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Audio Interface Buyers Guide

July 8, 2021  
Posted by Dave Stutts
Audio Interface Buyers Guide

When it comes to designing your studio, it’s a good idea to consider adding an audio interface. These are amazing devices that allow us to record at home or even on the go! Whether you write music, or record podcasts and YouTube videos, an audio interface is the bridge between your microphone/instruments and your computer. So, let’s dive in and take a look.

Things to Consider

Your Computer

An audio interface needs to connect to your computer; so, you need to take a look at your computers specs and make sure you have the right connections (USB, Lightening, Etc.) and compatible operating system. Once you've done that, you can look at each audio interface to see what their system requirements are.

How Many Inputs

Are you connecting 2 microphones for a podcast, or are you trying to connect every instrument in the studio? These are great questions to ask before you make your final decision. Also keep the type of inputs in mind – for instance, many manufacturers will list, let’s say, 8 inputs. However, 2 or 3 of those inputs may be options that aren’t relevant to you (SPDIF, MIDI, etc.). If it says 8 inputs, it’s probably not going to be 8 combo line/mic inputs.

Seamless Integration

A lot of companies these days produce both hardware and software. For instance, Steinberg makes a fantastic Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) i.e. recording software called Cubase. But they also make the UR-Series of audio interfaces. Now, you can use all sorts of interfaces with all sorts of DAW’s; however, if you’re the type of person that appreciates unity in your workflow and seamless integration, then perhaps if you’re a Cubase user, you’d want to use a Stenberg UR interface. Likewise, if you’re a user of the fantastic VST’s and Plugins of Native Instruments KOMPLETE, then you may consider using their KOMPLETE Audio Series of interfaces.

Now that that's settled, let's start looking at some interfaces.

Focusrite Scarlett

The Scarlett series is a great place to start. They’re wildly popular and they come in many versions to choose from. You can even grab an awesome rack version if that suits your needs. The series also offers Focusrite Control compatibility to configure your monitor mixes and routing configurations.

High Headroom Inputs

High headroom line inputs allow you to record guitar or bass without unwanted clipping or distortion.

Air Mode

Air mode allows you to record brighter and more open sounding vocals and instrument recordings. This is a great mode for vocalists and guitar players.

Focusrite Signature Gain Halo

Gain halos give you a direct visual while setting your input level to easily go from green, yellow, to red and make sure you’re not peaking.

Gain Halos


Focusrite Scarlett 18i8

Fantastic Mic Preamps with Air Mode/Included Software/Plenty of Inputs
Scarlett

Scarlett

Main Features

• Sample Rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz
• 4 Mic Inputs with Air Mode
• 8 Balanced Line Inputs
• Phantom Power
• Focusrite Signature Gain Halo Control Knobs
• 2 Headphone Outputs with Dedicated Volume Controls
• MIDI I/O
• USB-C to PC or Mac
• External Power for Standalone Operation
• Loopback: Capture Audio from Other Software Applications
• Bundled Software Including 2 DAW’s and Useful Audio Plugins

Ideal For

This interface is perfect for someone who wants to record the whole band at the same time. Guitars, vocals, bass, synths - hook it up!


Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

Fantastic Mic Preamps with Air Mode/Included Software/Small Footprint
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Main Features

• Sample Rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz
• 2 Mic Inputs with Air Mode
• 2 High Headroom Line Inputs
• Phantom Power
• Headphone Output with Dedicated Volume Control
• USB-C to PC or Mac
• Mono or Stereo Direct Monitoring
• Focusrite Signature Gain Halo Control Knobs
• Balanced Monitor Outputs
• Bundled Software Including 2 DAW’s and Useful Audio Plugins

Ideal For

This interface is great for composers, smaller studios, anyone who records on the go and wants a small footprint to carry around with them, someone who doesn’t need a lot of inputs because they want to record their instruments individually, and someone who doesn’t want to break the bank but still wants a great audio interface.

Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Recording Bundle

All the great features of the 2i2 interface/Included Mic, Cable, and Headphones

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Main Features

• All the Features of the 2i2 Interface Listed Above
• Included CM25 MkIII Condenser Microphone
• Included HP60 MkIII Closed-Back Headphones
• Included Microphone Cable
• Bundled Software Including 2 DAW’s and Useful Audio Plugins

Ideal For

If you’re starting from scratch, this is a fantastic bundle! You literally get everything except the computer. With the included software, interface, mic, cable, and headphones, you can have your podcast, recording session, or what have you, up and running in an afternoon.

Focusrite Scarlett Solo

Fantastic Mic Preamp with Air Mode/Included Software/Small Footprint
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Main Features

• Sample Rates: 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz, 192kHz
• Mic Input with Air Mode
• High Headroom Line Input
• Phantom Power
• Headphone Output
• USB-C to PC or Mac
• Direct Monitoring
• Focusrite Signature Gain Halo Control Knobs
• Balanced Monitor Outputs
• Bundled Software Including 2 DAW’s and Useful Audio Plugins

Ideal For

This interface is great for singer-songwriters who want to record their awesome music, or for someone who really doesn’t need a lot of inputs.

Steinberg UR Series

Any current or future user of Cubase should consider the Steinberg UR Interfaces for the benefit of seamless integration. Cubase recording software is made by Steinberg; therefore, their interfaces would naturally be a good choice. They’ll be harmoniously compatible and easy to troubleshoot should any issues possibly arise. However, no matter the software that you choose, these are still incredible and great sounding interfaces.

Steinberg UR-RT4

Ultra-Rugged Build/Class-A D-Pre Mic Preamps/Cubase Integration/iOS Ready

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Main Features

• Max Sample Rate: 192kHz
• 6 Inputs: 4 Mic/2 Line Level
• 4 Individual Outputs/6 Total
• Mic Preamp: D-Pre w/Switchable Rupert Neve Designs Transformer
• Phantom Power
• 2 Headphone Outputs with Dedicated Volume Control
• MIDI I/O
• Included Software and Effects
• Latency Free Monitoring with FX
• Onboard DSP: SSP 2
• High Speed USB 2.0
• Routing Schematic Printed On Top for Convenience

Ideal For

There’s a certain allure to the idea of Rupert Neve Designs mic preamps. This interface is for connoisseurs of sound, Cubase Users (though not exclusive to Cubase), or anyone who wants a solid interface with a variety of inputs.

Steinberg UR24C

Great for DJ’s/Class-A D-Pre Mic Preamps/Cubase Integration/Loopback Function
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Main Features

• 32-Bit/192kHz Audio Resolution
• 2 Inputs/6 Outputs
• Class-A D-PRE Mic Preamps
• MIDI I/O
• Loopback Function for Streaming
• Latency Free Monitoring with DSP Effects
• 2 Separate Switchable Monitor Modes
• Ultra-Rugged Build
• iOS Ready via CC Mode
• Superspeed USB 3.1 with USB-C
• Bundled Effects Plug-In Suite
• Routing Schematic Printed On Top for Convenience

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Ideal For

Live performers should definitely consider the UR24C. It has multiple outputs so you can send click tracks to the band while also sending backing tracks to the front of house. Meanwhile, DJ sets can take advantage of dual monitor mode that allows you to split the mix in your headphones or have both in stereo.

Apogee Symphony Desktop

Internal Hardware DSP/Legendary Sound/Touchscreen Interface/Elegant Design
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Main Features

• 44.1-192kHz Audio Resolution
• 2 Analog Combo Inputs
• 2 Analog Outputs
• 1 Instrument Input with Variable Impedance
• Apogee Alloy Mic Preamp Emulation
• Internal Hardware DSP
• Touchscreen Interface
• 2 High Power Headphone Outputs
• Preamps with 75dB of Gain
• USB 2.0 Over USB-C
• Digital I/O: 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT,S/PDIF)
• MIDI Over USB
• 2 Balanced Line Outputs
• Flagship Tone
• Zero Latency Workflow

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Ideal For

This is for the music producer that wants to be hands on with their interface. The immersive touchscreen and built in hardware DSP let you feel your mix in a different way than using a mouse and keyboard. And all of this with top of the line sound quality.

PreSonus ioStation 24c

Combo Interface and Desktop Controller

Get Hands On With Your Mix!

As with the symphony controller, the ioStation offers you an immersive experience. Not only does it function as an audio interface but now you have a full desktop controller. That means transport controls (Play/Pause, Stop, Record, etc), a scroll knob, a fader that you can put your hands on and adjust manually, and so much more.

Studio One

As we’ve seen before, PreSonus is also the designers of their own DAW called Studio One. Therefore, (though you can use it with any DAW) perhaps if you’re starting from scratch you should give Studio One a try (the Artist edition is included). Also keep in mind, in the past I’ve seen production controllers such as the very similar PreSonus Faderport Series where the labeled buttons actually serve different functions in non native DAW’s. For example, the Marker Button may actually be the Click button when using Logic Pro, or Cubase. Therefore, seamless Studio One integration may be the way to go with this one.

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Main Features

• 24-Bit/192kHz Audio Resolution
• 2 Transparent XMAX Class-A Mic Preamps
• 2 High-Headroom Line Inputs
• 2 Balanced Line Outputs with Level Control
• High-Powered Headphone Amp with Mix Knob
• USB-C Compatible (2.0)
• USB-C to USB-C and USB-C to USB-A cables included
• DAW and Plugin Suite Included
• Compatible with Logic Pro X, Cubase, Ableton Live, and Pro Tools via MCU and HUI
• Motorized Fader: Single Touch-Sensitive - 100mm Long-Throw
• Transport Control
• Session Navigator Controls
• Native Support for Studio One

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Ideal For

This is for someone who would enjoy the combination of an interface and a controller all-in-one. Controllers can be a very useful tool. To be able to close your eyes, listen to your music, and adjust the fader by ear is a sacred experience (especially for beginners). And if you’re just starting out, then try Studio One Artist (included) for seamless native integration. All the knobs do what they say they’ll do! If all goes well, then you can upgrade to the more feature rich Studio One Professional.

Native Instruments

Native Instruments is a great place to start when you’re ready to record your next track. Whether you’re just starting out, or a seasoned pro, NI makes all the tools you need to produce top of the line music. If you’re looking for some new studio gear (or building your studio from the ground up), NI makes amazing MIDI Controllers, Drum Triggers, as well as the namesake for these audio interfaces, Native Instruments KOMPLETE (sold separately) which is a premium and extensive suite of virtual instruments and effects. If you use all of these things in tandem, then they work very well together. Though, of course they also work just fine on their own.

Native Instruments KOMPLETE Audio 6

Lots of Inputs/Bundled Software and Effects/Native Integration/Stylish Design
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Main Features

• 6 Inputs: 2 Combo Line Inputs with 48V Phantom Power, and Gain Control, 2 Line Inputs, 1 SPDIF Digital Stereo Input (RCA), 1 MIDI In
• 6 Outputs: 4 DC Coupled ¼” TRS Outputs, 1 SPDIF Digital Stereo Output (RCA), 1 MIDI Out
• Audio Resolution: 192 kHz/24-bit
• 4 LED Input VU Meters
• 1 LED Output VU Meter
• 48V, USB, and MIDI status LEDs
• Direct monitoring with mono/stereo switch and channel switching (1-2 / 3-4)
• Big Volume Knob
• 2 Headphone Outputs with Individual Volume Controls
• USB 2.0 Bus-Power
• Compatible with Mac and PC (ASIO®/Core Audio/DirectSound®/WASAPI)
• Kensington Security Slot
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Ideal For

This is the kind of interface you keep on your desk and really look at. It has such a sleek and stylish design as well as offering that LED screen to monitor your levels. There’s lots of input options available, and Native Instruments seamless integration would also take it to the next level.

KOMPLETE Audio 2 & KOMPLETE Audio 1

This interface also comes in 2 other options (seen below) with fewer and fewer inputs depending upon your needs.
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Universal Audio Apollo Twin

Analog Design/Superior Components/Premium Build Quality

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Main Features

• 2x6 Desktop USB-3
• 24-bit/192 kHz Audio Resolution
• Realtime UAD Processing
• Classic Tube and Transformer-Based Mic Preamps Models
• Two premium mic/line preamps; Two line outputs; front-panel Hi-Z instrument input and headphones output
• 2 Digitally Controlled Analog Monitor Outputs for Full Resolution at All Listening Levels
• Optical Connection: Up to 8 Channels of Additional Digital Inputs via
• Runs UAD Powered Plug-Ins via Audio Units, VST, RTAS & AAX64 in All Major DAWs
• UAD Plug-In Bundle Includes the "Realtime Analog Classics"
• 5 Heritage Edition plug-ins Included
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Ideal For

Lovers of analog tone will likewise love the Apollo Twin. We live in a very sonically digital world, but with the suite of onboard emulated analog processing, you’ll get the best of both worlds.

Other Options

There are certainly other options out there. In fact, there are other options and variations from the same manufacturers and models we’ve seen so far. But hopefully we’ve now seen what audio interfaces do, and what options, connections, and features we can look for when picking our next interface.

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Categories: Expert Advice

About the Author

Dave Stutts

Dave is a music composer with many years of experience in producing, orchestral writing and performance, electronic music, ensemble playing, and so much more. He is also a seasoned Sam Ash veteran who's been with us since 2014! To learn more about Dave and check out his music you can visit his WebsiteSpotify, and YouTube