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How to Buy an Audio Interface

People often ask the question – “Why do I need a separate audio interface? My computer already has a built in audio card – can’t I just use that?”

That’s a good question that deserves a good answer.

While your sound card is an audio interface – it’s designed for general purposes. To do any serious audio work you will need an interface that has higher end outputs that will allow you to monitor your recording and sound editing using speakers and/or headphones.

The output needs to allow you to play back your recordings without the jitter, noise, and latency common with standard computer sound cards.

Most standard computer sound cards only offer a consumer-grade stereo line level input for connecting audio players and similar gear. For outputs it will likely have a stereo headphone and/or speaker output.

And that my friends would be the extent of it.

So, if you are serious about recording and doing audio work you will need to get yourself a decent audio interface.

In this article I’ll help you do just that.

How to Choose the Best Audio Interface

If you have started to browse shopping sites like Musician’s Friend  – it’s likely a little overwhelmed by all the options and terminology.

That’s normal and now you have this guide to choosing the best audio interface to help you.

Despite the huge range of interfaces, there are only a few criteria to keep in mind when choosing the best audio interface for your needs, style and budget.

The criteria are –

  • How many inputs and outputs (I/O) do you need and what type
  • What connectivity options – to computers and other devices do you need?
  • What’s the sound quality I want?
  • What is your budget?

Let’s look at each of these criteria in turn.

When Choosing the Best Audio Interface what inputs and outputs (I/O) do I need?

This could be the most important consideration when you are trying to choose the best audio interface for your particular needs.

And with everything else there are a ton of options to choose from.

For those who want the basics there are simple two-channel desktop interfaces. These can only record a pair of mono signals or a single stereo signal at one time.

Of course there is the other end of the spectrum where you can find larger interface systems able to handle dozens—even hundreds—of channels and many inputs simultaneously.

What choice you make in an audio interface depends on what you want to record now and how you plan to scale your recording in the future.

If you are a single singer-songwriter who only wants to capture their voice and an acoustic guitar using microphones – then all you will need are a pair of balanced mic inputs.

If you are using a condenser mic then you’ll need an input with phantom power to energize it.

If you want to record your guitar in stereo while singing you will want more than two inputs – a four input interface would be the ticket.

You need instrument-level input, often referred to as a “high-Z input” if you’re going to be playing an electric bass, guitar, or electronic keyboard and connecting directly to your recording setup.

If you are connecting external gear like drum machines, samplers or multi-effects units, you’ll need line level inputs and outputs.

A lot of studio monitors and headphone amps that provide a separate headphone mix to performers will also require line level inputs/outputs.

Some of your external devices may require digital connections. These include S/PDIF and ADAT connectors.

These types of connectors allow you to connect multi-channel mic preamps for recording multiples sources at once.

If you are interested in eventually expanding your setup you should choose and audio interface with two or four onboard mic preamps with an ADAT input.

In order to choose the best audio interface that will be perfect in the present and usable into the future, make a list of all the instruments and gear you plan to connect using your interface.

Then add up the number of connections needed by the gear you want to use simultaneously or leave permanently connected to your interface.

This will give you the ideal I/O configuration. If you can afford it, buy more I/O than you initially need. This will create more rich and full recordings as your skills and gear expand.

Lastly, make sure you choose the best audio interface that will play nice with your computer.

Most interfaces work with both Macs and PCs but pay attention to those have specific Mac- or PC-compatibility only.

When Choosing the Best Audio Interface What Kind of Computer/Device Connectivity Do You Need?

To choose the best audio interface you need to consider what devices you will be using with it. Make sure you know how to choose an audio interface that has the correct connection type devices run.

These are most common connection types:

  • USB:You’ll find USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports on almost all newer computers, both Macs and PCs
  • FireWire:Found primarily on Mac computers and intended for Apple gear
  • Thunderbolt:This new high-bandwidth Intel technology is currently installed on the newest Mac computers. PCs equipped can also be outfitted with Thunderbolt option cards
  • PCIe (PCI Express):This is an internal card-based computer connection platform that’s primarily found in desktop computers

For Your Best Audio Interface What Level of Sound Quality Do You Need?

The old saying “you get what you pay for” also applies to choosing the best audio interface.

Price reflects the quality of component – the highest quality components have price tags that reflect that quality.

There are some really awesome models at lower prices that will work for all but the highest pro-level recording and mixing work.

The key criteria that influence the quality of audio in an interface are as follows –

  • Bit depth:Digital recording converts your analog audio into bits and bytes. Simply put the greater the number of bits the higher the level of fidelity as compared to the original signal.
  • Sample rate:Higher sampling rates capture information that contributes to overall fidelity and more
  • Converter quality:Every bit as critical as bit rates and sampling depth is the quality and accuracy of the converters in your interface. You want high quality analog to digital and digital to analog converters

Choosing the Best Audio Interface

Choosing the best audio interface for your specific needs comes down to a consideration of

  • Input/outputs
  • Sound quality
  • Device and computer connectivity

Keeping these key factors in mind along with an eye toward your budget and future expansion needs will allow you to choose the best audio interface for recording now and down the road.

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