Choosing the right audio interface is tough – there are plenty of brands and models to choose from – which one is the best for you?I remember the day when I bought my first soundcard. It was a Yamaha XG PCI, and it was the shizzle. Of course, I was 12 years old – which meant I knew very little about what I was buying… but I liked the MIDI sounds that came with it, and it was in my price range, so I was a buyer.
Choosing the right audio interface is like choosing the right wine to go with your roast pork… alot of wines will work, but one of them is going to be just right. Mmm… But just like wine, there are plenty of brands and models to choose from – which one is the best for you?
What is an audio interface?
An audio interface is pretty much the middle man between you and your computer. Generally you can plug things into it to record a performance (like mics or guitars), and you can plug in your headphones, or a set of speakers to hear your work played back in all it’s glory. Or you can get a couple guitar amplifiers.
For a long time, the audio interface used to be a card that slotted into your motherboard (inside your computer case), but these days it is extremely common for them to exist as an ‘outboard’ breakout box, which connects to your computer via USB or Firewire. The latter makes things really fun, as you can use them not only with desktop computers, but with laptops as well – an instant portable music studio!
Choosing an Interface
It’s a good time to be getting into making your own home studio, because it’s never been so easy to find gear to make it happen. The only problem is that there really is a glut of brands and models to choose from, and it can get really confusing trying to choose one out of the crowd.
When all is said and done, the differences between audio interfaces boil down to three things: features, reliability and budget. Generally, the more you pay the more reliable and better the features – but this is not always the case, and as we will see, not everyone needs a 32I/O system with world clock compatibility, with hose attachments for the kitchen sink upgrade down the track. Sometimes, simple is best!
Have a think about what you need an audio interface for in the first place? Do you want to record your metal band in your parent’s garage? Do you want to compose music using sample libraries and synths? Do you want to compose music in a notation program like Sibelius or Finale? Do you simply want to listen to your iTunes library with great fidelity and clarity? Each of these types of users will end up looking at different features in an audio interface, so it’s good to figure out which camp you are in.
So let’s look at a few key features of audio interfaces to look out for:
Inputs and Outputs
Inputs and Outputs refer to how many signals (from mics or guitars, or to speakers etc) can go in and out at the same time. For instance, an audio interface may be an “8in/8out”, which means you can have 8 inputs (which could be microphones, or guitars, or keyboards etc) heading into the computer at one time (simultaneously), as well as having 8 outputs to listen to your music (via speakers), or to send signals to other devices such as outboard effects units.
Obviously, if you are not into recording in any way, then having plenty of inputs is not going to be a feature you crave. But if you are into recording your band, or even adding occasional live instruments or vocals to your songs, then having a suitable amount of inputs is useful.
As a composer who uses a lot of sample libraries – I don’t tend to record much, but sometimes the addition of a live instrument here and there is beneficial. I’ve found that 2 inputs has been the maximum I’ve ever needed on a day to day basis. 2 inputs gives me a little flexibility, in that I have the choice of recording stereo when the need arises.
Others who like to record bands or live ensembles probably need more; atleast 8, if not more. Drums are notoriously input-hungry when recording; a mic for the snare, each tom, a hi hat, 1 crash cymbal and overheads easily comes to 8 sources, and many like to have more for better clarity and control when mixing. Fun fun!
Outputs are a little different. Most people will only ever use 2 outputs (going to a Left and Right speaker), especially if you are happy using software effects. But, there are some of you who are keen on using external hardware effects like reverbs or compressors – in which case you will probably need more than 2 outputs.
In this regard – some interfaces come with a ‘channel insert’ or ‘bus’- a 1in/1out deal which allows you to connect an effect unit. If you haven’t got too many external effects units to play with, this might be a handy feature to look out for.
But why on earth would you want 8 outputs (or more) if you don’t have any outboard effects? Why, for surround sound of course! If you plan on setting up your studio as a film mixing studio as well, then having something like 7.1 surround to do that in might be handy! But not everyone’s keen to go that extra effort. I know I couldn’t care less.
Reliability could actually mean two things – something that won’t crash/break/explode/fall off, and something that sounds rather decent.
In regards to the earlier of the two – finding an interface that will go the hard yards with you is beneficial to a good, stress-free music environment. More often than not – reliability comes down to how good the drivers are for your interface and your choice of Operating System, although also look out for dodgy parts, like cheap plastic knobs that look like they might break after a bit of use.
In terms of reliable driver/OS performance, this can vary greatly from system to system – it’s best to do a bit of research about how others have found the performance of certain interfaces. If lots of people are having issues with crashes or glitchy performance, then chances are there might be a few issues still unresolved with drivers or other software related issues.
Performance and reliability can also depend on the type of DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software you are running i.e. Sonar, Logic, Cubase etc. So, check out the forums, and visit the developer’s website before making a choice.
In terms of getting a good ‘sound’ – this is totally subjective and depends on the user. Some will think that certain interfaces are amazing, others will think they are totally crap. It’s all personal opinion. Generally look for interfaces that have a reputable A/D D/A conversion – which means a good analog-to-digital conversion (for recording), and digital-to-analog conversion (for playback). This means everything just sounds that much better.
For most people, this is the keystone feature when choosing an audio interface – and that’s fine! There are some great interfaces out there for all sorts of budgets, and for the majority of people, you can’t go extraordinarily wrong.
Generally though, lower end units (those below the $300-400AUD mark) are somewhat more mass-produced, which can ‘sometimes’ see a bit of variability in quality and reliability – although this is not always the case. They tend to utilise cheaper housings – more plastic is used in the design, especially in any control surfaces like knobs or sliders, which sometimes have a tendency to break after a bit of use – but again, not always. The quality of the A/D D/A conversions is somewhat less than more expensive models, but for the majority of users they will exceed expectations.
Intermediate units ($500-$1400AUD-ish) see an increase in quality – more metal in the housing and control surfaces, a definite increase in the quality of the A/D D/A conversion. They are generally reliable on most systems, and many feature a healthy array of inputs and outputs for musical carnage. Most semi-pro users will find themselves in this market – these deliver great performance for a reasonable price.
Higher end units ($1500AUD to the sky) are usually reserved for those musicians who actually make money. They are made in fewer numbers, which usually means more care is taken to ensure the product performs exceedingly well. They generally feature kick-ass A/D D/A conversion, and definitely have a sparkle of ‘expensive’ written all over it. These guys often don’t have easy-to-use inputs and outputs though, and have to be paired with other devices like Mic Preamps to be able to record anything. But when you can afford something in this range, you can ‘probably’ (and I stress ‘probably’) afford a preamp to go with it.
So, what do you recommend?
Below is a list of interfaces, many of which I have had little experience with myself, but I have ‘heard’ perform well for each of the budget categories I talked about above. It is by no means comprehensive, but might give you a starting point in your search for a good interface. Here goes…
M-Audio FastTrack – Generally you can find this puppy under $200. It’s a small package, with two inputs, but with only one XLR input on the front, instrument input on the back. Yes, it uses a bit of plastic, but apart from that it’s an amazing performer for the price.
ART Dual Pre – Another common sight in the sub $200 range, this guy can sometimes be variable in it’s performance – I believe mainly due to the fact that it doesn’t have a specific driver, but instead relies on your OS to install a generic one for you. But it’s got a great sturdy metal housing, and when it does work, it sounds pretty good. Only issue – records at 44.1kHz/16-Bit, but for some this won’t be an issue at all.
M-Audio MobilePre – another mention from M-Audio, this time for the slightly larger MobilePre. Features 2 XLR/Instrument inputs – great for stereo recording with two condensor mics, and for only slightly more $ than the FastTrack.
Lexicon Alpha/Omega – Lexicon have made a big name for themselves in the world of hardware-based reverb units, and for a little while they have also been making audio interfaces. The Alpha is another compact 2 Input interface, split between 1 XLR and 1 instrument input, whereas the Omega gives you 2 XLR/Jack inputs, and a workable version of Lexicon’s hardware reverb!
Focusrite Saffire 6 USB – Focusrite is another brand who made a name for themselves making other things – this time, mic preamps – so the jump to interfaces seems quite logical. The Saffire 6 sits at the top of the budget models, but is a solidly built unit, with 2 XLR inputs, 4 outputs (2 as RCA) and MIDI in and out. A good solid buy.
Roland UA25EX – The UA25EX is another great, solidly built unit with 2 XLR/instrument inputs, MIDI in/out, and built-in compressor/limiter on the inputs (which depending on use, could be a bad thing!). In my experience, this unit is best used with a Windows system, thanks to some driver perks, but there should be no problems with Macs either.
PreSonus AudioBox USB – I’ve never really played with one, but these little units look very robust, with great metal knobs which makes it look (and I’m sure, feel) very capable. 2 XLR/Jack inputs on the front – it looks like yet another good option!
Avid MBox – No list is complete without some sort of MBox on it. The MBox Mini (2in/2out) and the MBox (4in/4out) are great options for those keen on also powering up with ProTools (that said – the M-Audio products also come with cut-down version of ProTools too).
Echo AudioFire2/4 – Echo Audio are fabled for their stable drivers and transparent inputs. Featuring a 2 input version (with only Jack inputs) and a 6 input version (with 2 XLR/Jack inputs). They look pretty sexy too.
Mackie Onyx Blackjack – A neat, tiny thing – features 2in/2out (2 XLR/jack inputs), with an angle face for the knobs which makes it feel a bit like a mixing surface. Neat idea.
Apogee Duet2 – Apogee has a big name in the world of interfaces, mostly for the higher end. The Duet2 is a 2in/4out interface, with a really small footprint. It sounds amazing, but one thing I did find annoying about it was that access to the mic/instrument input was catered through a dongle-like cable. But now you can actually get a breakout box that the dongle slots into – which is pretty neat.
M-Audio FastTrack Ultra – On the borderline between budget and intermediate lies the FastTrack Ultra. Features 8in/8out, with a nice array of easy-to-use inputs on the front of the unit. I think it also features some on-board FX too.
MOTU Audio Express – MOTU have a good name in the intermediate/high end market – good performance and stability. The Audio Express has 6in/6out, (2 XLR/Jack inputs), and is a hybrid USB/Firewire interface. Very neat.
MOTU 828 Mk3 – Another great performer thats been around for a while. The 828 can give you a total 28in/30out if you treat it right, but it’s at its best when using it’s 8 mic inputs to good use. A great option for the budding home recordist.
Lexicon Omega – another “cusp” product, the Omega is an 8in/4bus/2out deal (note the 4bus, which could be useful for you outboard fx nerds).
Echo AudioFire 8 – I still use the AudioFire 8’s PCI cousin, the Layla 3G. It’s stable, the inputs are nice and transparent, and it sounds great. Neat looking breakout box too. The only thing I dislike are the meters & knobs on the front – the meters don’t give enough detail to be useful, and the knobs feel cheap and plastic. But it does the job! The AudioFire is Firewire, so no annoying PCI card = bonus.
Focusrite Saffire Pro 24/Pro 24 DSP – features 16in/8out (4 analog inputs, 4 line inputs & another 8 inputs via ADAT). It looks mean, and the DSP version has a DSP chip which gives you some extra FX and grunt to work with.
Roland Octa-Capture UA-1010 – Roland have been putting out some cool new recording products, and the Octa-Capture is definately one of them. It has a small footprint, but features 8XLR/Jack inputs + 2 via Coaxial, making a 10in/10out deal that looks and feels great.
Roland V-Studio 100 – For those who like a bit of a control surface in their interface, the V-Studio is a compact deal with 8in/6out (2 inputs as XLR or Jack), and features some transport functionality to control your DAW software without using your mouse! Noice.
Mackie Onyx Series – Ranging from smaller to large (and across a wide price range) the Onyx interfaces are a combo of mixer and Firewire interface – giving you flexibility to do both recording and live mixing. Very cool idea.
Mackie Onyx Blackbird – Not a mixer, but a rackmount interface with 16in/16out (8 XLR inputs + 8 in via ADAT). Haven’t really heard much about this guy… so check him out yourself!
MBox Pro – Again, a good option for those keen on jumping headfirst into ProTools. Features 8in/8out between a mixture of input types, plus other fun features.
Avid 003 Family – heading towards the higher end, the 003 have a bit of a reputation of being rather good at the recording thing. Various versions are available, like rack mount & control surface versions – the latter is sure to impress the clients with it’s motorised faders.
This is where I leave you to your own devices. If you are shopping for high-end gear, chances are you know what you are looking for already,
or have more money than sense [What a terrible thing to say!] or have at least an idea in mind. I will admit – I know very little about the selection of high-end gear out there. Anyway, here are at least a few manufacturers to get you started.
So, what’s your favourite audio interface, and why?