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If you’re going to make music, you’re going to need an audio interface.
“An audio interface, in the simplest terms, is the piece of gear you need to get sound in and out of a computer,” explains Grammy-winning producer, Dave Darling, who’s worked with everyone from Brian Setzer to Mötley Crüe. “An audio interface takes the source sound – microphone, guitar, synth, etc. — and converts it into a language that your computer can understand and record,” he explains. “Ever try plugging your guitar into a computer? You can’t!”
Whether you’re creating a guitar riff or writing a full song, an audio interface lets you connect a variety of instruments, voices and signals to your computer, and then listen back to what you’ve recorded through a set of speakers or headphones. Built-in mic preamplifiers (or “preamps”) take your audio signal and raise or “amplify” it to a loud enough level for processing. Preamps can also act as a filter for your audio to pass through, churning out richer, warmer tones on the other end.
After your audio is converted into a digital file, you can then using any number of production tools to start mixing and creating your track. The audio interface will then take the digital information recorded in the computer and turn it back into the music you hear coming out of your speakers. In short, “Modern computer recording would be impossible without an audio interface,” Darling says.
Even if you’re not a pro, audio interfaces are easy enough for amateur musicians to pick up and create with as well. Many of them are super portable too, slipping easily into a bag for writing and recording on the go.
Darling says he uses a small interface in his writing studio, and more high-end setups in the larger studios where he’s actually making records. While the units he uses run into the tens of thousands of dollars, Darling says there are still some good two-channel interfaces at more affordable price points.
“In my opinion, you should get the best quality interface you can afford,” he says. “Even if you’re only a hobbyist, you want your stuff to sound good.”
As for how you know when you’ve got a hit song, Darling says it has 50% to do with the songwriting and 50% to do with the recording. “You hope the song will be a hit, and you might think you got it, but ultimately, you won’t know until people hear it and give you their reactions,” he says. “That said, when you can get an insanely good vocal on a song you know you’re in the running.”
We’ve found some solid audio interfaces that deliver clear, focused sound with no frills or fuss. Whether you’re locking in an instrumental piece or recording vocals, these sets promise to make the recording process easy and efficient, so you can get on with producing your next big hit.
1. Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Recording Audio Interface
Focusrite’s Scarlett 2i2 is a durable, USB recording interface with two mic preamps and a ton of ways to connect and transfer music. Users say the unit delivers commercial-grade audio reproduction, with warm, accurate sound.
Use the combination input to connect line and instrument level signals, as well as microphones (this unit also supports phantom-powered mics). Light-up indicators let you know if your signal is clipping, so you can adjust the gain accordingly. Users say the instrument input does a great job of reproducing sound across all levels, whether it’s from a guitar or bass.
What we like: hear your recording through a set of speakers or headphones, via the direct monitor switch. That lets you hear the feed without having to pass through a computer first, and with zero-latency.
PROS: Super lightweight and portable (just under 10 inches long and under two pounds), the Scarlet 2i2 is also bus powered, meaning that you don’t need an additional power supply. Simply plug in to your computer (via USB) and you’re ready to start recording.
CONS: The headphones use a 1/4″ jack, which may not fit with all headphone models; you may need to buy an adapter to use this unit with a pair of headphones.
2. Focusrite Scarlett Solo USB Audio Interface
Another great option from the Scarlett range, this is a simple and easy to use audio interface that lets songwriters and musicians get started with recording right away. Just plug in your guitar, connect the Scarlett Solo to your computer via the supplied USB-C cable, and you’re ready to go.
This model features a single mic preamp and a switchable air setting to give your recordings a brighter and more open sound. Record your instruments smoothly, without any clipping or distortion. The well-balanced outputs, meantime, are virtually hum-free, for cleaner playback. Users say the sound they get through the Solo is surprisingly nuanced and full, not tinny.
What we like: despite being a small set, the high-performance converters let you record and mix at up to 24-bit/192kHz.
PROS: As with all Focusrite products, get two years of free customer support.
CONS: This set only has one mic preamp so it’s better suited to light recordings. Also: users say the included software takes awhile to set up and isn’t that intuitive to use.
3. BEHRINGER Audio Interface
It’s hard to beat the value of this slim and portable set, which gets you four mic preamps, zero latency monitoring (no lag or delays in the signal) and 24-Bit/192 kHz converters for high-quality, focused sound. The built-in MIDI input/output allows you to connect keyboards and other MIDI hardware; +48 Volt phantom power lets you connect a condenser mic.
A super durable set, BEHRINGER says its impact-resistant metal chassis is designed and engineered in Germany. It’ll hold up to dings and drops, but at just over 2.5 pounds, and the size of a binder, it’ll easily tuck into a bag or backpack for safekeeping too.
PROS: Four preamps give you a ton of options. This audio interface is also compatible with a variety of software programs.
CONS: Users say it took a bit of time to get set up. Some say the sound is not as crisp and clean as some of the other models on our list.