The Best Audio Interface for your Home Recording Studio - A Complete Checklist
In this post we will talk about how to choose the best audio interface for your recording needs. Now there isn’t one right answer because the best audio interface for you is going to depend on what you want to record and where you want to record it, plus how much money you’ve got to spend.
So what I’m going to do is work through a series of questions you should ask yourself before you go and make your purchase. I hope you find it helpful. Let’s move on and decide which is going to be the best audio interface for your recording needs.
An audio interface is at the heart of your home recording studio. It is the device that you use to record your vocals and instruments on your computer. And so it is a really important purchase.
The first question you want to ask yourself is what is the main computer where you are going to do your recording? And so you can choose an interface that is best for that platform. So whether you’re going to use a Mac or a PC, whether you’re going to use a laptop or a desktop. Or, are you going to mostly be using a tablet, either an iPad or an Android tablet? You’ll find there are different interfaces that work better on different platforms. Having said that, most interfaces are pretty cross-platform. You can get drivers for Windows. Mostly on a Mac, you don’t actually need drivers. You use the Mac core audio system. But sometimes you do need to install drivers. So just check the compatibility of your computer with the interface that you’re thinking of purchasing to make sure that it will work and that you’ve got all the system requirements. Now you can get iPad specific interfaces. Having said that, I have got three USB audio interfaces and they all work really well on my iPad by using the camera connection cable thing. It is specifically a powered one. So that it can power the USB device, but I’ve used it with USB microphones and all these interfaces very easily. They just all plugged and played on the iPad. So you don’t necessarily need to buy an iPad interface just because you want to use your iPad. Moving on from that, think about the connection.
Now most interfaces are USB, but it could be that you want to look at Thunderbolt or maybe even FireWire, although that’s less common now. The beauty of Thunderbolt is it is a faster connection, possibly more robust, but it is more expensive. And up until now, I’ve had absolutely no problem with any of the USB interfaces I’ve used. It’s more important to get one that works really well with your system. But you could think about the connectivity. And if you have got a Thunderbolt port available, you might want to try that out. It just will cost you a bit more money. Having decided on where you’re going to record, here’s something else to think about. Would you like to be able to record without your computer? If that is the case, then you might want to consider something like Zoom H4n Pro, which is a portable digital recorder that also works as an audio interface. So I can plug it in and use it as a USB interface and record directly on my computer. But I can also take it away and record while I’m out and about. I use it a lot for recording my keyboard because I don’t need to set my computer up next to my keyboard, I can literally take the line out of my keyboard and put it straight into the two line inputs on the Zoom. And I love that!
The other benefit of this Zoom is it’s got built-in microphones. So you can actually record through the microphones at the same time as recording that line input. It is actually a four-channel recorder. Now when I use it as an interface, it’s actually only a two-channel interface. I can either use the mics or the inputs. I can’t use both at once when I’m using it as an interface, but as a handheld recorder, I can. And so that’s a really versatile bit of kit. So do you think, would you like to be able to record without your computer? Because most interfaces work only with a computer. You’re starting to narrow the choice down now. The next thing to ask yourself is how many things do you want to record at once? So if you look at this Focusrite interface here, it is a two-channel interface. So I can record two mono things at once. So two microphones or two guitars or a guitar and a mic or some kind of combination of that, but two things that are mono. Or I can record one stereo instrument. So if I take the stereo out of my keyboard, I can go left and right into these two inputs here, but that is it, two channels. So it’s one stereo recording or two mono recordings. So if you want to record vocals at the same time as your keyboard and your keyboard has a stereo output, you wouldn’t be able to do it with this interface. Okay? So that’s worth thinking about. This Zoom would be suitable for that because you can use the microphones to record vocals at the same time as you can take the line inputs, the stereo line inputs. It will record four channels at once. So think about how many simultaneous inputs you need. And whether you need preamps on them. Some interfaces will have say four microphone inputs with all the preamps on and then they’ll have additional inputs, but they won’t have preamps. They’ll be line inputs.
So how many microphones do you want to connect? If you were saying you wanted to mic up a drum kit with six or eight mics, you’re going to need six or eight preamps. Bear in mind though, that if you are at home just recording on your own, you can overlay tracks. It’s not like you have to record everything all at once. So you could lay down a piano track, and then put the vocals on top and then put a guitar on top of that. Or however you want it to work. So it’s just worth thinking: “How many things do I want to record at once?” And also worth at this point thinking, might in the future I need that extra preamp? Is it worth spending a little bit more now to get more inputs? On the other hand, you can always sell equipment. If you have something good, you will always be able to sell it.
And so maybe just think about what it is you want to record right now and buy the best that you can afford that will do that. So the other thing to think about while you’re making your purchase decision is whether you want MIDI input and output like this interface has got. And also whether you want to add digital input and output. All these extra things obviously add to the price, but think at this point whether you want that functionality either now or in the near future.
The next thing that might tip the balance between one rather than another interface is what software package it comes with. Some will come with a Steinberg-based set of tools, for example, Cubase. Others will come with a cut-down version of ProTools. PreSonus, the PreSonus will come with their recording software. And so think about the main kind of software that you might want to use and possibly pick an interface that either comes with a cut-down version or that you know will work very well with that software. Having said that, if you correctly install your hardware and it works well on your platform, then you should be able to use any kind of software with it. And then there’s some other things to think about.
Now you’ve thought about how you’re going to get the sound in. How is the sound coming out? Do you want one or two headphone outputs? Not many interfaces at the base level have two headphone outputs. But that might be very important to you. In which case, do check that out. The Focusrite 2i4 interface has got a choice of two sets of speakers. And that is kind of really useful. So you can choose where the output goes between two banks of speakers, which might be very useful, especially in a live situation.
You can also listen to one track on your headphones, but output a different track out onto the speakers, which is very useful if you want to DJ-style queuing. So think about the outputs as well as the inputs. So hopefully I have given you enough things to think about so that you can go and make a good purchase.
Zoom H4n Pro
4-Track Portable Recorder, All Black, Stereo Microphones, 2 XLR/ ¼“ Combo Inputs, Battery Powered, for Stereo/Multitrack Recording of Music, Audio for Video, and Podcasting