This article will guide you to finding an audio interface that meets your music production needs, integrates with existing equipment, and looks ahead to future growth. But before we start…
What is an audio interface?
Simply put, an audio interface connects your audio sources to your computer. Furthermore, it acts as the bridge between the source of audio, and your DAW. A digital audio workstation, or DAW, is the recording software. Also, without an interface, there would be no way to capture your audio into the software. The interface is likely the first purchase made when buying equipment for recording. Next to your choice of DAW, the interface is the most important choice determining your future workflow. All audio interfaces perform the same basic function but do so in slightly different ways. They offer alternate amounts of connectivity, feature sets, and sound quality.
The amount of I/O – inputs and outputs, separate low-cost starter interfaces from higher-priced alternatives. Typical low-cost beginner interfaces include 1 or 2 inputs and a limited number of outputs. All interfaces have provisions for headphones and monitor speaker connections. However, increasing the amount of I/O also increases the cost. Recording acoustic and vocal work, requires a small number of connections, whereas recording a full band with multiple microphones necessitates a more extensive array of inputs. Routing audio out of your computer for processing after recording will need a physical output for each signal sent out.
Choosing a device that is compatible with your setup is key. Companies offer USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, and Ethernet connections. Some companies offer compact choices with limited I/O, but very high-quality components. In those cases, I/O isn’t the only factor determining the price point. The quality of audio conversion, physical components needed to boost mic levels, and build quality all factor in the final pricing structure.
Many interfaces are quickly becoming the swiss army knives of recording. Interfaces offer microphone preamps, and HiZ inputs allowing you to hook up a guitar or bass directly. Others have MIDI connections that allow you control of virtual instruments with keyboards or other external control surfaces. In some cases, interfaces include outboard DSP or processing power to run plugins without taxing your computer’s resources. DAW software and included plugin packages can also make a large difference in the final quality of your recordings.
Sound quality is subjective and varies from person to person. Individuals process audio signals slightly differently, but most can tell when something sounds good versus a low-quality recording. Beginner interfaces these days are head and shoulders above what was offered 5-8 years ago. However, there is definitely a difference between various offerings. When gearing up to make your first interface purchase, it’s advisable to scour the web for samples of recordings made on different devices. Some interfaces sacrifice audio conversion for good preamps, or raise the conversion bar, and allow less connectivity.
The Challenge of Choice
It is no doubt an incredibly saturated market full of hype and fads. That being said, it is important to keep in mind your final destination. When choosing an interface, take into consideration how many sources you need to record at one time, the number of extra features or options needed, and price point versus sound quality.