Home Studio Practitioner – Choosing an Audio Interface
In this month’s Home Studio Practitioner we take a look at a few things one should consider when choosing the right audio interface for one’s needs.
by Luka Sraka, March 2017
We are living in the most incredible time for making music. Equipment for audio recording couldn’t be more affordable than it is these days and there are a myriad of ways to learn the craft of making music available for free through the power of internet. An audio interface, next to a computer and a pair of headphones or speakers is an essential part of computer based music production.
Audio interfaces vary in type of connection to the computer, in number of channels of analogue-to-digital and digital-to-analogue converters, the number of mic preamps, and the number of outs.
There are a lot of different audio interfaces available on the market and choosing the right interface for you can be challenging. Let us look at a few key things that will make your choice a bit easier.
The first thing to consider is the connection between the audio interface and the computer. Audio interface come in different shapes and sizes, but they are most commonly categorised by the type of connection. There are a few different types of connections that are featured in audio interfaces, they all do basically the same thing but vary in performance.
Soundcards with FireWire connection were more popular a few years ago than they are today. A lot of computers had FireWire connectors as a standard, but it seems USB connections have displaced the FireWire connections. FireWire connection is known for speed and reliability the only real drawback of FireWire connection is that it doesn’t allow the power to be transferred from the computer to the audio interface. FireWire audio interfaces hence need an external power supply to work. The other drawback is that FireWire connections are not as common on computers as they used to be, but if your computer has one, you should put FireWire audio interfaces under your consideration.
USB audio interfaces are probably the most common ones on the market. When talking about USB audio interfaces, I have in mind the audio interfaces that have a USB-A type connection at the computer end. The great thing about USB is that it is one of the most commonly available connection type on computers. Most USB audio interfaces are bus powered meaning they do not need an external power supply to power them, which makes them perfect for mobile applications. If you are planning to do mobile work or perhaps planning to work on different computers, an USB audio interface might be a right choice.
A few years ago, Apple Mac computers introduced a new standard known as Thunderbolt. Nowadays Thunderbolt is becoming more and more popular due to its speed on PC computers too. Thunderbolt interfaces are popular especially because of the high data transfer rate, but Thunderbolt is still not a widely used connection type. The other thing to consider is the price. FireWire and USB audio interfaces are usually more affordable than Thunderbolt interfaces.
Ins and Outs
The second thing to consider when buying a new audio interface are the number of input and output channels provided, or in other words, the number of connections an external sound card can handle. Before buying an audio interface you have to consider your needs. How many channels of audio or instruments do you want to record at once, how many microphone preamps you need and so on.
If you are an electronic music producer or a singer-songwriter chances are that you won’t need more than a two channel audio interface. If on the other hand you want to record drums or a whole band at once, you will be needing an interface with considerably more channels. Keep in mind that if product specification says there are, for example, eight channel audio interface it doesn’t mean there are eight microphone preamps.
The key is to plan ahead. When buying an interface, you have to look ahead. Maybe you only need a two-channel, two mic pre sound card now, but in the near future, you will need more. It is worth spending a little more money now than regretting it later.
The number of outputs is important too. Every audio interface will come with a pair of stereo audio outputs: one for connecting your speakers and the other for your headphones. The number of DAC channels (digital-to-analogue converters) is a thing to consider too. If the main outputs and headphone output share the same DAC, this means that you won’t be able to make a separate mix for your headphones but that it will be shared with the main output. You might also consider an interface with more than one headphone output if you plan to record someone else in the same room as you are.
Some of audio interfaces available have the option of expanding the number of audio inputs via a digital connection such as an ADAT or S/PDIF port. Also, if you don’t need an interface with multiple microphone preamps at the moment, but want to be prepared, you should consider an audio interface that has digital inputs. When the time for multi-channel recording comes, all you need is a mic preamp with digital outputs and you are ready.
There are a lot of choices when it comes to audio interfaces. When choosing an interface that suits your immediate requirements, be careful to plan ahead and look at your future needs as well. I did not get overly technical in this article because there is no need for it. Most of the interfaces on the market are adequate for good music production, and you don’t need to spend a fortune on an interface to get good results. Creativity is the key!