Best Audio Interface Models for Stellar Sound
An interface can change the way you create, edit and even listen to music and it’s such an important part of the creation process that it’s hard to believe that not every artist out there doesn’t use one. But these devices can be somewhat complex and choosing the right model takes a little know how and research.
The most common question people with no prior computer based recording experience have is “What’s the best audio interface and why do I need it?” And it’s a good question.
Audio Interface Buying Guide
A computer already has a sound card built-in, so why not just use that? Especially considering it’s an interface of sorts. While the sound card is an interface, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to doing any sort of serious work. Limited connectivity and an amateur sound can have a major impact on creativity and results.
Most standard sound cards found in PCs offer an amateur grade level input used for audio player connection. When it comes to outputs, it will typically have a speaker or stereo headphone output and that’s it.
Even if the musician has modest recording plans such as recording an electric guitar or just vocals- the sound card tends to lack the most necessary connection. When you’re recording you’ll need a high Z phone plug input for a guitar and an XLR input for the mic. Quality outputs are necessary because they will allow the user to monitor their sound editing and recording using headphones or speakers. The output allows the user to play back their recordings without the latency, noise and jitter that’s common for standard sound cards found in most PCs.
With so many interfaces on the market it can be difficult to narrow down your choices and find the best professional audio interface that works for your recording style and needs. There are a few important considerations that can help you to choose a model that also makes sense for your budget and basic needs.
To start, you’ll need to consider what outputs and inputs you’ll need, the kind of device or computer connectivity you need, what your budget looks like and what kind of sound quality you’re looking for.
The kind of outputs and inputs you need can be one of the most important considerations when you’re shopping around for a new model. There’s a wide variety of options available, but at the basic level you’ll find a two channel desktop interface, which is only able to record a single stereo signal or a couple of mono signals at once. On the other ends of the scale you’ll find the much larger systems which can handle many inputs and dozens of channels simultaneously. The kind of interface you need will all boil down to the type of music you plan on recording.
Vocalists who want to capture acoustic guitar and vocals using a mic will probably only need a couple of balanced mic inputs. If one of the mics is a condenser, then the user will need an input that has phantom power. At some point you may also want to record your guitar in stereo while singing at the same time, in which case a couple of inputs wouldn’t be sufficient, but a four input model would work just fine.
If you plan on playing an electric guitar, keyboard or bass that you want to directly connect to your setup, then you’re going to need a high Z input, also known as instrument level input.
In order to connect such external gear as samplers, drum machines or a multi-effects unit, then you’ll need line level outputs and inputs. Many external devices will need digital connectors such as ADAT and S PDIF connectors. These connectors allow the user to connect to multi-channel preamps in order to increase the amount of mic preamps available simultaneously.
Interfaces that feature up to four on-board preamps and ADAT input can allow the user to expand to a twelve input unit later on by simply adding an external multi-channel mic preamp that’s ADAT equipped. If you think you may need to expand your system later on down the line then this is an important feature to look for.
The Professional Grade Audio Interface
Before you begin your search for an interface, first consider all of the gear and instruments you want to connect. If you’re not sure about the type of connections you need, check out the manufacturer’s website. Next, you’ll need to add up the amount of connections that are needed by the type of gear you plan on using if you need to leave them permanently connected to an interface. Budget permitting, it’s also a good idea to purchase more inputs and outputs than you think you may need considering you will likely want to improve the complexity of the recordings as your inventory and skills grow.
Last of all, the interface you choose should be compatible with your PC or Mac. While most interfaces tend to work with both, there are some that are PC or Mac specific.
Since the recording industry has caused an explosion in recording with PCs and Macs and such iOS devices as tablets and smartphones, many newer interface models are designed to work with them seamlessly as well as with apps and software that run these devices. The most common connection types include USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, and PCI express.
With USB connections you should find either 3.0 or 2.0 ports on most newer PCs and Macs. Most interfaces with a USB connection will draw their power from a host device or computer, which makes them ideal for transportation. Devices that are iOS enabled will connect to an interface via USB.
Firewire is typically found on Macs and interfaces that are designed for Apple gear compatibility. With this type of connection the user can expect consistent data transfer at high speed, which is what makes this type ideal for multi-channel recording purposes. If you own a PC you can also use Firewire by purchasing an expansion card and installing it on your computer. Newer models of Macs feature Thunderbolt ports. This type of high bandwidth technology can also be used on personal computers with Thunderbolt card options. This type of connection provides even better transfer rates and even lower latency performance even from the most demanding recordings.
The PCI is an internal card based PC connection platform that’s usually found on PCs only. Because these cards are directly plugged into the PC’s motherboard, they must have an available PCIe slot for the install. Unfortunately, some computers lack these. This type of connection can provide low latency and high data bandwidth, which in turn allows interfaces to flawlessly handle simultaneous outputs and inputs.
When it comes to an audio interface, you truly do get what you pay for. Models that features the highest quality components, including mic preamps and digital converters, come with a hefty price tag that definitely reflects the quality. That being said, there are some models that are totally worthy and available at a lesser price than what you’d expect to pay for professional grade, studio quality interfaces.
Here are some key specs and factors that can influence the overall quality of the audio: bit depth, sample rate, and converter quality.
Digital recording works to convert the analog audio into bytes and bits. So, without having to get too technical, the higher the number of bits, the greater the level of fidelity. When it comes to fidelity, it’s typically a matter of how well the bit stream is able to capture the dynamic of a track and all without eliminating noise and remaining more faithful to the original sound of the recording.
And audio CD will use a standard sixteen bit that offers a 96 DB dynamic range. However, the noise floor is fairly high in digital recording, so recording at sixteen bits can mean that some of the noise will be more evident during quieter passages in your music.
The pro audio standard today is twenty-four bit recording and it delivers an impressive 144 DB range, which works to eliminate most of the noise and provides a ton of headroom for a more dynamic sound. Consumers who can afford a model with this type of processing power will find that it produces a more professional sounding, smoother sounding results.
When it comes to the sample rate, you should think of it as a digital snapshot of sorts and one that your audio gear captures. CDs will utilize 44 kHz sample rate, with every second your system takes more than forty thousand images of the incoming signal. Theoretically, this means that the system is able to capture frequencies that are up to 22 kHz, which is higher than the average human can hear.
But it’s not that simple. Evidence has shown that higher sampling rates capture information that contributes a more satisfying sound. And because of this, any studio pros work at 48kHz or 96kHz recording rates.
What you plan to do with your music will help you to decide the level of fidelity you need. If you’re creating a simple demo to share with your fiends then a sixteen bit model should be pretty accurate. But for soundtrack work and commercial releases or other types of pro level projects you’re going to need a twenty-four bit model.
Digital to analog and analog to digital converters work by converting any incoming audio signals into digital data. The digital data from the PC is converted back into an analog output signal. Just as crucial as sampling depth and bit rates is the accuracy and quality of the converters. As we have mentioned before, the higher price tag typically equals a better quality converter.
Now that you have a better idea regarding why you’ll need an interface and what characteristics and features to look for when shopping for one, do a little research on the models you’re interested in, in order to find one that meets your music recording and budget needs.
Audio Interface Comparison Guide
|Native Instruments Komplete Audio Interface 6||Midpoint price with good ratings.||$$$||4.1|
|Universal Audio Apollo Twin Thunderbolt Interface||High reviews, but a little expensive.||$$$$||4.2|
|PreSonus Audiobox Audio Interface||Most affordable, with fair ratings.||$$||4.0|
Native Instruments Komplete Audio Interface 6 Review
The Native Instruments Komplete audio six is a very flexible model that comes with a total of six inputs and outputs. It’s also equipped with a separate headphone level knob, and a top mounted main volume dial. This model also comes with a popular professional grade software package that can really take your music to the next level. Komplete is a thousand sound suite that comes fully loaded with plugins and sounds that are straight from the seven synth pack. The audio quality is best described as punchy and the MIDI response is nothing less than on point.Click Here to Read the Full Native Instruments Komplete Audio Interface Review
Universal Audio Apollo Twin Thunderbolt Interface Review
The Universal Audio Apollo Twin Thunderbolt interface offers the latest in desktop interface power and precision. This interface is available in either solo or duo configurations. The solo doesn’t offer nearly as much DSP grunt as the duo. This interface is encased in a solid metal case that makes it quite a bit larger and heavier than other desktop models in this price range, but it still offers a ton of portability. With this interface you’ll also get real-time USD processing that allows for guitar amp plugins, vintage compressors, EQs and more. With so much to offer it’s no surprise that this model received our highest rating.Click Here to Read the Full Universal Audio Apollo Twin Thunderbolt Interface Review
PreSonus Audiobox Audio Interface Review
The PresSonus Audiobox 44 VSL audio interface provides reverb, delay effects and Fat Channel compression. This is the second model in the Audiobox interface line and it’s able to stand out from the competition thanks to its sheer versatility and quality components. It also comes with an 8 x 4 mixer, which means it’s packing some serious power.Click Here to Read the Full PreSonus Audiobox Audio Interface Review