This post will take you step-by-step through audio interface setup for the first time. It’s an audio interface tutorial for complete beginners. Even if you never recorded anything before, by the end of this post you’ll have everything you need to make your first multi-track recording in your DAW (recording software).
You will learn about both the hardware connections, and the recording software setup. Discover how to connect your audio interface to your computer correctly, how to connect speakers and headphones for monitoring, how to record different audio signals from mics, instruments and line level sources, and how to set up and record in your DAW or recording software.
Audio Interface Tutorial: Table of Contents
- Basic Audio Interface Setup Video Tutorial
- How To Use An Audio Interface: The Gear You Need
- Step One – Pre Installation
- Step Two – Connect interface to computer
- Step Three – Hardware Set-Up (Output)
- Step Four – Hardware Set-Up (Inputs)
- Step Five – Recording Software [DAW] Set-Up
- Step Six – Loopback
- Step Seven – What Next?
Basic Audio Interface Setup Video Tutorial
In this step-by-step video, using a Focusrite Scarlett Studio 4i4 interface, you’ll see exactly how to connect all the hardware to your interface and then connect audio interface to DAW (Digital Audio Interface). Don’t worry if you have a different audio interface. The basics will be the same whichever interface you own.
How To Use An Audio Interface: The Gear You Need
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Here is a list of the main gear used in the tutorial video above
- Focusrite 4i4 Audio Interface: https://geni.us/focusrite4i4
- KRK Rokit 5 Studio Monitors: https://geni.us/KRKRokit5
- Sony Studio Headphones: https://geni.us/SONY-MDR7506
- Roland GO:KEYS Digital Piano: https://geni.us/gokeys
- Lewitt LCT 440 Pure Condenser Microphone: https://geni.us/LCT440
- Shure SM57 Dynamic Instrument Microphone: https://geni.us/SM57Mic
- Reaper DAW Recording Software: https://www.reaper.fm/index.php
Step One – Pre Installation
Before you get super excited about your new audio interface setup, do not plug anything in until you have checked out the manufacturer’s website or read the quick start guide. Sometimes you have to install software or drivers before you plug in the device. So do a quick check and grab any up-to-date drivers or control panel software. It is important to do things in the correct order. Oftentimes, the audio interface will be plug and play on a Mac, but will require ASIO drivers to run efficiently on Windows.
With the 3rd Gen Focusrite Scarlett Interfaces like this 4i4 you generally plug the interface in and then get prompted through a set-up sequence. You need to install the Focusrite Control App to get full functionality from the Scarlett 4i4 and you will do this during the initial set-up.
Read the manual for your interface before you start.
Step Two – Connect interface to computer
Now you are ready to connect your audio Interface to your computer using the USB cable provided. The 4i4 is a USB-C device but comes with a USB-C to USB-A cable. If you have USB-C inputs then you can substitute a USB-C cable.
Usually you will want to set your audio interface as the default audio device in your System Settings. If you do, then when you playback YouTube videos, Spotify or Apple Music for example, the audio will play out through the interface. Just be aware if you do this, sounds will no longer come from your computer speakers! The sound will now play through the headphones or speakers connected to your interface.
Step Three – Hardware Set-Up (Output)
To hear audio from your interface you will need to connect studio monitors, or headphones, or both. Usually, the headphone output will be quarter inch, so depending on your studio headphones, you may need an adapter, then you simply plug in your headphones, and you can then adjust the volume using the headphone level knob.
If you want to connect speakers, then these will need to be active to make a direct connection, or if you have passive speakers you will require an amp. Don’t worry if you do not have the budget for speakers in your first audio interface setup. Many people start with just studio headphones.
But if you want to add studio monitors, here is how you do it.
As an example, the Scarlett 4i4 interface has balanced TRS quarter inch outputs, and these active KRK Rokit 5 monitors have a balanced combo input. You can use either a pair of TRS to TRS cables, or TRS to XLR. Simply connect the left output (1) to your left speaker and then the right output (2) to the right speaker. Make sure you have turned all the volumes down and the speakers are off when you connect.
The large knob is the main monitor volume control.
Step Four – Hardware Set-Up (Inputs)
Many audio interfaces have these combo inputs, with built-in pre-amps. These allow you to connect and record microphones, instruments and line level sources and accept both XLR male connectors and ¼” jack plugs. Combo inputs make your audio interface setup very flexible. But you do need to understand the correct cables for each sound source.
Just because you can use an XLR cable does not necessarily mean you should. Read on to find out why!
Connecting a Microphone to an Audio Interface
Your microphones should be connected using an XLR connection. Plug the female end of the cable into your microphone, and the male end into the interface. Make sure the preamp gain is set to zero when you plug your microphone in. Then you can adjust it after to get the correct recording level.
XLR vs 1/4″ Connectors
As a general rule when you plug an XLR cable into a combo input on an audio interface, the preamp gain will automatically be set as appropriate for microphones. Do not connect any line level sources using XLR leads – always use ¼” jack cables for line level signals.
If you have a condenser microphone you will need to turn on the phantom power. Leave this off if you have a dynamic or ribbon microphone. But what if you have plugged in two mics, one dynamic, and one condenser? Usually this won’t be a problem, most modern dynamic and ribbon microphones will not be damaged by phantom power, they will just ignore it; if you have any doubt, check the specification of your mic to ensure it is safe to use when phantom power is on, if you are using it alongside a condenser mic.
Line Level Connection to Audio Interface
To connect a line level source such as a keyboard, use ¼” jack cables. These can be balanced TRS or unbalanced TS depending on the outputs of your line level device. The preamp gain is appropriate for higher level line signals when a jack plug is inserted.
How to Connect Guitar to Audio Interface
To record an electric guitar, or other instrument, you can just plug in a standard ¼” jack lead. You will need to switch the input to instrument level either on the interface itself if it has a switch, or with the 4i4 you have to use the Focusrite Control App. When you switch to instrument, the input impedance will be appropriate for an instrument level signal.
A quick reminder, whatever audio source you are connecting, dial the gain knobs and monitor knob down when you plug things in.
The 4i4 also has a couple of line inputs on the back, which accept ¼” jack connections. These don’t have any individual gain controls.
Now you have seen how to set up the hardware, let’s have a look at how you record in your DAW or recording software. To show you how it works, I have plugged a microphone into input 1 and a guitar into input 2 on the front of the interface. Then I’ve connected my keyboard’s stereo line outputs into inputs 3 and 4 on the rear.
Step Five – Recording Software [DAW] Set-Up
Whichever DAW or Recording Software you are using, the set-up process will be very similar. I’m using Reaper here, and this is going to be a very quick demonstration just to show you how to record your first tracks with your audio interface.
First, you need to access the settings to select your audio interface as your audio device. In Reaper you go Options -> Preferences and under Audio you click on device. Then select your audio interface from the list of choices.
A useful option that is available in most DAWs is to give the inputs on your interface meaningful names. It is easy to do in Reaper. Click the Audio tab in preference, then tick the box to allow input channel name aliasing and click this button to enter the names.
You’ll see that the Scarlett Studio 4i4 audio interface has inputs 1-4 as you would expect but also has loop 1 and loop 2. These loopback channels are virtual inputs. Not all interfaces have loopback but if yours does it is a really cool feature and you can read about this below.
In Reaper – and most DAWS – you can add tracks by double clicking, so in this example we’ll start with 3 tracks. Mic, Guitar, and Keyboard.
Once you have created a track, you press this button to arm it for recording, then you can choose whether it is MIDI or Audio, whether it is Mono or Stereo, and which audio source you want to record.
There are a couple of things you can do that will visually help you see what is going on. If you right click on one of the tracks you created, you can show the track manager. This enables you to label the tracks so it is obvious what you have recorded in each track.
It has the added benefit of giving the files you record meaningful names, rather than just a date stamp.
You can also right-click and assign random colours to the tracks. Then you can pick them out very easily and also map them to what is showing in the mixer window below.
Mono or Stereo?
A microphone is a mono sound source, so it makes sense to record in mono. Choose mono and select mic as your sound source.
Do the same for guitar. Again it is a mono sound source so create a mono track.
Many keyboards have stereo line out, so are a stereo sound source. Therefore it makes sense to record in stereo and choose keys left and right as the sound source.
How to Avoid Distortion
When you arm a track for recording, the level meters will show you the volumes of each input. For the mic and guitar you can adjust the gain knobs on the interface until you have getting a good strong signal averaging around -18db, with peaks at around -12dB.
Do not be tempted to push the signals up too far as you will get distortion if you are too loud. But apply enough gain to get a good signal. The gain halos on Focusrite Scarlett Studio interfaces will light green when the signal is good. If they light up yellow or red, then dial the gain back a bit to avoid distortion.
The line inputs on the rear have no individual gain controls so you will need to adjust the volume on the keyboard or line level device to get a good signal.
Direct Monitor – How to Avoid Echo
Now at this point you may have your headphones on and be hearing an echo. This is because many interfaces have an option to direct monitor. When your direct monitor you instantly hear your mic, guitar etc in your headphones in real time. The slight echo you hear is the signal being monitored in the DAW.
You can choose to turn off the direct monitoring so you just hear the signal through the DAW. Or the other option is simply to mute the track while you record it. Don’t worry, it will still record while it is muted, you just won’t hear that annoying echo while you record.
As an aside, the 4i4 does not have a direct monitor button on the interface, but this feature can be enabled in the Focusrite Control panel where you can set up various routing options.
Now when you press the record button, any of the tracks that are armed for recording will record. You could record all 3 things at once. When you do that the mic will record separately on track 1, the guitar on track 2, the keys on tracks 3.
Alternatively you could, say, record the keys first, then record the guitar, and finally record a vocal track on top.
Unmute Tracks to Overdub
Once you have a basic arrangement, you could overdub another vocal line, or a second guitar track etc.
Note that once you have recorded the tracks, when you want to overdub another vocal for example, you can unmute what you have recorded so far so you can hear it in your headphones while you add your new vocal line etc.
And that, in a nutshell, is how you can start to record a complete arrangement using your audio interface.
ASIO Drivers on Windows
If you are on Windows, then Reaper is almost identical, the key difference is when you select the audio device, you should choose the ASIO driver option and then you need to check this box and select all the recording inputs on your device so they are available to record.
If your audio interface does not have ASIO drivers, then we recommend you install ASIO4ALL to get the best out of your device.
Step Six – Loopback
What is Loopback? If your audio interface has got loopback capability then you are in luck, because it is a very cool feature. It allows you to record audio playing on your computer. So if you want to record a YouTube backing tracks, a song streaming on Spotify, or internet radio etc, then you can easily do that. Create a new track, arm it for recording, and select stereo -> loop1 and loop2.
Now this step is very important! You must mute the track before you record, otherwise you will get a terrible feedback loop going on. You will still be able to hear your computer audio in your headphones while you are recording, which you may want to do if you are trying to jam along with a track. When you have recorded the computer audio you want stop the playback, then you can unmute the track and play it back.
Step Seven – What Next?
This has been a very quick demonstration. If you want to know more about audio interfaces and other home studio recording equipment, then you’ll find lots of straightforward guides elsewhere on this website.
Or take a look at other videos on the Music Repo channel. We’ve put together a playlist of our most popular ones including audio interface vs mixer, How to connect a mixer to an audio interface, XLR vs USB microphones. MIDI vs Audio and much more.