Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Before talking about what to consider when choosing an audio interface, it makes a difference to know what an audio interface is and the role it plays in your studio's setup.
Knowing this will give you a better picture of how best to use the interface.
Today's technology has led studios to work with computer-based recording rigs. The question then became; how do we get the analog audio signal into the digital world that's based on ones-and-zeroes? Mostly that's what an audio interface does.
The audio interface, at its most basic functionality, accepts the analog microphone signals and converts them into a digital format for processing and storage on your computer. It also does the reverse; converting the digital signal back to an analog format. More complex interfaces have the capability of adding complex monitor control, and multiple audio I/O formats, and may include onboard DSP (Digital Signal Processing).
The audio interface will be the centerpiece of your studio. Every sound that your computer accepts and passes to your speakers or monitors must pass through the audio interface. With that picture in mind, and with the many options available, here are a few things to consider when making your choice:
1. Your Desired Functionality
When trying to decide which audio interface to get, always keep in mind what you intend to do with it. Are you tracking a whole band, recording vocal overdubs, or just making demos?
Different recording assignments will require various features. For recording vocalists, you need an interface with a microphone pre-amp and a headphone port that is of good quality. If you are going to be dealing with bands, you will need multiple inputs. Alternatively, you could have a USB mixing desk which will allow you to record multiple tracks simultaneously. For a mobile studio, you will need interfaces that can support various platforms.
Knowing what you intend to do or what you intend to record will go a long way in helping you arrive at the right choice of audio interface for your studio.
2. Your Devices' Connection Format
While there are 'hybrid' interfaces that can support more than one protocol, knowing the connection you will use to hook up the interface to your computer is still relevant.
The connection type will affect your system's overall latency and the number of channels you can simultaneously record and playback. The standard available options are USB 1.0, USB 2.0, Firewire 400/800, USB 3.0, and Thunderbolt, which is the fastest connection currently available.
Connections such as USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt can accommodate multiple channels at ultra-low latency. You can still use the standard USB 2.0 for a low number of channels.
3. Number of I/O
How many signals do you intend the interface to support simultaneously? Will they require preamps? What are their respective formats? Different types of equipment have different connection formats, making a list of all you intend to make use of is a factor in helping you determine which audio interface to go for.
Recording acoustic instruments will make use of an XLR cable and the XLR port on the interface. TRS is used for devices that do not require a preamp; or keyboards. Hi-Z is excellent for equipment that uses high-impedance connections such as guitars or basses.
Generally, the more I/O channels an interface has, the more costly it will be. Multiple I/O channels make it possible for you to record more than one source at the same time. Remember to keep your needs in mind as well; there is no need in getting an interface with multiple I/O channels if you'll be recording one source at a time.
Balance your input and output needs accordingly.
4. Additional I/O
Today's audio interfaces are designed to add versatility to both their functionality and I/O channels they can support. As time goes by, you might find yourself recording more and more channels at the same time; it is, therefore, vital to consider the interface's scalability.
The common additional ports found on interfaces are;
The MIDI port makes it possible for the interface also to be used as a MIDI interface, which saves you the trouble of additional peripheral connections and configurations to communicate with the MIDI devices you have.
This enables you to expand the available channels.
Instrument level DI:
This ¼" input allows you to connect guitars directly and helps you avoid buying independent DI boxes for accessing your preamps.
5. Onboard DSP
Depending on your needs, what set apart most audio interfaces are their built-in DSP capabilities. The onboard digital signal processing chips make it possible for the interface to operate as a standalone device; you can route audio without running a DAW app.
MOTU, Apogee, Presonus among others, offer DSP environments that allow you to create cue mixes, track with modeling and effects or monitor with zero latency. Once mastered, these features can be a great factor in your workflow.
6. Sound Quality
The good news is, even a cheap audio interface will provide you with great sound quality if used the right way. That being said, different interfaces are made to offer different levels of audio quality, so it is still a factor you should consider.
How mobile will you be? Some interfaces do not require a power supply. These are great when you will be working on the road; they are also small in size.
Larger interfaces have their power supply. If you intend to purchase some of these, then you might want to consider purchasing a power conditioner that will regulate voltages and prevent the interface from being damaged by an outlet with insufficient power.
How much the interface will cost you is another thing to keep in mind, though after looking at all the factors from above, you will have narrowed down the options by now. While most people understandably tend to start with costs, it is recommended that you first consider your needs and how the interface's functionality will help you achieve them.
Once you find a few options that meet your needs, you can then proceed to pick the one that is within your budget.
Learn More About Audio Interface Devices
Your audio interface is an integral part of your studio setup, and picking the right one is essential. Hopefully, this article will help you do that. Visit the website to find out more about music production and recording equipment, as well as online audio mixing and mastering services I provide.