes down to is latency, which is the time it takes sound to go into the computer and make it all the way through and out again. If you’ve ever recorded something and noticed a slight delay between your playing and your headphones, that was a latency issue. Thunderbolt allows for low latency, making timing more accurate and recording less frustrating.
Reputable, high-shelf brands like Universal Audio's Apollo series make audio interfaces in both USB and thunderbolt, so you know you’ll be getting a quality product either way.
How Many Inputs Do You Need?
There are other components to an audio interface you should consider before buying one. You’ll want your interface to be compatible with your needs, future needs, and other equipment.
Inputs are an important factor in choosing your interface. For example, if you plan to mic up your drum set, you’ll need an interface with a lot of inputs. Or if you want to record multiple instruments in a live setting, you’ll need more.
Most everyday users will only need two, but Sorrentino says you should always buy more than you need. Even if you plan to record using only a microphone. Many audio interfaces come with two ports for stereo monitoring and recording. These are usually compatible with xlr and ¼ inch cables, which allow you to plug in an xlr microphone or electric guitar, for example.
Audio interfaces are an essential part of any studio setup, but there’s other equipment you’ll need before you can get to a professional recording level.
Music producers should have a pair of quality headphones, studio monitors, or both. It’s nearly impossible to get a professional recording without being able to hear the accurate, actual sound of your mix. Between monitor speakers and headphones, headphones are likely going to be the most affordable.
Your audio interface will likely have a headphone output, which will allow for direct monitoring. This means you’ll be able to listen to the input signal of your interface with pretty much no latency. Utilizing headphone outputs can make a major difference in the timing of your tracks.
Some may try to get around an interface totally by purchasing a USB microphone. These can be very convenient and deliver a good enough sound, but it primarily becomes a flexibility issue. Similar to how every interface has its own sonic characteristics, so does every microphone. Having only one microphone may work if you only plan to podcast, but if you’re a budding producer, you want to leave yourself room to grow. Switching microphones for different sounds won’t work if you only have a USB mic.
Different microphones are going to deliver different sounds. When recording and making music, you’ll likely use a condenser microphone. These are highly versatile, so they’re a great place to start when building a home studio. Not only can they record quality vocals, but also multiple instruments such as an acoustic guitar. You may even use it to mic a guitar amp instead of using amp presets built into your DAW.
If you’re a music producer, you likely have a midi keyboard as well or are looking to get one. These instruments can be extremely helpful for manipulating sound and composing within your daw software. It can be helpful to plug this directly into your audio interface instead of your computer. For one, it opens up an extra Thunderbolt or USB port. Additionally, connecting a midi keyboard directly via USB input can cause latency from your plug-in.
Whether you’re a professional or serious about production, you might consider owning more than one interface. Each one is going to color your sound differently, so you may want a dedicated audio interface for different instruments or sounds.
So Do You Really Need an Audio Interface?
For the most part… yeah. An audio interface is going to serve as the main hub for your other devices, therefore streamlining your recording studio.
Whether you go with a simple, affordable USB audio interface or a high-tech thunderbolt audio interface, they’ll accomplish the same basic job. Choosing the best audio interface will come down to what is the best interface for you. Understanding the quality components involved will just help you make a more informed decision.
At the Recording Den, we have a wide variety of high-tech equipment we use, which is detailed on our equipment page.