Your First Audio Interface | Music-Making for Techies
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“Audio interface” is a fancy term for a sound card. It’s a way for you to get audio in and out of your computer. Your first reaction would likely be that you already have audio outputs and inputs in your computer so you must be all set. And you would not be totally wrong.
Just over two years ago when I was restarting my music hobby, I found an audio interface that I bought 10–15 years ago. Unfortunately, it was out of support and there were no drivers for it for any of the modern operating systems. I wondered whether I should run and buy a new one right away or my “hobby fund” can be used for something more impactful for a start? I did some research and ended up with this flow chart to make me and you decide on the answer:
The essential questions here are whether you plan to record any audio into your computer and whether you have speakers or headphones your average computer can’t handle? If the answer to either question is yes, then you will need an audio interface or at the very least benefit from having one.
Some borderline situations are when you have a fairly decent USB microphone or, on the opposite side of the fence, if you are looking to get a DAW that is bundled with an interface. In the first case, getting an audio interface won’t improve anything in terms of recording through your microphone. In the second case, you may want to get that interface even if it doesn’t provide any direct value to you at this point in time. Note that it’s likely that you can get the same DAW with a controller.
The next couple of sections are for those who after going through the flow chart above concluded that they need an audio interface after all.
Things to look for in an entry-level audio interface
As with everything we are covering in this book, I suggest you start with good but modest equipment, figure out what you are missing (if anything) and only then spend extra on the higher-grade gear. Luckily, plenty of entry-level audio interfaces are solid enough even for professionals and should get you quite far for a $100–200 investment.
Let’s talk about some things that you don’t want to miss in your first interface.
Number of inputs
Envision how many audio sources you plan to record simultaneously (key point) and that’s the number of inputs you want to have. There are some audio interfaces that don’t have any inputs but those are rare. If you plan to record your own vocals and maybe an electric guitar, then one input could be enough (unless you plan to record both at the same time). But if you plan to record a whole band live then even 16 may not be enough.
We are focusing on computer musicians here, so 1 or 2 should likely be enough for most of us. One aspect to lookout for is whether the interface has combo inputs accepting both XLR (microphone) and jack (instrument) inputs, or dedicated inputs for each. In other words, an interface may have two inputs (one XLR, one line) and you will only be able to plug one microphone into it, or it can have two combo inputs and you can plug two mics or two keyboards into it.
For microphones (more on this later) it may be important that your interface provides 48V phantom power but almost all of them do nowadays.
Number of outputs
At the very least you want your interface to have outputs for a set of studio monitors and a pair of headphones. It is also important that you can adjust the volume on speakers and headphones independently. For those working alone and mostly on headphones or mostly on speakers this could be less important than some other things, but as a rule of thumb this is not a great area to compromise on.
Why would you need more outputs? It’s a good idea to test your mixes on different speakers so if you can plug in your main studio monitors and some other control set at the same time, it could be really helpful. Also, if you plan to record a vocalist other than yourself, you may want to have one set of headphones for them and one for you.
Having said that, requiring more than the base speakers + headphones set of outputs would limit your audio interface choices and increase the price. So, while extras are nice to have, it’s probably not a good idea to fixate on them without having an explicit reason to.
Direct monitoring lets you listen to what you play or sing into a microphone connected to your audio interface without going through the computer first. Depending on the characteristics and settings of your PC and audio interface, not having direct monitoring could mean anything from mildly annoying to totally unusable latency. This is something you definitely want to make sure you have if you plan to record any audio live.
Sample rate is the frequency at which your analog audio is taken and converted into digital data. Even the cheapest audio interfaces would usually support maximum sample rate of at least 48kHz. For most “bedroom producers” this should be enough, but it never hurts to have some headroom and go for something with 96kHz and beyond.
Resolution denotes the bit depth of each sample. Going higher than 16-bit where many of the cheapest interfaces max out is not only a matter of higher perceived quality but also avoiding clipping (signal going out of range and being cut) and having more opportunities to adjust (or even salvage) recordings after they have been captured. Definitely look for 24-bit resolution.
Physical characteristics and controls
Interfaces can differ in their form-factor, layout, and number and the types of physical controls. Many professional interfaces are rack-mounted but these are probably beyond the scope of your first audio interface. As for the rest of them the difference could be in the location of inputs and outputs, orientation, types, and quality of the controls.
Some interfaces have inputs on the back, some on the front, some on both sides or even on top. Others could have, say, headphone port on the back which isn’t convenient if you plan to plug and unplug headphones, but can be totally fine (or even preferable) if you want to plug and forget about them.
Same goes for controls. Some interfaces have physical knobs for every function and input, others have just one big rotary and a few buttons to control what it does. And then there’s everything in between. On first thought, it should definitely be better to have a control for each bit of functionality. But it also means that those controls will likely be tiny. It is very satisfying to turn that one massive rotary as opposed to finding the right tiny knob and fiddling with it. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal preference, but if you suspect that you will be engaging some functions all the time, it’s great to be able to access them easily.
While recording vocals and instruments it’s important to be able to monitor the volume of the signal coming in so it neither clips and distorts nor comes in very low and you end up with a terrible noise-to-signal result. You can usually control this in software but depending on your circumstances you may prefer to do it on the device itself. Some audio interfaces don’t have any indicators for that. Some are limited to just one led signaling that the signal is clipping. Then we have ones with several LEDs giving you some high-level insight into the situation. Finally, you have interfaces with reasonably granular meters that should satisfy most. If at this point you are not sure what your requirements or preferences are, you shouldn’t sweat it. If you can, get something with at least minimum level meters. At the end of the day, you should be able to use your PC screen to compensate for the lack of physical readouts.
To summarize, try to think about where you are planning to put the interface and how you are planning to use it (how often will you plug and unplug instruments, microphones, or headphones). Visualize it on your desk and ask yourself whether it would be easier to access the controls on top of the interface or on the front? Either way, without practical experience you can’t think about everything upfront and some aspects of the interface you get will not be perfect. And that’s OK as long as it fills the bill overall.
Drivers and bundled software
Every new interface is highly likely to just work on modern operating systems. On the Mac side it’s just plug-and-play for most. On Windows you would need specialized drivers to get to the full potential of the device (or even for it to work at all). A modern interface would come with drivers for modern versions of Windows. But if you are getting a used one, make sure that it’s still supported by the manufacturer and drivers for modern versions of Windows exist.
For music production and recording on Windows you are looking for ASIO drivers. ASIO stands for Audio Stream Input/Output and is a proprietary protocol that was developed by Steinberg. It’s the de-facto standard for low latency low level access to audio hardware on Windows. Just a few years ago specialized ASIO drivers existed for audio interfaces aimed at enthusiasts and professionals only. But nowadays even on-board audio interfaces may have ASIO drivers, making getting an audio interface just to lower the latency less of a priority.
In addition to the drivers, audio interfaces may come with utilities for upgrading firmware and controlling advanced (or even the basic) device functions from software. Sometimes these can be the only way to access some features touted by the manufacturer. So, while reading the feature list of an interface don’t expect that every single one of these features has a dedicated (or even any) hardware control.
It became customary for audio interfaces to come bundled with an entry-level version of a DAW. Sometimes even more than one. Interfaces made by DAW companies would naturally come bundled with a lite version of that DAW. Steinberg interfaces come with entry-level Cubase, PreSonus interfaces come with Studio One (though lite version of Ableton Live is also included), etc. Independent (from the DAW maker) interfaces still come with a bundled DAW. The most commonly bundled one is Ableton Live Lite, but you can find interfaces bundled with Cubase, Studio One, and other DAWs.
In addition to DAWs, you would often find plugins, utilities, and access to online resources bundled as well. This, obviously, differs from interface to interface, but since these are always downloads the same interface bought a year ago may have gotten you access to different plugins than what new buyers get today. Some of these plugins could be special feature-limited editions of their full-fledged versions, some could be “oldies” no one in their right mind would buy today, some are extended trials rather than full versions, and some are free for everyone with no purchase necessary. However, quite often there would be several proper full versions of modern and popular plugins. For example, at the time of this writing, PreSonus audio interfaces come with full versions of Output Movement (list price $149) and UJAM Virtual Bassist Rowdy 2 ($129) among other things. Just these two, cost more than double of the whole entry level PreSonus audio interface price.
You may not be satisfied with an entry-level DAW that comes with your interface, but it will likely give you a discount on the DAWs full version. That combined with bundled plugins may sway you from your number one choice in hardware to your number two or three that get the crown as the whole package of hardware plus software.
Another thing to keep in mind is that brands making both audio interfaces and controllers (Arturia, PreSonus, M-Audio, to name a few) most likely bundle both types of products with the same software packages. With that in mind, it may make sense to mix-and-match if you want to optimize for the top bang for the buck.
Don’t get carried away, though. It’s important not to compromise on the key aspects of hardware that matter to you. You can always buy software that you missed out on or find cheaper alternatives, but if the hardware doesn’t bring you joy, you are back to square one.
In the next part we will look into studio monitors you may want to plug into that new and shiny audio interface.
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