Regardless if you’re a pro, semi-pro or beginner building your home recording studio, buying the best audio interfaces is going to help bring the best quality, power, and capabilities to your studio. This guild will help those looking to find an audio interface that can give them the best quality in recording vocals and instruments at the best bang for your buck.
What is an audio interface?
Before we go further let us briefly look at what is an audio interface. It basically acts as an external sound card for your computer that is better quality and more powerful. It organizes all your recording devices into one and provides power, processing, and effects. An audio interface aids in the signal flow of recording vocals or sounds into your computer. It is also used to transfer that sound from your computer in playback to studio headphones or monitor speakers. They usually come with audio inputs and outputs as well as midi inputs and outputs for some. The midi ins and outs allow your keyboards and other controllers to run smoother during the recording process.
One of the most important purposes of an audio interface and reasons it is purchased is to fix audio latency. Audio latency is a delay that affects digital audio recording and playback. Most standard sound cards on computers are not able to process audio data fast, that is where the audio interface comes to the rescue. Audio interfaces can process audio data much faster and eliminate delays making your recording process a lot quicker and smoother.
Selecting the best audio interface
Now that we’ve covered what an audio interface is, let us look into how to buy the best audio interface for your needs. Audio interfaces come in many different sizes and price points, it all depends on the reader’s needs which we have listed below.
- What you are looking for? Think of your studio setup and what exactly you’re planning to hook up to your audio interface and record. Do you only have a mic, a guitar or MIDI keyboard? Going with a 2-in and 2-out with an XLR input for a condenser mic and MIDI in\out would work best. If you are going to be recording an entire band look for more than 2 input and 2 outputs. A 6-in and 6-out will be best, or even a 4-in and 4-out.
- What connectivity do you want? Audio interfaces provide USB, Thunderbolt, and FireWire connectivity. The type of computer you have and your operating system will play a part in determining this.
- How much do you want to spend? Audio interfaces range in price anywhere from $100 to $,1000+. This depends on how many ins and outs you get and the overall sound quality you are looking to achieve for your recordings. Normally with home studios, sample rates up to 24 Bit / 192 kHz are fine. I wouldn’t recommend going any lower in sample rate capability.
The Top 10 Best Audio Interfaces
The Zoom TAC-2 is a 2-in and 2-out easy to use thunderbolt audio interface. What makes it unique is that all features are controlled by one knob. It comes with XLR/TRS connectivity in the back to hook up mics, instruments, or signal lines to the input. There is also a front input jack where you can add a guitar or bass without having to unplug anything else. The TAC-2 records while you are playing and also has a cool feature of upsampling your signal during the digital to analog and analog to digital conversion. This means you get better quality and minimal aliasing noise. The TAC-2 features Apple’s thunderbolt connectivity which is 5 times faster than USB 3.0 and up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0. It is considered one of the best audio interfaces on the market today. If you need something reliable, fast, and bus-powered, then the Zoom TAC-2 is your best bet.
The Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 is one of the best audio interfaces for multi-instrumentalist and small bands. There is no shortage of ins and outs with the Focusrite. The Scarlett 6i6 is a 6-in and 6-out USB audio interface that features 4 analog inputs with 2 built-in Scarlett mic preamps. It features 4 analog outputs and 2 separate headphone outputs with MIDI I/O as well as two channels of S/PDIF I/O. The 6i6 model is capable of sample rates up to 192 kHz. You will have studio-grade sound quality you can take anywhere. The Scarlett 6i6 is great for home studios that may need to expand in the future. It is also great for recording on the go. The Scarlett 6i6 comes bundled with “Pro Tools First Focusrite Creative Pack,” as well as “Albeton Live” lite recording software. The Focusrite Scarlett 6i6 is compatible with all major DAWs on MAC and PC. The Scarlett series offers many different interfaces tailored to meet your needs.
If you have a small home studio, on a budget, and on the go a lot then The Apogee ONE would be great for you. The Apogee ONE is a 2-in and 2-out portable, USB interface that provides you with everything needed to record. It has a built-in omnidirectional microphone and also has the capability to also connect and record with an external microphone and a guitar at the same time. The Apogee ONE is compatible with GarageBand, Logic Pro X and it comes in two models: ONE for Mac or ONE for iPad or MAC.
The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII is one of the high end audio interfaces. The MKII comes with 10-in and 6-out thunderbolt interface for Mac, with 2 analog inputs, 4 analog outputs, and 8 channels of ADAT input. The thunderbolt configuration provides you with low latency and higher sample rates (24-bit/192kHz). The MKII is versatile making it suitable for mobile recording, mixing, and live performance. The Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII sits on the higher price-point and serves as one of the best audio interfaces for people with a bigger budget looking for a thunderbolt-based model.
The Steinberg UR12 is a 2-in and 2-out USB 2.0 model. Based on a combination of sound quality, portability, and a fairly low price compared to others in this guide it is considered to be one of the best audio interfaces.. The UR12 is phantom-powered and built with a loopback function that is designed for home studio recording, podcasting as well as other internet streaming applications. The UR12 features a “Class A D-Pre” microphone preamp with inverted Darlington circuits that give it a smooth performance. It also features a single microphone preamp with an XLR input and a TRS line input, so that you can track line-level with your headphones. As for quality, this audio interface supplies a 24-bit/192kHz A/D resolution. It also has line level RCA outputs to hook up your studio monitors. The Steinberg UR12 is economically priced interfaces and best if you are on a tight budget.
The MK3 features both USB 2.0 and FireWire connectivity. When you operate FireWire, your UltraLife gets all the it needs from your computer. You can use the included power adapter for full functionality when you’re connected via USB. The MOTU features 24-bit /192 kHz sample rate with a number of inputs and outputs: 2 microphone preamps plus 6 line-level 1/4” (TRS) inputs and 10 analog TRS outputs. In total, you have a 10-in/14-out interface. It also comes with a stereo S/PDIF digital I/O, a stereo headphone output, and a MIDI I/O for a controller or other equipment. The MK3 also comes with built-in effects and DSP routing, so you can dial in your headphone mixes without worrying about draining your computer. It can also serve as a standalone mixer due to the DSP mixer and on board effects. The Motu UltraLite-MK3 sits on the higher price-point, but with the features and sound quality it provides, it is worth the price.
The RME Fireface UC is high-end model that has 2 digitally controlled microphone preamps, ADAT, and S/PDIF, and a total of 18 input/output channels plus MIDI I/O which makes this one of the best audio interface options for a small to medium-sized band or semi-pro studios. The Fireface UC has a solid cross-platform performance that works well on both Windows and Mac operating systems. It has a built-in “RME Hammerfall” core that provides low latency when operating multiple channels. The unit’s operating mode can be switched to “Window” or “Mac” at any time if needed. The digital ADAT I/O gives you digital connection to mixers and converters which is needed in order to track correctly. The RME Fireface UC quality is unmatched.
If you record on Mac with one or two inputs a time then the Apogee ELEMENT 24 may be the best for you. It is a 10-in and 12-out thunderbolt audio interface that is cost-effective when compared to other thunderbolt models on the market. The ELEMENT 24 features 2 front-panel mic/line/instrument inputs on combi connectors, 2 rear-panel balanced XLR outputs, a 1/4” stereo headphone out, and word clock I/O. It also features 2 Apogee on-board mic preamps with selectable phantom power. For more flexibility, the ELEMENT 24 has an optical I/O with ADAT (8×8), SMU (4×4), and SPDIF (2×2) compatibility. The thunderbolt drivers deliver a low-latency performance (1.41 ms), along with stability. The driver also draws less CPU power ranks which lets you work more plug-ins and monitor through your DAW at lower buffer settings. Lastly, the “Element Control” software of the Apogee ELEMENT 24 provides you with remote control of your hardware on your Mac or iPhone/iPad. If you need more plugins, other options such as the ELEMENT 46 or even 88 are available.
The Lexicon Alpha one of the most simple and price-friendly audio interfaces on our list. The Alpha is a 2-in and 2-out USB interface that combines affordability and portability making it one of the best audio interfaces on the market today. The Lexicon is bus-powered and features 1 XLR microphone input, 2 TRS line inputs and 2 TRS & RCA line outs. The front panel has a high-z ¼” instrument input for direct to computer recording and a 1/8” high-powered headphone output for your headphones. The Lexicon Alpha can stream 2 channels of 44.1 or 48 kHz audio at either 16- or 24-bit resolution on both PC and Mac. It also comes with mono/stereo monitoring, as well as zero-latency direct/playback monitoring for delay-free overdubs while recording. If you’re looking for something low-cost, then the Lexicon Alpha may be the one for you.
Last but not least we have M-Audio’s M-Track II, which which delivers simple plug-and-play features. People who prefer something cheaper without many bells and whistles will like the M-Track II. It is pretty flexible and offers the right connections for anything from an electric guitar to a phantom-powered condenser microphone. Its equipped with a number of inputs: each channel offers a combined XLR and balanced 1/4” input. The M-Track has pretty solid zero-latency inline monitoring The monitor mix knob adjusts the balance between the direct inputs and the playback from your computer software. It also comes with an multi colored LED metering feature that gives you instant feedback of your input levels.