HomeGear and Equipment→ What is an Audio Interface and What Kind Should I Use?

Marco Sebastiano Alessi

22 February, 2022

What is an Audio Interface and What Kind Should I Use?


What is an Audio Interface
There‘s a moment in every musician’s career when investing in recording equipment becomes necessary. However, there’s a difference between buying music instruments and a recording audio interface, as the latter requires more technical knowledge, patience, and research to choose and set up.

An audio interface is an essential gear for most music-makers: it can define your sound as much as a Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW software) does, and choosing the right interface will give you all the tools you need to be creative and prolific in music production.

This article will analyze the different types of audio interfaces available in the market, what you might need an audio interface for, and clarify which one is the right audio interface for you, depending on your needs.

The final paragraphs will delve into more complex topics related to recording audio, such as sample rate, bit depth, music preamps, and so on. Although these concepts are not crucial for beginners, they’re fundamental for anyone who’s interested in upgrading an existing recording studio, or simply wants to know everything about home studio recording before buying the necessary equipment.

Let’s dive in!

Why Are Audio Interfaces Necessary?

Why Are Audio Interfaces Necessary?

In a nutshell, audio interfaces connect your musical instruments to your laptop or tablet, which often provide only basic sound cards, allowing you to record multiple channels with recording software. They are the foundation of recording studios of all sizes, from the amateur home studios to Abbey Road.

  • Audio Interfaces Give Phantom Power

    An audio interface will often include phantom power as well. Some microphones require an external power source in order to operate. Frequently a condenser microphone will require phantom power.

    Luckily you’ll find that most mixers and audio interfaces will include this feature. Although it’s worth noting that only some microphones require phantom power.

    With some mics, you need to be extra careful. With some ribbon mics, it’s possible that phantom power can actually cause damage or even destroy the mic.

  • Audio Interfaces Offer Connectivity of All Kinds

    Audio interfaces are also ideal if you make music using all sorts of musical instruments. Even on a basic audio interface, you’ll find various audio inputs and outputs and MIDI connectivity that you can use to connect your gear to it.

    In some cases, you’ll need an audio interface with speaker outputs to connect hi-fi speakers or studio monitors to your computer’s audio output.

    By the way, studio monitors will be one of the next upgrades you’ll need to do when you decide to take your recording studio to the next level.

    If you aren’t concerned about studio monitors, many audio interfaces also offer at least one higher quality headphone output (if not dual headphone outputs).

    Audio interfaces also offer greater control over the built-in headphone amps and an easy way to work with headphone mixes.

  • Can I Use My Built-In Sound Card?

    The built-in sound cards of the average laptop are pretty basic, which means the quality of the recorded sounds will be, at the very least, inadequate if you wish to record professional music. Furthermore, recording multiple channels simultaneously is not an option with laptops’ sound cards.

    The positive thing about your PC’s sound card is that it doesn’t take much processing power, as opposed to most of the professional audio gear.

    On the other hand, recording audio with your built-in sound card will provide you with subpar audio quality results. If you’re serious about making music production your profession, you should forget about your internal sound card and get a professional audio interface.

    Most interfaces translate the audio signal into bits of information, making it possible to record sounds without using the analog equipment of old.

    Nowadays, entry-level audio interfaces can provide you with the sound clarity that only a professional recording studio could offer just a few decades ago.

How Do Most Audio Interfaces Work?

How Do Most Audio Interfaces Work?

An audio interface takes the sound you’re producing (be it from a digital MIDI keyboard, an actual piano, or a guitar) and converts it to a format your laptop can recognize and record. Much like how a USB microphone can convert the audio signal from a USB mic to digital, an audio interface can do that with more than one source.

Audio conversions happen on all input/output channels you’re using to record your music, and each note gets converted into a digital signal your device can identify and capture using your DAW.

Audio interfaces have become more and more necessary with the increasing popularity of digital audio recording. When all the recording equipment was strictly analog, there was no need to convert an analog input signals to digital audio. Sounds were simply transferred to a mixing desk and recorded on tape.

While recording an album in an analog recording studio was (and still is) extraordinarily expensive, today you can build your own digital recording studio with a few hundred dollars and achieve professional-quality audio.

If that’s what you’re planning to do, you won’t be able to rely on your computers’ sound cards and the audio interface is the first and most important piece of gear you’ll have to buy.

How Do Audio Interfaces Connect to My PC?

Before buying a new audio interface, you need to make sure it’s compatible with your current audio gear and computer.

There are many audio interface connection types but most devices today are USB interfaces, which are easy to set up, and a USB port is a common feature on most laptops. Although if you’re using your USB ports for additional instruments, make sure to keep one port open for your audio interface.

Have you ever heard of FireWire connectivity? Back in the day, it was the standard connection type for most audio and video interfaces as it was more reliable than USB. Now it’s almost impossible to find a FireWire interface, primarily because most laptops don’t come with FireWire ports anymore.

However, if your computer does have a FireWire port, I suggest you give it a try: USB connectivity took years to reach the FireWire’s quality for a reason. For over ten years, I recorded using an Edirol FA-66 FireWire, and I absolutely loved it.

PCIe is a card-based interface that requires more technical knowledge but provides professional results with close-to-zero latency. However, they’re also costly compared to the previous two options.

If you’re a Mac user, you’ll also find thunderbolt audio interfaces provide a fast and effective connection. Due to exclusivity within the platform, these will only work with Apple computers.

3 USB Interfaces for All Levels

Depending on whether you want to kickstart your songwriting career or upgrade your existing professional recording studio, there are many interfaces to choose from. Even though budget is an essential aspect to consider, the most critical factor for audio interfaces is defining what you need it for.

A big question is how many inputs will you need. Choosing the correct input/output configuration is a fundamental step.

For example, if you’re a songwriter, one or two channels will likely be the best audio interface for all your recording needs (one channel to record voice, the other to record guitar).

On the other hand, if you’re playing in a band and your demanding drummer wants to have 15 microphones surrounding their full drum kit and each with its recorded separate track, then you’ll probably need at least 20 or more XLR inputs to record your next album.

For this article, I chose three USB interfaces that should meet the demands of most creatives: starting from the most affordable one and ending with an ultra-pro audio interface.

  1. Beginner

    Scarlett 2i2 (Price: $175)


    This Scarlett series audio interface is undoubtedly one of the best entry-level devices you can find. Crystal clear production quality audio, extremely low latency, and an intuitive setup: the Scarlett 2i2 has it all, with studio quality recordings that can easily compete with more expensive interfaces.

    The Scarlett 2i2 has become one of the most beloved USB audio interfaces in the market because of its beginner-friendly interface and affordable price.

    The audio recordings you can get from this small audio interface are great for the price, and if you just started recording music, the Scarlett 2i2 will satisfy your needs for a long time, before you’ll have to upgrade your audio gear.

  2. Intermediate

    SSL 2+ (Price: $299)


    The most affordable hardware the legendary manufacturer SSL has ever produced, the SSL 2+ audio interface features an incredible audio quality for the price, with a unique, clean mic preamp gain that makes it ideal for recording quiet sources or spoken word.

  3. Professional

    Steinberg AXR4 (Price: $2800)


    The Thunderbolt 2 connectivity guarantees zero-latency monitoring and the best audio quality you can expect from an audio interface. With its 28 inputs and 24 outputs, the Steinberg AXR4 is the perfect choice for recording industry professional producers and engineers.

    The Steinberg AXR4 comes with digital outputs that allow you direct monitoring of your audio as you record it, making it a great tool for professional home studio recording.

Do I need a Dedicated Audio Interface?

Now you can answer the question: what is an audio interface? The next crucial question you have to ask yourself before buying an audio interface is: What do I need and What is an Audio Interface Used for?

For example, moving beyond your computer’s sound cards and investing in an interface with more inputs and outputs may be unnecessary if you’re a songwriter.

If this is your first audio interface, choose one that satisfies your recording and software mixing needs and is easy to use with your DAW software. Remember, you can always upgrade to a new one when the time comes.

Next, you should always consider the connectivity and ensure your laptop or tablet is compatible with the interface you’re interested in.

Finally, consider your budget. There are affordable options that offer incredible results, so make sure you do your research before investing in a piece of equipment that won’t guarantee the sound quality you look for in the long term.

When it comes to choosing a new audio interface, it may feel overwhelming to go over all the options available in the market and the technical specs of each device. However, choosing the right interface will give you the tranquillity and creative freedom you need to create your best tracks and give you access to a whole new universe of sounds.

Pro tips

Now you have all the information you need to start looking for your new audio interface. However, if you’re already familiar with the world of digital home recording and want to find out more about the recording process, read on. Below you’ll find the final section of the article, dedicated exclusively to the technology and processes that take place within your audio interface as you record audio.

This section will give you a more detailed background of how audio is recorded and the best settings you need for optimal audio recording.

Most of the technical terms described below have to do with the converter, perhaps the most important tool in an audio interface. Simply put, this tool in the audio interface converts audio from analog signals to digital signals (ADC) or from digital to analog signals (DAC), allowing your audio interface to transform the sounds and inputs from outer sources into bits of information your DAW can interpret and translate into sounds.

This is the single, most important revolution in processing audio that allowed digital audio recording to thrive. The sound you hear when playing your recorded music on your speaker is a replica of the sound coming from your keyboard or guitar, carefully translated into bits of information and later on transformed once again as the music gets played on speakers or headphones, for your ears to enjoy.

Understanding this process will not only impress your bandmates. It’s also fundamental to know about the complexities of digital recording as using the right settings has an audible impact on the sound that you’ll record.

The most important terms you need to understand are dynamic range, sample rate, and bit depth.

  • Sample Rate

    Sound travels in the form of sound waves. Our computer can interpret recorded sound only by interpreting these sound waves and translating them into a digital signal that corresponds to the sound wave recorded.

    USB interfaces do so by taking “snapshots” of a sound wave. They take thousands of snapshots every second, resulting in a faithful representation of the sound. The exact amount of snapshots taken at any given second defines this process, called the sample rate.

    The most common sample rate is 44.1 kHz. This means a sound wave is captured 44100 times per second. Although it may sound like a random number, trust me: it’s definitely not.

    https://crumplepop.com/what-sample-rate-should-i-record-at/The spectrum of human hearing ranges between 20 and 20,000 Hz. You, dear reader, can probably hear sounds up to 15Hz, because of the natural hearing loss happening as we grow up, which tends to affect high-frequency sensitivity.

    Unless you’re actually an infant, in which case you should probably be able to hear frequencies higher than 20,000 Hz. If you’re a dolphin, you may be able to hear frequencies up to 100,000 kHz. But I digress.

    In order to perfectly represent a sound wave at 20,000 Hz, we must capture the wave at its highest and lowest, also called positive and negative stages. Therefore, each sound wave needs to be captured twice within its cycle, and to be captured twice, you need a sample rate twice the number of the frequency you aim to translate to bits. That’s how the 44.1 kHz came to be.

  • Bit Depth

    Audio depth works together with the sample rate to bring the most authentic audio to life. In a nutshell, bit depth describes the amplitude values of the samples you’re recording, determining the resolution of your digital audio.

    The bit depth provided by audio interfaces is 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit, and although 16-bit is enough to bring to life industry-standard audio results. However, if you have the possibility to do so with your CPU power, I’d suggest you record at a higher bit rate, as it’ll give you more headroom during the mixing and mastering phase of your audio.

  • Dynamic Range

    Dynamic range is the difference between the softest and loudest sounds within a certain audio recording. This value includes both the music you recorded, with its natural sound range, but there’s also the digital noise floor, i.e., the sounds produced by your audio gear, including electromagnetic and radio interference.

    Every audio interface has a defined dynamic range. Below that range, the sound will lose clarity. If the sound is above the defined range, it’ll become distorted.

  • Mic Preamps

    Most audio interfaces come with built-in microphone preamps, which help boost the signal coming from condenser microphones or musical instruments you’re recording. By doing so, microphone preamps amplify low-level signals and allow you to create industry-standard audio recordings.

    Especially if you’re recording mostly with microphones, having powerful preamps is crucial. However, bear in mind that preamps do have an impact on the transparency of your recording. They’ll add a bit of colour to your sound, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you keep it in check.

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