The makings of a home studio begin with an audio interface. This essential piece of equipment provides the inputs and outputs we need to connect audio components like microphones and instruments to our computer. With so many audio interfaces available, it’s hard to narrow down the best ones. This list includes a small variety to assist in the selection.
What Is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface is the hardware we attach to our computer, usually over USB, for recording and playback. A basic device provides an XLR input, a preamp to boost the mic-level signal, a headphone amplifier/output, and a pair of outputs for speaker monitors. Higher end models may include additional inputs and outputs such as MIDI and multiple line-level connections, and miscellaneous features like built-in talkback.
How Does an Audio Interface Work?
One of the key principles of an audio interface is the concept of analog to digital conversion (ADC), and again processing those signals from digital back to analog (DAC). All of this happens instantaneously over a binary stream of 0s and 1s hooked up to our computer.
A to D conversion takes the signal from a microphone or an instrument and converts it to a digital signal for recording in our DAW. Once inside the DAW, the interface does the work of once more converting the now digital material back into an analog signal that plays through our headphones or speakers.
Factors to Consider When Choosing an Audio Interface
- Inputs & Outputs (How many XLR inputs/preamps do you need? Do you require MIDI, more than one pair of speakers, etc.?)
- Connectivity (USB Type A, C, etc.)
- Portability (Do you plan to make music anywhere on the go, or set up a dedicate home studio space?)
- Converter and recording quality (typically up to 24-bit/192 kHz; consider the standard quality to be 24-bit/44.1 or 48 kHz)
The 10 Best Audio Interface Options for Your Studio
The Audient iD4 is a compact and powerful interface designed to deliver professional-grade recording quality. It offers a single Class-A microphone preamp in addition to a JFET instrument input, capturing audio at up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution. Audient utilizes class-leading conversion for stellar recording and playback quality, and the iD4 even includes a ridiculously good 600Ω headphone amplifier to drive even the most high-end headphones.
Focusrite’s Scarlett series is amongst the most well known in all of the entry-level interface domain. Many first-time users go for the 2i2, which is one of the best-selling audio interfaces ever made. We’ve included the 4i4 here, which includes two microphone preamps, two line inputs, four line outputs, MIDI in and out, and a pristine Air control that boosts the preamps’s sparkly top-end for additional color. First-time users can’t go wrong with a Scarlett, whether it’s the 4i4 or any of the other offerings in the lineup.
UA’s Apollo interfaces are the company’s most ubiquitous products, but the relatively new Volt interfaces combine Universal Audio craftsmanship with every-person affordability. The Volt 2 is a USB-C interface featuring two microphone preamps, a pair of monitor outputs, and MIDI in/out. What makes the Volt 2 unique is the ability to switch on a “Vintage” circuit that mimics the character of the classic UA 610 tube preamplifier.
Behringer offers the U-Phoria lineup in a variety of configurations, giving buyers some of the best bang-for-buck currently available. The 202 consists of a pair of MIDAS-designed mic preamps with Neutrik combo jacks for mic, line, or Hi-Z inputs. This simple device is a highly portable and inexpensive interface with impressive conversion and resolution (24-bit/192 kHz) given its price.
5. MOTU M6
The MOTU M6 is a 6-in/4-out USB-C audio interface. With four microphone preamps, two line inputs, four line outputs, and two headphone outputs, this hardware excels in numerous recording/mixing/broadcasting situations with enough power to spare. The bright LED screen provides visual feedback with level meters, which is a nice touch for an interface at this price point.
Here we have a professional rack-mounted audio interface by Antelope, who’s been consistently pushing the envelope for years now. The Orion includes 12 preamps (four on the front and eight on the back), D-Sub and ADAT connectivity, A and B monitor outputs, and an analog-modeled plugin suite taking advantage of Antelope’s recently developed Synergy Core FX DSP. If you were setting up an extensive studio space and needed a pro-grade interface to bring it all together, this is a proper choice.
PreSonus interfaces pack a ton of usability into portable and inexpensive packages. The 26c is a go-to choice for lots of consumers. This USB-C device provides two award-winning XMAX preamps, four line outputs, and MIDI I/O. Advanced monitoring includes an A/B cue mix, and the LED panel displays metering at a glance.
Universal Audio’s rack-mount “x”-series interfaces are some of the best of the best. The 18-in/24-out Thunderbolt 3 x8 includes four Unison-enabled microphone preamps allowing users to record and print through analog emulations of classic preamps and effects in real-time. Support for 7.1 monitoring, built-in talkback, dual headphone outputs, and 6-core DSP round out several major inclusions that this professional interface offers.
Audient continues to innovate with powerful, futuristic-looking interfaces that challenge the norm. What do you get when you combine eight EVO preamps, two JFET instrument inputs, industry-leading conversion, eight line outputs, and ADAT? A verifiable workhorse interface capable of tackling even the biggest projects. You’d be hard pressed to find this level of features and quality anywhere else at the EVO 16’s price point.
10. Apogee Duet 3
Finally, we arrive at the Apogee Duet 3. This virtually pocket-sized 2-in/4-out USB-C interface sports a pair of class-leading mic preamps. Onboard DSP allows users to dial in a desirable tone/character at the recording stage, so you can get a taste of analog-style recording through a premium digital interface.
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