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Audio interface buying guide
How to choose the right connection hub for your home studio
An audio interface links sound or music sources with your computer’s digital audio software. Think of it as the inputs and outputs for the virtual mixing board/recorder inside your computer.
You need four things to begin home recording:
- Signal sources (an instrument and/or a microphone)
- An audio interface
- A fairly recent computer with plenty of RAM
- Monitor speakers and/or headphones
Click on each image below to get a better idea of how all the parts fit together.
What can you connect to an audio interface?
Connect your computer to your interface to route the signals from your instruments to your digital audio workstation (DAW) software. Your DAW is a virtual recording studio, where you capture, process, mix, and edit the audio.
Monitor Speakers and Headphones
Plug in headphones and powered monitor speakers so you can hear what you are recording as you play. Or listen while you edit and mix the tracks you've already recorded.
Line Level Sources
Use line-level inputs for electronic keyboards, synthesizers, digital samplers, and other sources that output line-level signals.
Use the instrument inputs on your interface for electric guitars and basses. Their pickups generate relatively weak signals that require amplification from the interface to reach line-level strength, which you need to make a good recording.
The audio interface brings the very faint electrical signals generated by microphones and amplifies them to the proper level for recording. The interface also supplies "phantom" power to microphones that need it.
A typical audio interface helps translate analog sound sources to digital signals that computer software and hardware can organize, manipulate, and store. Audio interfaces vary in the number of simultaneous inputs they can host, the number and quality of analog-to-digital converters they offer, and the quality of preamplifiers they offer for microphone sources. Some incorporate MIDI (Music Industry Digital Interface) connections so you can use digital data from a keyboard to control virtual software-based instruments. Some are even designed to interface with tablet devices in addition to, or in lieu of traditional PCs.
What does the interface do with those signals?
Your interface features two-way conversion — analog-to-digital and, on the way back out of the computer, digital-to-analog, so that your computer and speakers (or headphones) will each get the set of signals it needs. The quality of converters within interfaces does vary, generally in relationship to the price you pay, so be sure to evaluate interface choices with your end goal in mind. A typical podcast doesn’t need pristine processing, but a quality demo for a record company will.
Your interface should also make your analog sources as clean and noise-free as they can be. If you provide a signal to the converter that is too weak or strong, you will incorporate artifacts like noise or clipping that simply can’t be removed once digitized. This means that the same principles that make, say, a home theater receiver desirable are at play here. Better components and circuit design make for more robust signals. And better signals going to your converter make for better sound down stream.
Get connected: an overview of analog and digital connections
You’ll see the connector panel of a typical audio interface below. Click on the various inputs to learn what they're good for. While this is by no means all the connectors you might see on a typical interface, it’s certainly representative of some of the most common ones you’ll find.
For keyboards and other line-level sources. Use ¼" TRS cables for stereo sources.
Connect outboard signal processing gear. Use ¼" TRS cables.
Plug your microphones in here.
This applies "phantom" power to the microphone inputs.
For your powered monitor speakers. Use ¼" TRS cables.
MIDI Input and Output
Another connection option for keyboards, drum machines, and other components that have matching connections. These are for MIDI controllers: most commonly, these are keyboards, but there are many other form factors, which take the shape of guitars, wind instruments, drum pads, and more. Your DAW will assign these data streams to electronic synthesized instruments or samples, so you can get an unlimited variety of sonorities from your preferred controller.
USB is the most common data connection on a typical audio interface. You may also see a Firewire or Thunderbolt connections.
Adjust the signal strength of your microphones and instruments.
Turn it all the way left, and you hear the signal as it goes into the interface. Turn it all the way right, and you hear what's coming out of the computer. In the middle you hear both at equal strength.
Volume control for microphones and monitor speakers.
Signal Level Meters
Helps you set the proper signal strength for your microphones and instruments.
Plug your guitar or bass in here.
This interface uses a mini jack. You'll need an adapter to connect headphone with a ¼" plug.
So if you’re shopping interfaces, make sure to inventory your current gear and computer and make sure that the interface you choose can easily integrate with all that you own. Newer computers come equipped with USB 2.0 ports, which is fast enough to record many channels simultaneously. Most audio interfaces are compatible with USB 2.0 or with FireWire, another fast connection that’s found mostly on Macs. If you have an older computer, you can still find interfaces that will work with USB 1.1, which is fast enough to record only one or two channels at a time.
Our product descriptions will give you all the information you’ll need about the connections you’ll need to make. And the accessories tab is a great place to find the cables you’ll need.
The surprising thing about home recording is that starting out doesn’t need to be expensive. Your studio can grow with your personal ambitions. Even a basic interface, adjusted correctly, can get a perfectly good signal into your computer for processing and editing. And there are plenty of solid quality, inexpensive microphones and monitor speakers, too.
Basic home recording setups have enabled thousands of people to generate podcasts, demos, radio dramas, and ambient soundscapes, among other projects. The only real restricting factor is the time you have to spend and the limits of your imagination.