Hopefully you understand that every home recording studio needs an audio interface of some kind.
Just in case you’re still not sure why you need one, go ahead and read this article about why you need an audio interface. Long story short, you need one to get audio into your computer.
When it comes to choosing an audio interface, the choice and number of options can be overwhelming.
The good news is, you can pick up a high-quality audio interface capable of delivering professional-sounding results for less than $250/£200.
This article reveals the best deals on the best audio interfaces currently available. It’s all about getting the most quality at the best value for money.
The Main Features
The main features to look out for in a new audio interface are:
- Number and type of inputs and outputs
- MIDI capability
- Phantom power
- Included DAW software
If you’ve read The 5 Things You Need for a Home Recording Studio, you’ll know that when you are starting out, you’ll already know that you should start out with:
- USB connectivity
- 1-2 microphone preamp inputs with phantom power
- 1-2 line-in inputs for guitars and keyboards
- MIDI input/output (if planning to use MIDI instruments)
- Stereo outputs
- Headphone output
The devices on this list have been selected because not only do they fulfil this criteria, but they are also capable of delivering stellar results, are easy to install and come in at $250/£200 or less.
So, let’s take a look at the best audio interfaces on a budget.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo Compact USB Audio Interface
The Focusrite Scarlett Solo Compact features only 1 microphone input and 1 line-in input, but they are separate instead of the combination input that most audio interfaces in this price range often have.
This is a great entry-level unit and the cheapest unit on this list. It doesn’t have MIDI capability, but does provide high-quality 24-bit resolution and 96kHz sample rate, which is the standard of a professional studio.
At the moment, Focusrite are bundling this interface with Ableton Live Lite and a few other plug-ins. While this is great for electronic music, it’s not ideal for home recording, so you might want to look at alternative DAW software.
If you are considering this interface, you might want to consider the Focusrite Scarlett Solo Studio Pack for $170, which comes bundled with a reasonable condenser microphone and lead, a pair of studio headphones and Cubase LE. While far from the best budget microphone or studio headphones around, this is a real bargain for beginners, especially budding podcasters. Cubase LE is superior to Ableton Live Lite too when it comes to recording.
If you’re looking for the cheapest home recording studio package around, this is it.
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface
The Solo’s big brother, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 has all the same features as the Solo but includes two combination microphone/line-in inputs, making it ideal where recording in stereo is desirable e.g. a keyboard, turntables, two guitarists, two microphones on a drum kit, and so on. Like the Solo, this doesn’t have MIDI capability, so it isn’t ideal for everyone.
Also like the Solo, there is a bundle available for $250 that includes the same as the Solo bundle. Personally, I’d rather choose a better microphone and headphones, but for a complete setup, this is a great deal.
Avid FastTrack DUO USB Audio Interface
The latest in Avid’s successful FastTrack series, the FastTrack DUO doesn’t have MIDI capability either, and it only supports up to 48kHz resolution (compared to 96kHz of the Scarlett 2i2 and M-Track Plus II).
However, what this unit has over the preceeding ones is a ‘tablet’ output on the rear. This makes it a good choice if you want to use your audio interface with a tablet PC or iPad and turn your home recording studio into a portable recording studio. It also comes bundled with Pro Tools Express. A good choice for tablet owners.
If you want to push the boat out and really want the full version of Pro Tools, you can get a great deal at the moment on the FastTrack DUO with Pro Tools 11 for $349. Considering that Pro Tools 11 on its own costs $699, this is an unbelievable deal.
M-Audio M-Track Plus II USB Audio Interface
Just released at the end of 2014, the M-Track Plus II is an upgrade to the M-Track II featuring a much sleeker design and exceptional build quality.
Like the Scarlett 2i2, this unit doesn’t have MIDI capability, but the knobs and switches are a bit more rugged and solid. It also features a ‘direct/USB’ mix knob, allowing you to send the signal from the inputs through either the USB connection, the outputs directly, or both! This makes it a great choice for mobile musicians who want to take an output to, for example, a live sound system. It won’t run without being connected to a USB device though – there is no input for a power adapter.
As an added bonus, this interface comes bundled with both Ableton Live Lite and Cubase LE and the awesome Waves plug-in effects bundle. Great quality and value – give consideration.
PreSonus Audiobox 2×2 USB Audio Interface
One of the most popular audio interfaces at the moment, the PreSonus Audiobox 2×2 is the first device on this list to feature MIDI capability.
It may not be the best-designed unit – annoyingly, the headphone output is on the back – and it is restricted to 48kHz sampling rate. Overall, the build quality is inferior to the rivals here, but it does come bundled with the excellent Studio One Artist DAW software, which is great for beginners.
Like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, if money is tight you can pick up the PreSonus Audiobox 2×2 DAW Recording Bundle for $199. While not the best audio interface, the Behringer C1 condenser microphone is excellent, the Sennheiser HD201 headphones are decent, and you get a mini microphone stand and lead thrown in too! An outrageously good deal for what you get.
Roland DUO-CAPTURE EX USB Audio Interface
$199Roland have a history of making quality synthesizers and other hardware, and the DUO-CAPTURE EX is no exception. Rugged design, MIDI capability and high-quality ‘VS’ microphone preamps, this is a great device.
It only supports up to 48kHz resolution, and some of the useful buttons for phantom power and line-in pads to soften a hot signal are located on the rear of the device, but where the Duo Capture Ex stands apart from the competition is that is can operate via DC power or on batteries. This means that you can take it anywhere, making it ideal for incorporating in a live setting.
Connect it to an iPad and you’ve got a portable DAW that you can take anywhere! Also comes bundled with the dated but still adequate Sonar X1 LE DAW software.
Roland QUAD-CAPTURE USB Audio Interface
A contender for the best audio interface, the Roland QUAD-CAPTURE is a top-quality device featuring the same high-end VS microphone preamps seen in the DUO-CAPTURE EX and supporting a sampling rate up to a montrous 192kHz.
Like the DUO, it also has full MIDI capability and comes with Sonar X1 LE. It doesn’t have the battery/DC power option that the DUO has, but it features a fantastic ‘Auto Sense’ function that automatically sets the optimal signal level of your connected microphones and instruments.
A bit pricier than the competition in this price range, you definitely get your money’s worth.
Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 USB Audio Interface
The attractive Komplete Audio 6 from Native Instruments is at the upper end of our price range, but you get great value – MIDI capability, 96kHz sampling rate and – unilke the other units here – 4 line-in inputs, meaning you can record 4 instruments simultaneously.
Note that there are still only 2 microphone preamp inputs, so you can’t record from 4 microphones at once, but you could record, for example, guitar, bass and a stereo drum recording all at the same time.
Native Instruments has a reputation for making top-quality software and the bundled Komplete Elements and Traktor LE are fantastic for effects and virtual DJing.
There’s also a copy of Cubase LE, an older ‘lite’ version of Cubase, but still fantastic recording software.
This package is one of the best you can get at this price range.
Steinberg UR22 USB Audio Interface
Completing the list, the awesome UR22 from Steinberg is another vying for top-spot in the budget audio interfaces range.
Full MIDI capability, up to 192kHz resolution, high-quality Yamaha D-PRE microphone preamp inputs and built like a tank, it also comes bundled with Cubase AI 7, one of the better bundled DAW software programs around – certainly with more functionality than those featured elsewhere in this list.
While this unit perhaps doesn’t have a stand-out feature compared to the competition, what you get for the price is superb quality and reliability.
You can grab a decent bundle that includes the UR22, MXL 1022 microphone with shock mount and cable for $250. Definitely worth a look if you want a cheap setup and already have some good studio headphones.
The Bottom Line
That completes the round-up of the best audio interfaces on a budget.
Any of these devices will do the job for your home recording studio and you can be assured of getting high-quality audio without any drama with any of these options.
Assess your budget, see if any of the unique features could be of any use to you, and choose accordingly.
How to Choose an Audio Interface
When you’re setting up your home recording studio, you’ll need some sort of way of getting sound into your computer.
The sound card in your computer can take care of that, but the signal is going to be really weak and will probably have lots of annoying hiss that you’ll be spending forever trying to get rid of…
If you want to work with quality recordings, you’ll need another way to get sound you’re your computer. Step up the audio interface.
With so many different options and things to consider, choosing the right audio interface to suit your needs can seem befuddling. There are input and output configurations, connectivity, bit depth, sampling rate and a host of other features to consider. So how do you know which one is right for you?
This audio interface guide will tell you everything you need to know about audio interfaces and help you decide what option is right for you.
In this guide:
- What is an Audio Interface?
- Why You Need an Audio Interface
- Choosing an Audio Interface
What is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is a device that connects your microphones and equipment to your computer. It takes care of all of the input and output signals, just like a sound card, but it’s so much more than that.
Most audio interfaces include:
- A high-quality digital-to-audio converter (DAC) – to convert a sound signal into something your computer can understand
- Microphone preamps – these amplify the otherwise weak signal from the microphone
- Phantom power – this is needed for condenser microphones to work
- Easy-access input and output ports
- Volume and gain control knobs
- Some colourful LEDs – bonus!
In addition to converting the signal into computer-speak, it will also convert the signal back into audio, meaning that you can connect headphones or studio monitors to it.
Normally, an audio interface is connected via USB or FireWire, although some high-end interfaces connect via a special PCI card. If you are a Mac owner and your computer supports it, there is also Thunderbolt – the super-fast USB-beater. Eventually, Thunderbolt will become the standard, but at the moment it’s mainly aimed at the upper end of the market.
Why You Need an Audio Interface
As mentioned in the introduction, you can get audio into and out of your computer with your existing soundcard, but there are numerous reasons why you’ll find this both limiting and frustrating as you progress.
What are those reasons? I’m glad you asked – let’s have a look:
1. The sound quality of your existing soundcard just won’t cut it
Most computer soundcards are built for consumer audio – listening to music, playing games, watching movies etc… And for those jobs, they do just fine. However, when you’re recording and producing music, you need a level of quality that is beyond the capabilities of ordinary soundcards. As a guitarist, I used to plug directly into my soundcard and do my best to work with that signal. Since getting a decent audio interface, those days of working with that weak, crackly, hissing signal are forgotten.
2. Soundcards have minimal inputs and outputs
A soundcard will tend to have one line input, a headphone output and a stereo line output. You could make this work if you are a singer/songwriter or podcaster, but forget about recording drums or a band. Even recording two different sound sources at once will take some real feat of ingenuity. And you can forget about having someone record a track and listen through headphones while you monitor through the speakers – no recording software I know of will let you do this.
3. Latency – the scourge of producers everywhere
If you don’t know what latency is, lucky you! Simply put, it’s the delay from when the signal goes into your system to when it comes out. There are methods to reduce latency but most yield inadequate results and as soon as your start adding some effects and plug-ins to your track, you’ll soon find that the latency becomes unbearable. An audio interface will make this a non-issue for you.
When you use the input on your soundcard, you’ll find that the signal is quite weak. When you boost the signal, you’ll also be boosting the background noise that comes from electromagnetic and radio interference. Unless you’re a masochist and want lots of hissing, humming and buzzing all over your recorded sound then you’ll want to get an audio interface.
The bottom line is, you can’t let the technology or equipment get in the way of creativity. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t passionate about making music and you’ll understand how important it is to be able to capture those fleeting moments of inspiration. The relatively small investment you make in an audio interface is worth the frustration and problems you’ll run into without one – a thousand times over!
Choosing an Audio Interface
There are many different features across different audio interfaces and choosing what is right for you can be difficult.
Here are the key features that you should be looking out for:
- Input/output (I/O) configuration
- MIDI capability
- Sample rate and bit depth
- Software compatibility and integrated software
There are countless other features that different devices offer, but these are the key ones for 99% of home music producers.
Unless you own a desktop PC and are looking at high-end options, then this boils down to 2 choices: USB or FireWire.
The advantage of USB is that many audio interfaces run on USB bus power, meaning that there is no need for an external power supply. However, ensure that you have USB 2.0 or 3.0 – you won’t run into any problems with these, but USB 1.1 ports are much slower, meaning that recording more than 2 tracks simultaneously could be problematic.
FireWire is considered to be more reliable than USB because data is transferred at a lightning rate, which might make it seem like a better choice. However, FireWire is less common than USB and, if you have a PC, you’ll likely need to install a FireWire card as PCs rarely come with FireWire ports as standard.
Unless you have a Mac or you have your heart set on a particular FireWire audio interface, choose a USB-compatible audio interface.
2. Input/output (I/O) configuration
This feature is perhaps the most important and varies drastically amongst different units. The two things to consider are the number and type of inputs and outputs.
Number of Inputs/Outputs
How many inputs/outputs do you need? Well, this depends on what you want to be able to record.
There are no hard-and-fast rules, but what you should be looking for is:
- For podcasters and video bloggers – 1 input
- For singer-songwriters and DJs – 2 inputs
- For drummers or small song-writing teams – 4 inputs or more
- For engineers wanting to record full bands – 16 inputs or more
Before you rush in, you should also consider the type of inputs, as this will affect what you can record. The inputs for microphones and instruments are not the same and you will need separate ones for every microphone or instrument that you want to record simultaneously. Remember this: more doesn’t mean ‘better’. Every input will require a microphone too, so unless you plan on buying 16 microphones, 16 stands and 16 pop-shields, don’t bother with a 16 input interface. Most people can get by with just 2 inputs.
When it comes to outputs, there should almost always be at least a stereo main output. There may also be additional outputs that come in stereo pairs for connecting other devices such as effects units or additional headphone outputs for monitoring.
Type of Inputs/Outputs
In general, inputs come in 2 varieties: microphone inputs and ¼” jack line-level inputs.
Microphone inputs have the XLR-type connection found on most studio microphones and on many audio interfaces include a built-in microphone preamp. The microphone preamp is necessary as it boosts the otherwise-weak signal that microphones record. Take care when choosing an audio interface to ensure that the microphone inputs have microphone preamps because not all of them do and will require an external preamp. In addition, if you want to use condenser microphones, make sure that the microphone preamps have phantom power to power those microphones (most usually do).
Line-level inputs, also known as hi-Z inputs, are for plugging your instruments directly into. If you want to plug a guitar or bass directly into your audio interface, you need to make sure that it has this feature (again, most do), although if you want to plug in a stereo sound source, such as a keyboard, turntables or drum machine, then you want to ensure that you have a pair of inputs to record the left and right channels.
Many audio interfaces feature digital I/O. While this may not be necessary for beginners, they can be useful further down the line. S/PDIF and ADAT connections will allow you to connect additional equipment further down the line to increase your number of simultaneous inputs, which can enable you to record a full band. Be wary of audio interfaces that offer 16 or more inputs as many of these only do so with the addition of external microphone preamps connected via these digital connections.
Concentrate on your number of microphone and line-level inputs. Match it to the number of microphones and/or instruments that you want to record simultaneously.
3. MIDI capability
If you want to use virtual instrument software or your focus is electronic music, then you will want to choose an audio interface that has MIDI input and output.
Most audio interfaces include one MIDI input and one MIDI output. If you want to connect multiple MIDI instruments at once, then you will need to look at a dedicated MIDI interface. However, many MIDI devices include USB connectivity, so you may not need a MIDI interface if you only have 2 or 3 devices.
Check for MIDI I/O on your audio interface if you want to connect a MIDI instrument. If you have multiple MIDI instruments that you want to use at once, be aware that you might need to invest in a MIDI interface too.
4. Sample rate and bit depth
These more technical aspects to consider when choosing an audio interface tell you about the quality of the conversion from analogue audio to digital.
In simple terms, the sample rate is the number of digital snapshots of audio per second, measured in kHz, while the bit depth is the dynamic range (the range from quiet to loud), measured in bits.
There is no need to go into the science of these here, all you need to know is the higher the number, the better the quality, but also the more processing power and disk space will be used.
Professional audio engineers tend to work with a bit depth of 24 bits and a sampling rate of at least 96kHz. The good news is, you’d be hard-pressed to find a modern audio interface that doesn’t offer these bit depths and sampling rates.
Only consider audio interfaces with maximum 16bit/48kHz if you are only recording rough demos or making MP3s. Otherwise, aim for 24bit/96kHz from your audio interface.
5. Software compatibility and integrated software
The last key consideration is the software package to go with your audio interface.
Many audio interfaces come bundled with some recording software – usually �?lite’ versions of the manufacturer’s flagship software. These can be perfect for beginners and you know that you won’t have any compatibility issues. The truth be told, most audio interfaces will work with any recording software, so don’t feel like you have to use the bundled software. Just be aware that some software, such as ProTools by Avid, don’t support every interface.
Increasingly, audio interfaces also come with some integrated software, giving you control over the signal processing in the audio interface. This can be useful for managing latency, adding effects or having greater control over headphone volume without using any of the CPU power of your computer – meaning more power for other things like additional tracks and effects.
If you already have some recording software, choose an audio interface that is compatible with the software you have. Give consideration to the bundled software and don’t disregard the features of the integrated software.