The Best 5 Audio Interfaces for 2017

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Skip Intro? SEE THE TOP 5 AUDIO INTERFACES REVIEWS

There are many prerequisites to creating music. If your aim is to have complete domain over your art, you will require an audio interface. Seemingly trivial, an audio interface is a simple device that allows you to maintain full control over how your computer's input and output stream of audio. In this article, we will be reviewing what makes a great audio interface, the best audio interfaces on the market, and what audio interface may be right for you. The following audio interfaces are great choices in today's market.

What Is An Audio Interface?

To understand what to purchase, it is an important preliminary step to discuss the functions and capabilities of an audio interface. The audio interface is a piece of hardware that is responsible for converting any analog signal to digital signal that comes through an input jack, and any digital signal to analog signal through the output jacks. In essence, this piece of hardware can be as simple as a playback monitor or as complex as the large boards within professional audio studios. Based on this, an audio interface is generally used as a supplement to the audio capabilities of the average computer. For the purpose of this article, we will discuss viable options for the home studio because most professional studio interfaces will cost upwards of $300,000.

When To Use An Audio Interface?

Many viable options will diminish the need for an audio interface. For example, it is possible to purchase a USB microphone and a pair of speakers that are compatible with your computer and record your favorite composition. Unfortunately, this method will dramatically decrease the quality of your recording due to the lack of optimization provided by a USB connector. Alternatively, integrating an audio interface into your arsenal will give you the ability to improve the quality of your speaker monitors, utilize better microphones, change the signal routing of your recordings, and integrate outboard gear into your recording process.

Using an audio interface as your primary method of audio signal routing will improve the quality of your recording because the audio interface is created as an AD/DA (analog to digital/digital to analog) machine, whereas your computer is meant to accomplish a variety of tasks. Most audio interfaces will reproduce higher fidelity audio during playback in comparison to an average computer. An audio interface is critical to any serious recording environment; the interface will give you the ability to record more than one microphone at a time -- essential for recording instruments like drums, guitar, and brass. Lastly, you cannot use a condenser microphone (due to the lack of phantom power) unless you have a +48V compatible audio interface. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, the inclusion of a condenser microphone is crucial to most recordings.

How To Connect To An Audio Interface?

The connectivity of your audio interface depends on the product you ultimately decide to purchase. The majority audio interface will connect via five connections, USB, firewire, PCMIA or PCI slots, and an ExpressCard slot. The most common connection will be USB. However, your level of power will usually dictate the type of connection in which the interface requires. This is the most important preliminary step for choosing an audio interface.

Which One Should You Choose?

The choice of connection type depends on the level of power you require. If you are in charge of an operating professional studio, it is likely that you will need a high-speed connection to a PCI connector. If you will are operating an independent studio, but you plan to record live sessions, a FireWire port will serve you (if you aren't recording a full orchestra or content of that nature). Lastly, if you are building a personal studio for general applications without the need to record more than four microphones at a time, a USB 2.0-3.0 audio interface will fulfill all that you require.

Another important factor to consider before your purchase will be the number of inputs/outputs you need. This ranges based on your objectives. As a general indicator, think about the instruments you will record. Each instrument has an "optimum" amount of microphones that will reproduce the best sonic characteristics during playback. The general rule of thumbs are as follows:

5-piece drum kit (3-14 (sometimes more)) microphones

Acoustic guitar (1-2) microphones

Electric guitar (2-6) microphones

Horn instruments (1-3) microphones

Bass (2-6) microphones

Vocals (1-4) microphones

Grand piano (2-8) microphones

Outside of personal recording, it is beneficial to acquire an interface that has at least four inputs/outputs, so you have that ability to get a decent record a performance on most instruments.

Additional Requirements

The primary reason why most musicians buy an audio interface is to improve the quality of their recordings, compositional accessibility, and enhanced playback quality. However, an audio interface can integrate different signal processing capabilities like compressors, equalizers, and preamps to further increase your domain over the recording. Furthermore, you should ensure the audio interface of your choice supports three-pin XLR inputs as these inputs can decrease your noise floor exponentially (given the correct XLR cables). As stated previously, an integral part of many recording environments is the inclusion of a condenser microphone. These microphones are necessary because of their ability to garner the best of both ribbon microphones and dynamic microphones in their transducer capabilities. Based on this, it is vital that you choose an audio interface with +48V or phantom power capabilities.

The last thing to consider is the ability to process MIDI and line level input. MIDI is a widely used application of music that is accessed through a MIDI port. Without a MIDI port, you must use a USB port (if your MIDI instrument supports this option). A MIDI port will decrease latency in recording, enhancing your experience. A line level input serves a similar purpose to mic level (XLR). Alternatively, a line level input (generally 1/4" TRS or TS jacks) will provide a more balanced and grounded connection. This means you will not gather as much noise when recording over long distances. Based on this, this function is more suitable for a professional/independent studio environment where recording and monitoring will be done in separate rooms.

THE TOP 5 AUDIO INTERFACES REVIEWS

The Steinberg UR22

PRICE

OUR RATING

The Steinberg UR22 is the quintessential tool for the musician who is experimenting with their recordings. The price of $150 is perfect for anyone who does not necessarily know whether they want to invest the time in learning how to record. The audio interface offers two mic preamps that can convert to 24bit/192kHz (the highest quality possible at this time). Furthermore, the purchase of this audio interface will come with Cubase 6, a powerful digital audio workstation that will allow you to record seamlessly to your computer. This interface is packed with features for both recording and mixing your music as it has mono, dim, and mute capabilities which are beneficial for a mixing/mastering/recording environment. Also perfect for mixing, the interface provides six TRS outputs so you can attach multiple monitors for an assortment of playback references.

Pros

  • Great mixing environment: this interface is ideal for those who are interested in mixing/mastering
  • Price: for $150, this is packed with features
  • Cubase: The inclusion of Cubase 6 provides a full-fledged recording environment that is capable of accomplishing most tasks from an audio perspective

Cons

  • Input system: two inputs provide for minimal accessibility
  • USB: relatively slow for demanding sessions

The Komplete Audio 6

PRICE

OUR RATING

Native-Instruments' Komplete Audio 6 is a great beginner-novice audio interface. This can be utilized in a range of environments because it has four inputs and outputs. Therefore, this interface will give you the capability to record almost any instrument you require. The interface maintains two XLR inputs that can be used as 1/4" TRS/TS inputs and two extra 1/4" line level inputs on the backside. There are four output jacks that correlate to the two settings (1/2 monitors and 3/4 monitors). Furthermore, there are MIDI in and out ports as well as phantom power capability. Lastly, there is a headphone jack (which requires a 1/4" TRS extension) and the ability to monitor through this output.

Pros

  • Four I/O jacks: Capable of producing excellent
  • Phantom power: Integrate condenser microphones into your arsenal
  • MIDI: Create entire compositions with this one feature
  • Comes with an array of software synthesizers

Cons

  • USB: relatively slow for a recording environment
  • Lack of XLR inputs: only two XLR inputs severely limits the mic level recording
  • No features: No onboard processing components
  • Price: For the features, this interface is relatively expensive

Focusrite Scarlet 2i2

The Focusrite audio interface is the quintessential beginner's interface. Although it is not powerful, it holds the primary functions any musician would need to begin recording. It is a solid build and comes with an assortment of audio plugins (Red 2 and Red 3 plugin suite). With a USB connection, it is built with the home studio in mind. Lastly, there are two inputs and two outputs -- the inputs maintain an excellent mic preamp that will increase the quality of your recordings if you have been using a USB microphone setup.

PRICE

OUR RATING

Pros

  • Price: incredibly cheap for what you get
  • Fully capable: you receive a lite DAW and plug-in suite

Cons

  • Limited: only two I/O ports
  • Beginner: If your intention is professional quality recording, it will be tough to achieve

Tascam US-16x08

The Tascam audio interface is a perfect upgrade for a musician or sound engineer who has been recording for a while and wanted to increase the number of tracks they can handle. With the available 16 inputs and eight outputs, you have a fully functional recording and mixing interface at your disposal. Furthermore, the interface comes with eight mic preamps that provide an extra 57dB gain, perfect if you utilize ribbon microphones in your recording sessions. If you want to look more professional for your clients, you can purchase a rack mount and add this interface to it as it is designed to ergonomically fit on most rack mounts.

PRICE

OUR RATING

Pros

  • Great value: The sky is the limit with this interface, you are only hindered by your ability and knowledge
  • Full sessions: This interface will grant you the ability to complete full sessions with live bands
  • Never upgrade: If you are an independent audio engineer or musician, this may be the last interface you'll ever need to buy

Cons

  • Software: Lack of software, if this is your first interface, you'll need to buy more add-ons
  • USB: may not be able to handle the climax of an involved session at full power due to speed

The Presonus Firestudio

The Presonus Firestudio is a fully-capable standard audio interface. This will serve a novice to a professional environment, yet is completely accessible to a beginner as well. The Firestudio offers eight mic line inputs (six can be used as line level), high dynamic range through 24bit/96kHz conversion, and an extremely low noise floor. This is a great intermediate interface because you can "daisy-chain" multiple interfaces together, providing a high level of accessibility and versatility. Lastly, this interface provides MIDI in and MIDI out jacks, as well as the Presonus Studio One digital audio workstation.

PRICE

OUR RATING

Pros

  • Firewire: fast enough for any intermediate application
  • Studio One: state-of-the-art DAW included
  • I/O: versatile and accessible for most audio applications

Cons

  • Price: 3x the cost of most interfaces discussed
  • Compatibility issues: some instances of compatibility issues with Mac OSX

The clear winner for someone interested in a recording is the Steinberg UR22; it provides the versatility and functions capable of recording any independent/home studio project. Furthermore, with the inclusion of Cubase 6, you have the ability to create mix/master at a professional level as Cubase can integrate with many forms of audio plugins and synthesizers. The interface is compatible with both XLR and TRS inputs, MIDI inputs, phantom power, and every operating system. The only drawback is the number of inputs, however, if you require more than four inputs, consider the Presonus Firestudio. In the end, the best interface will be the interface that is most suitable for what you need.