Beginner's Guide to
Audio Interfaces

If you’re keen to record your own music at home, one of the essential pieces of gear you’ll need is an audio interface.

Serving as the middle-man between your computer and your instrument or microphone; there’s plenty of variety when it comes to audio interfaces, but sometimes it can be difficult to know which one is the best to start with.

That’s why we’ve put together this handy beginner’s guide, to help you find the perfect audio interface to kick off your recording journey.

What Is An Audio Interface?

At its core, an audio interface takes the electrical signal from a microphone and boosts it via a built-in ‘pre-amplifier’ (preamp). That electrical signal is then turned into 1s and 0s using what is known as an ‘analogue to digital convertor‘ (A/D), which allows a computer to read the signal.

From there, that signal travels to your ‘digital audio workstation’ (DAW), which is essentially music software that enables you to record (Logic and Cubase are popular titles). While the signal is processed within the computer to enable editing and sound manipulation, it can actually be converted back into an electrical signal with a ‘digital to analogue converter’ (D/A). This is so that its sound can be played through a set of studio monitors.

Audio interfaces rose to prominence when the recording industry transitioned from analogue tape mediums to digital software platforms at the turn of the millennia. Instead of relying purely on expensive analogue systems, there was a need to employ computers that could digitally capture sounds; easing the recording process. So instead of being limited to a strict amount of channels with traditional mixing desks and tape, with just a single-input audio interface you can create as many channels on your DAW as you’d like!

Audio interfaces can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. From small dual-preamp desktop units to huge rack-mountable 32-input beasts, there’s lots to choose from. In this article, though, we will be focusing on the smaller and more affordable units that are ideal for getting your home studio up and running.

What Are Preamps?

When considering which audio interface to buy, you should think about what you want to record and therefore identify the amount of inputs you’ll need to do so! For example, if you’re an acoustic singer/songwriter, then you might only need an interface with two inputs. You might want to use a couple of microphones to capture the sound of your guitar, and then track your vocals separately. However, if you’re a drummer and you want to record your entire kit, you should consider buying an interface with up to eight inputs, as it will let you close-mic each element of your setup.

The preamps that are built into audio interfaces are also quite important to think about. There are many different types of preamp that people desire, as they can produce distinctive tones that ultimately affect the sound of a recording. This was perhaps more critical a few years ago, though, as most modern audio interfaces are equipped with high-quality preamps. Just go with the interface that you believe sounds the best!

What Are AD/DA Converters?

AD/DA converters are often the unsung heroes when it comes to digital recording. They can have a large impact on the quality of your sounds. That's because they affect how accurately the sound you are capturing is transformed into digital, and then turned back into analogue.

For example, if you spend ages mic’ing up your guitar amplifier in order to capture your perfect tone, you’ll want your audio interface to have an AD/DA converter that can translate that tone as convincingly as possible into your DAW.

Audio Interface Connection Types

Although the above elements of an audio interface are important to consider, ensuring that an interface is compatible with your computer is definitely the most crucial thing. Currently, there are three major connection types that are currently used by most audio interface manufacturers; USB, Thunderbolt and USB-3.

These connections affect how quickly data is sent from your interface to your computer, which can have an impact on a few things. For example, if you’re using an 8-channel interface then you may want to pick one with the fastest transfer speed possible, as recording with up to eight microphones can produce a lot of data that’ll need to be sent through at one time. If you’ve got a smaller 2-channel interface then it may not be a massive concern, as there’s less data to be managed.

There are a few other connection types out there that you can find, such as FireWire (Apple’s predecessor to Thunderbolt) and even Ethernet. These are definitely uncommon by today’s standards though, and you’ll rarely find new interfaces with such connections.

Audio Interface Inputs & Outputs

If you see the term ‘I/O’ a lot when browsing for audio interfaces, it stands for inputs/outputs. And when looking at audio interfaces, you may also notice that these inputs and outputs come in two mediums; analogue and digital.

Analogue I/Os can have different connection types that are compatible with microphones or instruments. The two typical inputs you’ll come across are ‘XLR’ (balanced) and ‘line/instrument’ inputs (unbalanced). When it comes to outputs, though, they can take a few different forms. ‘TRS’ jack outputs (balanced) are the most conventional, although some interfaces also have XLR outputs. Smaller interfaces can also have ‘RCA’ outputs too.

The digital I/Os that you’ll find on some audio interfaces are either ‘S/PDIF’ or ‘optical’. These can be used for plugging in external units that also support these systems, such as additional preamp expanders or other forms of studio outboard.

It’s important to bare in mind that I/Os do not directly correlate with the amount of things that you can record with that interface alone. For example, a sophisticated audio interface may have 18 inputs and 20 outputs, but this does not necessarily mean that you can plug 18 microphones in. In this instance, you may have 8 microphone preamps available on the interface, while the other connections are made up of line/instrument inputs and digital inputs. The same applies for the amount of outputs available. You can’t plug in 10 pairs of monitors!

What Is A DAW?

As we established earlier in this guide, DAW stands for ‘digital audio workstation’. The DAW that you choose can have a large impact on your workflow and thus affect the way that you create music.

A lot of audio interfaces that we stock typically come with a free version of a popular title, such as Ableton Intro or Steinberg's Cubase Elements. If you don’t already have a DAW installed on your computer, we’d recommend looking into which brand of software (and any other goodies!) comes with the interfaces that you’re interested in. And there are plenty of places where you can find out about the intricacies of one software over another.

PreSonus Audio Interfaces

PreSonus offers trusty interfaces that represent great value-for-money. Their AudioBox USB 96 is a standout beginner audio interface, boasting all of the essential features that you’ll need to get going. PreSonus’ AudioBox USB 96 Production Bundle is pretty all-encompssing, as it includes a copy of their Studio One Artist DAW, a microphone and a set of headphones for mixing!

Native Instruments Audio Interfaces

Native Instruments may be known for their incredible Komplete software packages, but they also make small, feature-packed audio interfaces. Typically coming with a great selection of inspiring virtual instruments and effects, such as Guitar Rig Player and Monark Synthesiser; you can start creating straight away. On top of all that, they also come with copies of Ableton Lite to compile all of these bits together.

Audient Audio Interfaces

Audient is a British brand that has been making commercial mixing consoles for over 15 years. As such, they know a thing or two about mic preamps and they’ve integrated that same technology into their own audio interfaces. Their ID14 interface features great-sounding preamps and solid converters that ensure exceptional sound quality.

Another offering of theirs is the Sono, which is an entirely different beast. Featuring a valve-driven input and a built-in EQ, this unit has been specially-designed for guitarists - to give them an amp-like feel and a familiar interface. With the Sono, you get access to Two Notes amp emulation software (with the Sono even featuring DSP capability), which is awesome for creating guitar tones. You also get a free download for Cubase LE, providing you with a great DAW platform to record and mix on.

Summary

It's clear that there are absolutely tonnes of audio interface options to choose from. But hopefully, this guide will help you to pick the right one for you. It’s best to find a balance between the quality of the preamps and converters to the amount of inputs that are available.

The most important thing is to ensure that you pick one that is within your budget. And whether you’re using one for plugging in your guitar or for recording your band’s entire first EP, the quality of modern audio interfaces has made it easier than ever to get excellent recording results.

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