The heart of your computer is the sound card for music production.
Check here the inportance of an audio interface.
The issue is, there is a bewildering quantity of audio interfaces on the market today.
For amateurs, knowing what you need and why is critical and for seasoned pros, the interface market can still be very confusing as it is changing all the time.
What is an Audio Interface?
An audio interface allows you to record external sources of audio, whether that’s a guitar, vocals or other instruments.
It converts the recorded audio from an input into a digital format that can be understood by your computer and thus, it allows you to manipulate recorded sounds digitally from within your DAW.
It also allows for the output of audio from your DAW to connected monitor speakers.
The sound card must have at least CD quality, ie support a sample rate of 44100 Hz with a bit depth of 16 bits. More reasonable are 48000 Hz at 24 bits, which is often referred to as “DVD quality”.
You also need at least one stereo analog input and one stereo output.
Why Can’t I use my PC Soundcard?
Gamers know that PC soundcards can be expensive but they’re not often suitable for music producers.
Because they lack the preamps and I/O of external audio interfaces.
External audio interfaces come with an array of inputs that include jack inputs for guitars, vocals, etc, and XLR inputs for any microphone.
They also have phantom power which is required to recorded condenser microphones.
So, if you want to start leveling up your home studio then you’ll need an external audio interface.
To help you decide what you need, use these steps to guide your interface buying choices:
Tip 1: Figure Out How Many Inputs and Outputs you Need
External sound cards can be used on desktops and laptops and can be taken anywhere.
Most interfaces today come with a mixture of balanced ¼” TRS jack inputs and balanced XLR inputs. Some of these inputs are combined into one, like in the Focusrite Scarlett range.
IO is probably the biggest consideration when it comes to choosing an audio interface:
- Do you just need to record yourself, maybe singing and playing guitar simultaneously? You’ll either need two XLR inputs or one XLR input and one ¼” TRS input.
- If you’re a singer/songwriter that uses an electric guitar then an interface like the Focusrite Scarlett Solo will suit and has the minimum quantity of inputs for most home recording purposes.
If you need to record two mics, so say an acoustic guitar and vocals, then you’ll need an interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 or M-Track II.
- Will you want to record an entire band of instruments? You’ll need 8 or more XLR mic inputs.
- Will you be expanding your setup down the line? Future-proof yourself now by buying an interface with more inputs than you currently need.
- If you want to record more than 8 mic inputs the best option is to combine an 8 XLR input interface like the Focusrite 18i20 with a pre-amp unit like the Octopre. You can output the Octopre via an ADAT connection (so long as it has one) into the interface, allowing you to record 16 signals to your computer.
Tip 2: Check your PC Connectivity Needs
Your audio interface has to transfer a huge amount of information to your PC via one cable.
This connection requires a greater bandwidth with increasing numbers of inputs.
This is why interfaces come with a variety of PC connectivity options ranging from USB to Thunderbolt.
USB: USB is the main PC connection you’ll find on most modern budget to mid-range interfaces with up to 8 inputs. USB 3.0 has a much greater bandwidth than USB 2.0, higher even than FireWire. USB also provides power to the unit in the case of less demanding 2 in/out sized interfaces.
USB is the mainstay of amateur to mid-level audio interfaces and if you don’t need to add a whole host of other gear to your set-up like extra preamps and headphones amps then it’s the way to go.
One other consideration is that computers have a limited capacity when it comes to USBs – add too many and you’re subject to hardware failure and crashes.
FireWire: FireWire becomes increasingly useful the more channels we add to our interface. It has a much higher bandwidth than USB 2.0 but much less than USB 3.0.
FireWire is generally more useful for audio interfaces, though, as it is more easily synchronized to other gear including other FireWire interfaces.
For mid to pro level studios, FireWire lends advantages over USB. Not all PCs come with built-in FireWire ports so make sure to check this.
Thunderbolt: Thunderbolt has a bandwidth which exceeds that of USB 3.0. Thunderbolt suits ultra-high performance audio interfaces and can provide ultra-low latency recording of many inputs.
Thunderbolt is the current class leader for connectivity in higher-end audio interfaces.
If you have S / PDIF-capable speakers, be sure to get a sound card with S / PDIF output. This way, you can send the signal to your active speakers without interference or loss.
If you have speakers with a balanced input, make sure that your sound card has balanced outputs. This can be jack or XLR.
Tip 3: Consider your Desired Audio Quality
Unsurprisingly, interface audio quality is often what causes the price to jump from hundreds to thousands.
Audio quality is primarily governed by preamp quality. High-quality preamps are very costly. In terms of audio interfaces, preamp quality can loosely fall into one of two categories:
Analog warmth and similar characteristics: Pro studios are equipped with pro preamps and these cost anything up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
They use traditionally built circuits to help achieve that elusive “warmth” that distinguishes the very best music.
In terms of audio interfaces, some manufacturers like UAD try and cram similar pro preamps into their interfaces.
These provide an appealing color and other pleasing characteristics to recorded signals.
Clear and noiseless recording: Most cheaper interfaces supply preamps that are designed for clear, noise-free recordings.
They’re accurate and simple and won’t provide any extra audio ‘sauce’. Does this matter?
With the vast plethora of analog simulation plugins available on most DAWs, the answer is probably no, unless your budget and demands are high.
Tip 4: Figure Out Your Budget
Once you’ve noted down your requirements, it’s time to check what interfaces suit your needs at your budget.
Follow this comprehensive interface buying guide for all the best audio interfaces available at any budget.
When considering your budget consider both:
A) Your immediate requirements
B) Your requirements for the future
The cheapest sound cards include the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB interface, the Behringer XENYX gigantic mixer and the ESI MAYA internal PCIe sound card.
These are available at the usual online retailers, such as Just Music, Music Store Professional and Thomann for about 100 euros. That’s the absolute minimum.
Always bear in mind the possibility of expansion. For example, a Focusrite 2i2 isn’t vastly different in price to a 18i20.
It might be worth saving up for something that exceeds your needs.
Audio interfaces can be vast, expensive and complex or cheap and cheerful. What you need depends on your needs now and your potential needs in the future.
Assess the options carefully and use these steps to guide your choices. Good luck!