The Audio Interface - What's Right For You

Over the last few articles, we here at PAL have been focusing on the very deep but exciting world of home studio recording. So far, we have covered a lot of ground but there is still so much more that can be said. We have touched on several different aspects of home studio recording from tuning your drums properly to all the tips you need to know in order to lay down a great vocal track – along with plenty more!You can check out our past articles by hitting the link to our tips and techniques section right here.

Now last week, we discussed a few of the important things to consider when choosing a computer for your home studio. Why is this so important? Well, your computer is pretty much the main brains behind your whole setup but in more tangible terms, your choice in computer will not only affect the price and performance of your workstation, but might limit your choice in compatible software and devices. Not only that, each platform – basically MAC and PC – each have their own inherent pros and cons that every home studio producer should consider. You can check out the article right here but to give you an idea on what the choice between these two platforms entails, a (newish) MAC is pretty much good to go out of the box and benefits from having programmers being able to write very stable software.  PCs can work just as well as MACs but require much more thought in order to find one just as suitable for recording. Not only that, they are much cheaper to upgrade since there are tons more compatible hardware out there all competing against each other. You're still going to have to most likely upgrade the RAM for both though.

But even with all that said, the main difference between the two is DAW software compatibility; sure, there are plenty of choices out there that are cross platform but not all of them, so make sure to keep that in mind. So let’s say you have already made the choice on what computer and DAW software combo works best for you, so how about we check out some Audio Interfaces?


What is an Audio Interface?

To start off with the obligatory standard definition, an audio interface is anything that takes in audio signals – usually analog but sometimes digital – and sends it to a computer in a way it can understand. In these terms, the most common audio interfaces out there are computer sound cards which are shipped already built into a computer or laptop. The only problem with this when it comes to home studio engineering is that an average computer’s sound card isn’t made with studio quality audio in mind which is why when most pro audio engineers speak of audio interfaces, they are usually referring to external devices that are used to replace the inferior built-in cards.

Most of us younger producers out there will never truly understand just how lucky we are to live in a world with such affordable consumer technology. We all know by now that not too long ago, you had to pretty much be a literal millionaire in order to have a pro quality capable studio in your house. Now, the case is much different as technology and manufacturer competition has pretty much made it possible for just about anyone willing to invest in one to be able to have a top notch system at home. But with so much competition at very competitive prices, it can become pretty hard feel confident that you made the right choice. Pretty much, the same goes with trying to find a perfect external audio interface.


What to Look for in an Audio Interface

A lot of people tend to judge the quality of an item based solely on price alone. Yes, while this is a good general indicator, buying the most expensive product out there won’t exactly do you any good unless it actually works with your needs. Buying a $100,000 sports car for example – while being a huge hit with the ladies – will do you no good if you mainly need something to drive around your five kids. Same thing goes with audio interfaces. So, what should you be on the look for?

The very first thing that you should think about when trying to find an audio interface is simply, what will you need it for? For example, does it have to be compatible with Pro Tools? If you already spent plenty of cash on a DAW program, it’s probably best that you make sure it can work with it so always make sure you check compatibility... or at the very least get something with a good return policy! But speaking of Pro Tools (since it’s pretty much the go to DAW program for most home studio and pro producers alike), there are plenty of excellent choices out there for it in particular, some of which even come bundled with the program such as the MBox, MBox Mini and the MBox Pro. What’s the difference between these three similarly named audio interfaces? Most significantly, it’s the number of channels they give you to work with, which brings us to our next important topic – channels!

The number of channels/inputs on an audio interface is obviously important because they regulate how many instruments or microphones can be used at any one time. If you are simply recording for yourself and will pretty much always record only one instrument at a time, a one channel device might work out for you but even then I wouldn’t recommend it. I would say at the bear minimum, get yourself something with two microphone preamp inputs which will let you record at least vocals and an instrument at the same time. Not only that, having at least two can let you take advantage of stereo miking techniques (using two mics simultaneously) which is a popular way of recording certain instruments such as an acoustic guitar. If you’re thinking about recording a live drum kit with your interface, you will need at least three inputs (in order to use the three mic technique) but probably at least four – one for the snare, one for the kick and two for overheads. For comparison, a professional drum kit recorded using the close mic technique will have one mic for pretty much every piece or two which can easily top over 8 inputs.

In general, you really do want to have more inputs than you plan on using; as you get more comfortable with recording and different techniques, you might find that two or three simply isn’t enough anymore, so don’t go wasting money on your investment and think ahead about what you might end up needing later.


Other Things to Think About

For the most part you’re probably going to want a USB audio interface since every computer is compatible with it but if you’re going to record using three channels or more at once, you’re going to need something better, specifically, Firewire. Standard USB simply can’t safely work with the large amount of bi-directional data used in pro audio. In general, a Firewire interface is going to run you more than a USB one but if you need it, you need it. And in case you’re wondering, larger, more professional interfaces have dedicated internal cards to help them interface with the computer.

One way of going around having to get a Firewire interface is by using a hybrid standalone recorder slash audio interface such as the Zoom R16 or R24. These devices are capable of recording up to eight channels simultaneously of high quality audio that can later be sent over to your computer – all for under $500! Comparatively, an eight channel Firewire audio interface will most likely run you a bit higher than that but the advantage would be that your DAW software and interface interact in real time while recording.

And one last thing; don’t get fooled by sales people at some big brick store trying to convince you of buying a “future proof” device. A lot of these stores work by commission and they won’t hesitate to sell you something you don’t actually need. But in regards to “future proofing,” what they most likely mean is having an audio interface that can go beyond the current standard of 16 bit audioand into 24 bit recording. If you don’t know the immediate difference or are really just recording as a passtime, you’re probably good with sticking to the 16 bit but even then, most  devices nowadays will already support 24-bit, so just be aware the next time a sales associate talks you into buying something that you “really need.”




And remember, we here at Pro Audio Land offer the best deals on the best products guaranteed, so don't be afraid to browse through our Audio Interface department or even chat with one of our friendly sales associates in order to help you find the best possible deal and device around!

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