If you have read our article on what is an audio interface you will have discovered that it is an almost essential piece of kit to make good quality recordings. So the next FAQ is which is the best external sound card for music production?
In other words, which is the best audio interface …. for you?
I am going to go into some depth about what to look out for in an audio interface, but if you are in a hurry and want to skip this, then at the bottom of this article there is a list of the top 10 bestselling USB audio interfaces right now. Sometimes it is easier just to look at which is the most popular.
It would be lovely to be able to say “buy x and you’re sorted”. But there is no one right answer, no perfect audio interface that would suit just anyone, because everyone has different recording needs. Which goes some way to explaining why there are so many brands and types on the market!
I’m regularly asked ‘which is the best audio interface?’, but even if I know how much you want to spend, I also need to know what you want to achieve.
The ideal audio interface for a musician creating electronic dance music may be totally different to one used to record a live band. A teacher wanting to record their class ensembles will have different requirements to a podcaster or hypnotherapist. Finally, you might be on a very tight budget, or have more money to invest in making professional recordings and voiceovers.
If you are just starting out and buying your first interface for recording then the main thing is to make a sensible purchase which will do a good job for you now. As you progress you might want to upgrade but what you want right now is something that will work and help you on your way to making some high quality audio tracks.
Do not overcomplicate! Buy the simplest device you can get away with and the best quality you can afford.
If you buy the best quality external sound card you can now, then if in future you want to upgrade or expand your studio you will find there is a ready market for good second hand equipment and if you pick wisely it will hold its value – though often you will want to hold on to equipment for use in different situations.
Start off with a fairly obvious question: What Do You Want To Record?
This will help you determine which inputs and outputs you are likely to need and help narrow down your choice
The Best Interface for a Singer/ Songwriter / Podcaster / Video Artist
If you’re recording your own live performances, either voiceovers, vocal tracks or one instrument such as guitar, you’re unlikely to need more than one mic input for vocals and one instrument/line-level input for guitar/bass/keyboard – or two if you want to record your sources in stereo.
Many interfaces offer two ‘versatile’ inputs that can accept mic, instrument and line signals, and these are also suitable for more ambitious multitrack work, as long as you’re happy to overdub one track at a time. If you are recording yourself you will only be able to record one track at a time anyway – or two if you want to record vocals and an instrument together, so this will do fine.
So in short go for QUALITY rather than QUANTITY on the inputs!
Look for an interface with at least one high quality microphone pre-amp and preferably with phantom power so that you do not limit yourself to the kind of mic you can use. (If you are starting from scratch and don’t have a mic, then there are some good interfaces that come with mic and headphones in the box as well, a sort of studio in a box). Go for balanced inputs and outputs if your budget will allow.
If you are a teacher, band leader, church musician etc and think you may want to make a simple but good quality recording of an ensemble or choir, this sort of solo interface will also be suitable for you if you then purchase an omni-directional mic to pick up a group of musicians.
This set-up will also work well for anyone wanting to record a conference situation or an interview.
You might think that if you are recording an ensemble you need multiple inputs, but think about the practicalities of having an array of mics versus being able to position one good omni-directional mic. For many situations one well placed mic will give better results.
Solo singers and musicians should look at using a more directional mic so there is less danger of picking up noise from surroundings.
A podcaster who is considering recording interviews might want to think about two mic inputs – though one microphone with figure of 8 input would also be suitable. The only issue is both people would be recorded on the same track (which has its own advantages and disadvantages).
We have a separate article where we look in more detail at microphone types if you want to know more.
Finally, if you want to work mostly in software with pre-recorded samples, loops and software synths, you may not personally need to record any signals at all, in which case the most basic stereo line-level input will almost be more than you need so you should focus. Though a couple of high quality line level inputs will enable you to make recordings of analogue instruments, vinyl etc. And you never know, you might not want to record your own samples using a microphone, in which case you would still be thinking about a good quality mic input with pre-amp.
The Ideal Interface For a Band To Record Their Songs
A band or ensemble looking to record their songs more professionally on multiple tracks will probably need an audio interface with a minimum of eight inputs (ideally microphone inputs), so that a drum kit can be recorded with multiple microphones to separate tracks, or several players can perform together, whilst keeping each instrument separated within the recording, for adjustment later.
There are a growing number of USB mixing desks which are ideal for this job. Do be very careful, when buying, that you check the number of OUTPUTS. Many of the cheaper USB mixers have plenty of inputs but only stereo output, so you can only record one stereo track. Now this might work for you, especially if you don’t want to do much individual mixing of instruments, and you just want to capture your ‘live’ sound. But this is something you should think about.
Audio Interfaces For DJ
A Laptop/ Computer DJ will need an audio interface with at least two stereo (or four mono) outputs. This allows the chosen DJ software to be configured with, for example, a separate cue mix via headphones and a main mix, which is sent out to the main speakers or PA. Alternatively, each ‘virtual turntable’ could be assigned its own output, and connected to a hardware DJ mixer, for more conventional mixing.
What About USB Mics And Similar Devices?
If you want to make life simple (and cheaper) then you might consider a USB device rather than going to the expense of an audio interface. In particular podcasters and video makers find that a good quality USB mic is perfectly adequate for their needs. If all you want to do is record vocal tracks then seriously consider buying the best USB mic you can instead of a separate interface and microphone. If you think this might be the case for you, then we have much more on choosing a USB microphone
It is also possible to buy guitar-USB, line out-USB and phono-USB plus many more. Again, if you only have one recording need, then buying a dedicated USB recording device to do the job may be all you need do.
More on I/O (input/output)
Now that you have considered your recording situation, let’s have a look in a bit more detail at all the different kinds of inputs and outputs you might come across, so you can consider whether these are must-haves for you, or just unnecessary extras
Digital I/O is important to many musicians, since it allows them to connect up compatible studio gear without having to pass their audio signal through digital to analogue and back again which could cause possible reduction in sound quality. S/PDIF (Sony Philips Digital InterFace) is a two-channel consumer format that uses either coaxial phono or Toslink optical connectors, and is useful for connecting DAT or MiniDisc recorders, CD players and rack effects with digital interfacing, as well as a few keyboards or synths that offer digital output options.
ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) uses an the same Toslink optical connector as the S/PDIF format, but can support up to eight simultaneous digital audio channels, which is a great way to cater for future expansion.
In short: Do you need digital i/o? Yes if you have devices you want to record in the digital domain. Otherwise, not essential
Given that most modern keyboards and MIDI controllers already have a direct USB connection to computers, so you may need no MIDI at all on your audio interface, and if you have more than a couple of MIDI devices to connect, investigating in a dedicated MIDI interface that can handle multiple devices may be better.
But if you own a keyboard synth or digital piano with standard MIDI outputs, then purchasing an audio interface with MIDI i/o will save you having to buy a separate MIDI interface, and can also avoids any possible conflicts between two separate devices when streaming data and recording audio.
In short: Do you need MIDI ports on your audio interface? Yes, consider it if you already have a MIDI keyboard with standard ports, but if your MIDI controller is USB, or you own a MIDI interface, then not essential.
Dedicated headphone-level outputs mounted on the interface front panel are important to many musicians and podcasters, as they enable you to monitor yourself while recording, as well as play back audio when you don’t have suitable loudspeakers. Mobility is also important here. With a laptop computer or tablet, plus an interface with headphone socket, you should be able to run everything from battery power and record and mix on the move.
Some interfaces feature two or more dedicated headphone outputs, which can be very handy during live band recordings (though check you can send separate different monitor mixes to each one if you need that feature).
If you do a lot of live recording, extra line-level outputs can also be pressed into service to provide different headphone monitor mixes for the performers, although you will probably need a separate multi-channel headphone amp to for this to work.
For DJ’s it is absolutely essential that you can separate the headphone out and the main out so that you can cue tracks etc. Make sure this is possible as it will be critical for you. There are plenty of interfaces that have been designed specifically with the DJ in mind and they will highlight this as a feature in the Tech Specs
Balanced V Unbalanced
If you can, choose ‘balanced’ inputs and outputs to minimise the possibility of noise. Balanced inputs will be TRS or XLR. Bear in mind that if you buy an interface with balanced outputs and want to benefit from them you will need to look for monitors with balanced inputs.
Many interfaces have the facility to ‘direct monitor’ or you may see this feature referred to as ‘zero-latency monitoring’. Vocalists in particular find headphone monitoring of their live performance far easier if they can’t hear any latency (delay) between what they’re singing and what they hear. If you want to sing along with tracks then the ability to direct monitor will be a useful feature.
Onboard DSP (Digital Signal Processing)
Some interfaces, and in particular USB Mixers, have DSP effects built into an interface which can be a great help, particularly during the recording stages when you want performers to hear themselves with effects, but without any off-putting computer-based delays. Common DSP effects are EQ, compressor, de-esser and limiter, and reverb.
You may like the idea of some onboard effects, and this can be especially useful with interfaces that double up as standalone mixers. For home recording studio set-ups and simple recording of solo artists onboard DSP is not usually of interest and has become a lot less common on smaller interfaces bought for this purpose.
Sample Rates and Bit-Depth
The sample rate determines the maximum frequency of sounds you can record, whereas the bit depth determines the dynamic range. If you are simply recording speech then the standard CD quality of 16-bit and 44.1 kHz should be perfectly adequate.
However if you can when recording and bouncing audio you should try and use a minimum resolution of 24 bits. This would give you a theoretical dynamic range of 144 dB, as opposed to 96 dB with 16 bit audio. More dynamic range means better signal-to-noise ratio, better precision when mixing and less worrying about headroom. Digital clipping is really not good, and will make your recordings sound terrible, so having this extra room for manoeuvre is very beneficial.
If you can record at a higher sample rate it will enable you to record a broader frequency range. For more detailed discussion on this, then Presonus have a nice simple page that clearly define what is meant by sample rate and bit depth, and Ilpo (aka Resound) has quite an excellent article on which recording resolution he recommends you use that you might find helpful.
Over To You …
Hopefully this article has covered some of the terms you will see when comparing audio interfaces, and help you decide which one to choose. My final advice is stick with a really well-known brand such as Focusrite, Presonus, M-Audio, Apogee, Avid and the like and, as I have said a few times, quality over quantity. One very decent mic input with good quality pre-amp is worth more than 8 noisy inputs any day.
Which are the most popular audio interfaces?
Sometimes, if all other things are equal, it is good to buy what is popular. To help you out these are the best selling audio interfaces right now. If you find one of these fits with the criteria above then hopefully you will be on to a winner for you! So here are the current top 10:
Bestselling Audio Interfaces
by IK Multimedia
If you have any further thoughts or questions on choosing an audio interface, post them below! I’d love to hear from you.