The Best Audio Interfaces | The Ultimate Guide
Updated April 01, 2019 | by Hollagully
You are a home studio musician looking for an affordable solution to recording high-quality audio and want the best audio interface for the job. Am I right?
You may be working alone or you may be working with multiple musicians and instruments so you want flexibility that covers all the bases.
Well then look no further as we’ve got you fully covered with a complete, in-depth audio interface buyers guide that will teach you everything you’ll need to know to make the absolute right choice, at the right price.
Our buyers guide contains eight models of USB, FireWire, and Thunderbolt audio interfaces from today’s top brands. The requirements among home studio musicians surely varies so we have included models with varying degrees of features and connectivity as to provide top solutions for musicians with all sorts of demands.
That being said, prices of our selected models range from $100 – $1,200 give-or-take as some belong in a series which offer multiple versions of the same model but with wider connectivity.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB (2nd Gen)
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is undeniably the best-selling USB audio interface in its class and the 2nd generation version is loathed by competitors for its performance and high-quality components. It is a versatile 2-in, 2-out unit suitable for the home studio singer-songwriter or musician on the road.
Focusrite are known for their superior preamps and the two in these inputs are highly transparent with plenty of gain to support any instrument via the combo style XLR/1/4” (TS&TRS) inputs. For the budget home studio musician in need of no more than two channels, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a great way to go.
PreSonus is an authoritative audio brand with a reputation for dependable gear for every budget. The PreSonus Audiobox is their two channel audio interface that offers two combo style XLR/1/4” (TS&TRS) inputs and a MIDI in and out. This unit is equipped with two Class-A mic preamps that offer plenty of headroom and gain to support any incoming signal. For years the continuous sales and customer satisfaction has put this in the family of the best usb audio interfaces for its value.
PreSonus AudioBox USB
Mackie Onyx Blackjack USB
Built like a tank, the Mackie Onyx Blackjack is a high-quality 2-in, 2-out USB interface with boutique quality preamps that allow for wide dynamic range and the transparency found in their most expensive consoles. Home and mobile musicians will love it for its high-fidelity, transparency and lifetime durability.
The design is fantastic for home studio set ups, keeping all the controls accessible in the front and all the inputs tucked away in the back for a clean, fluid set up.
If you’re looking for more inputs and features then you’ll want to take a close look at the Akai EIE Pro. A highly versatile 4 channel USB audio interface with 4 combo style channel inputs with excellent preamps, 4 balanced outputs, MIDI In/Out connections, and a powered three-port USB hub. Each channel has its own gain controls and Line/Guitar switches and phantom power for every channel.
This is a super versatile USB audio interface with a lot of features and a durable build that can help elevate your hobbyist home studio to a professional project studio
Akai EIE Pro USB
Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 Firewire
Moving up in features and inputs is the Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 Firewire Audio Interface. This is great for project studios doing some heavy multitracking of drums and ensembles. The price for value in this audio interface is very impressive and it allows for plenty of playback customization for mix engineers.
The Focusrite Saffire is a series of interfaces with models ranging from 8 – 28 inputs, all equipped with legendary Focusrite preamps and sold at a wildly affordable price. The Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 and the entire Saffire series are of the most affordable options on the market to get your home or project studio running like a professional multitrack studio, hands down.
The MOTU Ultralite MK3 Hybrid is a wildly dynamic audio interface that is a musicians best friend for both the studio and stage as it is a fully functional standalone mixer full of essential effects to use your studio settings in live performance.
With 10-ins and 14-outs (analog) and MIDI connectivity, connecting to any device is simple. FireWire 400 connectivity offers latency free monitoring even during heavy multitracking, making it an excellent choice for recording drums and live studio sessions. A rear power connection lets you draw power from the wall instead of taxing your computers CPU, giving you a more reliable performance in any given scenario.
MOTU UltraLite-MK3 FireWire/USB2
The Apogee Duet has received an incredible amount of attention since it’s release for being so compact and portable while having a surprising amount of features, speed, and ease of use. Mobile producers and touring musicians love the Duet 2 for it’s stability.
The design is extremely minimal with one single port that receives a cable to provide two analog inputs (XLR and 1/4’) to connect any microphone, preamp, instrument or outboard gear. It offers four analog outputs for speakers, outboard routing, and then an independently controlled 1/4” stereo headphone output. All of these levels are controlled by the aluminum knob in the center. If you’re looking for a versatile audio interface for your home studio that can double as a travel companion, this is it.
One of the ultimate desktop two channel audio interfaces is the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII Thunderbolt. This recent upgrade from its predecessor features six profoundly impressive monitoring options that give you all the playback options found in high end recording studios.
It offers world-class 24-bit/192 kHz audio conversion with outstanding models of classic tub and transformer-based mic preamps. Apollo Twin includes the ‘Realtime Analog Classics’ plug-in bundle, featuring a choice selection of vintage compressors, EQs and reverb, plus guitar amps and tube mic preamp emulation. These come as Audio Units, VST, RTAS & AAX 64, fit in all major DAWs.
The Apollo Twin MKII is easily one of the best choices for serious home studio musicians who want pro studio functionality, in a home studio unit.
>> Read our full review of the Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII
UAD Apollo Twin MkII Thunderbolt
Audio Interface Buying Guide
Discover Your Brand
For the home studio, an audio interface is the one of the most integral components of the recording set up. You’re recording sound waves—live audio in a room and this audio needs to be converted into digital data.
An audio interface lets you record external sounds by taking the analog information from your microphone and converting it into a digital format which is then sent to your DAW where that data is recorded. This process is then reversed when the signal travels from your DAW to your studio monitors or headphones.
Most audio interfaces feature line-level analog inputs and outputs, one or several microphone preamps, a may include digital inputs and outputs such as AES, S/PDIF or ADAT (Lightpipe) that allow you to extend the number of inputs on your interface.
An audio interface is like the hub, or the middle man through which all of your audio passes. Because it’s preamps and analog-to-digital converters are so critical in the quality of your recordings, it is smart to invest in the best audio interface that you can afford.
How To Choose
You’ll quickly learn that interfaces range widely in features which can get intimidating. By educating yourself in the key features and narrowing down your own particular requirements, choosing the perfect model that fits your recording needs, music, and budget can be quite simple:
Inputs and Outputs (I/O) Configuration
This is one of those most important considerations when shopping for an audio interface. The number of I/O requirements are going to vary among musicians. The best audio interface for a drummer fitting his home studio will certainly be different from that of an electronic musician.
You must also consider that your needs may change down the road. An audio interface with more inputs will allow much more flexibility and support more opportunities for creative multi tracking down the road.
Audio interfaces range from 2-channel desktop units that can record a pair of mono signals or a single stereo signal at once to systems that can record hundreds of channels simultaneously. If you’re working alone, recording only one or two sound signals at the same time, or wish to record the same performance in stereo, then a 2-channel microphone preamp will do the trick. Otherwise, opt for more inputs.
There are four basic types of connections you will need to know when shopping for an audio interface:
XLR and XLR/TRS combo
In order to record, a microphone will require an XLR cable to that will plug into the XLR input of your interface. An instrument such as a guitar or bass will require a hi-Z TRS input. Nowadays, most audio interfaces come with XLR/TRS or “combo” jacks which accommodate either of two types of connections.
This type of connection allows you to plug a guitar, bass, and any other high impedance connections directly into your interface with a regular 1/4″ instrument cable.
A DAW can receive MIDI information through a USB cable. This is great for simple applications, but if you want to sync your MIDI keyboard controller with other units such as a synth, sound module, or even lighting gear in a live rig, then you definitely want to look for an audio interface that has MIDI In and Out ports. A built-in 5-pin DIN MIDI I/O can really help streamline your setup.
This is how you arrange how sound will be coming out of your DAW or from a select channel to be routed into another. This is important if you are planning on adding any external effects processors, setting up playback over multiple monitor arrangements, or listening back in headphones.
This is often overlooked by many who are just starting out as the terms “S/PDIF and ADAT” can initially be intimidating. What these connections do is allow you to connect multi-channel mic preamps to your interface as to increase the amount of simultaneously available mic preamps to your system.
The ADAT optical interface supports up to 8 channels at 48 kHz, 24 bit and S/PDIF supports 2 channels of digital audio. This means that if your 2 channel interface has S/PDIF and ADAT inputs on the back, you can record up to 12 channels of audio simultaneously.
Microphones vary in output and therefore require a preamp to bring their signal up to line level. Condenser microphones require a preamp that supply +48V phantom power. While all modern audio interfaces come with both a preamp and +48V phantom power, it is advised to go for a model known for having superior preamps already built-in.
Apart from providing more gain, preamps often add a degree of tone, vibe, and character. If you’re just getting your home studio off the ground, shoot for something with great preamps. Research the preamps included in the model you’ve got you’re eye on and get a feel for what people are saying about them.
This is where things can get a little tricky. Technology is moving really fast and the connections that allow tools to communicate with each other are often changing. It appears as though some connection types are being phased out which can make it difficult to look at a given audio interface as a 10 year investment. At the present moment, a few audio interface connection types are considered standard, and those are:
These connections are becoming increasingly common in pro recording studios. This high-bandwidth technology is currently installed on all of Macs newest computers and PCs equipped with Thunderbolt option cards. It offers excellent data transfer rates and very low latency performance for the most demanding computer-based recording. Thunderbolt 3 is twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2 and 8 times faster than USB 3, supporting speeds up to 40 Gbps and cable lengths of up to 100 meters of optical cable.
These are the most popular choice among beginners as USB 2.0 ports are found on nearly every Mac or PC. A USB audio interface is an excellent choice for mobile recording as the interface draws its power from the computer via the USB cable. If your using an iOS-enabled device, it will connect to the audio interface using USB.
A FireWire audio interface connects with a FireWire 400 or 800 connection and is comparable to USB 2.0 in speed. The advantage to FireWire is it transfers data at a more consistent rate and a higher speed than USB, making it more reliable when multi tracking. Their disadvantage is that less computers are equipped with FireWire ports. However, FireWire to Thunderbolt adapters are easily found for cheap and do the job great.
PCIe (PCI Express)
These are far less common common connection that’s primarily found on PC desktop computers. It is an internal card-based interface installed on a desktops motherboard and gives the advantage of bypassing some of the data conversion processes that cause latency and limit bandwidth. They offer the ability to handle many simultaneous inputs and outputs at a near-instantaneous speed but due to the fact that they must be connected to a desktops motherboard, you can’t use these interfaces with laptop computers.
Think of sample rates as the digital snapshots your gear captures from moment to moment. For CDs using a 44.1kHz sample rate, a digital recording system takes 44,100 pictures of the incoming audio signal every second. The higher the sample rate, the higher the resolution of the snapshot per second. Look for an audio interface capable of recording at a minimum sample rate of 44.1kHz and if you can afford it, look for 96 kHz or even 192 kHz. For commercial releases, soundtrack work, and and other pro-level projects, 24-bit/96kHz processing is recommended.
The greater the number of bits the higher the level of fidelity. Today’s pro audio standard is 24-bit recording.
Though using higher bit rate and sample rate with reproduce a higher quality recording, the trade off is that they audio takes up much more CPU usage and space on your hard drive, and the differences are often unnoticeable to the human ear.
What is DSP?
This is a specialized internal hardware chip dedicated to several tasks. These usually come with software that gives a visual representation (much like a recording console) of your signal routing which allows you to adjust input levels, monitoring, and often offers a wealth of effects used independent from your DAW.
Well that about wraps up our audio interface buying guide. Is there anything you feel we have missed? What’s your favourite model? What do you like about it? And what are you using it for? Let us know what’s working for you in the comments below.
Enjoy this buyers guide? Check out the others in our series to learn how to successfully equip your home recording studio.
Curious about the site? Hollagully is an audio agency made up of music producers and audio engineers looking to make the internet a better sounding place through education and our list of creative audio services.