Deciding which audio interface to buy can be a bit bewildering…
So, here’s a guide to help you find what you need with regard to the best audio interface! It’s fair to see that, within these pages, I regularly enthuse about the incredible power and functionality offered by even modest home studios these days. The problem with having easy access to such power is that the market is crammed with devices of every kind for every scenario.
The audio interface market is one such area. This can make deciding which audio interface you need a tricky prospect, particularly if you’re a beginner.
This mini-guide aims to make finding the interface for you more straightforward.
USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt?
This is the means by which the audio interface connects to your computer, and transfers audio data back and forth from the device. To use an interface of a particular kind, you will need the correct connection on your host computer (i.e. if you want to connect a Firewire interface, you’ll need a Firewire connection etc.).
There are some differences between the three protocols- here’s what you need to know.
Far and away the most popular audio interface type, USB stands for Universal Serial Bus. It was devised to be a universal standard for connecting peripherals, and it’s done a fairly good job. FUSB doesn’t sound quite as good as USB, though…
You’ll find USB connections on just about every computer made in the last 10 years, making a USB interface a fairly safe bet.
Initially, USB 1.0 interfaces had a pretty slow data transfer rate. This meant that they could only handle two channels of input and two channels of output at a maximum rate of 48kHz before they ran out of bandwidth. So, recording large numbers of tracks simultaneously was out of the question.
Thankfully, the protocol was updated to USB 2.0, which was far faster. Nowadays, there are countless multi-input/ output USB interfaces. To use a USB 2.0 interface, you need a USB 2.0 socket, but if your computer was made in the last 5-years, the chances are, all of its USB sockets will be USB 2.0. USB devices are often powered over the USB bus.
Firewire (sometimes labelled as IE1394) was originally developed by Apple as a network protocol. However, the video and audio community soon hi-jacked it to their own ends.
With fast data transfer (akin to USB 2.0), Firewire devices were perfect for handling multiple channels of audio data. As a result, up until fairly recently, audio interfaces with high I/O counts were generally Firewire.
As Firewire is a network protocol, it also has the advantage of being able to chain devices (you’ll often find an extra Firewire socket on the back of Firewire interfaces).
There are two types of Firewire connection: 6-pin (which will carry power to a device) and 4-pin (which won’t). There is also a faster Firewire standard: Firewire 800. No interfaces exploit this faster standard, though modern Macs tend to come with an 800 socket. Connecting a standard Firewire 400 to this is a simple matter of buying a Firewire 400 to Firewire 800 cable, however.
Firewire sockets are becoming less and less common on computers, though expansion cards to add them are inexpensive (plus Thunderbolt can used as a Firewire connection).
Thunderbolt is the latest device connection protocol, and as the name might suggest, it’s very fast indeed. To put it into numbers, Thunderbolt is capable of a transfer rate of 10Gbps, whilst USB 2.0 is rated at 480Mbps.
It’s designed so that you can effectively run all of your devices (monitor, hard drives, interfaces…) from a single connection. As such, it can be converted to multiple Firewire or USB ports.
However, there are currently very few Thunderbolt audio interfaces available. In the next few years, this is likely to change.
Whilst most interfaces are both Mac and PC compatible (and many even iOS compatible), you will still need to check that the interface you have chosen supports the operating system that your computer is currently running.
Are you running Windows Vista, 7, 8 or 10? Is a 32-bit version or 64-bit? If you use Mac, what version of OSX 10.x are you rocking? If the drivers don’t support it, then it won’t work.
Inputs and Outputs
What are you aiming to record? Just your vocals whilst you play guitar. Or a full band with a close-mic’d drum kit? This will dictate the number of inputs you will need. The number of inputs will dictate how many simultaneous separated tracks you can record.
If you will only ever need a couple of input channels at any one time (like a singer-guitarist), then a simple, 2-input, 2-output interface will be sufficient. Check out the M-Audio M-Track 2X2 C-Series Audio Interface, Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen or 4i4 for some excellent examples of this type of compact audio interface.
If you are aiming to record many tracks simultaneously, such as a recording of a full band, or a multiple microphone set-up on a drum kit, then you will need bigger compliment of inputs. The Scarlett 18i20 3rd generation and Roland Studio Capture are both excellent examples of this.
Audio interfaces with many outputs are designed for those who wish to send individual audio channels out to other external equipment. For example, you may wish to mix on a real mixing desk (in which case you will need an output for every channel you wish to use on the desk), or, you may wish to use external effects.
Most audio interfaces will come with a mixture of jack and XLR inputs, which can usually be switched to some degree between line, instrument and microphone level inputs. Again, think about what you are likely to need, but bear in mind that you can add a few more pre-amps to convert line inputs to mic inputs if needed via external preamp units.
If you are aiming to use a condenser mic, always make sure that the audio interface you buy is capable of supplying phantom power to the microphone.
Our Choice for Best Audio Interface
1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Second Generation (3rd Gen)
In a relatively short period of time, Focusrite has grown from being newcomers to the audio interface market (though it had plenty of pro-audio experience, along with experience of designing devices for other brands) to being, arguably, the market leader. Through employing premium signal paths in affordable units with solid construction and design, it raised the bar for other manufacturers to meet.
The Scarlett 2i2 became one of the bestselling portable audio interfaces ever, so it was a huge surprise when the brand announced it was going to try and improve on an already stellar product. In 2016, Focusrite announced the release of the Scarlett 2i2 Second Generation (2nd Gen) and the results certainly did not disappoint. However, the recently released Scarlett 2i2 3rd Gen is one of the most compact audio interface models in its range, but it doesn’t compromise on the brand’s foundation of supreme audio quality and signal path.
This 2-input, 2-output USB design features two, award winning Focusrite mic-preamps (with phantom power for condenser microphones), which provide low noise, high dynamic range and detailed, transparent sound of a standard, which sets a precedent at its price-point. There has also been a significant improvement with latency – in fact it’s almost non-existent clocking in at a mere 2.74ms.
These double as line/ instrument inputs, via XLR combo jack, with two unique LED gain halos allow you to visually monitor your signal. A pair of balanced TRS jack outputs bring up the rear with a headphone output to the front. The Scarlett 2i2 3rd Generation come with a comprehensive software package to get you creating music straight out of the box.
2. Presonus AudioBox 96 USB Audio and MIDI Interface
The Presonus Audiobox 96 Studio Ultimate Recording Package offers a bus-powered beauty that works seamlessly with both Mac and Windows. Simple to use and boasting a rugged design,
Presonus have made the AudioBox 96 a battle-ready workhorse. Equipped with superb mic preamps and professional-grade audio recording quality at 24-bit up to 96kHz, you’ve got plenty of headroom to play to accommodate any instrument you need to capture.
Presonus have even included their highly respected Studio One Artist software, which offers a complete digital recording package and production suite straight out of the box. There’s no faffing around here, all you have to do is plug in and play. Job done!
The Ultimate Recording Package includes a pair of studio monitors, cables, headphones, and a copy of the excellent Presonus Studio One DAW. Everything needed to create superb audio recordings wherever and whenever the mood takes you.
4. Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 USB Audio Interface
When it comes to flawless performance, the Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 USB Audio interface is an outstanding example. For solo musicians who want a seamless audio interface for getting ideas down in style, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The Audio 1 is delightfully easy to use and provides both instrument and mic inputs to play with, as well as a front-facing headphone out with independent volume control for real-time monitoring. Boasting incredible 192kHz/24-bit audio recording quality, you can rest assured that the subtle nuances of your performance will be translated and captured with the utmost fidelity.
Not only can you rest assured that you’re getting a high-quality interface from the team at Native Instruments, but it also works harmoniously with their extensive suite of Komplete Software), which offers a pretty much everything under the sun to ensure that your recordings sound as polished as possible.
Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5 PRO Offer
Purchase a Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1, Native Instruments Komplete Audio 2 or Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 between March 12 and April 29, 2020 and get GUITAR RIG 5 PRO absolutely FREE!
Depending on your budget and requirements, there’s something for everybody when it comes to portable audio interfaces. From pocket-sized to gig bag-ready, you have more choice than ever before when it comes to picking kit to get the job done.
Quick recap of products covered in this article:
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Second Generation (3rd Gen)
- Presonus Audiobox 96 Studio Ultimate Recording Package
- Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1
Take some advice
It’s always worth asking for some advice at your local Dawsons store, or via our customer service team. Whilst most people get to see a few of the audio interfaces out there, the guys in our team get to see a huge chunk of what is available. As a result, they have a very clear picture of what is likely to meet your needs.
Jon has a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons Music Web Team before progressing into his current role as Content Manager. Favourite things: My LTD MH-400NT, a decent brew, and Ron Swanson.