Whatever curriculum you plan to use, the audio interface is an integral part of the program. It’s your communication method between the analog world and the digital world. It’s an important investment, so what should you look for?
All interfaces are designed to transfer analog information into a digital format for recording. However, not all are engineered the same. The algorithms are different for each manufacturer, and the tone is different as well. Additionally, different interfaces have different features.
- Inputs: the number of inputs is a huge variable in the price of an interface. How many different channels do you plan on recording at one time? Will you plan to record a full band or close-mic a drum set? Will you want to make stereo recordings on a regular basis? Will you only be recording a single instrument or use a single microphone at a time? The input counts run from one to 32 per interface, and the cost goes up with each additional input.
- Outputs: depending on your intentions with monitoring and recording, your outputs may be very important as well. If you only plan to listen to your audio on headphones, then a single headphone output is enough. However, if you want to run studio monitors, you’ll need at least two outputs (stereo pair). If you want to run a headphone mix as well, you’ll want another pair for each distinct mix you intend to run.
- Controls: Most interfaces offer a simple set of knob controls for volume, but others offer more options to give more flexibility. PreSonus offers a mix control that allows you to change how much of the recording you hear versus how much of the input signal you hear, a handy feature when tracking vocals. But the most robust set of controls is an actual control surface, which is essentially a digitally interfacing version of a classic analog console, complete with sliding faders and, in some cases, channel strips for equalization, compression, and panning.
There’s an easy way to choose your interface: budget. What pricing can you afford? This can limit your feature set quickly, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have an excellent piece of equipment.
Let’s look at a few price points:
- $100 or less: This is your basic entry-level price point. You’ll be able to get one or two input channels, usually as a combined XLR/instrument input. Many of these are bus-powered, so a USB cable connection is its power source as well as its communication method. Don’t expect much past a single stereo output and/or a headphone output. Recording quality should still be better than CD quality, although the preamps may not be of the greatest quality.
- $100-$200: Still not breaking the two-input mark, but you’ll be able to get more stereo channels, more control knobs, and better preamps in some cases. This price range also often offers direct iOS compatibility.
- $200-$300: Now into the 4-input range, you’ll find more control options, better electronics, and some excellent software interface options. This also allows you to move from bus-powered to AC-powered components, which is a step up in the sound quality in many cases. There are also some less expensive 8-channel options in this price range, although quality is sometimes less consistent in those devices.
- $300-$500: This is the 8-channel range, where you can easily find 8-input interfaces with lots of features, including split phantom power, high-quality preamps, and LED metering. Outputs are generally plentiful in this range as well. These options are also expandable to 16 input channels with certain brands.
- $500-$1,000: While these interfaces remain around 8 inputs each, they now come with the option of running through faster bus protocols, like FireWire or Thunderbolt. The build quality is usually close to industrial quality, and the features are plentiful. There are some options with more than 8 channels, but they are not common.
- $1,000-$5,000: If you’re looking for a serious investment, you can look into digital consoles and control surfaces instead of just interfaces. They serve the same purposes as a basic interface, but they also offer motorized faders, channel strips, and onboard digital effects. Channel counts bump up quickly to 24 or more channels, and the sound and build quality is excellent.
Whatever budget or features you land on, make sure you think forward: will you need more channels soon, or will a few be enough for your purposes in the next five years? Are you planning on doing mostly mixing or electronic music, or do you need to plan for full band recordings? The price jump may seem substantial from the smaller interfaces to the full 8-channel interfaces, but if the need mandates more inputs, make sure you don’t spend part of that on something small that won’t be useful in a year.