Picking The Right Audio Interface For Your Studio

Whether you’re in the market for your first audio interface for a home studio or upgrading because the one you’ve got isn’t quite cutting it anymore, there are plenty of things to think about when it comes to choosing the right audio interface for your studio. A quick Google search for “best audio interface” quickly shows you the thousands of options that are considered “the best”. There are lists by year, what kind of computer you’re using, what kind of instruments you’re recording, and even ones that center around sound quality (spoiler: those lists are super subjective).

Any time spent researching the topic and you should pick up relatively quickly that it’s not about finding the best interface on the market today - it’s about finding the one that best fits your needs. There’s no point in breaking the bank on an interface with dozens of I/O if you’re only going to be recording one or two tracks at a time. Likewise, the best quality two-channel interface in the world isn’t going to be the best investment when you’ve got a full drum kit to record.

Once you realize that there is no “best” interface, it’s easy to shift the focus of your search to a list of requirements that you have for your studio. Starting from there, you should be able to narrow down your search pretty quickly using the filters available on most online shops.

How Will You Connect Your Audio Interface?

This one might be common sense to those of you that have ever spent time working with computer peripherals beyond basic plug-n-play USB devices, but for those that aren’t familiar with other connections - there are plenty of ways to hook up an audio interface. The two most common options for home studios today are USB & Thunderbolt. FireWire is also a common connection type for recording interfaces, but has been mostly phased out as USB speeds have slowly improved and are now outperforming FireWire’s fastest transfer rates.

USB Interfaces

For low track counts and almost universal compatibility, USB audio interfaces are a safe bet. Depending on the port you’re connecting to, many modern USB interfaces support up to USB 3.1 transfer speeds. With USB 3.1, you’ll have some of the fastest transfer rates available at up to 10 Gbps which will help with low-latency recording; removing delays from the microphone to the DAW. USB 3.0 outperforms FireWire rates at up to 5 Gbps. At a minimum,USB audio interfaces should support USB 2.0 which is fast enough to record a dozen channels or more at standard 16-bit/44.1k recording with up to 480 Gbps speeds. Higher qualities up to 192k can be achieved with reduced track counts on USB 2.0 interfaces.

Thunderbolt Interfaces

Thunderbolt compatibility used to be a Mac-exclusive feature, but PCs have recently begun adopting the technology for their own. With Thunderbolt, users are able to get fast and reliable interfaces with lower latency than USB in many cases. Thunderbolt 1 supports speeds up to 10 Gbps, Thunderbolt 2 supports up to 20 Gbps, and the latest Thunderbolt 3 supports speeds up to 40 Gbps.

In all reality, these transfer speeds are far higher than many audio professionals will ever need, even at the highest possible quality. Thunderbolt’s power comes from the flexibility to daisy chain multiple devices together on a single connection - allowing you to connect additional interfaces or other external devices to share all of that available bandwidth. Audio and video professionals love them because they can hook everything from hard drives to additional monitors up using just a single port. With other components like mice, keyboards & MIDI controllers eating up USB ports, the Thunderbolt can be a great change of pace if your computer has the connection.

What Will You Be Recording?

Once you know how you’ll be connecting your device, your focus should shift to exactly what you’ll be recording. Taking a long-term view, ask yourself if over the next year or two you’ll have the resources to record a large drum set. If the multiple mics, stands & cabling (not to mention the space) seem out of reach right now or you don’t have any intentions of recording that many tracks at once, consider spending your money on higher quality interfaces with fewer I/O. With fewer inputs and outputs, many manufacturers will shift their attention to better quality components in that same price range.

I strongly recommend buying a dedicated DI box if you’re recording a lot of instruments directly, but if you’re looking for an all-in-one solution, many interfaces will offer built-in Hi-Z inputs for instrument recording. If this is something that appeals to you, look for reviews on the devices you’re considering and see what others have to say. Great DI functionality should sound transparent and react well with virtual amps like the Toneforge series, but cheaper components will color your sound.

If your focus will be more on recording with microphones, the same rules apply to preamps. A good interface should not significantly color your sound, something that individual reviews should be able to point out. Many great reviews of interfaces (with audio examples) are available on YouTube as well. An interface shouldn’t be an impulse buy - weigh all of your options and pick the one that’s right for you.

As a final word of caution, make sure you understand how many usable channels you’ll be getting with your interface. While a 20+ channel audio interface sounds great for someone just starting out, if only 8 of those channels have preamps in the audio interface, you’ll be spending a lot more before you can use everything that interface has to offer.

What Can You Afford?

Of course, your budget is going to dictate a lot of these decisions. If you can’t afford to spend $500 on an interface, it doesn’t matter if there’s an awesome two-channel interface at that price point. An audio interface is one part of your setup where you don’t want to cut corners on costs.

A great analysis to do with any interface is to look at the cost per channel to understand how much you’re really spending for the quality you’re getting. For example:

  • A 2-input audio interface for $200 = $100 per channel
  • An 8-input audio interface for $200 = $25 per channel

Again, if you need the inputs and can’t afford more, the $25/channel is going to be much more valuable to you than the 2 channels of higher quality. If on the other hand you’re only going to need 2 channels for the foreseeable future - don’t waste your money on all those extra inputs when you could be getting a better quality 2-channel interface at the same price point.

Putting Your Audio Interface to Use!

Once you’ve got your audio interface selected, the real fun begins. Interfaces, while feature-packed, usually end up becoming a utility in the studio. Once they’ve been hooked up, you should rarely have to fuss with them outside of setting levels for your recording. Your focus can shift to the tools you have available in your DAW for recording and mixing.

To get the most out of your recording setup, it’s extremely valuable to understand how things are getting recorded and mixed by professional audio engineers and mixers. JST VIP members get access to all kinds of guides, eBooks, tutorials & courses designed to get you the sound you’re after - led by pros that know how to get there.

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