Audio InterfacesBuying Guide

How to Choose an Interface for Your Recording Setup

Unless you’re going to record into your laptop’s built-in microphone or an old-school tape machine, you need an audio interface. These devices (which can also be called sound cards) connect microphones and instruments to your computer, allowing you to record into your recording software (or DAW) of choice.

Audio interfaces are available in a huge range of configurations: with different inputs and outputs, different amounts (and kinds) of preamps, different ways they’ll connect to your computer, and additional features like included software as well.

Some are best for guitarists, some for synth players, some for producers, and others for full bands or project studios. (You can even buy USB mixers that can also act as interfaces, but we’ll cover those specifically in another buying guide.)

If you’re buying your first interface, it can be a tough market to navigate. This guide will help you make the right decision by answering some basic questions. We’ll offer many different options for all kinds of musicians and explain some key terminology. But first, here are some quick recommendations:

Rachel breaks down audio interfaces and what to consider before you buy.

Quick Picks

Solid Audio Interfaces and Who They're Ideal For

What to Consider When Buying an Audio Interface

How many inputs and outputs do I need, and what type?

  • Audio interfaces can include many different types of I/O (inputs/outputs) so it’s important to know exactly what you need. Ask yourself how many microphones, guitars, synths, samplers, drum machines, or other instruments you want to record at once. What kinds of inputs will you need to plug them all directly into your interface at any given moment?

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 with two inputs
  • Many audio interfaces come with at least two inputs that will work for microphones, instruments, or line-level signals (like those coming from a mixer). As you look at interfaces with more options, you can find units with additional XLR/instrument/line-level inputs, additional inputs for instruments/line-level devices, USB inputs, full-size MIDI or mini MIDI inputs—all in various configurations.

  • If you want to use a bunch of microphones at a time, you’ll need a lot of preamp-equipped inputs. If you have a synth rig and just need one or two vocal mics, you can use an interface with just a few preamp-equipped channels and six or more line-level inputs.

  • Outputs will come in different configurations as well, but more times than not a solo artist will want at least stereo outs (to go to your studio monitors) and a separate headphone output. Production duos or full bands will want to find interfaces with additional headphone outputs for multiple performers (or you can buy an additional headphone amp).

What are preamps, and how are they different from inputs?

  • Preamps are used for amplifying low-level microphone and guitar signals, and they are usually attached to each mic and instrument input. If you want to use condenser microphones with your interface, you’ll need to make sure at least some of your input channels have a phantom power switch.

  • Remember: preamps are separate from inputs—an interface might have 16 inputs but only two preamps, or eight mic inputs all equipped with preamps. The quality of a preamp can have a huge effect on the sound of your recordings, but it can also influence price quite a bit. Therefore, buying an interface is often a balancing act between number of preamps and sound quality.

How am I going to connect this to my computer?

  • All audio interfaces connect to your computer in some way. Many connect via standard USB 2. Some promise quicker connections through Thunderbolt, USB3, USB-C, or even Ethernet, with many of these options found on newer or higher-end interfaces, but USB 2 will work just fine for most home studio or other beginning recording needs. But, it’s important that before you buy an interface, you make sure that your computer has the right type of ports to connect it.

Universal Audio Apollo 8 Quad with four mic pres

What software will I need?

  • At the very least, you will need recording software like GarageBand (which comes with Apple computers and phones) or Audacity (which is free to download). If you’re looking to get more serious, there are many professional DAWs available—Apple Logic, Avid Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and more. You may also want plugins or virtual instruments to enhance your sound.

  • Many audio interfaces come bundled with recording software (usually intro-level versions of DAWs) and/or plugins. For example, PreSonus interfaces come with the intro version of PreSonus’ own DAW and a suite of software plugins like iZotope’s Neutron Elements. Native Instruments’ new line of interfaces comes with a bunch of its own software synths, effects, and sound design tools, plus an intro version of Ableton Live 10. Universal Audio interfaces don’t include a DAW of any kind, but they do offer industry-leading software plugins that can only be purchased and used if you have Universal Audio hardware.

Audio Interfaces for Solo Musicians

If you want to get straight to recording with minimum fuss, then something like the PreSonus AudioBox iOne or Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the way to go. The AudioBox iOne has a single preamp with one mic input and one instrument input, while the Scarlett 2i2 has two preamp-equipped inputs that can handle mics, instruments, or line-level signals.

Portable interfaces like the Universal Audio Arrow or Apogee Duet 2 are still built for solo recording needs, but have higher-quality preamps and, therefore, will be more expensive. The Arrow comes with UA effects and an onboard processor so that its equalization, compression, and more will not use your computer’s CPU.

Interfaces for Electronic Producers

While most entry-level interfaces will allow you to connect at least a couple microphones or guitars, what if your rig is more likely to include some combination of synths, MIDI controllers, drum machines, and sequencers? While you may be able to plug everything in something like the Native Instruments’ Komplete Audio 6 or MOTU’s UltraLite MK3—which both have two preamp channels, additional line inputs, and MIDI in/out—there are also interfaces tailored more for modern instruments that connect through USB.

For example, the Arturia AudioFuse will have two preamp channels, additional standard inputs, and a three USB inputs. If all you need are the USB inputs, then you can get the simple and straightforward Novation AudioHub 2x4, an interface with just three USB ins and nothing else.

Interfaces for Small Ensembles

If you’re looking to record with a partner or a small group, there are many options available between the baseline two-channel interfaces and larger rackmount units. The Tascam US-4x4 will of four mic or line inputs (two of which can be switched to instrument levels), four line outputs for monitors, and two headphone jacks. The Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 also has four preamps, with two that can accept guitar-level inputs, four extra line inputs for synths or drum machines, and MIDI I/O.

Interfaces for Full Bands/Project Studios

While you may be intimidated to buy a rackmount unit, these larger units are going to be a necessity if you want to record a band's worth of microphones at once. While professionals may scoff at this suggestion, you don’t need to secure rackmount interfaces in a rack. So long as you have a flat surface in your practice space (or even just a floor), you’ll be fine to record.

The PreSonus Studio 1824c has eight preamp input channels, two of which can accept instrument-level signals. The Focusrite Clarett line—a step above the Scarlett series—offers the 8Pre, which, as its name suggests, also has eight preamp channels. Other interfaces with eight preamp channels are available from MOTU, Tascam, M-Audio, and Behringer.

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Editorial content by Dante Fumo