What is an Audio Interface?

Updated 30/9/16

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Second Generation (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface

Our Guide to common music related terminology Continues, with an answer to the question ‘What is an Audio Interface?’

In this addition to the ‘buyers guides’ section of our website, we will shed light on what an audio interface is, what it does, why you would want one, and which one you’re going to need.

What is an Audio Interface? A little bit of history

EMU 0404 SoundcardThe PC was initially developed as a business machine, and so, in its earliest incarnations, its display capabilities were limited to monochrome, and it had no sound at all other than a warning ‘beeper’. As technology advanced, computers such as the Commodore Amiga, and the Apple Macintosh, began to feature more sophisticated digital audio playback. Still, the PC was silent. To rectify this, however, companies began to develop additional, internally fitted expansion cards (in essence, plug-in circuit boards known as sound cards) to add higher quality sound reproduction to a standard PC.

As computers became more powerful still, software was developed that allowed them to be used as a multi-track recording studio (meaning individual musical parts could be recorded separately, but ‘over the top’ of each other, and each track could be adjusted in level, pan position and more, after recording).

At this point, on-board sound cards generally featured an output to connect speakers and headphones, and usually an input for a microphone. This was inadequate for recording audio in a more serious or professional situation. In addition, most soundcards suffered from a problem known as latency, whereby, if you were recording something, there was a noticeable delay between the actual sound, and its playback in your headphones, for example, which could be very distracting. To rectify this, soundcards were developed specifically for recording audio.

These featured higher quality audio reproduction than the ‘multimedia’ type sound cards that were generally featured in PCs (and Macs), had high quality, dedicated audio inputs and outputs, and could run with incredibly low latency (so low that the user wouldn’t even notice it was there). In addition, some had increased numbers of inputs and outputs, allowing for multiple tracks (i.e. individual microphones, instruments etc.) to be recorded at the same time, or recorded tracks to be sent to individual channels of a mixing desk, for example. So where does the audio interface fit into all this?

TC Electronic Studio Konnekt 48 Audio Interface

In essence, a sound card is an audio interface, as it is an interface designed to allow audio to be recorded or played back in various ways from a computer. However, the term ‘audio interface’ did not arise until a little later…

As laptops became more powerful, the dream of a truly portable recording studio became a possibility. The major obstacle was that conventional soundcards connected internally (via ISA or PCI connections), which was impossible with a laptop.

This problem was solved when manufacturers began to make sound cards in external boxes, which connected to the computer via a USB or Firewire connection (the kind you might use to connect a printer or camera to your computer). Thus, what is conventionally termed the audio interface was born. It is, in a nutshell, an external soundcard.

Why would I need an Audio Interface?

Anyone who is remotely serious about recording on a computer will need an audio interface at some point. Whilst, on modern computers, latency is not the issue it once was, the standard sound cards built into computers are not great, and a dedicated interface will improve this to the point that you shouldn’t even notice any latency. So, if you’ve ever recorded a vocal part, and heard your performance delayed by fractions of a second in your headphones, or used a MIDI keyboard to play a software synthesiser, but encountered a delay between pressing a key and hearing the sound, then an audio interface will fix this problem.

Focusrite Saffire 6 USB - Audio Interface

The other main advantage of an audio interface over on-board sound cards is that, because of the greater physical size, a wider range of input types can be built into the unit. So, for instance, ¼” jack guitar inputs can be included, as can full XLR microphone inputs, meaning that the device can be capable of connecting to wide range of professional recording equipment. In addition to this, audio interfaces generally feature higher quality audio quality than standard on-board sound cards.

Which Audio Interface do I need?

The audio interface that you will need very much depends on what kind of recording situations you would be aiming to use it in, as this will dictate how many inputs or outputs you may need. A guitar playing, singer/ songwriter may find that a fairly straightforward audio interface with two mic inputs and two outputs (i.e. one stereo output) may suffice, allowing the guitar and vocal to be recorded to separate tracks at the same time. A band would, most likely, require something with more inputs, however. Once you know how many inputs you need, check whether your computer has a free USB or Firewire connection (not all PCs have Firewire connections, so always check before buying anything).

Here’s a little summary of an audio interfaces most common uses, with some current recommendations:

View a complete range of audio interfaces over at the Dawsons website.


  1. can you tell me whats the best audio interface usb about 1000 euro thanks sound quality and low latency,should be just USB, 4 inputs ,audition cs6,should bve very good sound quality,wanted RME FIREFACE UCX or so ,thanks ,what do you think about presonus audiobox 44vst and rme fireface ucx?might some motu or so

    • Hi Dez,

      Does it have to be USB? The Focusrite Liquid Saffire is astonishing value if you can use a firewire interface. If not, then I might be tempted to go for a Focusrite Scarlett 18i6, and one of the Octopre preamp units. This would give me a superb sounding, but compact interface with flexible inputs and outputs, and the facility to record via 16 analogue inputs should you be in more complex recording situations.


  2. Hi,

    I’ve got a mixer that plugs in through the mic socket on my laptop but obviously this doesn’t allow me to ‘separate’ the different mics when recording. For example, if i had a drum kit all mic’d up i wouldn’t be able to turn up the kick drum and turn down the snare as it records it all on to one track. So, if i get a little £30 audio interface like this one — http://www.amazon.co.uk/Behringer-UCA222-U-Control-Ultra-Low-Interface/dp/B0023BYDHK/ref=sr_1_1?s=musical-instruments&ie=UTF8&qid=1346264214&sr=1-1 — then will i be able to separate the different to channels to allow me to do what i cannot do now?

    Thanks a lot, Will.

    • Hi Will

      Apologies for late response. I’m afraid this won’t work. If you want separate recording tracks, you need an interface with multiple discrete input channels. Something such as the Zoom R16 has 8 mic inputs, and can record on 8 tracks simultaneously (as well as working as a standalone 16 track recorder. There aren’t any solutions at the £30 price point I’m afraid.

      Hope this helps


  3. Hey,
    I play guitars, and I’m new to all this recording and stuff.
    I have a guitar processor that supports MIDI (Line 6 Floor Pod Plus), and was looking forward to record some of my work. I tried connecting the processor to my laptop, but the patches didn’t sound as good as they do when I get the output from my amp, besides the latency, of course. What would you suggest me to do in order to have a nice and sufficient recording set up?


    • Hi Anand,

      Thanks for your enquiry. There are loads of interfaces available that could be provide the missing link in your setup. For sheer ‘bang for the buck’, you could far worse than the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. This will give you two high quality inputs, for mic, line level or guitar level signals, and will ensure that your performance will be captured in great quality. It will also reduce latency to the point that you shouldn’t notice it at all. It’s currently just £119.99, too.

      Hope this helps


  4. Very nice site mate! been wanting to learn more about Audio interfaces since i bought one myself.
    Thanks for the info, I put it to good use in a work for my studies! 😉

    Greetz from Belgium

  5. Can anyone recommend a basic audio interface for use with a MicroKorg XL? Looking for something super simple at a decent price (not a serious muso!) but have no idea where to start… Thanks, Lewis

    • Hi Lewis,

      the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a great option at £119.99- USB, two superb mic inputs with phantom power, and legendary Focusrite tone and build.

      For a bit less, you could grab a Roland DUO Capture. This has a combined guitar jack/ mic input (no phantom power, as it’s a jack connection) and mini jack stereo line input. Again, it’s USB, and with Roland on the box, you can be sure that it’s of the highest quality. This one will currently set you back a mere £65.

      Neither have MIDI connections- but as your XL has a USB MIDI socket, you won’t need them.

      Hope this helps,



  6. Very helpful thank you 🙂

  7. This was very useful, i’ve been recording at home for a while but basic nuts and bolts explanations like this can be hard to come by. Thanks.