Would you like to record your instrument or your voice to create your tracks? Would you like to have the best possible sound on your speakers for your mixes? Then this guide for choosing an audio interface is for you.
What is an audio interface?
The audio interface has several functions. Monitor the sound coming out of your DAW through your headphones or speakers and record sound by plugging in one or more microphones or musical instruments via XLR or 6.35mm jack sockets. There are several types of audio interface: The best known are the sound cards found in most computers. We all start with this type of sound card but very quickly, they show their limits especially when we want to plug a microphone to record. The ones I’m going to talk about in this guide are designed specifically for small studios. They are small and transportable, very versatile and equipped with 6.35mm Jack sockets and XLR sockets.
XLR Watizit ?
There are different types of audio sockets, the 3.5mm jack, the 6.35mm jack, the RCA (or Cinch) and the XLR. These sockets are used in certain cases and have limitations in terms of sound transport. The 3.5mm jack is mainly used for portable devices such as phones, music players, etc. It is also used on computer sound cards. The RCA, it is rather intended for Hi-Fi to connect the living room decks to library speakers or for the DJ decks.
The sockets used in the studio are mainly the 6.5mm jack and the XLR. Both types of cable allow for an unbalanced connection that offers the least signal loss if the cable is long. The one that does best in the field is the XLR. The 6.35mm jack is mainly used to connect instruments to a mixer or your audio recorder and your speakers to your sound output. The XLR will be mainly used for microphones even if there are guitars with XLR plug.
Most audio interfaces use 6.35mm Jack and XLR for audio input and output, but some use RCA for audio output. These are generally inexpensive models. To connect your audio interface to speakers, we will mainly use XLR or Jack TRS cables (depending on your devices) which avoids noise during sound transport.
Ok, and these interfaces, then?
I will present you interfaces which connect mainly by USB. There are some that plug by Firewire or Thunderbolt but they are a little too expensive to start. These audio interfaces include everything you need to work on your tracks with headphones, with audio monitors and, finally, record your voice or your instruments.
For this, the interface must be equipped with one or more headphone sockets with independent volume control, outputs for audio monitors and one or more XLR + jack sockets with independent gain settings for recording.
It is also necessary that the interface has a phantom power of 48 volts to be able to use it with a microphone requiring this power. On many models, once switched on, 48v power is present on all XLR sockets. Normally you could connect most microphones like dynamic microphones and ribbon microphones, but I advise you to inquire before to be sure that your microphone model supports this power supply and does not risk to burn out.
Also, on some models, the button to engage the 48v is located on the front side and others on the rear side. Personally I prefer to have it on the front panel because it is annoying to go groping behind the housing to activate or deactivate this power supply. But after it is up to you to see what is best for you.
The interface models of different brands are often available in number of XLR sockets. It starts at a single XLR and goes up to tens. Having multiple XLR jacks will allow you to record on multiple tracks at the same time in your DAW. This is very interesting for grabbing the moment when everyone is playing together and being able to touch up the instruments separately by means of a room with little reverberation and a certain knowledge of the correct placement of all the microphones for recording with several ones.
It will be up to you to decide how much you need. Basically, if you are 100% sure you only need one microphone at a time then a model with only one XLR jack will be enough but if you are playing an acoustic instrument and want to record your song when playing live then prefer a model with two XLR / Jack sockets to connect two microphones. Just tell yourself that “who can do more can do less”. If you can afford an interface with two XLRs then take it. This will surely come in handy at some point in your development. In addition, most models with a single XLR also have a jack for connecting an electric instrument such as guitar, synth, piano or other.
Depending on the interface model, you may have additional outputs to send the sound to several devices and Line inputs either to, for example, enter a soundtrack from a turntable to record it or to sing on it.
Then, who says digital recording, says resolution. It is a value noted in bits and Khz. Most mid-range interfaces offer 24bits – 192khz is a very high resolution for recording. There are models with lower resolution and in general their price is very low. It’s interesting if you don’t have a big budget. I made a section for small budgets.
In terms of connectivity, iPhone and iPad can work with certain interfaces by connecting them with a USB to Lightning adapter. It’s interesting in terms of portability, for example, to do a live on the internet by filming with your iPhone or iPad and recording the sound via your interface and a good microphone.
Then, given the size of some interfaces, I wonder, if for a music recording session, taking a laptop with you instead of an iPad would not be more judicious in terms of power and softwares. Otherwise a digital recorder with XLR and 48v port like the Zoom H4n Pro is perhaps more suitable for capturing sound on the move.
Also, some interfaces have Midi ports. This means that you can connect midi instruments to it. The interface making midi information pass through the USB to your DAW.
In general, the different interfaces are valid if you stay in well-known brands like Focusrite, Behringer, Presonus, Steinberg, Mackie, Tascam, or even Zoom. Some brands offer a bundle with the audio interface such as plug-ins or simplified versions of DAW. It’s always worth taking. Then the choice is mainly a question of price, the type and number of sockets you need and your feeling about the device.
I can help you a little in your choice with the list of “If”:
– If you want to record your voice only for podcast or for YouTube videos, then go rather to the “low budget” models with 16 bit / 48 kHz resolution and one or two XLR.
– If you want to record your voice to put it on your tracks then favor an interface with a higher resolution of 24 Bit / 192 kHz and one or two XLR / Jack sockets.
– If you only want to have the best sound possible on your monitoring speakers without the need to record, then take an interface with a single XLR jack but Jack 6.35mm or XLR outputs.
– If you want to record with your acoustic instrument, guitar or other, take an interface with a resolution of 24 Bit / 192 kHz and 2 XLR minimum.
– If you have a group and want to record your sessions with others, take an interface with as many XLR sockets as necessary.
– If you want to use the interface on the go with your Iphone or Ipad then, get a USB to Lightning adapter and choose a compatible interface.
<strongLet’s get down to business, here is my selection:
(The prices indicated are the prices that I observed at the time of writing this article in April 2020.
They may have changed on the sellers site when you’ll read it.)
Here you are, you have reached the end of my selection. There are still many brands that exist such as Tascam, Native instrument, BandLab, ESI or SwissSonic. I did not retain the models of these brands because for some the prices were a little high for what they offered as the number of XLR sockets or flexibility compared to other equivalent models.
I hope you’ll find this guide useful in your choice. Leave me a message in the comments if you have other audio interfaces you know, if you have any comments or if you have any questions or topics that you would like me to talk about.