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Audio Interface

Recording Interfaces
Which Audio Interface is Right for You?
by Joe Schlicht

With so may recording interfaces on the market today, the choices can be overwhelming. First, let's go over some of the many features that these interfaces have.

Some of these features are included on all interfaces, and some of these features are unique to certain brands or models. It's up to you to decide what is important to you.

Some of the features may include:

  • Compatibility with Mac/PC
  • Firewire or USB Connection
  • Bus Powered Operation
  • Number of Mic Preamps
  • Preamp Gain (enough for ribbons?)
  • Total Analog Inputs
  • Total Analog Outputs
  • Monitor Outputs
  • Number of Headphone Outputs
  • MIDI
  • SPDIF / Optical
  • DSP
  • Bundled Plug-ins
  • Included DAW Software?
  • Standalone Operation as 2 Mic
    Pre / 2-Channel AD / DA Converter

What audio interface do you currently use?

Tell us all about it here!

The list could go on, but the above are some of the most important features that you should think about to make your decision. Of course staying within your budget is necessary, so like most things in life there may have to be tradeoffs.

The first thing to consider is are you a Mac or are you a PC? Most of the recording interfaces can be used with either computer, but be careful. Some, like the Apogee products, work with a Mac only. Another important decisions is do you want an interface with a USB or FireWire connection to your computer? Generally speaking, firewire is the more stable of the two, but that may not be an option if you have a PC without a firewire connection.

Do you need to be mobile? If so an audio interface that can be bus powered may be ideal, that way you can plug it in to your laptop through USB or Firewire and not have to plug the interface into the wall for power. Bus powered means that the power is coming from your computer's bus through your USB or FireWire connection.

The next thing to consider, and I find this to be one of the most important considerations, is how many inputs and outputs do you need? Are you going to be recording a voice and a guitar, or are you going to track a full band? Most of the recording interfaces come with at least 2 Preamps for recording sound through a microphone, but if you need to record a full rock band with isolation for the instruments you may need 8 or more channels.

Keep in mind, some recording interfaces advertise a lot of inputs, but may only include 2 preamps. If you want to record with microphones - say vocals, a guitar amp, or acoustic drums, you will need to use the preamps. The other analog inputs are generally used as instrument inputs or for direct connections for keyboards or other devices. The instrument inputs are designed for plugging electric guitars or basses directly in (like a DI) and give you a clean signal to your track that you can use for amp modeling within your software.

If you have an recording interface with 8 preamps and that's not enough, you will have to use additional preamps. As long as your interface and the external preamps you use have optical or S/PDIF digital connections you could effectively increase your number of preamps used simultaneously. Products like M Audio, PreSonus, and Focusrite make 8 channel preamps with digital out connections that you could add to an 8 channel interface through your optical connection and effectively have 16 preamps at your disposal, ready to record to your software of choice.

Number of outputs is also important. Some recording interfaces have many output options, but it's important to at least have enough outputs to let you monitor your audio how you need to. A monitor output, usually a left and right channel, connect directly to your powered speakers, or amp and then to speakers. It's also important to have at least one headphone output so you can monitor your audio when you can't use speakers. If you are monitoring surround sound audio, you will need to have at least 6 outputs.

Most recording interfaces have MIDI inputs and outputs, but be careful, not all of them do. You would need MIDI on your interface if you plan to use a keyboard to perform and record using virtual instruments.

DSP is digital signal processing. This is usually an added feature within your audio interface that does some of the "heavy lifting" signal processing tasks that would otherwise tax your computer. DSP can be a nice feature, but I find that today's computers are plenty powerful to do most anything you need with audio.

Another thing to consider is do you already have DAW (digital audio workstation) software? Most recording interfaces ship with a limited version of DAW software, but not all do. You may already have software you want to use, and it may not be necessary to install the bundled software. I have the Focusrite Saffire LE. It came bundled with some plug-ins, but no DAW software. That's OK though because I already have GarageBand and Logic Pro to use as my DAW software. Some manufacturers also bundle some extras like plug-ins or loops and samples, so keep that in mind if you think you would use or need those extras, however, most DAW already have plenty of options for plug-ins or effects.

Another handy task that a few recording interfaces do is act as standalone units. For example, my Saffire LE can act as a standalone preamp without having the need to be connected to my computer or DAW software. This can be handy in live events when I need to record to an external device rather than to my computer.

So as you can see, there are many options, and you will find out an overwhelming amount of choices when it comes to audio interfaces. Hopefully I have helped you understand these choices and you can make an informed decision based on your recording needs.

Here is a comparison chart of some of the top brands and models with varying features.

What's your experience with your audio interface? Email us your own Tips, Tricks, and Tweaks for a chance to be featured in an upcoming newsletter. We'd love to hear from you!

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